The First of Many

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Chapter 27

Mike woke up in the night to find their tracks had been covered over in the night.

"Rosie, we have a slight problem," he said as he woke up the team. "Our tracks were blown over while we slept."

Hannah groaned. “We move due east,” she muttered. “We’ll hit base eventually. Idiot.”

"Viper doesn't look so good," Hunter said, ignoring her.

Hannah made her way to him, kneeling beside him. “Viper,” she said softly. “Wake up. We have to get walking.”

Viper groaned incoherently, and his eyes slid open. His skin was pale and clammy, but as far as Hannah could tell, he was doing fine. To be on the safe side, she checked him for a fever, but found nothing.

Mike and Hunter picked Viper up, and they all began to move, with Hannah leading the way.

They walked due east for several hours before they stopped to rest, setting Viper down carefully. He let out a grunt of pain, and Hannah sighed heavily, checking his leg over again.

“Hey, Rosie,” Viper said, his voice hoarse. “There any water to spare?”

She nodded and poured some water past his cracked lips. “So long as we get you to the base by tomorrow, you'll be fine,” she said, more to herself than to him.

“Base is… due north, Rosie. Wrong way. We won’t make it back by then, will we?”

“We will,” she said. “Relax, Viper. We'll get you out of this.”

"Just leave me behind. I won't make it," Viper said.

“Never leave behind a fallen brother,” she answered. “You still have a chance, Viper. Hold on.”

"Solomon, no matter what happens, I need you to know that it's been an honor to serve with you," Viper said.

“Viper, shut up. You're not going to die out here.”

Two days later, the base was nowhere in sight, and Viper's leg was infected.

The four wandered the desert for what felt like weeks; they lost count of the days after the first ten. They ran out of what sparse rations they had brought by the time the eighth day was over, and soon began to lose hope. The heat wasn't doing wonders for anybody's temper. Hannah eventually took Viper from Hunter and Mike, shouldering him herself and trudging off in silence. She knew hunger as well as ever, and knew that it was best to keep one's mouth shut when one was in a bad mood.

Unfortunately, Mike and Hunter had no such experience; the only reason they never came to blows was that both were far too weak to fight.

The tenth day of their wandering, Hunter and Mike were arguing about who had knocked into whom the last time they had tripped over a dune.

“Rosie, what's going on?” Viper slurred. He was running a high fever, his skin almost burning to the touch; the infection was getting worse.

“It's nothing,” she said. “Go back to sleep, Viper.”

Viper's head sank back down to her shoulder, and she stopped, turning to Hunter and Mike. “Stop,” she said again. “We're all tired. We should rest.”

Hannah set Viper down, checking him for the fever she already knew was there, then set to checking on his leg. As soon as she touched it, Viper jerked away, his whole body tensing as he let out a shout of pain.

Fuck, she thought. As though my luck couldn't get any worse.

“Viper,” she said gently, “Your leg is infected. We have two options here, understand me?”

Viper nodded once.

“The first option is to take the leg off,” she said, her voice flat and toneless. “We can do that, if need be. I don't want to, but...” she shrugged. “It'll be over faster.”

“What's the other option?” Viper croaked.

Hannah swallowed hard. “The second option is to clean out the wound and hope it doesn't get infected again.”

“Why isn't that the only option?”

“Because it's going to hurt,” she said calmly. “Worse than anything you've ever felt. SERE did not prepare you for this.”

“What is it?”

Hannah shook her head. “It'll be better for you if you don't know,” she said. “Either way, your days in Delta are over; you'll be lucky to walk again at all.”

“Clean it,” Viper ordered.

Hannah dug around her pack for a moment before pulling out the last of her rations of water and a thick strip of leather. She handed him the leather. “Bite,” she ordered. “This is going to hurt.”

She motioned Hunter and Mike forwards. “Hold him down,” she said.

“What are you going to do?”

“If I tell you, you'll stop me.”

“Wait,” Viper said, as Hannah started a fire and began to boil the last of her water.

Hannah turned to him, waiting.

“What are the odds that this operation will kill me?”

“High,” she said, seeing no sense in softening the blow.

Viper nodded. “If... If I don't make it. Take care of the team for me, Rosie. Will you do that?”

“Always,” she promised, grasping his hand. Viper nodded and lay his head back, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.

Hannah's face was expressionless, her eyes calm and shallow as stone. She kept the water boiling beside her, drew a knife that she kept strapped to her wrist, and knelt beside Viper's leg, as Hunter and Mike took their positions, holding his down.

Hannah took a deep breath. “I'm sorry,” she said tonelessly, and that was all the warning Viper got before her knife drove into his leg.

Viper screamed against the leather as Hannah cut through the flesh and muscle, digging out rotted flesh and pus.

Hannah's face was blank as she worked quickly and silently under Viper's convulsions, and Hunter and Mike's horrified gazes.

“Rosie,” Mike said, “Rosie, what are you doing?”

Hannah didn't answer, holding Viper's mostly-rot-free leg open and reaching out to grab the pan of boiling water, and pouring it over the newly opened wound.

Viper screamed louder, his parched, hoarse voice echoing on the dunes.

Hannah forced her eyes to stay open, forced herself to push down the scream that welled in her own chest, forced her blood-slick hands to move slowly and surely, although all she wanted to do was drop the knife and run, run away from the screaming, from the terror in her brothers' faces.

They were afraid of her, of what she could do, of what she was doing.

The world was slowly turning red, the mist was creeping back into her head, and she hated herself.

You never have a choice. Come here, pet. I'll teach you again.

It felt like hours had passed when Hannah finally deemed the wound clean and began to stitch it up. Viper had long since stopped screaming, although the pain had kept him awake. She grabbed the crossbow bolt she'd placed in the fire earlier, wrapping her hand in cloth to keep the red-hot metal from burning her. She held her breath and lowered it, pressing it to the newly-stitched wound, burning it closed.

Viper didn't scream, but his chest heaved and she could almost hear the leather between his teeth creak with strain.

She tossed the bolt away as soon as she was done, wrapping the leg up and using an old branch as a splint.

Hunter and Mike exchanged shocked looks.

“Rosie, what was that?” Mike asked.

“It's late,” she said, ignoring him. “We should sleep.”

“After all this? Rosie, where the fuck did you learn to do that?”

“None of your goddamn business,” she said shortly, “I'm not talking about this with you.”

"No, we're talking now," Hunter said.

“Enough,” Hannah growled. “Go to sleep. I'll take first watch.”

Hunter looked about to argue, but Mike grabbed his arm and pulled him down.

“She's in charge now,” Mike said quietly. “Drop it.”

That was the last Hannah heard before her world faded to black.
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