Attention all surgical personnel. Attention. Incoming wounded arriving on chopper pad two. Come and get yours while they’re fresh.
Also tonight’s movie is the documentary, Clash of the Titans.
And will whoever released a kraken in the officers’ showers please report to Colonel Kosta’s office on the double.
I couldn’t help but grin. Little did they know a few of the girls and I had relocated the kraken to the men’s john. It hadn’t been easy. But it’d be worth it.
Back to work. I adjusted my plastic surgical goggles and took at look at the immense demi-god on my operating table. “Stick with me and you’ll be out of here in time to see that movie.”
The soldier tried to smile. “Gotcha, Doc.” He still wore his rusty red combat boots and the remains of his army fatigues around his ankles. Ripped abs, built chest, powerhouse arms – he definitely had the body of a minor god.
And X-ray vision, given the way he was ogling my chest. “Eyes up here, soldier. I have a tray of scalpels and I’m not afraid to use them.”
A tech rushed behind me with half a dozen fresh units of blood. “Coming through!”
We’d squeezed two extra tables into the operating tent last week and I wasn’t sure if it was hurting or helping. One thing was certain—the noise level had gone from a large racket to a small riot.
My nurse tucked a surgical blanket over my patient’s lower body while I took a look at a nasty slice on his side.
“Yeti claw to the torso,” I said, as if it weren’t obvious from the swarthy black spike jutting from between his thirteenth and fourteenth ribs (and yes, the minor gods had extra—their ancestors didn’t give anything up in the Garden of Eden).
“And I lost something,” my patient said, dropping his chin. His tousled golden hair parted to reveal a pair of thick devil horns. Make that one devil horn. The other had popped off, the wound completely healed. It was one of the things about divine warriors that drove me slightly crazy. They healed so fast, their bodies sometimes forgot parts. I swear some of these guys would lose their heads if they weren’t attached.
“Do you know where you left your horn?” I asked, testing the wound beneath my gloved fingers and fighting the urge to lecture him about absent body parts.
The side of his mouth tipped up, and there was no mistaking the gleam in his eyes. “I think I had it when I got here.”
I remembered him. This was the one who had us searching half the camp for his missing eyeball. He thought it’d be funny to put it in someone’s soup. Har-de-har-har. Served him right when a selkie ate it.
Of course, three days later he got it back.
Everybody was a comedian. And people like me had to deal with it.
“Horace,” I called across the crowded operating room to the nearest orderly.
Horace zipped to my side and hovered just above eye level. Golden wings fluttered on his heels and at his shoulders. “Yes, Petra.”
I ticked my chin up a notch. “That’s Dr. Robichaud,” I reminded him. Again.
“No.” The attendant’s eyebrows spiked toward his overly large surgical mask. “I do not speak Cajun.”
“Well, learn.” It wasn’t my fault if some of the old-world creatures had a chip on their shoulder against mortals.
Just because we hadn’t hung around for thousands of years, guzzling wine and smiting our enemies, didn’t make us second-class citizens. And if they wanted us to go back to worshipping them, they could forget it.
Times had changed, and if I had to learn to live in this place, Horace could figure out how to play nice with a half-human. “See if you can’t find a horn floating around here. About two inches wide, three inches long. Red.”
“Actually”—the demi-god on the table leaned his head forward—“it’s more of a garnet.”
Like anyone around here would know the difference. “Red,” I repeated. “With a little curve on it.”
Horace raced off, and I leveled a stern look at my patient. “I’d better not find it in my Spam carbonara or I’m going to reattach it to a place that doesn’t see the suns.”
Although frankly I didn’t think anything could make that night’s dinner worse.
A cold hand touched my arm, and dread slithered down my spine.
Not him. Now now.
“You need help here, Doctor?”
I braced myself as the watery voice seeped over me. The air temperature dropped, and I saw my patient shiver.
Ghostly fingers tightened on my arm. “Doctor?”
I took a deep breath and glanced to my right. It was Charlie, the nurse I worked with for the first six years I’d lived in this hellhole. He was killed last year before HQ had wised up and moved us another half mile from the front.
Charlie looked like a teenager, too skinny for his rusty red army scrubs. His mousy brown hair was scraggly at the ends, and he wore an earnest expression.
He didn’t know he was dead. And I sure as heck didn’t need anyone seeing me talk to thin air. “Go, Charlie,” I murmured. “I’ve got this.”
My patient’s eyes clouded with confusion. “My name’s not Charlie.”
“Of course it’s not,” I said, as if this were a normal conversation.
The soldier flinched as Charlie took his vitals. He couldn’t see my former assistant’s ghostly stethoscope or sure hands, but I’d bet anything he felt the chill.
My heart squeezed with regret. Charlie had a mom and a dad. He’d been so very young. He never should have been down here. I’d tried for the last year to explain to him that he was dead, but he hadn’t been willing to accept it. We’d try again later. Alone.
Charlie’s milky eyes caught mine. “Dr. Robichaud?” I knew that sad, hopeful look. The kid needed a little reassurance, a comfortable word—hell, even a joke. Charlie had been assigned to me straight out of nursing school. I’d laughed and called him my young squire. He was my responsibility.
I looked straight through him. It cut me deep to do it, but I couldn’t risk being exposed. Not here. My power to see the dead, to talk to them, was outlawed by the gods. And the gods had a thing for strange and horrific punishments. It was like a divine version of The Godfather.
Only these sicko bosses turned women into spiders, fastened “friends” to burning wheels for eternity. Oh, and tied one of their own to some far-flung rock so he could have his liver pecked out by an eagle until the end of time.
My patient studied me. “You with me, Doc?”
Of course. “Yes.”
The tightness in my chest eased as Charlie faded away.
The demi-god cocked his head, blond hair spilling over the spot where his horn should have been. “Your face looks funny. And I’ve been staring at your breasts for the last two minutes and my balls are still intact. What gives?”
I reached for the Betadine, breathing in the familiar sweet scent. “That’s it,” I said, swabbing his chest with the amber liquid, careful of the yeti claw. “I’m going to quit surgery and dedicate my life to discovering an anesthetic that works on you people.”
“You know you can’t quit,” he said, teasing, but hitting way too close to the truth.
I was stuck here for the rest of my life. I knew it the day I’d sat in my little paranormal clinic in New Orleans and opened the New Order Army draft notice.
Involuntary conscription until the end of the war.
Which for me was a life sentence.
The younger gods had declared war against the older gods. Again. Neither side had so much as called for a cease-fire in the last seven hundred years.
Both armies were allowed to recruit anywhere on Earth. And I use the term recruit lightly. It was more like a shanghaiing. A rep from the young gods spotted me first. Army officials had given me one hour to close my practice and say my good-byes. There would be no home leave, no return.
My dad couldn’t even see me off as they led me out into the depths of the bayou to a portal that hung like a misty cloud amid a tangle of cypress trees. Before I could say bad idea, I was in the red, flat wastelands of limbo.
I snuck a glance across the crowded operating room, with a dozen tables like mine.
We worked to save as many lives as we could. And to get the soldiers back onto the battlefield. If the armies of the gods were evenly matched, they’d kill each other, which was bad enough. If one side got the upper hand, it meant earthquakes, tsunamis, disasters of biblical proportions on Earth.
I’d seen it firsthand.
So I’d stay here. I’d patch up our people and get them back to the Limbo Front. We’d keep the terror on Earth at bay and maybe, just maybe someday there’d be an end to the fighting.
Until then, we had to hang on.
I reached down to make sure the claw hadn’t worked its way too far out of my patient’s chest. Immortals could die. That was the big secret they liked to keep from the mortal world. The yeti claw had missed his vital organs. It wouldn’t kill him, but I didn’t want it healing wrong. I tested the edge, careful not to cut myself.
Yeti infection was bad for immortals. It could be deadly for me.
“You know I got into medicine to make a difference,” I caught myself mumbling.
I wanted to help people who didn’t voluntarily mix up their vital parts. Creatures with real problems who couldn’t go to human hospitals. I’d been one of the last paranormal surgeons in Orleans Parish. And the only one who specialized in thoracic medicine.
I glanced at Nurse Hume, who was swathed in scrubs and a surgical mask. He looked like a child next to these immortals. We all did.
“Brace yourself,” I told my patient.
I clamped the skin back. Blood smeared my surgical gloves as I manually retracted the spikes from the surrounding muscle tissue. “I’m going to remove it on the count of three.” I flicked my eyes up and found him watching me. “One.” My fingers tightened. “Two...”
In one quick motion I made the extraction.
“Alala!” My patient bellowed the Athenian war cry.
And why not? We fought the war in the operating room as sure as they fought it on the battlefield.
I tossed the claw into the metal pan. “It’s easier on you if you don’t stiffen up.”
He flopped his head back on the table. “You MASH docs always go on two.”
I shook my head as I inspected the wound for splinters. “Merde. I hate being predictable.”
The wound was clean, and healing, even as I stitched it up.
I tugged off my gloves and tossed them into the bio waste can.
My dad had worked a factory job all his life. He spent forty-three years shaving the sharp edges off Folgers coffee cans. He called it good, steady work. And he kept on doing it until plastic containers came along and they forced him to retire. I never understood how he could do the same thing day after day.
He worked long hours to put me through school because I wanted to be different. I’d be a doctor. I’d change the world.
If he could see me now...
I stepped back and accepted a cool towel on the back of my neck. We had the air conditioners going full-blast, but the operating tent wasn’t terribly efficient at keeping cold air in.
“What about my horn?” my patient demanded as Horace fluttered to my side.
“As soon as we find it, it’s yours,” I said, letting the orderly take him.
I held my hands out as Nurse Hume scurried to fit me with a new pair of surgical gloves. We took a step sideways as an orderly rushed past my table with four units of blood. “How about a real case next time, Horace?”
Horace stiffened, his pointy ears twitching. “Protocol dictates—”
His cheeks colored. “Oh please, Dr. Petra. You don’t have the rank or the seniority.”
I’d been here for seven years and I was low man on the totem pole. I’d probably be a newbie until I died. That’s what happened when half of the docs were immortal.
I took stock of the packed OR. “What about the burn victims?” At least two patients had just come straight from a greased lightning attack. From what I’d seen, Colonel Kosta hadn’t called in any of the off-duty surgeons.
“Taken care of,” Horace singsonged.
“Just give me something interesting.” Or at least the chance to save somebody. We’d lost three patients today. Maybe they’d have died on my table, too, but I owed it to these soldiers—and myself—to try to make a difference.
“Perhaps if you showed me the respect I’m due,” the winged god began, “I could find it in my heart to...”
Oh please. Horace had been worshipped once for about five minutes. His cult had died out around the time of Caesar. He’d been trying to get something going ever since.
But I knew I’d get better results with honey. “See what you can do,” I told him. “In the meantime I’ll leave an offering at your altar.”
The orderly huffed, but I saw him perk up a bit.
“You do still have an altar,” I said.
“Yes.” He flew a few inches higher. “What will you leave me?”
“Er…” I had to think. “Flowers?”
He looked rather put out at that. “I am the god of three-wheeled chariot racing.”
“I don’t have any chariots.”
“You’re as funny as a bad rash. Enough of the games. I like copper.” He squared his shoulders. “You have three pennies in the bottom of your footlocker.”
“Fine.” And interesting to know. Perhaps the little god had some power in him after all.
He sniffed, as if he knew what I was thinking. “Make sure they’re neatly stacked.”
“Done,” I said.
“All right. Perhaps I will help you,” he said, wheeling away my patient. “Although I must say your entire style of worship leaves something to be desired.”
I didn’t doubt that. This place was killing me.
“So what’s next, Nurse Hume?”
Nurse Hume simply stood there and waited, all the fire gone from his pale blond hair, pasty skin, vacant eyes. He’d had been here for decades. This place had turned the man into a total drone. Some days I wondered if Charlie were more alive.
Well I wasn’t going to let it happen to me. I wasn’t just going to stand here and yank out claws. I wasn’t going to spend my life tracking down lost horns and eyeballs.
Or was I?
Nurse Hume took the next set of charts and shuffled his way around the table. “X-rays indicate our next patient has ingested a horse.”
He posted the images to the light board next to my table. “His colleagues bet him that he was not, indeed, hungry enough to eat the unfortunate animal. And so he did.”
I stared at Nurse Hume. Then at the X-rays.
“Son of a bitch.”
He cleared his throat. “As you can imagine, hooves and harnesses are not digestible.”
“So this is my life,” I said to no one in particular.
“I can’t imagine...” Nurse Hume began before his voice trailed away.
“What? Do you want to say something to me?” Frankly, I wished he would. If Hume started getting opinions, there might be hope for the rest of us.
“No,” he murmured. “Never mind.”
Just when I was about to bang my head against my steel operating table, I heard a commotion on the far side of the tent.
“We need a doctor, STAT!”
Ambulance workers loaded an immense New Order Army soldier from a stretcher onto a table. He must have just come in. They were still cutting his uniform from his body.
His face was hard. His jaw could have been cut from marble. He was well over six feet, with scars slicing across one impossibly wide shoulder.
He had powerful arms, cut abs. He was like a Greek statue come to life. Only he was more. Much more. Even prone, he was intensely powerful—striking in a way that went beyond mere physical strength. He was commanding.
I stared at him, raw excitement thudding through me. I’d seen a lot of demi-gods, but none of them as astonishingly regal as this one.
He was rough, dangerous.
He was a work of art.
My breath caught. He was watching me.
I crossed the crowded ER, intimately aware that he never took his attention off me. It was as if he’d come to find me.
He needed me because I was there. Everyone else was busy with the greased lighting victims. I was the only one who could handle this.
“What have you got?” I glanced at a sandy-haired EMT.
“Stab wound to the upper chest. Possible punctured lung.”
Finally, a real case: a soldier who needed my skills, my expertise—me.
No wonder it felt good.
I ran through my mental checklist as I inspected the bronze knife lodged in his upper torso and took stock of his vitals.
He must have gone down during the storm. His clipped brown hair still held water droplets.
“What’s his pressure?” I could feel my fingers shaking.
“Ninety-seven over fifty-six.”
My patient fought for every breath, his impossibly blue eyes locked onto me.
“I’m going to save you,” I told him.
The soldier closed his fingers over mine and squeezed, leaving a smear of blood across my hand.
“Get him over to my table.”
I grabbed his file. His heart rate was dropping. Blood pressure down. He was hemorrhaging. I was glad to see Nurse Hume already at the table, prepping my instruments. “Patient is a male, mid-five-hundreds. Blood pressure’s down to eighty over forty. Pulse is up to one twenty-six. Hook him up to both blood and saline.” I took a final glance at his chart.
Galen of Delphi. Rank: Lokhagos. Decorated unit commander and head of the Green Hawk Special Forces team.
“You’re in good hands, Galen of Delphi.”
He nodded, wincing against the pain.
“Don’t worry,” I said for his benefit, and mine.
I could feel my blood pumping as I handed off his file.
Metal weapons wounds could be dicey. The commander’s head slammed against the table as he began to convulse.
My gut clenched. “Let’s get a move on, people.”
Horace posted the X-rays. The knife was dangerously close to his heart. And convulsions meant poison.
“Get me one hundred twenty cc’s of toxopren.”
The drug was highly toxic, and flammable.
Nurse Hume offered me a prepared injection the size of a horse tranquilizer.
Both armies liked to poison their weapons. They usually used the blood of Medusa, or spittle from Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld. I’d even seen them use Britney Spears perfume. We actually preferred that last one. It smelled nice and it wouldn’t kill any mortals on staff.
The commander thrashed harder as I injected him with toxopren. Soon his entire face went red.
Toxopren burned as it neutralized the toxins. The commander was lucky he was delirious. It was the kind of pain that made even the gods scream.
But that was the least of my worries. The poisoned blade was designed to split as it came out—over and over again. The shards would slice him apart, from the inside out, until he was well and truly dead.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Horace said.
“Don’t you have some chariots to bless?”
I rubbed at the trickle of sweat working its way under my surgical cap. Focus. Of course I knew what I was doing. I’d looked this man in the eye and told him I’d pull him through. I just needed to concentrate.
The commander thrashed on the table.
“Hold him steady,” I said. “I need him motionless.”
It took both ambulance drivers to pin his arms and legs down.
I double-checked my grip on the leather handle of the knife and used the nervous tension to help me focus. The blade was millimeters from his heart. One wrong twitch and he’d be dead. One really bad move, the knife would shatter and we’d both be dead.
“Okay.” I cleared my mind and tugged at the blade.
My stomach churned as I felt a droplet of sweat snake down the side of my face. I held steady, my fingers working the poisoned knife.
“Halfway there. We’re doing good.” Bracing my left hand against the closing wound, I extracted the knife with my right. I kept my grip steady, and followed the entry trajectory, until a piece broke. I watched it snap and disappear.
His vitals plummeted. I tossed the remains of the dagger into a silver-lined tray. “Give me suction.” I needed to see where the piece went. “Now.”
The heart rate alarm sounded.
Nurse Hume dabbed blood away from the wound. Too slow. I yanked the suction tube out of his hand and did it myself.
“Stay with me,” I ordered.
I needed to see where it went. He wasn’t even thrashing anymore. One piece would kill him.
I saw it under his skin, inching down his chest, toward his stomach and bowels. It could just as easily nick the liver.
“You can’t just cut him open,” Nurse Hume protested.
“You got a better idea?” I snapped.
Of all the times for him to grow a pair, this wasn’t it.
The scary thing was I had no idea if it would work. But I didn’t have any other options. Not to mention his original knife wound was still bleeding out.
“Stay with me,” I repeated like a mantra.
With my scalpel tip, I followed the bulge of metal under his skin until I got about half an inch ahead of it. Then I sliced. Blood pooled in the wound. I spread my fingers and put pressure on either side as the tip of the shard emerged. I seized it. The deadly metal ground against my thin latex gloves.
Not a good idea.
I tossed the splinter into my tray. “See if I got it all,” I ordered Hume as I suctioned more blood and felt for any remaining knife fragments.
A shrill alarm sounded as my patient flatlined.
“No, no, no, no.” My mind raced.
Shocks didn’t work on immortals. Adrenaline didn’t work. His body had to heal itself, and now there was no more time.
His spirit began to rise from his body. “Stop!” I needed a minute more, maybe less. “I need more time.”
The commander’s spirit blinked at me, as if wondering where he was. I stared at him, throat dry, heart pounding. When he’d arrived on my table, I’d held his hand and told him I’d save him.
His spirit didn’t show the blood or the gaping knife wound. He was healthy and strong. I took in the scar that cut across his right eyebrow, the sharp lines of his face, the vivid blue of his eyes, and was wrenched by a gut-deep pull, so shocking and so utterly right it left me breathless. I stood frozen as we watched each other for a long moment.
Then he began to rise up.
“No!” I grabbed for him. I don’t know what made me do it. Pure instinct, or more likely fear. All I knew was that I could not lose this man. Not when we’d come so close.
“Get back in there!” I needed one more minute. One more and I’d save his life.
My fingers closed around his and I gasped as pure energy streaked through me.
Holy mother of god. My pulse pounded in my ears, my entire body quaked, but I didn’t dare let go. I held the man’s soul in my hands.
He radiated with strength and honor. Yet he was damaged, torn with pain and regret. His innate power washed over me, along with a terrible aching loneliness.
His jaw tightened as he stared down at me with tender ferocity. This immortal warrior. This man who was half god.
The heat of him slid over me, every cell in my body aware of the pull. I felt my own self reaching out to him, tangling with him. In that moment, I was helpless, innocent and wide-eyed as I hadn’t been in so long. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to lose him as his strength, his sorrow, his need pulsed through me.
This was a man who deserved a second chance, who deserved to be loved. Raw energy tickled my fingertips as I lifted my hand to caress his ghostly jaw.
Gods in heaven! What was I doing?
Horror crashed down on me. This had to end. Now. I held on tight and flung him back into his body.
“We have a pulse,” Nurse Hume announced.
I couldn’t believe it.
“Doctor?” Nurse Hume called.
My head pounded. Crisp power sizzled over my skin. I’d felt him. I’d touched him. I’d never touched a spirit before.
What did I just do?
“Doctor, he’s bleeding out.”
Of course he was. He almost died.
What was I saying? He did die.
“Clamp,” I said automatically, numb from shock. I worked on his chest wound first, checking to make sure the vital organs were intact, cutting away the tissue burned black with poison, stitching the muscle and flesh and skin back together.
Focus on the task at hand.
Don’t think about what just happened.
Because it scared the hell out of me.