SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 13:
Galsson grabbed her arm. "On the peril of your soul, Sister. Demons are masters of deception!"
She shook off his hand impatiently. "At this stage, it could be a demon or even an injured angel. And surely the hand of God is over anyone who treats an injured being, be they devil or angel."
He tried to get in front of her. "Sister, I implore you, do not touch it! It may be diseased. Or the contact may cause evil communications!"
She pushed him aside firmly, stepping up to the bed. "Then that has happened to Brother Dansson already, and we have touched him in greeting. It appears to be wearing his nightshirt, and he can hardly have put that on it without touching it." She seemed quite calm and imperturbable. "Howard, I will require boiled but cooled water, and some boiled cotton cloths."
Howard nodded. "I have the water cooling. And the bandage-cloths have been boiled. I sent a message to you, Sister. So I prepared."
She smiled. "I was treating the Elder's hands when the boy brought your message to him." She looked him up and down, quizzically. "Are my wants that predictable, or is just that you were the child who always had to be bandaged, splinted or sewed up?"
Howard flushed. He had indeed spent a disproportionate amount of his life being patched up. "The latter, Sister," he admitted, feeling sheepish. "I'll go and get the cloths and bowls for you."
"Do that." She was already unrolling a neat little cloth package of instruments. "And some boiling water too. I'd better re-sterilize these."
Howard noticed that Elder Rooson had said nothing. But the old man's normally tranquil face wore a troubled expression. He looked a lot more like Brother Galsson than his usual tranquil self.
By the time Howard got back with the bandages and both the hot and cooled boiled water, Sister Thirsdaughter had laid out her instruments on his bedside table on a clean cloth, and folded back the blanket. The hands and feet that protruded from Howard's spare nightshirt had the wrong number of fingers and toes. But they lacked demonish talons. They lacked any form of nail at all. The toes were nearly as long as the fingers. Yet… they were clearly fingers—albeit three on each hand, with a broader almost central thumb, and too many joints.
The sight seemed to fill Brother Galsson with horror. Almost as much horror as Sister Thirsdaughter lifting Howard's nightshirt. "Sister! You shame yourself!"
She flicked an irritated glance at him. "I'm a midwife, Russ. I delivered you, among others. If this poor creature is male—then for once I may see something different. Give me a hand here, Howard. He's very heavy for an old woman to move."
"We need to roll him, Sister," said Howard. "The principal injuries are to his back and… uh… buttocks. We must just have a care for his right arm."
She looked at the awkwardly bandaged arm. Shook her head. "You did your best, I suppose. Well, let's look at the rest first." She looked at Howard's sheet. "His blood is red enough, whatever he is."
Howard nodded. "If it had been say, black, I don't think I would have dared to touch him," he admitted. "But he seemed so helpless, and so hurt. I couldn't just leave him there."
"It might have been better to treat him first and move him afterwards, Howard," said Sister Thirsdaughter grimly. She was old enough to call nearly every person in New Eden by their first name. Howard wouldn't have dared to do the same to her. He nodded again, shamefaced. "I know. I just didn't think. He was cold, and bleeding and he asked for help."
She smiled at him again. "What else could one of the brethren do? But next time think with your head and not just your heart."
"His heart's in the right place," said Elder Rooson heavily. "It's his head that I am not too sure about. Do you need us for this, Sister? I think I must convene a full council, to pray and discuss this matter."
"You do that, Elder," she said. "Tell them to pray for this poor fellow's survival." She looked at the exposed wound. "He may need all our prayers and all our skill. There is something lodged in there. I'm going to have to get it out. Ask Sister Melson to come please. I will need her skill with herbals. Not that we know what herbs may do to this…"
"Demon," supplied Galsson. "I shall stay here and protect you, sister."
"Well, then you may occupy yourself in boiling some more water," was all the reply he got.
The being moaned as she gently probed the wound with her forceps. They were old. The fine metalwork made Howard desperately envious. He had done some work in forge making spades and axes, and he knew just what craftsmanship he was looking at.
"They're a relic of the first Eden," she told him.
Howard could only look at them in wonder. True, the brethren had been surrounded and repressed in that place, and evil had attacked them from all sides, threatening the faith and their way of life. But such craftsmanship…
She drew something out of the wound. A little red blood trickled out of the hole as she held it up, critically.
"What is it?" asked Howard, ever curious. He knew—enough people had told him—that it was his besetting sin.
"A piece of metal," said Sister Thirsdaughter. Her voice was curiously flat. She looked at it carefully. "It is something I have only seen in my medical text, that date from before the creation of New Eden. I think it is a bullet."
"What is that?" asked Howard.
Sister Thirsdaughter answered in the same expressionless voice. "A projectile driven at great speed by exploding gasses in a tube, I believe. The writers of the text seemed to assume that we would know about them. They were obviously common then, and intended to hurt or kill. Somewhere, someone tried to kill this…" She gestured with the forceps at the golden-skinned subject of her surgery. “Person.”
Her watchers were nearly rigid with shock. Nothing could be more alien to the Society of Brethren.