“Chalcedon maps usually have those distinct purple lines, like cabbage dye, but made from the bioluminescent pigments of tropical flowers pounded to pulp. You can see the veining, there, near his thumb. That’s an indication of age, because the ink bleeds about two microns a year, and it’s moved pretty far from its original daubing position by now. And the silver, that’s a foiltrace, something high-end clients would ask cartographers for when they wanted to keep their projections obscured from surveillance equipment. Why—why are you all looking at me like that?”
Maude really doesn’t know what to do with these idiots. She’s got a laser-precise sense of character, and only one of them really gives her the heebies. The rest are morons, but not evil. Barely even bad, really. They aren’t the same bloodstained types who usually sashay through her door.
Well, when those bloodstained types get past her oorhunds, that is. This sorry lot is lucky she came along when she did, or the oorhunds would’ve—Goddess above, why are they looking at her like that?
Finally, the tall one, the one holding the map (and, loathe though she is to admit it, a fair bit of Maude’s attention), shakes his mane of dreadlocks and asks, “How do you know all that?”
Her interest in the man cools somewhat at his question. She’s gotten it most of her life. How does a woman make it through an astrophysics program? How does a woman run an outer rim clinic by herself? How does she know anything about anything, being a woman?
“I earned a degree in intergalactic art history from Sinaric Academy the year after I finished my naturopathic certification,” she says frostily. “That was two years after I finished medical school, and five years after I finished highest in my class in my undergraduate astrophysics program at the University of Reinnell Cryy. My thesis was on human cartographical art in a post-IPTA world. That’show I know all of that.”
“Yes ma’am,” the tall man says, and the admiration of his accompanying grin, which shows all of his very nice teeth, earns back all of her interest.
It’s not often she has a captive audience. Maude fights the growing urge to show off, then lets it win out, tipping her chin to the man and the map. “In fact, if I’m not mistaken, that’s at least a partially fictional map, since the part of that facing me depicts the Imaldi system.”
The only one of the group who makes Maude nervous, the golden-haired woman who almost shot her poor Pevro, leaps to her feet, knocking over the boots she’s just finished taking off. “There’s no way she knows all this shit,” she snarls, looking from one to the other of her companions. “Too much coincidence. What if she squeals? Maybe she’s with the assholes from the Spyglass.”
Maude stiffens. (Spyglass? Her heart quickens at the thought of something happening to the bar, to Breth and his gentle employees.) She has no idea what the woman means about the assholes, but she knows plenty well enough it means they’re about to stop trusting her. She can hear her med school professor’s catchy titter and gravelly voice repeating, at the start of every class, The foundation of successful healing is trust. She wants to laugh out loud now, at the memory, and to repeat the mantra herself, but she’s not sure it would have the intended result of unification.
The little dark-haired woman groans a little and shifts on the operating table. Maude catches the eye of her patient’s mate and tips her head towards the threadbare recliner. “Get her over there before I get back. I need to bring the woman out of stasis and work on her. And I need another pair of hands to carry her.” To the golden-haired woman, she adds, “Since you don’t trust me, you can come with me to make sure I don’t do anything you find suspicious.”
It’s not really an invitation so much as a command. The woman narrows her eyes at Maude, who gazes back levelly, counting the seconds off in her head. When she reaches five, Maude says, “You’ve got thirty seconds or I’m making Frosted Tips help.”
Aforementioned man touches the swath of silvery hair falling over his forehead and frowns. The golden-haired woman mutters something unintelligible and pulls her boots back on with clear reluctance, unable or unwilling to resist her curiosity and distrust.
Still standing beside the operating table, Maude half-watches the slim, concerned person scoop up the dark-haired girl and carry her to the indicated couch. The other half of her attention is on the bobbing golden hair and the twitchy hands and the steel-toed boots. When she can tell the woman is ready, Maude straightens her shoulders and walks out the front door.
The Lahmu night air fills her head with its post-storm sweetness, and Maude lets herself relax just for a split second. This is exactly why she’s made Lahmu her home, for this very sort of moment. She feels the golden-haired woman standing uncertainly beside her and speaks without turning.
“I don’t much like to care for people without knowing who they are. What’s your name?”
The woman makes an ugly noise in her throat. “I’m Nunya Beezwicks.”
“No, you’re not, and if you’d prefer not to give me your name yourself, I can just check the scanner.” Maude twists her arm around behind her, pointing blindly (but, she knows, accurately) at the slim scanning bar secured to the eaves of the infirmary building.
Grumbling and gnashing of teeth, but finally: “’m Rahab.”
“Rahab. That’s a nice Earth name.” Maude turns around. “Okay, Rahab, now that we’re on first name basis, let’s get a few things straight. You’re a suspicious type, and it’s pretty cute, I must admit.” More snarling and incoherent (but clearly foul) language from Rahab; Maude wrinkles her nose at the younger woman—she’s just a girl, really, she thinks, noticing how vulnerable Rahab looks, and maybe my heebies were for no good reason. “But you’ve got to drop it with me. I’m just Maude. I’m not beholden to anyone. My goal is to help people, and keep my skin doing it. I’ve learned a lot in my life and I’d like to be left alone to keep doing so, which is why I live on such a remote world. I set up a clinic out here alongside my research station slash zen garden, and I’ve got enough of a reputation for being good at what I do that a few generous people have donated some extremely expensive equipment to me to take care of Lahmu’s needs as a frontier planet.”
Rahab has shrunk into herself during the duration of this explanative onslaught. Maude brings herself up straight, squaring her shoulders, knowing she cuts an intimidating figure—especially with the heavy breathing of her oorhunds in the bushes nearby, and the glint from their laser-enhanced eyes twinkling on Rahab’s arms.
“And let’s be very clear,” Maude continues in a lower voice. “I could have reported you to the UEE two hours ago when you passed my property line. I could have set all six of my oorhunds on you before you got within spitting distance of the house. I could have left the fencenet on and fried you all as you passed through the infirmary doorway. Rahab, I am smart and powerful and dangerous, and as someone loathed for that, I’ve nonetheless managed to stay alive on mostly outer worlds for thirty-seven years.” Maude’s leaning in to the younger woman, speaking through her teeth, the way she does when she knows she has to pour her soul into convincing someone of her words. “If you don’t think there were at least thirty different ways I could have betrayed you already, you’re a fool. And I haven’t. So I won’t.”
Maude makes a soft clicking noise with her tongue, and one of the oorhunds (her favorite, a young male she calls Rivet) pads out of the brush and up to her side, opening his mouth to drool golden slime on the ground at his master’s feet. Maude knows the look on Rivet’s squat muzzle—dopey, loyal, and ever-hungry for the nasty briar-rats she feeds the oors as treats—but to a stranger, it can’t look any different than a hunting snarl.
Rahab’s throat bobs as she gulps. Maude’s heart twinges. She hates putting on her scary face, but sometimes it cuts past a lot of bullshit.
“Yeah. Okay,” Rahab says finally, her lips quivering. “But can you promise Fray will be alright?”
Ah, there it is, the real issue. Maude squeezes Rahab’s shoulder. “Doctors shouldn’t make promises, but I can tell you that if you help me bring her in, right now, she’s got a hell of a good shot.”
Though she doesn’t transform into anything resembling friendly, Rahab is nonetheless helpful and competent, waiting respectfully for Maude’s orders and only eyeing Rivet occasionally. Maude has to hide her amusement at Rahab’s concern; she wouldn’t have continued the charade of intimidation, but Rivet’s stronger and his back more stable than the two women can be, and the purple-haired patient needs stability more than anything right now. Between them, they get Fray out of the silvery tube and onto the oorhund’s back, and strap her down carefully around the middle.
Maude hesitates with her fingers on the handle of the door. She has half a mind to pop her head in and warn her visitors first, before she leads Rivet all the way to the operating table. Then she recalls the advantage it gave her over Rahab, and she chuckles to herself and throws the door open.
A credit to his training, Rivet doesn’t flinch even when Frosted Tips and the tall one scramble for their weapons and bring them up to bear on the oorhund. The two men register Fray’s presence on the creature’s back immediately and the blood rushes to their faces as they realize what they’ve almost done.
Bingo. “Boys, help me get her onto the table,” Maude says, striding to Rivet’s head to bring him alongside the operating table. “Your girl Rahab was quick on her feet. You’ve got a good one there.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Maude sees Rahab beam with pride before quickly disguising it as a sour frown.
The men comply, gingerly lifting Fray off the oorhund and resting her on the surface of the table, which has already done its self-cleaning routine and spirited away the traces of Dragon’s surgery. Maude shoos them to the other side of the table, where they hover anxiously and are quickly joined by Rahab.
As Maude washes her hands, dries them, and pulls on a pair of gloves, the air thickens with their tense, emotionally charged silence. She clears her throat. “Why don’t you all introduce yourselves.”
Immediately, there’s a modicum of warmth in the room. Frosted Tips looks at the others, who look back at him, dazed. He sucks in his breath in a shuddery way and runs his hands through the front of his hair, as if he’s not sure what to say. At last, he lets out the breath in two words: “I’m Kin.”
And so, while she carefully reassembles bits of skull and flesh, and guides a robot through a supersonic massage of brain tissue, and sews up jagged edges of a fresh wound, Maude Lightfoot meets the Damn Shames.
Thanks to Patrick Willmann for the source image. The UEE, IPTA (Interstellar Peace & Trade Accord), and all elements of Star Citizen belong to Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium.
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