OumuamuaDear Post Master
Dear Post Master
Oumuamua Dear Post Master
Dear Post Master
Triage by Margaret Karmazin
by Margaret Karmazin
Dr. Tane Wu-Wiltshire was, at forty-four, one of the foremost exo-infectious disease specialists in the known galaxy. He was beloved of many, not just for his expertise but for his person, a small, tidy individual of Maori, Chinese, and British Australian descent, never married and his sexuality unknown. I went to work for him on Titan station in 2147, fresh from residency as a physician's assistant.
Getting there was no picnic; four months of cramped quarters with a scary passenger list—mercenaries, sales reps, and CIA types—and when we arrived, all I wanted was a long hot shower and French fries, which I got. But then, along with my fellow freshly minted PA, Mark Gresnor, we went right to work.
"No coddling, huh?" Mark whispered.
"You'd think they'd give us at least a good night's sleep and maybe a look around," I said. "I'd like to see the layout of the only human-run space station, so I know where everything is."
But as soon as we entered Medical, we saw why there was no time for pleasure. In our training holo, we'd viewed this area divided into many exam and surgical arenas, but now it was opened into a giant octagon expanse with little rooms around the border. Our sleeping quarters were temporarily in one of these. The entire ceiling was made to look like a changing sky running from blue with fluffy clouds to the wild colors of a perfect Earth sunset. The room was filled to capacity with cots occupied by the oddest assortment of individuals I'd ever seen except in holos. We were taken to a small office sealed off from the main room.
"What's going on here?" asked Mark. His redhead skin had paled to almost pure white.
The famous Dr. Wu-Wiltshire appeared before us, as handsome as his photos. "Call me Dr. Tane," he told them. "And this is my mother, Sarah Wu-Wiltshire."
A slim, stylish, silver-haired woman of around seventy nodded and smiled. "I won't take your hand," she said. "Normal precautions and you aren't suited up yet."
"Mother is visiting the station for six months," Dr. Tane explained, "and—"
She broke in. "Though I'm a dermatologist, I also hold a degree in internal medicine, admittedly unused for decades, but now coming in handy."
Clearly something big was going on. "Um," I said, "I hate to sound so ill-informed, but—"
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Dr. Tane. "This only began three days ago, and the news would not have reached your ship."
Mark and I looked at each other.
"Go back to work, son," said his mother. "I'll take care of these two."
She led us to her office through a narrow corridor. I could hear groans in various tones, some human and others not. One reminded me of the rumble of elephants while another was a soft, repetitive, squeak. Dr. Wu-Wiltshire motioned toward the two chairs facing her desk.
"Please call me Sarah. As Tane said, this hit us three days ago. The other space stations are light years away," she went on, "and communicating with them takes days even using hyperjump. Two ships arrived from Centauri Station, one diplomatic and the other commercial. As soon as they landed, fifteen passengers crowded into Medical, coughing and vomiting and some, the Durlajis, dying like flies. We had to dispatch bodies into space without ceremony. In one day, the disease spread to humans, Zeta Whites, and Lausti. The big red Durlajis are the ones making the low elephantine rumble. They are highly susceptible to disease of a viral nature. Lausti are the blue, slender ones who make squeaking noises when in pain. Their bodies appear delicate but are wiry strong. Nevertheless, some are helpless against this monster of a virus."
"Please, I don't understand," I said. "What is this disease and where did it come from?" Mark was leaning forward with an intense expression on his face. I didn't know him well, in spite of the long trip to the station, so wasn't sure what he was feeling. He looked flushed. The thought streaked through my mind—was he already infected or just worked up?
Sarah folded her hands on her desk and appeared magnificently composed, not a silver hair out of place. "Ten were already dead on the Centauri ships and as they disembarked, more were falling ill. In a panic, the Durlajis did not demand their usual ceremonies for their dead but went along with ejecting the bodies. There were originally forty-nine alive, but as of today only nineteen remain. At this point the Laustis succumbed, though only four to date have died. The Zeta Whites appear to do better than anyone with only one death so far."
"And humans?" I asked. I immediately saw any future I had planned go down the drain. I wished I had not come; this was an empty honor if I never saw home again.
"Well," she said, "we're slower to contract it, but once we do ..." she paused and looked away. "The death rate is about fifty percent."
I know she saw my face blanch. I am of mixed race and normally tan, but when terrified, I look like death warmed over.
"You have a better chance being young," she said. "One of our nurses has it now and is recovering."
"Isn't anyone immune?" I asked.
"Yes, anyone without the same ancient ancestor."
"What do you mean?" said Mark.
"When you entered the station, did you notice any beings that resemble large praying mantises?"
"No," we replied.
She stood up and motioned to the glass door. "Over there," she said, discreetly pointing to an individual across the vast room who was apparently visiting someone. "That is a Parmida. They evolved in an entirely different genetic line than the others here. Those you see on cots and some working as medical professionals, as different as they may look from each other, are all distantly related to each other and to us."
"How do you know that?" I said.
"We've done genetic research on the station and submitted the studies before this virus hit. My son will go down in history whether he survives this or not."
"One more thing," she said. "We're doing triage. This medical unit is not big enough to handle a larger influx of the sick than you see out there now. We can fit two more, but they're coming in at a rate of eight per day. We have a drug, Narid, that sometimes works on some but not others. You understand triage, right?"
"Have you ever had to employ it in your personal experience?"
"It's not a pleasant thing deciding who'll live and who'll die."
That was the end of our conversation. Sarah suited the three of us in the station's purple self-sterilizing medical suits, made of a fabric that continually cleaned itself, and we left the protected office and entered the fray.
There was no time for introductions to different alien types. "Hydrate those four," ordered Dr. Tane, as he pointed at receptacles in the floor from which I could pull up tubes that hooked into the patient's IV ports. My charges were one muscular, black-haired, red-skinned Durlaji, a black-eyed Zeta White, and two Laustis with their pale blue coloring, torsos about as thick around as my thigh, wiry arms, long tapering fingers and large, luminous dark eyes— beautiful creatures once you got over your shock at seeing them. Their hair was thick and glossy brown. This one seemed young, but who knew? I asked Dr. Tane, "What is the age of this patient?"
He was distracted but kind enough to answer. "Maybe thirty-five. They live to about a hundred eighty earth years, so she is very young." He shook his head. "She's not doing well."
She? I looked closer. Was the species mammalian? I didn't see any breasts. The facial features were delicate. As soon as I started the hydration, the patient gasped for air and suddenly the light went out of her eyes. Her skin paled to gray in a matter of seconds. "Doctor!" I yelled. The ceiling above showed happy cottony clouds dancing across a cerulean sky.
He calmly returned, took one look, pressed something on his belt and pulled the blanket over her face. His eyes filled with tears. I loved him in that moment. That was the beginning.
The Zeta White struggled to sit up. Instantly, it was apparent his mode of communication was telepathy. He filled my head. Tell my employers, tell my egg mates, tell my ship, what is left, that I had every intention of achieving the goals, but now see that this will be impossible. Tell them I meant to succeed! And then he fell back and lost consciousness.
Dr. Tane moved to my side. "You're young to have to experience this," he said. "What should be a slow and exciting introduction to different species is now a circus of pain."
"Thank you for acknowledging my feelings."
"I need to warn you," he added, "it's going to get worse. My mother probably told you that humans are more resistant. But when they do get it, more than half die. The death rate among the Durlajis is seventy percent, with the Lausti twenty-eight percent and the Zeta Whites eighteen. The Parmida, of course don't catch it."
"Sarah said that the others are related to us."
"I was working on that study before the plague arrived. Using reverse genetic engineering, it appears that millions of years ago, someone seeded many planets with life, using the same genetic code. On the seeded planets, things progressed or did not progress at their own speed and style. Animals and plants formed, flourished and died and were reborn. Species evolved, looking and behaving differently but with the same genetic base until each planet produced highly sentient beings. We cannot naturally mate with them today but probably could with help in the lab. Beings with this same long-ago genetic parent are vulnerable to this virus, which by the way, could have been purposely created. Time will tell."
I returned to work, which was endless and exhausting. "They're deathbed confessing sins I don't even know exist," I whispered to Mark, who looked exhausted. "You don't look so good," I added.
"There was a tear in my headgear," he said, his voice shaky.
"Did you tell Dr. Tane?"
"I told Sarah. She helped me clean up and get into a new suit."
"No," I wanted to shout, but kept my mouth shut. By the next morning, Mark was on one of the cots and by day two, dead. No one would come to replace him. Any ships heading our way were instructed to turn around or float in space.
I knew that I would contract the disease. How, I'm not certain, since I maintained proper protocol at all times, but the fact remained that the air in the general station would contain some virus particles no matter how often it was filtered and cleaned, and sure enough I was soon on my own cot drenched in sweat, coughing and vomiting. Dr. Tane tended me personally. I now understood the others' desires for a deathbed plea, but it would not be needed. "You're in the good fifty percent," he told me two days later when my fever broke. "You will survive."
I was weak for some time after, during which I was placed in a small, separate area with other recovering patients. A room seven by seven meters filled with cots arranged on either side of an aisle down the center. On the cots were humans and aliens. Some lay motionless and stared at the ceiling, while others talked softly to each other or sat up bright-eyed, looking for something to distract them. At first, they didn't have their various communication devices. They were allowed to look at holo-dramas on small screens and of course wore their translators. Next to me was a Zeta White who appeared too haughty to speak with me.
Galled, I said, "I'm one of the medical staff. As soon as I'm up and about, I might be attending to you."
"Assuming," he telepathically replied, "that you are, as you put it, up and about before I am."
Zeta Whites had been abducting humans for generations, though supposedly this had stopped after intersystem agreements. They considered us far beneath them.
"If a human is part of the fifty percent who survive, we recover faster than you do. So enjoy your boring cot." Being nasty was strictly off limits, but he was aggravating and I had never forgiven his race for manipulating us for centuries.
"Just a minor advantage," he replied. "Considering how in all other ways, Zetas are superior."
"Except in morality," I snapped.
The Durlaji on his other side and a Lausti across the aisle were sitting up and listening to this exchange with interest. I excused my behavior by telling myself that my goal was, in addition to entertaining myself, to stimulate them out of lethargy. I was bored and needed my device to entertain me. But then if I had mine, they would all get theirs, packed full of virus particles. But if we were now immune ... well, I'd need to speak to Dr. Tane about that.
Unfortunately, he was standing on the other side of my cot and had overheard the whole exchange. "Perhaps, PA Rey" he said, "you are no longer ill enough to remain in this area harassing patients. If you're feeling vigorous enough to engage in verbal combat, you're probably well enough to return to duty."
I swear the Zeta White smirked.
Back at work, I asked Dr. Tane how he remained healthy. He said, "I took a very risky chance. One of the nurses who died, I took a sample of his infection, killed it, and injected it. It was an insane move—there was no time to work up a proper vaccine from antibodies. It was like the days when people put cowpox under their skin and became immune to smallpox. My plan was to inject you and my mother with it, but you're now immune on your own. Once I cover this end of the room, I will inject Sarah. I haven't tried it on anyone else and especially not the other species. Please go to the recovery room and ask if the others in there know anyone of their own species still healthy who would be interested in volunteering. If so, bring them to my office tonight. And Jasmine, I want you to be nice to the others or they won't help you. I understand your dislike of Zeta Whites, but you'll find that many of the others are quite likeable." He smiled, crinkling his eyes, and I thought shit, this won't do, my intense attraction to my boss. He had, apparently, never succumbed to engaging in serious relationships and there was no reason to imagine he'd start now.
I returned to the recovery room and nervously stood in the doorway. Only two other humans were in there, both of them apparently asleep. All of the aliens were wide awake and looking at me expectantly, except the Zeta White who was working on a device I couldn't see, waving his hands in the air, pointing at this and that. He must have overcome protocol and gotten his equipment in.
Adjusting my translator, I cleared my throat and made Dr. Tane's request. A Lausti spoke up, his voice soft and melodious, unlike his former squeaks of misery. "I can suggest one of my mates. He is the sort who would do this if asked."
Did he mean "mate" in the British/Australian or the wedded sense, and if the wedded, wouldn't he be anxious about possibly losing his partner?
As if he'd read my mind, he said, "Our marriage is plural. Two males and two females. Please do not imagine that I wish to rid myself of Slaneti. I am very happy with him in our group. But I know him well and he would be most content to volunteer. He believes in giving of oneself for the greater good."
A Durlaji spoke up in his bass rumble. "My assistant will do it," he said. "It is his nature as well." Quickly, four more volunteered, and I collected the names and where to find them out in the station.
Outside Medical, the station was huge. Fourteen kilometers long by six kilometers wide with rotating sections reached by central elevators. Carts on moving belts made travel quicker horizontally in the different sections, along with small vehicles you could borrow. Locators were positioned on walls at intervals, which I checked to try and find my targets. I wore a fresh, clean medical get-up and people stared. "It is that bad?" a Parmida asked me.
It was the first time I was close to one, this immune insectoid individual from a system farther away than any of the others. He was over two meters tall, but his head bent straight forward, which lowered his height some. His brown-striped cranium resembled that of a praying mantis. His tubular arms ended in six-fingered hands, each finger bulbous at the tip except for a pointy forefinger. His eyes were large, green, and shiny. I had an urge to touch his exoskeleton, which covered his head and thorax (what I could see of it) but not his arms or legs. In spite of his fearsome appearance, he gave off a companionable vibe.
"It is," I said. "My name is Jasmine. I'm happy to meet you."
"I am Grodine," he said. "Also am pleased to make your acquaintance. You are very charming. You remind me of a cute animal on our world that we adore."
"Well, thank you," I said. Perhaps I was akin to a kitten in their milieu?
"May I assist you in any way?" he said, his mouth moving open and closed horizontally.
"You can if you know your way about the station. I'm looking for these individuals." I opened my device and showed him the list, which was written in several languages.
"This one is on this level," he said. "I know his quarters and office and in fact deal with him in business."
"What is your business?" I asked.
"Chocolate," said the Parmida.
"Chocolate? Other civilizations eat it like humans?"
"Oh yes," he said. "It has caught on quite well. My family's business is booming."
The station was a busy place, teeming with inhabitants and visitors coming and going, many of them now covered in whatever version of protective suits their particular race used. Some of these were similar to my medical get-up.
"But where do you grow the cacao?" I asked my new friend.
"We grow it on one of the moons of our second planet called Mawine. It is a tropical jungle, the perfect climate."
"Do you have samples of your product?" I asked, always up for a bite of the delicious treat.
He reached into a deep pocket and pulled out a disk wrapped in glittery blue foil. "Enjoy," he said.
"That is an amazing wrapper!" The surface of the foil swirled and danced, sparkles moving every which way.
"Yes, we thought the customers would like it. It doesn't last forever, possibly three of your months and then the paper will look like regular foil. It's actually covered in semi-living organisms, harmless of course. And they don't eat the chocolate!" He made squeaking noises of laughter.
"So pretty," I said and thanked him, slipping the candy into my bag. Grodine left me soon after and it took two hours to locate the other people, one of whom backed out. I arranged to meet the remaining five in Medical at 19:00. Meantime, I took the pretty piece of chocolate out to show Dr. Tane, then forgot and left it on his desk.
That evening, he had the five volunteers along with his mother lined up in his office. After thanking everyone, he opened a tray on which lay five injection vials. "First, I must take your temps," he said.
Everyone passed except one. "Mother," said Dr. Tane, "yours is elevated." His voice was even, and he appeared calm but by now I knew his minute expressions. He was uneasy. "You're normally 36.1."
"I'm a cold fish," she joked. "What is it?"
He hesitated. "38," he said.
She didn't reply and her face was impassive.
"Have you been sweating?" he asked.
"A little," she said. "But these med suits can be hot."
"No, Mother," he said. "They are completely temp regulated. You know that."
She didn't reply.
"Please sit down and let me do the others here and we'll return to you."
He checked the temps of the volunteers, the Durlaji's being normal for beings with a high metabolism, 38.4, and the Faustis normal for cooler beings, 35.9. No Zeta White had volunteered, and I was glad, as just being near one ruffled my feathers.
"I want to thank all of you," Dr. Tane said after they had received their vaccines. "Please come in tomorrow and I'll check your temps and general health. If you notice anything out of the ordinary at any time, come right back and ask for me."
In an aside to me, he said, "May none of them need help as we have no more beds. And it would be foolish to inject my mother now if her temp is elevated."
By evening, five of the beds became empty as more bodies were shot into space. Then they immediately filled with three Durlajis, a human from station maintenance, and Dr. Tane's mother. My communicator buzzed at 3:45 AM. I was back in Medical and suited up in fifteen minutes.
"We have three injections of Narid left," said an ashen-faced Dr. Tane. "It has worked best on Durlajis, possibly due to their fast metabolism."
He was standing two cots down from his mother's and I knew that though his back was turned to her, she was all he really saw. I moved around him to go to her.
Sarah's once sleek silver hair was dark with sweat. Someone had pinned it off her face. Her skin was ashen and shiny, stretched over her beautiful bones, her eyes large and black in her sunken face.
"Hey," she whispered when she saw me. I could see that it took her a moment to recognize me. "Tell him to remember what I taught him. You must stress it, make him see."
I wasn't sure what she meant.
"That Durlaji there on the next cot. Look at him."
"He is twenty-five years old."
"Okay?" I said, still not getting her point.
"Durlajis only live to maybe fifty. They expend a tremendous amount of energy and use it up quickly. Even with the advanced technology they enjoy, they have only extended their lives by about eight years. That one there is middle-aged."
I was beginning to see where this was headed.
"And you're only what? Seventy-two? The human life span is a hundred and twenty. You are a dot past middle age yourself."
"I've had children and seen the one I love most grow into a fabulous physician. I've enjoyed marriage for a while and interesting lovers, including a most inventive Lausti. I have traveled the earth and Mars and to this wonderful station. I've lived a very full life."
"He won't let this happen," I said.
"If he is the professional that I think he is, he will."
I wanted to scream. In the short time I'd known Sarah, I'd grown to greatly admire her. We weren't friends yet; I was definitely an underling and knew my place. But I could sense that, given time, she and I could develop a more personal relationship. My heart sank as I realized this would never be.
The night wore on and there would be no sleep. The four people who had received Dr. Tane's vaccine checked in for his appraisal and were well. It pleased him so much that he joked with them a bit, though I could see he was frazzled.
"Maybe you should sleep for a couple of hours," I suggested.
"I can't." He looked away.
I knew what he meant.
"I'll sit up with you," I said, "but I need something to eat." He didn't object, so we went to his office to use his automat and get ourselves sandwiches and coffee. The food was created in one of numerous kitchens on the station and sent by tubes to various receptors.
He noticed the blue foil wrapped candy bar I had forgotten on his desk. It almost looked like it was moving.
"What the hell is that?" he said, picking it up to examine it.
"Chocolate," I said. "I wanted to show you the wrapper. Grodine, this Parmida I met out in the station, gave it to me. Chocolate is his business." I told Dr. Tane about the living foil.
"Interesting," he said, holding it closer. He took it over to a small lab built into one of the walls and examined it. When he looked at me, he was wearing a strange expression. "Do you mind if I keep it for a while?"
"Well, I had wanted to devour it, but you may for a short bit," I joked.
"We'd better get back to the patients," he said. I knew he meant his mother.
She was not doing well. I stood looking down at her as she lay on her cot shivering so hard her teeth rattled. "Can't we do anything?" I said.
"She won't take the injection," he said. "She insists I give it to the remaining Durlaji." He hesitated. "She is actually right. Chances are high it will help him and much lower that it would her. And like she said, their lifespans...."
He looked away. "I love her so much. More than anyone in the universe."
I had a selfish moment of wishing someone, especially he, would say such a thing about me.
And then, without further ado, he took the last injection from a table and inoculated the third Durlaji, who turned his large red face to him and groaned.
Two hours later, all three Durlajis were showing improvement and Sarah was dead. I found Dr. Tane sitting by her cot, crying like a child. The numerous aliens and humans in the vast room had stopped their groaning and were silent in respect, some managing to sit up. The other medical personnel stayed at a distance and only I approached. I pulled up a stool and sat on the other side of Sarah's cot. When the moment felt right, I said, "Do you want me to take care of things?" and he nodded yes.
We had a small ceremony and shot Sarah's body into space. Dr. Tane retreated to his office, putting another doctor in charge of the floor. He motioned for me to join him.
"She is a true hero," I said, but he shushed me.
"Sit down. I've discovered something awful." His tone scared me. "The candy wrapper around the chocolate. What makes the design move and look alive."
I looked at him questioningly.
"It's a type of proto virus. It blends with the foil surface and makes it literally come alive. As it does, it morphs into a real virus and guess what virus it becomes?"
"Oh my god," I said. "No."
"Did they do it on purpose? Knowing it would only affect non-Parmidians? We need to take this to station police."
"Wait," I said, remembering the kindness of Grodine, who had given me the chocolate. "Why would they want to poison their own customers? Grodine seemed very much the businessman."
Within the hour, the station Chief had the Parmida in his office. Grodine dwarfed the offered chair and looked terrified, his huge eyes rolling in his head and glistening with tears. Dr. Tane and I sat to the side of the Chief's desk. The offending foil was safely sealed inside a transparent bag.
"Grodine, sir," began the Chief, an imposing man composed of solid muscle, "are you aware that you and your fellow chocolate peddlers may have caused the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, and potentially millions? What the freaking hell were you thinking when you designed that hideous foil wrapper? I'm wondering if you were possibly planning this massacre in order to take over certain areas of the known cosmos? This is maybe a matter of war on human type species?"
Grodine had shrunk into a hunched-over mass of exoskeleton. His entire body trembled violently. "No no," he said, "oh, Lords of Wunda, what have we done? My family and I, we invented this amazing thing, for sure an attraction to our product, the best chocolate in the known galaxy, and we had no idea, no idea it would hurt anyone! It is just art, that is all!"
"Your world has been contacted and I will be speaking with your ambassadors as soon as we can connect. You'll be watched 24/7 in a cell after being strip searched." He nodded to an officer standing in a shadowed corner that I had somehow not noticed.
"And suit up your crew," the Chief added to the officer. "Confiscate every damn piece of that candy in the station. Keep ten samples in isolation and shoot the rest into space." While we watched, he sent an all-points bulletin to every world, station, and known ships in flight, warning of the candy and the plague.
To Dr. Tane, he expressed his sympathies at the loss of his mother and then said, "I hear you have a vaccine. I would like to receive that immediately."
"It comes with a slight risk," warned Dr. Tane, though by now we knew that it worked. "But yes, I will administer it. Give me an hour."
After months of haggling with the Parmida world government, it was decided that Grodine and his crew had not created the killer foil as part of any nefarious plan. The family simply wanted to succeed in business. Grodine and his clan, as was his world's custom when faced with shame, committed suicide and the chocolate business on Mawine was taken over by another conglomerate. This made me sad.
The plague died out, partly by natural course and partly from Tane's vaccine. After all the uproar and excitement, things seemed dull on the station, but soon I began to enjoy learning the different alien physiologies. New alien species visited the station occasionally, the Hazis (insectoid like the Parmida, though unrelated) and the Yomatas, very close to human. I had time to enjoy their company and several volunteered to help us further our medical knowledge. In fact, one tall and handsome Yomata named Gigoro with long, dark blond hair he wore in a braid down his back began to woo me. What he had in mind long term, I was not sure, but his maneuverings caught the attention of Dr. Tane.
"What is this Yomata up to?" he said one evening after we cleaned up and were heading off to get dinner. We often ate together to discuss the day but as yet, remained in the role of doctor and assistant. "You know they engage in plural marriage. Their current planetary leader is known for having four hundred wives. I wouldn't imagine that would be your thing."
No, it most certainly would not be. "I had no idea," I said. "But I imagine he just wants a bit of a fling."
"Gigoro is already tied to two wives."
I raised an eyebrow. "Really? How do you know this and what possessed you to look into it?"
He didn't answer that question until the waiter set our wine on the table. "I looked into it because I care about you."
"How, like a sister?" I said sarcastically. I had by now given up on Tane ever seeing me other than as his close assistant.
Long pause as he sipped his wine. "Not exactly," he said.
We were married by the station commander two weeks later and Gigoro left the station with his tail between his legs, figurately speaking. I felt that I was the luckiest woman in the known galaxy and somehow, I knew that Sarah would approve.
"Jasmine, I need you," called Tane and I ran, a happy newlywed, to his office where we darkened the windows and made love. Our quarters were next door, but it felt risky-sexier to do it in the office, though no one could enter if they tried. I would probably grow old with him on the station unless we were transferred to the new one under construction in the Klegor system. Not human-run, but they wanted an exo-specialist and by now Tane was number one. The chocolate from Mawine was now universally famous (and fortunately safe) but too expensive for our pocketbooks. We were left to Hershey's from Mars.