Freya tucked her bag into the locker at the rear of the shuttle pod and checked the locking mechanism before ducking back out into the main bay. Meng, Hunt and Commander Katou had just entered from the far side, acknowledging the maintenance crew with a quick nod before resuming a heated conversation she couldn't make out. Instead, she turned toward Doctor Azael with a smile. "Thank you for setting this up. And for agreeing to help Doctor Hapsberg."
"You need not thank me Freya," he said bowing his head slightly. "It is my pleasure to be of use. I've also taken the time to upload the most recent sector data to your vessel."
She smiled and nodded, "thank you. You will contact me if there's any change – for Mr. Ice?"
Azael nodded but his response was cut off as the trio approached the shuttle pod. "This is hardly the best time," Katou said loudly. They'd been having the same circular argument for the entire trip from the bridge.
"Actually it's ideal timing Commander," Freya butted in with a phoney smile. "Captain. Are you ready?" Captain Hunt nodded and took the opportunity to evade his companions in order to stow his own luggage in the pod.
Freya turned toward the open door as well but Meng caught her arm and jerked his head to the side. She followed him, stepping away from the others. Within moments, they could hear Katou resuming her protests with the Captain and she turned toward the sound of their voices but Meng placed his warm hand against her cheek. "Freya," he whispered, stepping close to her and forcing her to keep her attention on him.
"Hmm?" she murmured, blinking several time to focus on his words and not his lips.
Though he'd originally had ulterior motives for pulling her aside, Meng took a sudden step back, releasing her from his hypnotic gaze. "Do you think this is the best plan? Just the two of you I mean?"
"H-huh?" she stammered. "Oh, um, the Captain is an excellent pilot Meng."
"Of course but afterward, at best he'll be recovering from major brain surgery. And at worst..." he trailed off, unwilling to give a voice to his concerns.
"He'll be dead," she concluded. "I think I can handle it. The pod will mostly fly itself anyway," she said. Meng nodded, as if convinced, and glanced over her shoulder toward the shuttle. He nodded again, this time more confident and then took a step in that direction. Without looking at him, Freya reached out for his arm, wrapping her fingers around it. "I've missed you," she said, so softly she barely heard her own voice.
Meng stopped, but didn't turn back immediately. "I haven't gone anywhere," he said quietly.
"But I did, and I pushed you away," she said, leaning her cheek against his back. "I just wanted you to know that I've missed you."
When Meng finally turned around to face her, he was grinning. "Well what are you going to do about that?" he teased.
"This," she said, taking in a quick breath before wrapping her arm around his neck and pulling him closer until their lips met. When she started to pull away, he wove his arms around her, pinning her against him and continuing the kiss for several more moments. "I wish we had more time," she whispered, her lips still brushing against his as she spoke.
"I'm sure they'll wait for you," he offered, still not releasing her from his grasp. "Shuttle Pod Two is just over there," he suggested with a grin.
"You don't think they'd know what we were doing?" Freya asked with a chuckle.
Meng laughed, "oh I'm sure they'd know but I'm also sure I wouldn't care. But I suppose you're right," finally relaxing his grip on her and taking a half step backwards. Before she could move though, he took both her hands and brought them up to his lips. "You be careful, that's an order."
"I've never been very good at taking orders from you Meng," she teased, grinning broadly.
"Well, consider this a good time to practice then," he said, kissing the back of each hand lightly before leaning in for another, far more tender, kiss.
"Commander Asada," Katou called out as she jogged after Meng and Doctor Azael.
Both men stopped and turned back toward her. "Yes Commander Katou?" Before she could respond though, he turned toward the alien doctor. "Doctor, have you met our chief science officer? This is Commander Hoshimi Katou. Commander, this is Doctor Tierran Azael, one of the colony's medical staff."
"A pleasure Commander," Azael said, bowing his head.
Though she returned the gesture with a slight nod in his direction, her attention was on Meng. "I need to speak to you about something Commander." She glanced at Azael for a moment. "Privately," she added quickly.
"If this is regarding Aryn Darcy and her request, the Captain briefed me last night," he said, shooting Azael an apologetic smile.
"She already spoke to him? And what did he say?"
"That he was considering her request – he wanted my opinion on the matter," Meng said.
Katou's mouth hung open unattractively for a second before she clamped it shut. "Your opinion?" she asked incredulously.
"Yes Commander. My opinion. I am the executive officer after all," he said, smiling arrogantly. "The matter is under consideration, you need not concern yourself further. If that's all?" Chastised and annoyed, Katou stomped away from them without another word. "I'm sorry about that doctor."
"No apologies required Commander. But I should make my own departure now. I need to speak with Doctor Hapsberg. In fact, could you direct me toward the Medical Ward?" Azael asked.
"I'll take you there myself," Meng said, motioning his guest forward. "Have you and Doctor Hapsberg met before?"
"Yes, a few times, though briefly. I understand she knows nothing of your Captain's condition though?"
"I understand that as well," Meng said with a slight frown. "It would have been preferable for Captain Hunt or Freya to brief her on his condition, instead of leaving it to you."
"Preferable perhaps, but not practical," Azael said with a shrug. "Doctor Ryan was accurate when she said it was the most ideal time for the departure earlier," he explained. "Ah, it would appear we have arrived. I wish you a good day Commander," he said, awkwardly extending his hand in the human fashion. When Meng didn't return the gesture, Azael frowned. "Am I not doing the shaking of hands correctly?"
"It's not that Doctor," Meng said, quickly disguising his chuckle as a slight cough. "I'm not leaving just yet. I think I should probably stay for the oncoming storm."
"Oh Commander Asada! I was just looking for the Captain, perhaps you can tell me where he is," Doctor Hapsberg interrupted, coming up behind them. "Oh Doctor Azael isn't it?" Azael nodded politely.
"The Captain just left actually," Meng offered. "Afraid you missed him."
"Left? For the surface? Damn, I needed to discuss something with him." She looked momentarily distressed before shrugging and the usual smile returned. "Do you know when he might be back?"
"Not for a month or so," Meng said with an apologetic shrug. "He and Doctor Ryan are on a mission of sorts."
"Regarding his medical condition," Azael offered. "His brain tumor, that is," he added, trying to clarify.
Doctor Hapsberg's frown deepened with each additional fact. "The captain doesn't have a brain tumor! As the chief medical officer I'd know," she protested.
"I'm afraid the Doctor is correct," Meng said. "Doctor Azael that is, he's correct." Before Meng could offer up any further explanation, Doctor Azael was detailing everything he knew about the captain's case, including his desire to keep it secret from everyone. "I only just found out last night," Meng interjected, hoping to pacify her growing anger.
"Let me see if I understand this correctly. Suspecting a problem, he approached Doctor Ryan, in private, but then refused all tests and treatment. Finally she dragged him to the surface and he trusted you," she stared pointedly at Azael, "a stranger and an alien he's never met before..."
"To be completely honest, my part in this was due to my own curiosity and not an active choice on your captain's part," Doctor Azael said, cutting her off. "I interjected myself on the case."
"Never the less," Doctor Hapsberg interrupted, intent on being offended.
"Never the less, he made his choices Doctor," Meng said, raising his voice an octave above her. "Now, Doctor Azael is here to brief you on his case and that of Julian Ice's current condition. Whatever you needed to speak to the Captain about, you can address to me if you like..."
Though irritated, she nodded. "I will find you later regarding the matter Commander," she said briskly before turning her attention to Azael. "Doctor, why don't we move this conversation inside?"
Meng let out a long breath as the pair entered the nearly complete medical ward. From what little he'd seen of Doctor Azael, he sensed a great deal of patience and diplomacy. Both traits would be infinitely helpful to soothe Doctor Hapsberg's ire.
He'd taken only a dozen steps when a familiar voice called out. "Commander! Wait up!" The boot falls on the deck were heavy but quick and soon Ben O'Neill came up beside him. "Do you have a moment?"
"Only just Mr. O'Neill," Meng said. "I'm actually on my way down to the hanger bay to kick off the new pilot training."
"Mind if I walk with you then?" he asked, falling into step without invitation. "You've made the wrong choice."
"Excuse me?" Meng asked, faltering in his steps. Without meaning to, he thought back to the last time someone had called him on a bad choice and couldn't hold back a small grin. When Meng returned his attention to O'Neill, he found him staring at him curiously and had to shake the memory off. "What were you saying?"
"I said you made the wrong choice. With me, I mean," O'Neill said, carefully avoiding Meng's inattention. "I am not your Chief of Security."
"Your results from the training simulations were excellent Mr. O'Neill," Meng said, his mind already wandering toward the dozen other things on his new to-do list for the day.
"You've already reviewed them then? And the Captain?"
Meng nodded. "Mm-hmm," he murmured. "You exceeded expectations in almost every regard. Slightly self-sacrificing at times but that's not a bad quality."
"Then you're aware of the number of times I died in the simulations?"
"I am," Meng said. "But as the parameters were set, it was to be expected."
Ben O'Neill looked stunned, "what do you mean?"
Meng stopped walking and turned toward his companion. "They were no win situations Mr. O'Neill. They were designed to be that way to test your character. I assure you, you did quite well."
"So I was meant to die?" he asked, his mouth hanging open.
"Well, perhaps not every time but yes – someone was going to die in every simulation. Your choices merely determined the body count, and the who," Meng said.
O'Neill, though still clearly surprised, shook it off quickly. "Nonetheless, I'm not your security chief."
"Yes you are Chief," Meng said confidently. "And there are two of the former security team we'd like you to keep on – they've been exonerated of any wrong doing – but the rest of the team, you're free to pick. Assuming they can withstand the training."
"These two people; they didn't know? About Bonwick's interrogation methods?"
"Of course they knew. We all knew. You knew, I knew, Captain Hunt knew," Meng said coldly. "But they weren't in a position to stop it and were not involved. According to testimony from both other officers and the prisoners."
By now they'd reached the bay doors and stood facing one another. "What if I don't want the job?" O'Neill asked. "I'm pretty comfortable below decks."
"But you do, no need to lie to me as well as yourself," Meng said. "You never really belonged below decks and you know it. So take the line and assemble your team. I want a preliminary roster in the morning Lieutenant."
"I'm not a lieut..."
"You are now," Meng said. "In the morning?"
"Yes sir," O'Neill said, nodding briskly before turning and hurrying down the corridor.
Mentally checking another thing from the list, Meng entered the bay and found a dozen new potential pilots shifting awkwardly in their chairs. He spotted Ash sitting amongst the group and saw a few people giving him the sidelong glance.
As he walked in, four of the existing pilots fell into step along side him. "Everyone who signed up is here Commander," Ashlee said, offering him a data pad with the roster and personnel files on each person in the room.
"Thank you," he said, hopping up onto a sturdy crate in front of everyone. To their credit, the would-be pilots jumped to their feet when they saw him. "Welcome everyone. I'd like to say that all of you will be ace pilots in a couple weeks but I suspect at least twenty percent of you will quit this before completion. These four fine officers will be your teachers for the next few months," Meng said, pointing to each in turn. "If you have a problem, you go to them but it better be worth their time. From this day forward, you will all be assigned a bed in a bunk room with your training squad. If you're married or in a relationship – I suggest you apologize to your significant other as soon as possible. You will spend ninety-nine percent of your days with the people in this room for the foreseeable future." He paused while the murmuring stopped. "If that's a problem for you, there's the door," he added, pointing to the doors at the rear of the bay.
Though everyone seemed to shuffle their feet, no one stood or made a break for the doors. Meng nodded, "good. Please listen carefully for your name and report to your respective squad leader. Remember that your performance during every single training mission will affect your assignment should you complete the training. Good luck to all of you," he concluded, hopping down from the crate and tossing the roster back to Ashlee.
"Alright ladies and gents, listen up and move your asses when I call your name! Alles, Birch, Dixon..."
She was still in the midst of calling out assignments when the doors closed behind Meng and he leaned back against the wall. "This is why I didn't want this job," he muttered to himself before shoving off of it to head toward the bridge. There were a half dozen reports sitting on Captain Hunt's desk that were now his to handle.
Though he'd left Doctor Hapsberg feeling more confident. Tierran still felt unusually guilty for his part in the case. He'd spent much of the return trip analyzing how he could have better handled the whole situation and concluded that he should have remained out of lab that morning. Curiosity, as always, had gotten the best of him.
"Anything to report?" Azael asked, sparing his robotic nurse a quick glance as he walked into the hospital unit.
Inara shook her head, "no Doctor. Patient six seven three..."
"Julian. His name is Julian Ice," Azael interrupted.
"His name is irrelevant at this point Doctor. He is in a coma and therefore unlikely to be offended by my referring to him by number."
Azael shook his head in disappointment, "how is Mr. Ice?"
"Unchanged, as he has been since arrival." The nurse hesitated only a moment before tilting her head, "I wonder, Doctor, how long you intend to let him remain as such."
"It is not our decision to make," he said, looking over toward the still patient that had been haunting their hospital for weeks now.
"The female human doctor than? She will decide his future?"
"Perhaps," Azael said, still watching Julian's chest rise and fall rhythmically. "When she returns. Until then he is our charge."
LIL Inara nodded, "yes Doctor. I need to return to my space to rest. Do you require anything further?"
"No Inara. You may go," Azael said, giving her a reassuring, but wasted, smile.
After she was gone, Tierran settled into the desk chair that Freya usually occupied and started reading the technical manuals she'd left on the desk with mild interest. Aside from the steady beep of monitors, the room was silent and soon the words on the data pad began to blur together. Just before drifting off, Azael wondered how she made so many trips back and forth without being eternally exhausted.
Tucked into his hospital bed, Julian's eyes fluttered open for the first time in nearly two months. At first all he could see was a field of white but after a few moments the haze began to clear and colors took shape above him. "Fr- Freya?" he gasped, though his voice was hoarse. He heard something clattering on the ground and movement in the distance but no matter how much he tried to sit up, his body wouldn't listen.
Where was he? What had happened?
He closed his eyes tightly, trying to shut out the confusion and focus on the last thing he remembered. As the memories started flooding his mind, he let out a strangled gasp and then everything went dark again.
"He woke up?" The voice sounded familiar but far away and muffled. He was sure he recognized that voice!
"Yes, briefly. I heard him say something but I had fallen asleep myself so I can't be sure what it was," this voice wasn't as familiar. The haze was lifting until he could hear each word more easily than the last.
"And then what? He blacked out again?" said the first voice.
"He had a seizure. His body has suffered a great shock, seizures are not unexpected given his injuries," the unfamiliar voice explained.
Again, Julian opened his eyes to the blinding white and immediately shut them again. The second time, he kept them open long enough for the owners of the voices to notice and to step into his line of sight. Though both figures were blurry masses, they were clearing up slowly until he distinguished one as being alien and the other as human. "Lieutenant Ice, welcome back," the human said.
"W- who i- is th- that?" he croaked out, grimacing with each word.
"My name is Doctor Tierran Azael," the alien offered, stepping closer and smiling in what he probably meant to be comforting.
Julian tried to shake his head and thought, maybe, he felt it moving but couldn't be sure seeing as the rest of his body seemed to be ignoring his orders. "W- who is Lie- lieut.. I- Ice?"
The human raised his eyebrows in surprise while the alien doctor started making notes on a tablet. "You are," the human said. "You are Lieutenant Julian Ice. You don't remember that?" Julian tried to shake his head and then closed his eyes tightly as the world seemed to shutter with each movement. "Do you recognize me?" the human persisted, leaning in closer until he opened his eyes again.
Julian shook his head again, slower this time. "N- No. Sh- should I?"
Meng Asada frowned but said nothing.
"There's a small asteroid belt according to the scanners," Freya offered, cross referencing with the stellar data that Tierran had uploaded to their computer. "It's not shown here though."
"Maybe it's not a current map Doctor," Hunt suggested. "I'll navigate us around it."
Within a few minutes, several internal alarms sounded, "imminent collision detected. Activating auto navigation," the computer's voice chimed.
"Oh no you're not," Captain Hunt shouted. "Belay that computer. I think I can avoid a blasted asteroid or two."
Freya looked out the view port toward the sea of rocks swimming around them. Most were slowly pulling along their course but a few smaller pieces bounced off the others erratically and careened toward the shuttle pod. "Perhaps the computer..."
"No," Hunt said, quickly cutting her off mid-sentence. "I'll take care of it," he added as the pod tilted toward the left.
"Weapons fire detected," the computer's voice droned.
"Unknown vessel. You have entered restricted space in violation of galactic borders. Prepare to be fired upon."
"By what?!" Freya shouted, frantically searching the screens for a source.
They both saw the shot coming seconds before it skimmed the bottom of their pod causing a slight shutter. "Warning shot?" Freya asked, hopeful.
"Let's not stick around to find out!" Captain Hunt replied, veering them away from the direction of the weapons fire, though they'd yet to pinpoint a source.
"We're near a small system according to this but it doesn't say who it belongs to – if anyone," Freya offered.
"I don't think it matters too much," Hunt said. "Open a channel. All waves," he ordered. "Alien craft, we will leave your space immediately, break off your attack."
The second shot, which came from the opposite direction, hit it's mark and sent the pod spiraling out of their control for several seconds. Captain Hunt barely managed to regain control before they were hit a third time, this time causing an explosion at the rear of the shuttle pod that sent the pair of them into the dash board. "We've lost rear navigation and life support is failing."
"There's a planet..." Captain Hunt said, jabbing at the screen. "We can make it there and make an emergency landing."
"Captain, we have no landing gear left! And that planet is listed as hostile to life."
"Do you have any better ideas?!" he shouted as the shuttle rocked from the fourth volley. "I didn't think so. Brace for impact!"
Outside, the shuttle pod seemed to be on fire as it passed, violently, through the planet's atmosphere. Freya, pressed hard into her seat from the velocity, bit back the urge to throw up as she reached for the emergency restraints. It wasn't until she'd safely buckled up that she discovered the blood on her uncut hand.
She didn't have time to find the source before the ground rose up to greet them in a fiery crash and a plume of sand.