San let out a long, contented sigh and shifted in bed, his eyes still closed. He could feel the sun shining on his skin, its lazy beams filtering through the reedy window-coverings. The warm, humid air filled his lungs and encouraged him to breathe deeply in a way he never could while confined in the air-conditioned hull of The Fallingstar. It seemed like a long time ago that he was Flightmaster. He ran his fingers down the curve of his wife’s back and drew her closer to him until their foreheads touched. But then he drew back. Something was wrong. Why was she so cold?
“Senka?” he murmured. There was no response. His eyes were heavy but somehow he opened them and found that hers were already open, staring, but not at him. Their once-brilliant orange was covered with the dim gray film of death. And then suddenly the sunlight was gone, and he was breathing that sterile air again. With a shout, San sprang from his bed and threw the covers aside, spreading his long, green fingers over the sheet, over the pillow, searching for her. But she was not there, he remembered as memory’s knife hit him in the gut. She was under the burial tree back on Kollimar. Next to those three smaller graves. San sat on the floor by his bed and rested his head down on the soft bedclothes, filled with that vague nausea that always follows a nightmare.
A few moments later, he left his cabin dressed for the day. Since he was already awake, he could get a head-start. It felt stabilizing, if not exactly comforting, to go through his regular routine, following the mental checklist that he worked through every morning, securing the ship. First he went down the external corridor, attending to the artificial gravity levels along the outer hull, checking water speed and pressure. When he had gone around the entire circumference of the ship, he passed through the aft link and stopped when it passed into the inner hull and through the Fallingstar’s rotating inner sea, noting how the ground felt beneath his feet. He took pride in his ability to feel the health of the ship without relying on the sensors. His heightened Kollimarian senses were perfect for this kind of work. He exited the link on its inner side.
He made his way around the inner corridor, observing all the decks, the arboretum, the medic’s bay. Everything was quiet and still, just as it should be in the hours before the dawn. He walked into the arboretum and looked up at the viewport high above. He took a deep breath, staving off another wave of nausea. During their time on Horgus, he had gotten used to seeing the sunrise again, and he was having trouble readjusting to the continual darkness of space. He left the arboretum and made his way toward the ship’s aft section.
The last area to check was navigation, a small room situated at the furthest point aft, just above the empty escape-pod hatches. As he came to the aft viewing deck and opened the door he ran right into Keldan, who was coming down the long narrow staircase that led to the navigation loft. The Captain was red-eyed and looked weary; his serious line of a mouth was turned down at the ends. He gave San a nod of greeting.
“You look terrible, San,” he said. “Aren’t you sleeping?”
“I was thinking the same about you.”
“I sleep fine. Problem is what happens when I’m awake.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Keldan said, waving his hand randomly in the air. “It’s nothing.”
San glanced away, feeling irrationally annoyed. If you say so. I just want to get back to work. He moved to go up the stairs to navigation but the Captain stopped him.
“No need. I checked everything up there before I shut it down. Nothing can have gone wrong in the last five minutes.”
San glanced longingly up the stairs to the quiet respite of the navigation area.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Walk with me.”
San put his hands behind his back and followed Keldan’s lead. They left the aft viewing deck and meandered down the outer starboard corridor. On their left were the links, long tunnels leading to the inner hull. On their right were a row of windows peering into the expanse of space. The starlight made San felt like a shadow of himself.
“So,” Keldan said. “It’s the middle of the night and you’re up surveying the ship. What’s the problem? Mirralu’s cooking not agreeing with you?”
“She uses too much spice.”
“I’ll speak to her. She can make you something different from the others.”
“No, that’s too much bother. I’m fine most of the time.”
“I’ll speak to her.”
San nodded. They had had this conversation many times before. But he had learned that arguing with Keldan was usually fruitless. There were times when he felt it was important to argue, but this was not one of those times. Keldan’s eyes flickered sideways, stealing a glance at San’s face. San’s peripheral vision was much better than Vingosi peripheral vision and Keldan always forgot to take that into account. San felt a pleasant wave of affectionate amusement, which he was careful to hide. Even without his excellent vision, San found Keldan very easy to read. The Captain’s worry was obvious, as was his desire to help, and his contradictory desire not to pry. The reason for the Captain’s red eyes and late-night visit to the navigation room were also obvious, but San allowed him his privacy.
They came to the ship’s halfway point, where there was a thick bulkhead separating the front half of the ship from the back. They passed through a small round portal into the forward starboard corridor. Emerging on the other side, they both saw it at once; San pointed, and they moved wordlessly to the window. Another ship was there, hanging dead in space. The Fallingstar was approaching it slowly from the left, keeping a careful distance. Buoys had been placed around the stationary ship. At first glance, San thought it was a Vingosi craft. It much smaller than The Fallingstar, but not of military design.
“That looks like an intragalaxy passenger ship,” Keldan said. “I wonder why the buoys. . .”
“Mennosha is at the helm at this hour. . .”
“Good idea, let’s go ask him. Maybe he’s intercepted a message from the buoys.”
They proceeded to the bridge and when they entered Mennosha looked up in surprise, and then glanced at the clock.
“I know,” Keldan said, holding up his hands. “We’re not supposed to be here. But we were both up, and saw the ship with the buoys. What’s it about?”
“I’m receiving an automated message from the buoys now, Captain,” Mennosha said.
Mennosha obeyed, and the recorded message was piped into the bridge: This is the Vingosi passenger ship Michigan. The Michigan is carrying Anislaw’s Plague. Do not approach. Repeat: this ship is carrying Anislaw’s Plague. Do not approach.
“Anislaw’s Plague!” Keldan said, his face going slightly pale.
San said nothing. All his concentration was on trying to maintain calm in the face of the panic he was suddenly feeling. His heart was hammering as if he had been running laps around the ship. He reminded himself that there was no way they could be infected from here. Even if the plague managed to escape the confines of the unfortunate Michigan, no microbe was a match for The Fallingstar’s biofilters and shields. At least, no microbe he knew of. San told himself that he was being ridiculous. But his body didn’t get the message, and his heart continued to race. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, counting the meters of empty space between himself and the plague ship.
“According to the date on the message, they’ve only been out here a few days,” Mennosha said. “And that plague takes months to kill its victims. Isn’t there something we can do for them, Captain?”
“I will if we can manage it, Mennosha. I feel very sorry for them. Is there a cure?”
“If there is, Naleth will know.”
“It’s probably a long shot, but wake him. Tell him to meet us in the medic’s bay in half an hour.”
Mennosha stepped to the intercom on the wall and called his brother. The medic answered in a groggy voice, but when they arrived in the medic’s bay after the allotted half-hour, Naleth was already there, every hair perfectly in place, and already seated at his computer, busily researching. San and the other two men gathered around, waiting for the doctor’s report.
“Anislaw’s Plague is very virulent,” Naleth said, in a measured voice. “The disease is characterized by seeping lesions on the epidermis and internal organs, accompanied by a high fever. The lesions are very painful, but the real problem is the fever. The fever is created by the body’s immune system as a way of eliminating foreign entities in the blood stream. But this plague is characterized by a mutated virus that is impossible to kill. The constant fever eventually compromises the body’s immune system, and the patient is left vulnerable to all kinds of other bacterial infections. Death usually occurs between 60 to 90 days, from infections that the body simply can’t fight. It’s a terrible way to die. Very slow, and very painful.”
San’s whole body was growing hot. He sat on the edge of the desk and folded his arms, trying to look as casual as possible.
“Is there a cure?” Keldan asked again.
“There is a cure,” Naleth said, with a sad smile. “An antiviral agent discovered by Kinato scientists at the research facility on Kinat Four. But it only works on about 45% to 65% of Vingosi patients. And the problem is that anyone who gets near to a patient contracts the disease. You can see the problem.”
Keldan nodded. “You’d wind up losing half your population.”
“Yes. In fact, as you’ll remember from your region’s history Captain, the plague hit the region of Gulo about a hundred years ago, and that’s exactly what happened. The only real solution for Anislaw’s, once it breaks out, is to contain the virus and wait for all of the infected hosts to die.”
“In other words, this virus is a horror show,” Keldan said, rubbing his forehead.
“Captain, I’d like to volunteer to take the antidote over there,” Mennosha said. “I’m young and strong. There’s a good chance I’ll survive.”
“No, Mennosha,” Naleth said. “Your compassion is admirable, but even after being cured, a person is a carrier for the rest of their life. Those people can never go back to Vingos. What would I tell our mother?”
“Tell her I saved a bunch of people from a horrible death. I think she’ll understand.”
“That isn’t what you left home to do.”
Mennosha grumbled something under his breath.
“What was that?” Naleth said, leaning forward. Mennosha opened his mouth to reply but Keldan stopped him.
“Mennosha, get back to the bridge. Just because we aren’t currently hurtling through space doesn’t mean we should leave the helm unattended.”
“Yes, Captain.” Mennosha left the medic’s bay.
“His heart is in the right place, but I’ll be damned if I have to train another pilot,” Keldan muttered. He began to pace the medic’s bay, and Naleth went back to sifting through the records on his computer screen.
“Here’s a case where. . . no, no that won’t work. Here! This might . . . no, nevermind. . .”
San wanted this meeting to be over. His blood was throbbing unpleasantly through his veins, and he felt like he needed to lie down. What Keldan said next didn’t help at all.
“Naleth… wouldn’t San be immune to the plague? Kollimarians are so different from us physiologically. I would assume most other races we carry would be in danger, but San might be immune.”
Naleth considered this. “You might be right. San’s blood is different enough that he might not be affected.”
“Perfect!” Keldan said, clapping his hands. “If I’m correct, we can send San over with the antidote, and then relocate the entire group to a new world so they don’t infect anyone else on Vingos. There are several habitable planets in this area. It’s not the nicest solution, but at least we could save their lives.”
“It’s a very good idea, Captain,” Naleth said. “And it might work. We’d have to put warning buoys around the planet, but that’s easily managed.”
San listened, unable to believe what he was hearing. He felt paralyzed. His mouth was so dry he could not speak. He thought that perhaps, if he just stood very still, they would forget he existed and abandon their mad plan and Keldan would order Mennosha to fly away from the plague ship and the whole thing would be in the past.
No such luck. Naleth was already digging through San’s medical file. After scanning the records for a moment, he asked San to proffer an arm so that he could take a small sample of blood.
“Why should my blood be unaffected?” San said. His voice sounded strange in his ears.
“Well,” Naleth said, “despite our differences, the rest of us. . . Vingosi, Drashivan, Katikan, etc. . . are all basically mammals. But you, San, are cold-blooded, that is, reptilian. And viruses almost never cross from one category to the other.”
“I see,” San said. Naleth went to the lab to run a test on the blood sample, and San stood rooted to the spot, staring at Naleth’s empty chair, searching his mind for ways out of his current predicament. Naleth hurried to his lab to check the blood sample, and Keldan came to San’s side.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, of course,” San said.
“You just look. . . paler green than usual.”
“I’m fatigued. I didn’t sleep well, remember?”
“Oh, right. The spicy food. I really need to talk to Mirralu. I’m sure whe won’t mind making a few changes for you, she’s very kind that way. . .”
San listened patiently to Keldan’s chatter, and despised himself for his cowardice. His heart felt like it was about to explode. Just as he was wondering if one could suffer a heart-attack from fear, Naleth returned from the lab with a contented smile on his handsome face.
“Equus favors us,” he said. “Or should I say, he favors the people on the Michigan.”
“Well, he favors 45 to 65% of them, at least,” Keldan said, drawing a sulky look from the doctor. “How long will it take to synthesize the antidote?”
“Twelve to sixteen hours to synthesize enough antidote for the entire crew of the Michigan.”
“Good, get started. San, I’ll want you to take Trina over there as soon as he’s finished and administer it to them. I’ll have Mennosha start scanning the area for habitable planets. And I’ll go back to the bridge and communicate with whoever’s over there and let them know what we plan to do for them.”
“Very good, Captain,” San said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll return to my cabin and try to get some sleep before the mission.”
“Sure. When you wake up, meet me in the docking bay. When I’m done talking to the Michigan I’ll start getting Trina ready for the flight.”
San gave the Captain a quick nod of acknowledgement and then left the medic’s bay. He walked steadily down the corridor toward his cabin, fighting the urge to break into a run. As soon as he reached his cabin he entered and shut the door, locking it behind him. In the pitch dark of his room, he collapsed onto the floor, his head in his hands.
Hours later, San started awake and clawed, half-blind, towards the clock on his table and pulled it down on top of himself, gripping it to get a look at its face. Good. It had only been six hours. His immediate relief was followed by creeping dread as he remembered the upcoming task. He rolled over on his back and stared at the ceiling. This was impossible. He simply could not go over to that plague ship. He’d probably lose consciousness while administering the antidote and then some brave soul would have to risk themselves to come and rescue him. A gut-wrenching vision of Mennosha covered in lesions flashed across his mind.
“I can’t do it,” he told the clock. The clock responded by ticking away another minute, taking him closer to the inevitable.
“We all have limits,” San told the clock. “I have limits, like anyone else.”
Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick. . .
San put the obstinate clock aside and went to find someone he could reason with. It wasn’t that difficult. He’d just tell Keldan the truth. He’d just explain it to him. Keldan, I’m just like anybody else. I have limits. Everyone has limits. The truth is, I’m too scared to go over there. I’ll pass out. Those people are just going to have to die a slow, painful death. . .
San shook his head. Of course he couldn’t say any of that. But maybe the Captain would have another idea.
He found Keldan with Trina, the little fighter craft the Captain had named after his mother. Keldan was sitting in the pilot’s seat, so San entered the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot’s chair. The door to the docking bay was open, and just a force field separated them from the stars. The Michigan could be seen floating some distance away, like a becalmed ship on a silent ocean.
“I wouldn’t have really left her, you know,” Keldan said, finally.
“The Fallingstar. I know you’ve been wondering about that. How can you even trust me after what happened on Horgus? But I’ll never leave her.”
“I agreed long ago to take your place if anything happened to you.”
“Yes, I know. But that bargain didn’t include my sending myself out to get killed on purpose. Now that I think about it… well, I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what came over me on that planet. Horgus is a strange world, isn’t it? I wasn’t quite myself there.”
“On the contrary. I think you were more yourself. I think we all were.”
“Unfortunately, you may be right.”
“What’s wrong with being more yourself?”
“Nothing. What I did, or what I decided to do, going out to meet the Locust, was a good decision. It saved the Horgalath. So, that’s okay. I just didn’t know I was. . . that I felt so. . . I don’t know. Forget it.”
“I just. Sometimes it’s hard, San.”
His voice had fallen to a whisper, and San followed suit.
“Are you talking about Stargirl?”
“Yes. Stargirl. I have to help her get home.”
“She knows. You promised.”
“But why does it take so much courage to carry it out?”
“Does it? Take courage?”
“It does. I feel . . . like I’m two people. One that wants to go forward, and another that wants to stay in one place. One that wants to be a hero, and one that just wants to be happy. Am I making any sense?”
San gazed out across the field of stars at the Michigan.
Keldan flipped a few switches on the console, priming the impulse engines. San watched the indicator light flashing red and the dials hovering, and trembling. He had the absurd thought that Trina was nervous, too.
“You know, that Drashivan girl is very intelligent,” Keldan said, in a voice that was a bit too casual. “And brave. Did I tell you she offered to come with me to meet The Locust when nobody else would? I like that. Strength of character. Principles. I wouldn’t have let her go through with it, of course.”
“Gallia is a good woman,” San agreed. “Beautiful, too, for an alien.”
“Do you think so?” Keldan said.
“I don’t know. A woman with four arms?”
“I’m surprised that would bother you. You grew up with Mirralu around. I’d have thought it was completely normal for you.”
“Right. True. Well, I don’t. . . it’s different.” Keldan’s face went red. “What are you doing down here anyway, San? I thought you were trying to get some rest.”
“I’ve slept enough. Did you talk to the Michigan?”
“Yes. I spoke to their pilot. They are looking forward to your visit.”
“I’m glad we will be able to help them.”
“Help them? San. You’ll be saving their lives. You’ll be their hero.”
“To be honest, Captain, I wish there was someone else who could be the hero on this particular mission.”
“You’ll do fine. Nobody likes the idea of being exposed to a plague. But Naleth knows his business. If he says you’re safe, you’re safe.”
San thought of the face of the clock in his room, putting one tick in front of another, on and on. The clock was correct; there was no way out of this. He would have to just move his feet forward as he always did, along with the ticking of time.
“My duty shift is beginning soon,” he said.
“Go. I’ll let you know when Trina’s ready to fly.”
San left Keldan with Trina and started on the long walk to the bridge of the Fallingstar. When he finally approached the door to the bridge, he stopped and cocked his head, listening. He was surprised to hear the sound of a woman’s laughter. When he entered, he found Mennosha and Fedar standing in the center of the four pilots’ stations, and Fedar was smiling widely as she looked at something in her hand. Mennosha was standing by, also smiling. They both looked up as San came in the door.
“What’s so amusing?”
“San, come look at this,” Fedar said. The mirth was audible in her voice, and her eyes sparkled. It was pleasant to see this side of Fedar, who was normally so serious. San approached and looked over her shoulder. A miniature robot was hopping around in Fedar’s palm. It had four legs and a small round head, but was mostly featureless. It had one small antenna poking up from the top of its head; at the end of the antenna was a tiny blinking red light. It walked on its short little legs from Fedar’s palm, up her arm and onto her shoulder and directed its antenna toward San’s face.
“Did you make this?” San asked Mennosha.
“I did. It’s only a prototype. I plan to make the final model a lot bigger, and it will look different, more like a real animal. And its cerebral pathways will be much more intricate. This one acts on a kind of robotic instinct. That is, it just follows the sensory input coming in through its antenna. It is programmed to just go toward anything new. The final model will be able to take commands and interact on a more sophisticated level.”
“What will you call it?”
“I don’t know,” Mennosha said. “I suppose I hadn’t thought of it. It’s just a robot.”
“But it’s an animal robot,” San said, reaching out a long green finger for the little robot to climb aboard. “Seems like it should have a more accurate name. But Vingosi language makes this sort of thing difficult. On Kollimar, it would be easy.”
“Why is that?” Fedar asked.
“Kollimarians use symbols instead of alpha-numeric characters in their writing. We’d just put together the symbol for animal and the symbol for robot.”
“Do you miss Kollimar?” Mennosha asked.
“Not really.” San stepped to his station and became engrossed in his duties. This was not a line of questioning he wanted to encourage. His peripheral vision easily picked up the puzzled looks on his crewmates’ faces. Mennosha was smart enough to change the subject.
“Fedar, would you like to see the blueprint for the final model?”
“Yes, I would like that!”
“Okay, come back to my cabin with me. I left the blueprints down there. San, we’ll be back before you head over to the Michigan.”
They left the bridge. Everyone was acting like San’s mission was the most normal, casual thing in the world. And maybe it was. But to San, it felt like standing on the brink of death. Once alone on the bridge, he stepped away from his station and stood in front of the viewport, gazing at the plague ship hanging in space like a wounded animal. He felt an eerie chill. He reminded himself that he did not believe in premonitions.
When it was almost time for the mission to begin, Keldan, Mennosha and Fedar all returned to the bridge. Directions were given, plans were made. Everyone seemed reassuringly clear about what the next hour would hold. San stopped by the medic’s bay to get the antidote, which was arranged in a neat case of syringes, each measured with one dose. Naleth instructed him on their use, and San left the medic’s bay holding the case by its handle. It bumped gently against his knee as he walked, and he tried to focus on the sensation, on the moment, on the game of avoidance in his mind.
Trina was ready, and San took the pilot’s station. It would be an easy glide from one ship to another, no need for a co-pilot. The cockpit felt unendurably small. San focused on breathing in and out. The bay opened, and San took Trina out into space. As he neared the plague ship, he heard Keldan’s voice in his ear.
“The captain of the Michigan tells me you can enter through the second docking bay, on the port side.”
The bay opened, Trina docked. San sat in the cockpit unable to move. He tried to think of the next step, but his mind was blank. The sound of his heart beating had eclipsed all other thoughts. He vaguely wondered how much fear he could tolerate without losing consciousness.
“Focus on the job,” he said to himself. He climbed from the cockpit and breathed the stale air of the empty docking bay. It was dark, and the lights were flickering. The Michigan’s environmental systems were compromised. He could feel it. The artificial gravity was slightly out of phase. Would he be infected right away, he wondered, or would he have to come into direct contact with someone first? No. He would not be infected, remember? Naleth knew his business. He was perfectly safe.
The door indicated that the docking bay was on deck five. It opened automatically when San came into proximity. The hallway was rather dim. A lone security guard was seated on the floor, his knees bent and his head resting on his arms. San was impressed with the man’s desire to continue doing his job despite his suffering. The man looked up; his face was pale and sweating. When he spoke, his voice was weak and rasping.
San kneeled by the man. “Yes,” he said. His voice sounded calm, but his fingers were shaking and he had trouble undoing the clasp on the case of syringes. “Just a moment and I’ll give you an injection. Our doctor says should feel better almost immediately.”
“May Felis bless you. May he stay with you.”
San tried to make small conversation with the guard as he worked with the syringe.
“Is this entire ship from the region of Felis?”
“Yes. Others on my world think us foolish. Perhaps we are. But Felis honors the explorer.”
“Please put out your arm.”
The security guard obeyed, gazing up into San’s face. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Kollimar. A world many light years distant from Vingos.”
“Do your gods approve of adventure? And of risking life to find what is beautiful?”
“Kollimarians do not have gods, as you understand them. We believe in an energy that binds nature. It is said to sometimes manifest in the physical form of tree spirits called kollim, but I have never seen them.”
The man winced as San pressed the end of the needle under his skin. San sat back on his heels and observed the man, waiting for the antidote to take effect. Finally the man nodded and smiled at him.
“Thank you. . . I will now take you to the others.”
The guard tried to stand but immediately fell again to his knees with a groan. “Perhaps I am still too weak.”
“That’s strange,” San said. “Our doctor told me you should feel the effects of the injection right away. He said the lesions should take several days to heal, but the fever should go down within seconds.”
“Lesions?” the man asked, crumpling his brow at San. “No person here has lesions. Just the fever, and this. . .”
He bent his head forward to show San an ominous black bruise on the back of his neck. San’s head swam at the sight of the bruise. He thought he might be sick. He jumped up and stumbled blindly away from the guard, slamming into the wall behind him. Where was the door? He stood still for a moment, leaning into the wall, his eyes squeezed shut, unable to move.
“Mr. Kollimarian? Are you well?”
“Who diagnosed you with Anislaw’s Plague?” San choked out.
“Our ship’s doctor. He said he could not find any other disease in the database that matched these symptoms.”
San turned, averting his eyes from the man’s body. He did not want to see.
“There’s nothing I can do for you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Somehow the door to the docking bay opened and seeing it, San broke into a run towards Trina. He tore open the door to the ship and made it to the cockpit, his hands grasping and knocking things asunder. Finally he found the communicator and shouted into it, forgetting all proper protocol.
The communicator crackled and his friend’s voice emerged.
“San, what is it?”
“This is not Anislaw’s Plague. It’s something else. Something worse. I know I’m immune to it, I’ve seen it before. Open the door. Please! Please, please, I have to get away from here. Bring me aboard. I can’t watch them die. Not again.”
San was only vaguely aware of the shuddering in his voice. His breath and his heart seemed to have stopped working. For some reason, his face was wet. Was it sweat? Or tears? When Keldan spoke again, his voice was very calm.
“I just put in the request to the captain of the Michigan to open the docking bay. San, try to stay calm and try to breathe. Once the door opens, just ease Trina out into space and hold position. We’re going to tractor you in.”
The next few minutes were a blur. Somehow, San managed to follow Keldan’s orders. He felt the tractor beam lock on, and as soon as he knew he was away from the Michigan a mix of relief and shame washed over him. Now they would all know what a coward he was. He had done everything possible to appear stoic, reserved, capable. But now he had lost control. There was no excuse for it. He was still dizzy; he put his face in his hands and tried to breathe steadily. The door to Trina opened and surprised him. He had not even felt the ship set down. He still felt like he was floating. Hands grabbed him under the arms and led him out into the docking bay, where he stumbled and was supported. His vision was blurry, but he thought he heard Keldan’s voice and saw a glimpse of Naleth’s white-blond hair.
“. . . get you to the medic’s bay. Come on, easy now.”
“. . . panic attack. Has this ever happened before?”
“. . . alright. Just a few more steps.”
Soon he was being lowered onto a cool surface, something soft under his head. There were lights and pleasant whirring sounds. Someone was telling everybody to “get out”. Then the needle pinching his arm, and darkness.
When San awoke hours later in the medic’s bay, he was lying on his back, straightened out like a corpse. He blinked at the ceiling, wondering why doctors and hospitals always had to make you lie so flat and straight. It was the pose of the dead; why impose it on the living? This prone position, exposed and vulernable, carried with it the aura of sickness. A woman, staring at the ceiling, her sightless eyes dim and dull. A child, flat on his back, hand reaching out in the night for water. A baby, too weak to crawl. San turned on his side, curled into a ball, and created a shield of life around himself.
Naleth was soon at his side, checking vital signs with a medical scanner.
“I’m just a bit cold,” San said.
“This ship probably feels cold to you all the time, doesn’t it?”
“I haven’t been to Kollimar myself, but I’ve read about it. Tropical climate, very humid, isn’t it? The dry air can make the cold feel colder.”
“That’s true. I don’t like the feeling of cool air on my skin.”
Naleth sat on a chair next to San’s bed and continued to attend to the medical scanner in his hand, watching a series of small lights blink and fade. The medic’s presence was transparent, non-invasive. San felt the breath ease from his lungs.
“My brother tells me you’ve been away from your home planet for over 20 years,” he said.
“Is there any particular reason for that?”
“There’s nothing for me there.”
“No family? Friends?”
Naleth folded his hands in his lap, observing San with the sympathetic, discerning look that doctors always seem to have. San studied him in return. Naleth was young, 25 or 30 at the most, but his eyes shone with an obvious intelligence (perhaps even genius, San thought) that gave him an air of authority. He was often impatient and arrogant, but San put these negative qualities down to the frustration he imagined the doctor felt in dealing with people who were slower and clumsier of mind.
“Mr. San, you suffered a panic attack while you on the other ship. Do you want to tell me what you saw?”
San directed his gaze to the ceiling again.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“If it means anything to you, doctor-patient confidentiality applies here.”
“It’s not about ego. I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“I understand. But I’m afraid you need to talk about it, at least to me.”
“Because you are apparently immune to whatever that is over there. And if that’s true, I might be able to use your blood to develop an antibody that will help those people.”
“There’s not much I can tell you that will help.”
“Can you describe the disease to me?”
“It’s a fever. There’s a black bruise on the back of the neck, or. . . at the bottom of the neck, rather. . . between the shoulders.”
“And you’ve seen this before?”
“On my home planet. In my village. I know I’m immune to it, but I don’t know what it is or anything else about it. I left home soon after the fever affected my village.”
“What are the stages of the disease?”
“The fever gets worse. The bruise spreads. It sort of. . . spiders out over the body.”
“Ah, hm,” Naleth mused. “Sounds like a poison enters the body through the bruise. What causes the bruise? A creature of some kind?”
“No. I don’t know. It’s contagious. It started with one person, and moved to another, and so on.”
“A viral infection, then. Perhaps a viral entity?”
“I don’t know.”
A fibrilating beep came from the scanner.
“Your heart rate has gone up,” Naleth observed.
“I don’t like to talk about this. Or didn’t I mention that?”
Naleth smirked. “Your ire is noted, Mr. San. I’ll let you rest now. I’ve got a blood sample. Between that and the information you gave me, I should be able to create an antidote, if it’s at all possible. Try to sleep.”
San sighed softly, but Naleth noticed.
“Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“I have nightmares.”
Naleth hesitated for a moment and then put down the medical scanner and sat back down next to San’s bed.
“San. . . if you don’t mind an alternative method of healing, I can help you with the nightmares.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know that I was a priest of Equus on Vingos.”
“Well, giving worship to Equus is a very simple matter, and I know it can help you.”
San looked at the statue in the corner of the medic’s bay. Its arms were outstretched and draped with flowers. The statue’s long nose, demure face and closed eyes gave him a peaceful feeling.
“Equus gives us what we want. He offers relief from whatever it is that hurts us, or he helps us attain our heart’s desire. In return, we agree to carry his burdens.”
San cast a skeptical eye at the stone figure.
“And this works?”
“Of course. It worked for me. I was very lonely; I wanted a wife and a family. I made the prayer to Equus and I met Tixa the next day. She is the love of my life. We married, and we have three children back on Vingos. They are everything to me.”
“Why are you here, then, instead of with them?”
“This is the burden I was asked to carry.”
“How is your job as medic aboard a transport ship helping to carry the burdens of Equus?”
“In many ways. For example, if I were not here to tell you about Equus, you would have to continue suffering from your fears.”
This struck San’s heart rather more than he expected. He met the doctor’s eyes.
“You left your family so that you could offer me this gift?”
“Yes. You and others. Unlike other Vingosi gods, Equus cares for all races.”
San asked himself whether he would have willingly left his family to care for strangers and aliens, and the answer within him was a resounding negative. He was filled with a sudden desire for the peace and altruism that he perceived in the Vingosi man.
“What do I have to do?”
“Just ask Equus to give you what you need, and tell him you are willing to carry his burdens in return. Take some time to think about it before you commit. It is not something to be taken lightly. My brother made the committment before thinking it through, and now I’m afraid he’s unhappy. He blames me, which I regret.”
San nodded. “I understand. I will think about it. Thank you.”
Naleth touched San’s shoulder and left him alone. San focused his eyes on the statue and time seemed to stop. A long while later, or maybe it was only a moment, he fell into a dreamless sleep.
Two dayspans, or about 14 days, had gone by since the day the Fallingstar encountered the Michigan. San stood in front of the mirror in his cabin, making a few last minute adjustments to his attire. He was on his way to a dinner where he would be, to his intense embarrassment and pride, the guest of honor. Naleth had effectively used his blood to create a cure for the disease and the people on the Michican were now all healthy and well. Furthermore, Naleth had discovered the disease was a caused by a space-faring spore. The spore was now programmed into the ship’s sensors so that if they encountered it, they could avoid it. This information was flying out over subspace to every habitable world in the sector. And San’s nightmares had ceased.
He was going to stop by the medic’s bay on the way to the banquet. He wanted to leave a garland on the arms of Equus.
Naleth was still in the medic’s bay when San arrived. The young Vingosi greeted him with a friendly smile and San returned it. It had been a long time since he’d smiled, but now he seemed to be doing it all the time. It brought back memories of laughing with his children, chasing his son through the saplings, or letting his daughters put a wreath of flowers on his head. He now reveled in these memories, which before had been too painful to bear. He was also enjoying hearing stories about Naleth’s children back on Vingos. Keldan was San’s closest friend on the ship, but he was finding that had more in common with Naleth. It was delightful to talk to another father, and relive memories of his own offspring through the medic’s stories.
He and Naleth walked together to the dining hall.
“Come this way,” San said. “I want to say hello to Mirralu.”
Naleth followed San into the kitchens. Mirralu was bustling around among the pots and pans, giving instructions. She beamed at San as he entered.
“Mr. San! You look very well in your fancy clothes.”
“Thank you. I feel a bit strange wearing them.”
“Nonsense! You look just like a Katikan prince!”
“Good evening, Mirralu,” Naleth said.
“Good evening, Medic,” Mirralu said, in a polite tone that barely concealed her irritation. “Tell me. Are the kitchens up to your standards tonight? Why don’t we check?” She snatched up a small booklet which was lying near the trash can. The title of the booklet was barely legible, but San had seen the booklet in its better days and he knew it was the Fallingstar Dining Hall Health & Safety Regulations. It looked as if it had been dropped in a pot of sauce. She flipped it open to the middle and pretended to peruse it.
“But, oh no. . .” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “It’s illegible. I wonder how that happened?”
“Maybe you should put it in a safer place,” Naleth said.
“You’re the one who put it in my hand,” Mirralu responded, firing up. “And believe me, that was not a safe place for it! Not a safe place at all!” She huffed and turned her back on him.
“As I’ve told you, Mirralu, I meant no disrespect. As the ship’s doctor, it is my job to be concerned about the sanitation of the kitchens.”
The banging of pots against the stove was the only response he got.
“I’ll see you out there,” Naleth said to San, and left the kitchen. Mirralu poked her head out from behind the stove a moment later.
“Is he gone?” she whispered. San joined her by the stove and poked one long finger into the sauce and tasted it.
“You’re too hard on him, Mirralu.”
“And you are too kind.”
“Why do you dislike him? He cares about everyone on this ship. Just as you do.”
Mirralu turned to San, and put one hand on her ample hip. With another, she shook a wooden spoon in his face. With the other two hands she continued to stir the sauce and sauté a pan of vegetables.
“He pretends to care about people. But all that man cares about is control. You may give him what he wants. It’s your choice. But he will not succeed with me!”
“I’m sure that you overreact.”
“Your ears won’t hear any wisdom that doesn’t come from between them.”
San barked out a rare laugh. Mirralu chuckled.
“You’d better go out there,” she said. “The food will be along soon.”
“Fine. But the sauce is perfect. Don’t put any extra spice in it.”
She took a little sauce off of the spoon and grimaced at him.
“I can barely taste it!”
“Set some aside for me, then, before you ruin it.”
“Out,” she said, and she pushed him away from the stove with all four hands.
He went out into the dining hall and observed the crowd. There was a crush of people; the crews and passengers of both ships were present. A few of the Vingosi from the Michigan had brought instruments and were playing to entertain the rest. San was tall, and he moved easily through the sea of faces toward those that were more familiar to him. Keldan, Mennosha and Gallia were standing together in the middle of the room. Keldan was talking primarily to Mennosha, and seemed oblivious to Gallia’s presence. Her placid demeanor and stately bearing betrayed no discomfort at being ignored, but her dark eyes were not shining as they usually did.
“Hello, San!” Keldan called out as he approached. “Join us. We were just talking about our next destination.”
San’s eyebrows shot up.
“Have you found work for us?”
“Yes. The Captain of the Michigan has a contact back on Vingos, in the region of Strix. Apparently they have some paperwork that needs doing. Not our usual fare, but it pays well. And we’ll have some time for shore leave in Felis, too. We’ll get to see Vingos!”
“I’m looking forward to that,” Mennosha said.
“Isn’t there a rule about returning to the same region after you’ve left?” San asked.
“Only in some cults. Strix and Felis are neutral territory.”
“Right,” Mennosha put in. “And Naleth and I can return to Equus if we like, though we can’t go to Gulo, Cygnus or Hyla.”
“Why are the rules different for each region?”
Keldan shrugged. “Each region has its own laws. It’s always been like that. Some are more insular than others. Cygnus is probably the worst in that regard. Nobody knows much about what goes on there.”
“It will be nice to see the parts of Vingos that we can see,” Gallia said. “Will you show us around, Captain?”
Keldan shrugged again and didn’t answer her. A tense silence followed. Mennosha put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the little animal robot, which he placed in the palm of his hand. It tottered around in a circle, the red light on its antenna blinking, looking for something new to explore.
“Excuse me,” Gallia murmured, and walked away.
San’s peripheral vision gave him a good view of Keldan’s face as he watched Gallia’s retreating form. As always, San’s eye caught the flash of misery that was hidden from everyone else. The Captain recovered quickly, and put his arm around Mennosha’s shoulder, drawing a grin from the younger man.
“So, San,” Keldan said. “Mennosha tells me you’re going to give a speech.”
“What? No. San, I never said that, I promise!”
“He’s teasing you, Mennosha,” San said, shaking his head.
“Well, San? You’ll give us a toast, at least, if not a speech?”
“No, Captain. I don’t think I’ll do either one.”
“Alright. I suppose the showing off is up to me, as usual.”
The Captain strode through the crowd and stood up on a chair in the very center of the dining hall. “Attention, please! Your attention!” he called. The band stopped playing and the music petered out. Slowly the voices died down and all eyes were on the handsome figure and face of the Fallingstar’s Captain. His blue jacket was casually unbuttoned and his face was ruddy with alcohol and the heat of the room. With a boyish smile, he lifted his glass.
“I want to propose a toast. First, to Flightmaster San, and his magical blood, without which our numbers tonight would be tragically diminished.”
A resounding cheer from the crowd, mostly from the crew of the Michigan. All glasses were raised, clinked, and drinks were taken. Some of the people standing near San bestowed grateful and affectionate touches to his arms and back.
“Next, to our new friends from the Michigan. We look forward to getting to know you all better during our voyage back to our home planet. Your help finding us employment is much appreciated.”
“Least we could do, Keldan!” shouted one of the officers from the Michigan.
“Thank you, Keldan,” called a few others.
“A toast to you, then,” Keldan said, raising his glass. The crowd responded in kind, and everyone drank.
“Finally, to my own crew. You delight me every day with your loyalty and friendship. I wish. . . I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me. I know I have many flaws, but . . . I try to be a good Captain, and a good friend. I try to keep my promises. Suffice it to say, I give you what I can.”
San studied the face of his friend and looked around the room at the rest of the people gathered there. He was not sure what burden Equus would have him carry, but if he were to choose one it would be to protect the people around him, especially his fellow pilots, as if they were his own blood. He had lost one family, and had lived for a long time plagued by the fear of more loss. His heart had been encased and unyielding, nothing but a machine, ticking away the time without meaning or purpose. But now he saw he had a new family, and he was resolved: he would lose himself before ever losing them.
Then Keldan raised his glass to the crowd, and all the glasses raised to his were like a sparkling constellation swirling around a central star.