HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
By Tucker McCallahan ©
This is a copyrighted work of fiction. All rights reserved.
121 Nautical Miles Off the Coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; 1983
The sky over the Tropic of Cancer was a gorgeous wash of blazing pinks, fiery oranges, and electric blues. The Pacific Ocean lay calm and serene under the pre-dawn firmament, reflecting awe-inspiring splendor back at the sailors of the American scientific vessel Thackeray. The ship belonged to Oceana Electric, the third largest producer of power in the American southwest, and at the moment, it served one purpose: it was a big, floating babysitter.
520 meters below the surface, Captain Mike Strong of the United States Marine Corps gazed through the thick observation panel of the underwater habitat, Triton. Constant amazement and awe consumed the first three days he lived in the undersea structure. Now, Mike wondered if astronauts ever looked out into space and thought, damn, it all looks the same. The most excitement he got was when Murray shouted he saw an octopus, and Mike ran to get a look. The thing wasn’t even as big as Mike’s arm. Talk about a letdown.
He sighed, reminded himself it was better than what the rest of his company was doing, and immediately felt guilty. He should be in Grenada. He should be doing his part in Operation Urgent Fury. Instead he was off on vacation with his best friend and a bunch of kooky scientists, courtesy of Oceana Electric and the DOD. Mike stared out at the foreign wonderland that spread as far as the eye could see and sighed again.
Triton was the largest underwater habitat ever built and successfully operated. Hydrolab had been running missions down in St. Croix, the US Virgin Islands, but that tin can could only house four people. They had six currently living and working in Triton. The Thackeray restocked their essentials every week and provided their satellite com links for TV and phone. All in all, it wasn’t a bad set up. Mike was career military from a military family, though, so his opinion might’ve been a little bit skewed. He probably could’ve lived in a sardine can and been polite to the other sardines for the duration.
They’d completed three weeks of the eight week assignment, and the isolation was starting to wear on everybody. Mike missed his wife. Married for just over a year, he and Tsukiko still enjoyed the honeymoon phase of their marriage. Mike silently berated himself again. If he’d been deployed to Grenada with the rest of his team, he’d have gone a lot longer than a few weeks without seeing her. Before he got the orders for this crazy gig, they’d been talking about starting a family.
The idea of Kiko pregnant, her little tummy all swollen with his baby, made Mike nuts. He groaned and reached down, palming his dick. That was the other problem living in Triton. No fucking privacy. This place was worse than a bivouac. Five other guys breathing down his neck all the damn time and jeezus… He really missed Kiko.
“Sorry to interrupt your jack off time there, Cap, but we need to talk.”
“Son of a fucking whore!” Mike dropped his dick like it burned his hand and yanked his zipper up. His best friend stood less than two feet away.
“My mama was a good Jewish woman. Don’t make me come over there and defend her honor.”
“Please, bitch. I’m a Marine.”
“You wanna throw down? I’ll take you out back and thrash that semper fidelis right out of you.”
“Out back, huh? Murray, we’re in the middle of the fucking Pacific Ocean. You been licking snail slime again?”
Murray Levshtein, a marine biologist and his best friend since high school, frowned, grinned at him, and then shrugged his massively powerful shoulders. “Maybe.”
Mike laughed. “What’s up, you crazy motherfucker? You look like you’re ready to hit the clubs.”
Murray’s thick, curly brown hair was freshly washed and lay tight to his head in a pony tail he secured at the base of his neck, Willie Nelson-style. His sea foam green polyester suit was pure Saturday Night Fever a la John Travolta. Had Murray stood six feet tall and weighed one hundred sixty pounds like Mike, he would’ve looked hip. However Murray was a squat five feet six and weighed in at just over two-ten, most of which he carried in his shoulders and chest. He looked like a short, fat power-lifter, which wasn’t far from the truth. He was the only civvie Mike knew who could match him press for press on the weight bench.
“I’m all dressed up for my date.”
“Your date? You finally said yes to Stallings, huh?”
Their metallurgist, Chad Stallings, succeeded in alienating every man in Triton within hours of arriving at the habitat by announcing in a lisping drawl that he was here, queer, and they should get used to it. He watched gay porn on the closed circuit television in the main living area and hit on all five of the guys, including Mike and Dr. Whittaker who had wives.
“Well, you know me. I’m easy.”
“I knew you’d cave, you cheap slut.”
“He’s such a stud.” Murray fluttered his eyelashes. “The way he holds a laser-cutter gets my motor running.”
Mike shook his head and finished tucking his shirt back into his pants. “You’re seriously freaking me out. If you weren’t my best friend I’d punch you. What’s up, for real?”
“For real, I’m going out.”
Mike stared at the marine biologist, blinking slowly. “You really have been licking snails. Murray, we’re 1700 feet below the surface. You’re not going anywhere without a JIM or a dive suit.”
“Au contraire. The very beautiful Angela van Eberley, Oceana Electric’s Vice President of Research & Development, is picking me up in an ocean rover. We’re going to have dinner together.” Murray grinned like a Cheshire cat. “I may have her for dinner.”
“I hate you.”
“OE’s nearly gone bankrupt financing this little venture. If the DOD hadn’t shown interest this whole project would’ve sunk like the Titanic. I’m going to show Angela our latest numbers and give her the catalog of the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. That alone is worth this trip, but if Stallings is right and those sulfide ores could be mined by the Thackeray while we’re here, then Oceana could recoup some of their cost.”
“Okay… and you’re telling me this why?”
Murray took a deep breath and moved Mike away from the door toward the observation window. “I think Stallings made an error. His report lists an unidentified metal as making up thirty-seven percent of the yield. That’s absurd. At first I thought there was just a decimal point missing, but when I re-ran the numbers they came out right. Which means his sample was somehow contaminated; over a third of it is an unknown. The fact that our metallurgist couldn’t identify over a third of the sample isn’t going to impress Angela. So…”
“I get it. You want a fresh sample.”
“Awesome! Thanks, Mike! I’d love for you to lead another dive and retrieve a fresh sample; that would be great!” Murray clapped him on the back and almost knocked him to the floor.
“The shit I do for you…”
Murray offered him a cheeky grin, nodding, his big arms spread wide as he gestured to the splendor of Triton. “Hey, just remember, you could be sweating and living with minimal luxury in the jungles of Grenada. Instead you’re here with me… sweating and living with minimal luxury at the bottom of the ocean.”
Mike laughed. “Go see your woman.”
Murray winked. He had to turn his huge shoulders slightly to get them through the doorway. Mike left the observation area to round up his divers. Each member of the Triton crew had been hand-picked by either Mike or Murray for characteristics necessary to their mission.
Stacy Whittaker, MD was part of NEDU, the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and the DMO or Diving Medical Officer for Triton. As bald as the rocks he studied, Doug Morris was a geologist specializing in igneous rock, which was formed by the cooling and solidification of magma. Chad Stallings, their metallurgist, was a New York City native who loved Broadway show tunes and considered himself a modern alchemist. Kibo Hindi, the final member of their team, was a short, thin, jet black African-American physicist from the Department Of Defense.
For this specific mission, Mike tagged Chad and Doug to dive with him. He put Kibo on communications and left Doc on standby, ready to enter the water if need be or handle a medical emergency if they had one. The three divers suited up and exited Triton via the moon pool.
Using surface supplied umbilical diving equipment, the three aquanauts sea-walked across the ocean floor away from their habitat and over to their goal. Hundreds of meters wide, the Triton crew named the field of roughly cylindrical chimney structures that covered the gently sloping hills of the seabed Top o’ London. Mike got his first look at the chimneys, vents from underwater volcanoes that spewed forth clouds of black mineral particles, and reminisced with his crewmates about the scene from Mary Poppins when the chimney sweeps danced across the rooftops of London.
Chad, the resident show tunes addict, had broken into Chim-Chim-Cher-ee followed by Step In Time, complete with the soft shoe routine, which had almost resulted in Kibo spraining his ankle trying to get out of Chad’s way. He was a rather… exuberant dancer. Murray suggested the name as a way to stop any further impromptu performances in the extremely tight and confined space of Triton.
Top o’ London appeared especially ominous today. In addition to the narrow, crooked, black smokers, tube worms covered every surface in great clusters. The intriguing creatures looked like the cut-off ends of giant white Mickey D’s straws with huge red tongues hanging out of them that wagged in the ocean current. They were creepy to say the least, even though Murray assured him they were harmless.
Mike kept moving. Today’s diving task was difficult and dangerous. The unstable ground below their feet moved with alarming frequency as the tectonic plates shifted underneath them. Likewise, the temperatures fluctuated wildly. Sometimes the water erupting from the vents reached as much as 464 degrees Centigrade, parboiling the ocean around them like a natural hot spring.
Kibo explained to Mike on their last dive that another potential hazard was the pressure of the ocean. Because salt water was denser than fresh water, the hydrostatic pressure combined with the heat from the volcanoes could cause the water to become a supercritical fluid. Mike joked that it had plenty in common then with Murray’s Jewish mother, but a supercritical fluid was actually any substance that possessed physical properties between those of a gas and a liquid.
Mike wasn’t a brain; the government wasn’t paying him to do math or science. He was a soldier, a Marine in Force Recon, an aquanaut who could do just about anything underwater as good as he could do it on land. He’d asked for and received the translation of what all the scientific mumbo-jumbo meant: the vents were fucking dangerous. He should be careful and watch his ass because walking through them was like traipsing through a mine field. Mike understand that.
Maybe Grenada would’ve been a better assignment than this after all.
“Time to go to work, boys.” Chad passed collection kits around as they reached the entrance to Top o’ London. “The bigger the piece, the better.”
“I heard that’s how it worked for your kind.” Doug took his kit and took a large step away from the metallurgist.
“And yet I’d settle for you, Dougie. You let me know when you want that little trip to heaven, okay?”
“I hope Strong drops you down one of the black smokers.”
“Mikey likes me.” Chad blew Mike a kiss, a ridiculous gesture in a diving rig with a large, multi-part umbilical cable that supplied breathing gas, electricity, communications, and water to keep the temperature of his suit regulated looped over his arm, yet Chad managed it with style and a certain degree of grace.
“Clear the channel, you two.” Mike put an end to the banter. He took his kit from Stallings and scanned the field. “I’m heading for my objective, Triton. Check in when I get there. Out.”
“Received.” Kibo’s voice over the open channel was crisp and clear. “Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and nitrogen are all within normal sat levels. Temperatures stable. 25% of cord deployed.”
Mike filed the information away and headed for his goal, keeping both his diving buddies in his peripheral vision. Since Triton supplied all their breathing gas, they didn’t have the kind of time limitations imposed by scuba equipment. That was a good thing; they’d need the extra time. Mike circled his chimney three times before deciding where he’d try to take his sample.
Pulling his hammer and chisel from his tool belt, Mike examined the surface of the rock. The particles clouding the water made it impossible to see anything clearly. He couldn’t feel his way around either since his diving gloves were so thick. He supposed it didn’t matter what part of the thing he cut so long as he brought back a sample; he figured he should check with Stallings or Morris just to be sure, though. It would be just his luck to whack a chunk off this thing, find out he cut off a hunk of something worthless, and have to risk his life on a fucking third dive.
Chad was not where he was supposed to be, but a quick reconnoiter of the area located the wayward metallurgist. He was plastered to Doug’s back, the two of them huddled next to a huge, towering chimney in Doug’s area. Mike found that pretty funny after all Doug’s jokes this morning.
As Mike approached he switched his helmet mike on, intending to hail them so that he didn’t frighten either of his dive buddies. To his surprise, one of them was already on the alternative channel, and Mike picked up every word the two men spoke.
“You bald men are insatiable.” The affectation was gone from Chad’s voice. For the first time, he sounded completely normal, and Mike was shocked to discover that the guy had a nice, deep voice.
“High testosterone. Fuck, Chad, I need you.”
“So stop screwing around, get your sample, let me get mine, and we’ll head back to Triton. God, D, like I don’t take care of you?”
“You’ve been ignoring me.”
“You haven’t exactly been nice lately. The homophobic asshole routine’s getting old, baby.”
“Please tell me your com link’s off.” Doug’s voice rang with panic.
“Of course it is.” Chad sounded disgusted. “We couldn’t possibly let the rest of the team know you’re as gay as me, now could we?” He exhaled noisily. “You know if I wasn’t in love with your stupid ass I’d let you suffer down here.”
The only thing that kept Mike from tripping over his feet or his umbilical was years of training doing covert operations. He couldn’t believe what he just heard. He didn’t know if this meant that Stallings and Morris had gotten together in the three weeks they’d all been living in Triton, or if they’d known each other on the surface, and had somehow managed to conceal that from he and Murray and get assigned to the mission together. If it was the first circumstance, how crazy was that? If it was the second, that was a major breach of both security and protocol.
Mike carefully switched his helmet off and then popped it on so that they’d hear the buzz with him being so close to their position. Sure enough, Morris jerked and turned just as Mike spoke.
“Approaching on your six, Stallings.”
“What’s the problem, Mikey?” Chad’s lisping drawl was back in full force. Now that Mike knew it was put on, it really annoyed him.
“Not sure where to cut on my chimney. Is there something specific I’m looking for?”
“Come here and watch Dougie.”
“My name is Doug.”
“Whatever you say, handsome.”
Mike observed as Doug found a fissure and followed it until he could fit his chisel into the crack, then struck with his hammer. An explosion of fragments came away from the formation. Doug caught the biggest piece in his specimen jar.
Mike gave the guys two thumbs up and turned to go back to his area when all the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He stowed his equipment and froze. Over the years Mike had learned to trust his instincts. More than once they’d saved him from getting shot, triggering a trip wire, or leading his team into an ambush. He floated, his boots barely touching the ocean floor, eyes scanning all around for the danger he sensed.
Without warning the ground beneath him shifted violently, throwing Mike off balance and into one of the chimneys. A rumbling that was as much a feelings as it was a sound shook Mike like a rag doll. Doug’s hysterical voice over the general com link sent adrenaline spiking through Mike’s blood stream.
“Chad! Fuck! Fuck! Chad’s gone!”
“Dropping packs, Triton, going to rescue and retrieval.”
“Received. Stallings’s video feed has gone black. Use extreme caution. Ground tremors at Richter 4.0.”
Mike dropped all but his essential search and rescue gear and did a jump-thrust maneuver toward the last place he’d seen Chad and Doug. He landed with a thud and scrambled around in the thick clouds to try to find the two men. The green blaze of a glow stick nearly blinded Mike as Doug cracked one to life right in front of him. Mike batted it from his hands. The stick flipped over their heads, past the chimney, and disappeared from their sight. Mike flipped his com back on.
“He just disappeared!” Doug was still in panic mode.
Doug rounded the tremendous chimney which now had an awful forty-five degree lean to it. As Mike followed him around the unstable structure, he saw the opposite side dropped off into an abyss. What had been a crevice in the seabed was now a canyon without an identifiable bottom.
But Doug’s glow stick had stopped about 25 meters down. Chad clutched it in one hand from his perilous perch on a ledge.
“Oh my god! Chad! Don’t move!” Despite his good advice to his lover, Doug took two steps toward the stranded man. Mike grabbed his dive belt as the ground below Doug’s right foot crumbled.
“And how about you stay far away from the edge? This is my line of work, what I got hired to do.” Mike pulled and Doug walked backward, his eyes never leaving the figure huddled against the canyon wall.
“Triton, we’ve located Stallings. Quake opened a crevasse in the sea floor, running north-northeast to almost due south approximately fifty meters long, unknown. Stallings is on a ledge, looks like he’s about twenty-five meters from the lid. No contact on general com, switching to helmet to see if I can raise him.” Mike switched his frequency. “Stallings, do you copy?”
Doug paced back and forth beside him, obviously panicked. “I tried that. We’ve been on helmet since we got here!”
Mike looked at Doug, his eyes finding Doug’s through the cloudy water. Mike’s face was calm, almost cold. “You need to calm down. I’m going to go get him and bring him back. I might need your help. I need to know I can count on you.” He stopped Doug’s pacing with a heavy hand to his shoulder. “Can I count on you, Morris? Cause Stallings’s life might depend on it.”
Doug’s anguished face smoothed out. He nodded, the gesture awkward in the heavy diving suit. “You can count on me.”
Mike flipped his com back to general. “Commencing rescue. Have Doc ready for injuries.”
“Received. Good luck.”
What Mike didn’t tell Doug was that if Chad’s helmet com wasn’t working and his video feed was black, it was a pretty good indication that there was significant damage to both his umbilical line and his helmet. That meant every second they delayed getting him up and back to Triton was life-threatening. Mike detached his line and looked at the black smoker behind him. As far as stable structures for anchoring, it wasn’t suitable in the slightest. The next closest chimney was five meters away.
“Morris, come with me.”
Doug clearly didn’t want to leave his spot at the edge of the canyon, where he stared down at Chad. But Mike didn’t give him much choice. He grabbed Doug’s umbilical and hauled him along. They reached the small, squat black smoker and Mike pointed at it.
“How stable is this rock?”
Doug stared at him blankly.
“Just ten-scale it, Morris. Compared to the one that’s leaning like the fucking Tower of Pisa over there, is this one better or worse?”
Doug bobbed his head. “Better. Uh, stable. Maybe, a seven?”
“Okay. I’m going to tie off here and I want you to keep an eye on my line. If it starts to slip you let me know at the first sign, got it?”
“Will you stop if it does?”
Mike took a deep breath. “No, I’ll have to go into the wall with krampons, but that takes a lot longer. So just do what I tell you and don’t waste fucking time asking me questions. Stallings could be hurt.”
Doug’s eyes went wide and he moved out of Mike’s way. Securing the line, Mike ran the drill the same way he’d done it a thousand times. It could’ve been an exercise. He walked to the canyon edge, pulled his line taut, leaned back, and tipped over the side, walking down the canyon wall and allowing his weights to adjust as he reached the slightly greater depth.
Stallings clung to the wall like a starfish, his entire body pressed as flat as he could get it, the glow stick between two of his fingers. His helmet was dented, a bad sign, though he gave Mike a thumb’s up when Mike came into his line of sight. Mike quickly D-ringed Stallings to his safety harness in case the ledge gave way, and boosted the line up from the wall so that Chad could climb in front of him. He dropped half of Chad’s weights and they began the ascent with the New York metallurgist holding his own.
Halfway up, he faltered. Mike saw his arms shaking from the exertion. Though it was cheating, he had no way of knowing how badly Chad was injured. Mike dropped his own weights and shot the rest of the way to the lid, overtaking it by several feet. Mike hauled them back down to the seabed and hit his com.
“We’ve got Stallings and one sample, Triton. Returning to base.”
“Received. Doc is ready for him.”
“Morris, give your sample to Stallings to carry and we’ll just leave him buoyant, pull him back.” Mike left Chad clipped to his line, floating several feet above the sea floor. Doug handed over his container, his arms around Chad. Mike turned away.
“Let me unhook your line, Cap.” Doug’s voice seemed steadier.
“Thanks. We need to hustle.”
As Doug went to the black smoker to unhook and retrieve Mike’s line, Mike looked over Chad’s umbilical cable to assess the damage. The guy had been incredibly lucky. The video and com cables took the majority of the damage, while the electric and gas lines remained pristine. Mike laid a reassuring hand on Chad’s torso. He might come through this with nothing more than a concussion from that knock on his head.
Mike glanced over at where Doug rose up, his line coiled neatly in his hands. Mike motioned for him to hurry up and Doug nodded. Then without warning, the ground sifted beneath their feet again. On instinct Mike leapt up, he and Chad still attached to the line. His movement and the tremor threw Doug off balance and he fell into the nearby chimney. As Mike watched in astonishment, the whole middle of Doug’s body disappeared in a gushing eruption of… nothing. Mike never saw what hit the man.
Horrified, Chad thrashed in the water, trying to get to where Doug had been, but what remained of their geologist fell in two pieces to the ocean floor as the water turned red. The temperature shot up and sweat broke out all over Mike’s body. The alarm on his suit went off as Kibo’s voice sounded on the com.
“Get out of there! Move! The water’s reached supercritical stage; it’ll go through solids like a knife!”
No shit, Mike thought. He just witnessed that demonstration of physics firsthand. Hauling Chad like a marlin on a line, Mike moved through the water toward Triton as fast as he could. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the specimen container float away. Chad released it as he jack-knifed, whipping around in distraught grief. Mike reached out and plucked it up before the current got hold of it.
After the events of today there was no way Mike was leading a third dive to carve another chunk off those damn black smokers. He wasn’t coming back to Top o’ London unless somebody with more rank than his two bars ordered him to do it.
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 2010
“Oh no, really?”
The two nurses at Georgetown’s student health center exchanged looks.
“Dr. McKinley just left for rounds at the hospital.”
Sarah Barnes, the star of the fourth year medical students, poked her head into the file room.
“Who are you two gossiping about in here? And do either of you have a stick of gum? I’m dying.”
The two nurses looked at each other, chuckled, and grinned. Sarah summarily got a stick of gum and a patient file.
“Exam room 4, Dr. Barnes, and don’t keep him waiting. He’s in bad shape. He’s this year’s contender for the prayer list.”
Sarah frowned as she skinned the piece of Big Red and popped it into her mouth. With a competent flip of her wrist she opened the file and read the notes. She got a third of the way down the first page and scowled at the nurses.
“Is this a joke?”
“He’s been in every day this week.” Sarah frowned. “McKinley wrote him a script for Percs yesterday. For headaches?”
The portlier of the two nurses nodded. “Do you want his test results from last week? We have x-rays, a CAT, and a contrast MRI of his head.”
“Yes, please. Thank you, Clara. And I’d like a blood draw, full tox.”
“We did one on Monday. He’s clean.”
“Oh.” Sarah flipped two pages and frowned again. “Run another just in case and do a urinalysis.”
“Yes, Dr. Barnes.”
“What did you mean when you said he was this year’s contender for the prayer list?” Sarah paused at the doorway and smoothed her blond hair with one hand.
The two nurses looked at each other again. “We usually get one every year who we pray transfers out to another college.”
Sarah laughed. She walked down the hallway past several rooms with students waiting to be seen for various ailments until she got to room 4. Knocking gently, she opened the door and went in.
Nicholas Pricewater hunched in the dark, in the corner of the exam room. He’d shut the blinds and drawn the drapes as well as turning the lights off. Sarah noted that he sat in the tripod position, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, his fingers in hair as his thumbs massaged his temples. She couldn’t tell what color his hair was; he was soaked with sweat.
“Mr. Pricewater? Nicholas? I’m Dr. Barnes.” Sarah kept her voice low, a nod to his headache. He looked up at her and Sarah fought to keep a neutral expression.
He had violet eyes.
“Where’s Dr. McKinley?”
“He’s not on duty today. I’ve looked over your file. You have a history of migraine headaches that you see a neurologist for in Alexandria. When was your last visit with…” Sarah checked the file. “Dr. Latham?”
Nick fought not to scream. His head felt like it was going to explode at any given moment, and this dumb bitch wanted to know when he’d last seen his neurologist, information that he’d given student health last week. He knew it was all in his file, which she had in her hands. He knew she didn’t believe there was anything wrong with him. Or rather, she believed whatever was wrong with him was most likely self-induced, meaning she thought he was a druggie. He was in so much pain he would’ve cried if he could, but Nick Pricewater hadn’t cried in his entire life.
“Look, whoever you are, I’ve given all this information to you people already. It’s in my file.”
“I’d like for you to tell me again.”
“I’d like for you to get me Dr. McKinley.”
“He’s unavailable. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. How long have you had the current headache?”
“Since birth. Lady, I’m in an unbelievable amount of pain. I can’t read, I can’t walk in a straight line, I can’t even keep my eyes open. I’ve been in here every goddamned day for the last two weeks.”
Nick’s voice grew louder and louder as he reiterated his symptoms, all of which were in the file the stupid woman held in her hands. He focused on her, narrowing his thoughts onto her: blond hair in a $10 haircut, crooked glasses, Wal-Mart clothes; she was a fucking train wreck. The throbbing in his head got worse and worse, pounding behind his eyes and roaring in his ears until he had to shout to make himself heard over the waterfall in his head.
“Please don’t exaggerate, Mr. Pricewater. If we’re to help you we need to accurately access your symptoms.” Sarah stayed calm in the face of the little prick’s temper tantrum. If he thought shouting would get him more pain pills he was sorely mistaken. She jotted a quick note in his file about classic drug-seeking behavior.
“Accurately access my symptoms? Did you learn that at the cut rate med school across the street? You cunt. I could get the endowment to that place cut in half with one fucking phone call. Look at my name. And I’m not displaying classic drug-seeking behavior. Have you even taken an addictionology class, you dumb bitch?”
Sarah gaped at him. She wasn’t sure how he’d known what she just wrote, or if his words were just extremely coincidental. Sarah hit her emergency com button. “Clara, sed 4 stat.” She pulled her flashlight from her pocket and briskly walked over to where Nick sat, his hands over his eyes. “Mr. Pricewater… Nicholas, may I examine your eyes? Please?”
“Woman, don’t waste your time. You’re not even a doctor. You’re one of the fucking fourth years. Put your toys away and go get me some Hypnomorph so I can go to my fucking classes today.”
Sarah stared at him, astonished again. She flipped to his treatments. “That’s an experimental drug. I don’t have clearance to treat you with it, nor do I have access – ”
“McKinley runs the damn trials! There’s vials of the shit here.”
Hot daggers stabbed through Nick’s eyes and he screamed, grabbing his head. It was too late; he’d played around with this ignorant whore too long. Nick had been here before, and now he was honestly terrified. He screamed and shrieked, the pain overwhelming as his vision disappeared.
Sarah grabbed at his hands, clamped over his eyes and head like a vise. She pried them loose and jerked back, swearing. His nose bled in streams of bright red arterial blood. Reprimanding herself for not gloving up before she touched him, Sarah hit the sink and scrubbed her hands, stomping on the air dryer. She dried her warm red skin, yanked on a pair of purple nitrile gloves, and approached her shrieking patient again.
“Nicholas! Stop screaming. Hold this gauze under your nose.”
She pushed several four-by-fours under his nose and shone her light into his eyes, frowning. His pupils were completely non-reactive to light. Fixed and dilated, the only other time Sarah had seen anyone with pupils like his was when she’d examined a coma patient.
Clara came to the door with a tray holding the syringe full of sedative Sarah ordered, but now she wasn’t sure she should give Nicholas Pricewater anything. And he wouldn’t stop keening like a wounded animal. Clara winced at the pathetic sounds coming out of the boy’s mouth.
“Nicholas, talk to me. Are you experiencing pain or is it something else?” Sarah flicked the light at his eyes again.
“I’m fucking blind. I need Hypnomorph.” Another wave of pain crested and Nick braced for it, but he still wasn’t prepared when the daggers stabbed into his head. He cried out and jerked away from Sarah.
“Doctor?” Clara asked.
“Just a minute, Clara.”
“What’s going on in here?”
Sarah looked over at the door. Kazuo Strong, a first semester fourth year medical student stood in the doorway. From California, Kaz favored his Japanese mother. His jet black hair stood straight up on his head like a manga or anime character. Sarah privately thought he was too beautiful to be a doctor, but so far Kaz had proved more than competent. He was part of the complimentary medicine program and had a way with difficult and recalcitrant patients, particularly the very young and the elderly.
“Dr. Strong, chronic migraines. Sudden onset of possible neuralgia with diminished vision.” Sarah’s report was short and to the point. She didn’t think Kaz could do anymore than she could, and figured they’d be paging McKinley shortly.
“I’ll take over, Dr. Barnes. Thank you.” Kaz walked into the small exam room. “We won’t need that, Clara.”
The nurse looked at Sarah, who shrugged and nodded. Clara left. Sarah handed the patient file to Kaz. “Thank you, Dr. Strong.” She tapped her pen over her notation on the words classic drug-seeking behavior and Kaz nodded, closing the door behind her.
“Who are you?” Nick asked. He was close to passing out and breathed slowly through his mouth to avoid it. His head hurt so badly he didn’t think he could take much more, and now he was stuck in a room with somebody he couldn’t see.
“My name is Kaz Strong. I’m a fourth year med student. I need your permission to touch you.”
“Please… I need Hypnomorph. It’s the only thing that helps.” At least now he was alone with a guy who’d been honest. Nick hated the med students who played at being doctors.
“I promise you, if I can’t help you, then I’ll get you some.”
Surprised, Nick relaxed. He dropped his defensive posture. “Fine. Touch me. Ass fuck me. Just get it done so this headache stops.”
“I don’t even kiss on the first date.”
Nick let out a shocked laugh. He was kind of sorry he couldn’t see this guy. Kaz had a sexy, mesmerizing voice. He smelled good, too, which was strange. Nick couldn’t handle most smells when he had a bad headache, but Kaz’s scent was pleasant.
Kaz stepped up to Nick Pricewater and didn’t bother with gloves. He put his left hand over Nick’s “third eye,” the space right between his eyes in the center of his forehead. His right hand slid down the back of Nick’s True Religion jeans and settled over Nick’s tailbone. Nick jerked; he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t been expecting the touch.
“Relax, Nick. Just let yourself drift, like you were going to sleep in my hands. Listen to my voice.”
“I’m not susceptible to hypnosis.”
“Okay. Listen anyway. Let yourself drift. Feel my hands.” Nick felt his hands all right; the guy was palming his ass. Nick grinned and wiggled. Kaz had unbelievably warm hands. The heat surged right up his spine. “Sleep, sleep, sleep… in one, two, three.”
Nick Pricewater, who wasn’t susceptible to hypnosis, dropped into a deep sleep. Kaz concentrated. Space and time fell away as he entered the man’s ravaged cerebro-vascular system.
Kaz hadn’t bothered to look at Nick’s MRI or CAT scan. In his experience they weren’t very accurate. What he found in Nick’s brain were thousands of tiny blood vessels that didn’t go anywhere. Blood flowed into areas of Nick’s brain in far larger amounts than it should’ve and then didn’t flow back out. Daunted, Kaz looked around at what he could fix to give Nick the most relief.
He chose the largest vessels in the main areas of Nick’s brain and created connections for them, outlets to other vessels so that they ran on a completed system. The work was a bit like digging trenches for marshland or re-routing blocked inland waterways. By the time he was done, Kaz was thoroughly exhausted. Curing Nick, completely eliminating his headaches, would take hours, possibly days of work. Kaz wasn’t sure that he had the skill or the stamina for it. He withdrew from the young man, his hands still securely on Nick’s body.
“Three, two, one. Awake, awake, awake. Hear my voice. How do you feel, Nick?”
Nick blinked his eyes. His vision swam back into focus. For a moment he was totally disoriented. He expected to feel the wrenching pain of his headache, but it was gone. The shock of no pain was almost as bad as the shock of severe pain. His head whipped sideways to stare at his benefactor, who was only now drawing away from him.
Kaz Strong was oriental and adorable. His jet black hair and sapphire blue eyes hit Nick like a one-two punch. He was short, about five feet seven inches tall and built spare like a swimmer. Nick put him at around 140 pounds. Kaz’s skin was paper white, like it never saw the sun, and as he wrote on Nick’s chart with a Mont Blanc ball point pen, Nick noticed that he had small, delicate hands, like a musician.
Nick remembered that hot little hand on his tailbone and got instantly, ragingly hard.
Kaz’s deep blue eyes flicked up to lock onto Nick. “Nick? How do you feel?”
“What did you do?”
“Eastern medicine. Alternative therapy. Much more efficient and practical than drugs and far less toxic. Could you look straight ahead for me?”
Kaz shone a light in Nick’s pretty violet eyes. Very unusual for a Caucasian to have violet eyes, Kaz thought, but Nick was blessed – or cursed – with them. His pupils were equal and reactive to light now, and Kaz noted it on his chart. The nosebleed had stopped as well. Kaz got a cotton swab and dipped it in peroxide.
“Tip your head back, please.”
“You’re not wearing any gloves.”
“Are you immunosuppressed?”
“You have no infections that I can determine and your health is excellent. I’m just going to clean your face up so we don’t have to bother the nurses. They’re already overworked.”
While Nick wouldn’t have sat patiently for another living soul, he let would-be Dr. Kaz Strong dab at his nose, upper lip, and chin with the damp cotton.
“So what did you do?”
“I told you. I’m studying complimentary medicine. I use traditional Eastern therapies –”
Nick reached up and grabbed Kaz’s wrist, locking eyes with the pretty med student.
“I’ve had migraines my whole life. Since before I could even talk. My family’s rich. They’ve taken me everywhere, including Tokyo, Haryana, and Tibet, for treatment. There’s nothing you know and no therapy you could’ve tried that my family hasn’t already tried.”
Nick searched Kaz’s face, those violet eyes so piercing and inquisitive. “So tell me, doctor, why am I without pain for the first time, without drugs, in eighteen years?”
Kaz smiled. “Nick, just because a treatment’s been tried, that doesn’t mean it was done effectively. Eastern medicine depends a great deal on the melding of energies between practitioner and patient. Perhaps whoever treated you before wasn’t able to properly connect with you. Today, I did, and for that I’m very glad. I’m sincerely pleased that I was able to provide you with a modicum of relief. I don’t like the idea of you participating in Dr. McKinley’s Hypnomorph trials. That drug is very strong and not intended to treat chronic migraines, chronic pain, or cerebro-vascular issues.”
Kaz wrote several more notes in Nick’s file, then went to the sink where he washed his hands. Nick stared at the beautiful little oriental boy, his mouth agape. He’d never been so effectively put off in his entire life. Nick didn’t know whether to be amazed, aroused, or flatly furious. He was all three, and damn, his erection wouldn’t go away.
“Sit here a while longer to be sure the headache doesn’t return, and then you’re clear to go to your classes today.”
Kaz turned to shake hands with his patient. Nick Pricewater leaned against the table, his arms crossed over his chest, an unreadable look on his handsome face.
“Was there something else, Nick?” Kaz asked.
“How about your cell number?” Nick never broke his blank expression.
Kaz blinked, then nodded. “All right. If that will make you feel more secure.” Kaz took one of the student health cards from the desk and jotted his pager number on the back of it. He wasn’t about to give a stranger his personal cell phone number, but he’d give a patient his beeper number. That was appropriate, particularly given Nick’s condition. Kaz had a feeling he’d end up treating Nick again. He handed Nick the card.
“If you get another headache, page me. I’ll make arrangements to treat you.”
“Maybe we should just start dating.” Nick smiled at Kaz. “I’ve had these headaches all my life.”
Kaz laughed, but frowned. “You seem like a nice guy, Nick, and you’re very attractive, but I’m straight.” Kaz flipped the patient file closed. “Increase your water intake. You look a little dehydrated. Have a good afternoon, Nick.”
Kaz walked out, leaving Nick to stare after him, baffled. Straight?
Nick looked at the card in his hand. Kaz Strong. Huh. He got up and grabbed his hoodie from the floor where he flung it when he came in. He had a few phone calls to make, and he was dying for a Naked Juice and a salted bagel.
Straight boys didn’t think about how smooth another guy’s skin was or how pretty their eyes were, and that’s what Dr. Hunk had been thinking about while he palmed Nick’s ass. Nick knew. He’d been reading minds for as long as he could remember, after all.
And he had a sneaking suspicion that Kaz Strong was more like him – in more ways than just his orientation – than he wanted to admit.*
Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods? Where's the street-wise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed? Late at night I toss & turn & dream of what I need... I need a hero. I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night. He's gotta be strong & he's gotta be fast & he's gotta be fresh from the fight. I need a hero. I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light. He's gotta be sure & it's gotta be soon & he's gotta be larger than life... ~Bonnie Tyler