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Dr. Astrid Claret

Axiom's Silently Resentful Physician

0 · 713 views · located in Post-Apocalyptic

a character in “Tales of Gaia: An Odyssey”, as played by Fear of a Female Planet

Description

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.: DESCRIPTION :.

Portrayed By Gemma Arterton
Reluctant Beau Monde Physician (Multi-Boarded in Trauma Surgery, Defense Physiology, Obstetrics/Neonatal/Pediatrics)
32
Female
5’2” / 125lbs
{{Descent unknown; blood analysis data unavailable}}
Her memories stretch as far back as age 11 to the City of Axiom.

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.: ATTRIBUTES :.

STRength: +3
PERception: +7
ENDurance: +7
CHArisma: +8
INTelligence: +8
AGILity: +7
Luck: +5


.: SKILLS/ABILITIES :.

3 Advanced Skills (+++)
Speech & Diplomacy (CHA+8/PER+7/INT+8)
Education, Arts & Humanities (PER+7/INT+8/CHA+8/AGI+7))
Medicine / Doctor (PER+7/INT+8)

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3 Intermediate Skills (++)
Investigation (PER+7/INT+8)
Firearms, Small (AGI+7)
Sneak & Evasion (AGI+7/PER+7/LUCK+5)

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3 Novice Skills (+)
Pilot/Driving (PER+7/AGI+7)
Throwing (AGI+7)
Unarmed (AGI+7)

.: PERSONAL INFO :.

Dominant Emotion: Restorative

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Demeanor: Ever since she can remember, Astrid's always tried to fix things. For instance, a broken small kitchen appliance could demand hours' worth of her attention as she'd open it up and study the components, zero in on the problem, and either attempt to fix it herself or declare the problem as hopelessly unfixable on her own. Another time, Uncle Edward discovered a 13-year old Astrid fretting in the garden over how to return a few eggs that had fallen out of a robin's nest, devising a strategy to return the eggs without using her own hands. It also wasn't uncommon for the normally quiet girl to pipe up and volunteer to run errands for kitchen workers, only to get turned down every time. What had started out as a potentially irritating habit turned into an affectionate household nickname--"Doc." Uncle Edward and Aunt Beatrice determined that "Doc"'s primary motivation behind such sentiments were to be helpful; they encouraged her, with what they viewed as an altruistic nature coupled with a vivid stubborn streak, to gravitate toward the study of medicine. The two were correct in their assertion. Astrid can come off as quiet and reserved initially, only to prove to even just seconds later connect meaningfully to even a stranger thanks to an inquisitive nature and a preternatural desire to help others fix their problems. On a bad day, however, any possible goodwill that was there can slowly ebb away to reveal a somewhat tempestuous, impulsive, snappier version of the normally serene Astrid. She was elected co-captain of her pod in medical school in her fifth year at age 23, after her normally shy nature had ample opportunity to develop confidently while meeting so many types of different people on the journey through the Seven Cities. With patients she tailors her approach to fit their needs and moods--considering she typically works with accident victims, childbearing-and-post-partum women, and children, she finds that her disposition that causes her to be inclined to help others open a great threshold for deep patience while she's working in her capacity as a doctor. When it comes to social interaction, on the other hand, she has little patience for unnecessary cruelty and has had to learn how to develop the habit of keeping her mouth shut in the midst of conflict, or opening her mouth before she's fully formed her thoughts. This can make for memorable disagreements if conditions collide. To be continued.

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Equipment:

Modern, shatterproof datapad
Accompanying portable datakey to Beau Monde's information database
Brown leather revolver holster; .357 shells
Toolbet[/b] with various pockets for emergency first aid kit components, mini respirator to wade through chemical clouds, duct tape, shears, quick-use morphine / anti-poison tablets / anti-radiation tablets, snakebite tourniquet
Light satchel with supplies for emergency medical situations - gloves, forceps, medical braces, surgical tubing, scalpel, tourniquet, bandages of all sizes, compression bandages, gauze, eye shields, alcohol prep pads, needle and thread, burn dressings, nasopharyngeal airway, decompression needle, trauma packs, quick-use morphine, heavy-duty morphine drip, tranquilizers, healing poultices, anti-poison tablets, anti-radiation tablets, clamps, bulb syringe



History:

  • A devastating vehicle accident out on the wasteland claimed the lives of Astrid's parents, and dealt her a permanent traumatic brain injury while also requiring the installation of a Perpetual8, at the time an experimental but innovative thermal-powered mechanism regulating heartbeat. To this day, she continues to suffer no problems from the self-powering piece, despite the discontinuation of its manufacture and use as a pacemaker, the reasons for which have never been disclosed publicly.
  • Astrid remembers nothing from her childhood in her conscious memory; in fact, her first solid, concrete recollection that she can connect to reality itself would be at the age of 11, not long after coming to live with her elderly aunt and uncle, Edward and Beatrice Claret. The two didn't think twice about ensuring that their beloved niece would undergo surgery to have a Perpetual8 implanted in her damaged heart, even at such great expense.
  • Edward and Beatrice had no children of their own, glad to allow their recently-orphaned niece to live with them after the tragic accident. This is one of the few topics that Astrid found difficult to discuss with her beloved guardians. In fact, she has no knowledge of what her parents were like; Edward said that a fire in the home had destroyed all the old family photographs that the family had, and Beatrice would become melancholy at the mention. Astrid eventually learned to drop the subject entirely with them, and did. For years she even did that with herself, until at the age of 12 she woke up in a startle after an intense nightmare centered around a symbol. For years she would have this recurring nightmare every so often, causing her to wake up in a cold sweat and in a state of panic. These episodes were far stronger in her teenage years, and rarely cropped up during medical school. Some nights Astrid would feel afraid to fall asleep, for fear of waking up in a dreadful shock. Over the years, she's pondered the symbol and its meaning, and has come to the conclusion after years of mentally piecing together details that have slowly shown themselves over time that the symbol was one of the last things she saw before her head was struck in the accident. Any attempts at researching the symbol have come up fruitless, and no one from any of the Seven Cities recognized it when she might have worked up the nerve to sketch it out for someone. Any clue she can possibly obtain to learn about her parents' identities is something she is ravenously interested in.
  • At the age of 16, Astrid was awarded admission to the Somatic School of Medicine, all of Beau Monde's most celebrated and top-notch center for medical training. Starting at 18, Astrid traveled on and off to the other cities on the continent, networking with other Beau Monde physicians-in-training such as herself and other Beau Mondes encountered. By 23 she'd traveled to the Seven Cities with her "pod" classmates from Axiom that she'd began school with, and at 29 she received her board certifications in not just one but three medical concentrations. She was the only one of the six doctors that made it through the years of grueling training and certification trials to not be permitted to leave Axiom's Beau Monde district, leaving her quickly without the friends-turned-surrogate-siblings she'd spent over eleven years traveling and working closely with.
  • Not long after Astrid took her physician's oath, both Edward and Beatrice decided to move out east, to the city they primarily moved to Axiom from about fifty years prior; as a gift, they gave Astrid the home she grew up in--theirs--to call as her own. Astrid keeps in touch with the two closely.
  • Astrid has made observations of a stunning nature during her time as a doctor in Axiom, primarily working as an obstetrician, neo-natal specialist, and pediatrician for some of Axiom Beau Monde's wealthiest and most powerful residents. Recently she's made requests to work on the outer valences of the city; for six months she's pitched in on a volunteer shift once per week to examine, categorize, and in-process humans that are carted in to Axiom by legal slavers for public combat games in Axiom's outer valences. It's hard work, and it means little to no sleep for the shift that begins not long afterward at the central hospital. The heavy dosage of reality she's been given in this volunteer position have confirmed some of the suspicions raised in her mind, causing her to question many things.
  • To be continued.


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pictured not long after taking her physician's oath.

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So begins...

Dr. Astrid Claret's Story

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Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
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prologue i

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"Drive faster!"

"We're maxing out at 120 miles per hour! We're not going any faster than this!"

The jet of black smoke reedily roared after the splotched-primered capped truck careened out over the broken road. Its shocks groaned protestedly with each bounce up into the air and each break onto uneven pavement. The dark-bearded driver adjusted his sunglasses as he chewed on a smoldering cigarette, dirty gloves gripping the steering wheel matted in flaky leather. The passenger up front clutched a map purposefully in front of his face as he glowered toward the driver. "Well, we're too late, then."

And then, there it was, just as described—the site itself. They screeched in the highest frequencies to a halt, rifting hazardously over the sun-bleached concrete that had been unfixed in this region for a handful of years. The blue sky and the auburn desert spun around and around through the windows before finally coming to a rest. A few fires were still fanning up from the piles of rubble left over after what looked like a crude rocket attack on the remote mining site. The pile of ore was still stacked high nearby near a set of tents; whoever had attacked had not been able to carry everything with them at once.

The truck stopped in the middle of the encampment. The massive driver scurried from his seat as did the navigator, who then wound around to the back and opened the rear gate. A pair of worn brown boots pointed outward as a small, white-clad figure propelled herself forward by swinging on a horizontal bar. She slung a worn dark blue knapsack about a shoulder, and stood between the two taller men as they silently took a visual survey of the damage.

"Help!"

The three snapped their heads in the direction of the voice—two young men, one not moving at all, the other holding his right thigh panickedly while the rest of his leg languished beneath the wheel of a vehicle with a smoldering hood. In an instant the three were beside him, the smallest figure kneeling down next to man's shoulders as the other two darted to the pull the wheel back. The man's scream cracked out over the silent desert. "They came out of nowhere!" he shrieked, tears filling his eyes. He struggled to push himself up, but quickly thought better of it. "Where the hell have you guys been??"

"It's all right, we're here now." The pair of hands belonging to the voice from behind the mask grasped the knapsack to pull out a set of tubing. "We're here. I'm a doctor. And they're emergency responders." The woman's fatigued brown eyes blinked sympathetically as she used another hand to pull out a small vial. "I'm going to have to put you under." Before the man could protest, she quickly laid the thing against his shaking right forearm and clicked a button. A tiny needle snapped quickly beneath the top layer of his skin, flooding a low-strength tranquilizer into his bloodstream. His eyes began to flutter as the calming effect took place. "Your leg's in pretty bad shape," the voice continued at the same tone, while quickly scooting aside and drawing part of the tubing underneath the man's knee. "I don't want to cut it off. That's a death sentence for you. We need to get you back as soon as we can. Are there any more survivors?" The man's right hand wavered a little before finally permitting a finger to point just over to the second young man.

The truck's driver flew quickly back to the truck to bring it closer, allowing the other to pull two boards from the backseat. After a quick dose of morphine the first man was strapped on, and loaded into the back of the truck securely as the doctor went to check on the other young man's state. She looked up and nodded—immediately the second board was brought over and just as fast as he was whisked away, the board slid and locked into a bunk-like slat above the other man.

It was then that the pellets of metal began to fly. The man with the map in his pocket cried out as his shoulder jerked backwards and dragged his whole body with him, flattening him out on the ground. The sound of a revving engine flared up in the distance; they must have come back for the ore. The other man quickly wound an arm protectively around the small white-clad figure and lifted her into the back before slamming the doors behind her. The other caught his composure and hobbled determinedly back to the passenger side as the driver pulled out a pistol and began to fire back at the oncoming uncovered dune kart as he coolly backed to the driver's door, and shuttered himself in.

"But what about the others?!" The mask ripped from the woman's face and, brown eyes now burning in panic instead of the reassuring tone from just seconds prior on her flustered expression. She poked her head through the tiny window in between the hatch and the cab.

"Hold on!" the driver yelled as he whipped the vehicle into reverse, wheeled it about, and sped off into the opposite direction. The woman reeled backwards as they sped ahead. She was still outside of crash webbing, tossling against boxes of supplies that thunked heavily left and right, up and down, banging up against the metal interior or against the bolstered wooden frame safely housing the two unconscious men.

Onward they sped, working to stay the course in a straight line, wobbling aside just a hair here and there to avoid the deadliest bumps and breaks in the road as the kart sped behind them. The crude skeleton of a structure of dune buggy with a modified engine clunked into it had a series of added interconnected bars to serve what looked like no less than four additional hangers-on. All of whom carried a weapon in one hand.

The woman's voice flew into the cab once again as one of her arms shove through the window, offering up a fistful of a rag she'd pulled from a small metal cabinet bolted to the inner wall of the truck's back cabin. With his free hand the passenger plucked it from her hand shakily, applying it to the bleeding wound. The driver kept staring forward intently, ignoring the activity next to him as his eyes scanned the road to avoid any obstacle of any size.

The rear glass of the truck's hatch blew open unexpectedly, sending chunks of glass flying into the woman's hair. She jabbed her elbow up reflexively up to shield her eyes and lost her grip on the safety bar and hurtled heavily into the base of the heavy wooden bunk. Her breath rattled in her lungs as it was caught by the impact. She wheezed for air, her eyes widening as she felt her head spin a bit before air finally filled her chest again. Her head shook quickly as she regained her senses, then glared out the back window as her left hand reached for the safety bar again.

However, it all happened in one lucky instant. The imbalanced kart suddenly turned rear-up, sending the stragglers into the air, and rolled off and down into the sandy ravine. The young woman blinked incredulously and silently as she watched the wreckage become smaller and smaller. The truck blew onward, back toward the metal speck just visible in the distance.

The driver furrowed his eyebrows after a long pause. "We had no choice," he gruffed assertively from his spot. The woman didn't respond from the back. He sighed, then rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry, Doc."

"Don't call me 'Doc,'" her voice insisted emphatically less than a beat after he finished.

"Dr. Claret," he correct himself patiently, "we can transfer the patients back to Axiom considering the condition they're in. And with Eddie clipped, y'know," he wagged his head to his right to indicate his partner, "these are things Triage can't handle. Besides, your week's up in a few hours." He flecked his eyes up to the rearview mirror to study the cross, tired look drawn across the young woman's face. "You look like you need rest. What's that phrase you Beau Monde got, anyhow? The one about growing?"

"Plantabo ipse qua vis potest crescere," she responded with a sigh. "Plant yourself where you can grow."

"Right. Well, some of that. You can do some of that." Another pause. "What does that mean, anyhow?"

"'Plant yourself where you can grow.'"

"You just said that."

The small woman blinked a little and threaded both arms through the porthole and stretched them in front of her as she worked to continue to project her voice ahead in the noisy cabin. "It means that you should put yourself in a place where you can thrive."

Laughter bolted from the mouths of the two men up front. "So, what about out here?" Eddie asked a little cynically, gesturing his free hand at the dusty desert.

The doctor sighed heavily and tilted her head to look out through the windshield, spotting Axiom in the distance. Maybe ten more miles… She cleared her throat and pulled her arms back through the window before slinking into the back to check on the two patients flattened out beside her. "Nothing. Nothing grows out here."

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Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
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Eddie's face was beginning to draw downward, seemingly more sallow by the minute as the truck lumbered down the crackled road, toward the gray lump on the horizon that grew incrementally larger by the second. The bullet wound had finally stopped gushing, but the loss of blood was beginning to take its toll. The color was nearly drained out from his normally ruddy, somewhat sunburned face. He leaned against the window as one hand lost control of his makeshift compress. "Ike. I need a nap."

Ike's icy eyes narrowed as he glanced reflexively at Eddie as he slumped toward the door and began to curl his head into his neck and relax against the stable surface. He returned his gaze to the road snappily as he reached out a long, muscular arm to tap at Eddie, carefully at first to avoid adding injury to the shoulder. "Hey, man, sit up!" he barked authoritatively. "You fall asleep, you might not wake back up. Think you can hold out a little longer?"

Eddie yelped but didn't struggle as he slumped back into a more comfortable position. "Jesus, dude, I just want to close my eyes."

Instantly, Ike's fingers flashed upwards to mash a button nestled into a control panel on the ceiling, a cord crudely dressed in miscolored strips of duct tape snaking toward the back hatch of the truck. A loud buzz was muffled by the closed window along with the sound of the wind whipping over the exterior of the vehicle. "Astrid, we're nosediving. Better get up here."

The response was immediate. "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," Astrid's voice rapidly chirped out repeatedly as she worked to contort her frame through the window separating the cab of the truck from the back bed. Within seconds she had skillfully looped her way through the porthole after pushing her foot off of the wooden frame and accelerating ahead. Immediately she twisted back around to shove an arm behind her and through the window to grasp a clean towel and a handful of gauze, then yanked a small white bottle from a pouch on her belt. After untwisting the plastic lid and shaking a couple of tablets into her palm, she stuck them into Eddie's mouth before she began to inspect his wound visually at first. She frowned deeply. "Pull over, please," she stated firmly toward Ike, still eyeing the burgundy pit barely visible through Eddie's blood-stained slate-gray jacket.

"You kidding?" Ike scoffed, also not daring to take his eyes off of his main priority: the road. "You don't tell me how to do my job, I won't tell you how to do yours."

"If you don't pull over, I might not be able to do my job at all," Astrid returned coolly, doing her best to not lose her composure. A little hint of strain growled into her tone as she unpocketed a set of surgical sheers.

"My job is to get you to a medical facility, which is right there in front of us," he responded with double the frustration as he jabbed a pointer finger at the windshield briefly. The city still loomed ahead like a prize.

"It'll still be there after we pull over and help him!" she insisted strainedly as she worked her fingers to force the scissors to chew through the tough fabric of Eddie's work jacket, quickly cutting a large section out and chucking the blood-soaked blades down by the man's feet when she was finished. She peeled the piece away and began to examine the wound more closely before reaching for the saline solution on her utility belt. "I might have to use forceps to take the bullet out and we can't afford to—"

"—ahh, SHIT!" Ike belted out very suddenly as he quickly and widely wound the steering wheel in his gloved hands.

Astrid looked up in just enough time to see a glimpse of a scuttle of horses visible through the left hemisphere of the windshield, accompanied by a series of banners with a flashy design she wasn't able to make out from such a distance. She dropped the bottle as she felt one side of the car suddenly become much heavier than the other thanks to the sharp angle the truck suddenly spun into very purposefully. She worked to maintain any semblance of cool she had left as she reached forward to grab a hold of Eddie's stronger shoulder to steady him. "Ike, what happened??"

"Tsunami Syndicate," he growled, his hostility clearly directed at them. "We're taking the long way home."

"But Eddie needs-"

"Doc, just trust me on this," he pleaded. The truck throttled frantically, careening along a rocky section of unpaved road, opening up into a downhill pathway. "Mining sites. Been behind the wheel a million times here. Old stomping grounds!" he professed proudly as he glanced into the rearview mirror to smugly gloat at the scene he'd so deftly extricated them from. The orangey minerals gleamed from the narrow walls of the ravine sandwiching them into an old section of a canyon that had apparently at some point perhaps been carved out by the Columbia River.

Astrid, on the other hand, bit her lip in concern as she continued to keep Eddie anchored to his seat, eyes wide open in terror as she watched ravine walls speed by dangerously. "Ike. I don't understand," she started carefully, working to drain the emotion from her voice and dry it out as much as possible, "I don't know why we're going through here."

"I don't expect you Beau Monde to understand," Ike rattled out, his thick dark eyebrows slanted downward over his eyes that were still fixated forward as he stomped the gas pedal abruptly, "but out here on the Wasteland there's a threat bigger than anything else… starving, exposure, none of them hit like the Syndicate. You see them coming? You go right back from where you came and hope they didn't see you."

It was then that a billowing rush of red and gray dust blasted through the narrow pathway, spraying the windshield with rocks and debris as the truck continued to power ahead. "Landslide, not to worry!" Ike hollered in an an attempt at reassurance.

"You've got to stop so I can help Eddie!"

He narrowly avoided scattered boulders and rocks hardly visible through the milky dust clouding the path. It was clear that he did indeed know the place well. Any other driver might have already crashed into the walls, but something else entirely guided Ike while behind the wheel. "Jesus, Doc, there's nothing you can do on the side of the road you can't do from here," Ike countered rancorously.

"Don't call me 'Doc'!" she jarred out very suddenly and angrily, the side of her nose twisting up into an vexed snarl that bled into her voice.

Ike compulsorily snapped his eyes from the road and opened his mouth to bellow back at Astrid, but before a single sound came out there was an unmistakable THUD! from the driver's side, and a long black blip barreled up noisily from the hood of the truck, miraculously bouncing across Ike and Astrid's vision and deflecting upwards and off of the passenger's side. A giant crack spidered out over the windshield like lightning as what seemed like a solid metal chunk SMASHED! upon it from the right side before there was silence.

The look of panic on Ike's face was more than uncharacteristic—it was flat-out unrecognizable to Astrid. She then felt herself cough, followed by a sharp bar of pain across her sternum and shoulders as her body slammed up against the gigantic back of the front bench seats of the truck's cab. She bolstered her arm's hold on Eddie, whose fast-acting meds had thankfully kicked in quickly. The other arm instinctively reached forward to protectively grasp a hold of the ball of Ike's right shoulder. Both of his hands didn't leave the steering wheel, practically white as he guided the truck to a stop as it screeched ahead through the thick dust. Finally, they came to a halt.

Ike finally felt himself breathe after a long moment, then irritably swatted Astrid's small hand away. Astrid frowned as she sezied her arm from around Eddie and jetted out from the backseat of the cab. Ike was hot on her heels. The path behind them was streaked in deep tire treads serving as a play-by-play of what had just befallen them. After more of the dust cleared over the seconds that followed, it became evident that that thing that had bounced off the hood wasn't a thing—it was a person, slumped dangerously against the rocky wall.

Astrid turned to Ike, who'd just caught up with her and was just as stunned as she was. Her jaw dropped as her eyes met his fearfully.

"Now you got what you wanted, Doc," he retorted quickly to fill in the gap of silence.

"Son of a bitch, Ike," she hissed back exasperatedly, then snapped off on her feet back to the truck. Her heart was pounding fast, spilling up into her throat and sending sprig after sprig of toxic-feeling but cathartic fear through her bloodstream. She yanked upon the car door and reached a hand up to pat Eddie's better shoulder. "Hey, Eddie, are you-"

"Right ash rain, Doctorh Klaritt," he drawled back loopily. Good. He was talking. At least he was talking. That was the silver lining—he'd pull through. He shakily wobbled his hands toward his seatbelt. "I'b sho sharry, I should be out helping you and Ike…"

"No, no, no, no, Eddie, stay right here," she assured him gently as she coaxed his uninjured shoulder back to relax him against his headrest, "just don't fall asleep. You can fall asleep when we take the slugs out, all right? We've got to haul someone out."

"You mean we hit shumwun?"

"We're not sure yet. It could have been anything. But if we did it was a mistake," she rattled aloud in the same lightly-singsong tone as before. She clamped her mouth shut once she realized that that response had been more for her own good than for the sake of filling Eddie in about what had happened. She nodded courteously as she checked the security of his seatbelt."I'll be back." She shut the door and made for the back of the truck to open the gate and peek in at the two rescues from the mine. The small screens flickering along a black panel inset into the side of the interior featured no danger, and they were still strapped in securely. She breathed a sigh of relief, then turned and dashed back toward Ike and the still stranger.

"Is he okay?" Astrid asked hushedly as her eyes focused on the figure. Her heart still pounded like a heavy drum thanks to the fast rush.

"He's not dead, if that's what you're asking," Ike growled back defensively. He sauntered to the body and motioned for Astrid to follow. "Not physically dead. But see those chains?" As he approached the still body, he nudged his boot along a couple of rusty, stressed iron links connected to a blistered wrist. "Joe Schmo, here, has the good fortune of being marked. We gotta leave him here. He is dead."

Astrid stuck her hands on her hips protestedly and shook her head. "That's not going to happen, Ike." She walked past him slowly, stepping deliberately and relaxing her stance as she meandered ahead. Her dark eyes trailed from the dilapidated boots adorning the man's feet, up the tattered clothing that featured a splash of blood, then fixating on what looked like an engraved column-style vase stuck awkwardly from his wrist nearly up to the elbow, almost like a cast for a broken arm. She'd never seen anything quite like it before. That explained the windshield. The man's face, expression neutrally positioned thanks to his unconsciousness, was caked in dust. It even gathered in chalky chunks in his hair. She kept down on the ground next to his shoulder and gently reached to touch him on the unadorned arm. "Hello?"

"Didn’t you hear me say we're leaving him here?"

"And don't you hear me say that's not happening?" she immediately volleyed back quietly as a hand pulled the wound-up cords of a field stethoscope. She gently set its round drum against the still man's neck, cradling it below the underside of his straight jaw. "We're responsible for him. We can't leave him out here."

"No way." Ike shook his head and held his hands up firmly. "I know you doctors and your oath. You lot are too damn obligated by some nonsensical thing."

Astrid was tired. Not just physically, but tired of arguing with Ike. This was too much. He'd been one of the drivers she'd worked with closely in her year of shifts in the Axiom Wasteland Area Triage. Ike's practicality and quick thinking shot him to the top of the list in terms of his talent for fast transportation that had saved countless lives, but also made him quick to point out errors. Typically the two did have a harmonious working relationship, even cordial at times—but Ike's demeanor and mannerism today seemed more intense than usual. She'd never seen him hit an object like that. Ever.

She took a deep breath and decided to try. "Ike. I know you're tired. It's been a day. But we can't leave him behind or we're going to get sanctioned. That means the both of us losing our licenses. Together. Along with Eddie. We can't do that."

"Look. I don't want any trouble from Axiom, but the Syndicate will do more than just take your damn medical license. They'll string you along on a chain like Dusty McGee, here," he indicated toward Astrid's newest patient.

Astrid blinked vacantly as she directed her gaze back up to the far taller man. She had no patience for this. She'd begged and begged the Medical Bureau to task her to Wasteland Triage instead of the Axiom Beau Monde Emergency Center, which was far more quiet by comparison. She had great love for her pediatric patients and expectant mothers, of course; upon Astrid's certification, neighbors and family friends were eager to beseech who'd once been the poor little girl who'd showed up in such bad condition for medical help, conducting a thriving small practice and even making house calls. Anyone who looked at Astrid would have seen the living embodiment of a person who'd overcome unfortunate, terrible challenges and instead pushed through to not only overcome them, but also to succeed. She was a triple-boarded medical doctor who'd spent lengths of time in all Seven Cities on the continent below the 49th parallel, the head of her own household after her aunt and uncle bequeathed their Axiom home to her after departing back to their own origins, with a willing staff of longtime family attendants who'd happily overstayed the terms of their freedom contracts after stepping off of an auction block in the outer ring of the city. She had neither the time nor the desire to invest her time or efforts in pointless people, or pointless things in general--but the work in Beau Monde began to feel more and more pointless as the trauma training incident played over and over again in her mind the more that time waned on. The recurring nightmares with the symbol hadn't stopped, either. It was becoming difficult to even be happy for her clients when she was far more comfortable to being happy alongside with them; the moment that registered in her mind, she knew she needed a change. It was only right, after what had happened after the training. The heartbreak didn't go away like she'd been told it would. She needed to ensure for herself that what had happened all that time ago would never happen to anyone like that ever again as long as she was staffing Triage.

Astrid tilted her eyes back to the man's face after a moment. Silence followed as she carefully probed the stethoscope's pad along the side of the man's throat. Finally, there it was. A heartbeat. Strong and regular. Good. She breathed a sigh of relief and absent-mindedly streaked a thick layer of dust off of his cheek with her thumb to reveal a normal complexion. He wasn't cold. You poor thing. This could have been so much worse, and I'm glad it wasn't, she reflected inwardly.

She knew what to say to Ike.

"I remember you telling me your great-grandfather was a thief who was taken in by Triage," she recollected matter-of-factly.

"No, no, no, my grandfather wasn't being chased by the damn Syndicate," he rushed back, jolting a finger in the air.

"What can I say, Ike?" Astrid shrugged as she pocketed her stethoscope, quickly checking the lengths of his arms, legs, and ribs for any broken bones. None. She nodded and stepped to crouch low beside the unconscious man, snaking an arm between him and the rock behind him and pushing him ahead to fit her hands into his armpits and begin to drag him to the truck. He was a lot bigger than she was, but that wasn't going to stop her. "We don't have time to waste, we've got four to bring into Checkpoint," she hoofed between breaths. Her heart was still pounding. "Your story means a lot to you, and it means a lot to me. You know why I'm out here."

For once, Ike didn't say anything. He sighed and crossed his arms as he watched Astrid struggle to bring the unconscious man from "point A" to "point B," then finally gave in. Within moments, the stranger was laid out on the backseat bench of the truck with his knees slightly drawn up, not detectable by a glance in case they came across the slaver party again. Astrid crouched in the trough between the benches, directly behind Eddie and beside the new patient.

Ike looked at Eddie far more calmly than before. "You all right, man?"

He nodded drowsily. "Geeshush, I'm fihhne, you guysh."

"All right, man." Ike glanced at Astrid through his rearview mirror, his expression considerably softer than before. He gave a nod. "You all right, Dr. Claret?"

She smiled. "Can you get us out of here fast?" Ike mirrored a smaller version of the smile as he hit the gas and the truck roared back to life and back into motion.

Astrid turned to shift her eyes back to the stranger and reached to carefully skim the excess dust from around the man's nose, mouth, and eyes, and raked a few fingers through his hair to shake out what hadn't already fallen out after he was transported to the truck. No use in him waking up to more dust. He was already probably in for something of a rude awakening, anyway, if Ike ended up being right. She swallowed a lump in her throat as she again thought of that awful day.

She then tuffed her sleeve over her knuckles and began to polish off the metal surface of whatever was clamped around his arm, admiring the strange designs. What was this, exactly? Some kind of torture device? Tracking?

Suddenly, it didn't matter. A mark on the skin of his bicep, just above his elbow. The mark. It was the mark. She'd never seen it in front of her face. Only after she closed her eyes and was swept off helplessly in the maelstrom of the same nightmare over so many years.

Her jaw dropped. She couldn't say anything. She could only stare at the mark, occasionally lamping her eyes up at the stranger's face. She had so many questions.

The path ahead far more clear now that the dust had settled. Back to Axiom.

The setting changes from Gaia to City of Axiom

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret Character Portrait: Samuel Huxley
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The black dot on the horizon grew larger by the second, slowly at first before heaping up and over Astrid like a phantom in pursuit before she turned around to investigate the source of the shadow that fell before her. The most terrifying part was that there was no sound at all. Complete silence, not even the sound of her lungs collapsing as the air rushed out her mouth as it opened into a shout of surprise.

But there wasn't any pain. Just a dark void as the figure swallowed up the ceiling after looming over like a fog that had rolled in fast. She stood still and worked to breathe deep.
She felt her chest thrum repetitively. Much too fast to feel comfortable. There was no reassuring cool breath drawn in—only the same temperature as the swelteringly hot air that engulfed everything in the dry desert.

She willed herself to stay still as she squeezed her eyes shut and focused on recalling the approximate oxygen content in each breath of air: upwards of 20%, on a clear day like this, even with the onset of the landslide that had kicked up so much dust. That was enough to sustain life, and to kick her back into consciousness.

She snapped her eyes open and noticed the mark again just above the inside of the stranger's elbow, below where the sleeve of his tunic had crept up.

She felt the dark apparition kick its boot up and shove it forward.

Her left eye socket was suddenly lit ablaze as she fully locked back into the moment. Her right hand was still clutching the headrest behind Eddie's sandy head of hair. "Hey, Eddie, you good?"

"Dr. Khlaritt, I mightsh ashk you the shame thingh," he prodded back. She laughed in response, then cringed aloud as she felt her skull slam her down in response as the headache reared up again.

Astrid was at least glad that Eddie's temporary fix treatment was in fact going so well. "All right," she piped up and over, then swiveled her attention back to the stranger. The headache still slammed away with her fast heartbeat possibly partly to blame. It was slightly alarming, but nothing called for a cause to panic. Yet, at least…

She studied his face again as she realized she'd drifted off so far in her mind. He wasn’t at all like most wastelanders she'd come into contact with; usually those in the most dire of conditions were close to starvation and exhibited all the signs of malnourishment, possibly heavy drug use due to conditions that included unemployment and boredom amongst other things. All wastelanders Triage brought to Axiom were offered the opportunity to find a place amongst the outermost valence society, or the opportunity to return from where they came from. It wasn't often that the option to stay in the city was not accepted. New residents would send word to their families via the Postal Service and the offer for housing for them would stand. Astrid, herself, knew that the prospects were glum in that sector of the city, but that it was a far better life than one out sick, injured, or otherwise defenseless on the unprotected frontier.

He was different. He lacked the same raisin-y, leathery look as most raider cultures or wilder people. The cast metal object encircling his right forearm and wrist certainly distinguished him from anyone else she'd seen before, even in medical school. His haircut was even different, and his facial features were far less harsh than most others. She wasn't precisely sure what it was that set him apart. Some strange feeling that told her, somewhere. For a moment she felt herself turn red as she wondered whether or not his more or less handsome features triggered that feeling. After all, her heart was indeed pounding so much. But she laughed to herself as she inwardly reminded herself that that was a silly notion. But he certainly wasn't too bad to look at, all the same.

Most importantly—the symbol. He would surely be able to answer her question, if it was permanently emblazoned on his arm like that…

But how was he doing? After collecting a quick swab from the inside of his cheek and popping the tissue into a small sterile container, she reached a palm out to flatten upon his chest to cursorily check his heartbeat again. For a moment there had been no rise and fall that she could detect visually. With her free hand she yanked her stethoscope out yet again to investigate. Quickly she unfastened the top two buttons of his tunic, keeping her eyes up on his eyelids to maintain a mindful watch of his eye movement. It was after she tacked the disc upon the flat of his chest she realized it must have been chilly; she reflexively flew it up to her cheek to warm it up for a couple of long seconds, then replaced it back on him. She shook her head when she couldn’t hear the beat at first, frowning as she patted around for it. Come on. I need you to pull through.

Luckily, pockets of wet air began to rattle around noisily in his lungs after she uprighted herself on her knees, legs propping up to steady her hip against the metal cuff-like object. The earpieces of the instrument sprung around her neck harmlessly as she peered down at the man's face. One hand still hovered near his chest and the other dug up a small injection pen and jabbed it into his other forearm. Hopefully his heart rate would pick right back up and stabilize; if he wasn't awake when brought in, he wouldn't be able to give consent to treatment. She'd have to promptly file a special order to hard-commit him to the Beau Monde hospital in the heart of Axiom, and in the nick of time considering all of the paperwork and questioning that lay ahead. There was also the chance of someone else diverting his care to another clinic, or claiming responsibility for him before waking up. All this, in order to have any chance of being able to ask him a question about that mark. There was no way she could ask about it in the vehicle. Ike certainly had shut her down when she'd try to draw an answer from him before, and Eddie had also sighed and fessed up to not knowing. She had to figure out the best way to get answers from the new patient without her co-workers knowing she was subjecting the patient to questioning concerning her own personal agenda.

The truck was thrown into sudden darkness as it was swallowed up inside of a building. A flood of lights illuminated outside the windows. The truck finally came to a halt inside the simple emergency medical entrance on the southeast side of the city's outer ring. As it did, Ike kicked his own door open to meet with the other attendants who scrambled about to assist in opening the truck's back, hoisting the two patients inside out and toting them into the wide open garage's hallway connecting to Triage's own entrance. Before Ike departed to visit with the Comp Officer, he wordlessly reached to snatch the swab sample from Astrid. Two others ran to Eddie's door to carefully pull him out and guide him onto a gurney.

Just as Astrid looked down, the stranger snapped his eyes open. The injection had kicked in. She threw her hands up as she noticed his muscles twitch just slightly enough, then swerved her shoulders backwards to avoid the metal object as his hands flew upward. She carefully but firmly braced an arm over his chest and leaned on the outside of the cuff to press him down, without really considering her safety. Instead, she reached a finger by her lips and offered at first a harsh "SHHH!" that seemed to shock him off guard enough to silence him. It softened off as he leaned back slowly. He still breathed heavily and erratically while his brilliant bright blue eyes seemed to vacantly scan ahead. Astrid wasn't even sure if he actually saw her, from the look of it…

"Sir? Can you hear me?" she piped up quietly, lowering her voice to not sound out too abrasively against the contained silence of the truck. "We hit you with our Triage truck. You were in the canyon pathway south of here and we didn't see you." She paused. "I'm a medical doctor, and—"

The door opened quickly off to Astrid's left. "Out we go!" Ike's voice boomed through the cabin as he hooked his arms beneath the stranger and yanked him backwards to help hurl him onto a wheeled stretcher and fasten a set of worn leather straps over his arms and legs to keep him anchored down. "Dr. Claret, the Comp Officer wants to see you."

Astrid could feel the aforementioned's eyes on her back. The Compliance Officer was in the Axiom Guard and answered strictly to Guard interests. Medical staff were in no way in charge of logistical operations, and a lot of the work the Comp Officer did in terms of Triage intake was just duplication of routine reporting. Just another tedious hoop to jump.

"Dr. Claret?" the woman's voice called out as she strode up. Astrid stepped out of the truck, following Ike and the stranger and two other nurse attendants as they jabbed a needle connected to a bag of restorative fluids into the top of his free forearm and strapped it down securely with a square of hypoallergenic medical tape. The Comp Officer followed closely, carrying a clipboard with an old-style pencil perched in her other hand. "Dr. Claret!" she repeated, a little more firmly this time in an attempt to get the rushing woman's attention. "I've just questioned your partners, Dwight Tenakee and Edward Fisching. Their stories check out about the miners and the crash. That precludes me from having to question you."

Astrid stopped in her tracks and turned to face the woman who wore the tan uniform of the Axiom Officers Corps. She took a deep breath. It gave her great relief that she didn't have to waste time giving a verbal report, even if it wouldn't have taken a long time. Ike obviously did his while helping secure the miners. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she acknowledged calmly as she reviewed what she'd said. "Mr. Fisching gave you a lucid report?"

"He checked out," the woman said disattachedly as the pencil's pink eraser wavered in the air. Her eyes weren't even on Astrid. "The only thing I need from you is to help report on your new patient while we decide what to do with him."

"Oh, I plan on filing to have him sent to my practice," Astrid responded with a light smile.

"Right, but you can only do that after he's cleared on our end."

Astrid nodded. "That's correct. Well… thanks."

Bullet dodged. Hurdle avoided. She could follow the stranger after all. She nodded and broke ahead easily to follow Ike and the gurney into the sterile metal hallway. The comp officer dashed ahead along with them to observe and take notes.

"Two things, Doctor. First off, You'll notice that the head surgeon isn't going to be on-site. You're the only doctor, or surgeon, who's present for this and you've apparently given him a clean bill of health."

"I did?"

"That's what Mr. Tenakee said."

Ike peered back over his should at Astrid and raised his eyebrows. "That puts him into the City's custody," he grumbled in explanation.

The doctor blinked back, fighting the urge to become a little angry. Ike was trying to pitch control of the patient's fate to her indirectly; the Comp Officer could well throw the poor man out if she so chose to for any reason as he wasn't at the specific site that Triage was sent to, unless Triage had cleared him. Which she had actually not done, but Ike knew it was better than risking him being cycled back out into the wasteland. She glanced down at the patient, whose eyes were still open, staring up calmly at the ceiling. He didn't seem conscious to the point of understanding his surroundings, as he seemed somewhat unresponsive to the various bumps on the pathway, or even the voices piping up around him.

The five-person team surrounding the stranger stretched out placidly on the wheeled bed clambered into a steam-powered lift. With a loud groan the metal gears at various intervals of the vertical runner turned into themselves and pulled a cable upwards. Within moments the iron doors were hauled open by attendants on the outside.

"It's the final days of the Axiom River Days Fights," the Comp Officer reminded Astrid.

Oh, shit. Of course. A few weeks away from Axiom and all sense of time on a calendar would begin to fall away, and it was easy to forget that she'd missed almost the entirety of the Axiom River Days celebrations. Astrid hid the contempt and surprise from her face as the group strode down another hallway, this one with a windowed left panel featuring the skyscrape of Axiom as they walked over a skybridge into the emergency facility above the middle ring of the city. The difference of the sections of the city was quite apparent; the outer ring was dusty and red and brown, the middle rings far more neutral and calmer with a few scattered smokestacks here and there, while the middle ring glowed blue and green and even white and yellow in some spots. The afternoon sun was beginning to hobble high into the sky almost like it was trying to make a decision about which way it actually wanted to go. As for River Days, the outermost ring was especially speckled with red, white, and blue flags, bearing the emblem of the city; another circular stadium was visible from the bridge. It was cut out on the northwest side of the city by the train station, a temporary but sturdy construct built annually for the highly anticipated River Days Fights. It drew far higher crowds than prior festivals' attempts at old-world pursuits like bull riding or either variety of football, by a long shot, and continued to do so. While other public sporting events did crop up, none were so supported or celebrated by the masses of Outer Axiom like the River Days Fights.

"So I understand," Astrid grumbled. She'd hoped to avoid having to perform medical response for what she felt was a horrible, terrible sport. She'd marveled so at the populace that loved the event so much; she'd heard horror stories about random city dwellers being plucked from the street and told to pick up a weapon and learn how to fight their way out of captivity, only to be met with a no more gruesome an early end to their life than they could have imagined.

"They're short on fighters," the Comp Officer answered, still not looking up from her clipboard as she punched the button to unlock the door to an examination room. There was a large glass pane that took up the entire window. Astrid stifled the urge to nod knowingly and roll her eyes sardonically at the observers she knew were on the other side. "They're looking for a few ringers to drop in and shake things up. The City and the Guard are on board."

Astrid paused and held her hands up. Even if she didn't have such an intense interest in him, what the Comp Officer was telling her was unconscionable: the stranger could get conscripted. "No, he's not in that kind of condition," she responded immediately. Ike parked the gurney in the middle of the room and kicked the brakes in, then backed off to lean against a wall and stay out of the way. The stranger had let his eyes rest shut again for a temporary reprieve. "He was hit by a truck. We were going fast."

"About 65 miles per hour," Ike chimed in.

"But you said he's got no broken bones, according to Mr. Tenakee," the Comp Officer brought up flatly, gesturing impersonally to the clipboard in her left hand.

"His eyes were open and he was breathing when we opened the car door."

"Then, what would you recommend?"

Astrid pursed her lip shut as she fanned over the possibilities in her mind briefly before speaking again. She couldn't let him go. Especially not if he might be destined for the fighting pits. "I recommend at least a week of rest. He shows signs of extreme fatigue and weariness," she started off, speaking directly to the Comp Officer instead of the Fights screeners she knew must have been back there. They did look for recruits who wanted to make their names in combat—of which there was a surprising number of voluntary self-admissions. Sometimes the City could claim others to join under the strangest of circumstances. "He needs a meal, a very basic one, and he needs a quiet place to himself to sleep and get a moment of peace."

"How do you know all that?"

"Trauma victims on the Wasteland are all missing at least one or some of the most basic needs a human being has. Food, water, shelter or even a safe place to sleep at night, socialization and belonging—just some of the things that make humans tick. He's not as malnourished as others that we've encountered on the Outside, but he's had recent traumas that have clearly put him in the position to have chains on his wrists." One of the attendants quickly responded by taking a set of shears and easily clipped the metal off from the stranger's free wrist, but backed off of the big metal device's arm, which didn't have a matching cuff with chains. "Thank you. That's extremely helpful." She waved her hands a little. "So, I suppose that's just a guess on my part."

The Comp Officer nodded. "Well, all right. You and Mr. Tenakee are free to go. We're going to do a physical and subject him to some questions."

"Wait, I could conduct the physical," Astrid startled as the Comp Officer made her way over to her to begin to shoo her toward the door. "Who's doing the physical?"

"The Fightmaster decided he would send his private doctor over to check out prospective last-minute additions," the other woman explained. Ike held the door open for Astrid and stepped away as she was walked backwards through it by the Guardswoman. "We'll be happy to take your recommendation into consideration."

SLAM.

Astrid frowned as she caught one final glimpse of the stranger as his very blue eyes opened again. She blinked a few times after she realized that her mouth was hanging halfway open.

"That guy's in demand, I guess," Ike offered up after he patted Astrid on the shoulder. "Looks like a tough customer. Maybe they know something we don't. Come on. I'm supposed to take you to the Beau Monde gate, now, before your permit expires and you'd need a new one."

That reminded her.

"Let's talk the long way down," she suggested as she shot away from the door and scurried down the hallway.

"It's faster if we take the elevators to the northwest side," Ike responded as he watched her go, jogging after her.

"I need to file a hard transfer to the Beau Monde hospital." She opened the heavy metal door into the echoey stairwell. "It's the only way I'm going to be able to get him safe at all."

"Dr. Claret… I don't know. I think perhaps you should allow him to make his choice."

"He won't have a choice in there. He would if he did actually have a chance to heal up."

"And miss the current games and have to wait a year? If that sorry son of a bitch is as tough as you say he is, then he'll want to go spill someone's blood now instead of later."

"I'm filing the transfer."

"… Fine."

They continued onward in stubborn silence and arrived within minutes to the admin station in the main lobby of the Triage intake center. Astrid breathlessly stuck her hands down on the counter in front of one of the clerks at a service window. "Hard-transfer for a Triage intake, please."

The older woman dressed in the Triage admin uniform nodded up with a rehearsed smile. "Patient name?"

"I didn't have a name," Astrid apologetically answered. "Brought in by… Tenakee, Claret, Fisching."

"There were three."

"This was the patient from the canyon who stepped in the way of our vehicle."

There was a long delay and a couple of clicks as the clerk clacked a couple of keys to locate the patient's records. "Excellent," the woman said finally, lifting her eyes up to both Ike and Astrid. "Dr. Claret, that's you?"

"That's me."

"Great. You're asking about… Samuel Huxley?"

"Pardon?"

"Samuel Huxley. The gentleman who was the unanticipated intake. The swab matched some records submitted a few decades ago."

"Samuel Huxley." Astrid repeated the name flatly. Having a name made him even more real. She felt a lump build in her throat as she suddenly realized that she might not like the answers he may provide to her questions… if she even had a chance to ask them.

"…but it looks like you're too late."

"Excuse me?" Astrid felt like her heart froze in place. Just as she learned his name, he was just that much more out of reach.

"Someone left here about two minutes ago. Someone from the City."

"You're kidding."

"They said they've got it handled. I wish I could help you, but you'll have to speak to the Comp Officer. I can't help you."

The shutter for the window flew down noisily as the clerk cut off the conversation.

Astrid turned around very slowly and sighed as she met Ike's smirk. His strong arms were crossed over his chest as he cracked an amused grin. "Nothing stops you, Doc."

"I asked you to stop calling me that."

"No. You told me to stop calling you that," Ike jabbed as he motioned for her to walk alongside him toward the special access corridor to the center of the city, where her home in Axiom Beau Monde was situated.

"Then… can you please stop calling me that?" she chided irritably.

Ike rolled his eyes. "You're really mean when you're mad," he laughed.

She rolled her eyes right back at him and smirked. There was no reason to allow him to see how frustrated she really was, especially when it had nothing to do with him. "Are you heading back to Middle Axiom after this?"

"Yes. Lynette and the boys are expecting me tomorrow, but frankly, I like surprising them sometimes," he replied with a happy grin. Ike might have been a self-assured and tough-as-nails Triage driver, but the audacious road jockey was also a loyal family man.

Part of Astrid's mind still fretted as she resigned herself to the idea of having to go back to Axiom Beau Monde empty-handed, but Ike's attempt at trying to infuse humor into a disappointing situation was kind. "Remember my offer… about if you guys need a new physician."

"Nah, couldn't afford those rates," Ike rebuffed with a side grin. "Lynnie wants me to stay above-board."

"I can practice for whoever I want and charge whatever rates I want outside of a hospital," Astrid reminded him. "That's all above-board. And I can help deliver the baby, too."

Ike slapped the panel of an elevator door after the traversed the corridor. "Mighty kind of you, Dr. Claret," he acknowledged warmly as he traipsed aside to permit Astrid to pass around him and enter the chamber. "So. What do we do about Eddie?"

Astrid chewed the inside of her cheek as she let his question sink in. Good question. "I guess we'll need to figure that one out soon."

Ike shrugged. "That shortage on decent drivers and navigators who can qualify for Triage duty?" he posited as he stepped back to grab the heavy bar to slide the door shut for Astrid, "pretty bad. Getting to dire levels. We'll need to fix it fast." He tapped his brow with two fingers in a friendly goodbye. "'Night, Dr. Claret."

"Good night, Ike."

The gears squealed after the timer pivoted into effect. The lift hoisted up noisily. Astrid perched in the corner as her thoughts drifted away from the soon-to-be five Tenakees and back to Samuel Huxley. She'd have to dig in to her terminal back at the house and learn more about him. She couldn't believe the open door that was the database, to which she was granted admittance on account of her status as a physician, and the information it revealed about those who were actually on civilization's radar. Maybe there was a way to learn more about his background… something to help shed light on the meaning of that symbol. There had to be something she could learn while she could hatch a plan of some kind.

After flashing her badge at the final checkpoint, Astrid was stepping along the cobblestone promenade leading out of the medical gate and into Beau Monde Axiom. The River Days celebrations spilled out onto the main city streets below the commuter-only walkway she cut across. The revelry was far more low-key than it was in the outer rings of Axiom, but it was still lively. She was remanded from Triage or Trauma service in the name of the City for seventy-two hours, but not from her own practice, in theory. The following day she would check in on the status of her practice's patients.

She stepped up to the ivy-covered black wrought-iron gates of her home, situated along the scenic riverfront of the urban aquaway, with the lake nearing the deep-running property along the backside of the house. Rushing along to the door was, as always, Gingham—at least, that's what he'd always insisted on being called. He'd been in the service of the Claret family for well over fifty years, for far longer than Astrid's aunt and uncle would have wished to admit. The elderly man looked as though he might break in half at any moment as his knobbly joints wobbled and creaked as he opened the door for whom he'd coined the term of endearment for. "Doc!"

"Good evening, Ging," she greeted with a weary smile. She was amazed that he could still recognize her. His ability to recall simple things or remember day-to-day tasks diminished day by day, but Astrid and the staff had made the collective decision that the longtime slave-turned-freeman deserved to live out his days feeling useful and being well cared for—just as they themselves would wish if they also had no family or close friends to speak of to care for them in their time of need. "How are you?"

"It's River Days!" he announced proudly. His precious remaining teeth gleamed conspicuously from his gummy smile. It was never difficult to feel at ease around the sweet old man, even when he was far sharper years ago. "Did you know that I once went pearl diving on the Columbia one River Days and I won first prize?" And then there were those moments that reminded everyone all too well of the dementia that had begun to tragically set in as he aged further.

"I bet that was amazing," Astrid responded with a bittersweet smile. She so hated seeing him like this. It made her want to throw her arms around him and cry. It certainly wouldn't be the right thing to do, by any means, but it was hard to not feel that way. She knew that it was better to just play along; he'd forget any erroneous exchange or misrecollection within mere moments. "Is everyone else at River Days?"

"They are. Well, except Mona. But she fell asleep."

Astrid smiled. "Well, no one was expecting me back until tomorrow. That's okay. I've got some reading to do, anyway, and an early day tomorrow."

Gingham held out his hands to offer to accept her coat. "Doc, you look tired. You looked so much better this morning."

Astrid grinned to hold back another pang of sadness. "Is that your way of telling me my crow's feet are starting to look like yours?" she jibed back with a sly raise of her eyebrows. Sometimes the only way out of feeling upset was to just laugh.

"You don't look a day over 82," he quipped without skipping a beat. "Jesus, I hope you're 82." Astrid doubled over in laughter as she tried to regain the composure to pull off her dust and blood-caked formerly-white tunic jacket. Gingham was good at taking coats and giving them to the correct person. Or, to at least put it in a place for another person to find. Gingham released a loud yawn and wrapped his arms around his shoulders to shiver up against cold-blasted air in the house before shuffling away toward the staff's wing of the home. "Good night, Miss Astrid."

Astrid watched Gingham disappear, and beelined straight through the darkened house for the library. The cedar bookshelves were still as aromatic as they were when she came to live in the house over two decades prior, housing volume after volume of almost everything from medical textbooks to literary classics to travel compendiums to historical accounts of the earth's transition decades prior. She stared out the window after she hit the activation button on the old terminal, collecting her thoughts before logging into the City's database. Finally, a command prompt popped open.

H-U-X-L-E-Y S-A-M-U-E-L. Astrid entered the name, hoping he'd indeed had the traditional spelling of "Samuel."

The good news was—he certainly did have the traditional spelling. The bad news was—there was hardly any information to go off of. She scanned for anything relevant at all.

BORN: APPROX 2038; NEW HAVEN, NORTHWEST, OLD WASHINGTON

Well. At least he was local.

CURRENT STATUS: CUSTODY OF CITY OF AXIOM

… so it ended up happening, after all.

Astrid frowned and settled back in her chair with a deep sigh. While it was good to be home, and she felt considerably more relaxed and far less tense than before, Samuel Huxley's predicament still weighed on her. And now it was downright awful. The mark aside, the idea of one of her patients—even if it was by complete accident that he did become one—heading into servitude in such a dreadful cause was abhorrent. She lifted a hand to rake through her hair nervously. She was glad that her heart was finally beating at a normal pace again; earlier the dizzy sensation felt a little overwhelming as she struggled to come up with a plan on the spot on how to get the answers she needed. Not to mention there was a new problem concerning Eddie. The skilled navigator rounded out the trio that included herself and Ike; for months they'd worked as a smooth and trusty unit in rushing over two hundred patients to safety. Replacing that dynamic wouldn't be easy.

… or would it?

Astrid sprang to her feet. The idea that flew into her head was crazy, but it had the potential to pan out. She lamped her eyes outside the window again, and smiled a little to herself. There was a way around this, she mused, as she stared out at the light gleaming from the direction of the stadium. She'd learn more tomorrow

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Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
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The sound of the birds and the water never got old.

It was a wonderful thing to wake up to in the room she hadn't stopped occupying since coming to live in Axiom so many years prior. During her thirteen years in medical training, she lived on and off there depending on when shifts were taking place in Axiom. She had never really left the small room on the ground floor closest to the creek running through the property on the back end of the grand house, with the burnt orange walls and the blue shutter windows. The ivy crawling over the stone walls on the outside swerved to avoid the opening of the window, letting the yellow beam of sunlight shine through directly onto the walls. Astrid opened her eyes slowly while she listened to the echoey sound of the birds and the moving water. It was a relief to hear anything that sounded like life; a few weeks on the frontier made some people very cynical, indeed.

She hated to admit that she did miss her pillows and blankets. Vintage Egyptian cotton wasn't easy to come by, but there was a reason why it was all the rage in the old world. On the wasteland, her Triage bunk was a metal platform with a piece of cheap plastic-wrapped foam serving as a mattress and a thin cotton blanket during the sweltering summer or a thicker comforter in the winter; all year long her room in Axiom Beau Monde was the perfect temperature. There was rarely ever discomfort associated with sleep. She supposed it was one way that she could possibly know what a decent night's rest was supposed to feel like when trying to relate to a patient.

She sighed as she stretched her arms above her head, eyeing the carved headboard behind her featuring an engraving of a bunny in a rather primitive style. It had likely been thrown together or given to Edward and Beatrice in the haste during which they sought to provide a home for who at the time had been their dying nine-year old niece; despite the fact that perhaps the rabbit was more cut out for a child, she'd always liked staring up at the somewhat friendly creation while waiting for her eyes to close. There was something calmly cheerful about it, and the familiarity was quite soothing. The matching foot of the bed lay several inches away from Astrid's sore bare feet. She wrinkled her nose at the sight of them and made a mental note to be sure to ask for a soak in the next few days.

Then the events of the previous day flashed through her barely-awake mind, replaying with a sudden and great impact as she recalled everything leading up to nearly falling asleep in her library. Samuel. I need to talk to Samuel.

The door knocked rapidly. "Astrid? I wondered if perhaps you might be awake."

Astrid sat up quickly and smoothed out the long length of her light green crepe-cotton nightgown. "Good morning, Mona," she called out toward the door as she flipped a fluffy white comforter off of herself and lifted her feet from her bed and scooped them diagonally down to the floor. She shoved her tired feet into a set of slippers and unhooked a robe from a peg off of the wall within reach. "Come on inside."

Mona opened the door narrowly and slid in, a little more agile than the lines on her face or her carefully coiffed gray updo would have let on. She offered a sweet smile to the younger woman as she opened her arms for a swift embrace after Astrid tied the robe's sash around her waist. "I'm so sorry I wasn't around last night when you arrived," she started with a remorseful tone. "I went to bed early last night in order to prepare to greet you today. I let the staff have one more night of fun after they prepared the house for your arrival." She winked. "It was fun to watch them scramble when I told them that their festivities could be thrown off by any laziness."

Astrid rolled her eyes and smiled. "I'm sure the place was just fine," she laughed as she hugged the old woman tightly. Her early childhood memories were long-wiped by that traumatic brain injury she'd arrived in Axiom with; Mona was part of some of the first memories she could recall, playing the part of a vigilant and dedicated nurse who only left her side to secure something to help with the poor child's pain. She and Gingham used to sneak an occasional cup of ice cream to her much to her aunt and uncle's very specific instructions not to do so while she was healing. Mona was cut out to be in charge of the Claret home—she was a good soul and very sweet when it came down to it, but if there was one thing she did not like, it was a chore left undone. Or a task left unfinished. Or a problem left unresolved. Or needs that weren't being met; Mona did have a terrific heart and indeed genuinely cared about those who were beneath her in the household hierarchy. Most heads of household staff lacked the level of understanding that Mona exhibited daily, and over and over again. Still… it didn't mean that Mona didn't get the occasional enjoyment from lighting a fire under the staff's feet every once in a while in good humor. Astrid smirked a little as she let Mona go. "You're not nearly as bad as you try to make yourself seem… and speaking of your terrible cruelty in disallowing anyone to have any fun at all," her eyes glittered to reflect her playful sarcasm, "do we have guests that staff would like to have stay in the house? It's just that as I've been gone, I just can't quite remember."

Mona shook her head. "No," she said simply, "the staff appreciated your generous offer of allowing their families to stay for River Days. But this year it seems like it was not needed. But just as last year the offer was helpful, perhaps next year might be. It might be a good idea to extend the offer then, as well."

"Thank you, Mona. I will." Mona was often giving unsolicited advice, but more often than not it was something worth listening to. She knew how to keep the staff happy. Astrid tilted her head and gestured her thumb toward the open window. "It's a beautiful day. Any idea what it's calling for?"

"Oh, it's beautiful now, but it's seven o'clock and already seventy degrees," Mona scoffed as she traipsed over to a small door, opening it to reveal a great closet. "You'll want to keep it light, if you're planning on going outdoors. What is on your agenda today, my dear?"

"Oh. I'm making some house calls here in Beau Monde."

Mona furrowed her eyebrows consternatedly at the young woman from her spot by the door. "You just returned from 20 days on the… the wasteland." Astrid could see the old woman visibly bite her tongue in adding further color onto her statement. She'd been very displeased, even flat-out heartbroken, when Astrid had opted to go work Triage, far preferring her to stay safe within the confines of Beau Monde Axiom at all times. "You need to rest. I don't think you should be working today."

Astrid shook her head and smiled, waving her hands in the air unconcernedly. "No, no, I'm not going to Triage," she insisted in a nonchalant tone. "I'm going to check on how things have been going with the families while I was gone."

Mona's expression perked up, but only slightly. "Well, that's still hard work," she cooed a little, "since… don't you have twelve families right now?"

"Yes, I do, if you're only counting pre-natal," Astrid said as she stood in front of the ornately-framed oval mirror affixed atop a handcrafted mirror-paneled vanity stand. She plucked a long stick from a cup on its surface and pulled her hair up, then drew it together with the item. "But there were some messages left for me when I got back. For some people, three weeks is too long a time to not see their doctor."

Mona had disappeared into the walk-in closet. "It would be more helpful if you weren't gone those three weeks to begin with," she called out as though she had not actually been batting this plea for her to stay in Axiom Beau Monde around in her head for the past several days. Each time she returned, there was a new, even more complex reason why Astrid's service with Triage ought to wind down. "Babies born while you're gone? It's a shame. You're so good with them."

"All my clients know and understand that from the very beginning," Astrid reassured her. "We've all talked about how important it is to do our part for those who need our help the most outside of Beau Monde." She felt her heart tug a little. She really did mean it. "They don't mind one of our midwives coming to help. They know I'll be back and ready to practice in just days. Everyone has been so patient."

"And your demand is sharp on the rise," Mona observed tacitly, as though Astrid hadn't even said anything. It would have sounded more impactful and hard-hitting had her voice not been muffled by the wall and partly-closed door. "Pretty soon people aren't going to think you're available as often as you should be, and you're going to have to make a choice."

Astrid was glad Mona was in the other room. She felt her face turn red. Of course she knew that that would be the case. As her name and demand was on the rise for being one of the best for pre-natal physicians and pediatricians in western Gaia, she knew that her clients would demand more of her time and even emotional investment, especially as the years went on. But during the first two years of practice, despite the massive success, she still didn't feel as though she was using her talents. While the wasteland work did not feature the gratitude and warmth that working in Beau Monde did, it did feature another kind of satisfaction at the end of the day… some other kind of fulfillment, as though she'd done work for those who really needed her help on a deeper level. Cultivating relationships in Beau Monde at all levels, even going so far as to delivering the last four of the Axiom Chief's grandchildren and for even more of the most elite of Beau Monde society's babies, was not difficult for her to do in the slightest. Her practice thrived and attracted the best midwives and nurses in the whole city, and she even was in the midst of contemplating bringing a partner on board. Maybe even from another city. All families were willing to pay handsomely enough for the service to justify that. But one thing was for sure—she'd never encountered the need to deliver a baby on the wasteland. There seemed to be so many more drastic and terrible things that took place for no reason on the frontier that needed her help.

Mona exited the closet, holding a white light cotton jumpsuit out for Astrid to inspect. "That's just my opinion," she qualified with a great sigh. "You've always chosen well and I know you'll do what's best for all of us. It's not like you're not paid well to go pull those helpless souls out of ditches or patch up their scratches."

"It's a lot more than that," the doctor carefully pushed back a little, with a smile plastering across her face calmly. "But thank you. You know I'll make sure all of you are cared for." She held her smile for a few more seconds, then took a breath as she nodded. "Thank you, Mona."

"We've got quiche with pancetta, spinach, and goat's cheese coming out of the oven shortly," the housekeeper brought up with a newly widened smile. "Everything from the garden. Pancetta from the hogs, cheese from the goats. Eggs from the henhouse."

The tantalizing waft coursing into the bedroom from one of the air vents connected loosely to the kitchen was enough to motivate Astrid to quickly change into the white cotton uniform, roll the sleeves up to just below her elbow on her forearm, and check her face quickly in the mirror. After a few minor adjustments and a final nod from Mona, the two exited the bedroom quickly and tread down a long straight hallway leading to a great atrium through a barely noticeable door except to those who'd lived in the home.

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That had always been one of Astrid's favorite features—the "secret" door that blended into the decor. The floors were a light yellow wood paneling with occasional patterning of white marble. Otherwise the rest of the room was rosy-toned, Old Baroque-style ornamentation adorning every spot where a wall intersected another wall, with wainscoting to match. A sweeping staircase loomed upwards, carved from the same warm-toned tree, and opened up into a greater floor—including the dining room.

"Good morning, Astrid!"

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A few voices chorused together as chairs and benches backed up noisily for those gathered to rise for who they considered to be the lady of the house. There were ten altogether; Mona and Gingham were by far the ones who'd been there the longest. There was one driver/pilot, Victor, along with two security guard, Kenneth and Lwelleyn; three house/gardening staff in Katie, Yvette, and Lonnie, and Francine, the cook, waved from their spots at the end of the long table. Astrid had made it a rule that unless custom absolutely mandated she couldn't, that she eat meals with the staff. Edward and Beatrice had done it often, sure, but even then, she far preferred it to eating alone.

Besides, she rather liked them all.

Astrid smiled. "Happy River Days," she answered gently as she stepped over to Gingham to give his hand a squeeze and a polite kiss on the cheek. He wasn't a very tall man to begin with, but his years-long progression into posture where he looked as though he were permanently leaning forward had brought his stature down significantly more than when she'd first met him. "I didn't anticipate leaving a day early. I didn't mean to cut off your fun."

"No, I don't think you cut off anyone's fun," Lwelleyn snickered from behind Victor, who wore a pair of completely black sunglasses to protect against the flood of light coming from the large bay windows of the second floor.

"I… yeah, sorry, I had a little too much fun last night," the outed driver minced irritably. It was clear that he was quite out of it.

"Take the day to rest," Astrid assured him quickly as she walked to the table. Kenneth pulled a seat back for the doctor to settle ahead of, then pushed it in to let her sit. The others instantly joined at the table as the quiche, bowls of fruit salad, a few loaves of bread, and carafes of coffee and orange juice suddenly made its way around the table community-style.

Astrid was happy that the conversation turned from those who obviously had hangovers to hearing about some of the festivities from the previous night. The sound of laughter and forks digging upon plates, the provision of second helpings (breakfast was meant to be enjoyed, as lunch was never a heavy or extravagant meal in the Claret home unless guests were concerned), the sound of chairs scuffling on the floor of the beautifully-decorated dining room—all were familiar, calm, and friendly chatty sounds setting the stage for a normal morning in the Claret home.

At twenty past nine the plates were cleared and Mona began to dole out chores to the appropriate staff. While she did, Astrid quietly stepped back down the hallway back to her bedroom to grab a small bag to sling carefully over her shoulder, then pulled the shutters to a close and latched the lock securely before striding back down the hallway to dash for the front door.

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Astrid was in a hurry—it was almost half past nine. No time to waste. Her boots padded along the tree-shaded cobblestone path quickly as she raced for the front gate. The sleepy wisps of the thick leaves overhead contrasted sharply with the rush of thoughts silently whirling around in Astrid's head as she moved forward.

"Wait!" Mona's voice rang out over the path. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?!"

Astrid whirled around to meet the housekeeper's eyes, a little astonishment in her eyes. Shoot. Had she caught on? "What—what do you mean? I'm off to the practice!"

"No, you're not."

Remain calm. "Of course I am."

"Not without this." Mona lifted Astrid's familiar, worn navy-blue leather knapsack and held it up in the air. "You never go very far without this." She lowered the bag and hustled down the couple of steps from the porch and onto the pathway ahead, gently placing the bag in a nearly-breathless Astrid's hands. "Thought I'd save you the second trip back in the house this time."

Astrid laughed while she let out a tense breath internally. "I'd tie my own shoes together if it weren't for you," she offered easily through a genuine laugh, powered in part by the feeling of relief as she turned on her heels and finally left for good.

Once out of the iron gate and out of sight of the old world European-style outer façade of the home as it faced the street, Astrid picked up speed. She had to get there by quarter until ten. While it would have been easier to hop onto the boat with Victor behind the wheel, she was secretly glad he was hungover; he couldn't know where she was going.

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The streets were quiet this early following a busy night of festivities during River Days. The gaslight-style flame lamps on the carefully-crafted stone streets were in the final stages of being manually put out by the occasional lampman, sleepily loping from post to post with long poles to snuff out any remaining light. In ten hours, the process of lighting the same devices would start all over again. She spent a few miles rushing past cafes preparing to open, grocery stands beginning to open their wares, and water taxis begin to churn along with their smokeless motors in the canal on her right. At one juncture she made a left-hand turn and the water disappeared as she progressed through a narrow alleyway, which then opened up into a grand plaza. In moments she was finished traversing it. The only sound for a long time had been the sound of the hard soles on the bottom of her boots, but by the time she reached the train tunnel check-in station at forty-three after ten, the sound had picked up to a considerable buzz of Beau Monde Axiom finally stretching its arms rather sleepily.

The attendant in the booth waved Astrid into the entryway and down into the transit tunnel without so much as a fuss. She took this route to work sometimes and it must not have been too difficult for someone to think that she was merely moving along on her own schedule. That wasn't difficult at all; Beau Monde had to have a pre-approved permit from the City to leave the walls, and she simply did not have one today. In fact, she should have not been trying to leave at all, but she'd cross that bridge when she'd get there. If the plan worked, then she'd have her bases covered with a simple little rule.

Within moments, the underground tram came to a stop just off of a platform. Astrid took a seat and hugged her back against her chest as she stared ahead at the back of the wooden bench in front of her after taking a seat quickly. She chewed the inside of her cheek as she contemplated the situation. River Days Fights always had a medical team on the ground, up close to the action, in case anything were to tragically go wrong or to otherwise help clear the pits of survivors. Typically emergency services personnel more along the lines of Ike and Eddie staffed these endeavors, but so did the occasional trauma physician, just like her. She smiled a little as she gently turned the badge on her uniform to feature a red card—the flagship color for trauma physicians.

The tram stopped quickly. She sprang to her feet and exited, rushing up the stairs and out into the echoey protected marble-floored hub of the Beau Monde tram station to the greater train stop just outside of the walls of the city. The contrast between the well-fortified station and the ramshackle outside was painfully obvious. Beau Monde could continue to take a sheltered bridge to their own tram stand, but to get to the River Days Fights, one had to head directly to the Stadium. As she walked out of the doors and down the stone steps and out onto the wood-planked boardwalk, she contemplated the mark on Samuel Huxley's arm once again. She had to have answers. Getting a Wastelander out from under the shadow of misery and into safety would be tantamount; it was sad enough knowing that he was in trouble with some kind of fringe megalomaniacs. She knew that roving groups of bandits or thieves would terrorize settlements—even raze them in rare cases—but to put chains on someone's wrists? She'd not encountered that until yesterday.

BIFF!

"Watch where you're going!" a coarse voice croaked as it sped away as Astrid felt the shoulder of a much larger man purposefully blunt against hers, knocking her flat out on her stomach on the boardwalk. At least the passersby simply chose to walk around her as she pulled herself up slowly, partly still surprised by the sudden knock. She feathered a couple wisps of wooden flakes from the flooring out of her palms, and cringed and sucked in a bit of air. A good splinter was lodged right in her palm, and there really wasn't enough space or time to take care of it in the walkway, even though she had equipment in the bag.

Astrid shrugged and winced a little as she moved ahead. She'd figure it out once she arrived, she decided, as she continued her trek toward the Stadium's medical entrance. She was waved in enthusiastically thanks to the red card over her right collarbone.

The pseudo-clinic was large, with low ceilings, painted bleach-white with a smell to match and bustled to the brim with lots of rushing personnel. The Fights had clearly started already, as there were a series of medical curtains separating beds; at the ends Astrid could see pairs of bare feet sticking out, limply positioned in a state of medicated rest. At the end of one or two beds were one foot instead of the customary two. It made Astrid's stomach turn.

"SHIFT'S UP IN FIVE!" came a disembodied voice yelling from one side of the room, slicing into the already-chaotic environment. Astrid followed it; clearly, it was where she wanted to be. "Eleven thirty, don't miss it! And if you're not signed up for a shift, do it now or LEAVE!"

It seemed natural to glance at the great whiteboard not far from the exit toward the combat staging. The 11:30 shift was indeed about to start soon. On the left-hand side of the board featured EMT/physicians' names, and on the right—those in the ring. Those names featured… DeLaurentiis. Jones. Rachby. Leonit. And more… and more… She scrolled down until she finally found Huxley, written in a different color marker, with the shine still fresh on it. His name was a very, very recent addition… and he would be in on the 1:30 shift.

Astrid took a breath and smiled before she was once again reminded of the wooden chip lodged into her palm. She figured it just might be a good idea to go get this taken care of now, and find a way to keep busy and help for the next two hours.

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Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
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"What are you doing, handing me isopropyl alcohol??"

"I'm sorry, I--"

"What the fuck kind of operation is this, anyway??"

Even the burly man stretched out on the table balked at the woman in the bloody jumpsuit after he'd been screaming at the top of his lungs seconds before. A pair of brown eyes burned orange from beneath a pair of angry eyebrows. She didn't even care that she'd caused a scene behind the curtain; there appeared to be many a ruckus in the crowded, miserably hot, and sweltering subterranean concrete box of a clinic.

"Mistakes are for medical school!" Astrid blew out angrily. She snatched the glass bottle from the assistant's hands and held it up so that she could read it.

"I mean, I thought it was--"

"What, you don't know that injecting this can permanently damage your patient?!" Astrid zapped quickly. No one contested her. "If this man depends on fighting for a living, you're sending him home screwed and it'll be my fault. Not yours, even though you handed me the damn bottle, but it doesn't work that way, so get the hell out of here and go read your textbooks and come back when you're ready to nurse!"

Astrid whirled around hurriedly, completely oblivious to the assistant who stood with her jaw dropped. She held up four fingers with her right hand and pointed at a tall, bony older woman nearby instead. As if understanding preternaturally, she grabbed four sterile syringes off of a nearby platter and cocked her head at a bottle next to it. "Bupivacaine HCI?"

"You know it," the doctor burst back as she scrambled back to the side of the fighter with the mangled leg. The white splinters of bone stretching out from his thigh turned Astrid's stomach if she looked at it for too long. She plucked a marker from her pocket and began to gently dab a series of dots around the injury. The man let out a shriek that quickly turned into a growl. Astrid lifted the pen up immediately and turned her head to look directly into the man's panicked, scared eyes. "I know. It hurts. It's awful. I've had my bones broken like this before and what I needed was anesthesia, which you're getting right now," she rattled off quickly, but firmly. "We're going to administer a field block on you before surgery."

"I know how to do a field block!" the shunned nurse piped up squeakily as the taller one began to load the syringes with the amide.

"You know how to paralyze a man who uses his fists for a living," Astrid grumbled back without making eye contact. In typical situations she would have taken painstaking measures to slow down and maybe find a way to teach someone how to right a wrong. Mentorship was invaluable, of course… But when push came to shove, mistakes were absolutely not acceptable by the time someone ended up on an operating table. She lifted the pen after making her tenth mark, and offered a quick nod to the man on the table. She lowered her voice considerably. "You're about to get ten injections, but we're going to break it up into two's, all right?" He nodded, and she offered him a grimy hand. "You got this?" He returned the smile weakly before clapping his massive hand into hers. She gave it a squeeze before leaning back away from him and looking to the nurse holding the four syringes, and opened her mouth to say something.

"I'll get your medical license revoked!" the voice interrupted threateningly.

Astrid had no patience for anyone who made threats, especially ones she knew they couldn't follow up on. She spun around and pointed her finger at the nurse. "OUT!" she parched out sharply before stepping deliberatively toward a nearby sink. She yanked her dirty sleeves up her arms and pumped a flow of bubbly pink foam in her hands after jerking a lever to run water, then scrubbed and dug her fingernails into her forearms, wrists, and palms, making sure to get between her fingers even as she stared menacingly at the nurse. She felt sick to her stomach, but she knew that she could not afford to look weak in front of a patient. She had to have his confidence and trust. Having a nurse on staff who could be careless enough to make a second irreversible, or even deadly, mistake was a risk that no good doctor should be willing to take. By the time Astrid plucked up a clean towel to quickly pat her arms dry, the nurse had slunk away from the curtain.

"Shall we?" Astrid spoke up in a far calmer tone of voice, without skipping a beat. The other nurse was ready with two syringes for the far shorter doctor. She accepted them and balanced them in her small fingers before angling the sharp needly points together above one of the dots closest to her. The nurse mimicked the demonstration and positioned her needles similarly. The fighter snapped his eyes shut and swiveled his jaw to look away. I'm sorry.

He let out a loud scream as the two women worked to stick the plungers down as quickly as possible after Astrid nodded permission to dig the points into his muscle. The small doctor gasped as he must have reflexively lugged out a fist to swipe toward her head, and ducked in place just in time. "Restraints!"

On cue, about six larger handlers burled into the curtain's space and rushed to take the man by the shoulders and pin him down on the gurney. Astrid frowned deeply as one worked to push down the injured leg in an attempt to get the man to hold still. He let out another shout, but the leg did finally come to a shaky rest.

"Ready?" This nurse was a gem. Four more syringes ready.

The process was repeated not just once, but four more times, with an addition of a couple jabs of xylocaine to help numb the affected area as quickly as possible. Judging from the man's size, she knew that the extra introduction into his system wouldn't put him at serious risk.

"I'm sorry," she finally said aloud after the final injection was administered. Two of the handlers moved away immediately, while the others carefully broke their grip, relinquishing the poor man when they were confident that he was no longer a threat to the staff, or to himself. She took one of his hands and half-sat on the edge of the gurney next to him. "The stuff I just gave you is going to kick in fast. The block is going to last for a few hours, just enough for the surgery to wrap up. It should make it easier for the surgeon."

"You're not doing the surgery?"

Astrid paused, and shook her head. "No. You need an orthopedic surgeon who can fix your bones. I'm not qualified for that."

The man slumped back in his chair, a little more relaxed. "Well… thank you for not chopping my leg off like those other bastards."

Astrid managed a smile and opened her mouth to respond, but a bell trilled over the loudspeaker and immediately the aforementioned surgeon shuffled in, along with staff to relieve all who'd been working together for the preceding hours. A quick explanation covered the short and sweet transition, and Astrid was on her way out of the curtain to wade through the rest of the foot traffic and shuffled herself into a surprisingly unoccupied space carved out near the hallway leading to the pits. A sort of designated break room that was pointed out to her as an afterthought as she was led back through the clinic earlier. She reached to snag up a glass cup from a cupboard above a spigot labeled "Potable H2O" and let a flood of water wash over and into it, and gulped it down quickly before refilling it. She blinked vacantly at the floor, stunned by the heavy pace of the last hour and a half. Hopefully of all of this would bring her closer to asking the patient from yesterday about those origins inked so plainly upon his arm. She almost wished in that moment that she hadn't seen it; the injuries inside the clinic were gruesome, and who knew what awaited her at the pits.

"Come on. Finish your water and hurry up. We're on shift together again."

Astrid looked up tiredly at the tall, spindly nurse in the doorway, the same one who'd stepped up to help her administer the field block. Her pale skin made her look washed out against her frizzy raven-black hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail sticking out from the back of her head. She looked so at-home in the middle of the fracas, and away from it, too. "Right," the doctor answered quickly as she hauled herself to her feet.

The nurse held up a hand. "Wait for it."

After a few beats, a massive *THUD!* boomed out from the metal wall just feet away from them. The wall itself wavered threateningly, like a trickle of rain on a pond reverberating out in concentric circles into the rest of the water. Astrid yelped and jumped in uncharacteristic surprise, dropping her cup of water and spilling its contents on the floor. Thankfully, the glass didn't shatter.

The nurse was unfazed. "Out there's a spot where some of the big fighters love to throw some of the smaller fighters." She paused as she quicker her head and splayed a bony finger toward where the noise had emerged. "From the sound of it, that must have been about… oh… two-hundred fifty pounds?"

Astrid's face drained of color as she froze in place to contemplate those words. 'Smaller fighter'?

The nurse rolled her eyes. "I thought you might be new," she floated cheerlessly, beckoning Astrid to follow her. She glanced briefly at the nametag opposite hers. "Dr. Claret? Castellano. Stick with me and let's get settled in. This match is supposed to get weird, someone said..."

Astrid wrinkled her face curiously as she scampered to keep up with the other woman. "What do you mean by 'weird'?"

Castellano whirled back around just before the door that served as the exit to the hallway leading to the fenced-in observation zone for trauma doctors and nurses. She seemed eager to explain the circumstances to the younger doctor. "Supposedly one of them's new, a last-minute addition." She paused briefly. "At least, that's what they just told me when I picked up my assignment. This fight's special."

Astrid's ears burned. "What's so special about it?"

"This one's full of modified fighters. Not just normal ones. That new guy supposedly caused a big to-do at the hospital in Mid-Axiom last night."

Astrid gulped. Accident at the trauma center?

A high-pitched signal chirped out over a set of loudspeakers in the hallway, muffled by the door. The nurse nicked her head toward the sound and elbowed the door open. "Come on. Let's go. They're clearing the zone now, and it's our best chance to slip in while we relieve who's on duty."

"OUT OF THE WAY!"

Castellano shuffled in the opposite direction and knocked Astrid backwards off of her feet momentarily, allowing her a glimpse of what looked like a bruised mass of flesh whimpering as it wheeled by quickly on a gurney. Another quick wheel-by followed another.

Only three survivors?

As if on cue, the nurse again turned to face Astrid. "They take the others out the other entrance," she submitted airily, as though this was quite common, before ducking down the dark, noisy, echoey corridor filled with the sounds of distant shouts that up close must have been dire barking orders. In the background was the loud, predictably-musical thrum of the haphazardly-constructed generators that provided power to the temporary facility. As Castellano led Astrid down the hallway the sound turned into a heavy vibration of pounding feet and wood along with the shouts and cries of a very, very large crowd. Finally, they raised their hands at the sudden onset of the blindingly bright afternoon pouring into the dark hallway from an opening door about twenty feet from where they paced.

"Here to join in on the fun!" the nurse called out, cupping a bone-thin hand against an angular chin to amplify her voice as the doors opened wider.

"After you, ladies," a fatigued but chipper voice managed politely, in what sounded almost like an English accent. A trauma doctor—out of town, from the look of his boots, and certainly not belonging to the Axiom Triage team—wiped the back of a sleeve tiredly across his forehead. In an instant he felt the icky sensation trail across his forehead, up over his hairline and even onto his upper right temple. "Damn. Smeared blood on my face again, didn't I?"

Astrid had a sense of humor. She certainly engaged it when talking to her patients, from either of her roles as a doctor, and didn't mind engaging in a comment befit as gallows humor for quite some time. However, she lacked the experience to still yet find these things funny in this particular setting where she didn't quite know what would happen next.

"He comes here every year from out of town. One of the best you'll ever meet. Dr. Claret's a newbie around here," Castellano piped up dryly yet helpfully.

"Claret. Is that so?"

Astrid nodded, cracking the corner of her moth with a careful smile. "That's right."

"Any relation at all to Edward and Beatrice?"

She held the expression still on her face. Not everyone was always enamored with the decisions that Uncle Edward had made. "I'm their niece."

He smiled and extended his hand. "Heavens. My brother is Dr. Greatsdale. Lawrence Greatsdale."

Astrid's face broke out into a joyful smile, and for a moment she forgot about the reason she was even there. "Oh, wow!" she sputtered enthusiastically as she grasped his hand, "your brother saved my life! He's the reason I wanted to become a doctor, to begin with!"

"It's so good to finally meet you in person, even at such short moment's notice in passing," he professed genuinely. "Frederick Greatsdale. I'm Lawrence's twin, you know."

"Wanna schedule a coffee out in advance? We've got forty-five seconds to hustle, Doctors," Castellano's voice interrupted emphatically as she swapped places with a nurse from the prior shift.

"We'll see each other again soon again, hopefully," Astrid returned warmly once she returned her eyes back to Frederick.

He nodded and smiled politely. "At your service, Dr. Claret." He turned around purposefully and began to head down the hallway to sign out.

"Dr. Claret?!"

Astrid finally snapped to the sound of Castellano's voice and hustled through the door. The sounds of the crowd outdoors blasted its own welcome to her as she huddled back behind a multi-layered curtain of reinforced meshed wire inside of what looked like an old shipment container fused against the tunnel from which they'd traveled through. At appropriately-called intervals, armed Axiom guards would raise the heavy gate framing the wire, allowing doctors, nurses, and other responders to head out onto the field to collect disqualified fighters who'd managed to survive until the next designated time to clear the combat zone. Wheeled stretchers with freshly-laid sheets were all stacked along the back wall, as were several labeled cabinets of various field anesthetics and painkillers—no doubt meant to keep pain at bay during the bumpy transit through that tunnel to the chaotic curtained treatment stalls containing very, very battered fighters. The purpose of the open view was to allow medical staff on duty to observe injuries in order to understand how to treat them correctly.

As it turned out, Astrid was the only doctor on duty. She balked her eyes at the grimy, dirt-covered floor as her stomach flipped. Finally, she took a breath and let her eyes watch the worn grounds.

The sooner it was over, the better.

The setting changes from City of Axiom to Post-Apocalyptic

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Character Portrait: Dr. Astrid Claret
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Wails and raw shrieks echoed upon themselves in the cavernous subterranean hall leading back to the clinic. The roar of the crowd thrummed a dull, low vibration along the walls and under the feet of Axiom medics as they dragged hobbling or writhing figures back behind the fencing

The match was finally over.

Astrid found herself half-focused on taking vitals for the bludgeoned, broken fighters who had been unlucky in the ring. She half-hoped she'd already have been receiving Samuel Huxley on a wheeled stretcher, grasping the handles herself and rushing him down the lengthy corridor to the clinic and parking him behind a partition curtain to question him.

Instead…

It was a relief that he was still alive. The onslaught of injuries forced many of the orderlies to dash out defenseless on the field, with no called breaks, to clear out the injured and prevent them being used as sacrificial shields. There was so much happening all at once.

"Dr. Claret!" Castellano broke through, "I've got three people behind this one. Gonna need you to work much faster now!"

Astrid straightened up and powered through. Pull it together, Astrid. They're counting on you. "You got it," she zipped back, feeling a tendril of urgency explode into stress as she began to pick up the pace, logging vitals on the big board clipped to one side of the stretchers after checking pulses on bloody wrists, testing coherence, shining flashlights in eyeballs, checking ear canals for blood… one after the other, sending them down the tunnel with hands gripping the bars tightly.

Finally, the crowd cheered. "Three left!" Castellano barked. One after the other flooded to Astrid, and quickly she worked through the examination routines, hoping to learn about what condition Samuel was in, if he even—

"Back to the clinic!" Castellano broke in again, "last of the day. Don't wait around for switchover—these injuries are bad!"

Astrid ran to the locked fence barrier separating the pit from the field medical view pen. There was Samuel. He was covered in black soot from who knew where… a little blood on his clothes, but he was standing upright. Tall. If he was hurt, it certainly didn't show immediately.

"Dr. Claret, we need you to come now!" Castellano burst out again, "a double amputation is needed on this—"

"I SAID THE OTHER ARM WAS PROSTHETIC!"

"Pipe down, Stumpy, it's a fucking double amputation," Castellano shot back at a fighter she'd clearly had prior dealings with, "and are you performing this or not, Dr. Claret? It's time to GO!"

Astrid whipped her head over her shoulder. "I'm coming!" she assured the nurse, but when she went to look back at Samuel in the center of the field… he was gone. She blinked quickly as she forced herself to turn back around. "I'm on my way!"

She dashed out and caught up with the stretcher, running alongside it at a faster pace than Castellano or the other orderly, forcing them to run a little faster. "What's your name, Killer?" she asked him dryly but urgently.

"Goshen," he responded tightly, his teeth gritting until she swore she could hear them scrape together.

"Goshen." Astrid's eyes raced to take in his brutal injuries. "What hit your arms?"

"That son of a bitch with the fucking cuff sliced me!" Goshen retorted.

Astrid blinked. "What happened?" she asked as though offering him sympathy. "What's his deal?"

"They brought him in, new, after he tore up some shit in the city. Motherfucker has some arm!"

"Where did they take him?" Astrid asked as Castellano circled herself around.

"They always take the lucky fucks to the Green Room."

"'Green Room'?"

"The fuck does it matter?"

"Yeah, why DOES it matter, Dr. Claret?" Castellano piped up curiously.

Astrid shook her head. "My first fight, but clearly not yours, Goshen. Let's get you patched up."

"You sound like you're more concerned about—"

"You're in good hands, Stumpy." Astrid glanced to Castellano quickly, nodding a quick acknowledgment as she heard the unexpected compliment. "Now let's get your new arms online. Again."