The Orderly, p.1Louise Stanley
A short story set in the world of the Nine Lives of Michal Piech
Copyright © 2014 by Louise Stanley
Cover illustration © 2014 by C. C. Lewer
All rights are reserved to the author. No part of this ebook may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, character, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Jeremy. Thanks to Caro for the art, and also to the Genesis Sci-Fi book club and writers’ circle, particularly to Kim.
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Kostya was fed up.
Having been assigned to the officers’ wards, and being in uniform, it was perhaps obvious what might happen. Five nationalities’ worth of men from the upper ranks of society, and he, an orphan from one of Krovt’s largest workhouses of visible youth and relative vigour, were not going to get along.
Signing up to get out of a frustrating, bullying apprenticeship to a brewer who took his trade rather too seriously, Kostya was a number of years removed from being a pathetic pauper child. But he had been born just a few months too late. By the time he had turned eighteen, and was old enough to sign up, they had stopped throwing men at the problem and started diverting them to trying to clean up the mess the war had left behind it. No more trains packed full of excited volunteers or anxious conscripts left from stations crowded with women and children wondering whether they would ever see their husbands, sons and brothers again. When Kostya had applied, they had told him they needed cleaners for the hospitals, people to go out into the country to requisition food, and reservists to garrison recaptured towns and return them to habitability. The final push could be accomplished without vast numbers of raw recruits. Kubice was still not liberated, and beyond the Rivers Kila and Berezovka, Syevirmetyevo was still well-fortified. But it could only be a matter of time.
At least he’d had a choice. But every time he handed a glass of water to a man with no leg, or mopped the brow of someone in a fever, or was pushing a mop through the aisles, he copped it. “Shouldn’t you be at the front? What’s wrong with you that you’re not? Plenty of young men giving their all for us, and you’re standing around doing women’s work!”
However much he tried to explain, what the staff sergeant had said when he enlisted, it made absolutely no difference whatsoever.
About a month after he arrived, however, word got out that they had relieved a particularly infamous prisoner-of-war camp. He had heard, from those who were polite enough to tell him what was going on and from the reports in the illustrated newspaper, Okno k Miru, Window on the World, that on more than one occasion liberators had been greeted with a massacre of the entire village. Even the excitable press did not have the stomach to print the details of the aptly named Mogilyovka, Gravestown. From talking to whatever nurse would give him the time of day as they turned down spare beds and cleaned floors, it was a miracle that the hospital would not simply be turned into a morgue.
The first trains began arriving on that evening. Men were lifted out of wagons with translucent skin covering protruding bones, basically dead or unlikely to survive much longer. A few walking wounded staggered out too, dressed in fetid, decayed uniforms or shapeless pyjamas, probably taken from the imperial supplies.
Kostya was detailed to stoke the furnaces and stoves at the hospital so hot that the flames licked out of the ovens and singed the grates. When he returned to the orderly’s sitting room he barely had time to wash before he and his colleagues were ordered to make up rows of beds and turn any men out who could be visibly considered to have recovered.
“The insane will have to be shipped out to the civilian infirmary,” one of the doctors said. “The sick need our help – no man ever died from gunshock.”
Kostya didn’t get to bed until the small hours of the morning.
When he woke, it was snowing outside, but the building was like a sauna. From the window of the orderlies’ quarters, he could see the quadrangle already several inches deep in snow. According to gossips, most of the dead had been private soldiers. More of the living were officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, kept as valuable trophies of warfare.
More taunting, he thought. As soon as this is over I’m going back to the brewery. It’s pointless joining up if all I see is the barracks, two months in the mud firing and charging at straw dummies, and then cleaning up sick or dressing wounds.
A doctor pulled him over just before he was to get his cup of tea at eleven hours. A skeletal man lolled at his side, head and arm bandaged but with very little blood anywhere to be seen. “Take this patient up to room 17.”
The patient slid onto a nearby bench. He was red-haired. His chin was covered in russet stubble, and his only significant injury seemed to be to his hand. He was already wearing clean pyjamas, but he was clad in a green military topcoat with captain’s insignia still visible on the sleeve, though the silver collar studs had been torn off.
“Perhaps I might have a bath-chair,” Kostya asked the physician, who was already consulting another chart.
“There aren’t any for men who can still walk,” the doctor said, without looking up. “Do as you’re told and hurry up.”
The captain vomited and swore in what Kostya thought must be Salvat. They always used the word for whore, kurwa, more or less as punctuation, and Kostya gently spoke to him in Allemundisch, hefting his arm over his shoulder and asking him his name.
“Zbigniew,” the captain slurred. “Piech.”
Private rooms were only assigned to the upper ranks – majors and so on – should they see combat injuries or illnesses. A major captured in more or less the first push and counterattack when even the staff headquarters could be wiped out, had been sent insane by the conditions at another camp, and they’d had to lock him in and fetch someone from the genteel asylum at Oryolka to handle his night terrors, sleepwalking and soaked bed.
Piech had to be half dragged upstairs. The doctor followed at a sedate pace, leaving Kostya to manage the staggering man on his own. Several times he was sick, until Kostya wondered what more was left inside him to come out. He was soaked with sweat and in a terrible fever, which the doctor who examined him up in room 17 was convinced was typhus aggravated by anxiety.
“Shave his head,” the physician ordered, “so I can get cold water close to his scalp.”
Kostya was in and out of that room for most of the afternoon and well into the evening. The coat had to be taken away to the incinerator once the patient was calm and willing to part with it, and without his red hair Piech looked strange. With him lying there bald and denuded of anything that might identify him, Kostya felt more pity for him than for anyone else.
Just wait, Kostenka, he thought. Once he wakes up properly, he’ll be just the same as all the others.
Captain Zbigniew Piech of the Krovt Household Guards was in the hospital a month before he realised where he was. Kostya was not always a regular to his room, but a bit before Yule, when he sat up and began to take notice of his surroundings, and ask whether his family knew where he was, Kostya just happened to be in there. Notwithstanding that most of the orderlies spoke Allemundisch with the patients, the Captain alternately preferred to speak in his own language, Salvat, or in the Krovot language that of his adopted home. Kostya was obviously grateful to find someone who could speak Krovot, and Piech spared him any harsh words about his role in the hospital or that he didn’t have the drawn, haunted look of a soldier who had seen action.
Piech’s doctor, Arvid Chislenko, had explained that typhus left the body quite suddenly, almost overnight. Kostya had brought him bouillon as soon as he understood that the captain’s agonies had passed over, and Piech requested permission from the supervising officer for Kostya to sit with him for a bit and attend to him directly. He explained he wanted a companion while he was convalescing.
His hair had grown back, at least to the point where it might be called hair again rather than stubble, and it had reappeared as red as the day it had had to be cut off. Others had not been so lucky, being sent white with horror or with the ravages of disease
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