The Colony
Interlude in the Dispensary
(about 9 years after the Awakening)

Verina Du'Arden

So far the day had been very quiet, almost boring with none of the usual minor injuries to treat or new specimens to examine, so Katherine was relaxing while nursing one of the half dozen kittens shi and the other on duty medical staff were watching.  Shi enjoyed watching the little ones as they played and learned how to get around on four feet instead of on all six.  They were little more intelligent than wild treekat kittens the same age, and had not yet started the dominance games of the older cubs. Now they were just interested in playing, eating and sleeping.  Three were sleeping all curled up together in a ball of fur on the pad in the cubbyhole in the back of the dispensary, while two were playing with Doctor Wong's tail.  The kitten shi was nursing was just about ready to join the ones on the sleeping pad, or had been until a puma-colored chakat entered the dispensary cavern.

It was Faststep making this week's deliveries from the Forge and other manufacturing projects.  This was not a small job since the Forge, most Chem Plants and the Paper Mill were located in the foot-hills a good two to three days travel away from First Home Caverns.  Once in a while, larger items had to be moved such as the kitchen's big cooking pots and iron woks and the large and very fragile mirrors of the solar heater used in place of locally scarce wood to provide the heat to do the cooking.  But so far, the combined weekly output had usually been a little more than 200kg and since very little was thrown away and not recycled, that would probably not be increasing very much in the foreseeable future.

Faststep greeted Katherine and Doctor Wong as shi dug through hir well-padded oversized saddlebags, “I have something you've been waiting for Doctor Wong.” Pulling out a cigar sized box shi gave it to the zebra-striped chakat as shi said, “I think you'll like how they turned out.  They found a small vein of a very good natural gold-silver-copper alloy that is, as far as Joe can tell, nickel-free and with a little iron added, makes an alloy that should be perfect for your needles.  Joe included a sharpening jig and buffing wheel, and a small bag of pumice powder so you can keep them nice 'n sharp.  Joe also finished making most of the surgical instruments you guys wanted.  These are just the first prototypes, so before shi goes to the trouble of making more, shi wants to know if anything needs changing and exactly what changes to make.  Shi tested the alloy with all the corrosives the Chem Plant had, and it stood up to everything pretty well except aqua-regia and hydrofluoric acid, which is not surprising, but shi still wants to know if you have any trouble with the alloy.”

The well-made hardwood box contained a couple of dozen bamboo tubes as well as the neatly folded sharpening jig and hand-turned soft suede leather buffing wheel.  Eagerly opening one of the tubes, Doctor Wong found over a dozen reddish-gold tinted acupuncture needles as well made as any shi had back in Hong Kong.  Closely examining the needles, shi said with a still noticeably Chinese accent, “These are lovely.  Very well made.” Shi sighed and added, “Now, all I have to do is map chakat chi meridians in something less than the 4000 years it took on earth.”

Faststep encouragingly said, “I'd not worry too much about that taking nearly that long.  After all, you already knew all there was to know about acupuncture, so it shouldn't take you too long to figure out how to make it work on us.”

Doctor Wong gave Faststep a mildly annoyed glare as shi muttered something in Chinese before saying, “That is to be hoped for, but not probable since I have no doubt no one knew everything there is to know about such an involved and complex subject.  I assuredly did not since my primary area of expertise was traditional Chinese drug therapy... an expertise that is now as totally useless as it is possible to have.”

As Doctor Wong took hir needles over to hir desk, Faststep gave Katherine a 'what did I say' kind of look before digging the dozen shiny new surgical instruments out of hir saddlebags.  “Here are those instruments.  Joe said they are hir best work so far.  Shi is very proud of how they turned out, but shi wants you to feel free to make any suggestions to improve them you might think of... you should see the metal working lathe and milling machine shi is working on.  The bearings turned out to be not nearly as hard to make as shi thought, but shi said cutting the teeth on the gears is sure making up for that.  But once shi gets the lathe and milling machine working, then things will really begin to snowball.”

Katherine snorted and said as shi eagerly opened the box and examined the shiny new instruments, “And then everyone will be wanting to put the ten year olds to work too.”

Playing with one of the kits that pounced on hir tail, Faststep asked, “But, aren't most of them already working?”

Katherine sighed as shi said while checking out a set of forceps, “Yes, but not full-time, and sure as hell not so it interferes with their schooling.”

Faststep picked the playful kit up by hir tail and tickled the squirming little fur-ball as shi said, “Well, I expect we'll be shorthanded for the foreseeable future even if everyone is doing what they can to fix that problem.”

Putting away the new instruments and giving Faststep and the kit a smile, shi asked, “And speaking of that, how are you coming along?”

Faststep grunted as the kit caught a tickling finger and latched on it with its small but needle sharp teeth.  Extracting hir finger from the kit's grasp, shi sat the kit on hir back as shi said, “Oh, just fine.  My first one was a bit rough since I had never ever given the possibility I might get knocked-up any though at all.  God, that was a shock to the old male ego.”

Laughing, Katherine caught the kit as shi tried jumping from Faststep's saddlebag as shi said, “Yours was not the only male ego that got bent a bit.  White Tip put on a big show of acting like it was no big deal, but in private shi was just a big baby about every little pain and discomfort.  You former men just do not have any idea just how rough pregnancy could be before our transformation and how really uncomfortable childbirth was.  It's so much easier now, there just isn't any comparison, and a good thing too given our lack of proper medical facilities to start with.”

Faststep shuddered dramatically as shi said, “I'm not at all sorry about how 'easy' we have it now, my first birthing was more than traumatic enough, thank you.  I know what to expect and I might even enjoy the whole process this time...” Faststep paused and smiled wryly before commenting, mostly to hirself, “God, hard to believe this will be my third.”

Katherine frowned and said, “I know I agreed we have to build up our population as fast as possible, but I overlooked how fast we can do that with the entire adult population able to give birth.  Even with the expected and thankfully very low losses, there are over three times as many cubs and kittens as there are adults now, and I'm just uncomfortable about some of the ways that is effecting how we are raising the little ones.”

Faststep sighed and said, “Yeah, I think most of us are, but there just is not enough adults, even with the older cubs to do everything that needs doing and still raise the kids like we used to.  Besides, the way the older cubs are helping with the younger cubs, who in turn are helping with the older kittens, is working pretty well, at least as far as keeping the young ones out of serious trouble goes.  The only adults we need to work with the cubs are the teachers, and we're all taking turns doing that.”

Watching the kit pounce on hir mates, starting a free-for-all wrestling match, Katherine said, “It's just the young ones are growing up almost totally on their own and are sometimes so wild.”

“Yes, they can act a bit wild sometimes, but the surprising thing is how eager most of them are to learn and how well they usually behave in classes.  When you see a gang of cubs out away from the caverns and adults, it's like watching otters playing back on earth, the way they mix play with stalking, hunting and foraging.  A whole gang, from the oldest to the youngest cub can go from playful chaos to totally serious stalk and hunting mode in seconds when one spots possible prey.  I know it's just a game to them, but their hunts are successful far more often than not, and as far as pure hunting and foraging skills are concerned, I have little doubt a gang of cubs could survive as well as any adult wild animal.  Despite all the rough playing and outright fighting that the cubs always seem to be involved with, they just naturally work together to get something they want. It's almost like they have some kind of telepathic link.”

Katherine shook hir head as shi said, “No, the cubs are not telepaths.  We're always testing for that and other 'psychic' abilities, and so far only three adults and eight cubs have shown anything unusual as far as telepathic abilities are concerned.  All of us have very well developed empathic abilities, and one out of ten has noticeable sympathetic healing abilities and eight of us can only be described as true psychic healers.”

“Yeah, it's interesting that six of the healers had some kind of medical training to begin with, like you and doctor Wong, isn't it?” Faststep sighed and said, “Well, I better get going. We've got other deliveries to make.”

“What are you delivering this week?”

“Mostly metal tool parts, hatchet and axe heads, wood and leather-working tools, and files.  I've also got about 50 kilos of cut and trimmed sheet paper, 200 body lengths of waxed jassem cordage, a thousand body lengths of waxed jassem twine, and the usual assortment of odds and ends... oh, I almost forgot, I have something for you that Night Runner thought you might find useful.”

Faststep looked through hir saddlebags as shi asked, “Katherine, did you use DMSO much in treating animals when you were a vet back on earth?”

Katherine's ears perked up as shi replied, “DMSO?  You mean Dimethyl Sulfoxide?”

Faststep nodded as said, “Yeah, that's the stuff.  Night Runner said it was fairly commonly used in veterinary medicine to treat inflammations and all kinds of other things.”

“Yes, DMSO was the preferred topical anti-inflammatory.  Do you have some?”

With a smile and a flourish Faststep pulled a sealed bamboo tube from hir saddlebag and presented it to Katherine as shi said, “Yep, about a liter of it.  You think it will be useful?”

“Yes, very useful, but I didn't realize our chemical plant was making anything like that.”

“Oh, the Chem Plant isn't making it. They're just purifying it for other uses.” Faststep replied and explained, “Since they got the hydro-generators up and running in thunder canyon, the Chem Plant started making sodium hydroxide from sodium chloride.  The new paper mill is using the sodium hydroxide to make the pulp for the new paper, and the DMSO is the main by-product of the process.  You know how DiVargin and White Tip is about finding useful uses for everything.”

Katherine grunted as the nursing and not-so-little kitten shi picked up to nurse nipped hir nipple before shi chuckled and replied, “Yeah, I know.  I hear them arguing about that, or waste disposal at least once a week.  I can use DMSO if you can purify it to better then 99.5% pure, but I'm sure the paper mill will be producing much more then we'll ever need for medical use.”

Faststep flinched and rubbed one of hir nipples in sympathy as shi said, “Oh, the stuff is a really great solvent. I hear it'll dissolve almost anything, but it's almost totally non-toxic.  So I'm sure the Chem Plant will find all kinds of uses for the stuff... I'm still sore from helping nurse the kits this morning at Way Station, and I'm sure I'll not be the only one who'll be really happy when the Chem Plant figures out how to make good tough rubber without that horrible bitter taste to make bottle nipples.”

“Yeah, good gum rubber tubing would sure be useful.  Maybe they can come up with a soft plastic substitute if we can't find any plants to get the raw latex to make rubber with.”

As Faststep turned to leave the dispensary, Katherine added, “Oh, by the way, Dimethyl Sulfoxide may not be toxic by itself, but it's readily absorbed through the skin and anything that happens to be dissolved in it is absorbed too.  A few years before we woke up here, there was a serial killer down in Brazil who used Fer-de-lance venom dissolved in DMSO, which he squirted on his victims as he walked past them on the street.  I understand the DMSO accelerated the effects of the venom and was usually lethal in less then fifteen minutes, and none of his victims survived longer then twenty minutes.  As I recall, he killed over twenty people before his squirt-gun leaked and he poisoned himself, which is a good thing since the police had no idea who the killer was.  And back in the Sixties, during the student riots in the US, a flier was passed around about dissolving LSD and other drugs in DMSO and using toy squirt guns to spray the police.  The flier overlooked the fact DMSO would also dissolve most common plastics, such as toy squirt guns were made of.  As far as I know, no one ever did use it that way, but if it was that may be one of the reasons some police reacted so violently to the rioters back then.  So, I would not say DMSO is safe to handle just because the pure stuff has a low toxicity.”

Faststep smiled as shi said, “Oh... okay.  The sixties were a few decades before I was born, but I'll be sure to pass your warning along.”

Doctor Wong, who had been examining hir newest set of nickel-free gold-silver alloy acupuncture needles asked, “Could you see if the Chem Plant can make some MSM out of some of that DMSO.”

“MSM?” Faststep asked.

“Yes, MSM.  It is made by carefully boiling DMSO and condensing the vapor.  MSM is Dimethyl Sulfone, or Methyl-Sulfony-Methane and is much like DMSO and shares many of DMSO's medical applications, except MSM is a solid.”

Faststep nodded and said, “Sure, I'll ask Firestorm about MSM for you, but you know how shi is about submitting requests explaining why the Chem Plant should consider making a new chemical.  If MSM is made just by boiling DMSO and doesn't make a mess to worry about, then I don't see why shi'd turn down your request.”

“I gotta go now. I've got a lot of deliveries to make today.  See ya day after tomorrow.” Faststep said as shi left the dispensary.

After Faststep left, Wong asked, “I wonder where they're getting the salt to make sodium hydroxide?”

Katherine replied, “I'm not sure but I assume they're getting it from the salt deposits over in the Larson depression.  It's about fifty kay away, and as far as I know would be the closest source of salt to Thunder Canyon.  Until the Foundry can make enough copper wire to run power lines over to the Larson depression to setup a processing plant there, they'll have to haul the salt from there to Thunder Canyon, so I don't expect they'll be making all that much sodium hydroxide for a year or two.”

“Maybe we'll find a plant that makes and stores sodium hydroxide like Acid Plums stores nitric acid.”

Katherine shook hir head as shi said, “I still don't understand how such a thing like that evolved, and I'm not going to say anything is impossible after seeing the Acid Plum plant and tentacle armed carnivorous plants, and those huge Sand Worms they found down in The Big Sandy.  There is no telling what might turn up next.”

Wong's ears perked up with interest as shi asked, “Just how big are those sand worms anyway?”

Katherine shuddered at the memory of the monstrous 'worm' suddenly rising up out of the sand with less than a half second warning; just missing catching hir in its huge quad-beaked jaws, before replying, “I don't know how big they can get, but the one I saw when I was down there last year with White Tip was big enough to swallow me whole, which it came far too close to doing.  While I'm sure they'll snap up anything dumb enough to go wandering out on the sand, no one has come up with a good explanation of what a thing that big normally hunts.”

Wong picked up another kit begging for attention as shi commented, “The more we learn, the more there seems to be to learn.”

Katherine chuckled as shi put away the new instruments and said, “Why should that be any different now than it was before?  At least now, we're free to find our own answers without the inertia of 2000 years of history binding us to 'What IS and Is NOT Possible' for mostly arbitrary illogically emotional reasons.”

“That sounds like an almost Vulcan attitude...”

Katherine and Wong almost jumped in startlement at the unexpected voice and found Blackstripe standing well inside the dispensary chamber.  Katherine commented, “You're almost as good at that 'suddenly-just-there' thing as Weaver is, and I didn't know you were a Trekkie.”

Blackstripe snorted and said, “No one is as good as Weaver at not being seen if shi doesn't want to be.  Jay and Melissa are the only ones I know who have a chance of following that old witch...”

Katherine interrupted, “Weaver is no older then you or me...”

        Blackstripe snorted and replied, “Physically, that may be true, but I'm not at all sure the stories about how old shi was before we all woke up here are just stories.  I wouldn't be surprised if shi really did see Cortez...”

Blackstripe almost jumped out of hir skin at the sound of the soft voice unexpectedly saying, “No... That was my grandmother, not me... and I believe breathing the vapor off boiling blue-sage will help clear your sinuses.”

Staring at the source of the soft voice, Blackstripe demanded, “How the hell do you DO that!?  I know damn well you were NOT in here just a minute ago!”

Weaver just stretched as shi carefully got to hir feet from where shi was laying with the sleeping kits and cubs, and softly said, “Well, if you say so, then I guess I was not here.” Then shi took several bundles from hir finely made saddlebags and gave them to Doctor Wong as shi said, “Here are those herbs I was telling you about, and I believe you desired Starker venom.” and gave Katherine a thin finger-length sealed glass tube two-thirds full of a bluish-green liquid as shi asked, “Will this be enough for your purposes?”

As Weaver silently padded out of the dispensary, Katherine chuckled at Blackstripe's still slightly disturbed expression and commented, “You do know that old thing about speaking aloud the names of demons and devils attracting them, applies to more then just demons and devils, don't you?”

Blackstripe snorted and started to say something, but was interrupted by Wong who said, “I have some blue-sage if you want to do something about those sinuses.”

( End of this Slice of Life )


Story copyright © 2006 Verina Du'Arden.

Chakats are the creations of Bernard Doove and are used with permission.

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