Holiday on Planet Jolieterre; a Nova Skylar Space Nurse Adventure, страница 1
Holiday on Planet Jolieterre; a Nova Skylar Space Nurse Adventure
short fiction by Linda Collison
cover art and design by Albert Roberts
copyright 2014 Linda Collison
For my fellow nurses of all genders and species who work in the trenches of healthcare throughout the known universe
Holiday on Planet Jolieterre
The Delta-class star cruiser Entitled had just departed the port of Omarion, crammed with Packars on a two-week holiday, ready to eat and drink their way to oblivion. I was working back-to-back cruises, eager for my short leave on Jolieterre – and a tryst with Randy, my human boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen in ages. It should have been an easy run, but less than forty-eight hours into the cruise, the call came and everything started to go to shit.
It all started when passenger Benjamin Proud, owner of a small arms-manufacturing company, collapsed at the dinner table. His fork halfway to his mouth, he fell forward, as if he had been shot in the back, planting his face into a mountain of Chantilly cream. Red wine splattered, like blood, across the white tablecloth.
Proud, like most Packars, was a man who lived to eat. But at the tender age of 64, Benjamin Proud had taken his last bite –and his last holiday cruise.
Doug Robbins, my colleague, had just joined me for supper in the employee cafeteria when we got the call.
“Medical emergency; type unknown. Sector three, Level Five, Andromeda Dining Room. Table 3-5-4,” Lucy, the computerized dispatcher, informed us through our cochlear communicators. Doug stuck his finger in his ear and grimaced. “Repeat: Medical Emergency. Level Five, Sector Three, Andromeda Dining Room. Table 3-5-4.”
Doug looked at me and I looked at him; our thoughts were one. No dinner for us. We dropped our forks, grabbed our medical kits, abandoned our plates of steaming hash, and sprinted down the corridor, bypassing the broken transporter, not bothering with the unreliable elevators, instead taking the emergency stairs – two at a time – all the way to Level Five. We burst into the Andromeda Dining Room. The sound of a thousand forks and knives, and the roar of conversation nearly drowned out the electronic music of a virtual string quartet.
When we arrived huffing and puffing at table 354, the man’s massive body had found its angle of repose. Mr. Proud had fallen off his platform into a corpulent heap face purple – pupils blown – his dinner napkin still tucked like a loincloth into the labyrinth folds of his lap. Half a dozen waiters were bustling around, waving white napkins like truce flags.
Doing my best to open his airway, I scooped out a fistful of masticated mush as Doug slapped on the electrodes. We’re a good team, Doug and I.
Doug delivered big doses of joules in an attempt to restart his heart, then delivered the standard cardiac stimulants while I plunged thirteen needles into his crucial accu-points in an effort to revive his Qi. Meanwhile, the string quartet continued to play a lively concerto from a long ago time and faraway place. Somebody, probably one of the waiters, had turned the volume up in a futile attempt to mask the chaos.
Doug caught my eye with his expressive, chocolate brown ones, and we needed no words to communicate what we were both thinking. Even though he’s a human and I’m a Skeksian, Doug and I are a lot alike. In spite of all our efforts, the Packar’s mighty muscle remained flaccid. Completely unresponsive. It was done. Game over. Sayonara. The bell had tolled for Benjamin Proud. Our portable doc-in-a-box, touching him with delicate, finger-like sensors, pronounced him dead. I noted the time, 21:16:04, for the record.
The diners at the nearby tables looked on in wide-eyed horror. They didn’t stop eating altogether, but picked at their plates nervously. Eating was like breathing to them, an unconscious act. They dreaded to watch the resuscitation efforts, yet they were unable to look away, mesmerized by the crude sounds, the shocking sights, the seemingly slapdash way we fought the battle against death, my partner and I. But death had won.
By the time we realized Mrs. Proud needed our attention, she had already expired in her transport device, a last look of panic, a fervent, unspoken plea for help, frozen on her now-gray face, her medical alarm bracelet flashing an S.O.S. Shouting for assistance, Doug and I – and two frightened waiters – managed to drag her corpulent body out of her mobile platform and stretch it supine onto the floor. Opening her fleshy jaw and peering into her cavernous maw, I found the agent of death – a profiterole – lodged in her trachea. The ice cream had melted but the tenacious pastry shell had completely filled her airway. She must have gasped when her husband fell face first into his dessert, and aspirated her own forkful of to-die-for French pastry. Apparently, no one noticed her predicament. All eyes had been on her 1300 kilogram mate, face down in his plate, a bottle of the best Jolieterre Bourdette on its side and dripping onto the floor.
Unable to draw a breath or to call for help, too weak to stand, the Missus had died quietly in the midst of mayhem, right there in her deluxe model transport chair. Though we intubated her, flushed her with oxygen, powered up her heart and jump-started her vital Qi channels, it was all for naught. Mrs. Proud had given up the ghost.
Funny – we can cure cancer, we can grow our own replacement organs, we can travel at the speed of light through the known universe – but we can’t stop death. We can only prolong life – by hours, days, weeks, years. But in the end, death always wins.
These two deaths occurred less than forty-eight hours after leaving port. Mr. and Mrs. Proud had been extraordinarily large, even for Packars, a species of jumbo humanoids who must eat continuously, or die. The wealthy couple had eaten religiously, had died in the act of eating. It was almost as fitting a finale as dying while copulating. We should all be so lucky.
At least they hadn’t suffered, friends and family would murmur when they received the news. They had gotten it over with quickly. And they went out fashionably dressed in designer rainments. No rental penguin suit for Mr. Proud; no cheesy, resort-casual cocktail dress for the Missus. The Prouds were swathed in yards and yards of the finest organic wool. It must’ve taken a herd of long-haired mendals to dress the couple, I thought as I slashed through it with my trusty shears so that we could do our work. I had to push aside the rocks – her necklace – a chain of fist-sized crystals. Real carbon diamonds, I’d bet my ass, though I’m no gemologist. Maybe they were just good fakes, which cost nearly as much as the real thing, if the right designer had his logo on the clasp. The light may have gone out of Mrs. Proud’s eyes but those rocks she wore would shine on long after all of us were dead.
Death makes a lot of work for nurses. The resuscitation efforts, comforting the family, the post mortem clean-up and infection control measures, the documentation. It was 02:00 ship time when finally we were finished and the bodies were stored in the grim reaper’s closet, which is what Doug and I call the holding area for dead bodies.
We don’t have a true morgue on board Entitled. We’re not a hospital ship, we’re not a mercy ship where people go to die. We’re a cruise ship; a pleasure vessel. We exist so that moderately wealthy Packars can unwind from the daily grind of managing their money – the unremitting toil of investing and spending, of buying and selling. And to forget that a gigantic comet is hurtling through space on a collision course with their home planet. (Actually, the whole galaxy is on a collision course with another star system, but that’s still generations away.) Aboard Entitled, the weary, anxious Packars are waited on as they deserve to be. Aboard this cr
Still, death sometimes happens even on a holiday aboard a pleasure vessel. You have to have a place to keep the body until an official autopsy can be done. A walk-in refrigeration chamber functions as our morgue. Just big enough for a gurney – one gurney – we had to stack Mister and Missus one on top the other. No easy task, with the teleportation system down for repairs (again).
“So who goes on top?” Doug asked, his brown eyes dancing. “Which do you prefer, Skylar?”
I ignored the innuendo. “How about we flip for it? Heads, Mr. Proud. Tails, the missus.”
“I’ll bet you’re a handful in bed. You know, I’ve never made it with a sexually dimorphic being. You’d be my first, Nurse Skylar.”
“Get over it, Doug. Flip the coin, let’s get it done.”
My partner pressed the button and the virtual coin came up heads. What the humans call the missionary position. We had to use the robotic booms to hoist him into position. We then strapped him down securely so he wouldn’t slide off, and rolled the mound of inert flesh into the cold storage unit.
Just before shutting the door I did something impulsive. Reckless. Doug was just outside, at the controls, preparing to initiate the air lock. Alone with the bodies, squeezed in beside the gurney, I slid my hand under Mrs. Proud’s neck and undid the clasp of the diamond necklace. Pulling it free from the folds in her neck, I dropped the treasure into my uniform pocket where the jewels sagged against my crotch like a weighty scrotum. I wasn’t quite sure what I meant to do with it, maybe just hold it for a while. I could seal it up with her effects later, I justified to myself.
“Hurry up, Skylar. I’m ready to dump the air.”
“I’m coming!” My heart beat hard and my face flushed, in spite of the icy air. If I were caught with the dead Packar’s necklace, it would mean more than my livelihood. There was no rehab for Skeksian thieves. I’d be sent to the coltan mines, probably for the rest of my life.
“Medical staff, meet me in my quarters,” Captain Gantry’s voice, coming through our cochlear implants, boomed inside of our skulls simultaneously.
Doug and I looked at each other, reading each other’s thoughts. This could not go well for us. Gantry didn’t like it when passengers died on her ship. She took it personally, and I knew it would somehow be our fault for not saving them. The company didn’t like it either; it made for bad publicity. Especially such a spectacle of death as we had tonight. We stood nervously outside her suite, waiting for the door to open. When it did, I caught the scent of deep-fried animal fat.
The captain looked like she had had a long day. Her jowls drooped, she had dark circles under her eyes. I had never before seen her out of uniform, much less in her robe and slippers with a drink in her hand. Gantry was a Packar, but she didn’t use a transport chair. Standing on her own two feet she towered over Doug and me.
She motioned for us to enter. “Have a seat, Nurse Skylar. Technician Robbins. Something to eat?” She offered a half-eaten bag of Crispies.
“No, thanks.” I was ravenous, but not for deep-fried sheep tails.
“OK. Let’s get down to business. What the hell happened?”
“Sudden cardiac death. The man collapsed at the dinner table, ma’am.”
“And the other one?”
“She aspirated. Choked to death on a profiterole. Very unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate? It’s absurd! Didn’t anyone see the woman choking? This is supposed to be a pleasure cruise. Not very pleasant when you die. Not to mention, there will be an inquiry. The family will want some sort of a refund, and refunds affect the bottom line. Corporate won’t like it, not at all.” She licked her lips. “I suppose you did everything you could?”
“Yes ma’am. We did.”
“Did it not occur to you to transport the victims out of the dining room to sick bay?”
“Transporter’s down, ma’am. We got a notice from engineering that it might be down for some time. Apparently they don’t make the parts anymore. Too antiquated.”
Doug elbowed me gently in warning but I couldn’t resist a stinging remark about the age of the ship and the lack of maintenance. “And the elevators aren’t exactly reliable; slow as a dying man’s pulse when they work at all.”
Gantry frowned as she reached deep into the bag of Crispies, searching for the salty crumbs.
“And the documentation?”
The room fell silent except for the sound of crunching. The captain picked up her portable from the table and with a touch of her finger, pulled up the report we submitted a few minutes ago. Her tiny eyes scanned it quickly and her scowl deepened. “Now I’ve got to call Headquarters and notify the next of kin.”
“You may go,” she said, wiping her greasy fat fingers on her bathrobe. “Consider yourselves reprimanded. It will be noted in your records.”
Reprimanded? For what? For doing our job? I had to fight to keep my tongue inside my mouth and to keep my skin from turning red hot, an atavistic reaction initiated by my nervous system when I feel threatened. Keep your cool, Skylar. Stay green, I counseled myself. Our fault or not, there were hundreds of nurses and technicians waiting in line for our jobs.
Out in the hall Doug patted me on the back. “Come on, Skylar, let’s go down to the saloon and unwind.”
I thought of Jacques, my son; I hadn’t seen him for over nineteen hours. Before I left for work I had promised to sneak him up to the promenade deck when I got off duty, for an outing and a bedtime sweet. Although technically I was never off duty, but always on call, late afternoons were usually slow for us. But his bedtime was hours ago. Dormez-vous, Jacques? Morning bells would be ringing soon indeed.
The words to that ancient nursery rhyme came to mind; a song they still sing on Jolieterre, a paradisiacal planet settled by French colonists. A planet so very like Earth, before the ice caps melted. Earth in her prime. A planet that’s mostly water, and a variable climate, a planet where nature, in her infinite forms, maintains perfect equilibrium. A planet where the French have stored the best of human art, literature, and music. A dream planet.
“Sure,” I said, returning Doug’s back clap. “I believe it’s your turn to buy.”
Doug Robbins and me, Nova Skylar. We were it, baby – a two-man show on this two-bit ship hauling two thousand and fifty-six guests. When I first started working for the cruise line, the medical team consisted of four beings. Recent corporate cutbacks had slashed staffing to two, plus a computer; they cut a nursing position and replaced our humanoid doctor with a robot. Donald Doc, we called him. His computerized voice sounded rather like an Earthling duck – or what we imagine ducks might have sounded like. Actually, Donald wasn’t a robot; a robot would have been far more useful. Robots are more than just brains, they have moving parts. They can dispense medication and monitor the response. They’re strong enough to lift drunken Packars off the floor and transport them safely to sick bay. Our doc was just a head without appendages, an electronic brain programmed with diagnostic flow charts. We entered the physical assessment data, then Donald Doc spit out the medical orders, all based on a computer algorhythm. Most of the time we had already initiated the appropriate diagnostics and treatment, but the computer covered our asses. The corporation would do away with nurses and technicians too, if they could, to increase their profit margin. It was only a matter of time.
Doug, my colleague and friend, was a good guy to work with – exce
Doug still thought like a physician. He avoided the dirty work whenever he could – the clean-up, the mop-up, the follow-up. In other words, the boring stuff. Doug lived for the glory, though there was precious little of that on a cruise ship, just the occasional broken bone or dislocated elbow when a Packar fell off a bar stool, or when turbulence on re-entry caused somebody to smash their transport chair into a bulkhead. We mostly treated minor medical upsets like motion sickness and hypo-gravitational disorder, or g-force syncope. Indigestion. Constipation. That sort of thing. And then there was the busy work; it was our job to collect and process allergy and immunization records. We were responsible for treating the crew’s ailments, too. We gave medications for sleep deprivation and antidotes for hang-overs. We carried tranquilizers, mostly to quiet loud and belligerent drunks. Being a cruise ship nurse isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
Many of our passengers were immobile, confined to their floating platforms. Ambulation was a chore because of their great mass. Packars have to ingest foodstuffs continually; it’s part of their physiology. They are eating machines.
Waiting for our drinks to come, I checked my messages.
Miss you, my shiny skinned, forked-tongued devil. Got us booked, you’re gonna love it. A sailboat is nothing like a starship, nothing compares. And there’s something about being on a boat in water – H2O – that makes me horny as a Borrellian warthog, just to give you a little warning. You’re gonna need another vacation after I’m done with you!
I experienced an intense, dimorphic physical arousal, hearing Randy’s voice inside my head. Being half male, I understood men. But my chosen dominant phenotype is female and as a female I had a preference for males. Especially human males. I had no problem getting my needs met. Fortunately for me, human males tended to be sexually attracted to Skeksians. Maybe it was our skin, glistening green (except when we’re threatened) and smooth as satin. Or maybe it’s because we’re a hermaphroditic species. Maybe both. With Randy, I’m female. Well, most of the time. Except when he’s in a certain mood and then I oblige him. I don’t mind, though I prefer to express my female side. Randy has no idea what it’s like to be both male and female but he wants to know. He wants to know in the worst way.