The chronicle of the final voyage of the medical relief ship GSC Nightingale.
Thursday, September 16th 2213
The bedside alarm blasted Lucy awake. She slapped the button with her hand, silencing the thing, and peered cautiously across the room at the opposite bunk. The previous night, Stacy hadn’t been bothered at the idea of sleeping in the same room as her, and he’d fallen asleep easily. Now, though, he wasn’t in his bunk anymore.
Needles of light shouldered their way into the dark room from around the bathroom door. The soft whoosh of falling water attempted to lull Lucy back to sleep. Awake enough to make sense of noises now, she realized Stacy was taking a shower.
As soon as she acknowledged the sound of the shower running, it stopped. Muffled rustling and thumping hitchhiked in, and then the door slid open with a blinding burst of light. Lucy squawked and rolled away, shielding her eyes with her pillow.
“Oy!” Stacy said, laughing around his words. “Sorry, there. I didn’t realize you weren’t up yet.”
“I was,” Lucy muttered into her pillow. “But my eyes aren’t.”
Lucy lifted the pillow away from her face slowly, giving her bleached rods and cones a moment to acclimate. When her vision adjusted to the room, the first thing she saw was Stacy sitting under his bunk in the rolling chair wearing only a towel around his waist.
He cocked a thumb toward the bathroom. “You gonna shower?”
Lucy nodded and shuffled to the bunk’s ladder. “Yes.”
“Okay, hold on.” He dashed into the bathroom, and as Lucy reached the bottom of the ladder, she heard him flush the toilet. Emerging, he grinned down at her. “There. All set.”
“Thank you.” Lucy tried not to let her eyes settle on his broad chest as she scooted around him and into the bathroom. She slid the door shut and engaged the lock, wrinkling her nose at the smell the toilet flush had been unable to fully suck down with it.
In the shower, her mind woke up and began to plan. The crewman the night before had said there would be absolutely no roommate trading, but she reasoned they’d have to make an exception this time. Whoever had been making room assignments had done what Lucy had: assumed Stacy was female. It was an honest mistake, but it was still a mistake. Right?
Of course they’d let her switch roommates. They had to.
When she finished showering, she wrapped a towel around herself and peered out of the bathroom. Stacy had vacated the room, so Lucy dressed quickly and then went out into the common area.
Stacy reclined on a couch across from Daryush, Emma, and an unfamiliar redheaded man.
“Lucy!” Emma leapt up from the couch and darted across the room, hugging her with more enthusiasm than a normal person should have been able to muster at such an early hour. “Stacy told us about your rooming situation. I thought you said we weren’t going to have to bunk with boys.” In a hushed voice, she said, “My roommate is a girl. She’s mean.”
“It’s got to be a mistake,” Lucy said. “Is there another girl bunking with a guy? We just need to switch rooms.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “Jack is Daryush’s roommate.” She indicated the redhead on the couch. He sat with his arms crossed, which made his biceps appear huge. He had a snake tattooed around one bicep and a Celtic knot on the other. His closely shorn red hair was so vivid that Lucy wondered if the color was artificial.
Lucy leaned closer to Emma. “What’s his story?”
Emma followed Lucy’s gaze to Jack. “He’s nice. He was a prison guard.”
Lucy didn’t get a chance to continue her thought. Another one of the doors opened and a tall black man stepped out, followed by a slender Asian. Ze had straight black hair that was cut short in the back and spiked into a cartoonish fan of bangs in the front.
Another door opened and the blonde girl entered the room. Lucy looked away as the blonde girl’s eyes flicked her direction. Of all the people to have to share an Area with, it had to be her.
Jack checked a watch on his wrist. In a Scottish brogue, he said, “That fella yesterday said six o’clock?”
“Yeah,” Stacy said. “Someone named Dexter is going to take us somewhere.”
“We’ve got ten minutes,” Jack said.
Emma raised her hand and bounced on her toes. “Oh! We should do introductions! I’ll start! My name is Emma and I’m from Utah.” She put her hand down and grinned around the room.
Jack laughed from the couch and said, “I’m Jack. From Scotland.”
The blonde girl snorted. “Scotland.”
“You’ve got a problem with the freest country on Earth, love?” Jack called from the couch.
“Freest, sure.” She tossed her hair over a shoulder. “I guess it’s my turn. Sarah Llewellyn, from the People’s Free Republic of Wales.” She smirked at Jack.
He pointed a finger at her. “You and I. We’re going to have fun.”
Sarah maintained an expressionless face and the silence gained weight until Stacy cleared his throat. “Stacy Weber, Brisbane. We’re free too. Yay.” He looked to Daryush sitting next to him.
“Daryush Golshenas,” he said. “Iran.” He ended his introduction there, glancing to the black man at the end of the couch.
“Benjamin Walters,” he said. “I’m from Connecticut and I’m here for medical.”
The Asian with the wild bangs leaned forward. “I’m medical, too. Ali Ng. Singapore.”
At that point, everyone in the room, one by one, turned their gaze to Lucy. She fidgeted for a moment, and as she opened her mouth to speak, Sarah slowly said, “Lucy Hernandez. Mexico. And the reason my best friend isn’t on this ship with me.”
The awkwardness in the room was so thick Lucy could practically see it as a fog, coiling around the furniture. No one spoke until Emma leaned into Lucy and whispered in her ear, “I told you she was mean.”
The door slid open then, and a woman of indeterminate age stepped through. She wore a dark blue bodysuit and black slippers. Her brown hair was fastened back into a long ponytail. She beamed as she entered.
“Hello!” she said. “I’m your DEXTER. Please follow me.”
She waited for everyone to shuffle toward her, and then she walked out the door. She kept up a brisk pace and they hurried to keep up with her.
Emma said, “Dexter’s a boy name.”
“She said your Dexter,” Lucy said. “I don’t think her name is Dexter.”
“Okay good,” Emma said. “That would be weird.” She paused, and then asked, “What’s a Dexter?”
Lucy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
The woman in the bodysuit led them to an atrium with a double-tall ceiling and double doors on the other side. The doors stood open; Lucy could see an auditorium beyond. Other students followed men and women in bodysuits, and they all streamed into the auditorium.
The woman stopped and turned to them, smiling broadly. She indicated a row of empty seats. “We’ve arrived at your seats. Please stay together as a group.”
The eight students of Area Two shuffled down the row and sat one by one. Emma sat on the end and Lucy sat beside her. Jack landed on Lucy’s other side, and when she looked at him, he grinned.
“This is exciting,” he said.
Emma leaned around Lucy and said to Jack, “I’m so excited!”
But you’re excited about everything, Emma. Lucy wasn’t sure if that would hurt Emma’s feelings, so she didn’t say it out loud.
The chatter in the room ebbed as a dozen figures walked across the stage. The one leading the group was Dr. Grey, dressed in another beautifully tailored suit. She wore a white lab coat now, as did everyone with her.
When Dr. Grey reached the center of the stage, she halted and said, “Good morning, students.” Her amplified voice seemed to come from all directions at once.
Every student was silent, watching Dr. Grey with rapt attention.
“I hope everyone had a good first night,” Dr. Grey said. “Now, I’d like to introduce your faculty advisors for the next four years. As you all should know, I’m Paulina Grey, and I’m the Dean of this institution. I maintain an open-door policy and encourage students to come to me with problems.”
Dr. Grey indicated a stout, formidable woman to her left. “And this is my nursing counterpart, Marie Bauer.”
Nurse Bauer stepped forward. Squat and bow-legged, she glared at the class through enormous, thick glasses. Her short, curly silver hair coiled on her head like a nest of snakes ready to strike.
“Guten morgen, students.” Her voice was deep and raspy, like she’d eaten rather than smoked a pack of cigarettes every day of her life. “I’ve delivered babies who are older than most of you. I’m the Director of Nursing. I hold my nurses and doctors to a very high standard, and I will not tolerate shenanigans.” She paused. “I, too, have an open-door policy.” The look she cast over them suggested that if they ever attempted to walk through that open door, they’d be set on fire.
Dr. Grey smiled as Nurse Bauer returned to her place amongst the faculty. “Thank you, Marie. Dr. Baranov?”
The man who stepped forward now, Dr. Baranov, was tall and broad and, as far as Lucy could tell, handsome. In the rows in front of her, she saw heads turn to their neighbors with raised eyebrows and furtive smiles. It appeared her observation was correct.
“Ooh,” Emma said, leaning toward me. “He’s not too bad to look at, is he?”
“No he’s not,” Lucy said.
Jack leaned in. “Not at all.”
Dr. Baranov gave them all a wave. “Victor Baranov. I’ll be teaching infectious disease processes. I look forward to meeting you all!” As he stepped back, he pulled a small bottle from his pocket and squirted something on his hands, rubbing it in.
The woman beside Dr. Baranov leapt forward before Dr. Grey could point to her. “Natalie Delacroix! Anesthesia! You know I’m good at it because my lectures are enough to put everyone to sleep! Ha!” She punched the air and then jumped back beside Dr. Baranov.
Dr. Grey retained her smile. “Thank you Dr. Baranov and Nurse Delacroix. These two are the student advisors for Areas One through Five. If you need help with anything, please contact either of them for help.”
Lucy committed Natalie’s face and name to memory. She was the one Lucy needed to see about getting a new roommate.
Dr. Grey introduced four other sets of faculty: Doctor Rolando Ferreiro and Nurse Seetha Joshi; Doctor Lyudmila Pal and Nurse Athelstan George; Doctor Inga Andreasson and Nurse Paora Ngata; and Doctor Nizar Mohammad and Nurse Sekai Afolayan. When they had finished with their introductions, Dr. Grey clapped her hands once.
“After our main assembly here, you will all split into Areas and join up with your advisors. But first, I’d like you all to meet someone.”
She motioned toward the back of the stage, and Lucy’s mouth hung open when she saw Boyd scurry to Dr. Grey’s side. She set a hand on his shoulder and said to the students, “Some of you may recognize Boyd, our plant at the airport from yesterday.”
Boyd offered a timid wave to the audience, along with a shy smile.
Emma tugged on Lucy’s sleeve. “Isn’t that the kid you and Daryush helped?”
“Yes.” Lucy nodded. “I wonder if he’s her son or something.”
“He’s cute,” Emma said.
“Boyd is a very special boy,” Dr. Grey continued. She pulled an InfoTab out of her lab coat pocket and tapped at it. She patted Boyd on the head and then stepped away from him. To the assembled students, she said, “He has asthma.”
Boyd clutched at his throat and gasped for air. He wheezed, eyes bulging, and then staggered to his knees. Lucy could hear choked, wheezy sobs force their way out of his mouth.
An uncertain rumbling passed through the assembly as students exchanged unsure glances.
“Oh my gosh!” Emma said. “I don’t think he can breathe!”
The faculty on the stage acted like nothing was wrong.
Dr. Grey tapped at the InfoTab further. “Actually, he has pertussis.”
Boyd’s wheezing was replaced by harsh coughing. His every inhalation hurt to hear, and Lucy could feel herself choking with him as he fought to get air around the coughs. He bent over, wrapping his arms around his abdomen as he hacked and coughed.
Lucy’s heart hammered in her chest. The sight of little Boyd collapsed on the stage, struggling to breathe and in obvious distress, was sickening.
Jack bristled beside her. “What the hell is this?”
“No,” Dr. Grey said. “Boyd has epilepsy.”
Boyd responded to her words as though she spoke a magic spell. He stiffened and dropped to the floor, seizing as the students watched. His heels drummed on the floor and he foamed at the mouth.
From the other side of the room, someone yelled, “Stop!”
Dr. Grey tapped at the InfoTab again, and Boyd stopped seizing. He lay still for a moment, and then he sat up. He stood, brushed off his pants, and smiled. Like nothing had happened.
“Thank you, Boyd,” Dr. Grey said. “Boyd is a special boy in that he isn’t a boy at all. Boyd, along with ninety-nine others on this ship, is a DEXTER unit. Dynamic Extramorph, Enhanced Realism unit. They are extramorphic androids that have been modified to act as simulation mannequins for medical training. The DEXTER units can be programmed with any of ten thousand diseases, conditions, injuries, or physiological oddities. They are designed to behave exactly like real patients, and that is how you are expected to treat them. Your DEXTER unit will be assigned by your advisor, and they will also give you further instructions about them.”
Dr. Grey tussled Boyd’s hair and then offered her palm to him. Lucy watched in disbelief as he high-fived her and then scurried to the back of the stage, disappearing into the shadows there.
Jack trembled beside Lucy. “That’s fucked up.”
From Jack’s other side, Stacy said, “Are you kidding? That’s amazing.”
“They couldn’t have used an adult?” Jack snapped. “Had to be a little kid? How old was he? Three?”
“He’s a robot,” Stacy said. “They don’t have ages. He just looks three.”
Jack crossed his arms. “Still.”
Stacy and Jack quieted down in time for Dr. Grey to say, “There are one hundred nursing students and one hundred medical students on this ship. Each nursing student will be paired with a medical student, and each of those pairs will be assigned a DEXTER unit as a patient. It’s your responsibility as a doctor or a nurse to care for the DEXTER unit and its assigned malady. They report to your instructors remotely so they can track your progress and improve your care process.”
Dr. Grey paused and tapped at her InfoTab. The wall behind the stage lit up as a presentation flashed there. The title page read WELCOME TO THE GSC NIGHTINGALE.
The title page remained for a moment before flashing to an image of a planet that was instantly recognizable as Venus.
“Depending on the year, our first stop may be either Venus or Mars,” Dr. Grey said. “This year, our first stop is Venus and its orbiting stations. Venus’ proximity to Earth makes it easy for the Venutian residents to get health care. You’ll mostly be doing health screenings here, as well as giving routine vaccinations. It takes us four months to reach Venus, so spend that time wisely.”
The slide changed to another picture. This one contained a thick, ring-shaped space station with an X-shaped area covered with shining solar panels in the center. The background of asteroids gave away the space station’s identity: Inner Space 2, or IS-2 for short, located on the sun-side of the asteroid belt that separated Mars from Jupiter.
“A month past Venus is IS-2,” Dr. Grey said. “Like Venus, the settlers of IS-2 have fairly easy access to Terran health care, and here will be mostly routine health screenings.”
The next slide was another space station that looked almost identical to the first. There were no asteroids, however, and more solar panels: Outer Space 1.
“Reaching OS-1 requires slow, steady maneuvering through the asteroid belt, so it takes us a little longer to make it through,” Dr. Grey said. “At this point in our journey, we begin to treat ailments that are no longer routine or preventative.”
She clicked through several more slides, narrating their journey: the Jovian settlements on Ganymede and Callisto, plus three orbiting Jovian stations; OS-3; the cerulean Neptunian satellites; OS-2; the Uranian satellites; OS-4; the Saturnian settlement on Titan and the inter-ring stations; IS-1; and finally, Mars.
“As we depart Mars, your final examinations will begin,” Dr. Grey said. “And those exams will be followed by licensure boards and tests. By the time we arrive back in Earth’s orbit, you will no longer be students.”
She changed the presentation to its final slide: a gif of graduating students in their robes throwing pointed caps into the air. Lucy couldn’t help but smile at the image, even though only the most traditional universities held graduation ceremonies with the old-style robes anymore. The elation of graduation transcended silly outfits.
Dr. Grey clapped a little bit, then said, “The general assembly is over at this point. Now you’ll meet with your advisors and be given Area-specific guidance. Your advisors are in the lobby. Areas One through Five, please stand and exit the auditorium.”
They did, hurrying out while the rest of the students watched. In the lobby, Dr. Baranov and Nurse Delacroix met them.
“Hello, suckers!” Nurse Delacroix trilled.
Dr. Baranov clasped his hands together. “Are we all here? Okay. Follow us.”
He led the way and Nurse Delacroix brought up the rear. They headed in the direction Lucy’s Area was, but instead of going directly there, they took a detour and arrived in a large common area with couches and tables for studying.
Twenty people in dark blue bodysuits stood around the periphery of the room. DEXTER units. They fidgeted and shuffled and chatted with one another like real people. If Dr. Grey hadn’t revealed their artificial core, Lucy wouldn’t have suspected them of being anything but human.
Dr. Baranov swept his hand over the room and said something about how this was their common area and they were responsible for keeping it clean. No one listened to him. They were all too busy watching the DEXTER units.
“Any questions?” Dr. Baranov said loudly.
They all shook their heads no.
“Excellent!” he said.
Nurse Delacroix stepped in. “Okay, my turn. You’ve all got a syllabus with rules and shit printed out in your rooms. You’re all literate, so I’m not going to beat that particular dead horse. Let’s get to the fun part: assigning partners and robots! For simplicity’s sake, the first year partners will belong to the same Area. So I want distinct Area clusters, then line up docs on one side and nurses on the other.” When none of them moved, she shouted, “Now! Go! Go!”
Benjamin shot his hand up in the air. “Area Two!”
They formed a ring around him as students from the other Areas followed his example. Soon there were five clusters of eight students each, and they all lined up with nurses on one side and doctors on the other. Nurse Delacroix approached Lucy’s group.
“Area Two?” she asked.
They nodded. Stacy said, “Yep.”
“Who’re the docs?”
They raised their hands.
Nurse Delacroix pointed to Benjamin and then to Emma. “Partners,” she said, then pointed to Sarah and Stacy. “Partners.” Ali and Jack were paired, and then Daryush and Lucy.
“Okay,” Nurse Delacroix said. “Now each of you pick a DEXTER and take it back to your Area. It’ll walk you through the registration process. That needs to be done before 1800 tonight. They have dorms that they sleep in. They know where they are, so don’t worry about putting them to bed. You’re released until tomorrow at 0630, at which time you’ll gather here for some safety briefings and junk. Understood?”
Again, they all nodded, and then Lucy lifted her hand. “Um, Nurse Delacroix?”
“You can just call me Natalie,” she said.
“Okay,” Lucy said. “Natalie. My roommate is a male. I don’t know if that’s… normal, or what, but—”
She laughed. “Really? I’ll come by after this is done. We’ll get you straightened out.”
Lucy exhaled a breath of relief. “Thank you.”
“De rien,” she said, waving her hand. “Okay, pick a DEXTER. See you later!”
Lucy faced Daryush as Natalie left, and they both laughed a little.
“I think this year will be fun,” Daryush said.
“I hope.” Lucy motioned to the waiting DEXTER units. “Do you want a male or female?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Yeah, I don’t care either.”
He pointed to the one that stood the closest to them, a slender brown-haired man. “What about him?”
“Sounds good!” Lucy followed Daryush to the brunet DEXTER unit, who beamed when they stopped in front of him.
“Are you choosing me?” he asked.
“If we may,” Daryush said, extending a hand. “I’m Daryush. This is Lucy.”
The DEXTER accepted Daryush’s handshake offer. “Hello Daryush and Lucy! My name is Otto. Would you like to begin the registration process?”
“Yes,” Lucy said. “Please.”
“Very well,” Otto said. “Please follow me.”
Lucy and Daryush followed Otto out of the common area and through the mazelike halls. As they walked, he asked questions.
“What are your first and last names?”
“What is your date of birth?”
“Do you have any food allergies?”
“Are you current on all vaccinations?”
“Do you have any special needs I should be aware of?”
They tried to answer all of Otto’s questions completely, but he rattled them off so quickly Lucy and Daryush found themselves being cut off mid-sentence.
They arrived at Area Two, which Otto breezed into without issue. Daryush and Lucy badged in and followed Otto to the couches.
Natalie stood there, arms crossed, waiting. She pointed an accusatory finger at Otto and said, “Did he name himself?”
“I guess so,” Lucy said. “He told us his name was Otto.”
Natalie rolled her eyes and then scowled at Otto. “Do you need to go in for maintenance?”
“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I’m operating just fine.”
“You’re walking a thin line,” Natalie said, then turned to Lucy. “I looked into your room assignment. It turns out the mix-up happened because of Stacy’s name, and Ali’s agender status. If we switch you, we’re going to have to do a massive switch with everyone, and that’s going to result in a lot of trouble. So why don’t you stay roommates with Stacy for the first year, and then we’ll make sure you get a female roommate the next time around. Okay?” She smiled.
Lucy blinked hard. “Stay in the same room as Stacy?”
“Yeah,” Natalie said. “See? You understand. Gotta run. See you tomorrow.” She pointed two fingers from her eyes to Otto. I’m watching you. And then she trotted out of the Area, leaving Lucy to stare dumbly after her, wondering how she was ever going to braless with a guy for a roommate.