Excerpt Assumed Dead


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Chapter 1

Matt Warner sighted his rifle on the midsize male caribou. It was far too busy sniffing around a female to know it was about to start its journey to becoming caribou casserole.

Sorry, mate, but you should never let yourself be distracted by a fine set of hindquarters. He almost stopped breathing as he prepared to pull the trigger. He had one shot. If he missed, the group of caribou would be racing for the horizon before he could try again, and he’d go back to the base with nothing to show for the trip. He always found it hard to meet everyone’s eyes then. It should be an easy shot. He’d crept close, and a caribou was a big target. The wind was strong, but he corrected for it, his aim excellent after over two years of practice. His finger caressed the trigger, began to squeeze.

The distant roar of an ATV engine shattered the quiet, and the herd instantly whirled and fled. They charged away over the tundra, sedges and soil churned up and flying in their wake.

Damn! Matt tossed down his rifle and scrambled up, ready to ask Stav what the hell he was doing revving the bike. But it wasn’t Stav Marinos, who’d been standing by the ATV he and Matt had rode here on, on polar bear watch. It was the second of the group’s all-terrain vehicles, coming up over a rise in the ground. Matt and Stav exchanged a look and a shrug when Matt jogged over to Stav’s position. The figure on the ATV was impossible to identify, wearing a bulky parka, goggles, and a scarf. Matt couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman.

The all-terrain vehicle stopped by the two young men. The rider shoved up the goggles and pulled down the scarf to reveal the well-weathered face of Jay Gordon. She shouted over the sound of the idling engine.

“Matt, you’re needed back at base. Dr. Lane needs you right now.”

Matt’s mouth dried. “Is someone hurt?”

“No. It’s Vicky.” She grinned her gap-toothed smile. “It’s started.”

Oh man. Oh man. About now was when he regretted deciding to retrain as a nurse—that being a more useful job than climatologist in a world that emitted little in the way of greenhouse gases anymore.

“Take my bike,” Jay said, climbing off. “It’s warmed up. I’ll come back with Stav.”

“Are you sure?” He didn’t mind perching on the ATV’s cargo rack while someone else drove, but he was twenty-five. She was more like fifty-five. Not that he’d ever dared ask.

“Of course. Go on.”

Maybe Stav would let her drive while he perched. Matt didn’t argue anymore. Peter needed him. Vicky too. But Peter… He secured the rifle on the rack in the ATV’s cargo space and climbed aboard. The machine vibrated beneath him like a living thing. Like a horse desperate for the start of a race. He wrapped his scarf across his mouth and nose and pulled down the goggles he’d had on the top of his head under the fur-edged hood of his coat.

He revved the engine, gave Jay and Stav a last wave, then released the brake. The ATV leaped forward, and he bumped down the slope Jay had come up. Behind him he heard the other ATV coming to life. Stav and Jay would be following, but more slowly. Slowly was how they should drive on this terrain. The tundra was uneven and full of hazards he’d never imagined until he got here. He dreaded hitting a rock cunningly disguised as a clump of dryas shrub. Or sinking into a frost boil. Either might turn the ATV over and send him flying to the ground, which was still hard this early in what they laughingly called “summer” around here. At least Stav and Jay would come and pick him up and he wouldn’t have to lie there waiting to see if he froze to death before Molly or Frodo found him and ate him.

But he handled the ATV well. He’d been riding quad bikes around his family’s farm in New Zealand since he was too young to be allowed to ride quad bikes. The ATVs were like a bigger, heavier version of those. He managed to avoid frost boils, rocks, and this year’s resident polar bears—the Molly and Frodo he didn’t want to be eaten by.

He was grateful for his goggles and scarf as he drove into freezing fog near the base and the cold wind threw tiny ice particles at him. On bare skin they felt like a faceful of grit or sand. Not pleasant. He slowed in the fog, fearing he’d lose himself and drive right past the base and probably into the sea, where the last of the pack ice was hanging on. But in a few minutes the dark shape of the science station’s buildings loomed out of the mist, and he brought the bike to a halt right by the main entrance.

R.J. Russell met him as he climbed off. “Get inside, kid. I’ll put the ATV away.”

“Thanks.” He ran, slipping a bit on the iced-up concrete yard, but made it inside without going flat on his ass. Dr. Crawford opened the door for him as he approached, and he hurried inside. She helped him off with his parka and several of the layers under it.

“Just drop them,” she said. “I’ll hang them in the drying room.” This was like a relay. R.J. was taking care of the ATV for him. Dr. Crawford was hanging up his clothes for him. Not something you generally expected from one of your professors.

“Thanks.” He dropped onto the bench by the door to heave off his boots, getting his hands wet and dirty. He hated to leave the dirty boots for the professor, but he was expected elsewhere.

“We tried to call you on the radios,” Crawford said, “but couldn’t get through, so Mr. Russell sent Jay out to fetch you.”

“The batteries must be flat,” Matt said. He pulled off his woolen hat, his hair crackling with static as he did. Good thing it was a matter of safety to always say where you were going and go there and not somewhere else. It made sure the others could find you in case of trouble. Usually that was if you got in trouble, though.

He shimmied out of the waterproof pants he wore over his jeans and dropped them. Then he opened the inner entrance door and ran, tossing back a thanks to Dr. Crawford for her help.

In his socks he ran up the southern corridor, skidded on the turn into the main corridor, and ran up that, past the rec room, the dining room, and the kitchen, to the infirmary. Most of the other members of the group were waiting outside the door. Tension buzzed from them. They spoke in whispers. As he pounded up to them, they parted to let him inside. A couple of people spoke to him, but he took little notice. He ran into the infirmary. Someone had put a privacy screen not far inside the door, and he nearly went into it headfirst but dodged around it.

Dr. Peter Lane, African American, ten years older than Matt and as approachable as a polar bear, was standing by the bed that held Vicky Prince. He looked up with a scowl at the intrusion, but seeing Matt, he smiled. Louise Newman, at the supply cabinet, wearing scrubs, grinned at him.

“Late to the party again?” she asked.

Matt nodded, panting. “I went out for a smoko.”

She snorted. Peter left Vicky’s side. The bed was turned so she was facing away from the door. Kasper stood beside her, holding her hand and wearing the hopeful and worried expression of a man about to witness the birth of his child.

“You didn’t have to hurry like that,” Peter said. “She’s only in early labor. There are hours to go yet.”

Matt grimaced in sympathy with Vicky. But sighed with relief, as he’d pictured himself running into the room and catching the baby like a rugby ball.

“Go get washed up and put some scrubs on,” Peter said. “And get something hot inside you to warm you up. I can feel the cold pouring off you.”

Matt gulped and tried not to see any double-entendre possibilities inherent in getting something hot inside him to warm him up. That fantasy would have to come later. He had a job to do here. Peter put a hand on Matt’s shoulder.

“Don’t be nervous. You’re going to do fine. Everything is proceeding as normal so far.”

For all the reassurance in that deep, calm voice, Matt saw fear in Peter’s eyes. He was scared too. If anything did go wrong, there was no help to call on. All they had here on Shriver Island was one another.

Matt reassured him back as much as he could. “She’ll be right, mate,” he said. “She’ll be right.”

* * * *

Peter walked into the infirmary after seeing Vicky and the baby safely ensconced in her and Kasper’s room. Matt was standing by the sink, and for a second Peter saw him with a hand over his face, his shoulders shaking. He coughed to announce his presence, and Matt straightened up and splashed water on his face before turning to Peter. Even so, his eyes were still shining and rather red.

“Are you okay?” Peter asked.

“Yes,” Matt said, voice husky. “I’m fine.” He scrubbed an arm across his eyes. “I’m being daft.”

“It’s all right,” Peter said. “Believe me, I’ve cried a few times after delivering babies.”

He walked to the locked drug cabinet, opened it with the key around his neck, and rummaged deep inside to find a half-drunk bottle of whiskey. It had some dust on it. He found a couple of small measuring cups and poured them a shot each. Liquor was technically banned at the base. Alcohol and arctic weather did not mix. Either it made a person more vulnerable to hypothermia, or it led them to doing something stupid that would result in injuries a long, long way from any hospital. But there were a few bottles of this and that around. Peter didn’t usually drink himself, but he would make an exception this time for such a special occasion. The group’s first baby. That had to be marked.

“Here.” He handed one of the shots to Matt. “For medicinal purposes.” He hoped that never became literally true. That he’d never have to use booze as emergency anesthesia or antiseptic. Their fingers couldn’t help but touch as Matt took the drink.

“Thanks.”

“To Hope,” Peter said, raising his cup. “That’s what they’re calling her, Hope.”

“That’s great.” Matt raised his cup to join the toast. “To Hope,” he echoed, and they drank. Matt erupted into coughs, and his eyes shone with tears again. Peter tried not to smile too much at him. Such a puppy.

“Too strong for you?”

“Ah, I’m more a beer man,” Matt said, voice cracking. He cleared his throat and pulled himself together.

“Let’s sit down,” Peter said. “We can finish tidying up in a minute.” He led Matt into his office, though left the door open, and the door from the infirmary to the corridor was open. Voices sounded faintly from other parts of the base.

“I mean it that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to cry,” Peter said, perching on the desk, while Matt sat down. “Birth is powerfully emotional.” Kasper had sobbed like a baby himself when Peter handed him his daughter for the first time.

“Have you delivered many babies?” Matt asked.

Peter shook his head. “Not so many. It’s rare for a woman to deliver in the ER. But sometimes a baby sprinted into the world faster than the team from obstetrics could sprint to the ER.” He sipped his drink. “Hope is number fourteen for me.”

“It was the most amazing thing I ever witnessed,” Matt said, voice quiet and rather awed. “One minute there were five of us in the room, then suddenly six. And she was…she was more real, more alive than any of the rest of us, even though she’s so tiny and helpless. When she took that first breath and cried, I almost broke down right then.”

Peter nodded. He’d felt it himself. Along with a flood of intense relief that all had gone well. “You did great. You and Louise.”

“Thanks to your training.”

“You’re both good students. I’d have hated to be doing that alone. It was frightening enough even with help from you two.”

“You? Frightened? You were calm as a millpond all the way through.”

Peter looked away from him, across the room, out of the window at the desolate landscape, nothing in sight but tundra and sky. No help could have come to them.

“I’ve learned to project that image. It’s an important part of the job. But I was scared to death, Matt. If there had been complications, more than I could have dealt with here…”

“Vicky knew there was that risk.”

She did. And shortly before the birth she’d told Peter, if it came to it, if disaster struck, he must save the baby, even if it meant her death. That he should perform a cesarean even though in these conditions it would certainly have killed her. He’d never have had to make that choice in the old days. There’d have been help for him to call on. More senior ER docs, the obstetricians, the surgeons. But here there was only him.

He folded his arms as if hugging himself. Comforting himself. Tonight he’d probably cry, as Matt had, but alone in his bedroom off the infirmary. Cry with a delayed reaction to the relief and joy he’d felt when he saw the smiling and weeping Vicky holding her healthy baby. But not before then. He had to stay strong. He was the group’s doctor, and he had to be strong for all of them.

Behind him Matt stood up, and Peter thought he would leave, leave Peter alone with his fear and relief churning in a toxic whirlpool in his gut. But instead Matt put a hand on his shoulder, and Peter turned to him. Matt hugged him. It was a bit awkward, as Peter still had his arms folded, had to uncross them quickly. But he settled into it gratefully. Matt was a brawny lad, shoulders and arms well-developed from the work he did around here—he was always the first to volunteer to chop wood or clear snow—and long hours of lifting weights in the rec room, during the winter months when they barely stepped outside if they could avoid it.

Being held in such strong arms was a comfort. But it was also something he shouldn’t encourage. Matt didn’t press closer to him, didn’t put his hands anywhere he shouldn’t, but he buried his face against Peter’s neck, and his breath was warm on the skin there. He could so easily start to kiss and lick, and in this vulnerable moment Peter didn’t know that he’d have the will to make him stop.

“Peter,” Matt whispered softly. His hand moved on Peter’s back in what felt like a caress even through the three layers of clothing Peter wore. Peter stepped away quickly, though he left one hand on Matt’s shoulder, squeezed it.

“Thanks,” he said, pretending that last couple of seconds of the hug had not happened. As if it had at no point been anything more than comfort. “You look beat. Go and get some sleep.”

Matt looked more disappointed than tired. But he bounced back quickly. The puppy Peter and Harrison had bought a few years ago used to do that. Charge around until he ran into something, look dazed for a second, then shake it off and carry on like nothing had happened.

He told himself to be wary of such thinking. Matt was no puppy—even if that was how Peter had viewed him since the first day he’d arrived with the expedition group. He was a man, who could be hurt. Peter knew Matt had feelings for him. He must be careful never to lead him on and let him down. It would be too easy to give in to partaking in flirty banter and smiling back at the joyful smiles Matt cast him. Too easy to let the fact they were the only two gay men here become a bond that promised Matt something Peter could not give.

“I’d better eat before I sleep,” Matt said. “I haven’t had anything since, I dunno, sometime ages ago. What time is it?” He looked at the clock. “Six. In the morning?”

Peter smiled, taking his hand away. “Yes, in the morning.”

“Where’d the time go? I bet Vicky didn’t think it flew by.” He was brisk and hearty again. Smiling through his tiredness. “So brekkie will be on soon. Let’s finish cleaning up and go get some. I think I fancy bubble and squeak this morning. You know, for a change…”

Peter laughed, following him out. Their meals had become monotonous. The “bubble and squeak” Matt spoke of meant last night’s leftovers fried up. Perhaps with some eggs on the side. One thing about being stuck on an island with a ludicrous number of seabirds, no shortage of eggs. Though arguments continued from the expedition party, several of whom had come to study the birds, about eating the eggs. Eventually Professor Crawford had convinced her students that twelve people were not going to cause the extinction of the species by taking a few eggs. It was a matter of mathematics, she said. They’d have to eat eggs all day and night to make even a dent. A couple of holdouts had boycotted the eggs for a while, but in the face of the ever-dwindling food stores, and how delicious the eggs smelled when cooking, they had eventually given in and quietly started to eat them too.

The caribou had the same mathematical argument applied to them. One butchered caribou lasted the group long enough that two more had been born in the time it took them to eat it. Chandra had had to be convinced from a book that caribou was far enough away from beef that she could eat it. Yes, the meals might be monotonous, but the arguments over them certainly had plenty of variety.

By the time they got into the dining room, the breakfast was on the table in big serving dishes. Louise was almost ignoring her food as she regaled the rest of the table, talking nineteen to the dozen about delivering Vicky’s baby. She was as awed about it as Matt, though rather chattier. Telling everyone over and over what an amazing thing it was. Most of the others were nodding along politely, or ignoring her and concentrating on their food. But Edvin was watching her with a rapt look on his face. He was the younger of two Norwegian scientists who’d been at a small station on the north end of the island, but had joined this group in the larger base at the southern tip when the world…ended. Kasper was the other one, and he and Vicky had paired up within a few months. But Kasper spoke better English than Edvin, who also seemed quite shy. He and Louise had been overcoming their communication difficulties lately though.

Jay was the first to spot Peter and Matt coming in, and she banged on the table and lifted her mug of tea in a toast. “To the other two heroes of the hour.” A chorus of agreement and a forest of raised mugs made Matt grin sheepishly and blush—which was ridiculously cute on him.

Peter acknowledged the praise with a nod. “Thank you. But the real hero in a birth is always the mother.” Chandra poured them both tea from the huge insulated pot, and Peter raised his mug. “To Vicky. And to baby Hope.” Another chorus in reply.

“To Hope.”


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