Maicee pushed a little harder, and his scalpel slid through the wall of the abdominal cavity, crimson blood splattering against his gloved fingers. The lights of the theatre were hot, and he felt sweat beading on his brow as he bit his lip in concentration. Why me? he thought. Of all the damned cases, why me? A damn liver laceration.
“Suction,” he said, hoping that his voice didn't betray his fear.
As the blood was sucked away, he could barely see what he was doing, but his hand wasn't trembling. Not yet, at least.
“Monitor vitals; transfuse another pint of blood. Warm four more pints for standby.”
“Yes, doctor,” said a sweet, soft voice.
Falorni was the newest scrub nurse on staff, and Maicee was glad that it was she who had been scheduled to assist him in his final surgical examination. She calmed him, and the Gods knew he needed calming right now.
He placed a retractor, giving him a better view of the patient's liver, and used a piece of saline-infused gauze to explore the cavity he'd created. And then he smiled to himself under his face screen. Easy. A simple anterior laceration of the left lobe. Grade three. He might actually get out of this with a decent passing mark.
Working methodically, he controlled the haemorrhaging and reached for fibrin glue to try to close the gaping incision. He frowned as he saw that the glue wasn't taking, blood leaking through the seal. Dammit. He was going to have to suture.
“Suture,” he snapped at Falorni, not meaning to be rude but intent on his work.
He could feel the muscles in his back begin to spasm as he bent lower towards his patient, pulling the suture needle in and out, piercing the organ and closing the wound in one continuous row of stitches. There. Not bad. He hunched his shoulders forwards and then stretched them backwards, relieving his aching muscles. Falorni handed him scissors, and he was about to cut the excess thread from the stitches when it happened.
“Help me ... please help me.”
The voice was faint, the high pitch trailing off towards the end. What the hell? Where had that come from? His concentration shattered, Maicee felt rather than saw what happened next, the solid bite of the scissors as they cut through the liver rather than thread. Gods. Foul-smelling brown matter splashed onto Maicee's face screen. The smell told him what had gone wrong immediately. He'd cut into the patient's colon. Cursing whoever had prepped the patient for not making him undergo the full internal cleansing procedure, Maicee was shaking. He took a deep breath. He could not panic. The lights of the theatre sparkled off metal instruments, and he surveyed the damage. Okay. First he cut the stitch as he'd intended to do. Then he took a step back.
“Clamp the transverse colon and wash out the cavity,” he said briefly to Falorni. “I need to change gloves and mask.”
The stench was about to make him retch. Falorni moved into position, hands performing her job automatically as she looked at the young doctor, wondering what had just happened, why the seemingly standard operation had taken a turn for the worse. Shaking her head, she hoped that he'd not done anything wrong. She liked him. He was kind to her. Which was more than most male doctors were.
Maicee quickly removed his stained gloves and mask, revealing the long, slender fingers that made him such a good surgeon. He'd almost fainted the first time his tutor had told him that he had feminine hands, afraid that his secret had been uncovered. But it hadn't, and he remained his male alter ego. It was something he kept hidden deep inside, not even knowing why it had to be hidden, just knowing that it must. Knowing that there was a faint tingling of danger in his spine every time he undressed in private, every time there was a threat of his secret’s being discovered.
Gods, what was he doing? This was his final exam. Pull yourself together! Secret or no secret, male or female, if you screw this up you're in for another year of study. Get a grip. He pulled on another set of gloves and a face screen, pushing all thoughts of the pitiful voice he'd heard, all thoughts of secrets, all thoughts of anything but the operation at hand, to the far reaches of his mind.
“Thank you,” he said to Falorni, resuming his place at the patient's side. “Let's repair that colon.”
Falorni was already handing him the materials he needed, and deftly he closed the accidental incision that he'd created. He relaxed a little as the stitches held, then quickly closed the patient up before glancing at the monitors to his right. Nodding, he saw that the patient's vital signs were stable. He might have screwed up, might have failed, but the patient would make it, and that was the important thing.
“He's all yours,” Maicee said to the anaesthetist who had assisted him.
Then, with a sigh of relief, he stepped away from the table and took off his gown. He thanked Falorni for her help and turned to leave the theatre. As he did so, he caught the eye of the expressionless examiner standing in the corner of the room. He let his glance drop to the floor as he exited. God dammit.
Maicee stared out of the window at the busy streets of Carooine City. Late evening shoppers were bargaining at the markets, their long robes powdered with the dust of the city streets. Leaning his head against the glass, he couldn't get the afternoon's events out of his mind. He could swear that the voice he’d heard was real. Swear that there had been someone else there in the room. But no one else had reacted. No one else had heard what he’d heard. Maybe he was going crazy. Maybe he'd been working too hard. But a surgeon was all he'd ever wanted to be. He knew with sure certainty that he was destined to heal, to save, as surely and as inexplicably as he knew he must hide his female identity. He looked at his reflection in the window. Hollow cheeks, high cheek bones. Long blonde hair, tied back in a queue, as was the fashion. Was he going mad?
“Is it just me, or is it hot in here?” said a jaunty voice.
Pulling himself away from the window, Maicee turned to see Benho. Tall, dark, handsome, and very, very charming, Benho was his best friend and had been since Maicee had arrived on Carooine when he was eight years old. They'd completed all their studies together, not falling prey to competitiveness, helping each other out when necessary. And now they had taken their final exams at the same time. Benho was grinning, and Maicee wondered if anything ever fazed his friend.
“I was definitely sweating in the theatre,” said Maicee in answer to Benho's question. “What did you get?”
The man came over and gave him a friendly slap on the back. “Appendectomy, dead simple. Think I could have done it with my eyes closed. What about you?”
Maicee shrugged. “Liver laceration and an iatrogenic colonic tear,” he said, wishing that he didn't have to talk about it but knowing that Benho would force him to. His friend liked dissecting his operations almost as much as he liked performing them.
Benho winced in sympathy, his smooth olive forehead crinkling. “That sounds nasty,” he said. “How did you of the delicate girl hands manage to do that? Did the patient make it?”
“Yeah,” said Maicee, walking over to slump into a chair. “But I'm not sure I did. I think I might have flunked this one, Benho.”
Benho's feet clicked on the tiled floor as he came to sit on the couch opposite Maicee. “Don't you worry,” he said quietly. “You'll be fine. As long as your dummy's okay, they'll pass you.”
Maicee managed to smile at this, but Benho's green eyes looked deadly serious.
“No, I mean it,” said the dark man. “I heard that the dummies they provide as patients are living human clones that have been made braindead. It's the only way to let us perform a potentially dangerous operation in the right circumstances without putting someone's life at risk. And these things are expensive; think about it.”
“I guess,” Maicee said, shrugging.
“And this is the first time they've used the dummies for the surgical final. They'll just be glad that you kept yours alive and they don't have to spring for a new one.”
Seeing that his best friend was about to lose it, and wanting to spare him the embarrassment of tears, Benho reached over and patted his shoulder.
“You're the best out there, Maicee, and the professors know it. Have a little confidence in yourself. Being a surgeon is not about never making a mistake. It's about being able to fix a mistake if you happen to make one.” He grinned. “And I think you need a little stress relief. Come on, let's hit the town tonight and celebrate the end of exams. My treat.”
Maicee gave him a weak grin. “Sure.” He sighed. “I need to drown myself.”
Benho laughed. “That's not quite what I had in mind, but it'll do.”
The second sun was setting, its weak white light fading into a soft grey as a sliver of moon rose from the opposite direction. The lone man wrapped his brown cloak a little more tightly around himself against the slight chill of the wind. The beach on the outskirts of Carooine City was empty at this time of the evening, though it was never especially busy. Sharp rocks protruded around the bay, and strong currents made the sea unsuitable for swimming. The man surveyed the beach, his eyes carefully searching, moving in a pattern to ensure that he didn't miss a square inch. And when he spotted what he was looking for, he moved towards it, his steps purposeful, sandals slipping in the sand.
“So here you are,” he said as he halted and stooped down to look at the damaged escape capsule. “I heard your call.”
Gently, he picked up the unconscious Chamonkey. The furry grey body still held a little heat, but the creature's heartbeat was weak. Wrapping the animal in his cloak, tight against his body to preserve what little heat the thing had, the man turned back and headed towards home.
“I never thought I'd see you again,” he whispered, shaking his head as he walked.
The sea breeze ruffled his sandy hair, and he frowned in deep thought, trudging through the dunes, cradling the damaged Chamonkey closely and carefully.
Maicee briefly wondered where Kabi could be at this time of the evening. His guardian was generally at home, grouchily preparing dinner, but there was no sign of him. Oh well, he supposed that Kabi should have a life of his own now. After all, it wouldn't be long until he, Maicee, was ... what? Studying for another year? He groaned. He'd always wanted to be a doctor, but the thought of studying for a whole other year on top of what he'd already been through was enough to make him feel sick. Maybe he'd join the navy instead. Or run away with a circus.
He pulled on clean robes and stooped to wash his face in the bowl of water that stood beneath the mirror in his bedroom. A soft linen towel hung by the bowl, its fabric gentle on his face. Checking in the mirror, he saw that his hair looked fine. Then he sighed and shook his head. As far as he knew, Kabi was the only one who knew his secret, though he never spoke about it. And Maicee had learned in the years they'd spent together that it was useless to try and persuade the man to speak. Yet every year, Maicee hoped that this would be the birthday that made him old enough to learn the truth. But every year it wasn't. Sometimes he wondered if he was supposed to live his whole life this way, and could think of myriad problems that would arise if he was. At least studying medicine had kept him busy and out of trouble until now.
Slamming the door behind him, Maicee jumped down the steps and went out into the streets of Carooine City. Night was falling, and the scent of the spices of the street traders permeated the air. Large joints of meat roasted, juices dripping into trays beneath, and Maicee felt his mouth start to water. This was home. At least the only home that he'd ever known, and he loved it here.
Until the Unification War, the little island of Carooine had been nothing more than a wasteland. But during the War, it had proven the ideal place for a military hospital. Just twelve years ago, when Maicee had been a young child, the Imperial Military had abandoned Carooine as a base, leaving it to the odd collection of misfits who chose to make it home. Being so far away from Great China, the main and largest island of Archeonis, meant that Carooine was also far away from the Supreme Emperor, making it the perfect place for those who wanted to escape his tyranny. The perfect place to hide.
Maicee walked the dusty streets, avoiding the children playing ball in the gutters, and left the residential quarter behind him. The climate on Carooine was warm, tropical, and he was sweating a little as he walked a further three blocks to his final destination. The Sansoe Bar. Bright neon lights flashed gaudily outside the building; he could see it from blocks away. And as soon as he turned onto the street, he could hear the heavy thumping of loud music, the ground vibrating under his feet from the bass as he got closer. He hated this place. Benho loved it. But then, if he was going to drown his sorrows, he had to hand it to Benho—the Sansoe was the only place in town where he could do that in peace.
He pushed his way through the crowded bar, music throbbing in his ears, the shouts and cries of patrons nearly deafening him. The place is crowded, he thought, even more so than on a normal night. Thrusting himself bodily through the packed dance floor, avoiding swinging arms and kicking legs, he came to Benho's usual small table, reserved and in a quieter corner of the bar. Pulling out a chair, he sat. Only when he was sitting and could see the stage did he realise the reason for the huge number of customers in the Sansoe tonight.
A local band was playing fast, high-energy music that made Maicee's insides jump up and down. That was nothing new, though—what was special was the band's new lead singer. Lucia Dolean. Rumoured to be the most beautiful woman on Carooine, with a voice that could charm angels from the skies. She was beautiful, Maicee had to admit, with long red hair and flashing green eyes that seemed to stare into people's souls. And the delicate lilt to her voice was quite charming, he supposed, though it was probably just her accent, since she originally came from Francea.
He sat back in his chair. Maybe this could work. Maybe between the charming sounds of Lucia and the sweet siren song of alcohol, he could forget this day. Forget because he was almost sure that he'd failed his examination.
Gods. He put his elbows on the table, his head in his hands. What the hell had happened there? That voice. Was he crazy? It could be stress, and yet, the voice had seemed so real, so present, and the pleading had sent shivers down his spine. It had been real—he just knew it had.
“Enjoying the view?” Benho said, grinning and grabbing a chair of his own.
Maicee grunted and looked at the chronos on his wrist. “About time you showed up. I was about to leave.”
“Sorry, I had to take care of a couple of things before I left,” Benho said with a shrug.
Maicee could guess what those couple of things were and wondered if he knew whichever girl it was whom Benho had been courting.
“Drinks are on me,” Benho said placatingly and started to scan the room for a waitress. “Sa-li!” he shouted, spotting a familiar face. “Over here!”
The young waitress saw him, smiled, and nodded, finishing the order that she was taking before coming to their table.
“Back again like a bad penny,” Sa-li said, but she was smiling at Benho. “Need a little something to help you celebrate?”
“Celebrate?” asked Maicee, suspiciously. “Have you heard something, Sa-li?”
The girl pouted her lips. “Only that you two were the only ones who didn't actually kill their mannequins.”
Maicee groaned and sat back. “Not for lack of trying,” he said.
“So, what'll it be, boys?”
“Two Duc'Blancs, neat,” said Benho immediately.
“Not for me. I'll take the usual, a S'wae with ice,” Maicee said.
“That's a girl's drink,” protested Benho. “Come on, we're celebrating.”
“And I'd like to keep my liver intact. A S'wae on ice.”
“Fine,” said Benho, seeing the little lines that formed around Maicee's eyes when he wasn't to be argued with.
He watched the slim hips of the waitress sway beneath her short skirt as she walked away to fetch their drinks, knowing full well that the girl would be in his bed tonight. And Sa-li was very talented indeed, as he well knew, having lain with her on more than one occasion. He grinned to himself, then turned back to his morose-looking friend.
“You know, I could get you a chat with Lucia, if you want,” he offered. “You might be able to lose your virginity at last and forget about that exam both at the same time.”
Maicee raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“You should start exercising a bit, maybe,” continued Benho, conversationally. “I mean, you're so naturally slim, and with that and your pretty little face, you might be sending out the wrong signals. You know?”
Again, Maicee remained silent, knowing better than to respond to what was rapidly becoming teasing on Benho's part. He knew his friend was just trying to goad him into reacting.
“Or are you?” asked Benho. “I don't mind at all if you're gay. Are you?”
Maicee sighed and stared at Benho, who relented.
“Fine,” said the dark-haired man.
He'd only been trying to lighten the mood, but it obviously wasn't working. He might as well just cut to the chase and talk to Maicee about what he was obviously brooding about.
“Spill it, then,” Benho said. “What the hell happened in there? How the hell did you cut into the colon of a patient?”
Maicee thought there was little point in dancing around the issue. Especially not with Benho, who would be the first to see that he was lying. “I heard a voice during surgery.”
He winced a little as he remembered the pitiful words, then the foul smell of colonic matter splashing onto his mask.
“So you're hearing voices?” Benho asked, laughing. “You know, I can get you a mentalist if you like. I hear that schizophrenia is very easily treated these days. Although ...” He paused for a second as if thinking. “I hear that having sex helps too.”
“Look, do you want me to talk to you about this or not?” asked Maicee, sharply. “Would you prefer to be drinking here alone?”
Benho's deep, dark eyes narrowed. “You're serious? Really?”
Maicee nodded. “I heard a soft voice pleading for help.”
“And nicked that big, fat colon because you were distracted,” said Benho, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I know, I don't believe it either. And I don't know what to do,” said Maicee, sadly.
“You really heard something?” Benho asked curiously, leaning forward to study his friend's face.
Maicee nodded. “And it was so real. I felt like I really needed to help her, whoever she is.”
Benho's face lit up with interest. “A woman, eh? A damsel in distress.”
He looked at Maicee's pale, thin face and saw that his friend was truly worried.
“Look, Maicee, whoever she is, whatever she needs, I don't see any way of finding her, at least right now. So why don't you try and put it out of your mind, enjoy the evening, and wait and see what tomorrow brings? The examiners aren't unreasonable. And if what Sa-li says is true, and we're the only two trainees who didn't kill our patients, then we've got to be in with a chance.”
At that moment, Sa-li arrived and placed glasses in front of both of them. Two each.
“One on the house,” she said. “In celebration of the two of you passing your exams.”
She gave Benho a promising wink and went on her way.
Maicee didn't know if he really deserved the free drink, but he drank it anyway. And after a while he found that the sweet alcohol was soothing his mind and that he could, just for a little time, relax. Benho was right. There was nothing he could do right now that would change anything. Besides, he thought philosophically, if I’m going crazy, I’ll still be going crazy tomorrow and can deal with it then.
Maicee put his palm on the door scanner and was rewarded by an open front door and then overwhelmed by the smell of charred meat floating through the apartment.
“Kabi! Have you burned dinner again?” he shouted.
He shook his head. Kabi did try his best, and he'd always been there for him. But he wasn't exactly the most domestic of men. How the hell he'd come to be the guardian of a small child was anyone's guess—the only thing Maicee knew was that Kabi wasn't telling.
“I got distracted,” Kabi said, turning from the dining table to see his ward. “You'll understand when you see this.”
Intrigued, Maicee walked over the crackling rush mats to see what Kabi was doing. And when he saw the small bundle, still wrapped in Kabi's brown cloak, he gasped.
“What are you doing with one of these?” he asked.
Gods, he hoped that Kabi hadn't got himself into trouble. He knew that he was looking at a Chamonkey, and he also knew that not only were they an endangered species, but also that no one on Carooine was possibly rich enough to afford such a pet.
“Don't ask me where I got it,” Kabi said firmly. He rubbed a thick hand across the grey stubble on his head and stared down at the little creature on the table.
Maicee bit his tongue. Fine, he wouldn't ask. But he was damned if Kabi was going to keep the thing in here. Whatever dodgy activities his guardian was up to, he wanted no part in them.
“Just tell me whether you think it's going to survive,” Kabi instructed.
And Maicee immediately broke his vow not to get involved. Well, he was only looking, he reasoned as he bent over the creature.
This was bad. “The abdomen is distended; it's got internal injuries,” he said, shaking his head. “I think ... no, not again. Gods. This bruise here, I think it indicates a laceration of the liver.”
Gods be damned. Two in one day, seriously? For a second, Maicee looked up at the smoking lamp hanging from the ceiling and cursed whichever God it was that had such a cruel sense of humour.
“Can you save it?” Kabi asked, distracting Maicee from his cursing.
The young surgeon sighed. “Maybe,” he admitted. “I need to take it to the hospital.”
He looked at Kabi and saw the desperation in the man's eyes. Gods. Okay, okay. And he felt a soft tingling in his spine, wondered briefly what it was, but then knew that he had to help the animal. He pressed the button on his com device and waited until he was connected to Benho. Ignoring the man's protests, as well as the deep breathing and obvious female giggling, he demanded that Benho meet them at the hospital.
“Theatre three,” he said. “And tell no one.”
Then very, very carefully he wrapped the Chamonkey back up in Kabi's cloak, picked it up, and walked out of the apartment, not even looking to see if his guardian was following.
“Seriously? You brought me out here for this?” Benho's voice was muffled by his face screen, his hands busy with the syringe. “Okay, it's under,” he said after a moment. “Where the hell did you get this?”
He looked up over his screen at Maicee, who was putting on gloves. Was his friend in trouble? That would be a first. Usually, Benho was the one getting into trouble and Maicee was the one fishing him out again. And he'd be in trouble with Sa-li if he didn't get home in the next hour or so. What a night to choose for an adventure.
Maicee snapped his gloves on and then bent over the table. “I'll need a scalpel. I'm going in. Monitor the vital signs and don't fall asleep.”
He ignored Benho's previous question, concentrating on the task at hand. Slight pressure, a little more, and then blood began to ooze from the incision. Calmed by the familiarity of routine, he demanded suction and a retractor.
“Yay, now I'm a scrub nurse and an anaesthetist,” Benho grumbled, handing over the instruments.
Maicee ignored him as he widened his incision and Benho's suction allowed him to see what he was dealing with. Okay, it looked good. There was definitely a liver laceration, but he could see nothing else. He took a deep breath and picked up the stitch he needed to close the small cut on the tiny liver. And then his hand began to shake.
Benho saw immediately what was happening. “You can do this, Maicee,” he said quietly.
Nodding, Maicee took another deep breath, steadied his hand, and placed the stitch. He cleaned the area around the wound as best he could and was reaching for the sutures to close the creature's abdomen when he heard the voice again.
“Thank you,” it said, the same tones as before, though a little stronger now, maybe. “Thank you.”
He looked up instantly, but no one was there. Just Benho, dozing off on his anaesthetist's stool. He kicked the stool, jolting Benho awake.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
Benho's eyes were already beginning to close again. “You hearing voices again?” he slurred. “Wake me up when you've closed ...” And a soft snore signalled that he'd dropped off into sleep once more.
Frowning and trying very hard to focus, Maicee closed his incisions, and once he was satisfied, he kicked Benho's stool again.
“Wake him up. I'm going to clean up.”
Working quickly, he took off his operating robe and gloves and began clearing away any evidence that they'd been in the theatre. It was likely that no one would notice—they were both trainees with full privileges to be here and could have been studying a dissection, but he didn't want any awkward questions.
He was just slinging the rest of the waste into the medical furnace trap when Benho wheeled the little Chamonkey out of the theatre.
“All good here,” he said. “What do you want me to do with it?”
Maicee could see that the creature was sleeping a natural sleep now and nodded. “I'll take care of things from here,” he said. “You go home and get some sleep. Looks like you could use it.”
Benho yawned, then grinned. “Not sure much sleep will be on the agenda, but I'll head home anyway. See you tomorrow at the presentation.”
He waved over his shoulder as he was leaving, and Maicee shuddered at the thought of the exam results being presented in just a few hours. To his surprise, he'd forgotten all about his exam whilst in the theatre. Gently, he picked up the sleeping Chamonkey, stroking its soft grey fur. And again he had that little tingle in his spine.
“You,” he said with wonder. “It was you talking to me, wasn't it?”
The Chamonkey snuffled in his sleep, but the voice didn't appear again. Maicee shook his head. He really was going crazy now, talking to a Chamonkey. Maybe he should see the mentalist Benho had recommended.
Sighing, he wrapped the creature in a hospital blanket before hiding it inside his robe and leaving the hospital. Walking down the hospital steps, he felt the first gentle rays of the first Archeonisean sun rising. A new dawn. And by the end of today, he'd know what his fate was going to be. He swallowed, patted the little Chamonkey, and began the walk home.