A week into the trip, Gabriel realized that Charlie’s timeline of two to three weeks had been hopeful at best. The Dillo was constantly forced to slow down, or stop completely, as obstacles in the road had to be avoided or moved out of the way.
It was during one of these stops that Gabriel had taken a chance to step out and into the fresh air. Under the guise of stretching his legs he had walked around the entirety of the Dillo. In all, the Dillo had twelve car lengths, not including the engine.
This was a problem, as it turned out. Even when it was able to continue on a steady path, the Dillo had a pathetic top speed with so many cars connected. The weight was simply too much for a single engine to pull. Gabriel guessed that it was only supposed to carry eight to ten cars, and even that was likely pushing the limits of what it had been designed for.
It was also during one of these stops that Gabriel met Jayce Wright, but it was less of a meeting and more of conscription. Though the Dillo had more cars connected to it than was recommended, few of the cars had been allocated for supplies. As Jayce had explained it, food supplies would run low soon and they needed to take advantage of the down time to do whatever hunting they could.
“You ever been hunting before?” Jayce asked as he walked a few steps ahead of Gabriel. He had a small hunting rifle cradled in the crook of his arm, along with his sidearm strapped to his hip.
“No,” Gabriel said as he eyed the weapon.
“Well, it’s pretty easy. You just tell me if you see anything and I’ll shoot it. You’re my spotter today. Like an extra pair of eyes, which I really need, all things considered,” Jayce said. He stopped and turned to look at Gabriel, pointing to the bandage on his face that covered his right eye. When Gabriel took a moment too long to respond, Jayce’s face split into a wide smile. “Took a piece of shrapnel during the attack. The socket is pretty much ruined too, so a fake eye might not even work. They said I’d probably be best off just wearing a patch. Lucky me, yeah? Chicks dig that pirate look.”
He laughed loudly and in that moment Jayce reminded Gabriel a great deal of Chance.
“Alright, let’s hunt! Keep up eyeballs!” Jayce said as he began to march again. Gabriel hesitated for a moment before following silently after him for the unsuccessful hunting trip. Gabriel would later deduce it was less to hunt and more of a way for Jayce to avoid doing work.
When the Dillo was moving Gabriel did his best to memorize as much of the interior as possible, the military fatigues supplied by Charlie helping him blend in with the other soldiers. On most of these trips Millie accompanied him, though he had never once asked her to. He had considered asking her to leave him be, but soon found that while she had a thousand questions, many of which he had no answer to, and doubted anyone else did either, she also had a thousands answers. It was how Gabriel learned that the back cars were devoted to the injured. They took up three cars in all, with each compartment holding between thirty and forty injured. The front five cars were for the civilians without pressing medical issues. Occasionally Millie would disappear for a few hours to see the people up there, but she always came back. The front of the Dillo was too crowded for her, with very little for the passengers to do beside sit around and talk.
That left the remaining middle compartments for the few soldiers that ELA had been able to spare and whatever supplies they had managed to borrow. At first Gabriel had worried that even with his fatigues, his injures would give him away, but these fears were unwarranted. Almost every soldier he saw was getting along with some sort of injury they had sustained during the battle. Most were minor injuries, a broken bone here and a gash there, though Gabriel did notice, with an uncomfortable knot building in his stomach, that a few had more serious, disfiguring injuries.
Injuries sustained from the Archangel.
This knot only served to get worse whenever he returned to his compartment at night to sleep. The woman who slept across from him had lost her leg just below the knee. The man beside him, Tomkins, was in a coma and showed no signs of waking. Sometimes a young boy, Gabriel assumed his son, would come in and talk to him until Charlie gently shooed him out and back to the front carts. Others would drift in and out, and though few stayed long the car was never fully silent.
It wasn’t unusual to fall asleep to the sounds of sobbing. In pain or grief, Gabriel did not know. After a few nights he realized one wasn’t much better than the other. Gabriel was almost thankful for the distraction that came from Millie’s constant stream of dialogue.
“You don’t talk much, you know that?” Millie said as they sat down to eat. More specifically Gabriel had sat down to eat and Millie had suddenly appeared on the other side of the table.
“Hurts to talk,” Gabriel said. That was true, but it wasn’t the reason he refrained from talking. The less he spoke the lower the chance that he would let something slip that would identify him as a Novan.
“Ribs, right?” Millie nodded. “I think I’ve memorized everyone’s injuries. You’ve got four broken ribs and the stomach thing. Oh, and the head thing, but that’s mostly healed. The lump isn’t there anymore! Your head looks a lot better without it.”
“How’s your arm?” Gabriel said.
“It’s fine. The cuts already stopped bleeding. It’s going to leave a pretty big scar though, at least that’s what Charlie said,” Millie rested her bandaged arm on the table. She had ditched her sling since Gabriel had seen her in the morning. Charlie was going to be mad. He voiced that thought and Millie rolled her eyes. “Charlie is always mad.”
“Am I now?” said Charlie as she stopped beside Millie and dropped her hand lightly on the girl’s shoulder. Millie’s eyes widened. She looked up innocently at Charlie but only got a glare in return. Millie held eye contact for a few seconds longer before grumbling and popping out of her seat.
“Fine, I’ll go. Bye Gabriel.” Millie gave him a halfhearted wave before storming out of the dining cart. Charlie took her seat, reaching out and snagging a roll off of Gabriel’s plate.
“Millie likes you,” Charlie said in between bites. “She normally doesn’t bug people this much.”
“You two seem close,” Gabriel said. He pushed his plate across the table as Charlie reached to take something else to eat.
“Our parents were friends so I’ve known Millie since she was born, so about fourteen years now,” Charlie said. “She’s a good kid, just a little bit too curious sometimes. Maybe a little too bratty, too.”
Gabriel glanced at the door Millie had exited through. “Her parents, they aren’t here, are they?”
“Her mother is still in Woodcrest, helping to hold down the area. She’s a Kniv Pilot. Her father was too.”
Gabriel paused. “Was?”
Charlie nodded sadly. “He died. Last year. He was part of a team defending the Transic mines up north.”
Gabriel knew those mines. Transic gas was vital to the upkeep of Nova, the gas serving as a main component of the fuel that kept the colony in orbit. When ELA forces had taken control of the mine, he had been sent down with orders to eliminate them. He remembered the ELA Pilots that had fought against him. They had been skilled, one even coming close to killing him with a plasma sword, but in the end they had fallen to him and the mine had returned to Novan control.
He had never considered they had families. They had just been targets to eliminate.
“Archangel,” Gabriel said quietly.
“Archangel,” Charlie said with a growing frown. “That’s nothing unusual though. He killed a lot of people. He was like our own living boogieman. You never knew when he would show up. I doubt there is a person in the ELA who doesn’t personally know someone he killed.” Charlie shook her head as though she could dislodge the bad memories and looked up at Gabriel with a weak smile. “You’ve been pretty active lately. I’ve seen you walking around the Dillo most days. Feeling better?”
“A little. It’s hard to breath and my stomach still hurts.”
“It will probably hurt for a while. Be careful not to overexert yourself too much, if you rip those stitches and get an infection there won’t be much I can do.” Charlie leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand. Her shoulders slumped and Gabriel realized how exhausted the young woman really was. “If I can be completely honest with you, I’m out of my league here, Gabriel. I’m not even a medic. I’m a Pilot, but everyone has to pitch in right now and I have just enough know-how to get by. More than anyone else, at least.”
“A Kniv Pilot?” Gabriel said suddenly. Charlie didn’t strike him as a Pilot, but then again, outside of the Academy he didn’t know any Pilots personally. The ELA seemed much less structured than Nova. Though, with their superior numbers, he supposed that made sense.
Charlie pulled a small flask out of her pocket and took a quick sip. She held it out to Gabriel but he shook his head. Shrugging, she returned it to her pocket. “Yup. I would have stayed behind at Woodcrest too, but they wanted to send at least a few Knivs with the Dillo, just in case.”
“There are Knivs on board?” Gabriel kept his tone light, but his mind was beginning to race, piecing together a plan. The ELA Knivs were based on the same designs as Novan Knivs. The technology was dated, but he could still pilot one. Even if he couldn’t manage to find a helmet or a neural ring it would manageable so long as he destroyed or disabled the other Knivs. The Dillo was too slow to pursue and with ELA forces spread thin as they were, he wouldn’t have to worry about anyone being sent after him, at least not immediately.
“Two. Want to see?” Charlie’s eyes lit up.
Gabriel nodded and started to rise when the door slammed open and Millie burst into the room, her eyes wide.
“Charlie!” Millie ran up to the table and stopped, bent over and out of breath. She reached out and grabbed Charlie by the sleeve. “Charlie!”
“Millie, what’s wrong?” Charlie was already standing. Her hand drifted to her hip and for the first time Gabriel noticed she was wearing a sidearm, a standard issue ELA pistol. He knew it held sixteen shots plus one in the chamber. “What happened?”
“Something is wrong with Tom!” Millie said. She pulled on Charlie’s sleeves and started to tug the woman towards to infirmary compartment. “He just started shaking, I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
“Oh no,” Charlie began to run, breaking free from Millie’s grasp.
Gabriel stayed where he was, rooted to the spot until Millie turned around, her large pale blue eyes shining with tears.
“Gabriel!” Millie’s voice snapped him into action. He was on his feet and stumbling after Charlie. Millie’s hand found his and she gripped his fingers with her good hand. He ran the name Tom through his mind but came up blank. He was sure he hadn’t run into a Tom during his week on board the Dillo.
Charlie had already tossed her jacket to the floor and pulled on a pair of gloves when they entered the room. People were screaming. Charlie shouted for silence, but the civilians would not or could not follow her orders. She moved to the bed beside Gabriel’s, where Tomkins thrashed wildly, his eyes open and unseeing.
Tomkins was Tom.
“Charlie, what’s wrong with him?” Millie yelled over the noise. “What’s wrong?”
“His brain is swelling, we need to reduce the pressure right now or he is going to suffer permanent brain damage.” Her eyes snapped up to Gabriel. She reached out and grabbed him by the sleeve, pulling him close. “Gabriel, please. I need your help. We don’t have time to wait.”
Gabriel glanced down at Tom. Gabriel knew he was an ELA soldier. There was a distinct possibility he had been one of the many soldiers who had tried to kill him back in Woodcrest. A week ago, if Gabriel had met him on the battlefield he would have killed him without hesitation. But this wasn’t a battlefield and right then, at that moment, neither of them were soldiers.
Slowly, Gabriel nodded.
“I need you to hold him down, keep him from moving his arm.” Charlie pulled out a syringe. Gabriel didn’t ask what it was filled with and did as he was told, spreading out across Tom and taking hold of his arm. Tom’s body thrashed beneath him and his chest bucking painfully into Gabriel’s, upsetting his broken ribs. Gabriel pushed the pain aside and focused on holding Tom’s arm still as Charlie searched for a vein.
“Got it!” Charlie pulled the needle out. Gabriel continued to hold Tom down until the man finally ceased his sporadic movements. Charlie didn’t waste time, moving to Tom’s head and propping it up with a pillow. “We need to keep his head elevated to keep the circulation going. We have to make sure he is getting enough oxygen or his brain will die. Here.” Charlie pressed a mask connected to a hand pump onto Tom’s face. She took Gabriel’s hand and placed it on the pump. “Don’t let him move and don’t stop pumping. Once every five seconds. Okay?”
“Okay,” Gabriel said as he began to squeeze the pump, forcing air into Tom’s lungs. He placed his free hand lightly on the man’s chest, ready to keep him from moving if the need arise. In his head he focused on counting while he kept an eye on Charlie. Her face had grown pale and her breathing was coming in short, controlled bursts, but she seemed in control. At least, he wanted to believe she was.
“Millie, press that button, it will call for help!” Charlie ordered before taking a deep breath. “Okay. Okay. The swelling will cause brain damage. Drugs will slow the swelling, but won’t reduce it fast enough. Secured the head and cleared the airways. Now we have to reduce the swelling...” Charlie spoke to herself as she stepped behind Tom, a scalpel in her hand. “We’re going to have to perform a Ventriculostomy?”
She looked at Gabriel and he shook his head. He had never even heard of that word before. From the look Charlie gave him, it was clear it was something to be dreaded.
“I’m… We’re going to have to make a small hole in his skull. We make an incision here, over the Kocher’s point, alright?” Charlie stopped and stared at him. She kept saying we. Gabriel didn’t feel like he was going to be doing nearly as much but nodded all the same. Charlie seemed to take some form of solace with his approval and began to work. Beside her, Millie stared on with ever widening eyes. “Then… then we drill a hole through the skull.”
Millie’s hand went to her mouth as Charlie went through the operation. The young girl had gone shock white and began to sway from side to side. Gabriel was almost sure she was going to pass out and already knew he wouldn’t be able to catch her if she did, not without leaving Tom’s side. However, no matter how sick she looked, Millie stayed on her feet.
“Now we just have to insert the catheter and….” Charlie’s eyes narrowed as she fed the thin tube into the hole she had created. She moved so slowly Gabriel wasn’t sure she was actually doing anything until she exhaled and her shoulders slumped as a clear fluid began to filter through the thin tubing of the catheter. “Millie?”
Millie jumped at the sound of her name. “Charlie? Is he…?”
“He’s going to be okay!” Charlie said loudly, her voice cutting through the loud room and silencing it. She sighed and fell back against the wall. “He’s going to be okay. You should go tell his wife what happened.”
Millie nodded and raced out of the room, nearly bowling over the people who were trying to enter. One came up behind Gabriel and gently pulled him away from Tom’s side, taking the pump from him and taking over his position. Gabriel let him, falling back to the side and watching as two newcomers in ELA fatigues began to talk with Charlie before taking over the rest of the operation at Charlie’s direction. She moved to Gabriel’s side and together they stayed beside the bed until Tom’s condition completely stabilized.
“Come on,” Charlie said quietly and led him off to the side of the room where the sink was located. She peeled off her bloody gloves and tossed them in the wastebasket before beginning to wash her hands. She was breathing heavy. It took Gabriel a moment to realize he was as well. He looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He tightened his fingers into fists and began to bring his eyes up when his sight landed on the sidearm on Charlie’s hip. She didn’t notice as she continued to wash her hands vigorously, her chest rising and falling with every deep breath. He could pull it before she could stop him. He could eliminate her with a single shot to the head, leaving him sixteen remaining rounds. Two more would dispatch the other two ELA soldiers, maybe three to be safe. They would probably be armed as well. He could take their weapons.
After that, no one in the room would present much of a danger, but they would make noise and could phone for help just like Millie had. He hadn’t seen the Knivs during any of his walks through the Dillo, which meant they were probably in the very front, the engine car. He wouldn’t be able to fight his way to them, not with a single gun. It was possible he could climb onto the roof and sneak across, but his mobility was still low from his injuries, and there was no guarantee he would be able to get all the way to the front without being seen, or without falling off.
He also didn’t know what kind of security the Knivs were under. It would make sense to keep them unlocked and prepared for combat, but that was a high-risk assumption to make. High-risk but also high-reward. His fingers twitched and he slid an inch closer to Charlie.
“Gabriel,” Charlie suddenly turned, a tired smile on her face. She reached out and pulled him into hug. Gabriel went completely rigid, his arms trapped by his sides as Charlie gave him a tight, painful squeeze. “Thank you.”
“What?” Gabriel would have taken a step back if Charlie hadn’t been holding him in place. She held him for a long time, resting an uncomfortable amount of her weight on him. She was warmer than he expected and smelled faintly of soap with a hint of alcohol. Gabriel was finding it hard to breathe, something he attributed to his broken ribs.
“Sorry,” Charlie pulled away but kept one of her hands on his arm. Her eyes were shining. “It’s just… Thank you. Thank you.”
Gabriel nodded and glanced down at the floor, suddenly unable to look Charlie in the eye. Millie returned with Tom’s wife and child, both who rushed to his side. Millie was suddenly next to him, standing between him and Charlie. Her thin arm snaking out to wrap around either of their waists and pull them both into a tight hug. Gabriel ground his teeth in pain as Millie squeezed him tight enough to upset the stitches in his stomach, but couldn’t find it in himself to push the girl away.
“I’m going to go talk to Tom’s wife,” Charlie said as she carefully slipped from Millie’s embrace. Almost immediately Millie’s arm went to Gabriel, burying her face in his side and holding onto him with a firm grip. Charlie smiled and gave Gabriel’s arm a gentle squeeze. “You both did good. Make sure she gets some sleep once it quiets down.”
Gabriel watched her go, his eyes flicking down to the sidearm one final time before dropping down to Millie. He sighed softly and hesitantly placed his hand on the back of her head.
He was going to have to alter his plan.