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The Oath

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 3 of 7

When he woke, it was to the unwelcome shifting of his head from side to side. He muttered weakly in protest and reached up stop that uncomfortable sensation. His grasping fingers encountered two delicate fine-boned hands and the cool metal of scissors. The hands jerked away from his tentative touch, then captured his wrist, pressing it down to his side.

"Are you awake, Commander?" The voice was weary and somewhat irritated.

"I suppose. Just what were you doing?" he demanded peevishly, then winced at the sound "My head feels like the end of a four-day liberty on a pleasure planet."

"Dr. Maryatt ordered me to change your dressings today. To see how the bone grafts are healing and if there's any sign of infection in your remaining eye."

"What does it matter?" he responded dully. "I'm blind. Why should I care if I have one remaining eye or two empty sockets!"

There was a momentary pause before the medtech continued, "The likelihood is that you are not blind. The initial shock to the nerves should have worn off by now, allowing the possible return of function in your remaining eye."

A small spark of hope flared but he stifled it at once. "So what. I'm still just half a man - crippled, useless!" A cloying note of self-pity filled his voice.

"At least you'll still have a mind and will of your own," the voice erupted almost hysterically. "Some people don't even have a chance of that much!"

"What the hell do you mean by that?" he demanded in confusion.

"Nothing." The hysteria suddenly lapsed into sullenness. "Nothing at all. Raise your head, Commander. I need to cut through this gauze." The cool, dispassionate note was back and he complied with the orders.

As the tech carefully pulled away the soiled, blood-stiffened bandages, he felt gentle fingers brushing through his hair which was matted with sweat and dried blood. "I'll have to see if I can't get you cleaned up a little better before I put the new dressing on. This mess is an ideal growth medium for bacteria."

"Might as well shave it completely," he muttered in disgust.

There was the ghost of a wry chuckle in the medtech's voice. "I think not, Commander. You're prickly enough without having to deal with the constant itch of regrowing hair under your bandages." The voice quickly returned to its detached professionalism as the tech cautioned him,

"I've dimmed the lights in the room but when I remove the patch over your right eye, you may still see a bright flash. It's a kind of actinic aftershock. Nothing more."

Travis was silent, feeling the painful tugging sensation as the blood-caked dressings were removed and hearing the barely audible indrawn breath as the tech confronted the ruin of the left side of his face. He knew it was probably little more than raw oozing flesh. He'd seen the aftereffects of laser weapon blasts often enough to have no illusions about his appearance.

Surprisingly, he actually seemed to have some nerve function remaining on what remained of the left side of his face. There was a deft, careful touch against his cheek and the faint scent of wildflowers clinging to the medtech's fingers, banishing the heavy antiseptic odors surrounding him for a brief moment. He took another cautious sniff, glad that the heavy sour odor of infection, that he knew only too well, was absent. Yet he wondered if he'd ever be able to erase the memories of the charred cooked meat smell of his own burning flesh.

The patch over his remaining eye was lifted and cool liquid trickled on his encrusted lashes. A gentle touch sponged the area as the tech ordered,

"Open your eye, Commander. I need to observe for any signs of bleeding or infection."

He obeyed her and to his shock was actually able to perceive a dim, fuzzy figure hovering over him.

"I can see!" he gasped hoarsely.

"I warned you about the light," she admonished.

"It's not bright," he retorted, "but dim and blurry. And I did see movement and shifting light."

She continued to work, ignoring his agitation, squeezing ointment into his lower lid and then replacing the patch.

He grabbed her wrist angrily. "I said I can see!"

"I'm happy for you, Commander," she bit off sarcastically. "Now if you'll let go of my arm so I can finish with my treatment, hopefully, I can prevent you from losing that vision to infection or optic nerve damage."

He dropped weakly back against the pillow as she continued applying unguents and creams to the slowly healing upper left side of his face. Then he heard the sound of running water as she filled a basin, probably to clean him up as she had promised earlier. He shook his head in irritation at her continued ministrations,

"If you've finished with the dressing, leave the clean-up job to one of the labor grades. I'm sure there are other patients who need your skills more than I do."

There was a pained silence, then the therapist answered coldly, "I have no other patients, Commander. I'm under suspicion because the Security Division has questions about my loyalty. Surgeon Maryatt was able to obtain a small grace period for me in hopes of assuring your recovery. But you are my only patient and I am solely responsible for your care."

"What happens if I don't recover?" he snapped.

"Probably the same thing that happens if you do." She clenched her fists tightly at her sides, but her voice was inhumanly cold. "The Security Division does not relinquish its prey so readily. But if you do decide to die, I imagine the Supreme Commander will oversee my punishment personally to insure that I suffer adequately for my `incompetence'!"

She started to move away from the bed, but despite the bandage over his remaining eye, Travis reacted with an animal-like awareness, capturing her wrist.

His grip was strong, almost bruising, despite his weakened condition.

"Is that why Maryatt assigned you take care of me? So Servalan would intercede with the Security Division. What are you guilty of anyway? It can't be a minor infraction like negligence or insolence if Servalan's youronly hope. What's your real crime? Selling drugs to the Terra Nostra? Orcadavers to the black market organ banks?" His voice held a contemptuous sneer.

She froze in dismay, frightened that he had overhead Maryatt's warning, yet angry and defiant as well.

"Why, I'm guilty of the only *real* crime in Space Command these days, Commander. Murder, looting, bribery, and corruption are all accepted steps to power and promotion. But political discontent or curiosity about such outmoded ideas as freedom and equality. . .those are capital offences,punishable by death when the judge is feeling generous, or slavery, mindwipe or modification if the Federation decides my body can still be of use!"

Travis trembled with outrage, his grip tightening as though he would crush her fragile wrist.

"You're one of them!" he spat. "One of the stinking rebel slime that crippled me, left me half a man! Did you take the assignment to admire your handiwork? Or to see if you couldn't finish me off completely! Get out!" he gasped weakly. "I don't need a traitorous bitch like you hanging over me like a vulture, feeding off my pain. I'll die like a a soldier, dammit! Without your stinking, disloyal hands on me!"

The therapist was shaking almost as hard as he was, though whether from anger or fear, he couldn't tell. With a sudden jerk, she yanked her arm out of his weakening grasp then spun away, stalking out of the room and slamming the door behind her with an angry finality.

His fading strength fueled by anger and a sense of betrayal, Travis ripped away the wires and monitors attached to him. Then ignoring the outraged alarms of their interrupted circuitry, he jerked out the IV tubes and needles, leaving a wet, bloody trail dripping in his wake as he lurched out of his bed and over to the room's single window. In a violent, impotent fury, he smashed his fist bloodily against the clear plass, not certain whether he was bent on escape or self-destruction. But the unbreakable material resisted his rapidly ebbing strength and he slumped wearily against its cool, clear surface, until a platoon of technicians and orderlies rushed into the room. Moments later, a hurriedly administered hypo sucked him into darkness before he could do any further damage.

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