Fifth Month, 157th Year of the First Interval
Two Centuries after Landing
Sharai huddled in the rain on a balcony high up Tillek Hold and knew she looked ridiculous. Grown women in surgeon’s scrubs and sensible shoes had no business sulking in the late spring chill, even if they’d had the brains to grab an oil cloak to cover themselves, as she had done; but here she was, and here she sat, and far down below and some hundred meters away ships went about their business at the Tillek docks. Water trickled down her neck and wriggled into her shoes. It was, at least, a distraction.
Up above her atop the tall cliffs were lookout towers and scenic patios, a famous tourist attraction. Get up that high and all you smelled was clean ocean breeze: the heavy oil and fish dockside couldn’t climb the cliff. Wonder if there was a tour group up there now. The black powder-driven harpoons and counterbalanced trebuchets would be prettied up a bit if so, as if they were just there to set the scene, something out of storybooks from Old Earth instead of tools to kill any ship that got ideas about piracy in Tillek's sight.
Rank had its privileges, someone had told her once. So far, three nurses and one very junior doctor had slipped out to the balcony for a smoke break, only to see Sharai, hesitate a moment, and go back inside, blessedly silent.
Of course, there was one person whom no question of rank could dissuade.
Colleen draped a towel over the free bit of bench and settled down on it, juggling her umbrella and an insulated jug while she did. By chance -- sheer chance -- half the umbrella wound up over Sharai’s head. Sharai’s feet still poked out into the rain. Colleen, whose frizzy dark hair was streaked with white and pulled back in a bun as severe as Sharai’s, unscrewed the jug lid with some combination of teeth and knees and pointed the mouth at Sharai.
Sharai’s lip curled by reflex at the spicy-bitter scent of klah. “I hate that stuff.”
Both umbrella and jug stayed steady; Colleen was undeterred. “Mother’s medicine, sweeting. And there’s enough brandy in it to stun a carthorse. Now drink or I’ll nag you back inside before you catch your death.”
“Superstition,” Sharai said. “Misunderstanding of basic germ theory.” But she drank the klah. Colleen was right. By the third mouthful, she could barely taste it.
She passed it back, and Colleen took a sip to be friendly, then capped it to keep the heat in. “Lot of bored sailors down there,” Colleen commented, pointing to the docks below. “With a quarter of the complex shut down for all that construction, ships are having to sit longer waiting to load on and off, and half the captains are keeping the crew cooped up aboard while they wait; the other half’s letting them run rampant dockside and in the sailors’ caverns, seems like. We’ve been patching up scrapes and cracked knuckles for days, and a couple of alcohol poisoning cases that only made them wish they were dead. You surgeons are going to have some stabbings to deal with soon, if this keeps up.”“Day in the life,” Sharai said, and sighed when Colleen nodded. “I’ll speak to the Lady. She’ll talk to the captains. They’ll put a handle on their crews.” Or they’d tell the sailors to tend to the wounded themselves, not drag them to the medicos, which would probably lead to one able hand or another bleeding to death when the stabbings started, and then it would be a problem for the Hold guard and the sailing guild, and the surgeons could get by with only an abstract sense of guilt.
There was only so much you could do to save people from themselves.
Sharai shifted her seat, tucking her feet in closer. With the alcohol in her middle and the umbrella over her head, she was starting to feel the cold more in the parts left out in it.
She looked down on the docks with a critical eye, trying to spot signs of the agitation growing down there in the bug-sized bodies that dashed around. Hard to tell what was normal dockside hustle and what portended trouble. She was no kind of sailor, though she’d married one once. It had been a bad decision, a settled girl like her marrying a life like that. Though, truth to tell, her Katie being gone so many weeks at a time was probably what stretched out the years til they hadn’t been able to stand the sight of each other. Living together full time, they might’ve lasted one or two, not five.
She still saw Katie’s ship come into port, from time to time -- merchant vessels didn’t change their routes just because the second mate had an ugly divorce. But it had been years since she had seen Katie. Could have just missed her; Sharai didn’t go down to the sailors’ haunts by habit except on emergency calls. Katie had had aspirations, though. Had talked about buying operator-share into a new ship, when she had her savings built up some more, going west and running the new foodstuff routes out from Ista and around Nerat horn. Benden on the west coast lacked the deep water harbor that made Tillek rich, but trade found a way and a skilled sailor could help it along.
She’d never stopped to ask if Sharai would go west with her. There were a lot of reasons they hadn’t worked out.
“I killed a patient,” Sharai said, squinting down at the insects harborside.
Colleen was silent for a moment, waiting in case she had more to say. Then, “Hadn’t heard any codes called.”
“She’s not dead yet, but it’s a matter of weeks, maybe. Could be months; it’s hard to tell how fast these things metastasize. But probably it’s weeks.” She turned, her clammy socks squelching in her shoes. “I told her there’s no hope.” Colleen met her halfway, sliding across the little space between them to press up against Sharai’s side, holding the umbrella over them both and not minding that she was getting soaked wherever she touched Sharai.
“Mom, it’s operable. Not steel and suture, not with what it’s pressing up against, but I could kill it with a gamma knife, easy.” Even as her voice hitched and wavered, she knew with absolute faith what her hands could and couldn’t do. “I-I told her it couldn’t be done, and I put it in her file that it couldn’t be done. She came to me because I’m senior, and she was so brave -- her husband cried but she didn’t -- she --”
That line of reasoning wasn’t going anywhere, Sharai told herself sternly, and sucked it back in and wiped her nose on her cloak. Slow, unsteady no matter how hard she tried, she looked Colleen in the eyes. She had to be able to look someone in the eyes.
“There’s only the one gamma knife left here, and another down at the College. The one at Telgar they stripped for parts a year back when it broke down past fixing. Moving it that far was a mistake anyway; would’ve been easier to hire a dragon to bring in whatever patients needed it, or make some better breather masks to keep so many miners from coming down with lung cancer in the first fucking place.”
Old, old resentment there. She’d had an instructor at the College, the world’s center of learning down at Fort Hold, who’d had that as his pet outrage. He’d used it to show the kind of things people would do for wealth or power and then tell doctors to fix. Sharai, young, not believing it could be that simple and that dire, had done her internship there -- she’d had her pick of assignments, third in her class in a world always short on doctors.
She’d bit holes in her tongue for a year, patient after patient passing through her care, their lungs riddled with sick. Even then she’d known to control herself, not shake them and ask them if anything was worth this, not march to the dig bosses and tell them what she thought of them and the equipment they provided. Senior surgeons did that; she ranted to them in private, and they indulged the young girl who still thought the world should be fair. Senior surgeons filed grievances and complaints, and warned their patients what was happening and why, and more often than not they left after a few years of trying, like Sharai had done after her year there learning.
She’d heard there had been improvements, that the new Lord was a working miner like his father hadn’t been, and he had some sympathy for what a man endured down below. She’d believe it when she saw it -- and she had no intention of seeing Telgar again, not for anything.
Distantly, she knew she was shivering. She squeezed her arms around herself to try to stop it; she didn’t object when Colleen opened the jug again.
Stronger from another dose, she said, “It’s not going to last much longer. Neither of them are, and after that it’s steel and gut or nothing. Nearly all the laser scalpels have burned out. You’ve seen, Mom -- we can’t even get real needles half the time anymore, have to work with those fucking thorns. They only teach real needles at the College, and make it sound like everywhere has them.” She shuddered to a stop, her teeth grinding.
Her mother said, boiling it down to broth, “You’ve decided not to use it on your patient today, because the next time you use it might be its last time, and you have to ration it.” Sharai nodded, barely moving her head to do it, bracing for the question that had to come next. “Why not her, sweetheart? Why not this one?”
That was it.
Sharai balled her fists into her shins and held herself in.
“No children. She doesn’t have any children. And I thought, what if this is it, and I can’t save the next one, and that means kids get left without a mom or a dad, have to watch them die slow -- it’ll be that, sooner or later. The machines are all gonna break down, sooner or later. Maybe this makes it a little bit later. Maybe it doesn’t. I mean, what kind of horrible fucking idea is that, that someone doesn’t get to live because she doesn’t have kids? I don’t have kids and I -- I just --”
That was how, grown woman that she was, senior surgeon that she was, Sharai wound up crying in her mother’s arms, rocking back and forth slowly with soft nothing-sounds murmured in her ear.
And the other question, the one she had to ask: “Is this the right choice? Am I doing the right thing?”
“Of course not,” Colleen said without hesitation, but her arm held firm around Sharai’s back and didn’t let her pull away. “It’s reprehensible. Monstrous. The only thing to do is to heal without prejudice and fight every disease to the best of your ability for as long as your patient asks you to. And that means leaving more orphans sooner, and no choice at all about whether to use the machines once they’re gone. Deciding damns you either way, and it’s cowardice alone to try to avoid it.” She squeezed Sharai again, then leaned away herself to look at her, messy face and miserable huddle of rain-slicked cloak.
“That’s why you’re head of surgery and not yet forty, while your old mam’s just a plain family doctor. I would’ve been the coward, while you make the choice all on your own.” She didn’t quite smile, shouldn’t smile, but she was steady and strong and not looking at Sharai with the disgust Sharai felt.
She said, “You’re not the first healer to make a choice like this, you know. Equipment wearing out and the old ways being lost, or just put aside because they’re no good to us anymore -- that’s been going on all my life, all the way back since the Crossing, and before you make a smart comment, no, those are not just two names for the same era. I’m old, not ancient.”
“Tell that to the juniors you run ragged,” Sharai murmured, trying to force up her own not-smile. It didn’t work, but she owed the effort. Her head was stuffed up and echoing now, which helped not at all.
“I do,” Colleen said. “Shames them into stepping up. What I spend more time reminding them, though, is that they’re not the only hope for the suffering of the world. Every year the College turns out a new batch that’s convinced it’s their job to know everything -- and everyone else’s job to trust that they do. The nurses set them right before I get to them, all but the hardest cases.
“And a few of them manage to grow up still thinking that all the world’s resting on them. Most of those turn out surgeons, for some reason or another.” She looked sideways at Sharai, checking to make sure her daughter had caught the point she was circling toward. It was her favorite kind of lecture; Sharai’d learned to navigate it as a girl, but Colleen still fretted that she’d somehow miss things.
Little, guilty flicker of hope. If she could ask someone else, make someone else take responsibility -- that guilt would be better than this, wouldn’t it?
“Who do I ask, Mom? Who’s going to want to decide this? Who can you trust to decide something like this?”
Colleen sighed, sounding tired. “There you go again, my girl. Who’s the one? Who’ll pick up the world on her shoulders if you let it go? That’s how a surgeon thinks, when she knows that no matter who says what, when all’s said and done it’s her hand alone holding the knife. The rest of us, sometimes, whether you can believe it, find that we can work together and talk each other around.”
A hug again, apology for the frustration she’d let leak into her voice. “Listen. You can’t be the gatekeeper on this. You alone can’t save what’s left for the ones who warrant it -- whoever that winds up being, however it’s decided. There’s some fine medicos here, and all together our experience totals up to centuries. Even that ass Jenner; he’s got a head for diagnostics, even if the rest of it’s full of ego.
“Let’s get together, all the seniors. It’s going to be a fight, but -- you’re not the first one who’s thought about this. I know that you’re not. After we all agree, however we agree, that will be the way it’ll be here in Tillek. The Lady hasn't tried to override us yet; she's stern, but she believes in letting the ones who know, do. You know that. And the College can do the same, or they can go on as they are, and students years from now will tie themselves in knots debating were we right or were we wrong.”
Sharai’s limbs felt leaden in the chill. The body had its limits, after all.
She glanced over the rim again, down to the harbor and the work of wood and stone and animal power. “Do you think the Ancestors planned this? Knew what they were leaving us to?” Her voice was tired and flat. She wasn’t holding back, hadn’t much she needed to hold back at the moment. She’d poured it all out in that torrent on her mother’s shoulder, and it had left her aching worse than when she’d begun.
Colleen busied herself fiddling the cap back on the jug and patting her hair in place. “Some people say that they knew it and planned it, and we only question it because we’re too ignorant to see the reason behind their will,” she said, which wasn’t an answer.
And then, “The records say they had an enemy they’d fought all their lives, and maybe the fighting broke them. If they were running from it -- I can’t imagine how frightened they were, or what they were willing to sacrifice to make themselves safe.” She shook her head and undid the bit of straightening she’d just done. Her hair always resented being bound and worked its way free strand by strand. “It’s more likely that they were just people and they couldn’t be sure their decisions were right any more than we can. That’s the whole truth, as far as I can tell.”
She stood up and tucked the half-wet towel into a pocket, then juggled the jug and umbrella again to give Sharai a hand up. Water rolled off the umbrella and into Sharai’s face. A mood of cold and wet to match the spirit felt more and more like a concept that should stay in poetry; she wanted to be dry, of a sudden, and warm again.
One more thing she had to ask, first.
“Don’t tell Dad? I don’t -- if he thought I’d done something bad, I couldn’t face him.”
Colleen reached up and tucked away some of the hair that had sprung loose around Sharai’s ears. Futile battle. “Your dad understands more than you give him credit for, sweeting. But, no, I won’t tell him if you don’t want me to. He’s a good man but he’s not one of us, and there’s no sense to laying a healer’s burdens on him if we don’t have to. Now, inside. I’ll call a meeting of the senior staff for tomorrow, after you’ve had some sleep.”
A wadded up chunk of waxed paper bounced off the railing and onto the balcony, smelling of mustard and pig fat. Guess there were tourists up top after all.
“Tomorrow. Yes, ma'am,” Sharai agreed, and got out of the rain before she could catch her death of cold.