A Matter of Minutes
Character codes: R, P
Commander William Riker remembered the first time he braved the glacial runoff.
The day itself wasn't particularly cold--in fact, for Valdez, Alaska, it nearly qualified as summer--but the water. Oh, the water. The water was bone-jolting.
The first step left his toes numb; the second, his ankles. By the time Will Riker reached mid-stream, the soles of his feet could no longer tell the difference between prefab plasticine and the multitudes of small, round stones that formed the river bed. The only sensation that remained below the hard-edged line of water cutting him off at the upper thighs was a deep, roving ache that had no origin and no destination...a numbness so penetrating his teeth pulsed with it.
It was like that now. The pressure on his legs made him forget they were there. It occurred to him to wonder if they still were. One hand followed the line of his thigh in the darkness. His fingers found long wooden splinters skewered in flesh and a wetness he knew was his own blood. The structural support lay across him at a point barely six inches above the knees.
It hadn't been a large stream--not much more than a meter deep--but the water cut down from the Chugach Mountains, part of an annual melting of glaciers that backdated life on Earth. As the stream worked its way from the Manatuska Glacier, through Valdez, to the Gulf of Alaska, it remained cold...colder than the coldest cold...so cold it literally burned to the touch. It was a million years cold; and as it swirled around Will Riker's twelve-year-old thighs, he could feel it freezing his blood to pudding in his veins.
Or at least, he had thought so at the time.
Riker breathed stale air slowly. He remembered the smell of water...the drag of it against his lungs as he fought to breathe.
He was cold. So very cold...
A numbing chill worked into his hips, and he stumbled. Water closed over his head. It burned the surface of his eyes as it plunged greedily into nostrils and down his throat in search of lungs that harbored the one precious gasp of air he managed before going under. Blackness was everywhere, pressing numbness against him... pressing it through him. He couldn't feel his legs. He couldn't feel his arms. Only the horrible thunder of blood in his ears broke the heavy, dead silence. Fear ate into his mind, making him forget which way was up.
He would die here...
Riker's eyes struggled to find substance in the fathomless pitch. The dim outline of a structural support took shape inches above his face. The feeble warmth of his own breath reflected from it. Riker blinked.
...he would die here...
His fingers worked along the place his legs ended, testing the strength of the timber. Debris and wood defied his effort to find an opening. Trapped between their teeth, he imagined the rest of his legs gone and tried to find a pain... any pain...to deny the dread pressing into his spine.
Nothing. He felt nothing.
...he would die here.
Will Riker's scream of protest was a silent burst of bubbles in the icy water. Glittering jewel-like, the last breath he had raced past his wide eyes and twisted a line toward the stream's sunlit surface. Follow me, they called. Follow me.
His wooden limbs flailed desperately. Following their trail like the life-line it was, he shattered the stream into a million glittering droplets as he pushed it aside to gulp lungful after lungful of fresh air.
Riker twisted in his cocoon of soil and debris, and it flexed in response. A river of dirt skated along the timber support to fill his mouth and eyes with grit. The darkness from his childhood lay against his face, and for a moment, Will Riker was afraid to breathe.
"Now," Picard hissed, wishing he had something to grip...anything that his hands could twist into and hold onto. "I don't give a damn about magnetic field fluctuation or circuitry re-polarization. I want that transporter fixed now. Picard out." Although the communicator needed hardly more than a brush to deactivate, he slapped the emblem with enough vehemence to feel the recessed catch dig into his chest.
The eyes of the away team bored into his back. He felt the heat of each gaze, the weight of their collective expectations. Taking a moment to compose his expression, he steeled himself and turned to face them. Kate Pulaski's eyes were the first he met. Although there was a part of him that resented those eyes for not being Beverly's, there was also a part of him that was oddly relieved.
"There's not much I can do for him, Captain," she stated calmly. So detached. So professional."Not without the surgical bay."
Picard found himself staring at the Klingon stretched between them like a corpse. The massive chest rose and fell haltingly, as if each breath might be the last it could manage. The stain of purple-red blood was garish against his gold tunic. "How much time does he have?"
"An hour. Perhaps less."
The pronouncement fell like blows on the small gathering of men. Geordi--still crouched at the Klingon's side--hunched over Worf's prone body as if to shield his fallen friend from that fate.
"An hour?" Picard repeated more to himself than for verification.
His eyes wandered to Wesley...to Morrison...to Bishop. Although the doctor's prognosis lay heavy in the pinch of their expressions, all three turned from Worf to resume their tasks. They dug ceaselessly, fingers fraying beneath the bite of rock and brittle soil. Blood was already caked to Wesley's wrists, yet the boy barely seemed to notice. Worf would have been at their side, if he could have stood.
An hour. Picard turned away from the sight of his men. His eyes scanned the scattered ruins of Sirius Omicron III and found only gray desolation. If Worf had but an hour, how much time did that leave Commander Riker?
The air was stale and old, and Riker could smell himself in it. His mind fumbled awkwardly with calculations and formulas older than his academy days. How long did he have?
Data would have told him to three decimal places. Wesley could probably have told him to four.
The pressure building beneath the twist of his spine made breathing harder with each passing moment. He shifted one shoulder in an attempt to alleviate the strain, but only managed to make it worse.
He'd broken his back once, hadn't he?
Undermining the metallic tang of panic in his throat with the distraction of memory, Riker peeled the years away in his mind. Climbing a mountain three clicks north of Juneau, as he recalled. Actually, he hadn't broken it climbing. He'd broken it falling. The snap echoed in his ears for months. There were times--at night, when he was just short of sleep--that he still heard it. For hours, he'd lain in the snow, waiting for Gaffy to reach him, wondering if his legs were still at the end of his hips.
A cramp stitched along Riker's spine and tied off in his kidneys. When he tried to curl into it, rock and timber slapped him back. Blood wormed into his eyes from a cut just below the hairline. So little room. He let the seepage of grit settle against his features before turning his face so it could drain away. Like a coffin. His eyes drifted shut.
"You all right? Willie? Hey, Will?"
Riker regularized his breathing. They would be looking for him. If he conserved his stale allotment of oxygen, he might live to see another Valdez sunset. He set a cadence and began to count: one, two, three...
"Will? Hey...answer me, will you Willie-boy?"
Riker opened his eyes to the insistent jiggling of one shoulder. Gaffy was there... finally. It'd certainly taken him long enough. The chill of snow had begun to soak through Will's parka and into his back.
Gaff's broad-featured face split into a grin. "Pretty impressive there, Willie, me boy." He placed a hand on Will's chest. "Nice amplitude, excellent height, I'd give you a nine point three...maybe a nine point four."
...eighteen...nineteen..twenty, breathe. Riker drew a deep breath of cold, bracing Alaskan air. One...two...
Behind Gaff, azure skies gleamed like the backdrop to a travel brochure. If it hadn't hurt so to breathe, he might have drifted to sleep. Instead, he languished in the summer sun and watched his friend's hands work their way down each leg, wondering why he felt nothing but the press of snow between his neck and collar.
"Russian judge says eight point seven," Gaff rattled on, "but we'll throw him out just on that '22 Bondarenko thing, okay?" It was only when they reached his floating ribs that Riker again felt the press of Gaffy's hands.
"Gaff?" Riker murmured. The rasp of his voice was dry in the confined space. The earthen tomb absorbed his friend's name even as Riker spoke it.
Gaffy's face warbled, distorting like a glitch in a holodeck program. "Next time," he advised, gripping Riker's hand in his. "Keep your toes pointed and your ankles together. You'll get better scores."
Riker twisted. "Gaffy?" he whispered. "Don't leave me, Gaff." Dirt splattered across his face from above, and he breathed through it, tasting vestiges of lead in the grit that dusted his tongue.
"Hang on, Will," a quiet voice echoed...Jim Gaff's voice "We'll get you out of here." Riker felt the hand around his tighten. "I promise."
Riker groaned into the silence stagnating about him. "Help me, Gaffy," he pleaded, blood-slick fingers clenching the slipping memory of his life. "God help me."
"Enterprise to Captain Picard. Come in, please."
Picard tapped his communicator, leaving a smear of grayish mud on the brilliant red tunic. "Picard here," he snapped.
"We've siphoned all non-essential energy sources, sir," O'Brien's lilting voice seemed slightly less monotone than normal as the words vaulted through the void of space. "It's bleeding away quickly, but we've amassed the charge for at least one transport."
Picard's eyes jumped instinctively to the labored rise and fall of his security chief's blood-spattered chest. "One?" he repeated, watching Pulaski press a hypo to the Klingon's neck. It hissed, and Worf's strained features went lax almost instantaneously.
"Maybe more," O'Brien allowed. "But I won't guarantee it."
"Can you lock onto Commander Riker's coordinates?"
Picard could nearly see the transporter chief's frustration as he words clipped themselves shorter and shorter. "Still no luck there, sir. Whatever that ore is, it's refracting his signal. I'm reading him in ten or twelve separate locations. With that much interference, I could transport only part of him...or miss him entirely and snag only the support that's holding that mess off him."
Picard's eyes bored into Pulaski. "Doctor?" he nearly whispered across the distance between them. She glanced perfunctorily at the tricorder and then looked again into his eyes.
"His lifesigns are still registering," Pulaski answered the unasked inquiry with clinical precision. No emotion. No indication of which fork in the road she expected him to take. "Weak, but stable." There was the slightest flicker of regret. "Will is still alive in there," she murmured. "Somewhere."
He searched for an answer in her pale eyes, but she gave him no such luxury. Your decision, she seemed to say. There was a moment of silence from the transporter room, and then Chief O'Brien prompted Picard for a decision. "Sir?"
The captain's jaw clenched. The order was bitter on his tongue, and yet when it came out, it came out as smoothly as a request for chablis in Ten Forward. "Lock onto Doctor Pulaski and Worf," he ordered into the chill air around him. I'm sorry, Will. "Two to beam up."
A second of silence, and then the quiet answer. "Yes, sir."
The doctor's gaze trailed away. She offered him no congratulations or recriminations...no solace for the battle wounds of captaincy. Instead, she abandoned him to the finality of his decision as the glitter of transport enveloped her. A moment later, doctor and patient vanished.
"What about Commander Riker?" Wesley breathed.
Picard turned. He noted the quick way Geordi's VISOR canted away. They had been watching him, all of them. Morrison was a step to the lieutenant's left; Bishop, a step to his right. Neither man would meet his gaze.
What do they expect of me?
And then there was Wesley, young, undisciplined Wesley. Streaks of blood marred the Crusher boy's pale complexion where one tattered hand or the other had reached up to brush away sweat. Exhaustion was a palpable weight on his thin features.
Picard met his acting-ensign's expectant gaze. So young. For the first time since the pall of death settled over the cave-in, Wes straightened from his frantic digging. Moments he needed to free his friend and mentor ticked away as young Wesley Crusher did the one thing the others would never do: he questioned the order of his captain.
"What about Commander Riker?"
"Try the earthmover, Mister O'Brien," Picard said quietly into his communicator.
Silence. It lasted an eternity.
"No can do," O'Brien muttered finally. He sounded sick. "Not enough charge. One was all she had, sir." The transporter chief's words fell through the void of space like lead. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Jean-Luc wanted to close his eyes, to give them respite from the sight of Beverly Crusher's son, but he didn't. He faced the accusation in the boy's gaze as he would have to face it in his own mirror. "Do what you can," he told O'Brien. Tried, judged and sentenced by a child no older than his best flask of brandy, Jean-Luc Picard's hand brushed the transmitter. "Picard out."
Riker expanded his lungs slowly, letting them fill before returning half the load to his small atmosphere. It was unsatisfying. The lungful of air he sucked in contained less oxygen than the tiny gulp he'd managed all those years ago as he went under the surface of an Alaskan stream. He needed to throw it out and start again. He needed to drag lungful after lungful into his system until enough oxygen reached his blood to ease the fingers of suffocation digging into his throat.
But then, of course, he would die.
Morrison staggered. Blond head bowed, he slammed first to one knee, and then to the other. "Damn." Bloody fingers clenched into the rocky soil to steady himself.
A hand dropped to his shoulder to lend momentary support. "You okay?" LaForge queried from behind the disconcertingly blank gaze of the VISOR.
"In a minute," Morrison muttered back. His shoulders, arms and hands were numb. He studied the gashes that lined them as if they were on someone else's body. God, he was tired. The hand half-buried in dirt pushed until he was back on his feet. So damned tired.
"Why don't you rest?"
Morrison swayed, turning only his eyes to regard the captain. Picard's regal features were shadowed with blood and grime. Sweat ran in rivulets down the side of his face, and his hands were as raw as any of theirs. It seemed odd to see him this way.
"No, sir," Morrison muttered. He glanced at Bishop and then at LaForge. "I'm okay."
"That was not a request, Mister Morrison," Picard stated gently. "We shall rest in shifts."
Morrison watched as the nearly bald man turned back to his portion of the dent they were making in the collapsed ruins. The slightest rift of resentment twisted through him. Rest in shifts. Right. While Riker lies dying under this slag. Morrison's fingers worked themselves back into the dense texture of organic material. Tiny, mineral-edged rocks bit at his knuckles. Resentment turned to determination. I'll rest when we find the commander, not until. Strength he'd forgotten seeped slowly into exhausted muscles. He breathed deeply of the dust-heavy air. Riker wouldn't rest if it was one of us trapped in there...if it was me.Morrison pulled his handful of gray dirt from the mass of debris and dropped it aside. He reached for another.
"Not me," he told his captain and his shipmates and the gray, musty air of Sirius Omicron III and anyone else who was listening.
And Commander Riker, if he could hear.
Picard swung on him, frayed nerves burnishing disbelief to anger on his sharp features. A glare that could melt titanium bored a line between the two men.
Morrison straightened under the scrutiny, surprised that--as tired as he was--he could lift the weight of it. He'd never questioned an order before. He'd never disobeyed one, either. He met Picard's glare and matched it, remembering the away team on Janus IV, and the one on Callpurticus.
"There isn't time," he said quietly. Glancing to the others for support, he found it in the eyes they kept half turned from the captain. Even the suck-up boy had mutiny in his expression. Slowly, deliberately, Morrison turned away from his captain and back to the tangle of collapsed ruins to resume digging.
Picard glanced from Morrison to Bishop to LaForge to young Wesley. "You will do Commander Riker no good if you drop from exhaustion," he argued. Although not one of the landing party would meet his gaze, the resolve etched in their averted features was plain.
"Then we won't drop," Bishop murmured without looking up. He wedged one broad shoulder under a shattered crossbeam, and Morrison moved in to help.
As their captain watched, the two men struggled against the timber's over-bearing weight. It was wedged too tightly. It wouldn't move, and yet neither man fell away. They struggled on, drawing Geordi and Wes from their own efforts to help. For several minutes, LaForge studied the situation, the keen edge of his intellect stroking the problem from every conceivable angle. Finally, with a slight nod to Wesley, the lieutenant stepped closer and braced his should just behind Morrison's. Wes followed suit. There was no way around; they had to go through.
"Very well," Picard acquiesced. He stepped carefully through the loose debris and situated himself beneath the beam as well. Bloody fingers clenched splintering wood as he met Bishop's blacker-than-black gaze and nodded. "We won't drop."
The pulse in Riker's skull was almost a deafening roar. It spoke to him (breathe, BREATHE, BREATHE!), a relentless voice of panic that chipped away at his reserve of sanity. He couldn't tell anymore what was up and what was down.
Such an absurdity. The oxygen remaining in the dead air was so thin it seemed barely worth the effort. His body had gone numb up to his chest. He only knew the protecting arm he'd laid across his face still existed by the feeble reflected heat of his own flesh.
It was over. Acknowledgement of that fact was moot--as was the refusal to accept it. Death seeped closer with each molecule of oxygen he extracted from the stagnant air. It was a matter of minutes...less, if the ever-shifting coffin of dirt and rocks made good on its unstable promises.
And yet, he struggled on. ...eighteen...nineteen...twenty. Breathe. Fighting the inevitable as he always had done. Kobayashi Maru be damned.
We'll get you out of here, Will, Gaffy's voice whispered through his skull. I promise.
Riker closed his eyes to the blackness of his own coffin. Not this time, Jim, he thought. It's over. Time to grow up. Time to admit defeat and allow fate its victory. Time to die.
Riker tried to conjure up an image of his friend to go with the voice, but the sluggish response of oxygen-deprived thoughts denied him even the comfort of the hallucination. Jim Gaff was dead...died in an avalanche on some nameless mountainside a thousand light years away. Now it was Will Riker's turn to join him.
The shock of oxygen knifed pain up Riker's spine and drove it into his brain. Forgetting the cadence and his iron-willed determination to maintain it, he gasped another lungful into his starved system. His legs were on fire. Agony jolted from his heels to the base of his spine. He heard Gaffy laugh.
"No..." Mud-caked lids struggled to shield his eyes from the shower of debris choking into his nose and mouth. "Don't move me, Gaffy," he pleaded. "Please...don't move me." He felt hands on his knees and then his thighs. Bones ground against one another. "Jim..." he whispered.
Riker whined from deep in his belly.
Was it supposed to hurt like this? Hadn't he always heard it was like falling asleep? Blackness and then nothingness and then--if you were lucky--Heaven or Hell?
Hands moving across his stomach...heaviness crushing into the twist of his spine... elbows in his chest...THE PAIN!
"He's alive," an excited voice told him. "He's still alive. Pull us out."
...so much I should have done...so much I'm going to miss...
Hands brushed dirt from his mouth and nose as Riker's eyes fought themselves open. The pitch was a flood of gray now. He sensed body heat...felt a rush of breath across his eyes....smelled blood and sweat. Confusion twisted in Riker's skull. "Wes?" he croaked, blinking across the image of Wesley's beaming smile.
"It's okay, Commander," Wes rattled excitedly. Wedged between Riker's chest and the low ceiling of his tomb, the boy's head knocked debris loose every time he moved. "We've got you now. You'll be out in no time."
He seems so damned real.
Riker twisted under the boy's weight, and pain spasmed up his back. It cut through his ribs to knife along the flood of air whistling in and out of starved lungs.
"It's okay," Wesley insisted. "Don't move, sir. It's okay." His animated features flexed to one side. "Come on, Geordi!" the boy shouted. "Pull, damn it!" The words echoed away from them, rather than reflecting back to the closeness.
Riker's heart jumped. He's here. Somehow, Wesley is really here.
Riker tried to turn his head. Geordi? Bishop? Gray dirt dusted his lungs.
"Okay." It was Geordi's voice. "We're ready. Hang on, Wes."
The rumble of movement reverberated up through the ground into Riker's chest. It was coming down. It was all coming down. "Get out." Riker tried to push the boy back to safety, but he couldn't find his hands. Wood splintered against his thoughts. Worf? No...go back, Worf! "Get out, Wes," he begged of the boy perched on his chest.
"We'll get you out of here," Wes told him reassuringly. He felt the boy's hands twist into his tunic. "I promise."
The hands on Riker's ankles pulled, and he found the pain in his legs. His mind fed him images he didn't want to see...two, bloody stumps that ended at the knees. Groaning what would have been a scream if he'd possessed the strength, Riker moved. Rock bit the length of his back, and his head jounced over something the size of Australia.
And then there was light. Blessed, beautiful, warming light that filtered down from a blessed, beautiful, warming sky. Granted, it was the leaden mush of Sirius Omicron III rather than the turquoise brilliance of Valdez, but it was sky. Riker blinked against the enormity of it.
"Will?" Picard's features blurred above him, fading in and out of focus. "Will?"
"Captain," Riker acknowledged in a voice dustier than himself. He heard the ring of laughter...Geordi's...Morrison's...Bishop's? Had he ever heard Bishop laugh? He couldn't remember it, if he had.
"Welcome back, Number One," the captain murmured, the strain around his eyes fading to relief.
Riker tried to sit up, but he'd forgotten how. His eyes ground in their sockets as they scanned his surroundings.
"Worf?" he whispered, remembering the big Klingon weathering the rain of debris and rock like it was the slightest of inconveniences. Another rumble, the jarring sound of stone on timber, and the main support had given with a snap that splayed deadly daggers of ironwood in all direction. As it descended across his legs, Riker remembered the Klingon being tossed away...
"Relax, Will," Picard soothed, his hand resting gently on Riker's shoulder. "Pulaski says he's awake and demanding food."
Riker grunted. He settled back to the ground beneath him and let it sink into his shoulders. "My legs," he whispered. They were numb again...deadly numb. He searched Picard's expression for a lie. "Are they still there?"
"Still there, Commander," Wesley piped up from his left. The kid held to Riker's hand like it was some sort of life preserver. "You're going to be okay now. Everything's gonna be all right."
God, he sounds so young.
Riker smiled at him. "My very own Good Humor Lady?" he murmured.
Wes laughed, nodding enthusiastically. The boy's hands were bloody and mud-caked to the elbows. It looked as if someone had taken a grater to them.
Riker frowned. Although his eyes felt a hundred pounds heavy and it hurt to move them, he sought out and met the gaze of each member of the away team: Wes... Morrison...Bishop...LaForge...and finally, the captain. Jean-Luc Picard. They all looked like Wesley: bloody and muddy and almost as exhausted as he was. They must have been digging him out for hours.
"Enterprise to Picard," O'Brien's voice shattered the silence. "Come in, please."
"Picard here," the captain answered wearily. There was an easy smile gracing his normally stern features. He looked too tired to be aloof.
"She's ready to fire up, sir. I'm sending the earthmover down right now."
"Belay that, Mister O'Brien," Picard responded. "We no longer have need of the unit. We have Commander Riker."
The communicator transmitted a sigh of relief. "Aye, Captain," the transporter chief acknowledged after a moment. "I'll pass that bit o' information on to other... concerned...parties."
Riker's smile drifted into his eyes before they fell shut. The flex of pain along his features lessened somewhat.
"Have a medical team standing by," Picard ordered, noticing the way Wesley flinched at each catch of Will Riker's rattled breathing. It would have been hard on the boy, losing two fathers.The captain's fingers pressed into his first officer's shoulder for a moment and then he rose. The away team instinctively eddied about him into beaming formation.
All but the boy. Wesley remained kneeling at Riker's side, and his captain allowed it.
"Six to beam up," Picard stated into the gray, forbidding landscape. His eyes roved the desolate ruins and the flat emptiness beyond them. It had nearly stolen their best...nearly stolen his best. It would not be a place he would miss.
Jean-Luc Picard straightened under the burden of exhaustion. His gaze fell to Riker and found him watching. "At your discretion," he told those who waited. The gentle tingle of molecular transmission ran along the edges of his being, and he found himself smiling at its familiar embrace. "Take us home, Mister O'Brien," he whispered. "Take us home."