If a group of religiously devoted individuals chose to live on a planet where they literally couldn’t draw a full breath unless they were free of sin, a doctor was required to help as much as possible. A Frontier Doctor was a physician who was governmentally contracted to aid a group of people in establishing a foothold on a new world.Thomas Holland loved the idea of being a space-travelling doctor when it he saw it on paper; in reality, the faith of his patients made it difficult to perform his job.
Martha Hamilton and her daughter Emily sat on wooden chairs in Thomas’ office. The child wheezed into a handkerchief.
“How old is she?” Thomas asked, though he could have guessed within a month or two how old his patient was.
“She’s 10, and already it’s started,” her mother whispered. The little girl stared at the floor with wide eyes that bulged with every wheeze. Her mother held Emily’s shirt sleeve at the elbow and clenched it between fingertips with every wheeze from her daughter.
“When is your birthday, Emily?” Thomas asked.
“Two weeks ago, Dr. Holland.”
“How long have you had difficulty breathing?”
“About a month.”
“Can you be more specific?” Emily just shook her head.
Poor girl. Your parents waited that long to even admit that you were old enough for the air to affect you.
“Everyone eventually has trouble breathing, Emily,” Thomas replied. He wanted to add, it’s no problem, but his eyes locked momentarily with her mother. “I will give you your first respirator. Oxygen is not a rare thing, so use it whenever you need it, OK?”
Emily managed a smile, but her mother frowned until they closed the door to his office. Thomas stroked his bearded chin but started ripping out hairs one at a time. All children eventually became aware of the “sin” to which the Pilgrims attributed their breathing problems. Martha would never permit her daughter to use the apparatus. Being a Pilgrim meant begging for difficult living conditions, since struggle was equivalent to admittance to Heaven.
Still, Thomas stared at Emily’s records, knowing that one day, Martha’s young daughter would be plowing the field and would succumb to exhaustion, unable to breath and unable to ask for the respirator for fear of criticism. Worse, the doctor considered, eventually she will stop remembering what it’s like to breathe properly. Eventually, she’ll become just like her parents.
Doctor’s Note--Thriftday, Fifth of Spring
I lost a patient recently. As usual, I’m not allowed to ask why.
John Townsend was caught stealing three nights ago. His breathing was more than usually labored in the morning before the crime, implying some planning on his part. He stole sugar from the town supply cache--a rather serious offense since sugarcane is not permitted to be grown on this world yet.
John died during his sleep that night. Everyone here suffers from sleep apnea; John, however, stopped breathing entirely.
He stole sugar but couldn’t be bothered to cheat all the way and put on my sinful respirator. I wouldn’t be surprised if the community had a secret landfill somewhere for all the respirators I’ve distributed.
The last two days have been filled with compulsory church attendance. The attendees believe that because everyone carries sin, everyone has breathing issues--in my year serving here as doctor, I believe I’ve heard the breathing issues getting worse. Observing last night’s congregation was challenging; several people fainted at the height of the sermon, staggered by the emotional fervor and their own inadequate lungs. Pastor Morgan continued sermonizing.
Something we do interferes with our breathing, but alleviating it runs contrary to the religion here. I have no method to prove that the sinfulness of man is responsible for the breathing issues because no one will let me test them in the first place. Almost everything I’ve seen seems to validate the belief, and I don’t dare openly challenge it anymore.
After all, I need patients and suspicion of me has always been thick here. In my view, it’s more suspicious that anyone would move to a planet that they knew would give them health issues because it of those issues.
Still, I’m a scientist at heart, and attributing a physical problem to a god-given moral burden is dubious. What causes the reaction is beyond my reach with the tools I brought here.
Tomorrow, I am receiving a guest. It’s a gamble, but it might help me give proper aid to these people.
The dropship arrived at midday. The Pilgrims looked up from their tilling and planting as if they’d forgotten the very technology they had ridden to Terranis. The ship landed next to Thomas’ house and office, near the edge of the fields.
Raymond Moton was a head taller than the next tallest person in town and twice as large in mass. When he sauntered down the metallic ramp into the dropzone, his tattoo lined arms bulged from his muscle shirt. Adults dared not approach him, but little children were enthralled. They intuitively knew that Raymond was harmless. He was in his fifties and his eyes were too kind and he grinned too deeply.
Parents gradually turned to look at Thomas--everyone knew that the doctor was an outsider no matter how much he attended church. They already know I’m responsible for bringing him here even though I’ve told them nothing. Thomas shuffled a pile of dirt with his foot.
A sharp tug at Thomas’ right elbow brought him face to face with Pastor Morgan.
“What are you doing, Dr. Holland,” the Pastor rasped in his ear.
“This man has served most of his life on a Gaol planet. He showed exemplary behavior and was given the right to work out the remainder of his sentence in servitude. He chose this planet, with my recommendation, because it has a way of showing a person the error of their ways,” Thomas replied calmly, adding, “wouldn’t you agree, Pastor?”
The Pastor paused and glanced at the reformed criminal again. “I do agree, and we always want for work, but still...”
One of the children asked about the tick-mark tattoo on Raymond’s right arm, bearing twenty or more horizontal slashes from his wrist up to his elbow. Raymond, answering honestly what Thomas already knew, responded that each mark was a man he killed.
The Pastor’s mouth sagged open, and his slack lips flapped a prayer. “Why doesn’t he have any trouble breathing?”
While mortified parents gawked, Raymond walked up to them to shake their hands. He was having no trouble breathing whatsoever.
“I have no idea, Pastor,” replied the doctor. I do have a theory, however, Thomas thought, smiling a little.
Even if Raymond Moton was, in principle, everything that the colony strived to be, he felt more unwelcome every day.
“I guess I don’t fit in here,” Raymond muttered in his standard deep growl at dinner with Thomas one night after several months working alongside the Pilgrims.
“Well, you do look, to most of them, like a very dangerous person,” the doctor offered. Raymond was staying with him and had been an immaculate, kind guest. Raymond almost never complained, least of all about other people.
“They know I’m not, now.”
“You’re right. What do you think the problem is?” Thomas asked.
“Maybe I’m outworking them too much. Maybe I need to work less hard so that I fit in better.” Raymond, with his powerful body and lungs, built houses and threshed grain faster than three other men together could. Occasionally, some of the men working next to him would collapse trying to keep the pace.
“No, I don’t think so. You’ve seen their spirit now. If you work at less than optimal capacity, they’ll remember what your best looks like and hold you accountable for falling behind.”
“Then I’m stuck. Maybe I just need to be here longer to be a part of the community.”
“Have you ever noticed the breathing of the Pilgrims you work with most often?” the doctor asked.
“It’s getting worse,” the doctor added.
Raymond looked confused.
“Listen. Please don’t tell anyone I told you this,” Thomas whispered, “but I don’t think sin is responsible for our loss of breath on this planet.”
“Do you know why I picked you?”
“I’ve often wondered. Why?” Raymond asked.
“You remind me of me. You came here with good intentions. You work to the best of your ability. You have no expectations for divine glory beyond doing what your own spirit needs now. You’re often kind and generous. And, like me, you have no trouble breathing the air here.”
“Doctor, you wheeze almost constantly.”
“Have you ever heard me struggle with my breathing while I’m trying to sleep?” They shared a room, but noises echoed across it in the night.
“I learned early on that, if I wanted to have patients, I needed to share things with them. I went to all of their church services, I helped out in the field whenever my office was empty, as it often was in the beginning, and I forced myself to draw breath poorly. Harder to do than it sounds.”
“Doctor, that’s dishonest,” Raymond said, staring at his plate.
“And yet I can breathe just fine. Raymond, I’m not suggesting that you lie to these people to fit in. I’m suggesting that you aren’t without sin. You’re like everyone else here already. Something else is letting you breathe.”
Doctor’s Note--Chasteday, Fifteenth of Autumn
It was either my trusting him to keep a secret that would isolate me from the Pilgrims or the inevitable pursuit on his part for acceptance and community, but Raymond eventually lost some of his air.
I thought he was faking it at first, but, after one relentlessly hot day, he came to my house in tears, exhausted. I offered him the respirator, but he refused, saying that he had flaunted his strength over the other workers for too long and didn’t deserve it. He wanted so much to be like the Pilgrims.
Now he is. He watches other men now, most of all me, in an accusatory way. He’s kind and courteous as usual, but his eyes are different. Perhaps he has become jealous of my breathing. The Pastor gave a sermon last night about being honest with the community, and the congregation’s eyes were all focused on me.
I am not renewing my contract here. I’ve worn out my welcome, and my experiment has gotten old. I leave this winter, before the new year begins. Two years is enough.
I believe that the ability to breathe on this planet stems from one’s nobility, or more specifically, the nobility of a life goal. If the Pilgrims’ goals were clear and socially beneficial, I think any of these people could breathe just fine here. Unfortunately, they’re so tangled around checking their breathing for misdeeds that they only become literally sicker in self-loathing. How is that supposed to prove that they’re going to Heaven?
Children only have problems after they’re old enough to start swallowing the ideology and enforcing it on others. I’ve had enough of watching young boys and girls reach an age when ostracizing each other is not just condoned, but modeled. They’re all trying to breathe, which to them means to be perfect, and that’s impossible.
Even as I write this, I feel a flutter inside, the same that I’ve observed in these children. The moment I start thinking that I’ve been unfair to these people by holding myself up as a noble person is the moment that I start to feel my breath catch in my chest.
Farewell, Terranis. You took my breath away.
--Doctor Thomas Holland