No one was surprised when the Miran career selection process pointed Jen Brightstar toward medicine. While less talented individuals thought such directives were random and arbitrary, those endowed with clear ambitions knew otherwise. Talent was no more than an obsessive love that drove its owner to practice, study, seek out and consume the object of their affections. For him it had been medicine, for Laren military and environmental strategies. Their ambitions were rooted in Esheron where choices, albeit the option for bad ones, remained, but their efforts had served them well on Mira III, assuring livelihoods they both not only enjoyed but magnified, leaving native Mirans behind in their compliant fog.
Infectious diseases had been conquered on Mira III, mostly through genetic engineering, but that wasn’t the case here. Insidious illnesses broke out on a regular basis, both from exposure to indigenous bacterial and viral strains as well as those brought in from other worlds. Immunizations existed for most imported ones, but few native to Cyraria had been identified. Protection from known diseases was available, but that was all. Nonetheless, the challenge was invigorating, giving him a sense of life in the face of death he’d never known on Mira III. He’d never realized how boring it was until now, the change awakening a part of him he never knew existed.
Jen glanced down the line of uniformed prisoners outside the infirmary’s entrance, its security field barriers still up. Through its vague distortions he could see his charges, mostly human with a few exceptions, some in wrist wrings, others not, stacked like ‘troids and glared upon by heavily armed guards. At first it amazed him they’d free so many at one time, about seventy-five, as far as he could tell, until he considered that these were probably not violent men. In most cases they’d done no more than offend some regional law unheard of on their naterra. Terms were often short, though no doubt interminable while in effect. He wondered at the punishment’s severity. Territorial prison was a far cry from a Miran NCR. Then he cast it off, not professing to understand governmental policies on undeveloped worlds. Order was essential, or so he’d been told on Mira III. Maybe this was its assurance.
He didn’t know what they were waiting for, but the field barrier remained. To save time he retrieved a container of immunopatches from his medkit and lined up some remedies for the more common ills. The human body was relatively fragile, susceptible to parasites, microbes, allergens and viral attacks, especially on an unfamiliar world. Massing so many humans as well as other alien species together in close quarters exacerbated it even more, to say nothing of the emotional effects of confinement and seclusion.
The prisoners looked so much alike, underweight, bearded and listless in their prison greens. Would Laren look like that, too? Probably. He shuddered at the possibility then deliberately shifted his thoughts, stroking the new growth on his own face, hoping it would suffice as disguise in the event Troy showed up. He’d have to deal with all that soon enough. Until then, there was work to do. And finish, as far as possible. In all probability he wouldn’t be coming back. Something inside him went cold as the various reasons for that restriction rose unbidden.
He eyed the line again, hoping he could do some good. This group looked like ordinary prisoners, not eppies, the nickname for elite political prisoners, or EPPs. They’d been the first ones he’d seen, the warden’s chief concern. Delta Region didn’t have any but the others did and apparently the warden didn’t want anything to happen to them on his watch, even though they were under the control of their respective regions. He had thus encouraged the regional authorities to avail themselves of Jen’s services, which most had except, unfortunately, for Sigma. Eppy cells appeared crude and confining, yet each was equipped with Surveillance and Monitoring Capabilities that rivaled omniscience. SMCs provided the warden with such data as muscle activity, heart rate, blood pressure, potassium reserves. Even emotional climate was assessed via aura emission analysis, though actual thoughts remained unknown.
Or so they claimed.
SMC capabilities were also used for less passive means. By identifying physical and mental weaknesses, then targeting them accordingly, a prisoner could be taken to the pinnacle of torment, just short of life-threatening damage. The scars weren’t visible to the eye, but they were to the bioscan. And the soul.
Jen shuddered inwardly at the thought, outraged at technology developed to heal used to destroy. His lips pressed together, frustrated. How much good could he really do? With normal prisoners where illnesses and maladies were profuse but few life-threatening he could probably do quite a bit. The eppies were another story. His back stiffened, wondering if they’d use his bioscan data surreptitiously. He set his jaw and stroked his thickening growth of beard. That he could prevent, and quickly programmed the device to purge its memory then do so after each subsequent scan. For a moment he marveled at his noncompliance, so contrary to his years on Mira III. He smiled to himself, thanking his Esheronian warrior genes for giving him the courage to attempt such a feat. Then again, was it courage or insanity?
As a young man on Mira III wars were far removed and he’d often fantasized what it would be like to save a life as opposed to taking one; to give someone an extension of something only fate could give. It didn’t happen much on Mira III where predictability reigned. While infectious diseases had been largely eliminated, others remained. Human nature being what it was it made sense. The vast majority of illnesses originated with emotions that emitted unique biochemicals that weakened specific biological systems. In spite of Mira III’s controlled social environment and genetic engineering, feelings and emotions remained unconquered. Diseases of the spirit weren’t easily cured.
His ponderings returned to the present when the field barrier finally dropped, announced by a subdued thump beneath his feet as the generator plates separated. The line shifted to attention, moved toward him in strict formation.
The first prisoner kept his gaze straight ahead, stiff as if anticipating pain. Jen passed the handheld bioscan over him in a few well-practiced swipes, front to back via the head, then side to side, more slowly, both chest and back, and round the head, level with the eyes. The readings were within normal range, a few flickers in the gall bladder area, most likely developing stones. Common here and no surprise, considering its most common emotional source was bitterness.
He instructed the man to unlatch his greens. The prisoner glanced at him, jaw hard, and obeyed. Jen switched the unit to high frequency ultrasound then held it in place against the man’s ribs. As soon as the man realized it wasn’t some new torture device his muscles relaxed. A series of short beeps sounded, indicating the stones had been vaporized. Jen switched it back to diagnose and dropped it in his breast pocket, then fit an immunopatch inside the man’s elbow.
“Try to drink as much water as possible the next day or so,” Jen advised. The man nodded and moved on; the line moved forward three calculated steps.
He smiled at the next one, trying to look as unthreatening as possible, and passed the scanner along its course. A kind word or touch may be the most healing thing he could do. How many were imprisoned for reasons like Laren? Probably more than he wanted to know. At least Bryl was committed to personal freedom and free enterprise. Sigma, and apparently most of the territory, embraced a different ideology. Something conveniently left unmentioned before their arrival.
The next several inmates were relatively healthy, probably new, and his mind wandered, letting the bioscan do the work. Politics were but one of Cyraria’s surprises. Laren had always been higher on the recognition scale than he was and it made sense that a terralogist would be more revered on a primitive planet as well. Fate, however, had decreed otherwise, the influence of friends and enemies of high station entirely unexpected. He had fared well, his brother poorly. As evidenced by the fact he was here on his own volition, his brother otherwise.
While the guard unshackled the next one he glanced at the chronometer, then around the room. The infirmary was relatively large but, as expected, poorly equipped. Good. When Laren came in he wouldn’t have to lie. Garnering a proper diagnosis, much less treatment, with anything here would be impossible, its main purpose to administer skin adhesive to patch up abrasions incident to quarrelling inmates.
Prisoner by prisoner the chronometer ascended to the next hour, the time approaching. How long it would take he could only guess. Hopefully response time would be short. He wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of symptoms, the entire operation based on theory, not fact. If it proved false, the consequences would be devastating. The basic tenets were simple: Deven would dump so much energy into Laren’s body that its life’s essence would dissociate from its physical counterpart. If Deven couldn’t reverse it, Jen postulated he could equalize the life fields and bring him back. Maybe. How severe the trauma would be to the consciousness/body interface he had no idea. A few minutes without oxygen resulted in significant brain damage so time was critical.
For a moment he recalled their ordination on Esheron, the charge they’d been given to fight the encroaching negative forces. The Primary Guardian had neither lied nor prepared them properly for what was to come. The fact that freeing Laren was something he was supposed to do, however, burned deep in his soul, erasing any tendency toward blind compliance. Not here, not now, the time for that as far past as life on Mira III.
He fit the next patient with an infusion patch laced with mineral supplements in addition to antibody stimulants, then paused to examine an area of raw and seeping skin on the man’s arm. He pushed back the sleeve of his prison greens, noticing it crept halfway to his shoulder. It looked like some kind of fungus, unusual in such a dry climate, but anything was possible in the confines of prison. The scanner confirmed his suspicions, but failed to identify it specifically.
“Have you had this long?” he asked.
“Since I’ve been here,” he replied. The man’s grey eyes were distant, uncaring.
“How long is that?” Jen asked.
“I lost count.”
He held the man’s gaze, wondering why he was there, then realized it didn’t matter. He reached into his medkit and pulled out a small package of topical regeneration dressings. “Here,” he said, holding them out. “Change it out every three days.”
The guard stepped forward, examined the contents one by one then nodded consent. The man held Jen’s gaze, eyes backlit by a glimmer of intelligence, but his hand didn’t move. “I can’t pay for these,” he said. “If I could, I wouldn’t be here.”
Jen nodded, unsurprised. “If I needed payment I wouldn’t be here, either.” He took the man’s hand and placed the packages in his palm.
The man closed his fingers and smiled, revealing teeth deeply stained by ilyana root, a stimulant common in temperate areas. “Thanks,” he said. “I’d forgotten anyone cared.”
“I do,” Jen said. “Benefics be with you.”
The man nodded, his look betraying a few lingering suspicions, then moved on when shoved forward by a guard. The next several were similar, possessing minor ailments he could treat. He did, gladly, the sense of purpose adequate compensation. A few more healthy ones with shorter beards, younger, more newbies. Then one whose scan was a flashing prism. Malnutrition, parasites, migraines and colitis. This one would require more than an infusion patch. He plowed through his medkit, did what he could, wondered if it was enough.
A prompting from recent past flared, that he could do more. Much more. Desire notwithstanding, his faith was weak, worsened further by surrounding guards who would definitely balk if he laid hands on the prisoner’s head. For now the works of man would have to do. Hopefully, they’d suffice.
* * *
The transition from subject to observer was instantaneous, sensations, sights, and sounds changing from instruments of torment to a fascinating display of electronic signals. The spectra included thousands of frequencies, visual, audio, and psi bands alike, each customized for a specific effect, a pseudo symphony for an audience of one. Wavelengths from the electro-magnetic spectrum previously invisible presented a brilliant exhibition of dazzling color occulted from mortal eyes. An inrush of data, all silent, all wordless, a torrent of pure intelligence, poured in through a multitude of senses, some familiar, some not. Magnified perceptions processed it effortlessly, comprehending the incomprehensible. The linearity of time ceased, past, present and future entangled together as one.
The walls retreated, transforming what had been a cramped cell to a pale and eerie desert, ground and sky as one in colorless hue. The still figure in the center, unshaven and unkempt, looked vaguely familiar, viewed simultaneously from a multitude of angles in dimensions beyond human experience.
The fact he was looking at himself was strange, but oddly familiar, a reminder of sensations long forgotten. More awed than alarmed, Laren absorbed the surging information, deluged by answers, some to questions previously voiced, others not. His mind was one with the substance of space itself, yet never more aware of its singularity. From the chaos of thought that had besieged him for days came clarity and understanding, enough to wonder at the experience and its source.
Drugs and other stimuli could mock the mind, subdue it, deceive it. Heightening the senses via brain stimuli was well documented. Much of what he’d experienced of late was definitely in that category; this wasn’t. He sensed someone beside him; no, within him. A strong surge of love and peace. His sons. Sharra.
Of course. They were waiting.
Strengthened, his awareness returned to his cell. The signals had stopped, a flurry of activity drawn by the silence. He knew it wasn’t yet his time; nonetheless decided he wasn’t going back.
* * *
Jen’s powers of concentration had always been formidable. This hadn’t changed since boyhood, the ability at once a curse and a blessing. A curse to his family, who knew he wouldn’t hear a word if otherwise engaged, a blessing when his concentration was on his audience, excluding all else. Which case it was now he didn’t know, only that he started visibly when the guard tapped him on the shoulder as he reached for the next patch.
“Hey, doc,” the guard said, gesturing toward the back. “We’ve got another eppy for you. Brought in from Sigma.”
“I’m not authorized for Sigma,” Jen replied, mind still occupied with the man with multiple ailments.
“Yeah, but you’re here,” the guard said. “This guy’s important, doc. If he dies, he’ll be taking a lot of people with him. Don’t worry, his RG will buy in.”
“That’s not the problem,” Jen explained, absently stretching his shoulders. “I’m not badged for Sigma.”
“You are now. You might even get a reward for this one.”
His heart started to pound as the message registered. This was it.
Miran façade quickly in place, Jen excused himself unnecessarily from a mass of humanity with nothing better to do than wait and followed the guard, surprised by the long, unruliness of his blond hair. If it weren’t for the blaring green regional banner on the back of his jacket he would have thought him another prisoner. Obviously Sigma had compromised standards.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, deliberately modulating his voice to an indifferent range as he noted a cluster of people in the far corner where they were headed, by the door to the other wing. A variety of sexes and races were represented, some uniformed, some not, all with anxious faces.
“Don’t know,” the guard said. “His bios just dove. No warning, no fluctuations, nothin’. Like a telemetry drop-out. An escape would show the same, but then zone scanners would pick ‘em up. This one’s been so resistant to SMC’s we figured a snoop circuit malfunction. But when we checked, there he was, flat out.”
“How long’s he been unconscious?” Jen asked.
The guard glanced at the digichronometer on his sleeve. “Based on the data drop-out, about five minutes.”
Jen nodded, relieved. There was still a fair amount of time. “Heart rate and pressure?”
The guard shook his head, stringy hair flying. “That’s your department, doc.”
The crowd saw them coming and divided, revealing a gurney against the wall. He could see the patient now, enough to know he wasn’t old enough to spontaneously asystolate. Medium build, a few years older than he was. And for the first time it really hit him who it was and why he was there.
His heart dropped as if to fall out of his chest and he knew first hand why physicians seldom treated members of their own family. In spite of knowing otherwise, he’d never thought of Laren as an eppy. He’d never thought of him as a prisoner, either. Or a patient. His brother had never been sick a day in his life. Yet there he was, pale and flaccid, the collective agitation of the entourage testimony to his brother’s importance as well as his grave condition.
“All right, everyone out of here who’s not med-ops certified,” he stated, amazed when the group stepped back without protest and gathered against the opposite wall.
He stepped to the gurney, mind in a shouting match with his emotions. His mind took the patient’s wrist. A weak and thready pulse beating at a dangerously slow rate; respiration, barely; pupils unresponsive. The bioscan told little more. Numerous indications of electronic abuse and malnourishment, general tissue damage and scarring. Disgusting on any human being, much less his only brother who, by all rights, should be home with his family.
“This man can’t be treated here,” he declared, voice awash with inflections of anger mixed with unquestioned authority. “My ‘veke has some capabilities, but for optimum recovery probability, the ALSIC’s the best recourse.” When no one argued he called for the hover-litter he’d stowed earlier and ordered Sigma personnel to secure departure clearance.
His emotions, strong but invisible within an infallible Miran façade, raged with contempt. He’d met the man responsible for such despicable exploitation of his brother’s life onboard the Aquarius. He didn’t like him then.
He hated him now.
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