The infirmary bay was still a useless shell. The ship’s previous crew had stripped it down so completely, they had even removed the cabinet doors and the exam table. So in an emergency, they made do with the battered couch from the passenger lounge, dragged into the searingly well-lit infirmary bay.
"This thing smells like piss," Cooper grumbled, picking a bit of stuffing from the sofa's arm, which had been damaged by gunfire back during the ship's departure from Deadwood. "God forbid anyone shine a blacklight on this thing. We gotta replace this before the Jin Dui dares pick up any passengers."
"Hold still," Abby said sternly, finishing the application of a pressure bandage across the back of Cooper's skull. Cooper was bitterly annoyed with the entire situation -- not only was she mortified at her own accident, but she had been waiting for the opportunity to assess Abby’s skills as a combat medic. It was a little hard to do that when it it was the back of your own head being treated. Still, what she had observed she grudgingly approved of. The medic didn't fuss about, and her small talk consisted of the risks of introduction of infection to the emissary and intracranial veins, and the likelihood of that leading to mortal osteomyelitis -- good standard scare-the-civvies stuff. With Hoss's assistance, Abby had irrigated the scalp laceration to flush out any gross contaminants. The compression bandage came next -- it needed to stay in place for 30 or so minutes, Cooper knew, so that the compression would constrict the bleeding, before they could suture the laceration closed.
"We need surgicel and gelfoam," Abby complained. "At the very least. And 5-0 absorbable sutures. I am going to have to use 3-0 on this, and that is not ideal."
"It's not," Cooper agreed. "But it's the back of my head. Unless you decide to shave the strip bald and sign your name in sutures, no one will ever notice."
Abby snorted at that, although whether that was from humor or annoyance, Cooper couldn't tell.
"You could always just braid it," Hoss suggested. "It's only an uncomplicated shearing lac, after all."
"Braid the wound?" Abby said, aghast.
"Braid the hair. During the war, when we were running low on suturing supplies and surgical staples, it's something we used to do for minor head lacerations," Hoss explained. "Once the wound is clean and irrigated, you moisten about a dozen or so hairs from either side with saline or sterilized water, then twist them into a thread. Then you tie them in a simple square knot, then tighten the knot with forceps, maybe dab it with a spot of dermabond if you've got it --" Cooper felt the deft tug of Hoss's example. "Like that, before the forceps. It works, you just gotta be sure a fox hole buddy knows to snip them out again after 10 days or so.”
"Doesn't hurt as bad as a line of mattress sutures or figures eights," Cooper agreed, as Abby leaned in closer to peer at Hoss's handiwork. "And it doesn't interfere with future suturing like hemostatic agents, if you find time later to do it proper."
"That method does not allow for much wound security," Abby said. "Would not wearing a helmet rub it open again in short order?"
"Depends on where on the head it rests. And if you've got the supplies and the time, suturing is always gonna be your preferable option. But we didn't have as the same resupply of preferable options like your side did," Cooper replied. The quip came out sounding more bitter than Cooper had intended. She winced.
"Captain doesn't mean it like that," Hoss said.
"Bī zhù. Don't apologize for me. I'll apologize when I need too," she snapped at Hoss, before giving Abby a grudging look. "But yeah. Like he said. I didn't mean like that."
"Yes you did," Abby said crisply, her manner starchily professional. "And it was true. The Alliance was exceptional at establishing a steady supply line, and I know Alliance troops did not suffer the same sort of deprivations which the Browncoats did. I saw some of that firsthand, and it turned my stomach." She reached after her personal medkit, and pulled out a small, sleek handheld scanner. Cooper frowned in surprise to see it. She herself hadn't handled a working scan unit since the end of the war.
"You've got your own equipment, I see."
"A few things, yes," Abby said. "Of course I'll loan what I have to the ship the until the ship can afford replacements. But for the moment -- that was quite the fall you took. Let me make sure there is nothing I have missed."
"No--" Cooper began to protest, trying to rise.
"Yes," Hoss overruled her, putting a hand on Cooper's shoulder and easily holding the captain in place.
Abby chuckled with amusement, her eyes focused on the scanner's small screen while she slowly took a reading along the curves of Cooper's skull. "Your assistance is appreciated," she told Hoss cheerfully.
"No it's not," Cooper complained, while Hoss shot Abby a wry look.
"I'm sure you're just as much a pain in the tush when you're a patient," he told Abby. "Nurses -- now they're reasonable, generally, but doctors are always a pìgu huángjiā téngtòng."
Abby laughed again, as she ran the scanner down along the left side of Cooper's body, the side which Cooper had landed on. "I am sure you are correct," Abby agreed. "Orderlies never miss a thing, do they?" The amused smile suddenly vanished, and the medic’s dark brows drew together quizzically as she looked at her screen. She ran the scanner over Cooper's hip again, then looked to Cooper in question. "I'm not sure what I'm seeing here..." Abby said
Cooper groaned and closed her eyes. "I know the hip isn't cracked again. Been there, done that, ain't going to forget the experience any time soon."
Abby gave the scanner another pass. Then she thumbed it off and slid the instrument into her pocket. "Right now, you are not my captain. You are my patient. So tell me what is going on with your injured leg."
"Better show her," Hoss said. He squeezed Cooper's shoulder, then headed for the infirmary door. "Go ahead. I'll stand guard and make sure no one comes along to peek through the window."
Cooper frowned after him, but her hands went to the buckle of her belt. "Hell no, might as well hit comm and summon everyone," she groused as she dropped her trou. "Get a pole, I’ll put on a show, maybe sell some tickets while we're at it," she complained, trying to keep her manner unaffected. But she couldn't make herself look at Abby's face when the other woman made a small sound of dismay.
Cooper knew how bad her leg looked. Even now, years after, it was hideous. The irregular radius of burns were rutted and ridged, twisted and discolored -- and in the center was a long, deep valley where the meat of her leg was simply gone.
"Tell me what happened?" Abby finally asked, in a voice which had gone crisply starched and professional again.
"An Alliance crowdbuster." Figuring Abby was done, Cooper pulled her trous back on as she spoke. "My trophy from that last action on Hera. Our field hospital was set up in the abandoned Companion's Hall on Whore's Mountain at the southeast end of the valley, along the south fork of the Serenidate River. The first couple of weeks of Serenity Valley was relatively light stuff -- lots of hurry-up and wait, with companies digging trenches, battle groups getting hunkered in wherever they had good ground for it, defensive lines being set up, that sort of thing, with a few small hard scraps between our boys and the Alliance troops as one side or the other made feints to test each other’s mettle. During the first two weeks of it, most of the real action was farther east along the New Sinai Front. But that changed on April 18th. The fighting got serious, and got serious fast. We had the third or fourth wave of casualties of the day at the Companion's Hall field hospital when the Alliance just dropped a firestorm on our heads. One moment, I was up to my elbow's in some poor skut's bowels trying to put her back together, and the next... big bada boom. Best I could figure later, the metal operating table next to me must have flown up and shielded me from the worst of the blast that took out the rest of the surgical hall. But when I woke, I had a hell of a shrapnel wound in my leg, the once-grand Companion Hall was rubble, and there were only two other survivors left in the entire place."
Abby sank down to sit on the far arm of the couch. Her expression was sober but sympathetic. "What happened next?" she asked.
Cooper shrugged. "If your scanner was working right, you saw my hip. I couldn't stand -- my pelvis was busted and had been separated from my spine. I was lucky my femoral artery wasn’t affected by the mortar wound, but the blast took a big chunk out of my upper thigh. I was shredded by blast debris, and some of it had once been my mates from the unit.” Her voice and face were stoic, but Cooper avoided Abby’s sympathetic eyes. “Hell, I picked out of my thigh a piece of jawbone with gold teeth still attached. I knew the man whose mouth they’d belonged in. I shouldn’t have been alive still, and there was an active period of time there where I began to wish I wasn’t.”
“When we heard about the Companion Hall hospital massacre, it was that the Browncoats were using the hospital as a human shield for an artillery unit,” Abby said. “The Browncoats were warned, but after they shot down an overcrowded Nightingale ambulance and all aboard were killed, the battlefield commanders were forced to act.”
“I know the official story,” Cooper said bitterly. “It’s bullshit. The only weapons in that place were the personal firearms assigned to staff, and whatever came in on patients. We were displaying the Gold Crescent, the Red Crescent, and the Red Cross, and transmitting our noncombatant codes on all frequencies. The way I figure it, Alliance command knew that being on top of Whore Mountain as we were, the hospital was visible for miles up and down the battlefield. It had been a clear blue day -- as I recall it, it was the only day of clear weather we’d had in weeks. It was well past noon, and there was no cloud cover. Everyone saw it happen. Blasting us to bloody rubble was a helluva blow to Browncoat morale, and so what if the patient on my table at that moment was some poor gut-shot Alliance trooper? Small sacrifice, right? What happened there a war crime, no doubt it was. But if you win the fight, you get to write it down for the history books.” Cooper took a deep breath, then shrugged. “So. It sucked. And I’m sure my side did bad shit, too.”
“What happened after you woke up?” Abby asked. “Mortars don’t generally inflict burn wounds -- at least, not like that one.”
“No,” Cooper said wearily. “That was me. When I woke up, it was late afternoon and a couple of scouts from the 76th Battalion were hauling me out of the wreckage of the operating theatre. They moved me and the other two survivors they’d found into the only stable part of the hall and laid us there on blankets. They cast around for whatever supplies they could hump back down the mountain, and promised they’d send back an evac team for us. The three of us waited, and did what little we could for one another. Pavel died during the night; Inga died the next morning. A two-man Alliance recon team showed up the afternoon after Inga died. Apparently, they were looking to see if the site could be bulldozed and turned into the Alliance battle command’s HQ. They were surprised to find me still kicking -- okay, well, lying there -- and they gave me some water. One of them had a flask of whiskey -- good stuff, too. She gave me her flask, and they both swore they’d come back with a med team for me. After the promises from the 76th, I didn’t believe them any farther than I could spit. After they left, I drank some of the whiskey, then poured the rest of it on my leg. It was going gangrenous, and I knew I couldn’t amputate solo and survive. So I doused the wound and cauterized it.”
“Oh god.” Abby swallowed and made a face. “That sounds dreadful.”
Cooper shrugged. “Live or die. Make a choice and stick to it.” She managed a dry laugh. “I’m damn stubborn. It’s a character flaw of mine, I know. It makes me hell to live with, maybe -- but I’m still alive today because I’m more stubborn than I am sensible.”
“So what happened then?” Abby asked. “How did you get down off the mountain?”
“Your side came through. Those two recon skuts reported to their officers, their officers filed the paperwork, and approximately 36 hours after the bombing, an Alliance ambulance ship showed up, plucked me up out of the ruins, and transported me to their orbital mercy ship. The staff there took quite an interest in me, since they knew I was a fellow surgeon. They reconstructed my hip, stabilized my spine, even gave me a shot of rejuv for the leg. But then I was shipped on to the medical unit of the POW processing center on Hera station. All interest ceased and desisted there, along with the rejuv injections. The newtech bios had to be saved up for their own troopers, I suppose. Still, it means there was some assisted tissue growth -- I can probably thank that single injection for being able to walk at all. Count your blessings if you got them, right?”
“Right,” Abby said, without any conviction. She blew out a breath and made of show of taking out her handheld scanner again. “Well, I think that pressure bandage has been on for long enough. Shall we look and see if the wound is ready to be closed?’
“Be my guest,” Cooper said.
Abby deftly removed the bandage as Hoss came back to assist. “It looks ready,” Abby said as she leaned close again to study the wound. "Do you have a preference?" she asked Cooper then. "We have 3-0 nonabsorbable filament nylon in your choice of mattress line or figures-of-eight, or I can do this special and practice your braiding method for old times sake."
Cooper snorted at the medic's dry humor. "You mean miss out on a teaching opportunity? Braid away."
With Hoss hovering close by to oversee, Abby went to work. Cooper let her eyes close and went null-state, ignoring the tugs at her hair, and the various lower aches and pains which a pair of painkillers could not overwhelm. Instead of the pain, she centered her thoughts on the logistics of getting their passenger quarters up to pass. A coat of whitewash on the walls, for starters. The bed frames were still bolted in place -- they didn't need to replace those, but mattresses had to be purchased. Linens that were new (or at least looked it); a dresser for each room, fixtures over the bare lighting. Did the doors all roll closed properly in their tracks? What about the--
"Done," said Abby then, dropping her forceps on the tray and stripping off her gloves. “I’ll want to take another look at that this evening before you turn in for the night, and if I don’t like the look of how it is holding, then I will suture it up. And you know the drill -- you took a knock to the head and you strained that leg of yours in the fall. I would prescribe full bed rest for you if I --”
“No way,” Cooper countered. “ I got too much work to do--”
“-- if I thought you would tolerate it,” Abby overrode the interruption. “If you will compromise with me, I will allow you to recline in the galley observation lounge.”
“Deal!” Cooper agreed.
“Hoss, if you will escort our captain there,” Abby said.
Hoss rumbled an assent and made to pick Cooper up. She held up one hand, delaying that. “Quid pro quo,” she said to Abby. “Your turn.”
Abby had been beginning to clean up. She stopped and looked at Cooper in surprise. “What?”
“You heard my sordid little secret, Baldwin. Now it’s your turn. What secrets are you sitting on which I should know about -- as your captain, as might affect this ship and her crew?”
The woman stood and stared at Cooper for a moment, her pale skin flushing crimson. For a moment, Cooper thought Abby might deny she had any secrets to share, but instead, the woman let out a long, long sigh. “You will not tell this to the rest of the crew?” she said to Cooper and Hoss.
Hoss made a zipping motion over his mouth and mimed throwing something away over his shoulder, while Cooper just cocked her head and gave Abby a stern look. “Of course. For as long as it remains irrelevant to the ship’s welfare.”
Abby sighed again, then rolled back her shoulders and stood a little straighter. “My mother is Clarissa Bow. The holovid star. And my father is Abraham Baldwin, CEO of Steadfast Pharmaceuticals and former team captain of the New Cardiff Bulldogs and Core Championship MVP.”
Hoss grinned in delight -- he was a massive rugby fan, enough to likely recognize her father by name -- while Cooper blinked and tried to make sense of the confession. “So what the hell are you doing on my ship?”
Abby managed an edged smile. “Trying to stay as far away as I can from the both of them,” she replied. “And that is all I want to say about it.”
“Shì,” Cooper replied, while Hoss nodded his understanding. “Is that all?” Cooper added, dead-pan.
“What?” Abby retorted, flushing red again.
“So you got a famous celebrity and a big-name athlete-slash-multi-gazillionaire titan of commerce for parents. That’s gotta suck, but you got anything I can take advantage of for this ship?” Cooper repeated slowly, as if talking to a child.
“If it’s money you’re--” Abby began, clearly defensive, before she caught the teasing edge to the captain’s question; the medic clearly had no access to her parents’ staggering accounts. Abby’s flush remained, and she pointed at the Infirmary door. “Get her up to the main deck, and out of my infirmary!” she growled.
Hoss laughed and scooped Cooper up in his arms. “Yes ma’am!” he chuckled as he carried Cooper from the room, and headed for the passenger lounge stairs.
---to be continued...