By Carol Sandford


Chapter 26


The darkness surrounded Will like a comforting blanket. For the first time in hours, he felt relatively safe and he allowed himself a moment or two to drop his head back against the chilled sand, close his eyes and hope that the few minutes respite would be enough to see him through the long hours of the night.


She drifted into his dream like a butterfly on the breeze, fluttering into his mind's eye, letting his heart warm with her presence. Lord knows, he needed her there, more than ever. Imzadiiiii he heard, the sacred word replenishing his soul, brought forth by his own desperate need to hear something more than the stillness of night, heavy with suspended foreboding.

But Will refused to let their hovering predicament sully his precious moment with Deanna. The Sindareen could wait. He needed, Her, just for a moment longer, just to help him through.

He ached, all over. The aches hurt more than the multitude of tiny burns upon his exhausted body. His uniform, tattered and singed, hung in ragged strips around his torso. It was caked in soot, dust and gritty sand that bit at his sores, adding to his misery. But he was okay. He was alive.

But then he opened his eyes and glanced at the battered soul beside him. Tang. The poor old fella had struggled to jump free from the exploding ship, and had suffered dearly for it. Will assumed his age had made him slower, less quicker to react. Or maybe he just got stuck on a piece of the ship's interior. Or maybe he just got unlucky.

Will shuddered when he thought back, his mind letting Deanna go back to her tiny hideaway until another moment in time when he would need her. How did they escape? He wondered, the question still managing to emit a disbelieving shake of his head.

It was a miracle, he surmised. Nothing short of that. The missile that had knocked them out of the sky had hit their rear engine head on, springing open the rear door, creating a vortex that sent the ship into a spin which had thrown the four men from their seats to the floor. Tearing metal groaned in agony as it tore itself away from it's fixtures.

Amongst the screams that filled the small space, Will heard his own. He was sure it was his own. It sounded like his voice. It sounded terrified; Certain that he was about to die. Certain that another higher pitched scream he could here was his Imzadi's. Was she somehow watching his death from afar, feeling his terror? Maybe she knew that they were never to touch one another ever again. That thought alone hurt Will more than the possibility that his life was about to end.

As the ship spiralled towards the ground, alarmingly quick, the men managed to jump clear before impact, rolling away just as the ship blew apart. The gust from the blast forced the men further away from the fire that tried to snatch at them, its fiery fingers reaching out, livid that it had was being denied.

But it still had one man in it's clutches. Lieutenant Tang. He hadn't made it. As the three men scampered away from the ship, Will didn't notice that only two bodies had followed him until he reached a point that he considered safe enough to stop and take stock. When he turned to aide his men, he almost died on the spot when it was clear that his friend was missing.

Unable to see or hear through the dust created from the still battling ships above and the flames and smoke of their own felled shuttle only a few meters away, Will's eyes smarted from the burning fumes and grit. Will had only one option, and that was to call to his comrade and hope that he was still alive.

"TANG!" he roared, immediately succumbing to a coughing fit as the heat burned his throat. He tried once more, but the first effort had singed his vocal chords and he gasped as the searing pain tore at his tender membranes. For the time being, he could do nothing more than wait, and pray.

Eventually, as the canopy of dust and smoke that clouded around them slowly lifted, Will eventually spied the old man. Trapped beneath a lump of the hull, Tang lay still. Deathly still. Will was torn between revealing himself to those above, and risking all to pull his friend free of the burning wreckage, or fleeing away from the scene in the vain hope that their enemy would conclude that they had all perished.

Taking another anguished look at the trapped man and still seeing no sign of life, Will, his heart ripped in two with the loss of a man who had treated him more like a son than his own father had done, wrenched himself away with the other two surviving members of his crew, moving towards another felled ship. It was a Sindareen ship, and they hid beneath its vast, broken wings, out of sight from the battle still raging in the skies above his head.

It felt like hours, but in reality it was probably only minutes - the longest minutes of Will's life, before the fight above him suddenly took a turn for the worse. Will's heart ached as he watched another Federation ship explode in mid air, more than conscious that the crew could never had survived.

But worse still, there was only one Federation ship left, and Will instantly recognized it as Jameson John's ship, the man that had saved their lives a little earlier on. But now he was in dire need of rescue himself as, aware that he was out-numbered and alone, Jameson and his crew had turned about and ran for their lives. But as he ran, he had six Sindareen ships on his ass.

Will was acutely aware that John's was his only hope of either rescue, or at the very least to relay a message back to base to report survivors on foot. But then Will suddenly thought, his heart pounding with panic, What if he hasn't see us. Nobody know's we're here. Nobody but the bloody Sindareen. Oh, shit! he groaned.

Will and his men watched with a mixture of worry and relief as the lone Federation ship disappeared out of sight over the distant horizon, leaving behind a deafening silence, only broken by the crackle of burning fuselage. All three men in unison turned their heads to their own ship, with one thought on their minds; Tang.

They all scurried towards him, the wave of desperate dread etched upon their dirty, scorched faces. "Tang!" Will croaked as he reached his side, his hand instinctively reaching for the pulse in his neck, his eyes searching his charred and blistered face for any sign of life

Will barely suppressed the tears of gratitude as he felt the very feint rhythm beneath his burnt fingertips. But even so, he couldn't contain the gasp of joy, his eyes relaying the good news to the other two men who sat on their haunches on the other side of the felled man.

But seconds later, Bobby Tiller leapt to his feet, encouraged by his leaders findings and made his way to the rear of the shuttle in the hope that he can get inside and salvage anything useful - especially a medikit.

Gently tapping Tang's face as he tried to rouse the unconscious man, Will spoke gently to his friend, "C'mon, Tang, I know you're in there. We need you awake, old man." He looked to his remaining team member who watched Will working on the Lieutenant, worry laced his words, "We've gotta get our asses away from here before those bastards come back." He tapped the craggy face once more, "Tang. Tang!" he croaked.

William Riker and Zakar Trez, the only alien amongst Will's team, heard the distinct sound of an extinguisher, which raised their hopes that the ships interior was accessible, But moments later, those hopes were dashed when Bobby stepped back to their sides, gingerly holding a smouldering medikit case in his hands, the heat from the metallic casing obviously still hot enough to burn.

"Sorry, Sir, doesn't look like this is any good. I can't even prise the catch open, it's melted that much." Slinging it to one side, disgusted that his moment of glory had to go up in a puff of smoke along with the medikit, he added, "Nothing else is salvageable either, Sir. Want me to check out the other ships? Might be able to find something useful."

Will hadn't taken his eyes off Tang's face as he continued to try and rouse the big man. But after Bobby had given his report on his findings, Will first looked at him as he pondered over his question, then swung his gaze over the distant horizon, searching for returning Sindareen ships.

"I don't think we can afford the time, Tiller. Chances are they'll come back to see if there are any survivors. I think we need to move, and move now, especially while the sun is up. I can't see them bothering with us after nightfall - maybe we can come back then and have a nose around. But for now, I think we need to get as far away from here as we can."

And then a heavy, telling silence descended and Will felt the gaze of the two other men fall upon the still unconscious, prone man, his own eyes dropping, realizing what was going through their minds. "I'm not leaving him behind," he vowed.

Both men went crimson, instantly contrite of their thoughts, the silence stretching out uncomfortably as the three men volleyed their objections with their eyes. Will said it again, more forcibly this time. "We are not leaving him behind, even if I have to carry him myself."

Bobby glanced at Zakar and Will wondered what was going through their minds. He couldn't really believe that they would even consider leaving Tang behind, if not to certainly die, then to possibly be captured by the Sindareen, if and when they came back.

Zakar's voice broke his pondering. "It was Lieutenant Tang's orders, Sir." he said, warily.

"What orders?" Will asked, already figuring out what they were going to say.

Tiller took over, "Wounded were to be left behind, Sir, no matter what. They were too much of a burden on retreating survivors. Said they'd hold them back, Sir. We got to leave them...him, behind, Sir." he ended, lamely.

Will, shell-shocked with the revelation, slowly pulled himself to a stand, using his full height to its full advantage as he squared up to the two now cowering men. "And do you agree with this..." he struggled momentarily to find the right word and ended up spitting, "regulation?"

Once again the two men looked to each other for confirmation, and once again it was Zakar who spoke first, "Well...not personally, Sir, but rules are rules, aren't they, Sir?"

Will took a deep breath as he realized that they weren't actually, 'happy' with the ruling, so he figured it was time to change it. "Yes, they are, Trez. But likewise, new rules can be made, can't they, gentlemen?" He looked to them both for confirmation. The two men nodded in agreement, already the relief of Will's suggestion lifting the burden of leaving a wounded man behind.

"Good," Will said, "The new rules are that as long as a wounded man doesn't endanger us any more than the danger that we are already in, then we take him home with us. Understood?"

Two heads bobbed in unison before him. Two distinctly lighter voices spoke up in tandem too, "Understood, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

Will took another deep breath, this time, it was one of relief, "Okay. Now then, let's see if we can find something - anything that we can make into a make-shift litter." His eyes already moving around the battle sight looking for possibilities.

Less than an hour later, the three men plus a very angry Tang, even if he was still half dead but awake enough to cause a ruckus at having his own rule broken by a mere, pain-in-the-ass juvenile, made their way towards the distant hills, and hopefully safety, fully aware that they were utterly and entirely, on their own.

But were they?

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