by L. Theodore Ollier
Janusz Voorklepp looked down at his hands, at the rust red that stained their cracks and wrinkles. Dao-Thien Rodriguez, Voorklepp's indentured, sat wide-eyed and anxious next to him on the bench, nervously turning her notepad in her hands. Occasionally, she ventured to glance at her chief as he stared into his palms.
He could feel in her glance what she would not bring herself to say out loud: it was getting late, they should go. Their business was over here, it had been over hours ago. Her confusion was a mere shadow of his own indecision. She had readily absorbed the lesson that he, Janusz Voorklepp, sought to instill in all the indentures assigned to him: time not spent working at the settlement was time frittered away. Time wasted.
But it had been hours since the surgeon had entered that red-sealed door across the hallway, and until he emerged, the settlement did not matter to Voorklepp.
He was there when they'd brought the girl in, blue-lipped and heaving, a frantic crowd rushing her through the triple doors. He'd been there for a trifle, some Terrawayn schnitt that Elke had insisted he find while he was at the market. The airlock was at the far end of the corridor, but the manual override klaxon was shrill and designed to attract attention. When they'd breached the seal, the cold and the sting from the free-flowing air had slapped his face and brought the involuntary tears. He'd already seen enough, though, to understand what was happening. Enough for memory to supply the missing details.
Wiping his eyes with his sleeve, he'd moved to join the throng supporting her body, offering his arms and strength as they'd jostled one another down the stairs. It had come as a shock to him to realize the face behind the breathing gear was actually familiar, not just a projection of his own memory. It was Kiril Valeyev's girl, he couldn't remember her name. His heart had twinged at her father's loss.
"Her mask!" a frightened someone had shouted, and suddenly she was fighting, twisting in their collective grasp as a man tried, gently, insistently, to unbuckle her chinstrap. Behind the frosted plastiglas her eyes had been wide and blank, and four people had had to hold her arms down as she thrashed. Voorklepp had helped, but he knew why she resisted. She was suffocating behind that mask, but in her mind she was still out there, out on the ranges.
When they finally did get the mask off, the coughing and the blood had come as a surprise to most. Not to him. He'd taken over when the lead man had faltered, and cradled her head in his hands all the way to the hospital wing.
He'd watched them rush her into the respiratory trauma operatory, its thick door sliding shut behind them and locking with a hollow click. Behind that door, a rarified atmosphere of helium and argon would keep the lung tissue from further damage, and masked surgeons would labor to repair what damage had occurred. As long as the door seals glowed red, their work continued, and Voorklepp's work was suspended.
The change that came was subtle, unnoticed; the garish red slowly faded through orange to yellow, and finally to green. There came a hiss and a pop, and the door slid open with a gust of warm, antiseptic air. Voorklepp looked up expectantly, but only dim shapes moved in the recesses of the operatory. Sounds came to him: muffled voices, the sound of running water, whirrs of medical machinery, the hum of a repulsion field. Voorklepp watched, eyes shifting from one shadowy figure to another, until two of them detached and gradually made their way to the door. It was the surgeon and a nurse, and Voorklepp overheard fragments of their speech as they emerged: "...nominal recovery...bronchial loss...alveolar hemorrhaging...should respond to poly-enzyme therapy." The nurse finished recording her notes in her notepad, nodded to the surgeon, and departed down the hall. The surgeon turned, and his expression was one of tired victory. His black eyes slid over Voorklepp in non-recognition, but then returned.
"Janusz." The surgeon's voice held confusion and compassion, and he took a hesitant step forward, away from the door. "I didn't know you were involved with this."
Voorklepp had trouble finding his voice. He stood, awkwardly, and managed to say, "Ja. I helped bring her here, Neshthoko. I saw them bringing her in through Eastside Three, and no keyboarder refuses to render aid." He paused, then added, "She's Kiril Dmitrovitch's girl, isn't she?"
The surgeon nodded. "Yelena Valeyeva from Nizhniy Settlement," he said, "I recognized her when they pulled her in."
"Will she...?" Voorklepp didn't finish the question.
The surgeon frowned. His eyes flickered from Voorklepp to the floor, and his fingers twitched against his gown. "The prognosis is decent," he said reluctantly, "But not as good as I'd like it to be." He paused, and with conscious effort added, "Were you here on errands? Business for the Beckhoos?"
Voorklepp replied evenly, "Ja. Always on business. That's why I brought Rodriguez here, to show her the big city. Get her acquainted with the ways here."
The surgeon turned quickly and smiled at Rodriguez. "Welcome to Izumi Kojira Settlement," he said, "Have you been on the planet long?" The relief he felt at this diversion colored his tone, making it warmer than intended.
Rodriguez's voice was soft and high. "Only two qwears," she answered, punctuating the statement with a nod. She glanced up at Voorklepp expectantly, but he wasn't looking at her.
"Neshthoko, what happened to her out there?" Voorklepp's tone was strong, peremptory. His thick hands, still blood-stained, were tense at his sides.
The surgeon turned from Rodriguez, and his dark, lined features were strained. His eyes briefly met Voorklepp's, then looked away. "You don't need to know that, Janusz," he said, "You've done enough here already. You don't need to know that." His tone was almost pleading.
Voorklepp shook his head. "Tell me."
Again the surgeon failed to meet Voorklepp's gaze. "Let it rest, Janusz," he said, "Let it go."
Again Voorklepp said, "Tell me."
In defeat, the surgeon's voice was bitter. "She was out by the Wei-Chi parcel," he began, "By the river where it feeds into the Amazonile. She and a new indenture, a colonist from Terra. He'd forgotten to fill the copter this morning, they had barely enough kerosene to get to where they were going."
The surgeon took a deep breath, and continued, "The copter grounded out on the plains. She slapped him with trank, to keep his breathing down, and set out with the trike and a spare pack. She made it to the twentieth marker before the trike's batteries gave out, then started hiking." The surgeon's tone was scornful, sardonic. "As it was, I was able to save most of the deep lung structure--the ammonia and trace chlorides only scarred her upper respiratory tract." He gestured behind him, beyond the still-open operatory door. "They went out with rescue hovers when they learned about the indenture. He was fine, slept like a baby all that time and was still sleeping when they arrived." Now the surgeon's voice was hard, but his expression held concern. His eyes were now fixed on Voorklepp's face, and did not waver.
Voorklepp briefly closed his eyes, and the memory returned. The scene was different: this time it was his own hands that frantically worked the manual override on the airlock, and her hair was not blond but brown, like his. Nevertheless, the blood, the red-sealed door, and the surgeon were all the same.
He opened his eyes, and his tone was harsh. "Thank you, Neshthoko," he said, and turned away.
Confused, Rodriguez nodded again to the surgeon, and followed her chief down the hallway.
Voorklepp's hands were stiff on the controls as he lifted the copter into the dark Qwertyuiopian night. The lights of Izumi Kojira Settlement shrank behind them, disappeared into the rotor's dark backwash. The Yusprenzi Plains tilted and spread before them, lighted only by the stars and the copter's running lights.
It was a long time before Rodriguez dared break the silence. "Herrn Voorklepp, what happened, with that girl?" She leaned slightly forward, the better to read his face in the dim light of the instrument panel.
"Carelessness." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his tone, but it came out anyway. "Stupidity. Unwitting negligence. Do you understand what I'm talking about? Verstoort duie the situation?" His tone demanded an answer, but he continued regardless, "That girl almost died today. Why? Because of some shricklish typo fresh from the transport, someone expecting to make a new life here. Just like you, just like the rest of the settlement werkkrift, here to make your fortunes when your contracts expire. She was born here, she lived her life knowing what can happen to you here if you're careless. She lived her life knowing that simple precautions mean the difference between life and death."
Voorklepp leaned forward, and his face was unreadable.
"Because of his carelessness," he said carefully, "She will be crippled for life. Because of her experience, he will not be affected. Remember what you saw today, Rodriguez. Remember what he did, and what she did, and what happened because of it." He stopped, and she saw how his hands were pressed together, rubbing as if to remove a persistent stain.
He noticed her glance, and he looked away, out at the stars, and the barren plains rushing away beneath them.
"Remember," he said, voice broken, "That another's carelessness can make all your precautions useless."
Story copyright © 1999 by L. Theodore Ollier <email@example.com>
Artwork "Industry" copyright © 1998-1999 by Kelly McLarnon <firstname.lastname@example.org>