He guessed what was up when Dr. Sena closed the door to Norway's surgery before she sat down to talk.
"Lung cancer," she said. "I can't run the diagnostics I'd need to tell whether it's gone anywhere else, here aboard ship. Can't even quote you any odds."
"So that's it."
She frowned at him. "No, Commander, that is not it. We have resources, just not aboard."
"We're heading – "
"Not anymore. Captain says we're changing course for Pell."
He was speechless for a moment. "Doctor. Tell me that we aren't diverting a jumpcarrier to take me to hospital."
"Can't do that. Because that's exactly what we're doing."
He got up. "I need to speak to the captain."
"Suit yourself. You're off duty."
"What? Hell, no! It's just a cough."
"Should've listened to Doc," said Di, sitting there all barrel-shaped and scarred and yet the very picture of rude health.
"Shut it, Di," said Graff, and slapped down his cards on the bedside table. "Three tens."
"And me with two aces," said Di, and sighed. "I owe you ten cred more. Another hand?"
"Sure." Poker partially filled the void in his brain left by the absence of his usual shifts on the bridge. Listening to ops and watching the board by remote just made things worse. He got so frustrated from not being able to do. He dealt the cards, studied his hand, discarded a couple of them, trying all the while to ignore the tickle in his chest.
He drew two, arranged the hand. "Five –" he managed, and then went off into a spate of hacking. A wad of tissues appeared in his hand, somehow. When he was finished, it was blood-stained, and Di's iron-muscled arm was around his shoulders.
"Jurgen ... ," muttered Di, squeezing him. Graff shrugged off his arm, insensibly angry.
"Dammit, Di, I am not a kid!"
Signy's mouth was on him, and her fingers. The tickle in his chest was held at bay by Dr. Sena's latest prescription, and it was easy to get lost in pleasure. Signy's hands were strong and callused, and she knew exactly what he liked. Soon every breath brought a wave of pleasure, and he was tingling all over. The sweet torment rose, crested, and broke at last, a bright flash of feeling, and then he was lying limp with her head pillowed on his shoulder.
"Thanks," he said, and then: "I wish I could –"
"Shut it; you're fine," she said, and she wrapped one leg over him, pressing herself firmly against his hip. It wasn't what she really wanted: he knew that. She liked it hard and fast after a long slow run-up. She would have to get it from Di, instead. For now, he caressed her wherever he could reach, and it seemed to have some effect at last. She would never lie to him, especially about something like this.
"So," he said, after a few minutes. "Was this goodbye?"
She sat up and glared down at him, all wiry muscle and angular bone except for the slight roundness of her breasts. "Negative, dammit. Two hours 'til jump, and then Pell's finest will work you over, and that'll be it."
"Maybe not. I've been doing some reading."
"So what? That doesn't make you a medic."
"Maybe it'd be best if Dr. Sena just gave me palliative care. Kept it all down to a dull roar and let me go."
"Hell if, Mr. Graff. That plan doesn't fly with me."
"Why the hell not, captain? It's my life. You have Di, Uthup, all the rest of the crew."
"Because I'm a greedy bastard bitch, and I never let go of anything that's mine, XO. You'll just have to suck it up."
That made him laugh, a weak and breathy sound that was just wrong, coming from his own mouth.
More poker on the approach to Pell, this time with his number one Hellburner vets: the whole crew of four, crammed into his cubby of a room. Usually their well-worn, comfortable banter was as soothing as an old sweater, but now it was just so much background noise. The calculation of odds, once as easy to him as breathing, seemed a tiresome chore.
Maybe the jump had pulled out what little he had left. Sena said he'd weathered it just fine, but all he knew was that he was tired of the whole thing.
If only the captain would let him go.
"Your game's for shit today, XO," said Pollard, suddenly.
Aboujib slapped him, hard. "Shut up! Man's got a few things on his mind." Her dark eyes were steely.
"It's alright, Aboujib." Actually, it was kind of a relief. Pollard could be an asshole, but he was always honest: it was one of the things Graff liked about him.
"You're boring the XO, Benjy cher," said Kady, easily. "That's why he's off his game." Dekker perked up at this suggestion and looked at Graff to see whether her comment would have any effect. Graff hated to disappoint him.
"No, Pollard's right. I'm just not concentrating. What's the point?"
And then he was mad at himself, because the captain trusted him to be better than that. He hadn't been removed from his post, so he was still their executive officer. More than that: he'd been with them from the beginnings of their careers with the Fleet. He shook his head. "Sorry, guys. I'm not very good company right now. I'm just tired."
Kady pursed her lips and then glanced at her partners. "Why don't you all run off, let the man take a nap?"
"What about you?" asked Dekker.
"Be with you in a minute." And then, when they'd left: "Sir, Sena says you'll be fine. Was she giving us a load of crap?"
Kady wasn't any young recruit: she'd left two other careers behind her by the time she started with the Hellburner project. "Not as far as I know, lieutenant commander. She's telling me the same thing. But she's not a specialist at this. I'm just ... worn thin."
She nodded at that. "Got you there, chelovek. The waiting kills, it does. But we'll be at the station in less than 24. You really going to sleep?"
"Alright, then." A little pat on his shoulder. "Sleep tight, XO."
He closed his eyes as she switched off the light. They'd put another cable on him, another tether, keeping him from flying free into the dark.
His mind didn't want to swim up out of the dark. It was bright out there, and he was becoming conscious of a sharp pain between his ribs. There was a brief conversation that he only heard as voices, several he didn't know and one he did.
"Commander Graff! Report!"
He was having trouble finding his eyelids. Suddenly a message seemed to get through, and his eyes were open. He was in a small, dim room, surrounded by medical monitors, all of them blinking, one of them beeping softly in time with his pulse. Sena was there, and a man in med scrubs, and the captain. "You tracking, XO?"
His mouth was cottony. "Mmmm ... mostly."
"This is Dr. Hendricks," said Sena, nodding to the stranger. "Cancer specialist and surgeon."
"Ah. W- we met?"
"Briefly, right before surgery. Short-term memory loss is not uncommon after anesthesia," said Hendricks. His face was broad, dark, and very calm. "We can talk at length when you're more awake. Briefly, though: looks good. Medium-sized tumor, what we call Stage II, but no sign of it anywhere else. We cut it out. You've lost about 20% of one lung, but what's left should be more than enough for typical shipboard duties of an officer. You should be up and about in a week, OK'ed for light duty. We'll be embedding some radioactive material at the site before you leave, and you'll be on a prescription. You'll see us again in a few months, after your next mission, at which point we'll end the radiation treatment. Dr. Sena knows what steps to take if worst come to worst and you can't make it back. For now, just rest. OK?"
"That's it?" It seemed unbelievable. He looked at Sena, and at the captain. They both nodded. Sena looked relieved, and the captain seemed to have relaxed for the first time in weeks. He sighed, and his chest hurt, but he figured that was normal when they'd taken a chunk out of your lung. "OK."
"We'll be moving you to a proper room in about 30 minutes," said Hendricks. "I'll check on you tomorrow morning. Dr. Sena?"
Both doctors left, and Signy sat down in a chair at his bedside.
"How long was I out?" he said.
"About four hours," she said, and leaned over to rest her forehead on his shoulder. "Worst four hours of my life. But they said you were real strong, and they weren't worried. The pills you'll be getting? Latest thing from Cyteen. They have to treat a lot of this, there. How're you feeling?"
"Stoned. Sore. Are they being honest with us, about how I am?"
"I'd bet my life on it, actually. Sena looked this man up on our way in: he's the expert on this thing."
"I guess I have to believe it."
She lifted her head. "You'd damned well better. Your attitude can really affect your recovery, you know. Pell's invested a lot in you: they're doing this free of charge. And we diverted the ship. Better make it worth it, Mr. Graff."
"Is that an order?"
"You've got it, mister," she said, and took his hand in hers, squeezed it. A weight he'd been carrying without knowing it was dissolving, drifting away, leaving him weightless and serene.
"Yes ma'am," he said, and closed his eyes.