Layla pulled her cart from behind the nurses’ station. It was almost impossible to generate enough trash to make a mess in orbit, but she was trying. Medical supplies were the only disposable things she’d seen since coming here. Sterile gauze packages, crinkled tape, and the little snap on caps from the day’s medicine littered the tray. It irritated her. She sighed at the waste and shoved the cart down the hall, bumping it with her foot in short jerks that somehow stopped her from punching the wall.
Artificial sunlight flooded the hallway from a faux window. Blue skies and golden fields stretched into the distance. It was convincing enough that sometimes the dementia patients would ask if they could go outside. Layla smiled to herself at the thought. Taking a spacewalk would be nice. The view from thirty-five thousand kilometers was breathtaking.
She took a deep breath and tried futilely to roll the tension out of her neck. The other nurse had the flu, leaving her the only one on duty. They had called for relief, but a hurricane was pounding the spaceport in Florida, and other orbital facilities didn’t staff expendable people. Help was a long way away. Layla was alone. She thought of her brother and missed him, but he would never visit her here.
“Help me!” The new patient was crying out from down another hall — again.
It was a good thing the window was fake. Layla had the sudden urge to throw herself through it.
“Coming,” she called back.
“Help me, please help me!”
Layla walked quickly to the nurses’ station and took a sip of her coke. Straightened the framed photo of her brother, one of the only personal items she had. God, she wanted to call him, but he never answered. She took another sip and tried to forget how mad he was at her for leaving home. They won’t take care of you. The low gravity will make you sick. Maybe he was right.
She put her drink down and bounced to his room. Two quick steps and she covered the fifteen feet. She was a good runner anyway but working in one-half normal gravity made her feel like a superhero.
“I’m here, what is it?” Layla walked into the room and checked the floor for his internet goggles. He had already dropped them twice today.
“Help me.” His voice didn’t sound as strong. There was something wet, bubbling behind his words.
She hurried to the edge of his bed. The old man was half sitting, clutching the rails. He looked ragged, even for a hundred and seventy. Tears in his eyes. Foam at the corner of his mouth. She heard it now, the wet rattling of his breath. Layla was calm. Surprised, but calm. She grabbed a pair of large pillows from the recliner next to his bed and packed them behind his back. “Shush, easy,” she whispered and took his hand until he let go of the railing.
He took her hand in both of his and squeezed. His mouth hung open as he fought to catch his breath.
“When did you start feeling bad?” she asked.
“Help me.” His vacant expression was very different from the man she had met earlier today, writing articles for the conservative news authority. His trouble breathing was worrying, but confusion was a much more serious sign. His brain needed more oxygen a long time ago.
Layla pat his hand and ran back to the nursing station, tore through the open cupboards, and found an oxygen mask. Three of the other eleven rooms had their call lights on. She’d deal with them later. It seemed like people could do for themselves in half-gravity, but they couldn’t. That was the point.
She went back to the room, plugged the oxygen mask into the wall, and gently strapped it around his ears. His breathing didn’t get any easier. She didn’t expect it too. “Hang on, okay? I’m going to get you some help.”
Layla bounded back to the nurses’ station and leapt over the counter. She grabbed the phone and checked the computer screen for the list of medical transporters that flew here – two private companies and the UN outfit. MedOrbit was in Florida and suffering a tropical storm, so they were out. Royal University Orbital Transport launched from somewhere in the EU. They’d have to do. She tapped the green marker by their name and picked up the phone.
No good. It would take them an hour and forty minutes to get a rescue ship out to her, and her patient didn’t have that long. Layla sighed, frustrated, and called UN Emergency Response.
“What is the nature of the emergency.” The dispatcher’s voice was low and metallic.
“I have a patient in respiratory distress. He’s red level, with an altered state of consciousness,” said Layla. “How soon can you get someone here?”
“I have a ship in route now. Expected time of arrival is seven minutes,” it said.
Layla hung up and sat down at her desktop computer. “Mainframe, I need the patient in one-twelve’s chart.” The station’s AI brought it up. She found his list of medications. No prescribed respiratory drugs. No diagnosed heart or lung conditions. Nothing she could do.
Two more call lights came on. That was five, plus the dying man. These people were paying millions a year to be here. They deserved better.
She grabbed her personal communicator, put in her earpiece, and spoke into the mic. “Call Medical Control.” It rang like an old-timey phone. Might ring for a long time.
Her hands moved quickly, getting everything ready in case the doctor answered. She reached into the bottom drawer of the cart and grabbed a vial of salbutamol that would help him breath. Layla looked back at the room, tempted to open the pack, but giving him anything without the doctor’s orders could cost her a seven-figure job. The phone kept ringing. There wasn’t anything she could do for him, so she made her rounds.
Layla moved fast, from room to room, checking to make sure the other five patients were safe. In between each, she ran back to one-twelve to see how so and so was doing – still sitting up too straight, gripping the rails, and staring at the doorway with wild eyes. “Just a few minutes,” she said. “Medics are on their way.”
One of her other patients vomited after watching a full motion video on her internet goggles. Another wanted a cup of coffee, but was too much of a fall risk to get up and get it on his own. Two others just wanted to talk. She grabbed the coffee, warmed some fresh bedding, and kept trying to smile.
Her phone kept ringing.
Layla turned from the nurses’ station, surprised to see a couple of paramedics standing behind her.
“Excuse me.” He was middle-aged, with a big chest and dark eyes. His uniform fit his muscular frame well. Good looking, but too old for her. “Where am I going?”
“One-Twelve.” She ran behind the desk. “Mainframe,” she said, “transfer patient information to the paramedic that’s here.” She watched them push their wheeled stretcher into his room without a thankyou or second look and thank god for that. UN Emergency Response personnel could be as nasty as they wanted and filing a complaint never did any good.
Layla sighed with relief, turned off the still ringing communicator, and went back to her rounds. She felt a little guilty that sending him out would make her shift easier.
By the time she was finished changing the sheets on the motion-sick woman’s bed, the medics were pulling their stretcher back into the hallway. The patient was sitting up and breathing a little easier. They had put him on their own oxygen mask and given him a dose of the same medicine she had unboxed earlier.
Layla stopped next to the cart, put her hand on his, and gave him a warm squeeze. “Feel better, okay?”
“No thanks to you,” said the older medic. “This is totally unacceptable.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
He stepped a little closer, making her back up. “You can’t just leave someone alone like that. What if he needed CPR?”
“You could have given him something.” The younger of the two men stared at her chest. He was breathing through his mouth.
“I can’t. I’m not allowed…”
The older medic cut her off. “Maybe this isn’t the job for you. This is patient care and you need to put the patient first. Where is your supervisor?”
“I’m the only one here.” She looked at his chest, avoiding his eyes.
“That’s just great. Amateur hour. I’m sure we’ll be back here today.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as they pushed the cart to the elevator.
“Get your shit together,” said the younger man as the doors closed.
Layla wiped her eyes, walked back to the nurses’ station, and check the board. Four lights, and it was time to give everyone their medicine.
Eleven hours on and Layla hadn’t taken a break. The rumble in her stomach vanished into a sharp, sick pain as she cleaned Mary’s backside. Mary’s call light had been on for fifteen minutes before Layla got to her. It was too late. She couldn’t get out of bed without help and couldn’t wait any longer for the toilet. “It’s okay; it happens,” said Layla as she finished cleaning her and took off her gloves. Mary was sweet, and totally with it, but she needed more help than Layla had time to give. Mary shouldn’t be here.
Layla walked back into the hallway where the scent of excrement and bleach competed to overpower the atmospheric recycler. It was gross how the waves of odor could sometimes reach the next floor. She walked back to the nurses’ station and checked the board. Two lights. She eyed the cold, uneaten soy burger sitting by her screen. Even if she had time, she needed a minute for her stomach to settle. The food here was disgusting. Did she even remember what real meat tasted like?
Two-fourteen’s light had been on for five minutes. She was catching up. Layla walked back to his room and knocked gently on the wall outside the open door. A sign read, “Fall Risk,” in big black letters. She walked in without waiting for a response. “Hello Tim,” she said in a high voice, “what do you need?”
He was sitting on the edge of his bed. His blue scrubs hung low on his surgery-scarred chest, exposing the grey hair and age spots. Tim smiled with teeth too perfect to be natural. “Just wanted to walk around the floor a little, get some cardio in.”
She nodded, slipped an arm under his, and pulled him to his feet. In half gravity, he only weighed thirty-three kilograms. They walked, arm in arm, back to the nurses’ station. He was quick at first, pulling her along while humming a rumba. She smiled but had to help him more and more as they shambled down the hall. Tim was out of breath by the time they reached the desk.
“You should sit down for a minute before we go back,” she said, leading him behind the station.
Tim plopped down in her rolling chair and closed his eyes, breathing through pursed lips. “Sounds good young lady.”
Layla smiled to him and headed to three-oh-one to check on her last patient. Hopefully, the next shift would be here soon, and no more lights would go off. She reached for the door and heard a crash from back behind the nurses’ station. Tim cried out in pain. More crashing. Layla bounded back and pushed her way through the little swinging door. He was sprawled out on the ground next to the tipped over rolling chair.
She knelt next to him as he groaned and curled into a ball. Strands of grey hair fell across his eyes. Layla brushed them back and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Tim?”
He groaned in response.
“Tim,” she said again, “did you hit your head?” Maybe he nodded yes, but she couldn’t tell. He looked bad, but how hurt could he be from a fall in half gravity? It was stupid to let him back here, Layla thought. “Tim, stay awake. Are you hurt?” She knew he was hurt. Concussions were dangerous for these patients, and they rarely fell without breaking something.
“Help me up,” he whispered.
Layla reached under his arms and sat him up. A sturdy metal chair with a plush cushion sat against the far wall. She helped him to his feet and half dragged him to it. A motivational poster hung nearby — little nano-robots linked hand in hand. Teamwork is a Process. It pissed her off.
Drool leaked from the corner of Tim’s mouth. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped deeper into the chair, mumbling something about his fiduciary being a crook. She grabbed his wrist, felt the boney recesses where his pulse should be. Couldn’t find it. He was still breathing. She touched the grove of his throat. Ninety beats a minute. A little fast, but his blood pressure must be low for his wrist to lose its pulse. Might have been why he dropped.
Layla stood up, rigidly, picturing the doctor’s face when he found out she let a patient behind the desk. She thought of the first responder that treated her like an idiot earlier. Amateur hour. I’m sure we’ll be back here today. She thought of her brother, telling her that taking a job in orbit was stupid. It was stupid. She was stupid. A muffled cry cut through her lips and rattled her chest as she tapped it down.
She walked back to her workstation and looked at the list of transporters. Her body tensed as her wet eyes slipped over UN Emergency Response’s listing. “He’s not hurt that bad,” she whispered. Royal University Orbital Transport could handle this. Privately owned. No union. Medics were always polite, because they had to be. She touched the green marker next to its name and picked up the phone.
“RUOT, how can I help you?” said the call taker.
“I have a patient who suffered a fall, needing transport to the ER from Lexington Station Extended Care in Geostationary Orbit. How soon could you have someone here?”
“We’ll have someone to you in an hour and forty minutes. Is the patient stable?” asked the call taker.
Layla looked at him. He was slumped over with closed eyes, but she could see the rise and fall of his chest. Her voice trembled. “Yeah, he’s okay.”
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this bit, check out my serial: Winoc the Traveler.
Let me know what you thought in the comments. Cheers!