A Leap of Faith
by Becky Ratliff -- Part Two
see disclaimer in Part One
Ross brought the launch's engines on line. The XO's voice came over a private channel. "Glen, you're next on the runway. Be careful out there, sir."
Ross grinned. As if McQueen would let him risk a scratch. Harris had threatened, about 99% seriously, to have him locked up in his own brig when she'd heard what he intended to do. In order to prevent having himself relieved of command for reasons of insanity, he'd had to let her in on the whole story. When she'd found out about the twenty-four hour deadline, she'd understood the necessity for decisive action. But he could still hear the worry in her voice. "Roger that, Loretta. Just cover for me while I'm gone and I'll see you tomorrow."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Of them all, Crusher was the only one who hadn't batted an eyelash at Ross' intention to go after Dr. Nordstrom himself. Apparently it wasn't uncommon for senior officers, even the captain, to lead landing parties -- away teams, as they called them. If the Enterprise was a diplomatic vessel, Ross could see that -- at times, no one less than the ambassador himself could handle a diplomatic incident. If there was one thing he had to give the Federation hands-down, their high command was drawn from a pool of very experienced officers, who traditionally stayed in the field much later into their careers than the Earth Forces did. The concept of a REMF was a new one on Crusher.
Speaking of Crusher, Ross turned in his seat to make sure she was strapped in securely before they launched.
McQueen followed his gaze, but didn't say anything about her until they were clear of the Sara's gravity field. Then he asked, "Do you believe her about just teleporting onto the ship?"
"Sure do," Ross said. "That was the one part of her story I could check out with complete certainty, Ty. The ship's trim is monitored constantly, sudden shifts in the payload can play hell with the artificial gravity. It can start kicking breakers and turn a whole bay into a zero-g chamber. If there's an unexplained change of more than 50kg, it sets off an alarm." He laughed. "She isn't much more than that, but her sudden appearance was enough to give the computer a coronary. That's what triggered the intruder alert in the first place."
McQueen scowled and glanced across his board even though he knew everything was green.
"What is it?" Ross asked.
"Intelligence is going to be real interested in her," the In Vitro replied, and his voice took on a very dark tone.
"Whew. Yeah. I see what you mean. If they find out about her--"
"Do you really think they haven't already?"
Ross thought about it. "I know," he replied finally. "Hell, I'm not turning her over to intelligence. I owe her that much!"
"I agree with you, sir, I'm just not sure yet how we're supposed to avoid it."
Ross nodded, but McQueen saw the determined glint in his friend's eyes. "Well, I'll tell you what, Ty, I don't know either. But I am going to think of something."
The Freya Agricultural Station was a lot more accustomed to landing grain haulers and the occasional company transport than it was to a squadron of SA-43's and a ship captain's launch. They caught up with the 58th in town. Vansen reported that they had just found out about an Aerotech research lab on the other side of the colony, and that was where Nordstrom was believed to have gone. She had just sent Hawkes and West to the company motor pool to get them transportation before Ross, McQueen and Crusher had arrived.
The heat was the first thing Crusher noticed about the place when she got off the launch. It was late summer, near harvest, and on both sides of the airstrip fields of ripening wheat shimmered in golden waves to the horizon. A hot, dry breeze ruffled her hair and carried the grassy scent to mingle with the smell of warm asphalt. She turned around to see the town. Just beyond the airstrip were several grain elevators, monoliths rising into a cloudless blue sky. A dirt road snaked between them and continued on through a collection of ramshackle buildings into fields on the other side of town. The one brick structure was the company office.
West and Hawkes arrived with a big truck, the only thing they'd been able to find that was large enough to carry them all. McQueen jumped up onto the tailgate and reached down to help her in. She found a perch over a wheel well and looked out over the town as they passed by.
Hawkes laid on the horn as a flock of goats blocked the street. He managed to scare them and set them milling, which got him a short, profane tongue-lashing from the girl who was minding them. After a moment, she and her two herding dogs got the flock moving out of the way. Crusher stared at the girl as they passed. She was barely eleven or twelve, if that ... all dark eyes and too-short jeans ripped out at the knees ... malnourished with grain ripening all around her.
"What on earth is that little girl doing out here instead of in school?"
McQueen heard the shock and outrage in her voice. He looked at her for a long moment, and after a while he explained. At first, he could see disbelief in her eyes. She looked back through the cloud of dust behind the truck, to where the girl and her dogs were taking the goats to pasture. "So... after the indenture system was abolished... the people had no choice except to become sharecroppers for the company?"
McQueen nodded. "The ones without families can usually eventually save enough money to get off-world, but families with children are trapped here. They live from crop to crop just to keep themselves fed. The children have to go to work as soon as they're able, in order for the whole family to survive. In time, they might be able to save enough to send the oldest child somewhere to get a decent start, and send for the rest, but for now this is what they have."
"Oh...." She didn't stop looking back at the town until the tops of the grain elevators were all they could see over the tall wheat on either side of the road.
The Aerotech research facility had security in place, but nothing of any consequence to a USMC Space Cavalry squadron. Ross itched to go in with them, but he took one look at McQueen and didn't say a word. He remained behind with Crusher in the truck.
She saw his expression as he watched them go, and laughed a little. "You were right. He's a very good friend."
"The best ... did I tell you about Ty?"
She nodded. "Fortunately! If I hadn't been able to tell him about that argument you and he had, I expect I'd still be in that jail cell -- or shot as a spy by now."
"We don't shoot spies, we kick 'em out an air lock butt naked," Ross replied with a straight face.
Crusher paled and her hand went to her throat ... before she realized he was not only pulling her leg, he was yanking it for all he was worth. She laughed. "I guess I am acting a little like a missionary among the cannibals, aren't I?"
Ross laughed. "I wouldn't wonder. I probably came off like a Neanderthal."
She said, "I'd be more inclined to say that you came off like the Lone Ranger. 'Who was that masked man?' I'm just ... very thankful that you were there."
"I can't believe I have no memory of any of this."
"I don't understand it, but Giordi explained that it's the time compression that caused your amnesia. You see, only a few hours passed here while days went by back home," Beverly said.
Ross looked at her, thinking of the casual way she'd said 'back home.' He could only hope to God that she never came to regret leaving that home forever to save his life. There was nothing he could say to that ... it was too enormous a sacrifice for casual conversation. He said, "So, did I do anything too awfully embarrassing?"
"Well ... I don't think you were dancing on the table with a lampshade on your head. You did kidnap me and take me hostage."
"I did what!"
She laughed. "It was a desperation shot, Glen, and a very brilliant one at that. I don't believe that you ever intended me to be harmed. You were trying to get back home, that's all." The laughter faded. "You saved my life again, in a roundabout way. You see, the first thing you did was make me take off my communicator ... so later, when they exploded, I wasn't wearing mine."
"Fortunes of war," he said, shaking his head. "The only thing I remembered about the whole thing was your face. I dreamed about you."
Beverly started to say something, and hesitated briefly. "You weren't the only one." She smiled. "You don't have anything to be embarrassed about. You could say that you shined a light on a few of my society's shortcomings. Things we should have seen ourselves."
"Pots and kettles, I am sure," Ross said.
Crusher laughed. "Well, why should we let that stop us? You can't violate the Prime Directive just a little -- once you're in, you're in over your head!"
She sighed. "One of the many ideals that my society is built on, Glen. We're forbidden to interfere with other cultures in any way. We don't have a right to impose our standards on other people. That was a very painful lesson for the Federation in the early days ... one we still haven't taken completely to heart."
"Yet you are here."
"The only Federation technology I brought with me are the nano-machines," she said. "You can't study them here because you don't have the technology yet."
"Didn't you realize you'd be worth your weight in gold to the intelligence people if they ever realized what you were?"
She looked at him, and all hint of laughter was gone from her eyes now. "I can't let that happen, Glen. I'm ready to take steps if I have to, if it looks like it's going to come to that."
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "Don't you dare think that way!" His voice was low, but filled with an intensity that allowed no arguments. "What can you tell them? How to build the device that brought you here? We don't have the tools to begin to make the tools, Beverly. And even if we do, it isn't worth your life. So help me God, if I have to stand up to your whole damn Federation with a slingshot to prove it, it isn't worth your life!"
She came into his arms. The heavy, fire-resistant fabric of his flight suit was rough against her cheek, and his arms went tightly around her. In that moment, she was more than willing to believe he would do just that, stand up to the whole Federation for her -- and heaven help the Federation.
The Wildcards had surrounded the research station. From McQueen's vantage point in the trees near the road, he could see an eight-foot electrified fence topped with a couple rows of barbed wire. Inside, the only human security seemed to be three armed guards, one at the gate and two more patrolling around the yard. There were three buildings in the complex, one appeared to be offices and living quarters while the other was a laboratory. A large greenhouse was connected to the rear of the laboratory building.
Damphousse reported, "I see him. I'm on the east side of the building, second window from the north corner."
"What's he doing?"
"Nothing right now, sir, he's checking out the vial with a radiation meter."
It would be ridiculously easy to secure that complex, but then what? Killing the witnesses was not an option, and even if they did that, they'd have a hell of a time explaining the bodies!
If, however, they stole the vial back.... Nordstrom would know where it had gone, but he would never be able to prove it. Right now, he had no idea what was in that container. With no more to go on than Aerotech had, under the circumstances, the company would be more likely to react to the fiasco by firing Nordstrom than by paying for a search for the proverbial needle. Anyone fired by Aerotech was effectively blacklisted -- no one else would dare hire him. Nordstrom would have every incentive for sweeping the whole thing under the rug.
"Hawkes, where are you?"
"Near the greenhouse on the south end."
"What are the chances of getting that vial out of the lab without leaving evidence?"
"I can get the vial if we do something to distract Nordstrom, sir, that isn't a problem. The problem would be if they have cameras," Hawkes replied.
"Right." From McQueen's limited experience with lab geeks, there usually was a camera on-line in the lab, to keep a record of their experiments. But that wasn't a security system as such ... it was unlikely to have its own power supply. Knocking out the lights should help distract Nordstrom as well. "'Phousse, can you see the lab building's power supply?"
Damphousse looked around. Parked on a hill near a small shed was a tractor. If it "slipped out of gear" it might very well roll downhill and hit a power pole.... "Yes, sir! I have an idea for a distraction."
"Get in position, then wait for Hawkes' signal."
Hawkes asked, "What if he takes the vial with him?"
McQueen hesitated. "Use your own judgment, Coop, but don't let him get away with it. We're cutting the time limit pretty fine as is."
Damphousse stayed low in the tall wheat as she approached the shed. On Hawkes' signal, she started across to the tractor -- but ducked back as a woman came out of the shed and started working on the tractor!
Damphousse considered whacking her over the head with her rifle butt. On closer look though, the woman was an In Vitro laborer, just a girl really, and Damphousse was not about to do anything to hurt her. But the "girl" had a good six inches and forty pounds on her. Whatever she did, she was going to have to do fast -- and by total surprise -- or the worker would certainly not have any such reservations where she was concerned. She didn't want her parents getting a letter that she'd been brained with a tire iron because she scared the daylights out of a farmhand!
She looked around. There was a stack of burlap bags near the shed, and that gave her an idea. She circled very carefully, snatched one of the bags off the stack, and popped it over the girl's head! She pulled the drawstring tight and propelled the startled young woman into the shed!
The door was sturdy metal but from the angry yells and kicks from inside, Damphousse didn't expect it to hold for long -- and she didn't want to be in the neighborhood when it gave way, either. She kicked the chocks out from under the tractor wheels and jammed it into neutral, gave it a push and ran alongside it for a few yards until she was sure it was going to hit the power pole. Then she made for cover -- not a moment too soon, because the farm worker finally managed to bust the door down and came out armed with a good-sized piece of metal pipe.
The tractor built up a considerable momentum going down the hill, enough to go through the chain link fence around the compound without slowing much at all. It crashed into the pole and knocked out most of the power in the compound.
Hawkes cut through the fence. He had seen the power pole hit, and he had a pair of insulated wire cutters -- but he still winced reflexively when he snipped the first wire. When he didn't get shocked, he hurried to cut the rest and ducked through the hole in the fence.
When he got there, Nordstrom had finished pulling on his jacket, and he was putting the vial back in the case! As soon as he turned his back, Hawkes rolled through the window and jammed his rifle against the back of Nordstrom's head. "Shh!"
With the rifle, he prodded Nordstrom into the corner. He held out his hand and snapped his fingers, Nordstrom deposited the blue case into the palm of his glove. Hawkes made sure it was safe, then an evil grin crossed his face as his eyes rested on a half-liter heat-resistant measuring container with a handle. He hooked the handle in the back of Nordstrom's collar, it was heavy enough to pull the neck of the jacket up against his throat in front. Hawkes whispered, "Don't move a muscle. Don't even breathe. And pray nobody comes within two meters of you!" Nordstrom started to whimper as Hawkes made a speedy exit back the way he'd come.
McQueen left the rest of the squadron standing guard and keeping an eye out for pursuit from the lab complex, while he took the vial on up to Ross and Crusher. The doctor checked the case. "It seems to be okay," she said in relief.
Ross asked, "What now?"
Crusher asked to borrow a knife and slit the lining of the case. Inside was a needle, the vial and its container converted into a hypodermic. She apologized, "I haven't done a needle stick since medical school, Glen, I hope you have good veins."
He rolled up his sleeve. "I'm not worried about it, Beverly."
Once that was taken care of, he asked, "Is that all there is to it?"
"Yes. Now we wait for the results to start showing up on your scans. It will take a little while." She looked around. "I -- what's going to happen to me now?"
Ross tried to say something reassuring, but the truth was he didn't know. All he could do was hold her and try to think of everyone who owed him a favor.
They climbed into the truck for the long drive back into town. It was starting to get dark by the time they reached the line of houses on the far side of the wheat field from town.
There was some sort of a commotion going on. A woman was on her knees beside the road holding a child in her arms, there was a crowd of people gathered around in yard and out into the street.
Crusher pounded on the back window and yelled at West to stop the truck, she jumped over the side and ran over to the crowd before the vehicle had completely stopped.
Crusher knelt in the dust beside the woman and child. She recognized the little girl as the same one who had been herding goats earlier. She was having a lot of trouble breathing and her heart rate was erratic. "What happened? Why haven't you taken her to the doctor?"
"I did," the woman replied. Her voice was desperate and full of tears. "He wouldn't treat her. I don't have any money to pay him."
Ross asked, "What's the matter with her?"
Crusher reached for her tricorder, realized it wasn't there... it would never be there. THINK! She told herself. Agro colony. She looked up at the kid's mother. "Have they been spraying anything ... weed killer, pesticides?"
The mother shook her head that she didn't know, but one of the men in the crowd spoke up. "They were spraying bug spray in the ditches beside the road early this morning. I saw her chasing a goat out of there just a few minutes ago."
"Someone get a container with a label on it. Hurry." The man took off down the street at a run. Crusher treated the kid's symptoms until he got back with a plastic jug. She thanked God that the pesticide was a common one back home, and the treatment was a simple shot of epinephrine.
Fortunately, the little med-scanner unit in the medical kit was able to calculate the correct dose for an In Vitro of the kid's weight. It was less than Crusher would have expected for a girl that size. She had no way of knowing if the child's physiology more closely resembled that of her In Vitro mother or long-gone natural born father, it might not be enough epinephrine but too much could kill her. Crusher gave the smaller dose, and waited and tried to keep her anxiety inside. When the girl woke up and started calling for her mother, the whole crowd sighed with her. The child's heartbeat was returning to normal and her breathing was less labored.
Suddenly exhausted, Crusher packed the medical kit, then got herself to her feet. She told the mother, "Carry her inside and keep her quiet for a few days. She should be all right now." Crusher thought that the girl should be under observation for a few hours at least. But what could they do? "Watch her for any signs that she might be having trouble breathing."
"What do I owe you? I haven't got anything but time and you'll have to wait a year for that."
Crusher realized in horror that the woman was offering to indenture herself to pay off the debt. For all she had heard that the indenture system had been outlawed, apparently debt could still result in a term of servitude. She shook her head. "You don't owe me anything! Just -- just take care of her. I hope she's okay now."
Glen put his arm around her and drew her back to the tailgate of the truck. McQueen stayed behind to talk to a few of the In Vitros there.
Crusher found herself starting to cry and scrubbed at her eyes with dusty hands. "Glen, tell me something, do they really refuse treatment for the children just because their parents don't have money?"
He held her close. "You said earlier that I shined a light on some of your society's shortcomings, Beverly. Well, if that's so, then you have just painted ours with a targeting laser. I am ashamed to admit it, but that company doctor is within his legal rights to refuse treatment to people who cannot pay for it."
"I'm not supposed to interfere, or pass judgment...."
"Cultural relativity, my ass. Injustice is injustice no matter where you find it. If it's interference to save a child's life, then by the Almighty, I will defend your right to interfere where ever you see fit."
"Oh, Lord, I am so tired."
He smiled down at her. "It's been a long day," he said. After a time he helped her up into the back of the truck where she could rest.
McQueen was waiting. "Sir, have you given any thought to what you're going to do with Dr. Crusher? She can't stay on the Saratoga. There would be too many questions."
"I know that, Ty, but I fail to see what other solution there is."
"I may have found one, sir. It wasn't common for In Vitroes to escape from our indentures, very few tried because even fewer survived the attempt. But now and then -- Hawkes is an example that occasionally it could be done. It wouldn't be the first time someone needed a new identity in a hurry. If we can fake Dr. Crusher's death, these people will hide her here until the arrangements can be made."
Ross wasn't happy with that, but when McQueen outlined his plan, he had to agree it was the best thing. For right now, his company was far too dangerous for Crusher. She had to disappear into anonymity until an identity could be established for her in this universe.
Half an hour later, a stolen car with Crusher at the wheel careened through town at a high rate of speed, headed for the airstrip with the truck in hot pursuit. Crusher, unfamiliar with the territory, took a wrong turn and ended up on the road along the top of the river bluff. No one saw exactly what happened when the car when over the edge and crashed into the rocks and swift current far below, but everyone in town heard the explosion. The uproar drew a big crowd. After a search, they found some pieces of the car, but the body of the mysterious woman was never found. The townspeople weren't too surprised at that. People had drowned in those treacherous currents and never been found before.
Crusher balanced on the porch banister to drive a nail high on the porch pole. She hung the chain of a freshly-painted sign over the nail. The sign said, "Clinic" and below that in smaller letters, "Beverly Crusher, M.D." It was starting to warm up a little, and she could hear the big planters working on the far side of the field across the road. The months from harvest to planting had been very busy ones. It startled her that she was becoming enough at home here to measure time by the turn of the seasons, harvest and winter and planting.
A truck pulled up and Ross got out, accompanied by McQueen. She dropped the hammer to the porch swing and jumped off the banister, jumped over a flower bed and scattered her flock of chickens as she ran across the yard to greet him. "Glen! I wasn't expecting you back so soon!"
He grinned and swept her up in his arms. "I wasn't about to forget where I left you this time! How's my country doctor?"
She grinned. "Had my first patients before I could even get the boxes unpacked!"
"This is a nice little place. It reminds me of the house where my mother grew up," Ross said.
"The In Vitro rights organizations that are funding the clinic gave me a good start," she smiled. "I have everything I need here."
"Even the chickens?"
She laughed. "Lucy's mother insisted on giving me a half dozen hens as sort of a house-warming present," she smiled. "I don't know how she could afford it, but she wouldn't take no for an answer. I must admit, I do like the fresh eggs." Her eyes looked a little desperate as she said, "Lucy's promised me a couple of kids later in the spring, she says they'll make good milk goats when they're old enough. She says she'll teach me to take care of them, but I don't know...!"
Ross laughed, imagining Crusher milking a goat. "It's a whole new world for you, isn't it?"
She smiled. "I'm a doctor, Glen, and I'm practising where I'm really needed. I can't ask for any more than that. As for the rest of it -- Jean-Luc mentioned grand adventures, and every day is turning out to be that. I never know if I'll be seeing patients here in my clinic, or running out to one of the moons to take care of some miner out there. Not to mention wood stoves and -- and chickens! It's a life -- and I've only just realized, I haven't had one of those beyond chief medical officer of the Enterprise in a number of years now. Yes, it's a whole new world. A wonderful new world."
"And thanks to you I'll be around to see it. Dr. Walker can't find any sign of the tumor on my scans. I suppose I'll have to live with the possibility that the nano-machines will stop working and the tumor could recur. But with the chigs to worry about, that possibility is low on the list of things to keep me awake at night."
Crusher nodded. The war could come here, it could threaten the colony. That was the last thing she wanted to see, but she was not afraid. They would have to get past the Sara to get to her, and somewhere deep in her heart there was an abiding faith that Glen Ross would not let that happen. She would wait, and he would come back to her when he could, and one day the war would end. She had no way of knowing what would happen after that ... but she no longer needed to know. It was enough to have that faith.
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