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For Sale: Veterinary Practice On Sigma 4; Certain Conditions Apply
Condition 1: Final Sale to Occur on Sigma 4 "But you will die out there on Sigma 4, Helouise," said her fellow students at the
Newganda School of Veterinary Medicine. "You cannot even breathe the air!" But they were complainers, and many of them were skinny as well. Helouise Kwami,
DVM, found both attributes to be equally inexcusable. Besides, the air of Sigma 4 was only slightly toxic. It required the bare minimum in
breathing apparatus, a simple facemask that connected to a very reasonably sized filter at your
belt. Much more difficult was arranging transport to a planet that nobody wanted to go to, this
in spite of the fact that it had been featured on an Intergalactic Geographic expo. They certainly
did not film Intergalactic Geographic expos in crowded cities like Newganda, where veterinary
students counted themselves lucky to sleep in a cubby and share a common room with nine other
people. So, transport was difficult. What kind of veterinarian minds difficulty? Helouise's late Auntee had given her enough money to buy a meager veterinary practice.
Why not use that money to temporarily get into the import/export business? She had her friend at
a shipyard find her a junker vessel, then got it fixed up and installed an AI to pilot it. After that, it
was an easy thing to get a loan from the bank to fill her new ship with the sorts of things a remote
planet might need: medical supplies, communication equipment, heavy machinery, toilet paper. The big four. When she arrived at Sigma 4, she'd sell the ship and the contents, make a tidy profit, and
purchase her practice. She felt extremely pleased with this plan all the way up to the point when
she was rocketing through Sigma 4's atmosphere, praying that the ship did not rip apart, restraints
cinching into her flesh against the violent bucking of her captain's chair. Her celebratory goo-pouch was a violent smear on the cockpit ceiling. Warning lights blinked everywhere. "Is everything quite all right?" she asked the ship AI. She clenched her teeth tight so they
didn't rattle. "Most everything." "What does this mean: most everything?" "The fire is very small. Minimal even. Nothing to worry about." "The ship is on fire?" "Again, very minimally." A bolt came loose and shot through the air right past Helouise's head. But for the
elephantine weight smushing her into her chair, she would have gasped. Instead she gave an
embarrassing squeak. "Please keep me updated as to further developments," she said to regain her
dignity. "Oh," replied the AI, "if the conflagration spreads, you'll know." It then proceeded to laugh. Wildly. It had been, perhaps, not the wisest decision to buy it from the half-off bin.
by Jared Oliver Adams
Artwork by Scott Altmann
Condition 1: Final Sale to Occur on Sigma 4
"But you will die out there on Sigma 4, Helouise," said her fellow students at the Newganda School of Veterinary Medicine. "You cannot even breathe the air!"
But they were complainers, and many of them were skinny as well. Helouise Kwami, DVM, found both attributes to be equally inexcusable.
Besides, the air of Sigma 4 was only slightly toxic. It required the bare minimum in breathing apparatus, a simple facemask that connected to a very reasonably sized filter at your belt.
Much more difficult was arranging transport to a planet that nobody wanted to go to, this in spite of the fact that it had been featured on an Intergalactic Geographic expo. They certainly did not film Intergalactic Geographic expos in crowded cities like Newganda, where veterinary students counted themselves lucky to sleep in a cubby and share a common room with nine other people.
So, transport was difficult. What kind of veterinarian minds difficulty?
Helouise's late Auntee had given her enough money to buy a meager veterinary practice. Why not use that money to temporarily get into the import/export business? She had her friend at a shipyard find her a junker vessel, then got it fixed up and installed an AI to pilot it. After that, it was an easy thing to get a loan from the bank to fill her new ship with the sorts of things a remote planet might need: medical supplies, communication equipment, heavy machinery, toilet paper.
The big four.
When she arrived at Sigma 4, she'd sell the ship and the contents, make a tidy profit, and purchase her practice. She felt extremely pleased with this plan all the way up to the point when she was rocketing through Sigma 4's atmosphere, praying that the ship did not rip apart, restraints cinching into her flesh against the violent bucking of her captain's chair. Her celebratory goo-pouch was a violent smear on the cockpit ceiling. Warning lights blinked everywhere.
"Is everything quite all right?" she asked the ship AI. She clenched her teeth tight so they didn't rattle.
"What does this mean: most everything?"
"The fire is very small. Minimal even. Nothing to worry about."
"The ship is on fire?"
"Again, very minimally."
A bolt came loose and shot through the air right past Helouise's head. But for the elephantine weight smushing her into her chair, she would have gasped. Instead she gave an embarrassing squeak. "Please keep me updated as to further developments," she said to regain her dignity.
"Oh," replied the AI, "if the conflagration spreads, you'll know."
It then proceeded to laugh.
It had been, perhaps, not the wisest decision to buy it from the half-off bin.
Condition 2: Only Local Currency Accepted
The mayoral board of Tabernacle City convened atop a squat pyramid that let in the hot, dry breeze. Calling the capitol of Sigma 4 a city was, in Helouise's opinion, rather on the hopeful side of things. Its grid of two-story concrete buildings could have fit into a single city block in Newganda if you were to stack them on top of each other. Still, the vivid colors of the walls set off the surrounding desert plains quite nicely, especially from here atop the pyramid.
And the plains were the true draw here, were they not? So much room out there! Room for Helouise to have something all her own, and adventure besides.
The board consisted of three Rho of indeterminate gender who referred to themselves as "the scions." People in power were always trying to think up new names for themselves. There was simply nothing to do about it.
They had the stereotypical stick-bug body of their race and each folded their four arms over their tunics in nearly identical ways. Their faces were most likely different, but their tiny ball-shaped heads were so out of proportion to their bodies that Helouise could not look too closely without feeling the urge to laugh, which certainly would not be appropriate in such a context.
The three Rho sat on cushions.
There was no cushion for Helouise, even though she had spent a month in zero G and would have enjoyed a break from standing.
"So," said the leftmost Rho, "you wish to join our church?" Its language was one of rustles and scrapes.
"I feel like perhaps the translators are not functioning correctly," said Helouise, raising the gain on the device clipped to her lapel. "I would like to sell my ship along with all of its contents, then use the proceeds to purchase the property listed on these documents here." She gestured to the signed bill of sale projected on the floor in front of the Rho.
"Ah, but only local currency is accepted," said the Rho, reaching out a three-fingered hand to tap a spot on the projection. Helouise tried not to imagine its little round head rolling off its neck and bouncing down the steps when it leaned over. Her success was limited.
"Your policy is quite ideal," said Helouise. "I would, in fact, like to receive the money for my goods in local currency. A portion of this can then be used as the purchase price for the practice listed here."
The Rho settled back on his cushion and bobbled its head in an annoyed way, then placed a hand on the upper shoulder of the Rho next to it, this one in a purple tunic trimmed with gold. The purple-robed Rho took over the conversation. "You are of a backwards and irreligious race," it said, "so your lack of knowledge in this regard is understandable. True money is a sacred gift of the almighty, and can only be traded within the confines of the family of Ged."
"You mean God?"
"You say God. We say Ged. It is very different."
"There was nothing in the posting about joining a church," said Helouise, making no effort to hide her distaste.
The three Rho looked at each other with more precarious head-bobbling. "The name of our town is Tabernacle City, the documents were formulated in the name of Ged, and our money is called The Brotherly Currency Belonging to the People of Ged and only the People of Ged, No Exceptions. Were these things not clues?"
Helouise pursed her lips.
"I suppose some people might view it in that way, yes."
"Yes," they agreed.
Helouise paused for a moment to swallow her pride. "And how does one join your church?"
"One must only declare the oath of fraternity! It is quite straightforward."
"And then I can trade with you. And use your currency."
"What is the oath?"
"I solemnly vow, under the baleful eye of Ged almighty, to help my neighbor, to work hard at my chosen trade, and to abide with the scions of the family on all pricing decisions."
"This does not seem like a good bargaining position."
"Bargaining is distasteful to Ged."
"Is that so?"
"Oh yes. Many things are distasteful to Ged. We know all of them."
"There is a list," said the third Rho helpfully.
"Suppose I take my goods elsewhere?" asked Helouise.
"There is nowhere else on Sigma 4. Everyone is part of the family of Ged. It is a good way of doing things."
"Off planet then."
"That would require fuel."
"Let me guess: fuel is sacred too."
"Oh, very much so. More sacred than money even."
"I see. So I am stuck here."
"It is a good way of doing things."
Helouise sighed. "I'm not going to make a profit, am I?"
"Making a profit is distasteful to Ged."
"It is on the list," said the third Rho. "We will make sure you have a copy."
Condition 3: Facilities Sold As-Is
The sun was setting by the time Helouise arrived at her new practice, the Northern Ke'kek Clinic for Animals of All Kinds. The scions may have performed upon her a sacred sort of robbery, but the sight of the building filled her heart with joy even so. The compound reclined regally upon the flat desert landscape just as the holograms showed. Its low, powder-blue walls unfurled about the main examination building, the boarding wing, the metal sorting pens that served the larger creatures, and, of course, the veterinarian's cottage.
All of this was hers, the culmination of years of rigorous study, a month of travel, and the goodwill of her late Auntee, may her soul find rest. Her Auntee would be proud, Helouise knew. Were she alive, she would demand video of this very moment so she could experience it alongside her niece.
Helouise indulged herself in a moment of self-congratulation as she stepped down from her skiff and unlatched the front gate. None of her colleagues practicing in Newganda had a facility so large, this was certain, not even the ones at the head of the class. Definitely not the skinny ones, who had a tendency towards uselessness. She walked to the front door of the main building as if in a dream and entered the keypad number the scions had given her, thinking of how pleasant it would be to finally take off her breathing mask once she was inside. Reasonably-sized though it was, it was beginning to chafe where it bit into her cheeks.
The door beeped and slid open.
Helouise took a deep breath to steady herself for her momentous entrance and strode in. Immediately, her gaze was drawn upwards.
Her grand sprawling building had no roof whatsoever.
The holograms had not shown that.
She adjusted her breathing mask and stared at the darkening sky overhead.
Condition 4: All Staff and Resident Animals Must Be Retained
Helouise spent most of her first night reading over the sole guidebook written about her new planet, entitled "Ninety-Nine Ways to Die on Sigma 4, revised and updated edition." She had, of course, read it before, but perhaps with not quite the focus on flying animals that might descend into her bedroom and rip her face off while she slept.
The veterinarian's cottage was as roof-less as the rest of the campus.
She woke early the next day and scrubbed herself with cleaning gel since there was no shower. This was roughing it, she said to herself, which was good for a veterinarian. You didn't want to grow soft. Animals could sense it if you grew soft.
She felt sorry for all the skinny, complaining veterinarians working in the big cities, creating designer chimeras for wealthy aristocrats who then needed to bring them back for nearly constant treatment because rhinoceroses and dachshunds, or something of that nature, were never meant to mix. Those poor vets called themselves professionals, but they were doing nothing of consequence. Not so a country vet, helping the farmers to sustain themselves and provide food for the rest of the populace.
The veterinarian's cottage was separated from the main examination building by a courtyard. When Helouise opened the door to begin her first day, the morning light fell upon a large, garlic-shaped mammal that was snuffling around in the dirt with its trunk. Its bulbous body was supported by four muscular legs, one a prosthesis. No head was detectable.
The prosthesis, combined with the animal's location loose in the courtyard, seemed to indicate one of the clinic's resident pets. Veterinarians were always rescuing unwanted creatures, especially novel ones such as this. Helouise walked slowly towards it until her hand rested on the creature's body.
It jumped away immediately.
"Excuse me!" exclaimed the creature through a translator slung somewhere on its underside. "I might be your technician, but that doesn't give you the right to grope me!"
Condition 5: Must Make House Calls
Technician Nern was surly on their way to the day's first appointment. He piloted the practice's skiff in silence, his trunk working the joystick and controls quite capably while Helouise watched the stark scenery blur past and tried to think of a way to make amends. The wind whipped at her white coat and fluffed her hair.
"Have you been with the practice for a long time?" asked Helouise when the tension became too much. She had to shout to be heard over the rushing wind.
"Yes," Nern said. His translator somehow knew to render the response gruffly.
"Then perhaps you know why the facility is not equipped with a roof?"
"Would you care to tell me?"
Occasionally, they passed craters filled with shocking amounts of green. It was at one of these that they eventually stopped. This crater, however, was different, as a vaguely yellow gelatin filled it nearly to the rim.
Working with Nomadic Oozes was the most compelling aspect of practicing on Sigma 4, and here Helouise had the privilege of treating one her very first day! All of the veterinarians in training had studied them, of course, but no one she knew had ever actually seen one in person. Her classmates would surely be jealous.
Nern parked the skiff at the lip of the crater. The farmer who tended the crater, an abnormally short human with blue coveralls, walked over as Helouise began unpacking her diagnostic equipment. Normally, she would have asked her technician to do this, but given the circumstances, it seemed wise not to demand too much of Nern.
"You the new vet?" asked the farmer in passable Minglish. He had no facemask, which meant some kind of more permanent installation in his lungs.
"I am indeed," said Helouise.
"Thank Ged," he said with a sarcastic tilt to his smile. "Was starting to think the scions couldn't find someone stupid enough to come out here."
Helouise did not know how to respond to this, so she asked about the patient instead.
"Can't tell you much," said the farmer. "Everything seemed pretty normal. Saw it drifting in the wind a couple weeks ago off in the distance when it was nothing but a ribbon on the horizon. It was real low in the sky and not waving too much, so I knew it was a big boy heavy with wet, ready to come on down.
"Well that damn Rankin the next crater over saw him too, and started up his fans to lure him over. He's been getting all the oozes lately, that squid bastard. Anyway, I turned on my own fans, sent it the sweet smell of proper vegetation, and finally got it headed over here, drifting lower and lower in the sky. Soon enough it slipped over the edge of my crater and slopped right in, just like normal. I called Rankin to laugh at him a bit, told him he could buy some water off me if he got low, since I was about to have excess. Figured this ooze would leave enough water for forty days, easy, enough to get to harvest on the melons and feed up the Windel fruit real nice.
"That was ten days ago, and the ooze still hasn't shed a lick of water, just hunkered down on all my crops, rotting my melons, killing off my Windel trees, destroying everything. That Rankin over there is just laughing his tentacles off."
Under normal circumstances, an ooze dropped its water within a twelve-hour period, then floated back up to the sky. An extremely large specimen like this could take longer, but ten days was indeed unheard of. "I assume you have tried some things to goad the ooze into moving?" asked Helouise.
The farmer got a cagey look. "Ain't none of that. Nope." The nomadic oozes were a protected native species by intergalactic decree. You were not supposed to bother them in any way. Yet, when your livelihood was in jeopardy and the odds of getting caught were slim. . . .
"How much voltage did you use when you shocked this ooze, Sir?" asked Helouise.
The farmer looked down.
Nern quirked his trunk as if he had not been expecting this.
"What is done is done," said Helouise. "If you have shocked this creature, I need to know."
"I fed my house's electrical out to it six days ago."
"And the results?"
"It went all red like it was angry. Wobbled some too. But didn't haul off, nor drop its water."
"And when you did it again?"
"Same thing each time."
"Red or orange mostly, I think. Once it went kind of green."
"And how many times total did you administer a shock?"
A pause. "Twenty-three."
Technician Nern rose up angrily on his hind legs. Helouise held out a calming hand. "That should have caused it to flee."
"That's what I figured."
"It should have also caused it to go clear as an attempt at camouflage."
The farmer cocked his head.
"The other option, of course, is that it could have died, released all its water, and left you with a membrane to dispose of without getting caught, which would have been very tricky given what you have told me about your neighbor."
"Sorry," he muttered.
"You should be."
"So what now?"
"I believe," said Helouise, "that this ooze is psychotic. I am going to find out why."
Twenty minutes later, Helouise had traded out her breathing apparatus for a full helmet and oxygen tank. She had known it would probably come to this, so she'd worn her wetsuit under her lab coat. There was only one way to truly diagnose a nomadic ooze: from inside.
She and Nern shuffled carefully over the ooze's undulating surface, then gathered some membrane, clamped it off, and sliced through to create an opening. "Luck," said Nern.
"Luck is distasteful to Ged," said Helouise with a smile, and dove in.
The viscous yellow water inside was threaded through with the filaments of the ooze's nervous system. They parted around her as she swam downward. Small fish darted away from her approach.
Every couple of meters, she stopped and scanned a fluid sample. Everything seemed quite normal except for a small chemical anomaly that grew increasingly prominent the further down she went.
When she reached the floor of the crater where the creature's membrane embraced the plant life, the problem was clear as a case of mange. The chemical signature led directly to a planting of waxy succulents directly in front of a gigantic fan.
The farmer had planted Byrineum Piniacetae to lure the ooze in, completely unaware of Byrineum's addictive properties. Or . . . perhaps very aware. With every farmer competing for the limited number of oozes for water, any advantage had to be considered.
Unholstering a tool that looked much like the hand vacuum she used to clean her pod in Newganda, she spread sealant over the affected membrane, halting its absorption of the hallucinogenic secretion. She then patted the membrane fondly and resurfaced.
Once she had toweled off and donned her lab coat, Helouise and Nern marched into the farmer's homestead to deliver her pronouncement. "The good news," she said, "is that the ooze should recover enough in a couple of days to drop its water and leave you in peace."
The farmer's face soured in disappointment, as if he had, perhaps, expected her to magically teleport the creature away with her veterinary prowess.
She let annoyance edge into her voice. "The bad news is that you not only illegally shocked this creature; you illegally drugged it." As she explained, she felt the man's anger rise. "I ought to report you," she said before he exploded. "But I won't, as long as you tell me who sold you the Byrineum."
Quite oddly, all the tension left him. In fact, his whole leathery face split in a smile.
"Rankin sold them to me," he said. "Told you he was a squid bastard."
Helouise had never seen anybody pay a veterinary fee so gleefully. He counted out a tall stack of holy coins, threading them through the dowel rod that Nern held out for him. "Pleasure doing business with you," said the farmer. "Pure pleasure."
"I am happy we could resolve your issue to your satisfaction," said Helouise.
"Indeed," said the farmer. "Now there is one more thing."
Ah. A doorknob question. Helouise had been warned against those.
"What else can I help you with?"
"Well," he said, "I know you ain't a real doctor, but I've got this boil."
Helouise looked over at Nern for guidance, but his lack of a face meant any thoughts he had on the matter were quite inscrutable.
"Could you give it a look-see for me?" said the farmer, his tone brazen in its casualness. "It hurts something awful when I sit."
"Then I suggest, Sir," said Helouise, "that you stand."
She left him in his kitchen with a delightfully pained expression on his face.
Condition 6: Must Fulfill All Pre-Existing Contracts
Helouise felt triumphant as she rode back to the clinic. When she and Nern had confronted the infamous farmer Rankin, the octopoid had been so scared that he had torched his entire store of Byrineum, even the seeds. Not only had Helouise dealt with the immediate problem of the psychotic ooze, she had helped to stop the abuse of these rare animals on a larger scale as well. It was an unmitigated victory.
Even Nern seemed to be coming around. He silently took them back home on an alternate route and stopped the skiff on the edge of a nearby valley in which dozens of scaly-backed sand oxen had congregated to birth their young. Helouise and Nern spent several minutes watching the gangly babies romping around before continuing on.
When they returned to the clinic, however, they were greeted by another octopoid, Marion, the practice's secretary. Unlike Rankin, she wasn't scared. She was furious, wondering how they both had possibly missed the calls she had been repeatedly sending. "This is not a good way to start," she railed. "Not a good way at all."
Helouise ignored Marion's impertinence for the time being, and asked what was the matter.
"A herd of vyrons," said Marion, "are skittering all over town, defecating in the street, causing a muck-up."
"And why is this my problem?"
"Because we are contractually obligated to provide animal control for Tabernacle City!"
"Ah," said Helouise.
When she and Nern arrived, the roadways between the brightly painted concrete buildings of Tabernacle City were full of lumbering millipedes bigger than their skiff, each extruding a stinky slew of watery stool.
"This herd is unwell," pronounced Helouise.
"Yes," said Nern.
"Sample gun, please," said Helouise.
It took the rest of the afternoon to diagnose the sickness, compound a retrovirus, and treat the herd. After they'd shooed the last of them off the streets into a nearby cave, Helouise drove the skiff over to the pyramid to accept the praise of the city leaders.
"When do you expect to be finished?" asked the scion who came down to greet them, two of its hands on its hips, the other two held up in question.
"It is completed. Once the virus wanes, their confusion will recede and they should once again avoid the surface as they are supposed to."
"Yes," said the scion. "But when will you finish cleaning up the shit?"
Condition 7: Must Have a Can-Do Attitude!
Long after the sun had set, Helouise returned to the clinic, splattered in unspeakable filth. Her headache could have come from the small leak that had developed in her breathing mask, or it could have come from exhaustion. It was difficult to say.
Nern slunk along after her as they headed to the decontamination stall by the sorting pens. It was meant for animals, but Helouise was not about to walk through the clinic building or her own cottage to get to the bathrooms there. Nern, who lived in the staff apartment atop the boarding wing, had similar scruples.
"You first," said Helouise when they reached the decontamination stall. "I must examine these pens."
She turned away before he could argue and soon heard the spray of the pressurized gel hose, followed soon thereafter by the air blasts that pushed the gel to the stall floor and the slurping sounds of everything being sucked down the grating. She did indeed walk the length of the pens a few times, but with no attention to their state. All she could think about was how her clothes squelched when she moved and how nice it would feel to be clean.
When Nern finished, Helouise forced herself not to rush over to the stall. Instead, she paused to thank him for his help as if she were in no hurry. Only after wishing him a good night, did she walk past and reach for the stall door.
"The last vet was an avian species from the Lambda system," said Nern from behind her.
Helouise turned back to him. "What?"
"That is why there are no roofs anywhere in the compound. Roofs made her claustrophobic. She commonly flew from room to room rather than use the hallways."
"Oh," said Helouise.
"She was a good vet. I think you are too." And with that, Nern galloped away.
Helouise smiled her way through the scouring force of the gel hose, then hummed to herself as she walked back to her cottage and dumped her clothing into the chemical vat on the porch. After that, she took a second bath in cleaning gel, this one in her own, much gentler, cleansing suite, and dressed in her softest rainbow pajamas.
Later, she lay down in her Sigma bed, a sand box covered in a thick quilt, and looked up at the sea of stars overhead. This was not a sight one could see in Newganda, with its constant lights and its pollution. Even if you could see the stars there, it would be a different view, would it not? This view, at this time, in this place, was just for her.
Ceilings, she decided, were not all that important.
She gazed and pondered for nearly half an hour before pulling up her journal and dictating her first entry as a working vet.
"Day One," she began. "A pretty good day."
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