When the Starfire is struck by a mysterious and deadly plague, the captain and crew have no choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of the healers of a nearby, uncharted planet.
First Officer Ryan Nelson accompanies the sickest patients to the planet’s surface, where he is put under the supervision of Juo-ta-ri, an apprentice to one of the healers who is helping the crew. The two have barely begun to explore the chemistry between them when Ryan’s body betrays him and he falls ill as well.
Now it’s a race against time to see if Juo can bring the fever down before Ryan’s hallucinations kill him.
Note: This short story was originally published in the Dreamspinner Press anthology Size Matters.
Captain Portia Rusk sat alone on the bridge, the lights dimmed at all but her station, her usually smooth, pale skin wrinkled with worry as she pondered the various options open to her. They had gone from few to almost none in the ten days since this plague of unknown origin had begun killing her crew. Dr. Shelton continued to insist that he could find a cure given more time, and she believed him, but she had no more time to give him. Her crew was dying. When their sensors had detected the planet yesterday, she had grabbed onto it as a new option, a new hope for her people.
They had only been able to tell for sure that it was capable of supporting oxygen-breathing life, not whether it actually did, or if so, of what level of technological advancement, but she had not been able to shake the gut feeling that this was their salvation. She did not say anything aloud, not wanting to raise hopes prematurely, but she had immediately ordered the quarantine in hope of slowing the disease’s progress through the crew and giving them a little longer to see what the planet had to offer. They had sent out the standard introductory message on every frequency available to them, hoping for a positive response that could perhaps lead to some assistance, either academic or practical.
A beeping on the screen in front of her drew her attention. It seemed that someone was, in fact, listening. Quickly, she called her first officer, the communications officer, pilot, and chief xenologist to the bridge. It was not the full complement of bridge crew, but she did not want to break quarantine more than necessary until she knew if her instincts were right.
Rising with careful poise, she brushed her hands over her uniform, making sure she was the picture of command, not a hair out of place in the blond chignon she wore, her green eyes serene. Her officers would know it was a mask, for they had seen her sick with worry, as distraught over each death as if she had lost her own children, but her mask was not for their benefit anyway. She would not allow her fear and grief to show when dealing with an alien race for the first time.
“We’ve been hailed,” the captain informed her officers when they had all filed in and taken their places. “Pontil, bring up a link.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the Altarian replied, identifying the signal coming from the nearby planet and keying their communications equipment to match it. “Link completed, ma’am,” the blue-haired man informed the captain.
Captain Rusk punched the button next to the screen and brought up the video link, allowing her to see as well as hear the person on the other end, assuming the other person’s technology was compatible with theirs. She had been pleasantly surprised at how many times it had worked. The image was fuzzy at first, then cleared to reveal a silver-haired male with dark skin and a serious face.
“I am Teo-ta-dar-ri, Chair of the Governing Council of Petarus,” he informed her. “We received your message.”
“Thank you for replying, sir,” the captain replied, hiding her relief that the ship’s translator could make out the language. “I am Captain Portia Rusk of the Starfire. We are explorers under the aegis of Amalgamated Exploration, tasked with plotting areas of space previously unexplored by our home world.”
“We are not in need of exploration, Captain,” the Petari said abruptly.
“Wait,” Captain Rusk pleaded. “We contacted you in the hope that you might be able to assist us. We have been struck by a plague of unknown origin and my crew is dying. We hoped your doctors might be able to help us.”
Teo-da-tar-ri frowned. “This is a most unusual request, and not one I can grant without consultation with the Council and our healers.”
“If there is information we can provide that will help them make up their minds, we will do so gladly,” the captain promised. “Just tell us what you need to know.”
The sound stopped on the transmission as Teo-da-tar-ri spoke to someone not visible to those on the ship. When his voice began transmitting again, he said, “Send records of your travels over the past month as well as all medical records pertaining to this so-called plague. Our healers will look at them while the Council discusses your request. I will contact you again when we have reached a decision.” He signed off before the captain could reply.
At her side, Ryan murmured, “Let’s hope they talk fast or it won’t matter what they decide.”
“At least they’re willing to discuss it, Ry,” Pontil chimed in. “You know as well as I do that a lot of the species we’ve met wouldn’t have even considered it.”
“I know, Narshan,” Ryan retorted, “but a discussion like the one he mentioned could take weeks. You know what governments are like. The Altari government is as bad as the Earth government. And while they’re flapping their gums, we’re up here dying.”
“Gentlemen,” the captain interrupted calmly, “we can’t do anything to speed up their council meeting except give them the data they requested that will hopefully show the urgency of our problem. Mr. Pontil, get the ship’s travel log ready to send while I ask Dr. Shelton for the medical records. Let’s not make them wait for us.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Pontil replied, though he shot Ryan a cheeky grin as he carried out his orders.
Captain Rusk barely refrained from shaking her head. If her crew were not so damn good, she would have them all up on insubordination charges. Reminding herself that they had no time to lose, she used the ship’s intercom system to contact Dr. Shelton who promised to send her the records immediately.
“I have the medical records, Captain,” Pontil informed her.
“Then send them on to the planet,” she directed before turning to Dr. Stanovitch, the Chief Xenologist for the ship.
“Thoughts, Doctor?” she asked the tall albino. Like most of her race, the Regulosian had no pigment in her skin, an evolutionary trait developed from their subterranean existence.
“I only have a little to go on, of course,” the xenologist replied, “but they are technologically advanced enough to communicate with us through space and organized enough politically to have a governing council. That suggests we’re dealing with an advanced civilization that we would do well to approach as equals.” She knew the captain did not need to hear that caution, being one of the most open-minded explorers she had ever had the chance to work with, but it bore stating for the less open-minded crew. Not that any of them were currently on the bridge. Captain Rusk chose her officers for a variety of reasons, not purely for their skills. “As for the rest, only time and more contact will tell.”
Captain Rusk nodded. They were much the same conclusions she had reached herself, but it never hurt to have her thoughts confirmed by their resident expert. “Anyone else have any comments?”
They all shook their heads. Ryan might have added something had it been one of the other xenologists speaking, but he found it difficult even after all these months to look at Dr. Stanovitch, much less interact with her. Everything about her reminded him of Nikolai.
“Very well. Dismissed. Return to your quarters. I will call you when we hear back from the Petari.”
They all obeyed the order except Ryan, who lingered on the bridge after the others were gone.
“It’s just us now, Portia,” Ryan admonished. “Talk to me.”
“About what?” she asked. “How desperate the situation is? You’re as aware of that as I am. How scared I am that the Petari won’t be able to help us even if they agree? We’ve worked together too long for me to need to tell you that.”
“Hey,” he cajoled, “where’s my ever-optimistic captain?”
“In stasis with the ones we couldn’t save,” she replied sadly, the tears she refused to shed glittering on her lashes despite her determination not to show any weakness.
“Foolish woman,” Ryan scolded, setting aside all shipboard protocol and embracing her firmly. “Go ahead and cry so you’ll be done with it and can deal with whatever the Petari say. I did.”
Captain Rusk looked up at the strong face of the man who held her in disbelief. Ryan Nelson was the epitome of stoicism. The thought of him giving in to his emotions that way was almost beyond her. His clipped mustache twitched as he smiled down at her, making her laugh. “You’re having me on.”
“No, I’m not,” he promised, “but a laugh will do just as well, and I’m much better at dealing with those than with feminine tears.”
“Than feminine anything,” she retorted, knowing Ryan’s preferences ran to his own gender. In some ways, that made their jobs easier, with no sexual tension between them to muck up the works. She could admit, privately, that he was an attractive man, with his sculpted features, closely-trimmed dark hair, and surprisingly blue eyes, but she did not have to worry about his looks, or her own, interfering with their working relationship.
“Touché,” Ryan quipped. “Are you all right now?”
Captain Rusk nodded. “As well as I can be with people in the infirmary, probably dying as we speak, and only the barest possibility of hope from a planet whose people I know nothing about.”
“We’ll find a way through this, Portia,” Ryan insisted with a hope he was not sure he truly felt. “The Petari would have to be heartless to refuse us aid if it’s in their power to give it, and if it’s not, we’ll keep looking. This isn’t the only planet in the sector. We can’t give up hope.”
“I know,” she sighed.
“Get some rest,” Ryan suggested. “I don’t think you’ve slept since Corm got sick, and that’s been ten days ago. I don’t know why you don’t look like hell, but you won’t do us any good if you’re too tired to negotiate with the Petari when they call back.”
“If I lie down now, I won’t wake up for a week,” she protested.
“All the more reason for you to rest,” Ryan insisted. “I can handle them if you want me to.”
“I know you can,” she agreed, “but this is my responsibility. I will go rest, though, until they hail us again. I’ll be in my quarters.” She pulled from his loose embrace and headed toward the hatch that led to her cabin, turning back when she reached the door. “Do not fail to notify me, Mr. Nelson.”
“As you say, ma’am,” he replied, the very image of a responsible first officer again.
She gave him a curt nod and disappeared, leaving Ryan alone on the bridge. He settled in to wait, knowing it could be a long vigil.
******Several hours later, the beeping of an incoming signal roused Ryan from his light doze. Glancing at the comm pad and seeing the same signature as earlier, he buzzed the captain’s cabin. “Incoming signal from the Petari, ma’am,” he informed her, hope dancing along his nerves despite the uncertainty of what the decision would be. The Petari could still reject them and send them on to die alone in space if Dr. Shelton did not find a cure. He knew that, but his pulse sped up anyway.
“On my way,” she replied.
A minute later, she strode onto the bridge, her face its usual carefully composed mask. Ryan could see a hope to match his own, though, in her eyes. “Bring up the link.”
Ryan hit the button and stepped back, leaving the captain center stage. “Teo-ta-dar-ri,” she acknowledged with a short bow, her voice deliberately even.
“Captain Rusk,” the Petari leader replied, inclining his head. “We have considered your request and our healers tell us they can help you. They also stress that time is of the essence. The Council, however, still has some concerns about letting your ship land, possibly releasing this plague on our populace. Therefore, the Council has some stipulations. I will let you talk with the healer who will be coordinating the relief effort. He understands the limits placed by the Council.”
“Thank you, Teo-ta-dar-ri,” Captain Rusk replied emphatically, relief surging through her. She wanted to shout with excitement, jump up and down like a little kid on Christmas morning, hug her first mate and the rest of the crew besides, but she kept her face unchanged and her voice level. “We will do our best to comply with anything your healer or the Council requests. As you say, the situation has grown urgent.”
She gestured for Ryan to page the doctor to join the transmission. Moving softly out of the sight of the video feed, Ryan called the infirmary, getting Dr. Shelton almost immediately. “The Petari healer wants to talk to us,” he said quietly, his voice reflecting the joy he felt nonetheless. “They think they can help us.”
“Thank the gods,” Dr. Shelton breathed softly. “What do they want us to do?”
“I don’t know yet. The captain is waiting for the healer. She wanted you to listen in, too.”
“Captain Rusk? It is an honor to meet you.” The image on the screen changed, Teo-ta-dar-ri’s sour face replaced by one even more lined and careworn, but with a kind smile and a mischievous spark that Ryan immediately liked. He could not have explained it rationally, but while Teo-ta-dar-ri raised his hackles, he trusted this one instinctively.
“I am Pol-ta-dar-ri,” the man continued. “I understand you have contracted a case of Mardonese plague.”
“If that’s what it’s called, then yes,” the captain replied, returning the man’s smile without even realizing it.
“That is our name for it anyway,” Pol-ta-dar-ri agreed. “We can help you, but Petari medicine is unique as far as we know, and is not something we can simply give you. I won’t bore you with the details, though I will be glad to share it with your healer.”
“I’m here, Captain,” the doctor’s voice came through the system.
“Very good,” the captain said, stepping back and letting Dr. Shelton’s face replace hers on the video screen. “I will let you and your esteemed Petari colleague work out the details then.” As soon as she knew the Petari could not see her, she turned to Ryan, her grin wide. His smile matched hers as he crossed the room to her side, checking to make sure they were off-screen before pulling her into a bear hug and twirling her around. “Stop,” she whispered. “They’ll hear us.”
“Dr. Shelton, is it?” Pol-ta-dar-ri verified. “Given our methods and the limited resources the Council is currently willing to free up to assist you, we need to determine which of your patients should come to the surface first.”
“Is that necessary?” Dr. Shelton asked, concern clear in his voice. “Could you not simply send me the antidote?”
At the mention of people going to the planet’s surface, the captain’s face grew serious again as she mentally rejoined the conversation. She would not intervene unless something the two doctors discussed seemed dangerous in her opinion, but she wanted to be aware of the course of their negotiations.
“Ah, if only it were that simple, doctor,” the Petari healer sighed. “Unfortunately, we do not use serums and pills and the sort of antidotes that are common among other civilizations. Our healing is more… natural, and requires a personal touch. We can help you, rest assured, but only a few at a time. My preference would have been to have your ship land near the village where I live, but the Council is concerned about overtaxing the delicate balance of our medical system and so has insisted we bring only those patients we can treat at any one time. Once someone is cured, we can bring someone else.”
“It seems like an awfully slow system,” Dr. Shelton commented. Silently, Ryan agreed, but then, he freely admitted he knew nothing about medicine. If Pol-ta-dar-ri said this was the only way it could be handled, he would certainly not be arguing.
“By your standards, it undoubtedly is,” Pol-ta-dar-ri agreed, “but it is the only system we have and it works quite well for us. If you can send blood samples of the patients you are currently treating, I can determine which are the most urgent. Eventually, we will need to scan the entire crew to make sure there are not any latent cases remaining before you return to your explorations.”
“I have fifteen patients currently in the infirmary,” Dr. Shelton told the Petari. “I’ve done standard analyses on blood samples of the entire crew. Would you prefer I send those rather than the actual samples? It would be faster.”
Pol-ta-dar-ri nodded. “Transmit the data and I will look at them. If I need more information, I will contact you. As you say, it would be faster than if I had to redo work you have already done.”
They could hear beeping through the comm as Dr. Shelton worked. “They’re sent,” he told the Petari healer. “I flagged the crew currently in the infirmary showing symptoms.”
“Very good. It will take me an hour or two to evaluate them and determine which ten we will help first. I do wish we could bring them all, as I said before, but the Council is adamant. Does your ship have docking capacities, Captain?” the healer asked, turning his attention back to Rusk.
“It does,” Captain Rusk confirmed, her mind racing as she considered the situation. It seemed they had no choice but to transfer the stricken to the planet’s surface, but she had no intention of letting them go alone. Her place was aboard the Starfire, but she trusted Ryan to act in her stead.
“We will need to have a small shuttle dock with your vessel so we can bring the patients to the surface,” Pol-ta-dar-ri explained.
“That can be arranged,” she assured him. “I know we are in no position to make demands, but would it be possible for my first officer to accompany the patients? Most of them are quite ill and I would feel better knowing there is a familiar face with them while they’re receiving treatment.”
Ryan frowned when he heard the captain’s plan, but he could see her logic. It bothered him, though, that he would be taking a seat on the shuttle that could be filled by someone in need of treatment.
Pol-ta-dar-ri nodded. “I understand your concern perfectly, Captain. If you would be good enough to give me the name of your first officer, I will check the blood sample. If he is uninfected, he is welcome to come. Otherwise, we will have to insist it be someone else, as the Council has clearly stipulated no more than ten patients at a time.”
Captain Rusk gave Ryan’s name as Ryan relaxed. His presence would be in addition to those who were ill. In that case, he had no hesitations about accompanying them. He trusted Pol-ta-dar-ri, but that did not mean he wanted his friends completely alone on a strange planet.
“Very good, Captain,” the healer said. “Let me do my analyses and I will be back in contact within the hour. In the meantime, I have transmitted some recommendations to help slow the spread of the plague until we can work our way through your crew.”
“Thank you, Pol-ta-dar-ri. We’ve received the file and we’ll await your contact for the next step.”
“We will notify you as soon as we’re ready to proceed.”
The screen went blank and Captain Rusk sagged back against her seat in relief. “It’s going to be all right, Ryan,” she said softly, looking up at her first officer. “I finally believe it’s going to be all right.”
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