The Fith Element
The doctors' lounge in the medical corvette Anti-Venom was dim and silent. Through the large transparisteel window, faraway stars speckled the depths of space. The Chadra-Fan's eyes glittered in the dark, her nostrils twitching against the jarring scents drifting through the ship's air ducts.
Her sensitive ears heard him approaching long before the door slid open. Ceiling lights flickered on, the motion sensors responding to his lumbering tread; she squinched her eyelids shut to help her vision adjust from infrared to normal wavelengths. No matter how often she complained, the lights were always too bright.
His voice was sonorous, echoing through the quiet room. "Nurse Fith? Are you in here?"
Essian thought, briefly, of saying nothing, but the Besalisk didn't deserve to be ignored. "Kark off, Ghel." But the insult, delivered in her squeaky tones, held no anger or malice; it was almost an automatic response.
As was the Besalisk's. "Kriff off yourself. Don't you answer your commlink any more? We've been calling you."
"I switched it off." The rodent-like Chadra-Fan pointedly turned to gaze out of the window again. "Go away."
Dr. Ghelex Phven did not. Instead, he approached the window, standing beside and a little behind Essian to look out at the same desolate area of space. Her four nostrils were filled with his scent: musk and sweat, with an overlay of antiseptic. She felt a hand rest on her shoulder, tentatively, and tolerated the pressure. Actually, it made her feel .... comforted. Not that she'd tell him that, of course.
His voice, normally booming, was restrained out of respect for her sensitive hearing. "You should take some time off, you know. We are allowed leave in the New Republic. Even more than we had in the Rebellion, actually."
"Leave?" She whirled on him, a tiny fury: dark eyes narrowed, claws curled into fists. "Shavvit, I don't need leave! I've still got what it takes - I may be getting old, but I've not lost it yet!"
He watched her, folding his superior pair of arms across his chest while the lower pair were propped on his hips. "'Not lost it yet' - really? You can still say that after today? After what you did?" Phven shook his head slowly, his wattle inflating with the movement. "The Captain's heard about it, you know. There'll be consequences."
"She can kiss my hairy ass!" Essi retorted with her favourite insult, but it lacked heat. Captain Kardia Milo was still an unknown quantity and it wasn't as if Essian was the only nurse in the New Republic. She could easily be dismissed from the Anti-Venom. With a harrumph, Essian turned back to the window and stared outside. "I'm not taking leave," she muttered, but it came out as even more of a squeak than usual. Behind her, Phven heaved a sigh that practically rumbled through the deckplates and let his hand slip from the Chadra-Fan's shoulder.
Essian's sharp hearing alerted her to the imminent arrival of another: light footsteps, businesslike, echoing through the empty corridor. "I know who this is ...."
"She's worried about you. We all are."
Before the nurse could respond, the door retracted and a tall human entered, lab coat rustling. "Essian! I'm glad Ghelex found you." Dr Aruithil Cho slowed her steps as she approached the odd couple standing close to the floor-to-ceiling transparisteel window. She tilted her head to one side, regarding the child-sized nurse with a compassionate gaze.
"Your patient survived much longer than we'd all expected. Even bacta can't cure everything. You're an excellent nurse, Essian, but you know it's just not possible to save everyone."
"Spare me the poodoo." Essi's squeaky voice almost made the insult sound amusing, but the sharp glare in her beady black eyes showed her true feelings. "We all lose patients. Leave me alone - I'm fine."
Behind Essian, the Besalisk made cutting motions with his superior arms, indicating Aruithil should be quiet, but the tall woman shook her head. "No. No, you're not getting away with it this time, Essi."
"Don't call me that!"
"Fine. Essian, then. Why d'you do this? Every time we try to help, you push us away. You're rude and aggressive and abrasive - yet despite that, you're a great nurse. You're in your element here!" One hand swept wide to indicate the medical and surgical decks which extended throughout the Anti-Venom. "We all came from the Rebellion to join this ship, to help others in a way we couldn't before. You chose to be part of this crew, so why are you always so angry about everything?"
"I'm not kriffing angry!"
Aru just folded her arms, aiming a pointed look at the Chadra-Fan until Essian gave a one-shouldered shrug and glanced away. "All right, maybe I am, a bit. But it's the way we're treated that makes me like this!"
"Why - what's happened?" Phven's response was immediate. "Did somebody ..."
"No, no, no. Nothing like that. Nobody aboard the Anti-Venom - or the Redemption." That was the Rebel, now New Republic, medical frigate on which they had all served during the Battle of Endor and its aftermath. Essian's ears drooped; she sighed, a fluting sound. "It's a long story."
"Well, I have time." Aru glanced at Phven and raised her eyebrows.
"As do I." The Besalisk lumbered across to the couch which took up a corner of the room. "We may as well make ourselves comfortable. Does anyone want a caf, before you start?"
Essian snorted. "I won't take that long. I'm only 32!"
16 years ago
It was hot inside the speeder's trunk: hot and cramped, even for a Chadra-Fan barely into adulthood. Essian's ears twitched as a garbled message came over her commlink. Franky was hard enough to understand at the best of times - Shyriiwook wasn't the easiest of languages - but she had the commlink dialled down as low as possible in case anyone could overhear and, even with her acute hearing, the poor signal was making it hard to catch every word.
"Say again?" she whispered.
Franky growled back.
"I'm clear to go?"
"Right. Let me know if you see anyone." Essian clawed at the lock of the trunk, which had been modified by Hfrankarru, the Wookiee mechanic, to open from the inside. A sliver of light appeared, making her flinch back into the darkness. The CorSec impound lot was illuminated by harsh arc lights but the rear end of the speeder was fortunately close to a vertical stack of shelves holding various vehicles. Essian jumped down, her medkit belt clinking gently, and scurried over to the nearest shelves, peering round them to catch a glimpse of the tall building opposite where Franky and Greelo were acting as lookouts.
Greelo's voice came over the com, his Twi'lek accent unaffected by the distortion. "Zhe door is in zhe corner of zhat building. Can you get zhere?"
Essian made a rude noise. "Of course!" Hugging the vehicle stacks, she scuttled closer to the door into the CorSec building. The item they were seeking was in the evidence room inside; each member of the team had a role to play in finding it.
"Is Thram inside? How's his distraction going?" she hissed, applying the lockbot to the door's mechanism and listening as it clicked through the combinations.
"Greelo? How's Thram doing?"
"Franky? What's happening with Thram?"
She paused, waiting for a response. Then shots rang out from the direction of the main entrance, Franky howled a warning, Greelo shouted something over the comm and Essian heard loud footsteps approaching the door .....
Aru's expression was torn between shock and amusement. "You were involved in a heist?"
"No! No .... well, sort of." Essian looked evasive. "It wasn't meant to be a heist. It just ... turned into one."
"But why were you in the Corellian Security Force compound in the first place?" Ghelex Phven stared at the Chadra-Fan as if she had turned into Princess Leia Organa herself, an impression that dissolved as soon as Essian spoke.
"I told you why! We had to find the package because we needed the credits," she squeaked, voice rising higher with irritation. "I had debt collectors on my back - I'd had to drop out of medical school because I couldn't afford it. Thram always had someone after him; Greelo was his bodyguard for a reason. Even Franky ..." Her breath hitched and she continued, sounding calmer, "Well, let's just say we all had reasons to need cash. And we got it, that time."
The human doctor shook her head. She'd undone her hair while Essian was talking and her dreadlocks curled round her shoulders like a Nautolan's head-tentacles. "How long were you part of their - their gang?"
"Aru!" Essian shot her a reproachful look. "We weren't a 'gang'. We were just a group of friends who worked well together for ... uh, quite a few years. I was the medic, Thram thought he was the brains, Greelo was the muscle and Franky ..." she chopped off what she'd been going to say.
"The Wookiee, yes?" Phven asked.
"He was my friend." Essian gazed directly at the Besalisk. "I looked after him. He looked after me. When we were walking through a busy place, he'd put me on his shoulder - not because he was laughing at me, or treating me like a child. Not like some people see me. He put me on his shoulder to keep me safe!" Frustration born of memory impelled her to stand, to take a few steps away from the couch where the other two were sitting. She could see their reflections in the window, their infrared signatures overlaid against their physical forms. It only served to reinforce the sense of separation she felt, even though she'd worked with them both for months. Together, they had saved countless lives, lost others, but she had never before spoken to them like this.
"Do you know how that feels, when you're used to being ignored? All but trampled on, because of your size? I wanted to be a doctor - like both of you. My clan back on Chad thought I was crazy, but I studied hard. I got into medical school, even though I had to borrow money to pay my fees. I was almost finished ... but then I ran out of money. And loan sharks don't care how small you are. It just means you're easier to hurt."
Aruthil exchanged glances with Ghelex, abruptly concerned. "Essi - if you need credits ...."
She turned, black eyes snapping. "Don't call me Essi! Only Franky calls - called me that." With a visible effort, she controlled herself, looking down at the scuffed deckplates. "Th-thank you, Aru. Dr Cho. I don't need money. It took me a long time but I paid them off, just before I joined the Rebellion."
Phven's head-wattle was rising and falling, indicating his distress. "But if you'd paid your debts, why did you join up? Why didn't you make a life for yourself, now you could?"
"Because .... because I wanted to be part of something that would help everyday people, like me, fight back against those who wanted to hurt them. I'm too old to finish my doctor's training now, but as a nurse I can still help you both put people back together, drag them back to life, give them a future. But now - after today - I'm wondering if ...."
"If?" Aru prompted, after a short silence. Essian folded her arms and, fur bristling with distress, stared out the window again.
"If I shouldn't just give up. Resign. Leave the New Republic - we're not rebels any more; what's the point of fighting? I should retire, go back to Chad, find my clan - but what would I do? I'm too old to have kits; those days have passed and my clan's probably forgotten all about me anyway. I don't want to spend my last days by myself ....."
A small sound, suspiciously furtive, made her swing back to stare at her colleagues. Aruithil seemed to be having trouble keeping a straight face; her lips were pinched shut. Even Ghelex was struggling - the chemoreceptors inside her nostrils stung with the scent of their emotions. "Are you laughing at me?" Her voice skirled up the octaves, a shriek of a squeak.
Aru couldn't hold back. Laughter erupted from her, setting Phven off as well while Essian could only stare, shocked. "You're so .... so melodramatic!" Aruithil all but howled while Ghelex shook with laughter, his bellies jiggling beneath his lab coat.
"I'm not!" she started to huff but it was impossible to act defensive in the face of their emotions. "Oh, kark you both!" Slowly, then with increasing volume, Essian joined in the laughter, placing her hands on her knobbly knees, all but overwhelmed.
Her hypersensitive hearing barely picked up on the sound of the doors opening.
"Well, this is a surprise!" Captain Kardia Milo's accent made each word sound subtly different from the usual Basic pronunciation. Essian straightened, wiping away the laughter-tears with the furry back of her hand. This wasn't the time to be inappropriately amused, not after everything that had happened earlier.
Aru, however, seemed to feel differently. "Essian - Nurse Fith - thinks she should leave the New Republic and go back to Chad, Captain. Because she thinks she's too old." She couldn't stop smiling as she spoke.
A frown crossed the Captain's face. "Well, if Nurse Fith wants to leave, it's her choice. I would say, though, Essian, that you're a vital element of the crew and your experience will be sorely missed." Kardia's comm unit beeped for attention; she held up one hand to Essian before answering. "Milo here."
"Captain, it's Red-Eye. Message from the New Republic - they need our urgent support. Planet called Toseng, multiple medical emergencies. Should we divert?" The navigator sounded bored.
"Affirmative. Lay in a new course for Toseng - I'll be on the bridge in a few minutes. Milo out."
The emergency call had dampened the amusement. Aru gathered her hair back into its habitual bun, tucking in the long ends, while Phven pushed himself to his feet, groaning slightly. Kardia Milo looked down at the tiny nurse. "So - what's it to be? Do you want to resign? Or are you coming with us to Toseng?"
When Essian thought about it, there really wasn't any choice at all.
"Oh, shavvit ... I'll stay. Why not? I've got a few years in me yet."
A smile tugged at one side of the captain's mouth. "That's good. Despite everything, I'm told you're an excellent nurse." She paused, then added with a grin, "Even if you do have the bedside manner of a gundark."
The words were out before Essian could stop them. "You can kiss my hairy ass!"