Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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Sword and Scalpel

By J. Davidson Hero

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Some of the individual versions of the stories in this series were written for forum flash challenge contests to help create this "world." As such, stories may not match the characters or settings of the continuous version of the story, which blended all the entries together.

Aphelion One, Day 100

“Curtis isn’t making this any easier... on any of us. Frankly, he’s been a real bear,” Dr. Harry Smith said. A narrow beam of light from his ophthalmoscope pierced the blackness of Mission Specialist Penny Jones’ pupil. Doc watched her iris contract.

“No facial edema,” he said as if dictating. He was uncomfortably close and Penny could feel his warm breath on her lips.

“He’s under a lot of stress. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make it any worse,” Penny said after a moment’s reflection.

“You don’t like to hold anything against anyone,” he stated. “Lightheadedness, fatigue, could be signs of orthostatic intolerance. The Earth-side docs are watching your vitals for it. We might have to start you on Neomidodrine. Still managing the vertigo?”

She smiled, “Sure.” She lifted up a foot and poked a jury-rigged boot at him. “Magnets and Velcro… no medicating required.”

She paused again. “I like Captain Curtis. I think he feels responsible, even though it happened on the other ship,” she said.

Doc inhaled sharply filling his lungs full as he tried to reckon with that familiar conundrum, the double-edges of rank: power and responsibility. Feelings have nothing to do with it; as CO, Curtis IS responsible.

Doc ripped open a dose of sleeping pills for Penny, scanned the barcode on the back with his PDA, handed them to Penny and then searched the screen for the button he had to click to confirm they were dispensed to her. It was a long moment of searching. She was sitting on a table before him and she shifted. The sound of Velcro drew his attention back to her.

“Is it really necessary? The medicine?” she asked.

“Ah. Did you know that fifty percent of the astronauts on the early shuttle missions had to take sleeping pills?”

Doc looked at her. She had dark circles under her eyes; she was really shaken by Barnes’ death, and hadn’t probably slept soundly since they all found out. She always seemed so lighthearted and carefree, but he guessed she was probably prone to more lows than she let on. You fly higher than most, you fall further when you’re forced to land. Then again, she was a civilian, didn’t have the perspective on death he had being a doctor and a marine. Death is a pallid bedmate he was all too used to having around. Two wars gave him that.

Ophelia Dunsirn’s near-death experience and then Barnes’ death had shaken everyone, not just Penny and Curtis. Both accidents occurred on Aphelion 2 and it seemed like Aphelion 1 was due for some drama. But Doc didn’t put any stock in fate or karma, or whatever you wanted to call it. He was a marine: you make your own destiny. He was a doctor too: you prevent death when you can and deal with the aftermath when you can’t. It’s what they called bedside manner. And Harry had plenty of it. The health and sanity of the crew were his jurisdiction and his responsibility.

“Well, take two of these and call me in the morning,” he said with a wink. “I’m taking you off duty until you get some rest. I’ll notify Curtis.” She was a sweet kid, and the only bit of inviting femininity on this boat, the kind that was nice to be around. Of course there was Ivanova too, but when Doc thought about her he could only envision the female spider who’s not above a little cannibalism.

“As the only two Americans on this boat, we’ve got to stick together,” he said with a smile. The thought hadn’t occurred to him until just that instant. The other Americans on this mission, Dunsirn and Barnes, were both subject to “accidents.” The thought startled him.

“But I’m on mess duty tonight.” she said.

“I’ll cover you,” he said. “I’m sure the others won’t mind. I’ve got a hankering for split pea soup again.”

Penny took the pills and swallowed. Then she leaned forward and pecked Doc on the cheek.

“What’s that for? You know I’ll be billing your insurance later,” he added facetiously.

“I heard it was your birthday today,” she said.

“How’d you find that out?” he asked chuckling. “It was a closely guarded military secret.”

“Would it be a cliché to say a little bird told me?” she asked ripping herself free from the Velcro on the table.

“My money’s on Chang,” he said after a moment of rubbing his chin in mock contemplation.

“He does seem to know everything,” she conceded moving out through the hatch, her magnetized boots clacking as she went.

* * *

Doc stared at Penny’s medical file. He had finished typing his notes in and was preparing to batch it for sending Earth-side. Suddenly he realized he was just staring blankly at the screen; his mind had wandered. Forty-six. Not getting any younger.

He searched through the folders on his computer until he found one with some personal pictures. He brought one up on the screen and stared, a woman, thirty-ish, with light brown hair sitting before a photographer’s backdrop of some wooded meadow, a small blond boy nestled in her lap, smiling, his hair cut in sharp bangs.

He knew it was too much to ask. He didn’t expect a transmission, but maybe an email today, just a simple message, on his birthday. She could have managed that much. Memories raced through his mind, and anger nearly surfaced. But then he got it under control. The man of mission, the good-humored doctor, the efficient soldier took control again. He had to keep his mind on the mission, keep this crew healthy in body and mind. That required him to leave some things behind.

“Hello Doc,” Gode Zwelitini skirted the corner, his huge frame startling as he moved silently. He had something in his hand. The smell of freshly popped popcorn filled the compartment.

“A little bird told me it was your birthday.”


©2009 J. Davidsonhero

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