It had been a lost cause from the start, and the doctors knew it from the moment the alarm came over the radio. A planetary inhabit lay gasping his final breaths, and the Galactic Practice Patrol ship Lancet simply happened to be the closest vessel in range to receive the signal. The symptoms described sounded like an acute case of pneumonia, which coupled with the patient's age and past history of illness sounded likely to kill him before they could even get their star drive fired up.
Still, it was a contract planet, and the doctors arrived as quickly as they could. Jack performed a full examination only to give the same diagnosis as he had on the ship: terminal.
Tiger counseled the family on palliative care, offering as much support as possible, but in the end he could only watch with those gathered as the patient gradually slid away.
After a while he noticed Dal hovering in a corner, Fuzzy burrowed into the crook of his neck like a pink boil. Shaking off that maudlin thought he walked over. "Hey, thanks for staying, but there's not a lot for any of us to do," he whispered. "You can head on back to the ship. From the looks of things, I'll probably be there soon myself."
Dal peeled his eyes away from the sickbed, blinking several times. "Are you sure?"
The Red Surgeon stood from the chair he'd been perched on, eyes turning once again to the patient. "Okay, but if you need something ...."
Tiger nodded. "Of course, I'll be sure to ask."
As he'd predicted, the final moments arrived not long after Dal left. The family thanked him for his efforts, offering to share a meal with him, but he politely declined. "I'd better head back to the ship, unless there's something else you need?" When it was clear he couldn't be of any further use Tiger left.
He found Dal and Jack both in the control room. "Well, it's over," Tiger announced.
Jack shook his head. "Now we'll all have to file pathology reports," he said. "Perfect."
"I know, but sooner we get it done the better."
Dal said nothing, but Tiger could well imagine the little doctor's feelings on the subject. Black Doctor Tanner, one of the leading pathologists on Hospital Earth, had tried time and time again to boot the Garvian physician out of the medical service, promising to make the most of any opportunity. Tiger gave his friend a wan smile. "Look, Dal, there was nothing anyone could do here. The Black Service will understand that."
But Tiger's words barely seemed to register. "Dal, are you okay?" Tiger asked in concern, remembering his friend's reaction back on the planet.
"Oh, sure," he replied unconvincingly. "I'll leave you two to your reports. I have to check the supply closet." With that he abruptly left the room.
Even Jack looked perplexed. "Something odd there," he muttered before turning to the teletype machine.
"Yeah," Tiger said, staring after Dal. As the ship's Green Doctor his report would be the most important to transmit. He decided to get it over with quickly and then check on his friend.
Like the best laid plans, his hit some snags when they were informed they wouldn't be allowed to refuel until the morning due to the funerary proceedings. Without the boost of a land-based interstellar radio they'd have to wait to transmit their reports until they could get out of the planet's orbit. Given the amount of time that would elapse between the event and their reports eventually being read by the Black Service, Jack pointed out they'd better be as thorough as possible. "You know who's going to read it the most," he said archly, and Tiger had to agree.
After what felt like hours hunched over their machines both doctors decided to take a break. Jack went searching for something to eat, while Tiger headed back to the bunk room. There he found Dal staring listlessly down at a textbook, Fuzzy murmuring in his ear.
"Hi Dal," Tiger said quietly, hoping not to startle him. Dal looked up, clearly not happy and yet saying nothing. "Look, we won't be able to take off until tomorrow because of some weird burial custom the planet has. Are you hungry?"
"No." The answer came so soft Tiger nearly missed it.
He leaned in the doorway, unsure how to proceed. "Look, it's none of my business—"
"You're right, it's not," Dal snapped. Fuzzy shrank back in alarm, retreating to the pillow with a soft yip. "I'm sorry Tiger, I didn't mean to growl at you."
"Hey, no problem," Tiger assured him, taking a step closer. "It's been a rough day for everyone."
"But especially you," Dal said. He shrugged his shoulders, frowning. "I don't feel like I did anything on this stop."
"Well there wasn't much call for a surgeon."
"But I should have been able to do something," Dal complained, frustration evident in his tone. His thin frame shook with pent-up energy.
Tiger closed the gap between them, sitting beside his friend. "Is this about the patient, or something else?"
The other doctor said nothing for a moment, still struggling to contain himself. Finally he gave a deep sigh. "I must look like a complete idiot: a doctor who can't deal with death."
"Nope," Tiger disagreed. "You look like someone who needs a friend. I know I do right now."
Dal quirked a tiny grin, though the humor didn't quite reach his eyes. "It felt so much like home," he explained, reaching over to pet Fuzzy. "There's a smell here, just like on summer nights, back when my mother...." Dal gulped. "Back before the plagues took so many of our people."
They sat in silence for a moment, Tiger hesitant to say anything more. He realized now he should have done something sooner, should have recognized that Dal might associate this patient's death with the death of his own mother, but he'd been too preoccupied with the work to see it. There seemed little he could say to make things better.
He glanced over at the purring fuzzball now curled around Dal's four left fingers. "Fuzzy looks a little better. It must have been rough for him out there."
"Mmm," Dal agreed. He turned to Tiger. "You said they're keeping us grounded, because of a ritual?"
"Yes...." Tiger hated to say anything more on the subject, but at Dal's obvious concern he shared what they'd been told. "They're holding the funeral tonight, evidently, and so no one can help us refuel."
Dal considered. "Do you think they'd let us attend?"
"Dal, look," Tiger hesitated, not wanting to cause his friend any further pain. "I don't know that you should try to go out there. It might be a bit much."
But Dal shook his head, standing. "Maybe. But I'm tired of feeling helpless. If all I can do is go out there and cry with them, then that's what I want to do. I ... I think I need to." He reached over and picked Fuzzy up, pocketing him in his coat. "You don't have to come Tiger, you've done enough today."
"No way." Tiger stood up as well. "You go, I go. I made a promise, remember?"
"Okay. Then let's go to the radio and ask if we're invited." They left together, walking down the hallway, and it wasn't long before they were shoulder to shoulder at an alien grave for a person neither of them knew, listening to words neither particularly understood.
He'd never considered attending last rites for any of his patients. If asked, he'd have said it would be uncomfortable and possibly intrusive. But one look at his friend was all it took to convince Tiger he was exactly where he needed to be.