Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us
Print this Story

Issue 39
Stories
Foreign Bodies
by Melinda Brasher
Salt and Sand
by Kate O'Connor
Memory of Magic
by Jacob A. Boyd
Rapture Nation
by Jennifer Noelle Welch
The Other Bank of the River
by Camila Fernandes
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
All's fair in adaptation
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
A Passage in Earth
by Damien Broderick

Foreign Bodies
    by Melinda Brasher

Foreign Bodies
Artwork by Andres Mossa

Dustin staggered into the colony's biolab, eyes bloodshot. He slammed the door switch hard and watched until it slid shut. "You gotta give me something for this," he moaned, clutching his belly.

"Nauseated?" Elizabeth asked as she settled him onto the exam table.

His glare gave the answer.

"Did you eat something --"

"Not since last night. Can't stand the thought of it."

"And before that?"

"Obviously I ate. But nothing I haven't had before."

"No mushrooms or berries?"

"No."

"Alcohol?"

"Just a glass of Mirek's Ale. Two days ago."

"What about meat?"

His face contorted. She barely got him the trash bin before he heaved. Bile. He wiped his mouth and glared again.

"I can give you some anti-nausea medication, but --"

"Will that make him go away?" Dustin asked, his voice low, earnest.

"Him?"

Dustin lifted a shaking finger to point behind Elizabeth.

She looked over her shoulder at the empty lab. When she turned back to Dustin, his eyes were fixed on a spot at the base of one of her tables.

"Who are you talking about?" she asked gently.

"You can't see him, can you?"

"Who?"

"The wolf. He's crouching right there, growling." He fumbled for something in his belt. Steel glinted in the harsh white lights.

"Dustin, put the knife down."

He shook his head, eyes big with fear, a faint tremor in his words. "I know he's not real. Some sort of hallucination. But I can smell him. Like a wet dog, you know. So give me something -- some drug -- to make him go away."

"I will," Elizabeth promised, as she slowly moved to touch his arm, then his hand, then the fingers wrapped around the knife. "First, you need to let go."

He loosed his grip and she pulled the weapon away.

"Am I going mad?" he asked.

"You've probably got a fever. Put this under your tongue." She slid the thermometer into his mouth and waited.

"He's white," Dustin mumbled around the thermometer.

"Hold still."

"Red eyes. Teeth that hardly fit in his mouth. He's always the same."

The thermometer beeped. 38.2. A slight fever, inconsistent with sustained polymodal hallucinations.

"Have you interacted with it?"

"You mean, have I tried to pet him? Not likely."

"And it hasn't attacked you?"

"Not yet. But he bares his teeth a lot. And snaps. I can see every hair on him. He looks as real as you. When we ate those mushrooms last month I saw some pretty wild things, but nothing like this." His eyes moved slowly to one end of the lab, then back. Back. Forth.

Elizabeth couldn't help looking behind her again.

"He paces when I talk to my wife, too."

"Does she share any of your symptoms?"

"Says she's a little nauseated, but watching me puke all day -- it's enough to turn anyone's stomach. And no, she doesn't see him."

"I need to do some tests. If we went into the back room, would that keep the wolf out?"

"Don't patronize me."

"I'm not. I believe he's very real to you. The brain is a powerful organ. But the tests would be better if you were relaxed."

He nodded. "Just don't make any sudden movements."

Dustin, sedated now, lay on the exam table in the back room, breathing slowly, an IV in his arm.

Elizabeth studied the results of the test panel. Increased brain activity. Elevated levels of adrenalin. Lowered blood pressure. Anomalous proteins in the blood. No evidence of any of the primary hallucination-producing diseases. No drugs in his system. The computer had no diagnosis.

"Hypothesize," she ordered it.

A long list of possibilities appeared. Halfway down, Elizabeth tapped her finger on the confirmation of her own best guess. Unknown Venom.

She set the bioanalyzer on an envenomation cycle. Ten minutes to wait.

Opening the medical database, she typed "antivenom synthesis," and wished for the thousandth time that she'd taken her second degree in medicine, instead of botany. Maybe then she'd feel more prepared to be the colony's only doctor. Back on Earth, her medic training had lasted a mere six weeks. She'd been so busy with her latest paper on the growth and adaptation of microbiota in prolonged weightlessness that she'd tuned out during some of the more tedious training. After all, she was just supposed to be a medic. How was she to know that all the colony's real doctors would die in the accident before they even arrived?

She had little idea how to synthesize antivenom, and wasn't sure the twenty-thousand-word database entry would be enough. But maybe it wasn't venom. Or maybe Dustin could just ride out the storm. After all, he'd been sick for hours. Most deadly Earth venoms would already have killed him.

The door buzzed and Gary stumbled in, dragging Mirek with him. "Found him shooting into the air ten feet from his module," he explained to Elizabeth. His voice changed, as he addressed Mirek in the tone some people reserved for children. "You can not go shooting that close to the colony, hear? And certainly not while drunk. I'm revoking your gun rights until further notice."

"Not drunk," Mirek mumbled, though his stumble seemed to indicate otherwise.

Gary turned his ruddy face on Elizabeth. "I thought you might be able to sober him up a little."

"I'm working on something important," Elizabeth said, grabbing a beaker away from Mirek's flailing arm.

"He's really out of it," Gary insisted. "Swinging that gun all around, raving about grizzlies."

Elizabeth nearly crushed the beaker in her hand. "About what?"

"Grizzlies. North American bears. Went extinct --"

"I know what grizzlies are." She grabbed Mirek's arm and peered into his bleary eyes. "Mirek, has a grizzly bear been following you?"

"Yes," he said in relief.

"Are you nauseated?"

He nodded, then slouched to the ground, laying his head on the seat of a nearby chair.

Not venom, then. Something infectious. "Gary, has he been in contact with anyone else today?"

"How should I know?"

"Set up a quarantine. Immediately. Keep everyone separate. Have them call me on the com if they feel sick or if they start seeing things."

Gary backed away from them both, wiping his hands on his pants. "What is it?"

"I don't know yet. You'll set up the quarantine for me?"

"Yes."

"But you may be exposed. Do it by com, not in person."

Gary's face blanched, leaving red blotches on his cheeks.

"Go."

The bioanalyzer chimed, over on the very table at which Dustin's wolf had crouched.

Probability of envenomation, the screen read, 93.6%. Venom unknown. Then followed three screens of analysis that hardly made sense. Ninety-four percent? The computer was rarely so committal. But venom? With more than one victim?

"Mirek." She shook him gently. He startled awake, his eyes scanning the room in fear, but the bright lights left nothing to the imagination -- nowhere for a three-meter bear to hide. "Mirek, listen. Have you been anywhere outside the settlement with Dustin the last few days?"

He shook his head.

"Have you been bitten by anything?"

"Just the damned bear." He held out his arm. "But you can't see the marks. I can't feel them either, anymore. But it bit me. I swear. And his claws . . ."

"I believe you."

"At least someone does."

"What about insects? Have you had any itching? Unexplained pain? Discolored spots on your skin?'

"Not that I know of."

"I'm going to do a couple tests. Then I'll give you something to make you feel better."

"Is the door locked? The grizzly can work the panels. It'll get in if you don't secure it with your passcode.

"The door's locked," she assured him.

He nodded, then let her ply him with needles.

While the computer worked, Elizabeth picked up the com and punched in Holly's code. She was the closest thing to a colleague Elizabeth had, even though her degree in genetics had served mostly for agricultural engineering. Since landing, she hadn't shown much interest in medicine, despite the cross-training program.

"What's this about you declaring quarantine?" Holly asked over the com.

Elizabeth explained.

"I knew it would happen one day," Holly said. "But they kept assuring us that the immunologists and pathologists would stay one step ahead of it. Now they'll all expect you and me to be able to handle this."

Elizabeth wondered if it had been a mistake to call. "We will handle it. I'm going to send you some results. See if you find anything I missed."

"Fine. Hey, I guess this fun couldn't last forever." Then the signal cut off.

Elizabeth sighed and hovered over the bioanalyzer until the computer chimed and spit out Mirek's results. Probability of envenomation: 93.6%. Venom unknown. Match to previous sample: 98.5%. Probability of contagion: unable to calculate.

Useless computer. Venom itself obviously wasn't contagious, but the computer must think it more complicated than that. Perhaps this New Eden venom triggered some latent malady that was contagious. Maybe such a slow-moving venom transferred somehow through human contact.

"Import files NEB1 to NEB582. Recalculate all parameters."

Inadvisable, the computer answered. Unacceptable number of unknowns.

"Don't I know," she muttered. "Calculate anyway."

She'd finished NEB582 just the day before: a report no one might ever read on a carnivorous web-spinning butterfly one of the girls had caught and brought to her. Five hundred eighty-two plants and animals she'd catalogued. Not just sub-species and variations. Distinct species. More than any scientist back home. It was an honor. A whole new world open to her. She loved it. But sometimes the enormity of the task overwhelmed her. The enormity of many things.

The computer beeped. Probability of contagion: 5.1 to 61.8%

Edwin answered the com immediately. "So I guess our dinner plans are off?" he asked. "You okay?"

Five hours had passed since Dustin dragged in. Jasmine -- Dustin's wife -- had just shown up at the lab, breaking quarantine, practically breaking down the door, a hallucinated cobra hot on her heels. She kept insisting that it was coiled around some part of her body, ready to strike. Elizabeth had sedated her, but not before Jasmine gouged her own leg with desperate fingernails, trying to dislodge the imaginary snake. Blanca had called, tearful, to report that she'd been unable to keep anything down since lunch. Dustin's blood pressure had sunk dangerously low.

They'd ruled out most known bacterial and viral causes. The unknowns were, of course, a looming possibility, but the more she looked at the tests, the more she suspected venom -- some aggressive vermin that had just found its way into the settlement.

She'd read everything she had about antivenoms, and concluded that without any expertise in the field, without special equipment, the only way she'd be able to produce it was to find one of the actual creatures, milk its venom, incorporate it into some unlucky livestock, then harvest the subsequent antibodies. None of those steps would be as easy as they sounded.

The sun had long set and Elizabeth's eyes burned with fatigue.

"Elizabeth, you okay?" Edwin repeated.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she replied. "I just wanted to hear your voice. Please tell me you're not nauseated or seeing visions of wild animals."

"No. Just stir-crazy. Gary actually locked us in, after Jasmine broke quarantine."

"It's best. Until we find out what we're up against."

"Don't you think it's possible they all got bit by the same thing and that it's not contagious at all?"

"Of course I think that's possible."

"Then shouldn't we all be out looking for whatever bit them?"

"Yes. But I still have no idea if we're looking for a three-meter snake or a speck of a flea"

"Well, I think they'd remember a three-meter snake. I could start at their modules, since they haven't been anywhere outside the settlement together. It's probably something small. Something no one's noticed. I could set out insect collectors."

She didn't want Edwin out looking for something that was probably looking for him. "It might get you, too."

"We have hazmat suits. It's kinda overkill, but it might work."

He sounded so calm. So reasonable. So brave. "I love you," she whispered.

Silence.

She pinched her lip, preferring the pain to the humiliation. He wasn't going to say it back. She knew that. She'd known it ever since the day after he agreed to marry her. Once the blush of happiness wore off, she realized that he didn't love her. They were friends. And if Earth abandoned the colonization project and left them stranded here, he'd rather partner with her than Sabine, his only other choice. Not exactly the stuff of love songs. He didn't love her now, but she'd told herself to be patient. Not to press him. Eventually he'd come around. Now she'd uttered those taboo words.

"I'm sorry," she said into the com. "I'm just tired. If you're willing, look for signs of animals or insects new to the area. Be careful. Wear the suits. And take someone with you."

"I will. If I can get Gary to unlock my cell." He laughed, but even over the com it sounded forced. "Listen, you'll figure this out. But take care of yourself too. After all, you owe me a dinner."

Dinner. She was so hungry she felt queasy. After she clicked off the com, she opened a packet of unpleasant-tasting crackers and sat down to work, as half her brain played and replayed the exchange with Edwin.

Blanca's terror took the form of a jaguar. Black as deep space, she described it. With a smell of rotten meat. The thoughts of that turned Elizabeth's stomach.

She'd already begun various neural treatments. One of the blocker combos had temporarily transformed Dustin's wolf into a tail-wagging puppy, but temporarily wasn't good enough. He and Mirek suffered dizzy spells, even while lying in bed, even without wolves pacing back and forth at the foot of their beds, or bears rearing up to their full fearsome height. If she didn't get their blood pressure up, their organs might eventually start shutting down. She'd started them on antibiotics, just in case they were barking up the completely wrong tree, and treated their symptoms as best she could.

Then, while hunting through the database for an article she remembered on homeopathic toxin cleanses, a wave of nausea she'd been trying to ignore hit full force. She barely made it to the bathroom.

Holly came in after her. "What am I supposed to do alone?"

"I'm not dead yet," Elizabeth answered, as she tried not to imagine all the animals that frightened her.

Half an hour later, as she was emptying another blocker combo into Mirek's IV bag, someone screamed from the back room, where they'd set up Dustin and Jasmine on adjacent cots.

Elizabeth moved too quickly. Her stomach flipped and she lost the rest of its contents into the waste basket she'd been carrying around under her arm. By the time she reached the back room, the screams had become less terrified and more indignant. Holly stood, wielding a broom like a baseball bat over her shoulder, looking around.

"Get it off me!" Jasmine screamed, reaching, apparently, for the invisible cobra around her belly.

"It's gone," Dustin kept repeating. "Baby, it's gone."

"You're not seeing her snake now, are you?" Elizabeth asked Holly, who still hadn't lowered the broom.

Holly shook her head.

"Look," Jasmine screamed, lifting her shirt. For a moment, Elizabeth didn't see the blood against the black skin of her stomach. "He sunk his horrible teeth right into me. Get it off!"

Elizabeth stumbled, dizzy, over to the cot. She knelt down -- stooping would only make her fall -- and examined Jasmine's stomach. Bite marks, it looked like. Real bite marks. They were all going crazy.

Holly stood behind her. "It was a rat. Nasty creature. Bulgy eyes. Needley teeth." She shuddered. "Gnawing into her."

It was Dustin who retched this time. Elizabeth barely held herself together. Her head spun. A rat. Earth rats didn't generally attack healthy people. But what if a New Eden rat made its victim unhealthy?

"Where did it go?" she demanded.

"I don't know. Over there somewhere." Holly pointed to a standing cabinet. "It was so fast."

"We have to find it." Elizabeth pushed herself up and ran to the nearest console, punching in the code to lock the doors and windows.

"You think . . ." Holly trailed off.

"Yes. I think it's our culprit. I need it to make the antivenom."

"Rats don't make venom."

"Maybe they do here." She punched Edwin's code on the com. "Found anything?"

"Just caught you a spidery thing."

"What about rats?"

"No. But we've seen droppings. Could be rodent."

"We have one loose in the lab. That's what we're looking for."

"I'll be right there."

"No." She didn't want him to see her like this, wobbly and baggy-eyed and smelling of a sickroom. "No. Keep looking there. I might need more than one."

"Sure."

"Thanks." Elizabeth disconnected, then grabbed a test swab and ran it all around Jasmine's wound. She took a quick spot biopsy and a blood test for good measure. Then she doused it with antiseptic and threw on a bandage. "Hold that in place," she ordered Jasmine. "So how do you catch rats on the farm?" she asked Holly.

"You get a cat. If you're on Earth."

"We're not on Earth. I need gloves."

"You're not seriously going to try catching it by hand? You didn't see how fast it was. Almost like it disappeared and reappeared over by the wall. And it'll bite through gloves." Holly seemed to be standing on a diagonal, so slanted she might fall.

But no. It was Elizabeth who was tilted. "You go flush him out. I'll catch him."

"Sure. And then I'll build us a ship to fly back home." She pulled out her com. "Nathan?" she said, when her husband answered. "Gather up all our pest traps . . . no . . . we need them here. Right now . . . yeah . . . and bring bait."

Elizabeth crept up to the cabinet where the rat specimen had disappeared and pressed her head against the wall, trying to see in to the space between the wall and the furniture.

A slight scraping noise caught her attention, and Elizabeth swung around, bashing right into someone who'd been standing directly behind her.

For more than a year she'd seen the same twenty-four people, day in and day out. Their faces had become tiresomely familiar. But now she screamed as she stared into the raven-black eyes of a man she'd never met. His lip curled as he raised a pistol right at her chest, so close she could feel the pressure of the barrel against her skin.

She scrambled away from the intruder, tripped into Jasmine's cot, and sprawled right across her.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

The man smiled cruelly, extended his gun arm straight out, and sighted along the barrel. "Does it matter who I am? You have five seconds to run."

"What do you want?" she asked, her whole body quaking.

"I want you to get off me," Jasmine groaned from beneath her. "You're crushing me."

Elizabeth staggered to her feet, keeping herself between Jasmine and the gunman. He had eyes so black they swallowed his pupils. A tattoo of a snake on one temple. Had he come on a ship? One that had landed covertly out of range on the opposite side of the planet? Or had he been hiding among them all these months? "Whoever you are, whatever you're here for," she begged, "there's no need for the gun."

"Elizabeth?" Dustin's voice faltered. "Who are you talking to?"

All the breath fled from her lungs. She rubbed her eyes. The man stood still, smirking at her. "Over there, by the cabinet," she said. "You don't see anyone?"

"No one's here but us," Dustin said.

She'd hallucinated a man.

He wore all black, with silver buttons on his shirt. Gel slicked down his hair. The recently-fired smell of the gun hung on him like cologne. No way she could have imagined something so detailed.

"Great," Holly said. "I hoped you'd figure it out before it came to this. Now we're in for it."

The man with the gun shifted it slightly to rest on Holly.

"Shh," Elizabeth hissed.

Holly sighed. "Maybe you should lie down for a bit. Nathan and I will trap the rat."

"He's not real," Elizabeth said aloud. "He's not real." But all she wanted to do was run.

"I'm very real," he responded. She felt the shot before she heard it, a tearing pain in her chest. She gasped for air and pressed her hands to her heart. Everything around her went black.

She blinked awake and lay staring at the cold white ceiling of the biolab. For a moment she couldn't remember anything. Then with a rush it all came back. She pushed herself up in the cot. "Is everyone okay?" The gunman was gone. Dustin, Jasmine, Mirek, and Blanca all lay in cots crammed together in the front room of the biolab.

"Shhh," whispered Holly.

The ragged pain of her gunshot was gone, but the memory dangled before her eyes. She fumbled with her shirt, pushing it away to see the wound. Nothing. She unbuttoned the top. Nothing.

"He shot me," she said to whoever would listen. She had to find confirmation.

It was Holly who responded, again in a whisper. "No he didn't. He didn't shoot you, because he's only in your mind. Now be quiet. We just set the traps in the other room."

Traps. Yes. They'd trap the rat and she'd produce the antivenom. And then everything would go back to normal.

"Dustin's having a hard time breathing," Holly said. "I put him on oxygen, but it's not working that well. What should I give him?"

Elizabeth stood up and made her way to Dustin's bed. "Give him a mild pulmonary stimulant, but watch him. If it gets worse, we'll have to put him on the ventilator." She prayed it wouldn't get worse. If the toxin caused lung paralysis, she had no idea what to do. "We need to get the rat."

"And then magically produce an antivenom soon enough to do any good? I thought it took weeks."

"With the Liang immuno-accelerator method, it shouldn't take more than twelve hours to get the first viable antibodies, which should be good enough to halt the damage until we can produce a full strength antivenom. We just need to keep everyone alive until then."

"Oh, is that all?"

"Can we inject a couple of your drabs?" Elizabeth asked. They hadn't yet domesticated any big livestock. A wild animal would be too hard to handle. That left the drabs -- species 27 in her catalogue. Ugly gray birds who acted like lazy chickens. "It might take a few. I've never done this before." And the Liang method would eventually kill them. A nobler death, at least, than the frying pan.

"I suppose we don't have much choice."

"No choice," echoed a voice behind her. She whirled on the raven-eyed man. "No choice but to run," he said, pointing his pistol at her again.

"Get out of my head!" she screamed as she pushed away his gun and stormed out into the fresh night air, telling herself she wasn't running away.

"Elizabeth?" Edwin stood across the way, near Dustin's module, the headpiece of his hazmat suit held under his arm.

Only then did she realize she was still cursing the gunman, rather loudly. She bit down on her lip, but Edwin was already running toward her.

"What's wrong?" he asked when he reached her.

"What's wrong is that your boyfriend's going to die," the voice behind her taunted.

She heard the shot, smelled the blood, and closed her eyes. It's only an illusion. Only an illusion. When she opened her eyes, there stood Edwin, frowning. The gunman had disappeared into the night.

Two hours and still the traps hadn't caught the rat. Dustin's labored breathing reminded her that soon even the ventilator might not be enough. For a while she'd feared that maybe the rat had escaped, but heat sensors picked him out in the back room, far brighter than he should be for so small an animal. They couldn't gas the whole module, for fear of overdosing the rat. She had to do something. But the gunman leaned against the opposite wall, casually sharpening a knife, and she found it hard to think.

Edwin stepped deliberately between her and the gunman, blocking out her view.

"You don't have to stay here," she whispered.

"I know."

She tried to smile. It was much easier with him blocking out all but the sound of the knife on the whetstone.

Then it dawned on her. "What kind of bait did you use?" she asked Holly.

"BX14."

"That has synthesized protein, right?" She scrambled for a scalpel. "Let's give him what he really wants." She grabbed some topical anesthetic cream, pulled up her pant leg, and rubbed it into the skin of her thigh. Then she positioned the scalpel.

Edwin's hand caught hers. "What are you doing?"

"Tempting it."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"It wants our flesh, apparently. Jasmine tasted pretty good."

"That's disgusting," Jasmine wheezed from her cot. The results of the tests around her bite had shown no evidence of venom. Only blood. So the rat could choose when to inject. This would be a fascinating report. If she ever got the chance to write it.

Edwin pried the scalpel out of her hand. "You might be right about the bait. But let's use a drab."

"I don't like drabchicken. What makes you think the rat will?"

"If it doesn't, I'll be the bait. You just be the doctor."

She nodded, throat tight.

The drabchicken bait worked.

The rat-thing was fast, banging against one side of the trap and then the other, without seeming to actually cross the distance between. She couldn't get a good look at it, but what she saw were flashes of eyes like a lemur and lots of sharp bits: teeth, claws, tail. Elizabeth put on her gloves.

"Better to just leave the whole project behind and get away while you can," the gunman whispered in her ear.

She jerked away from him, but refused to look at where his illusion stood. Her hands trembled, so she grabbed the table with all her strength and held on until the storm of adrenalin dissipated enough for her to remember what she was doing. The rat. She had to focus on him.

They assumed the creature would eventually tire out. Not so. She rigged a tranquilizer and broke three needles before getting a syringeful into the rat. When the creature finally slowed, she reached in and grabbed it, one hand behind its head to prevent him from biting her, one on its hairy body. A thick coat, soft as a mink's, thin teeth, nothing fanglike. She swabbed the mouth. No identifiable venom. No obvious venom sacs. Before she could ask Holly to set up a microscan, something crawled out of the rat's forest of fur and onto her glove. On instinct she moved to swat it away, but stopped herself just in time. Polished yellow-brown thorax, hardly more than a centimeter long. Whiplike tail longer than its body. Wicked stinger. Thin pincers -- four of them -- twirling tentatively against her glove.

"Can anyone else see this?" she asked.

Edwin leaned forward. "Ugly critter."

So it was real. "Get me a jar, a beaker, something," she motioned urgently with her free hand.

Edwin and Holly both proffered beakers. She scooped up the specimen and covered the top with her glove.

She counted the legs. Eight. "Arachnids have venom," she declared.

Edwin nodded. "He certainly looks the villain."

Elizabeth laughed for no reason she could name.

The milking wasn't so bad after all. Tiny electrical pulses got the venom dripping in no time. She diluted it, checking the database at least five times to make sure the concentration was right, while the gunman paced near the door, blocking their escape.

The first drab they injected pressed herself against the bars of its cage, squawking in panic, pecking at the metal that held her in.

"Calm down, honey," soothed Holly, to no avail.

She pecked and pecked and beat her tiny wings against the air, then clucked three times, beak up to the sky, and dropped dead.

Holly petted the ugly gray head and sniffled as Elizabeth diluted the venom even more. There could hardly be any left in the solution. On the second drab, she picked her spot more carefully, nearer what she hoped was the main concentration of lymphatic tissue in this species. It took longer: nearly ten minutes of nail-biting normality before the drab began squawking pitifully and tucking itself into the corner.

"Do you really think driving my chickens insane is necessary?" Holly asked, brow furrowed.

"Yes."

This one didn't die. Her breathing accelerated. Her thrashing woke everyone but Dustin. Eventually the drab fell into an exhausted heap and whined like no bird Elizabeth had ever heard. They injected a third, just in case something went wrong. Elizabeth sank into the nearest chair. "We'll dilute it again and give them another injection in a few hours."

"You should get some sleep before then," Edwin told her.

"Yes," hissed the gunman. "Sleep. Innocent, helpless sleep." He leaned toward her, his now-sharpened knife glistening. She jerked away, knocking over the chair as she rose, stumbling against one of the tables. Something shattered behind her. The urge to run turned to a crushing pain in her lungs as she tried to smother it.

"If I stay here and fend him off," Edwin asked, "will you be able to sleep?"

"You can't fend him off," she snapped. "He's in my mind."

"Then put me in there with him."

If only he knew how much time he already spent in her mind.

She woke with an oxygen mask strapped uncomfortably over her mouth. Edwin stood above her. "Holly needs your help," he said, somewhat sheepishly. "She administered the second dose. Nearly gave the poor drabs a heart attack. She wants you to do the third."

This dose, smaller than the others, had little effect. The immuno-accelerators appeared to be doing their job.

"This might actually work," Holly declared. "I didn't think it would."

"Thanks for your confidence," Elizabeth grumbled as she checked Dustin and Mirek, both on the ventilator now, but stable.

"Oh, and I found that." Holly pointed at another beaker near the empty trap. "I shaved the rat, to make sure he wasn't carrying any other pests. He was. I transferred the rat to an aquarium, just in case there's more."

Elizabeth edged dizzily over to the small beaker. Another arachnid: same brownish-yellow legs, only two pairs of pincers, and a body swollen round with . . . blood? She put the whole beaker under the viewer and magnified, then magnified again until the tiny mouthparts clarified themselves. Right at the center protruded a serrated hypostome. Perfect for digging into skin and not letting go. Perfect for sucking blood from its unwitting host. Perfect and hideous and beautiful. Tears of wonder clouded her vision.

"What's wrong now?" Holly asked, leaning over her shoulder.

"Nothing," Elizabeth replied. And for the moment, nothing was.

"Wouldn't it be wiser to sleep?" Edwin cajoled. "You have a few hours until you can extract."

"No, no." Elizabeth pulled off the tangled oxygen mask, the cord of which kept wrapping around her as she moved. Without it, her words wheezed, but she didn't care. "If I'm right, the males and females show distinct anatomical forms. The males are the ones with the venom."

"The scorpion-looking one," Edwin clarified.

"Yes. But scorpions are predators. These . . . they're more like parasites. But predatory." She wasn't sure she was explaining this well. She could hardly distinguish between what she was saying and what she was just thinking. "The females are hematophagous. Like . . . like ticks."

"Yes," Edwin said gently. Probably just trying to pacify her. "Maybe the oxygen mask would be more useful if you put it on."

"It's amazing. Look," she beckoned. He sighed and put his face down into the viewer, where the blood-fattened arachnid lay full and passive. "See that dorsal tubule?"

"Tiny thing?"

"Yeah. I think it's a feeding tube."

Edwin rubbed his arms as if to slough off imaginary vermin. "You think she has a million babies around here somewhere?"

"Haven't found any. I think it's for her mate. Offspring too, probably. Here's my hypothesis: the females suck blood from the host, and then feed it to the males. Like some nineteenth century woman doing all the cooking." She laughed, robbing herself of what little air she had. She gasped and put the oxygen mask back to her face.

Edwin frowned at her.

"I've rarely seen males and females with such distinct forms. It's possible they're two different species, but I don't think so."

"And maybe when this is all over, you can do some proper research," Edwin said. "But now you need to rest."

"No. It's better this way." How could she explain this rush of dizzy energy she'd twisted from the heart-pounding fear? Adrenalin: the wonder drug.

"The venom attacks the fear centers of the brain," she said, flipping Dustin's brain scan at him, then her own. "It stimulates the fight or flight instinct. Even in our non-native brains. This is huge. Whole xenobiological theories hinge on this. Interplanetary species interactions is a mostly undiscovered field. And this . . . this is amazing. Their venom acted on the drabs much the same way it did on us."

"Think the drabs saw visions of wild foxes?"

"You laugh, but I bet they did. They were clearly frightened. It's brilliant. Look at these figures." She pointed to the screen with fingers jittery from all the hormones rushing through her. "These are their calorie consumption rates at rest."

Edwin whistled. As an engineer, he didn't have much biological background, but he had a scientific mind. "Wow."

"Yeah. They'd need a nearly constant source of blood to sustain themselves. But their venom kills, destroying any source of blood they find. So they latch onto a healthy host." She gestured to the naked mink-rat, sleeping now, its little feet twitching even in slumber. "A host whose blood they can suck at leisure, and whose own crazy metabolism would demand a lot of food and fast-replicating blood cells. Then these little critters help the rat hunt."

"So, our arachnid friend ventures out and stings the potential prey, then returns to his rat?" Edwin asked, almost excitedly. "And when the toxins begin working, the prey runs itself to exhaustion, while the rat gives easy chase?"

"And then has a nice long feast. Perhaps over several days."

Edwin shuddered. "Great way to die."

"Meanwhile, our arachnid friends are feasting on this ever-replenishing blood supply." Tears flooded her eyes. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"Well," Edwin faltered. "I'm not sure that's the word I'd use."

They extracted blood from the drab exactly twelve hours after they began the process.

Elizabeth was seeing double now: dizzying rows of test tubes where she knew there to be only three, Edwin with four arms akimbo, two gunmen growling in impatience, two fingers on two guns. The pincer-waving arachnids in her viewer disappeared and reappeared among the sheets of blackness that rippled in front of her eyes. She kept dropping things. Her thoughts ran circles around themselves. But between her and Holly, they isolated the antibodies and formulated the antivenom.

"Here goes nothing," Holly said as she inserted the syringe of untested antivenom into Dustin's arm.

Within half an hour his breathing began to improve. They injected Mirek and Jasmine. Blood pressures began climbing slowly toward normal. No sign of adverse reaction. Until a heart monitor screamed. She whirled, dizzy, toward the sound. There stood her gunman, pulling a bloody knife out of Mirek's chest. He flashed his dark smile and slashed at the tubes of the ventilator, leaving bloody gashes in the hose.

"You're not real!" she screamed.

"Tell that to your patient," the gunman replied.

"Elizabeth!" Holly's voice broke in past the horror. "This is real. Mirek's in arrest."

"No. It can't be." The figures on the screen danced before her eyes. Not arrest. Not quite. But dangerously close. She fumbled with the cardiostim calculations. "Is there a knife wound in his chest?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Is there? Just answer."

"No."

"Hook up the electrodes."

Something crashed behind her. The gunman had a baseball bat. He'd swung it across one of her lab tables, smashing her vials of antivenom into oblivion, knocking her precious moleculizer to the floor. She adjusted Mirek's electrostim controls and pushed to activate.

"Seventy percent normal," Holly reported after a few moments.

"Stay here. If his stats don't keep improving, do it again." Then she turned around. The gunman swung his bat at the wall screen, cracking its surface into a spiderweb of lines. "Get out of here!" Elizabeth yelled, ducking her head and charging him. She rammed him with her shoulder, knocking them both against the drug cabinet.

A crushing pain in her side stole her breath away. From somewhere in the hazy border of reality and illusion she heard her name, but she wasn't about to stop. She sunk her feet into the floor to steady herself, then punched the gunman right in the face. He grunted. Up went the bat. One swing would crush her skull. She grabbed his arms and let her entire weight fall straight down, pulling him with her. The bat thundered across the floor, out of reach. She took both fists to him now, pounding anywhere she could reach, shouting insults in language she didn't know she had, lungs about to explode. He climbed to his feet, moaning, and lurched toward the door.

"Go," she called as he slinked away. "Never show your face here again!"

The door hissed shut behind him. The world turned red, then faded into black.

The gentle arms of darkness began to loosen their grip. Voices, muffled. An impression of movement, somewhere to her side. She forced one eye to unglue itself. Then the other. Swirls of white and black slowly settled into the familiar patterns of the biolab.

"Elizabeth?" She turned her head toward the sound. There sat Edwin, a datapad dangling from his hand. "How do you feel?"

Awful. However, she wasn't about to admit it in front of her imaginary nemesis. She slowly scanned the room, but his tattooed eyebrow and silver gun were nowhere to be seen.

"Here." Edwin held a cup of water toward her.

She lifted a leaden hand, clumsily grabbed the cup, and drank until she was out of breath. "Where are the others?"

"They're still out there." He indicated the other room. "Except Mirek."

"What happened to him?" The world spun.

"Nothing. Says he wants to walk it off."

"Then it worked? The antivenom?"

Edwin nodded. "You're brilliant." Then he grinned. "And quite the boxer."

"So I really attacked a hallucination?" she groaned. "I thought maybe that was a dream."

"Quite real." He paused. "Well, at least your part was real."

"He felt so solid. I could write an entire article about it: "Tactile Hallucinations and the Power of the Human Brain."

"I'm sure you could. All I know is that your fist would fly, and then it would just stop, as if it had hit something good and hard. Remind me never to make you mad."

She scowled. "He stabbed Mirek and slashed his ventilator tube. Then he started smashing things. My poor moleculizer. Hey, it's not funny!"

"No." Edwin's face twisted with the effort not to laugh. "But I don't think he's going to bother you again, not after the beating you gave him."

"You're mocking me," she accused, but it didn't feel like mockery. She looked around again, warily. "How long have I been unconscious?"

"Nearly two days."

"What?"

"Holly harvested more antibodies last night -- a hardier batch this time. We made the second dose of antivenom ourselves, imitating what you'd done. Within hours, Mirek was up and restless. They're all much better now than two days ago."

"Two days?" She tried to sit up.

Edwin grabbed her by the shoulders and held her down.

"The arachnids," she pleaded. "They'll die without new blood."

Edwin grinned. "A nasty venom puts you out for two days, you get in a fist fight with a hallucination, and that's what worries you? The well-being of your poisoners?"

"I want to study them."

"Of course you do."

She tried to push his hands away so she could get up.

"That's why I put them back together with the rat," Edwin said. "And we've been feeding the whole mess an army's worth of game."

"You did that?"

He nodded.

"Just so I could study them?"

He shrugged. "The more we know about the local vermin, the better."

"It's going to be a ground-breaking report," she promised. She could almost see the words forming before her. She'd write about how their first human prey hadn't behaved quite as the creatures expected. Hadn't given over to fear. Hadn't run themselves to death So they'd had to sting another victim. Then another. How many would it have taken before they realized the flaw in their strategy and moved on to some other hapless animal? It was almost a shame they caught them so soon.

She'd do studies of the drabs' brains, to analyze how the neurotoxins affected species from different worlds. She might allow the arachnids to sting a bigger native mammal, then study that. She'd detail the consistency of the hallucinations, and the individualized manner of manifestation. She'd coin a term for this ingenious collaborative hunting system. The avenues of exploration stretched temptingly out before her.

If only she could share it all with her colleagues back home. The debates it would prompt! The world's best minds, coming together in that frenzy of academic excitement she missed so much.

"A fascinating report." She couldn't keep the mourning out of her voice. Earth felt very far away. "But what if no one ever reads it?"

"I will," Edwin said. "Every word." Then he bent down. His lips brushed her forehead for a moment. Nothing more. But the memory of home faded away, into the now-familiar white walls of the biolab -- her biolab -- and the face of a man who had saved a deadly, venomous, New Eden scorpion just for her.


Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2021 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com