Mallory watched as the man died.
He wasn’t as old as his haggard face looked, but his 37-year-old body had been broken by the ravages of their forsaken existence. Each gurgling breath was weaker, less perceptible than the last. His misshapen chest rose unevenly, fell, and then paused. She waited for the next wheeze. It didn’t come.
She didn’t need to look at her patient’s record to recall his story, he’d been in her care for long enough for her to know him well. He’d been born into poverty in a fringe system far from the affluent heart of civilisation, and like many had been seduced by the overtures of the frontier corporations offering a ‘better way of life’.
The brochures and holovid commercials had promised the chance to be part of a new chapter in mankind’s history, to be the Founding Fathers of a brave new frontier society, free of interference from oppressive superpowers. The then nascent cooperative movement had laid out a seductive seven stage plan to achieve their utopia in the stars.
In the late 33rd century, with great fanfare, the Seven Stages Movement had established a foothold in the Pencil Sector over 800 light-years from the cradle of human civilisation. They proclaimed a hollowed-out asteroid base to be the first of many glorious achievements, the First Stage, a seed of new growth and plenty. They’d even called it that: New Growth, a clarion call to welcome and inspire grafters, pioneers, and entrepreneurs.
The project had been a success – for those who could endure.
But over the passing years, an underclass of those suffering industrial injuries, disfigurements and disease grew. They were quietly pushed aside, an embarrassing and expensive inconvenience to the utopian dream. They were hidden from visitors, or passed off as troublemakers. They became known as the Shunned.
As new settlements were established on the harsh, remote local planetoids, the Shunned were shipped there and expected to work in conditions in which the strong would struggle. Effectively, they were left to fend for themselves, to find a way to contribute to the Seven Stages regime, or to wither in the dark on the far side of the system.
As she prepared the body for processing, Mallory waited for her emotions to catch up with the moment. Expecting, hoping to feel something.
But she had long since become numb to the tragedies. The man’s passing was just another reminder of the hardships of their reality which came too frequently to warrant emotional investment. She had spent all her sorrow and rage long ago. Those reactions were for others now, she had other patients to attend.