Space was a terrifying place.
Meteors, monsters and marauders were what came to mind when most people thought of the dangers of the Solar System, but in Cawo’s experience those were minor concerns at worst. Meteors were vanishingly rare, ‘monsters’ tended to avoid people, and as for marauders, well, the one time she’d been boarded by penjarahs they’d been happy to let her go in exchange for a check up.
What scared Cawo was disease.
The common wisdom, when the first colony ships set out from Earth, was that no alien illness could infect the human body. The simple fact of divergent biochemistries precluded it. Extraterrestrial and Earthly life, the thinking went, were simply too different for alien pathogens to gain a foothold in the colonist’s systems. That held true, to a degree: nothing unearthly could rangle the human genome like a Terran virus could.
But then a new disease appeared in Vastitas, on Mars. The whole colony was wiped out as doctors and nurses watched helplessly, unable to treat patients faster than they died. They called it “Martian Flu”, and later “mold-lung”, when it was finally deduced that a miniscule Martian fungoid had found a way to exploit the warm, moist environment of the human respiratory system. On Mercury, sunshine blindness struck miners while they worked, clouding their vision with bright, shifting splotches. The culprit: crystalline pseudo-lifeforms inside the eye. Some never regained their sight. On steamy Venus, so many new afflictions began to appear that the planet earned the reputation of “ festering hellscape” in the medical community. As her favorite professor in med school, the sharp-witted Dr. Sousa, used to say, “the human body is a nutrient-saturated environment; it was only a matter of time before things started to colonize the colonists.”
Of course, all those prior outbreaks paled in comparison to Rimworld Fever. The name was a misnomer: it was a new viral hemorrhagic fever, probably originating on Earth, although nobody knew that at the time. It went basically unnoticed in the core planets, where treatment was readily available, but out past the belt it tore through communities, spreading between the Outer Moons like wildfire on the rockets of the very settlers it attacked. Colony doctors did their best, but with limited resources and sometimes spotty training, they often fell victim themselves. Mass graves were visible from orbit. Space stations became ghost towns. Thankfully, once the fever’s Earthly origins were realized, Earthly researchers were able to develop a vaccine, and the pandemic was stymied.
The worry still lingered, though: if the incredibly contagious Rimworld Fever had, in fact, been of extraterrestrial origin as originally feared, it would have been much harder to study, next to impossible to figure out how to treat. It might have been unstoppable. Cawo dreaded the idea of being asked to face something like that. To fight with no hope of success? Who could think about that and get a good night’s sleep?
The problem of understocked and underprepared frontier doctors was not forgotten, either. In the midst of the pandemic, the Planetary Health Service was established. The mandate of the PHS was to monitor health across the system, sending doctors from world to world to watch for outbreaks, bring supplies and provide the latest treatments and training for those techniques that just couldn't be taught via teledoc. When she was eighteen, a PHS doctor touched down in Cawo’s little hometown on Hygeia, a gun on one hip and a thermometer on the other, administering shots, telling improbable stories and charming all the girls Cawo fancied herself. From then on she’d known sifting asteroid dust wasn’t for her.
Ten years of med school, a PhD in biological sciences, rocket certification and survival training later, she herself was a PHS doctor with her own ship, a hand-me-down called the Zahrawi that was covered in dings and dents the previous owner called “character”. Eventually she came to agree, the Zahrawi had a character all its own, with a cluttered hold, a noisy life support system and an engine that guzzled propellant. That old kettle got her out of more than a few scrapes in one piece. With her cat, Mike, to stave off the interplanetary loneliness, it was home.
Not that Cawo didn’t sometimes really, really need to land somewhere and stretch her legs. Which was why she was particularly annoyed with whoever she was talking to on Ariel.
“What do you mean, ‘false alarm.’” The Zahrawi was in a high orbit around the small, purplish moon, dark against the bright cyan of Uranus, its parent planet. Cawo glared at it through the viewport. A physician’s work could leave a person detached, but she liked to think she held a healthy appreciation for the beauty of the Rim. That is, when the people weren’t dramatically wasting her time.
“The distress call was unintentional. We’re sorry for any inconvenience we caused.” The ground controller on Ariel said. Unintentional? A distress call?
“It said ‘urgent medical emergency’. The brief said it came from a ‘Dr. Mahmud Nugraha'. He said people are getting headaches, anemia, changes in mood. That was ‘unintentional’?” In truth, the brief had said very little, providing far fewer details than was usual in an emergency.
The ground controller was steadfastly professional. The settlement must be a Company town. “Dr. Nugraha was mistaken, the situation has been taken care of.”
Cawo didn’t try to hide her sigh. “I was on my way to Titania. I had to redirect to get here. I’ve lost almost a week.” It was unlikely she’d be more than a couple days late, but she was irritated. “What if there was a real emergency somewhere? You should have told me before I came all the way here.”
“We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” the controller repeated.
Cawo huffed. In the cabin behind her, Mike meowed over his empty food bowl. She eyed the overfed orange cat through the hatch. “You just ate! And you're starting to look like Jupiter.”
The radio squaked. “Please repeat.”
“Nothing, sorry.” Cawo turned back to the Zahrawi’s helm. “Actually, no. I need propellant. Are the landing coordinates from your false alarm good?”
“Uh, negative, Zahrawi,” the controller replied after a moment. Cawo waited for an explanation, but apparently, that was all the controller intended to say.
“Negative, do not land at those coordinates.”
“Are there other coordinates I should use?”
“What should I do, then?”
“Do not attempt to land.”
“Any particular reason?”
The controller again paused, and Cawo could feel her patience slipping. Cabin fever aside, if she couldn’t fill her tank she’d be screwed. Did they expect her to just orbit Ariel forever? If they wanted her gone so badly, they needed to let her refuel.
“I’m afraid I can’t share that information. We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” came the reply at last. Classic. It was a Company town for sure.
“Look, I burned a lot of gas getting here because you called me, and fraudulently flagging a PHS vessel is a legal quagmire you don’t want to be in. Maybe you think your lawyers could handle it, maybe not, but it’ll be a heap of trouble for us both. I’ll let it go if you let me land. I don’t give a damn about whatever industry secrets you’ve got down there, all I need is to top off, and I promise I’ll go away.” Cawo shushed her cat, who grew more insistent.
The radio was silent for a long while. “You have the go ahead to land. We request that you limit yourself to the landing field and depart as soon as your fuel needs are met.”
“Fine. Are those coordinates good?”
“Good.” Cawo closed the call. Idiots.
She scooped up Mike, who protested lamely, and ushered his ponderous bulk into his padded kennel for the descent. The tupperware of cat food on the shelf by the kennel was nearly empty, she’d have to make more. The Zahrawi had a full-spectrum algae vat, capable of producing wafers of modified algae packed with everything a human and her cat could need to survive, but it took a while to process and often slipped her mind. Never for long, though, thanks to Mike. “I’ll feed you when we take off again,” she promised, sealing him in. Then she went back to the bridge and entered the landing coordinates as she strapped into her crash couch. “Can’t wait to breathe real air,” she said to her unhappy cat as the Zahrawi nudged itself into a descent orbit.
Ariel, it turned out, had exquisite air. It might have been the deprivation of breathing recycled atmosphere for weeks in space, but the atmosphere on Ariel was crisp, cool and invigorating. The moon itself, like most of the Outer Moons, possessed an alien loveliness, its craggy hills colored with lavender growths like open hands, turning their palms south to face the distant Sun. On the horizon a volcano’s plume was tinted with the cerulean glow of Uranus, coloring the whole sky like turquoise fire.
The settlers, as she expected, were less inviting.
“Fuels there,” said the harried-looking man who’d driven out to meet her in a rattling open-air cart, where he still sat, pointing. She’d brought the Zahrawi down at the indicated spot, a scorched, unpaved field a few miles from the nearby town. By the road, a sign tangled in lavender vines read “The Otared Solar Company welcomes you to the New Verona Productivity Settlement”.
“Thanks,” she said sardonically, doing her best to manage a dignified walk in Ariel’s unfamiliar gravity as she made her way to the enormous rocket-sized tank beside the field.
As Cawo dragged the fuel hose over to the Zahrawi, she sized up her new acquaintance. He was a young man, and he looked utterly exhausted. Despite her feelings about ‘New Verona’ generally, her professional interest took over. “You alright?”
The young man nodded somberly. “Fine, just tired.”
Cawo locked the hose in place against the pocked hull of her ship. “You look it. No offense.”
“Working late? A lot of rockets coming in?” The sound of propellant rushing up the fuel line made Cawo feel a bit better.
The man shrugged. “I’m not the landing field technician.”
“Oh? What do you do? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m an algaeist, usually.” He seemed especially worn talking about his work. Cawo couldn’t tell if that was lethargy or garden-variety apathy. She nodded sagely.
“I do some algae growing myself. It's demanding work. Where’s the landing field technician?”
“They’re out sick.” Something in the way he responded made Cawo pause. She examined him more closely. He didn’t just look tired, his skin was sallow, and his Otared Company coverall was loose, as if he’d recently lost weight. This man was clearly not well.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Dr. Samatar. Call me Cawo. I don’t know if you heard, but I’m with the Planetary Health Service. It’s my medical opinion that you need a checkup, Darma.”
The young man shifted uneasily in his cart. “I already went to see the doctor.”
“Would that be Dr. Nugraha?”
“And they said you were alright to be out here working?” Cawo’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. No doctor in their right mind would give Darma a clean bill of health.
“I guess so.”
“Well,” Cawo patted the humming fuel line, “soon as this is done, I’m gonna need to pay a visit to this Dr. Nugraha. ‘Cause he sucks.”
Darma shook his head. “It’s not him. It’s…”
Cawo leaned in. “Yeah?”
“Nothing. You can’t come to town.”
Well, now she definitely had to go to town. “That’s what I keep hearing. You guys making secret death-rays over there?”
“What is it, then?”
“We grow purpleweed.”
Cawo gestured around. “Every weed on this moon is purple. I can’t see what’s so secret about that.”
“It’s not the crop. You just can’t,” Darma maintained.
Cawo sighed. It was like pulling teeth with these people. “Darma, how about this. I have a gun in my ship.”
The man became more alert. “Yeah?”
“So,” Cawo uncoupled the hose, fueling done, “you should take me to see your doctor.”
“What, you want to shoot him?”
“No. I’m just politely pointing out that you should help me see him because I’m a PHS doctor and what I’ve seen of your healthcare provider has got me professionally concerned. And, between the two of us, I’m the one with a gun. So what I say goes.” She lugged the hose back to the big tank.
Darma watched her, indecision playing across his lined face. Finally, he swallowed. “Alright. Who knows, maybe you can help.”
“Maybe I can.” Cawo hung the nozzle on its rusty hook and flashed Darma her best roguish grin. “One sec. Lemme get my gun.”
Darma drove them along the worn dirt road to New Verona, Cawo in the back seat of the cart. Her pistol came in handy again when a severe-looking woman with a truncheon and a uniform that read “Otared Security” tried to stop them. They left her scowling, Darma looking very uncomfortable as he drove Cawo to the “infirmary”.
“I’m gonna get written up,” he said as they stopped outside the rugged, one-story prefabricated structure. The whole of New Verona was apparently assembled from these prefabs, five or six lengthy streets of nearly identical houses, shops, offices and bars, painted every color but purple. The only exceptions were a quartet of harvestore silos, the radio control tower, and the manager’s house, which leered visibly at the edge of town, two prefabs tall.
“Tell them I held you at gunpoint,” Cawo said as she slid onto the gravel street.
“You kinda did.”
“Well then, there you go. You want to come in with me?”
Darma grimaced. “Not in there. I should get back to the vats. The fieldhands will be coming in for dinner soon.”
Cawo waved thanks to Darma from Dr. Nugraha’s front stoop as he drove off. The word “INFIRMARY” was printed across the door, half-faded. She knocked.
“Come in,” said someone within.
The smell of unwashed bodies and disinfectant struck Cawo as soon as she stepped inside. It was a familiar smell. The stink of a frontier hospital in crisis mode.
The dim little waiting room was packed with patients in every chair, crammed in the corners, lying on the floor. A young girl lying in a ball was on the front desk, IV in her arm. All had the same look as Darma, bone-thin and drained, jaundice coloring their stretched skin. A few glanced up wearily as Cawo shut the door behind her. “Oh god,” she breathed.
“Find somewhere to wait, I’ll get to you as soon as I’m able,” came a voice from the back. A short, grey-haired man emerged, mask across his face, stained white coat hanging from his shoulders. He peeled off a pair of rubber gloves and dropped them in a can by the door, giving her a quick up-down. It was a motion Cawo recognized as the lightning assessment of a caretaker who had other places to be. “You don’t appear sick.”
“I’m not,” Cawo replied, trying to take shallow breaths. It wouldn’t matter if there was some infection in the air, but she couldn’t help it. “You look like you might be Dr. Nugraha?”
The old man grunted. “Yes, that’s me, but please call me Mahmud. Do you need something? I don’t think we’ve met.”
“You sent out a medical distress call. I’m Dr. Cawo Samatar with the PHS-”
“You came?!” Nugraha gasped. He lowered his voice. “Does Annisa know you’re here?”
The old doctor’s demeanor gave Cawo pause. “Who’s Annisa?”
“The colony manager, Annisa Tjanar. Apparently not. Come here, quickly.” He approached the sleeping girl on the counter, waving Cawo over. She picked her way to him, and he handed her a mask, which she donned after hastily tying her hair curly back.
The little girl stirred at her approach. Her sunken eyes fluttered, and she whined pitifully. “Hush, hush, sayang,” Mahmud cooed to her, “go back to sleep. Nothing to worry about.” He turned to Cawo imploringly. “I need your opinion, I’m at a loss.”
Cawo examined the girl. She was maybe eight or nine, although it was hard to tell, since she was apparently suffering from severe malnutrition, like everyone else she’d seen. She was pale and sallow, like the rest. “What are the symptoms?” She asked quietly.
“Loss of appetite, jaundice, headaches, shortness of breath, lethargy and faintness. Ulcers on the mouth and tongue. Impaired cognition. Heart palpitations. Anemia. Organ failure.” Mahmud regarded her darkly. “What do you think?”
Cawo goggled. “Is that all?”
“So far. I have no idea what’s causing it. Come this way.” He led her into the back, where every one of the two dozen beds was occupied by patients of all ages, and nearly every free space on the floor was filled with sleeping mats to accommodate more. The smell was even stronger back here, and a few patients moaned feebly. There must have been at least forty people in the small hospital.
“Are they all the same?” Cawo asked in disbelief. It was even worse than she could have imagined.
“Diet is fine?”
The other doctor rubbed the bridge of his nose through his mask. “Yes, although many no longer eat. We have a large, full-spectrum algae farm, since the local foliage is inedible.”
“Has anyone eaten the native plants or animals, that you know of? You farm what, ‘purpleweeds’?”
“Not if they’re wise. Everything that grows here is highly poisonous.”
“Hm. What are the symptoms of, uh, purpleweed poisoning?”
“Vomiting is the most prominent effect.”
“Oof.” Cawo mulled everything over. No terrestrial culprits came immediately to mind, the symptoms were so varied. A chill ran down her spine. “How many have died?”
“Nine. Including my assistant,” Mahmud said sadly. “Although I fear the morgue will soon be as packed as the floor.”
Cawo’s dismay deepened. “Any idea how it spreads?”
“No. It strikes at random. I never know who will be next.” The doctor rested against a nearby wall, beside another sleeping patient, a weathered old woman who barely seemed to breathe. “It’s taking a toll. But now that the PHS has been alerted, it’s going to be okay. We will all be okay.”
“…Yeah.” She needed to get back to the Zahrawi, get the word to her superiors pronto. This was a mysterious outbreak in a biologically alien environment. It had to be contained and assessed before it had the chance to spread to the whole colony, or worse. And she needed help. What the hell was she supposed to do, alone against a burgeoning alien epidemic? “I’ll be back. You got any kind of transportation?”
There was a moan from the waiting room, accompanied by a string of curses. Cawo and Mahmud hurried to see the security guard Cawo had run into on her way to the infirmary, flanked on either side by two guards. She’d apparently stumbled over one of the patients on the floor. All three were lugging shotguns and clad in heavy Otared-branded armor.
“You!” The woman called, recovering. “Don’t move.”
“I was afraid they’d come for you,” Mahmud murmured. “Good luck with Annisa.”
“Officers, I have to get to my ship,” Cawo said. “There’s some kind of epidemic going on here, and the PHS has to be alerted immediately.”
Mahmud's head snapped to her. “Wait, you didn't pass my message along to the PHS?” His tone was accusing.
“You people told me it wasn’t real! And your message didn’t exactly paint a clear picture of how bad it is,” Cawo shot back.
The old doctor’s voice responded by jumping up an octave. “I had to hurry, they forbid me to call anybody at all-”
“Doctor, shut your mouth,” the security guard interrupted. She directed her glare at Cawo. “My name is Fitri Aresh, I’m the captain in charge of protecting the Otared Solar Company’s interests in New Verona. You will not be alerting anyone of anything, at least, not until after you come with us.”
Cawo had no patience for a puffed-up Interplanetary Patrol wannabe. “No. I need to get to my ship.”
‘Fitri’ smiled hungrily. “We have guns now, too. And ours are bigger.”
Screw you, Cawo thought. “People are dying here.”
“Better stop wasting time, then,” said Fitri.
“I’m not wasting time. You’re wasting time.”
“The colony manager just wants to talk. If you cooperate, I’m sure you can get back to dispensing drugs to work-dodgers,” the security captain said acrimoniously.
Cawo screwed up her face. “Okay. Fine.”
“And give me your gun.”
One of the guards pumped his shotgun.
“Give me your gun, please,” demanded Fitri.
“Fine,” Cawo tossed her pistol to the feet of the infuriating woman, who stooped to stuff it in her belt.
“Alright,” Fitri said, stepping back to let Cawo through the door, “this way.”
They took another cart to the manager's house, this one with a wire cage hanging off the rear. For a minute, Cawo thought they were gonna force her into it, but they directed her to the back seat, where one of the guards sat beside her, shotgun in lap.
Aside from being twice as tall as most of the other buildings in New Verona, the manager’s house was as austere as half a dozen welded-together prefabs could be, with a fresh coat of glossy white paint and a porch surrounded by violet shrubbery. With Uranus looming behind it, the whole scene looked like some kind of frontier postcard.
Cawo was escorted through the impressive double-door (a marriage of two single prefab doors), through the foyer and up the stairs to a well-appointed lounge with four overstuffed chairs around a coffee table, a wall-mounted screen, and a minibar. A window overlooked the town, while through another window, Cawo could see fieldhands wading in the plum-dark purpleweed fields.
“Wait here,” her captor said, and then she was alone. Finding herself alone, she tried out one of the chairs. The Venusian mossleather upholstery was softer than velvet, and was that table real wood? It must have cost a fortune to ship in from Earth. Apparently “manager of a backwater Otared colony” came with a fatter check than she would have guessed.
“I'm glad you’ve made yourself comfortable,” came a woman’s voice from the door. The speaker proved to be a tall, well-dressed woman with hair that was grey at the roots and a professional smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Annisa Tjanar, I’m the manager here,” she said, walking over and reaching out to shake. Her tone reminded Cawo vaguely of a forever-disapproving attending physician she’d worked under during her residency.
“Dr. Cawo Samatar, Planetary Health Service,” Cawo replied without getting up, eyeing the proffered hand. She shook reluctantly. “Got a bathroom?”
Annisa sat purposefully in the chair opposite Cawo’s. “Across the hall. Dinner’s going to be brought up in just a moment, and I hope you’ll join me.”
“I’m just gonna wash off,” said Cawo, eyebrow cocked. Was this woman not aware that there was an epidemic brewing in her little kingdom? “Just a sec.” A hulking guard in the hall made no move to stop her as she crossed to the toilet. There she found plenty of hygiene products but only a tiny square of rose-scented handsoap, so she made do. By the time she returned to the lounge, freshly sanitized, a steaming ham adorned the coffee table with baked beans and potatoes. Cawo’s mouth watered. Algae came in a million flavors and not one of them could live up to real, cooked food.
“I hope you don’t mind if we eat in here. The dining room is for casual visits, this is where I do business.” Annisa plucked a slice of ham with a fork and deposited it on a plate beside the platter.
“Actually, I’d rather not take off my mask,” Cawo replied, keeping her distance. No need to spend too much time too close to each other.
“At least sit back down.”
Annisa shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She took a bite. “So, I suppose you’re here to shut down our colony and turn us all into paupers. Or did you just come to wave a gun at my security officers?”
The directness of the accusation caught Cawo by surprise. “There’s some kind of novel contagion,” she stuttered.
“Is that your medical opinion?”
“I mean, I guess. I haven’t had a chance to do much diagnosing since your goons came and hauled me off, but it’s got me worried.”
Annisa sipped fizzy liquid from a delicate-looking glass. “So what would you have us do?”
Cawo was bothered by the unbothered way the manager asked, but she pressed on. “Until we can figure out what’s going on? Quarantine people showing symptoms. Trace everybody they’ve been in contact with and quarantine them, too. Alert the PHS, or let me get back to my ship so I can do it.” The smell of the food was enticing, making Cawo’s stomach growl. She thought of the emaciated patients in the infirmary. “Sorry if this is off-base, but you don’t seem like you’re freaking out enough about this.”
The glass clinked as Annisa set it on the table. “What’s to ‘freak out’ about? It’s just a bad cold, it will pass.”
“A cold?” Was she serious?
“A cold. Out here on the Rim, sometimes a little cold will hit a person harder than in the core, but it’s not worth panicking over. Life’s hard out here.”
Cawo scoffed. “It’s not a cold.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a doctor!” Who was this woman to educate HER on frontier medicine?
“You’re one doctor. One who’s been here less than a day.”
Cawo shook her head furiously. “Dr. Nugraha will agree with me on this. People are dying.”
“And I mourn with their families. As I said, it’s hard out here. My job is to keep things from getting worse.”
“Great, we’re on the same page.”
‘By keeping people working.”
“Even with their coworkers keeling over?" Asked Cawo. Could this woman hear herself?
Annisa’s expression was fiery. “Yes. Disease is a part of life on the Rim, you should know that. But if we do what you’re suggesting and lock up everybody with a headache, plus their friends, family and coworkers, New Verona will grind to a halt. This is an Otared productivity settlement, doctor, and Otared is the only game in town. If we aren’t profitable, they can cut ties, and then there’s no money, no fertilizer for the algae farm, no supplies, no recourse. This colony is only two years old, we can’t survive on our own. We’d be bankrupt in a month.”
“The Company won’t cover your costs?”
“You’ve clearly never worked for Otared.”
“Well, how about this,” Cawo pointed to the window. “Whatever’s out there kills everyone in town. Then it spreads and becomes the new Rimworld Fever, only worse, because for all we know it’s an entirely alien pathogen, and we have no idea how to treat it. And then you get the book thrown at you for impeding a PHS agent and concealing an outbreak, if you survive.”
The colony manager snorted. “That’s alarmist. You don’t know any of that will happen.”
“You’re right, that’s why I’ve got to get to my ship. The PHS needs to be alerted so they can help. If it’s nothing, you’ll be able to get back to business right away. If it isn’t, though, we need to know,” Cawo implored.
Annisa pursed her lips. What Cawo hoped was indecision, leaning toward consent, played across her face. “There’s an Otared rocket arriving in a week to pick up our harvest. Once that’s gone, and our quotas are met, you can contact your superiors.”
Cawo’s disbelief deepened. “A rocket is coming here and then leaving? Are you insane?!”
“What do you mean? You were just saying you wanted to get in your ship.” The manager furrowed her brow.
“To send a message, I wasn’t going to blast off and spread whatever this is to the whole damned System!”
Annisa and Cawo locked eyes in drawn-out silence. Finally, the other woman got up, walked to the door, and whispered to the guard.
“You’re going back to the infirmary,” she said as the officer entered the room, weapon in hand. “See if you can help Dr. Nugraha.”
I will, Cawo thought, but not because you told me to. “Can I go to my ship first?”
“You may not.”
“Will you cancel that pickup rocket?”
“I will not.”
Cawo swore as she was dragged to the cart and driven back to Mahmud. A security officer had been stationed outside the infirmary door in her absence, and he eyed her with disinterest as she went inside. The old physician, at least, looked happy to see her.
“I’m relieved they let you come back,” he said, stepping over patients. “I worried they’d lock you in the jailhouse.”
“Nope, just the sickhouse,” Cawo fumed. “Annisa’s a fucking idiot! She wouldn't let me call for help, or institute a quarantine, or anything. Oh, and another rocket is coming!”
Mahmud seemed unphased. “Annisa needs to keep people at work so she can continue importing fresh steaks for her dinner table. And I suspect the Company is pressuring her to produce. Purpleweed farming hasn’t been the pharmaceutical success we hoped it would be. Now,” he said, turning back to the infirmary floor, “we’ve had new patients since you left.”
Cawo had worked in crisis-stricken hospitals before, but she never really grew numb to it. The seemingly endless cascade of needs kept her mind off the incoming ship. Taking temperatures, administering pain pills, swapping out IV bags, trying to get patients to eat, trying to keep their bodies from shutting down, trying to decide who got what from their dwindling store of supplies: these tasks, on top of aching feet, made it hard to think.
Nonetheless, she looked for patterns. Patients were often old or very young, but many were in the prime of their lives. Most were fieldhands, but according to Mahmud that was true of the town generally. None admitted to ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise interacting with anything unusual - except, of course, an entire alien ecosystem.
“If I could get to the Zahrawi we might actually get somewhere,” Cawo moaned during a brief break in the morgue. The dingy backroom was getting crowded, but it was the only place they could get away from patients without leaving the infirmary.
“Perhaps away from here?” Mahmud smiled. He took a bite of an algae wafer the guards had brought them a few hours back.
Cawo gave a tired laugh, chewing her own wafer. It tasted different from the algae wafers she grew on the Zahrawi, kinda tangy, but she wasn’t about to turn down food. “It’s got a lab. I could run more tests than we can here.” She went rigid. “Shit!”
“What?!” Mahmud flinched.
“My cat! He’s on my ship!” Cawo imagined her pet had probably completely trashed the Zahrawi by now in retribution for his empty bowl.
Mahmud relaxed. “Oh. Is Mike alright?”
“I didn’t make him any more food before I left! He hasn’t eaten in… how long has it been since I got here?”
“About two days, although if the ache in my bones were any indication, I would say it’s been eons,” Mahmud scarfed down another mouthful of wafer. “Don’t worry, you may never have to face his wrath. I was going to tell you, we’re out of gloves. We have one more pair.”
“Damn,” Cawo slumped. She was a little surprised they hadn’t run out sooner. “You take them. You’re older than me.”
The other doctor made no argument. Instead, he mused “I had a cat once.”
“Oh yeah?” Cawo finished her wafer, then reached for another. Who knew when she’d get to eat again.
“Yes, Cinnamon. She was a Balinese, and she was sweet to everyone. Sadly, she couldn’t get enough cobalamin out of her food, it happens to cats. They die in a couple weeks. It was not long after we arrived in New Verona. I hoped she would hold out until my supplements arrived with the second settlement rocket, but…”
“I’m sorry.” Cobalamin, or vitamin B12, was vital to a healthy nervous system for many Terran animals. Cawo could imagine that must have been an unpleasant way to watch your cat die.
Mahmud finished his dinner. “It was a long time ago, more than two years now. I’m blessed with plenty of others to take care of.”
“Ha, that’s definitely true.” Cawo scarfed down her second wafer. Speaking of those others... “We should probably hit the floor.”
The grey-haired doctor took a deep breath. “Be careful, will you? I can’t afford to lose you.”
Cawo gave a tired smile. “I’ll try if you will.”
Things continued to worsen. The unending days of the Uranian system made it hard to keep track of time, with the Sun shining perpetually from the south, but they must have been working well beyond sleeping hours. They were allowed to use the space behind the infirmary to host more patients, who they laid on tarps under the turquoise sky, having long ago given away the last of the pillows and blankets. A security officer appeared to watch over them, happily snacking on a ham sandwich.
“Where’d he get that?” Cawo asked, jealous. A growing part of her regretted not taking Annisa up on her offer of real food.
“Huh? Oh.” Mahmud turned back to checking an unmoving man’s pulse. “Annisa shares her leftovers with the security officers.”
“Huh. She could toss some our way.” Cawo stood over an old woman who, not an hour ago, had been alive, and wrapped the tarp around her body. They had to leave her there for now, the morgue was overflowing.
“I’m not hungry,” Mahmud replied. “This man is deceased as well.”
Cawo just sighed. Whoever the dead man had been, he was a kid, no older than twenty. “Did you know him?”
“Yes.” Mahmud wrapped him in a tarp.
Cawo went with the old doctor into the infirmary. “We don’t even know how it spreads. It’s completely unpredictable. That old woman told me nobody in her family was showing any symptoms, before she… well.”
“Does it matter? What could we do with that information?” Mahmud sounded as dead as she felt.
“Nothing.” Cawo stopped, fists clenched. “We couldn’t do anything. And I can’t help but feel like we’re wasting time, because that pickup rocket is still gonna come in a few days, and then this’ll be System-wide.”
Mahmud halted too, resting against the entrance to the infirmary floor. The muffled groans of patients reached them from within. “I think I have it, Cawo. Whatever it is, I got it.”
Cawo’s blood went cold. She swallowed. It had only been a matter of time before one of them came down with the illness, but it still made her skin crawl. “How do you know?”
“I have symptoms. Fatigue, loss of appetite,headache, memory loss. And it seems impossible that I haven’t been exposed.” It was true that he had seemed to be slowing down, and she’d had to remind him four times to change a patient’s bedpan. Those things could just as easily point to exhaustion.
“We’ve been going for, what did you say, two days? Three now, nonstop? And you were already at this when I showed up. You’re burnt out.” She had a pounding headache, and God knew she was fatigued, but that was all. Relief that it was her partner coming down with the plague first, and not her, crossed her mind. It was followed closely by shame.
Mahmud sat on the ground, knees up. “I am. I’m so tired. I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. And it’s all for nothing, there’s nothing we can do for these people, we can’t find a cure, we can’t stop it from spreading, there’s nothing.” He looked up at her, eyes moist. “If I’ve caught it, I won’t become a burden to you. I’ll keep working as long as I can.”
By the looks of him, that wouldn’t be much longer, infection or no. Between the two of them they’d barely snatched half a night’s sleep since she’d arrived. They couldn’t keep going on like this. “No. We need help. We need to get past that guard, get some wheels, and get to my ship.”
“I would argue the risk, but I don’t believe I could sustain the effort. If I get shot, just leave me. I’ve seen the doctors here and I want no part of it.” Mahmud let out a long, weary breath. “And a break would be nice.”
“That’s the spirit,” Cawo grinned. “Though you know what? I have an idea.”
Hours later, a cart could be heard pulling up to the infirmary. Someone chatted warmly with the guard on duty, and then there was a knock at the door. Mahmud was ready.
“Fitri. Thank you for coming. We called immediately,” he said, admitting the security captain.
“You found a cure?” She said, shotgun slung under her arm. She showed no sign of the plague.
“We believe so,” Mahmud said, heading back to the infirmary floor. “If you’ll follow me. Try not to step on anyone.”
Fitri accompanied Mahmud inside, stepping awkwardly over the patients. The old doctor led her to bed where a body lay covered by a blanket.
“If you’ll look here,” Mahmud said when Fitri was standing beside him, reaching as if to pull the blanket aside. Instead of a body there was a jumble of pillows, blankets and an anatomical model of the human head.
“Uh, what-” Fitri began before Cawo, lying on the floor beside the bed and covered in a blanket of her own, kicked the security captain’s legs out from under her.
Cawo scrambled for her weapon as Fitri toppled. The pair hurried to their feet, Cawo pumping the other’s shotgun.
Fitri snarled, reaching for the baton hanging from her belt. “You-”
Cawo shot her in the chest.
“Ah! Cawo!” Mahmud exclaimed. Fitri was sprawled on the floor, gasping, eyes wide as moons. The patients, many of whom had been sleeping, sat up in shocked wonderment.
“Yeah?” Cawo ran to the waiting room.
Mahmud hurried after her. “You shot Fitri!”
“That’s what the armor’s for. She’ll recover.”
Mahmud was scandalized. “Her ribs are likely broken! If I’d know your plan was to shoot her, I wouldn’t have agreed to this! I thought we were going to threaten her or something!”
“Did I say ‘plan’? I said ‘idea’. Get down,” Cawo commanded, taking cover behind the front desk, which was still serving as a makeshift bed for the young girl she’d examined when she first arrived. She lowered the now-comatose child to the floor as quickly and gently as she could. They wouldn’t shoot at them in here, would they? With sick people lying everywhere? She needed to get out of the infirmary. “How many officers were there?”
The front door burst open as the guard stationed out front made his entrance, shotgun held high. “Two including him!” Mahmud hissed.
Cawo ripped the musty mask from her face, waving it frantically over her head. “Don’t shoot!” She called, peeking timidly from behind the desk. “There’s been an accident! Fitri’s gun went off!”
The point of the guard’s weapon dipped. Cawo blasted him into the wall, sending him to the ground, a fresh patient.
“You keep shooting people!” Mahmud wailed as Cawo strapped her mask back onto her face. There was a muffled bang from the behind them; the guard stationed out back was likely trying to batter down the locked back door.
“Come on,” Cawo dashed out onto the street, accidentally trampling a few prone patients on the way. “Sorry!” She cried as she and Mahmud ran to the waiting cart. It was a security cart, like the one that had carried Cawo to Annisa’s gaudy house, with a prisoner cage hanging over the back. The old doctor plopped himself in the driver’s seat, leaving Cawo free to shoot.
“Wait,” he said, searching the dashboard.
“The key is missing. Fitri must have taken it with her.”
“Shit.” Cawo jumped to the gravel and pounded back into the infirmary, flying to the wheezing security captain. Fitri watched her dazedly as she went through the captain’s pockets, finally spotting a ring of keys at the woman’ waist. Grabbing it, she discovered it was attached to Fitri’s belt by a retractable tether. “Are you fucking kidding me right now,” she breathed, fumbling to free it. Growing more desperate, she sawed fruitlessly at the tether cable with a nearby scalpel. There was another bang from the back, and a shout: the third guard had gotten through the back door. “Screw it,” Cawo muttered, tossing the scalpel aside and hefting Fitri under her armpits to drag her bodily out to the cart.
“We’re taking Fitri with us?” Mahmud gaped as Cawo jammed the limp woman into the cage on the back of their commandeered vehicle. She grabbed the dangling keys and pulled, drawing the tether from their new hostage to the old doctor’s hand. “Ah,” he said. “Which key is it?”
“I don’t know, try one!” Cawo jumped in the back seat as shots rang out from the infirmary, ricocheting off the side of their cart. “Hey hey hey!” She shouted, staying as low as she could, “Don’t hit your boss!” The caged Fitri let out a gargled cry, as if to make her presence known.
The cart jerked forward suddenly, almost throwing Cawo off. “I found it!” Mahmud declared as they sped toward the landing field.
The coursing adrenaline almost would have revitalized Cawo were it not for the fleet of carts that appeared to pursue them before they were even halfway to the edge of town, each one bristling with heavily-armed Otared security officers. At least, Cawo observed, they seemed hesitant to risk shooting one of their own. She saw no reason to hesitate and unloaded her gun on their pursuers, (mostly) aiming for their tires. Mahmud shouted something over the cacophony of gunfire.
Cawo was temporarily deafened. “What?”
“I said, what about ‘do no harm’?!” He turned sharply to avoid a cart that had appeared from an alley to cut them off.
Cawo took a shot at the driver, failing to hit but making them duck and veer away. “If it makes you feel better, I keep missing.”
At the road to the landing field, a lone guard on foot was barring the way, shuffling to stay in their path. Mahmud gritted his teeth, not slowing down but instead careening straight toward him. The guard seemed to realize their intent at the last moment and dove to aside, narrowly avoiding being run down.
Cawo slapped Mahmud on the shoulder. “Hoho, Dr. Nugraha!”
“I believe I delivered his daughter,” the old physician murmured in reply.
As they barreled toward the Zahrawi, their pursuers finally shed their hesitancy to attack. Slugs whizzed overhead, some of them sparking off the bars of their cart’s cage. Its occupant wailed indignantly before choking with pain at the effort.
“I’m out of shells,” Cawo said, crouching down.
Nagraha kept his eyes on the dirt road. “Almost there.”
There she was, her gorgeous hand-me-down starship, now with a few new dings as gunshots struck the battered hull. Cawo was out of the cart before it came to a stop, casting her empty gun away and sprinting up the Zahrawi’s boarding ramp. She mashed the code to unlock the hatch. “Let’s go!” She called back.
Mahmud rolled from the cart, ripping the tethered key from the ignition as he did so. Other carts were braking around him, their occupants leaping after him, yelling threats. He made it to the bottom of the boarding ramp before he was tackled by an armored giant twice his size.
“Mahmud!” A hail of shots overhead forced Cawo into her ship. She slammed the hatch shut and fell to her knees, heart racing. Her ragged breathing was loud in the sudden quiet.
Meowing mightily, Mike appeared from the shadows to rub against her leg. She ignored him and rushed to the viewport. One of the security officers had Mahmud on the ground, knee on the old doctor’s back, while others kept their guns trained on him. Still others were fanning out, surrounding her ship.
She brought the Zahrawi to life, raising the lights and warming up the computer. Mike sat in front of his empty food bowl, calling for her attention. Her crash-crouch was tatters, probably her cat’s way of making sure she knew his displeasure.
“One second, bud,” Cawo breathed. The propellant tank was empty, evidently they’d drained it while she was at the infirmary. So she wasn’t moving. It didn’t matter, she could still send an SOS from the surface. She began an emergency missive, preparing to provide a more detailed report than Mahmud had been able to.
There was a clang on the hatch from without. They were trying to get in. Of course they were. If they had even a modicum of competency and a plasma torch anywhere in town, they would get through in a few hours.
Mike’s meowing grew still more insistent, grating on Cawo’s ears. She spun angrily. “I. Am. Busy.”
She began the message, recounting the novel disease’s effects in detail and enumerating the few efforts she and Mahmud had been able to make to rule out more mundane causes. Mike continued to harass her until the distress signal was finished and broadcasting.
“Alright, I’ll feed you!” Cawo got up. Remembering with a growl that she was almost out of the cat food, she went to the algae vat and set it to make more. “You know, Mahmud’s cat died because it couldn’t digest right. You could have it worse.”
Then she paused. She thought about Mahmud’s cat, and the algae vat that made food for herself as well as her own indignant pet. What did Mahmud tell her killed Cinnamon? An inability to absorb cobalamin? It was a problem for some cats, he said. She died shortly after the colony of New Verona was established, two years ago. But she was a cat... Cawo went back to her crash couch and pulled up the Zahrawi’s diagnostic database.
She sat back down. There hadn’t been a thing wrong with poor Cinnamon’s stomach.
Returning to her ongoing SOS broadcast, Cawo quickly made a few edits and added some urgent notes. Then she got up and opened the hatch to find herself face-to-face with a line of security officers, the foremost of whom was fiddling with the dialpad. He started, raising his weapon in surprise.
She ignored him. “I need to see Darma.”
They were in the infirmary again, gathered around a freshly-cleared counter. Mahmud, Darma and Cawo were surrounded by a battalion of crowding Otared security officers while Fitri stood back, arms crossed over her bandaged chest, and Annisa waited beside her. The patients in the room mostly slept, although a few watched with beleaguered interest.
Cawo was bent over her compact laser microscope, which she’d carried with great care from the Zahrawi. It was light-years more powerful than the regular optical microscopes anyone in New Verona had at their disposal, and at least as expensive as her ship.
“Should all of us be in here?” Annisa asked nervously.
“It’s fine. Aha, there they are,” Cawo said, “take a look.” She moved aside to allow a roughed-up Mahmud to examine the slide.
“What are they?” He asked, and Darma, looking even more withered than he had when she’d first met him, took his turn at the microscope.
Cawo shrugged. “Hell if I know, but I bet you they somehow eat up the cobalamin your algae produces before it gets processed for consumption.” After finally persuading Annisa to let her to examine a sample of unprocessed algae from the vats that fed everyone in New Verona (excluding Annisa herself and those she deigned to share her meals with), Cawo checked her theory: if something small and alien had found a way to colonize the nutrient-rich soup vats that algae was grown in, it might go undetected for years, devouring vitamin B12. The algaeists wouldn't test for something they didn’t know existed and probably couldn’t see anyway. That would also explain why Annisa and the guards were apparently unaffected: they ate food imported from Earth. She just had to see if any likely extraterrestrial germs actually existed in the vats.
Sure enough: swarming, hand-like critters, so small they were all but invisible, were floating around on the microscope slide with the comparatively massive algae cells.
“How long have they been in there?” Darma asked, seemingly both amazed and disgusted.
“At a guess? Since you arrived. Depending on the person, it takes about two to four years for cobalamin deficiency to have a serious effect on the body, but when it does, hoo boy. It causes a whole mess of problems, not the least of which is pernicious anemia. That was a death sentence, once upon a time.” Cawo lowered her voice. “It only takes a couple weeks to be fatal in cats. Sorry, Mahmud.”
The old doctor nodded, apparently deep in thought. “So there’s no alien pathogen?”
“I don’t think so. Well, there sort of is. Just, it’s in your algae vats, not your people.”
“You’re kidding me,” Darma was still staring at the slide.
Mahmud seemed to accept her explanation. “I have some cobalamin supplements, but not enough for the whole colony.”
“I’ve got more in the Zahrawi. That is, if those goons haven’t trashed everything,” Cawo jabbed at Fitri, riding high. The bandaged captain glared.
“We can begin administering supplements immediately, then,” said Mahmud, who seemed finally to allow himself to the full weight of the strain they'd been under for days. “Thank you, I don’t… I’m glad you got my distress signal. B12 deficiency! How could I not have seen it?” He swayed, and Cawo worried he’d pass out where he stood. She placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Nobody’s seen it much in hundreds of years,” she said gently. “At least, no serious cases. And besides, even if you had guessed it, it’s like you said. You don’t have enough supplements. You couldn’t have handled this on your own.”
“I’ll see about contacting Otared for extra supplements,” Annisa said suddenly, stepping forward. “They’ll be pleased that we solved this without needing to bother the PHS after all. Good job, both of you. I never doubted that you could be counted on.”
Cawo laughed. “Oh, no, you’re in big trouble, colony manager.”
Annisa narrowed her eyes. “How do you mean?”
“You not only hindered a PHS officer in the pursuit of her duties, you attempted to cover up an apparent novel extraterrestrial outbreak, you held me hostage, and your men tried to kill me.”
“You shot at us!” burst Fitri.
“Fair enough. We’ll see what the Patrol thinks,” said Cawo.
Annisa paled. “The Patrol?”
“Oh yeah. I called for help. A federal gunship should appear in orbit sometime in the next couple days.” Cawo glanced at the dozens of guardsmen, still loaded for bear. “And I told them everything, so don’t get any ideas.”
“But… I was only doing what I had to,” said Annisa, voice quavering. “Otared would have cut us off if the PHS halted our operations!”
“She’s likely right,” Mahmud said quietly. “Whatever her shortcomings, she is not solely to blame.”
Cawo wasn’t in a particular mood to be fair to the woman who ignored an outbreak and sicced guards on her own people while she ate ham dinners, but it had to be admitted that the Otared Solar Company had apparently put their colony manager in a tough spot. “If you say so. There’ll probably be a PHS investigation after all this. If I were you, Annisa, and my hands really were tied, I’d make damn sure the Company found me hard to scapegoat.”
“Scapegoat?” Annisa’s mouth opened and shut noiselessly. “I have some messages to… preserve.” She said, and left in a hurry.
Darma ran a hand over his face. “I have to deep-scrub the vats. And get an untainted algae culture.”
“You can borrow from my vat on the Zahrawi,” Cawo offered. “That is, if it hasn’t been infested. I need to get back to my ship anyway.”
“You’re not leaving before the Patrol gets here,” said Fitri.
Cawo smiled. “I’m not worried about the Patrol. I just really gotta feed my cat.”
A few days later, after a gruff Patrolman had recieved statements from nearly everyone in New Verona and taken Colony Manager Annisa Tjanar away, another PHS agent had arrived with a hold full of B12 supplements, which Cawo and Mahmud helped administer to the colony's entire population. Then she finally caught up on her sleep, the Zahrawi blasted off. Her theory had borne out: the algae infestors consumed cobalamin, the absence of which had created the mysterious symptoms that would have afflicted all the people of New Verona sooner or later. She passed the honor of naming the critters off to Mahmud, who called them cinnamomum interfectores: Cinnamon killers.
Otared, unsurprisingly, claimed the entire debacle was Annisa’s fault. Apparently, she’d failed to communicate the seriousness of the issue and taken improper care of New Verona’s algae vats, among other failures. All Annisa had in her defense was a series of messages that, she argued, proved the interplanetary corporation’s indifference to New Verona’s woes. As pleased as Cawo was to see the colony manager get hers, she wished her luck in her fight with the Company.
She sat legs-up in her shredded crash couch, Mike purring in her lap, pistol back in her possession, fuel tank full, happily setting a course for Titania. As the lovely sphere of Uranus filled her viewport, she wished her favorite professor, Dr. Sousa, could see her. She’d faced her trial by fire and dammit, she felt fireproof. Even the Venusian rogues-gallery of diseases could be no match for Cawo Samatar, PHS doctor.
Way out at the edge of the System, beneath the frozen planes of Pluto, a researcher on the last day of his expedition drank a glass of water, freshly-thawed from the native ice. A little dormant lifeform suddenly felt warmth for the first time in billions of years and stirred back to life, discovering it was very comfortable in the lining of his throat. It could take root, it could reproduce, it could thrive.
On the rocket home, the researcher coughed.