THE COMPANY OF ADVENTURERS

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Chapter Five: Flying Doctors Association

There was little talk around the dinner table that night. Dita had made a beef stew with potatoes and carrots, and everyone stared into their bowls. She had found a watermelon for dessert but even Derry was affected by the grownups silence and just spat the seeds onto his plate instead of competing with Marco and his father in spitting across the room.

“Well, we found out the shuttle is rentable, anyways,” said Rand. “So where we gonna find another passenger for it?”

“Got one, two actually,” Dita said. “The hospital at Decimal has some staff going to Octet’s moons on a Flying Doctor clinic run. They need transport and don’t need too much space.”

“Fine,” said Rand. “Thanks for keeping a cool head.”

“SonuvaBITCH!” yelled Marco, and left the table.

Hope quailed, leaning against her mother.

Mamie spent most of the next day cleaning Shuttle Two. “I’m not ready to do Seiko’s shuttle yet, hon. Mind if we switch them over?”

“Do what you think is right, sweetness.”

“There’s enough money for new bedding for the shuttle and a duvet for us,” she sighed. “I thought it would bring them some of our good luck.”

“Well, it don’t always work that way,” her husband replied. He wondered why she thought they had such good luck. Transporting the surveyors had been a tiny light at the end of a long tunnel of lost jobs, bad pay and hardscrabble to keep fuel in the ship and food on the table. He knew there were times when both women had skipped meals to keep the children fed. He’d done it himself.

The Flying Doctors were two young men, and the older one was actually a nurse-midwife, David Commanda. He was as tall as Rand, with a healthy coppery glow to his skin and long black hair worn in a pigtail down his back. He immediately set to arranging their equipment in the cargo bay, doing as much work as Marco in the lifting and carrying.

The actual doctor was shorter, very slim and like Rand and Derry had blue eyes. Michael Chen was very pale and wore his black hair cut short. He arrived about an hour after his nurse.

It turned out this was to be their first assignment together. They were surprised that they had been expected to share quarters.

“Not a problem,” said Mamie. “I can put one of you into one of our passenger cabins. You’d be sharing a shower with the rest of us, and the commons, if that works?”

David was happy with that arrangement, and Doctor Chen liked the idea of his own space on the shuttle. “But I understand I would still be eating with the crew?”

“We could bring meals to you I guess,” said Mamie. “But you’ll get a meal guaranteed hot if you do join us.” She looked doubtful, thinking he might be snooty about it, because his accent was very Third Rock.

“Oh, good.” he replied. “I do have a lot of work to prepare, but I hope the crew will be willing to help me understand the problems of pioneer worlds.”

At supper the two men spent as much time learning about each other as they did about Bluebell’s crew.

Doctor Chen had been working on Third Rock since completing his medical studies. He was reticent about why he had decided to join the Flying Doctors, “Perhaps I’m looking for adventure?” he smiled.

David was more experienced. He had come up on Turtle Island, a Home Planet moon originally settled by aboriginal nationalists from Old Earth’s American continents. Two hundred years later, the population was more diverse, and the traditions of a few hundred Indian nations had made a new culture rooted in the old beliefs. He had taken his nursing degree on Quinto, Turtle Island’s planet.

“And I joined the Flying Doctors right out of university,” he told the crew.

“How did you come come by being a midwife?” asked Mamie.

“There was a need. So the Doctors asked me to do the training. And I get on well with women.”

“Don’t the husbands get jealous of some guy fiddling with their wives’ ladybits?” asked Marco.

“No, I’m gay, so most know my interest in the ladies is professional. I’ve had to make that clear less often than you’d think.”

David took charge of clinic preparations, using his several years of experience to arrange the equipment to his liking. Dr. Chen quietly watched, only occasionally asking the reason for David’s choices. They soon fell into a rhythm and worked comfortably together.

Octet was on the wrong side of the sun for a quick voyage, but only a few days were required even with Bluebell’s speed limitations. When they put down on Octet Five, called Brandywine, the first community was more than ready for them.

The medics were greeted by the community Council, two elderly women and a sleek young man, who introduced themselves and showed the crew where the Clinic should be set up, in a square across from the village hall.

The village had been set up like most homesteader centres. A square with a large, fortified Hall made of adobe had been the first building, used by the entire community while they built individual homes. There were a few of those homes, also in adobe, still standing in the dry climate, but newer buildings like the school and a strip of shops were built of local stone.

Most of the settlers now had houses on their homesteads, built of adobe, stone or brick depending on how they had prospered. One brick house had a wooden porch, with decorative bargeboard. Rand pointed it out to Mamie. “One day we’ll have a fancy house like that. Maybe all wood, if we strike lucky.”

When the medics returned to Bluebell from their first clinic on Brandywine, they were pointedly not looking at each other.

Marco had been busy unloading cargo and had produced an easy antipasto spread of finger foods: salami , pickled mangoes and peppers, cubes of paneer and mozzarella, zucchini flower fritters and onion biryani, tomatoes, sweet onions, cucumber raita, followed by a hot dish of spaghetti with curried lentils.. There were bowls of yogurt with honey for dessert.

“Looks terrific, Marco,” Mandy told him. “Nice havin some cash in hand when you shop, eh?”

“Made the paneer last night and the only fussy bits were the fritters and biryani.” Marco replied shyly. “We got here at the right season too. With the doctor money, I’ll shop tomorra and do some cannin and freezin for bad times.”

Dita and Hope had been on the bridge. “We better not get dependent. Them two were starting to argue when I passed the shuttle Might not go on with the clinics.”

Mandy spoke into the comm. “Dinner’s on the table.”

Derry and Rand came in from the commons where his father had been supervising a calligraphy lesson. David, entering from the catwalk, said, “Doctor Chen has asked that his dinner be served in his shuttle, please and thank you.”

“Not a problem,” replied Mandy. “Derry,you can take the tray up for the doctor.”

“Mummy, I’m hungry,” he complained.

“Don’t sass. Have a biryani and raita, while I make up the plate. You can have more when you come back,” his father frowned.

Sighing loudly, the boy took a large biryani and ate it in three bites, nearly choking in his hurry.

His mother shook her head and gave him a tray. “Carry it flat and don’t hurry or you’ll drop it.”

David was quiet during the meal, only saying that he clinic was “Fine, a few glitches,but fine.”

Mandy was disappointed that he had no stories of dramatic cures or horrible diseases. The nurse excused himself immediately after dinner.

“I’m meeting a friend.” he said.

“Thought this was your first time on Brandywine,” said Rand. “Old friend?”

“New one actually,” David grinned widely. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Going out he passed Derry returning. The boy surveyed the much depleted table and sighed dramatically. His mother pulled a filled plate off the service counter and put it in front of him.

“What do you say?” asked his father.

“Thank you. Mummy,” Derry replied meekly.

“You didn’t drop anything did you?” his mother asked.

Derry decided he had rescued the doctor’s fork and spoon before the five second rule applied. “No, mummy. The doctor was sorta sick, though.”

“He’d be the best one to cure himself then.”

“He was all red face and breathin hard. I think he’d been pooping cause the was doin up his pants.′

“Did he want his dinner?” asked Marco.

“I put it on his desk.”

“I’ll go up later and see if he’s poorly,” said Mandy. “Mebbee he et somethin...”

“Not my cookin!” objected Marco.

Both medics seemed tired in the morning. David was cheerful, but had returned well past midnight according to the ship’s log. Doctor Chen was red-eyed, saying at breakfast that he had had a sleepless night. Both took large cups of strong coffee with them for the second day of the clinic.

“What’s a hookup, mamma?” Hope asked Dita.

“Why?”

“I heard Doctor Chen tell David that his hookups shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with doing his job.and David was really pissy.”

“Don’t say pissy,” her mother reprimanded.

“David said his social life was not Doctor Chen’s business, and the doctor said as far as he knew his business was nursing not whoring. Are there boy whores, mamma?”

“Yes, dear. Not everyone has a partner.”

“Marco goes to girl whores, though.”

“Never asked him. Not my business. And what our passengers say to each other is not our business. That’s gossip. Rude.”

“Yes, mamma.”

“Sounds like our good doctor is even more tight assed than we thought, gettin mad at David for datin.”

Mandy agreed with Dita as they folded sheets. “Hope it ain’t cause David’s gay. I’ve heard of people gettin upset about that.”

“Why? Either you’re in the dating game or not. If you don’t want to sleep with someone why should you care who he does sleep with?”

“It ain’t the sleepin,” Mandy giggled. “Mebbee he’s jealous, Mebbee he wanted to hook up with David’s date.”

“Or...” suggested Dita. “With David?”

“They’d be a cute couple. Nice bodies both and David’s hair and the doctor’s eyes...”

“You just have a thing for blue eyes, little girl.”

“Yeah. They sure do turn me over,” Mandy agreed.

By the next day, the last day of the Brandywine clinics, the situation between Dr. Chen and his nurse seemed to have calmed down. Dita saw them talking as they pulled together their stock of medicines, vaccines and protheses. The talk ended with Dr. Chen shaking David’s hand and David pulling the doctor into a hug. Dita noticed that Chen seemed startled by the warm gesture.

The next stop was on Octet Seven, named Pearlywhite for it’s large snowcaps and many glaciers. Bluebell was not picking up cargo here, but just dropping off mail. Rather than waiting for the clinics to be over, the medics decided that they would stay in the shuttle and allow Bluebell to continue on the inter-world postal run, returning in two days to move the shuttle to the next mining camp, since neither man was licensed to fly shuttles.

Mandy brought them more linens and made up a second bed. Marco supplied them with precooked meals. The shuttle had no cooking facilities, but the clinic did have a microwave which could double for heating food and sanitizing.

Dita supervised Hope in flying the shuttle to the next camp.

“If I knew flying was simple enough for a child, I would have done it myself,” Dr. Chen told Dita.

“Hope is nearly twelve, but she’s been learning piloting for over two years. Mostly navigation and course plotting, but she can fly pretty good. Landing is still tricky, though.”

Chen took the mild rebuke in stride. He seemed much more relaxed with the crew than he had been just a few days before.

They left fresh supplies and took off for Octet Three on the postal run, this time also carrying a few miners on furlough and one who had managed a spectacularly broken leg while skiing the glacier overlooking the mining camp. She was awake, but grinning happily under the influence of some very strong painkillers. One of her workmates sat with her and wiped the drool from her face occasionally.

“Does she even know where she is?” asked Mandy.

“Actually, she’s pretty much like this even without the meds,” her friend said. “Which is how she broke her leg. Crazy and dumb with it. Kiteboarding in these winds. Shithead.” He wiped more drool from her lips as she tried to pat his arm, succeeding only in slapping his face and the wall.

They returned a little ahead of schedule. The clinic was closed, and the medics were not in the shuttle. Dita, wrapped against the cold wind, made her way across to the clinic and entered through the unlocked vestibule.

Chen and David were not packing. Instead they were wrapped in an intense embrace, eyes closed and clothing partly removed. Dita slipped back out.

“They’re busy. They should be out in about half an hour tops,” she reported. Marco and Rand had the landmule packed and took the cargo of supplies they had brought for the camp over to the quartermaster’s store.

“Don’t bother making up David’s cabin,” Dita told Mandy. “I don’t think he’ll be using it anymore.”

“No? Why?.... Oh!” Mandy squealed in joy. “All that get away get away was just a coverup.?”

“Reckon.”

Mandy sighed happily. “Some men don’t know what they want until someone shows ’em,” she said.

David found Mamie in the the passenger’s shower room fixing the drippy showerhead. “Not complaining, Mamie, but there are no sheets on my bed.”

“Oh, are you still wantin your own space? Dita thought you and the doc were an item . Was it just a one off?” she asked sympathetically.

David was nonplussed.

“Can’t keep any secrets on a boat, Davy. Dita saw you all but nekkid in the clinic.”

David’s coppery skin flushed deeper. “I don’t think...”

“No worries. I’ll make up your bed. Takes a while to settle in with a new lover sometimes.”

“Ummm... thanks.”

“Hey, it took me near on two months to get the captain into bed and I’d decided he was gonna be my man a whole year afore that.”

David looked at the mechanic’s baby face and noted a few acne spots on her chin. Derry was five but David wondered again about his mother’s age.

“How did you two meet? At one of those Traders’ Reunions?”

“No, I was born on Pentangle. Daddy runs a mechanical repair shop there and has a homestead. All pretty hardscrabble. I just inheritied his knack for engines and other machinery. Like Hope learning piloting from her mamma. And I was one of the first born in the village so I got roped in at school into takin care of the littler ones.

But I never wanted to stay there. I wanted my own spaceship. Hung around the yard when the ships come in. Which war’nt too often. And bugged the engineers about showin me their engines, which they didn’t much go for until my boobs come in. Got to see the engine rooms then. And once I learned to give a blowie, I could get into any engine room, even the fuel sections. I think the guys told each other I wanted to learn everything they could show me.” she seemed unfazed by what was effectively child abuse.

“I first met Bluebell when I was still in school, when the teacher asked me to chaperone a bunch of Sixes and Sevens on a field trip. I was only a Nine my own self, but I was sorta apprenticin with Daddy by then and Teacher knew I loved machines.

The captain showed us kids around, and I was real taken with the ship, cause there was so many things I could see needed fixin. And the captain was pretty cute too, for an old guy.

Bluebell was waitin for some parts from off-world and I told him about Honest Austin’s junkyard where he could prolly get some. And when I went back a couple days later, the ship was gone, cause he had gotten the stuff he needed there.

Then near on a year later, I’d just started Tenth year, I saw Bluebell again. We didn’t really have a spaceyard, counta nobody ever came to Penguin, which was why the field trip, y’know? So Bluebell was parked on the edge of town and the captain was sitting outside lookin right disconsolate.

An I bopped up and asked what he needed, an he said his mechanic had quit on him and now he couldn’t figure what was wrong with his gravity. An I asked if I could look, and he sorta sighed and let me. An I fixed it. Someone had put in the amplifier upside down, which is easy to do, and hard to spot. An he was right grateful and gave me some money, which was handy, times being.

An then he asked if I wanted a job as his mechanic. An I said yes, if Daddy agreed.”

“Your father was willing to let you leave home so young?” asked David. If Mamie was in Level Ten she would have been about fourteen.

“Daddy was pleased that I had a job offer, but less happy when I told him I would be mechanic on a spaceship.

He was downright grumpy when the captain came on the mule to pick me up with my stuff. They was grunting at each other like ruttin moose.

“She’s never been off this world.”

“So she said.”

“She ain’t trained on spaceships, all’s she got is what I taught her, and I ain’t trained on no spaceships, neither.”

“I understand that.”

“She’s pretty young.”

“Yeah.”

Then the two of them just stood sorta glaring at each other for a bit.

“I need me a mechanic that understands my boat. She spotted and fixed what my trained mechanic couldn’t.”

“She can do that. Got a knack. A talent.”

I could see Daddy softening.

“What’s your boat?”

Bluebell’s an Arrow C-105.”

Bluebell?”

“Yes.”

So they stood there for a while.

“No wonder you need a mechanic, them Arrows is older n me.”

“Good mechanic can keep her flying forever, if the parts is available.”

“Did we settle wages?”

“She’ll get ten percent of the profit after expenses, her own bunk, and free run of the kitchen.”

Daddy nodded. “She’ll do.”

I hugged him and ran upstairs to my bedroom and started packing.

When I came down the captain was gone and a tall brown woman was there instead.

“Dita Aglukak. Pilot. Captain sent me to get you settled.”

Daddy looked uncomfortable, and Mum was cry-smiling.

“Ms. Aglukak? You’ll see that she comes to no harm?”

“There’s just four crew, M’am. You’ve met the captain and me, and I got a little girl. Then your daughter.”

Mum looked happier that I wouldn’t be the only female on board.

“You remember your coming up. “ she told me. “You remember to be a good girl and mind your employers like they was your parents.”

“Yes, Mum.”

And Mummy kissed me and Daddy kissed me, and I got on the mule with Dita and that was the last time I saw them for near on two years.

I got my coveralls on and got stuck in with the engine. Weren’t nothing much wrong with it, cepting needing cleaning, so I scrubbed it down with solvent and listened to her complaints.

Mum had sent a box of garden stuff with me, and an apple pie from our tree out back. At dinner, which was pretty awful, cept for the pie, the captain listened to me babble on about what Bluebell needed and agreed to buy a few parts if I could find them at Honest Austin’s Salvage. I told him that Leroy always gave me good prices and Daddy usually sent me to pick stuff up for him.

He said, “That does not surprise me a bit.” and Dita gave him a funny look.

After dinner, I went back to the engine room and set up my tool bench. The captain came with me.

“Do these tools belong to Bluebell or to the guy who quit? Cause I like to keep my things where I can find them fast and keep them nice.”

“When he left, he was swearing something fierce. I don’t think he’ll be back.”

“He left?” I had missed that part, even though Dita had said. I thought I would be working with another mechanic, training like.

“Don’t need more than one mechanic, boat this size.”

I was shocked at how much trust the captain was putting in me. I was pretty sure I could handle it, long as I could call Daddy on the inter-world ansible if I ran into a big problem, but this was more responsibility than I thought I would have.

“So she’s my baby? I’m the only one who can keep us flying?”

“Pilot knows about the navigation and computer systems. And she worked a bit with Chuckie, until he stopped. Huh. Gave up, more like.”

There were tools all over the place. Captain watched me as I found them and put them in order with my own. I had to put some aside for cleaning. Chuckie wasn’t much for helping his tools out

The captain watched as I cleaned my hands. “You’ll be wanting your bed soon. Long day. I’ll show you your bunk.”

My stuff was already in the bunk. I guess Dita or the captain had put it there.

There was only one light, a glarey overhead thing with no shade. The walls were mostly grey, except where they were rusty, and everything was dirty. Not deep down dirty, just old, not used in a long time. One wall curved in over the little bed. But there was a new mattress, still rolled in its burlap sack, and pretty good cupboard space and a web screen so I could listen to music or watch my stories. And there was a sink.

The captain read my mind. “There’s a head with a shower at the other end of the hall. And...” He pushed the sink and a commode swung up. I couldn’t help it, I laughed.

The captain smiled back. I think that was the first time I had ever seen him smile. Mostly he looked sad or angry, like he couldn’t stop thinking about something that tore him up and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“Dita’s next door to you, with her kid, and I’m in the biggest cabin next to that. It says Captain on the door, if you need anything.”

“I think I’m good. I’m really grateful for this job, captain.”

“Do it right, and you’re here as long as you want to be. Screw up, and I’ll drop you back home.” The frown was back.

“I have a question, though.”

“Sure.”

“What’s your name? Everybody just called you Captain.”

“Captain’s fine, but my name is Randolf Hudson. What’s yours?”

“Amanda Singh Dieudonné, but Mamie’s fine.”

“Mamie. Pretty.” He smiled again.

“Rand.”

And since I still was feeling excitable, and he was pretty cute for an old guy, I took his hands in mine and stroked my thumbs over his palms. “You’ve been so good to me, Rand, is there anything you would like from me?”

He snatched his hands back. “I’m your captain, Mamie, not your boyfriend.” His frown was back and he climbed up the ladder and out of my bunk.

But I had made him smile.”

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