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June 15, 2514, approx. 1000 hours

The surgeries -- both of them -- had been successful. The patient’s gum color was good and pink, and his breathing was strong and steady. “Keep him on the table for now,” Cooper said, having no better place to put the old dog where both she and Abby could keep an eye on him as they cleaned up from the surgeries. She glanced toward the infirmary bay window. Cooper had been aware of the pair of spectators who had spent the past two hours parked outside sickbay, watching the procedures. She waved them forward now, giving them permission to open the infirmary doors and enter.

Carver escorted young Tilly in. The girl was uncharacteristically quiet and somber, and reluctant to edge her toes past the threshold of the doors.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“The old fellow is sleeping soundly,” Cooper replied. “But he needs your help. Run to the dryer and get the blanket Abby put in to warm.”

Tilly blinked as she processed the request, and then was gone in a whirl of blonde curls.

Carver stood his ground in the doorway, frowning as he looked from Cooper to the metal table and back again.

“I was worried about Odin’s getting through it,” Cooper confessed quietly. She glanced over her shoulder, to where Abby was scrubbing surgical tools in the infirmary’s tiny sink. “At his age, in his malnourished condition, I expected things to be a little bit more touch and go. But the old man boy has the constitution of a tank.”

Tilly came flying back to them then, a striped woven blanket bundled tightly in her arms, as though she were cradling a living creature she were trying to keep warm. “I could use some muscle,” Cooper said to Carver as she limped back to the exam table where the old dog continued to sleep. She checked his vitals automatically -- breathing still steady and color still good and pink-- then gestured for Carver to lift the beast. She performed a quick wipe-down of the metal table top, then slipped half of the warmed blanket beneath the dog and motioned to Carver to set the animal back down. He did so with great care, although the old dog wouldn’t have felt it if he’d been dropped. Cooper wrapped the remaining half of the warmed blanket up over the dog’s body, including the well-bandaged amputation site.

“How’s he ever gonna walk again?” Tilly said, still sticking close to the infirmary doors.

“You’ll be surprised how fast they adapt,” Cooper promised. “Give the old fellow a week and he’ll be romping around like he was born without it.”

“I still don’t think it’s fair,” Tilly muttered disapprovingly. “Couldn’t you just fix him? Instead’a taking away his leg and his eye, ‘cause now he’s gonna be blind and crippled both!”

“Tilly, you saw how the leg pained him, and how red and swollen his eye was,” Abby said, preparing to put the scrubbed surgical tools into the finicky sterilizer. “He was completely blind in that eye anyway, and it was horribly, excruciatingly painful. And now, when he wakes up, he’s going to feel so very much better!”

Tilly’s expression was pinched as she stared at the old dog’s dark, blocky head. With Abby’s assistance, Cooper had removed the protruding left eyeball, suturing the eyelid closed when they had finished. Cooper glanced at Abby now, thinking with satisfaction that despite the woman’s initial reluctance, with some time and practice out on the Blue Cluster frontier, there was a chance yet of making a decent veterinarian out of her. I’ll have her arm up a cow in no time.

“You’ve got a new assignment, juniormost,” Cooper said crisply, glancing back to see that the child’s grudging expression had not changed. “I want your report on glaucoma and its methods of treatment, subbed to me by breakfast tomorrow. And this time -- your own words.”

Tilly groaned and retreated from the Infirmary as if afraid more homework assignments might be immediately forthcoming. Abby laughed at the girl’s dismayed retreat and gave Cooper a knowing look.

“We’re late for class today anyway, so I’ll oversee that,” she said, following after Tilly with an armful of surgical linens for the laundry on her way.

Cooper settled on her wheeled stool and reached after her handheld to make a few additional notes to the patient’s electronic chart. “I’ve got this watch,” she said to Carver, who still stood on the opposite side of the surgical table, one hand resting on the Rottweiler’s bandaged head. He was stroking the beast’s ragged ear, although the creature was still too sedated to take any comfort from the touch.

“What’s next for him?” Carver asked.

“Kennel him alone, no food and water for the rest of the day or tonight -- the anesthesia we used will leave him nauseous. He’ll be up on his feet within the next eight to twelves hours. We’ll want to keep him exercising, but seeing how that bum leg hasn’t borne weight for years, it’s not like he’s going to have to re-learn how to walk without it. Same goes for that enucleation. Poor old fellow has been blind in that bad eye for a hellish long while. He’ll wake up and probably prance around like a pup, since the agony he’s been living in is suddenly gone. Just the same -- we’ll keep him on pain meds for the next week or so; the sutures for both surgical sites come out in 10 days.”

“And long-term?” Carver asked. His caress had traveled from the non-bandaged ear down the Rottweiler’s thick neck, to the bald ring of scar tissue there, likely from a collar having once been left to grow into the skin.

Cooper shrugged. “Odin’s hips look really good for his age, but arthritis will likely catch up to him sooner rather than later. We’ll want to watch him careful when it comes to negotiating the stairs -- and smooth surfaces are likely to cause him some challenges, too. But the best physical therapy for him is just to get up and get walking, and walking on a variety of types of surfaces.. He’s been dosed on strong antibiotics, so I don’t expect any complications from the foreleg amputation -- what I’m more concerned about is that good eye. The glaucoma in his left eye could have been the result of trauma, but if it wasn’t, he could well develop it in the remaining right eye. He’ll need the intraocular pressure in that right eye to be tested every four months or so, to make sure fluids aren’t building up. And I’ll recommend we make a harness for him. No more collars -- any pulling on a neck collar might increase the intraocular pressure, which we do not want.”

“I can make his harness,” Carver said, and headed for the door as if he were about to get right to the task. But then he delayed a moment, half-turning back toward Cooper and the surgical table. “Permission to settle him in my quarters? I’ll take over full responsibility for nursing duties and meds.”

Cooper nodded. “That’d be great,” she said. “I’ll give you a yell whenever the old boy can be carried over.”

Carver was not quite smiling when he left the infirmary bay, but she suspected she read happiness in the loosening of his stern expression. She reached out and patted the old dog’s blanketed hip with satisfaction.

# # #

“Your timing is exquisite,” Cooper said, as Abby stopped by the sickbay some hours later, to check on their patient. “I just placed a call to Carver.”

The former soldier arrived a heartbeat later. “Odin’s awake,” Cooper said tol Carver. “He’s groggy and non-mobile as of yet, but I don’t need to keep watching him. Abby, you have any objections if I hand off all post-operative care of this patient to Carver here?”

“No,” Abby replied, although not without a grudging second look at her captain.

“He’s all yours,” Cooper said to Carver. The scarred man nodded once, then scooped the big dog up and carried it easily from the Infirmary bay, blanket and all. He disappeared down the side corridor toward his cabin.

“What’s that about?” Abby asked suspiciously, not wanting to have sunk hours of her morning on a pair of difficult surgeries, only to have Carver kill the creature through negligence.

“The man asked for a little extra duty,” Captain Cooper replied. “I don’t mind not scooping up gǒu shǐ, and assumed you’d feel the same.”

That was true. Abby didn’t mind that in the least. “I can understand that thing giving us some surgical practice, before we reach the Border,” she said. “But I just do not understand why we are hauling all of the rest of those noisy creatures with us,” she said.”Do you really think someone will want to buy them?”

The captain shrugged. “Maybe not pay for them in cash cred, but certainly someone will want to barter for them. Lots of lonely settlements out there, who don’t want to inbreed their stock. Carver says he’s done some dog training in the past, so if he’s willing to put some polish on the pack between now and the Blue Cluster, we’ll certainly be able to barter them off in exchange for something valuable. Fresh food, if nothing else”

“Well, the young and healthy beasts, certainly,” Abby agreed. “But what about Odin? He’s old, he’s crippled, and now we’ve taken out that bad eye, he is even uglier than before. Surely no one will want him.”

Copper chuckled at that. “Yeah, well. Maybe not out on the Rim. But I think we can put him to good use here.” Abby looked askance at her for that, and Cooper just shrugged. “I’ve spent maybe the last hour or so, thinking back about something during the war,” the captain explained. “It was June of ‘08, while Hoss and I were both serving aboard the Diamondback,. The Alliance had just struck Hera hard, and we had some of the wounded from the 47th Battalion aboard, evacuating for Ithaca. It was about 44-hour hot-burn transit, and we spent most of that patching up the wounded. But near the end of the flight, I’ll never forget -- Hoss had found this corporal and his explosives-sniffer dog among the evacuees. Young dog, named Boomer -- bad humor there, maybe. The handler had a few lacerations from shrapnel, nothing major, the corpsman had already seen to it, but the guy was insistent we see to his partner. Hoss knew I had nearly graduated from veterinary school before enlistment, so of course, he brought the fellow straight to me to look at this dog. Boomer was big, spotted crossbreed of some kind, the stupid-happy type of mutt. The dog wasn’t injured, but it seems he’d been off his feed for several days before the battle, and the corporal was sure something was ADR -- that’s alphabet-speak for ‘ain’t damned right.’. The XO wouldn’t let a dog into our surgical unit, so I went out to the barracks -- that’s what the cargo bay was converted to -- to have a looksee. Sure enough, the dog was pretty droopy and had just had an attack of Hershey squirts. The rest of the barracks was up in arms about having a diarrhetic dog in their midsts, but the corporal had a couple of belt-fed buddies in orbit, so the complaining was being kept to a polite minimum. I got a fecal sample, and Hoss got a mop. When I couldn’t find anything in fecal, I got a blood sample. There was the bad news. Boomer’s white cell count was somewhere near 200K; a healthy count would have been somewhere between 6 to 16 K. It probably leukemia or some form of lymphosarcoma. I scanned a definite mass adhering to the liver, and his bowels were all bunched up. Normally, I’d have done an immediate exploratory laprotomy, but the XO wouldn’t have the “waste” of resources. If we were at a well-stocked veterinary facility, surgery followed by chemo or bio-chemi treatments maybe could have given Boomer a chance, but under the circumstances we had then and there… well…” Cooper shrugged. “The poor dog was clearly suffering, and there wasn’t any other reasonable option. Sure, maybe the corporal could have held out on Ithaca and found treatment for the poor dog, but he’d have to have gone AWOL to do it, and recovery wouldn’t be instant, nor guaranteed. Best I could offer was a euthansol syringe.”

Cooper was quiet for a time then, and Abby waited patiently. “I can’t tell you how many human patients we had to ease over by the end of that war,” Cooper finally said. “It wasn’t official policy, of course, but sometimes that was the limit of what we could do. But I never had an euthanasia that broke me as bad as that one dog’s did. The corporel just held Boomer tight and whispered to him while I gave that final injection, while his combat buddies... those battle-hard men, they were balling their eyes out. All four of them, crying like little girls. They probably couldn’t shed a tear for all of the buddies they’d just lost to that cock-up on Hera, but they could weep for that sweet, happy-dumb bomb dog. Once Boomer was gone, that corporel couldn’t stop telling his buddies that he should have known sooner that Boomer was sick -- and his buddies kept arguing back that no, no, no one could have known. They insisted that Boomer’s primary mission had been to take care of his handler and his unit, and that Boomer was too damn intent on his mission to let it leak to any of them that he was ailing. Damn. It kills me that I can’t remember the corporal’s name at all. But I sure can’t forget Boomer’s.” Cooper let out long, slow breath, then shoved herself to her feet. “Dìyù,” she said, reaching after the cane propped up in the corner. “Enough with the maudlin. I’ve got to get lunch on. Do you mind cleaning that table for me? I saw to all the rest.”

“I’ve got it,” Abby said, reaching after the sterilizing spray and a clean linen.

The captain limped off, headed topside, while Abby gave the table a quick wipe-down. She realized then that Cooper’s war story hadn’t really answered Abby’s original question -- what good would a three-legged, half-blind dog be aboard the Jin Dui? Not that cheerful little Bǎo Yù served much purpose, beyond Sully’s teasing title of it being the ship’s “morale officer and welcoming brigade.” But Bǎo Yù was sweet-tempered and adorable -- two endearing traits which crippled old Odin certainly did not share. Could the ship need a watch dog while downworld during its tour of the Rim, Abby wondered? She shrugged the question off and decided to get back up to the crew lounge, to see that Tilly was helping the captain serve up lunch.

As she began to pass by the (starboard) cabin corridor, Abby hesitated, then tip-toed the half-dozen down the short hall toward Carver’s cabin, to see if he had really settled their patient in as promised.

The sliding passenger cabin door was open, and Carver was on one knee on the floor. He had layered several blankets beside his bed for Odin, and the dog was sprawled out on his left side. The big dog had his good eye open, and was gazing up groggily at Carver as the man fondled the big dog’s bandaged head. If the old beast had had a tail left, it would have been thumping, and the man might have been smiling as he said something to be the beast in a soft undertone.

Abby stole away again as silently as she could, not wanting to disturb the pair. She no longer had any question what job Cooper intended the old dog to hold aboard the Jin Dui.