Chapter 4 – The Healer
Wildstar could see she was overwhelmed by a sudden flood of emotion. The tension released in her body, and her shoulders slumped. She leaned against the hydraulic arm of the shuttle's ramp behind her, pressing her trembling hands against her face. She was silent as she tried to hide her tears.
“Jessica.” Wildstar struggled for words.
Jessica caught her breath and glanced toward his voice. He knew she had momentarily forgotten he was there. She wiped her cheeks with her hands then straightened her body. She tried to regain her professional composure, defiantly lifting her chin. With the steady, confident gait of a Conroy, she brushed passed him and walked down the center aisle of the shuttle. Never meeting his eyes.
“Please go,” she said abruptly.
Wildstar didn’t move, he watched her as she knelt to retrieve debris from the floor. “I don’t think you should be alone.”
“I have some cleaning to do. I don't need an audience,” she tried her best to sound strong, but the trembling of her voice betrayed her.
“Then let me help you,” Wildstar persisted.
“Go! Please...” There was almost a pleading tone in her words, but she didn’t turn to look at him.
Before he could object, she snatched the plastic trash receptacle from its frame. She ripped off the cover and pressed her face to the opening. Her body convulsed and arched. The small chamber of the shuttle echoed with guttural retching sounds.
Wildstar knelt on the floor with her, hesitantly touching her back. He heard footsteps on the shuttle’s ramp behind them.
“Doc?” Jason appeared at the ramp of the shuttle. “Hey, Doc! Are you alright?” She answered him with louder guttural retching sounds.
“I got it,” Wildstar said to him. Wildstar turned to Jessica and brushed the loose strands of hair away from her face. Jason's hesitant footsteps receded down the ramp as he returned to his work in the hangar.
Jessica straightened, giving the impression it was over. Suddenly, her face was back in the receptacle again. A few moments later, she straightened once more, and tried to push Wildstar's hand away. “I don't need your help!”
“Oh, I think you do,” Wildstar's voice was gentle, but insistent. “Sit back.” He gently guided her to sit in one of the chairs, facing him.
She was too embarrassed to look at him. “I told you, I don’t need an audience,” she whispered.
“I’m no doctor,” he said, retrieving a plastic cool pack from the supply chest, “but I have taken care of a few drinking buddies in my time.” He broke the capsule inside the bag and shook it to mix the chemicals. When it turned cold in his hand, he gently pressed it to her cheek.
“I haven’t been drinking, Captain……” Jessica tried to stand up, but Wildstar put his other hand on her shoulder.
“I know. It’s a shame!” He moved the pack to the back of her neck. “You didn’t even get the decency of a good buzz for this lousy hangover.”
Wildstar felt her body finally relax; she closed her eyes and resigned herself to the attention. “Don’t you have some place to be? Someone must be waiting for you.”
“Yeah, well, she understands my work isn’t finished until the entire crew is safe. I am sure her family is happy to have her all to themselves right now.”
“What about your family?” Jessica asked, as he moved the pack from her neck to her other cheek.
“My brother isn't around anymore.”
“I’m sorry…” She said softly, opening her eyes again. She watched him as he stood up and sat down in the chair next to her.
“I’m not,” he replied with a reassuring smile. “That’s a story for another time.”
Jessica tilted her head with some confusion. “Then your parents…”
“A long time ago, but it still seems like yesterday.”
“It was quick then,” Jessica’s voice was almost a whisper and Wildstar nodded, averting his eyes from hers. “It may not seem so right now, but someday, you’ll see that as a piece of mercy.” Wildstar met her eyes again. She surprised him with her statement. She continued as tears began to flow. “I buried my father five months ago.” She paused and wiped her cheek with her hand, but another tear escaped. “He lingered for months.” She swallowed hard, it took a few moments for her to find her next words. “No one actually dies of radiation sickness. Did you know that? They die from the secondary infections. They suffer.”
“You’ve suffered too,” Wildstar whispered back to her.
“Not like that,” she replied in a small voice. “We haven’t been able to manufacture basic medications since before you left for your mission! Analgesics, anesthetics, antibiotics, our inventory is almost gone! It’s like we’re back in the Dark Ages again!”
Wildstar bit his lip before he spoke. He knew she feared for her brother. “Peter is strong. He walked away from that accident… ”
“Surviving the accident is one thing!” She interrupted him with a raised voice. “Surviving the recovery is another!” She shook her head, then looked down at the floor. “You don’t know what it’s been like here! The things I’ve had to do. The decisions I’ve made.” She clenched her fists. “I’m not the same person that Peter left behind.” She looked down at her hands, unable to meet Wildstar's eyes. “I’m much worse!”
“None of us are the same, Jessica. Not even Peter. We've all had to do things that we would rather forget.”
It was a curiosity. Both of her brothers wore the uniform, yet she didn’t. He understood now, her lack of military affiliation. He heard about young people like her. She was an independent. A rogue with a valuable skill for saving lives. She could go where she wanted and treat whom she wanted without orders or interference. This was the self-inflicted burden of the Civilian Medical Corps.
The military rationed assistance and medical care to conserve resources, especially when an area was considered a loss. Young medics like Jessica attempted to fill in the gaps, evacuating and caring for those that had strength and hope. Sometimes, they assisted others with a peaceful, painless death.
The leather backpack she carried with her was an old medic’s bag. The flap bore the faded symbol of a red cross on a white circle. She most likely kept it properly supplied and in her possession wherever she went. She gained passage on military transports by supplementing the medevac crews, which were constantly short-handed.
Pieces fell into place for him. The rapid deterioration of her physical condition made sense. Jessica's work was in the trenches, treating the sick and dying while exposing herself to high concentrations of radiation. A chill went through Wildstar. The brutal affects of radiation exposure compounded over time. Ironically, Wildstar and his crew-mates, including Conroy, were in better health because of their time away from Earth.
“What’s your level of exposure, Jessica?” He asked her softly, carefully. “You’ve been treating the sick in highly radioactive areas.” He tilted his head towards hers, urging her to meet his eyes. “How often?”
Jessica suddenly looked at him, her eyes laced with a guarded warning. He was treading where he wasn't welcome. “I go when and where I’m needed!”
Wildstar didn’t press her. He knew when she looked at him, it was hard for her to see beyond the uniform. The mistrust between the military and the Civilian Medical Corps was common knowledge. The relationship was tightly intertwined, but tenuous and conflicted.
The focus of the military was defense. They wanted to keep their troops healthy enough to fight, sometimes at the expense of the civilian population. Because manufacturing and production had ceased, the efforts of the military often required the acquisition of medical supplies from civilian sources. Resources usually came from cities slated for evacuation. However, sometimes the Civilian Medical Corps managed to outmaneuver the military. They stashed their own medical supplies with the intent of managing a reserve outside of military or government control.
Viral rumors about the Corps had political significance. Some believed the military propagated nasty rumors to heighten the mistrust within the military. They wanted to discourage their personnel from cooperating or sympathizing with the Corps. It was said the Corps funded their operations with the sale and trade of black market medical supplies.
They often traded with the military for transportation. They were considered rogues and common thieves by military leaders, yet they often supplemented military personnel in large-scale rescue operations. It was even thought some of the military leaders owed their lives to the hands of civilian surgeons.
Jessica finally pushed Wildstar's hand from her face. She rose and moved to the other side of the shuttle, sitting in a chair above the supply chest. She retrieved some tubes wrapped in plastic from the chest.
“I didn’t mean to pry, Jessica.” He rose to sit in the chair across from hers. “What are you doing?”
“Drawing blood,” she replied and she threw the rubber tourniquet around her upper arm.
“Uh, huh… I don’t think you’re in shape for that right now.” He pulled the tourniquet away before she could get it tied.
“Hey,” she snatched at it and tried to pull it back.
Wildstar tugged it until it stretched between them. Then he let it go. It snapped back against Jessica’s fingers.
“Ouch!” She dropped it and he snatched it off the floor. He held it up between two fingers and smiled at her with victorious sarcasm.
She shot him her best angry look, “Didn’t I ask you to go?”
“You did,” he said and he started to pull off his shirt, “Look, you can skewer me first while you rest, then you can do yourself… okay?” He pulled a hand held scanner out of the supply trunk and swept it over his arm where his ID chip was implanted. The scanner beeped and displayed his ID number and blood type. He held it up to her and she read the same blood type as her brother.
After a pause, she met his eyes, “Alright,” she said flatly, suppressing emotion from the response, but he sensed an underlying gratitude from her for his company. She took the tourniquet from him and began to prepare the materials to draw blood. “Which arm?” She asked and Wildstar lifted his left arm to her.
“Lean back in the seat and try to relax,” she said and she pulled the tourniquet tight around his arm. “Squeeze.”
He obeyed her instructions without comment and watched the veins swell to the surface of his skin. She pulled the cap from the needle and aligned it with a vein in his arm. “You know,” she said and she paused, “I should probably tell you that I’m not really a doctor.”
Wildstar smiled, already aware her youth denied her the formal title, but circumstances gave her the experience. “That’s alright,” he replied with a smile, “I’m not really a Captain.” He jumped, surprised at the pinch as the needle sank into his skin.
He noticed her hands as she taped gauze over the entry point of the needle. Without her gloves, they were thin, weathered, and drastically pale. His eyes moved to her face as she watched the blood move down the plastic tubing. Her delicate features bore the signs of exhaustion and frailty, but there was an underlying strength in her he admired.
Wildstar could feel the heat emanating from the blood as the thick liquid oozed down the tube laying over his arm. He found it surprisingly unnerving.
Jessica picked up the cool pack and held it against the back of his neck with the same delicate care he had given her. “Are you alright?” Her stoic veil of professionalism suddenly revealed a genuine empathy in her words. Her blue eyes studied him with concern.
“C’mon,” he said, jerking his head to the seat next to him. “You can hold me up. I hate needles.”
She smiled at him. “Tough guy, huh?” She wiped her cheeks as she moved to the seat next to him.
“Hey, be grateful,” he said. “I’m showing my sensitive side!”
“Peter is terrified of needles,” she sank into the chair, propping her feet on the chair across from her.
“Really?” Wildstar looked at her with genuine interest.
She met his eyes, but she couldn't hide the suspicious smirk that crossed her lips. “No, I just thought it might make you feel better.”
Wildstar smiled and shook his head. He was comforted by Jessica's sense of humor. It was so much like Peter's.
A comfortable silence fell between them, embraced by a lightened moment of familiarity. It was a welcome reprieve from the true weight of the situation.
The farewell celebration before the Argo departed for its mission came to Wildstar's mind. Various entertainers performed for the crew and their families. There were plenty of bright lights and beautiful music. There was plenty of flash and plenty of distractions for a spectacular send-off, except for her. She was the closing performance. Wildstar recalled it in detail because it was quite beautiful in its simplicity.
“The song you sang to Peter…” he said thoughtfully as memories flooded his mind. “That's where I heard it. You sang it for us before we left.”
The lights dimmed and the entire room went dark. A single beam of light suddenly illuminated a young girl in a long black dress. She seemed so small on the stage by herself, but her voice was haunting and ethereal. It carried well beyond her diminutive stature. A room full of hundreds of people fell silent and listened.
She could have stopped time. He remembered, with great fondness, as she hit and held a high note with such passionate intensity and vivid clarity; tears welled in the eyes of the gruffest old soldiers in the room.
Wildstar felt Jessica shift uncomfortably. “Oh, my,” the embarrassment was quite evident in her voice, “that crooning I did at the farewell celebration? That’s what Peter called it, anyway.”
“He said you had the voice of an angel.” Wildstar recalled the words from conversations between he and Peter. Peter spoke of his sister with genuine a love and pride, something he obviously did not freely express to his younger sibling.
Jessica paused and looked at Wildstar. She seemed surprised. “He said that?”
“More than once,” Wildstar added and he smiled at her.
Wildstar knew the complexities of siblings very well himself. It was a delicate and tedious balance of admiration and envy, love and disappointment, trust and caution. Wildstar never expressed his love for his brother before he was gone. However, after finding him again, conflicts, disagreements, and self-conscious inhibitions were fated to the wind like dying leaves in the fall. He felt certain Peter would forgive this minor violation of confidence.
Wildstar looked at her thoughtfully. “Can I ask? Why did you choose that song?”
She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. “My mother sang us to sleep with that melody when we were little.” It seemed as if Jessica wanted to stop with that, but she glanced at Wildstar, momentarily meeting his eyes in the silence. “I chose it because it gave us comfort when we were children. I wanted Peter to remember it.”
She had no idea of the impression she had made, the lasting affect she had on those that heard her. The room was so large, not everyone could see her, but her sweet voice carried to every ear. He wished he had words to express it to her, but he wasn’t poetic in that way.
“Do you still sing?” Wildstar asked.
Jessica laughed softly as if the question seemed ridiculous. “The world doesn’t have any use for entertainers right now.”
“I’ll bet your mother would disagree.”
Jessica’s tense composure eased. She leaned her head against his shoulder and sank into the solid support of his body with a long, steady exhale. He knew she was tired. For the moment, he had strength enough for the both of them.
“You won't tell anybody I tossed my cookies, will you?” Jessica asked him.
“Are you going to tell anyone I'm afraid of needles?”
“My lips are sealed,” she whispered, then she said softly, “Tell me about my brother.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Anything I can use against him later.”
Wildstar laughed softly. He felt the weight of her head on his shoulder along with the weight of her fragile trust. “What can I tell you about Bird Dog?”
To Be Continued
Chapter 5 – Grace
Jessica Conroy meets the extended family her brother has found in the Star Force. They offer her gracious solace, but will her lack of trust and her independent spirit allow her to find comfort among them?