Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

    by Jakob Drud

Artwork by Anna Repp

Jake Durow tucked Malia into her bunk in the cabin annex on the Bruma colony transport. He had his rituals to make her feel safe, and Jake dutifully went through the motions of kissing her on each cheek and turning the screen in the annex to a view of Lightspace.

The interstellar medium that the gigantic Bruma ship had entered after leaving Earth gave off a blissful glow, and it was perfect for lighting a child's sleeping chamber. After another quick kiss goodnight, he touch-closed the fleshy wall so a stripe of light from the main cabin fell on the foot of her bunk.

He found Andrea waiting for him and gave her a lingering kiss. She was three months pregnant and all kinds of beautiful. In a population of three hundred thousand colonists there would be many, many pregnancies. Life was so much more precious than any of the farm equipment or soil tenderizers or space elevator cables bound for Blue Two. But of all the future lives he would see, Jake felt the one Andrea carried was by far the most important.

"Da-aa-ad!" Malia called. "It tickles."

Andrea reluctantly broke free of Jake's embrace and opened the wall again.

"What tickles?" she asked.

"My tummy."

"I'm sure it does, honey," Andrea said. "But not as much as I'll tickle you."

"No!" Malia shrieked, but when Andrea started tickling, Malia's mock panic changed to giggling.

"Mom, it really tickles," she said when she'd caught her breath.

Jake joined them, but when he bent in to look at her stomach, all he could see was a tiny pinprick. It was barely even red. Malia would probably forget about it overnight, but like all five-year-olds she knew how to complain. Still, Jake felt tension seep into his solar plexus. Parental anxiety, of course, but he wondered what on the ship could have stung her. The Bruma aliens had inspected everything: every cubic centimeter of cargo, every square inch of skin on their human passengers. There were air filters everywhere, and the space ship's fleshy floor sucked up dirt, waste, and fluids. It would have caught a bug as well.

He shouldn't worry, and he shouldn't fuzz about an itch at bedtime, or Malia would use it as an excuse to stay awake. But he did sit down and let his fingers run over the pinprick, prodding, feeling the skin and the soft stomach underneath.

"Andrea," he said, keeping his voice low so Malia wouldn't hear. "I think there's some kind of lump here."

Andrea sat down on the bed next to him and caressed Malia's stomach.

"There's swelling, but it just looks like a bug bite."

"I'm calling the clinic." He knew what he had felt and a kid of five wasn't supposed to have a lump anywhere.

"Jake, don't fret," Andrea said, but he told the wall com to connect to the clinic anyway.

"She's got some kind of insect sting," Jake explained to the nurse on call. "And beneath that, some kind of lump."

"Okay." The nurse's voice was professional. "Come by tomorrow if the swelling's not gone down."

"No," Jake said. "It's not a swelling. It's a lump. Besides, you tell me what kind of insect the Bruma allowed to slip through their inspection sequence."

"A bug could probably get through."

"But it wouldn't survive," Jake said. He was keeping his voice level, reminding himself that a bug bite wasn't a cause for hysteria. "So what bit her, and what made that lump?"

"Okay," the nurse said slowly. "I'm writing you on the emergency list, so come on over right away."

Jake kept hearing those words as they headed for the clinic. Part of him agreed with the nurse, but most of him was afraid that he'd embarrassed himself by convincing her to check something harmless. Andrea certainly wasn't impressed. Still, urgency forced him forward.

As they walked (sometimes ran) through the fleshy hallways, he kept imagining what he would do if one of the smaller alien Brumas blocked their path. The spindly varieties that seemed made out almost entirely of legs could really get in your way, and another variety had big fleshy behinds that could block an entire corridor. But in the end they arrived safely at the clinic.

Gerold Venus greeted them. He was a grizzled pediatrician, whose smile showed in his wrinkles. He had done a tour of Blue Two, working under primitive conditions, and he frequently briefed the colonists on what to expect groundside. There was no one on the ship Jake would rather have seen about Malia.

"She says it tickles," Jake explained. "Probably just a bug bite, right?"

"Let's have a look."

And man, did he check. First he asked about Malia's general condition (generally healthy, with one bout of fever in the last month). He checked every lymph gland and prodded her stomach for a good while, before listening to her lungs with a patience that made Jake pace the floor until Andrea waved at him to sit down. Normally, Malia would have giggled, but by now it was way past her bedtime and she was clutching Mr. Bear sullenly.

"If this is an insect sting, it feels different from anything I've seen, even on Blue Two," Dr. Venus said. "I can't find any signs of infections or any other reasons for the lump. We'll take some blood samples, and I'm sending her next door for an ultrasound right away." He paused. "I have to inform you that it could be serious."

The anxiety in Jake's solar plexus seemed to ripple through his entire body. He said nothing, Andrea said nothing . . . or perhaps they did. Words didn't seem important. The only thing he wanted to do was hold his baby girl and protect her from all the evils in the universe, but it was so damn hard with a scan coming up, and so fast, why did it have to be now? Because it's serious. But maybe there's serious and not so serious, and why couldn't that scan wait till morning?

They palmed their way through two of the fleshy walls, guided by a nurse, whose name Jake forgot as soon as he heard it. He listened to the swoosh made by the machine while another doctor took stills and video of Malia's abdomen. The screen was a mess of moving, morphing grey scale. He noticed oddities like the hot humid air, the dampened light, Malia subjecting herself to the scan, never complaining when the doctor dug the scanner probe into her abdomen. The bed was rolled from the scan through mazelike corridors to a part of the infirmary that had an actual room.

More waiting ensued. Andrea fussed about not having a toothbrush for Malia. They both looked at her lying there in the huge infirmary bed meant for adults and talked about how fortunate it was that they'd brought Mr. Bear for her.

Malia was asleep when Doctor Venus entered. A man was with him, but he hung back, leaning against the wall while the entry hole contracted behind him. He didn't exactly wear a uniform, just a white shirt and black pants. Like a two-square chessboard with only one possible move.

But Jake soon fixed his attention on Doctor Venus, who sat down on a chair. Jake and Andrea sat on the bed settee.

"This is something I've never seen before," the Doctor said. "I've looked at the scans, and then took a good look at some obscure medical literature."

He sent a look in the direction of the uniformed man as if taking a cue before continuing.

"The scans indicate that your daughter is the bearer of a Bruma fetus. It has a size of two point one by one point five centimeters. As far as the literature indicates, that growth pattern fits a timeframe where Malia was stung when we boarded the ship."

"The Bruma stung her?" Jake asked. "They're turning her into a hatchery?"

"Nothing quite that dramatic," Doctor Venus said. "I know as little about the Bruma as most of us. As far as I could make out from the literature I just read, their second-variety females carry the babies, but apparently they sometimes choose one or two among their passenger species to be hosts for their offspring. I've never seen it before, but I understand it's not unheard of."

"Do you have to operate to get it out?" Andrea asked. Jake squeezed her hand, felt the need to have his hand squeezed back. She didn't. She just looked at the doctor, who didn't say anything.

The black and white man pushed himself away from the wall. He wasn't tall or conspicuous, yet he somehow still towered over them all.

"There will be no operation," the man said. "Your daughter will carry out the pregnancy."

"Who are you?" Jake blurted.

"Major Blutnikov, United Earth Army. I liaise between our Bruma pilots and their human passengers."

"Then you bloody liaise to them that my daughter is not playing host to their spawn," Jake said. This time, Andrea did squeeze his hand.

Major Blutnikov inclined his head. "Eventually the passenger will come out. At that time Doctor Venus will perform a small operation to minimize the danger to your daughter and her passenger. Until then, it is of the utmost importance that you take care of your daughter and allow her to perform her duty as a vessel for the Bruma."

"Her name is Malia," Andrea said. "She is not a vessel, and you better understand that this Bruma thing is not nearly as important as my daughter's life."

Andrea's voice was tense with anger. Jake understood that she didn't want to shout -- Malia was exhausted after the scan, she'd need her sleep, poor thing -- but Andrea's voice expressed enough anger for both of them.

"You both know what this ship is," the Major said. He placed a hand on the wall, gently caressing it. A shielded porthole formed to give them a glimpse of Lightspace. "A Bruma fifth-variety male, a living being adapted to flying between the stars. Tell me, did you ever consider that this living being does you the courtesy of transporting you through the universe to another planet suitable for human life? Or that every time you whack your hand against a wall, you force a reaction from this creature? Every time your daughter drops a crumb, the Bruma has to assimilate, process, and excrete a foreign object. It manages your waste, provides you with food, water, and air, and maintains an environment where you can increase your numbers. For all intents and purposes, you are parasites living in a gracious host. Your daughter is merely paying for her ticket."

The Major turned, caressed the inner wall in a circle and left through the opening before Jake could even think of an answer.

Doctor Venus coughed and looked embarrassed in that Boss-says-otherwise way. "There's no tried and tested procedure with Bruma-human relationships, but I'd say your daughter has a very good chance of making it through the pregnancy without any harm. It shouldn't take more than three months, since Bruma fetuses rarely grow beyond twelve centimeters. I'd like to start her on immunosuppressive treatment, the sooner the better, and then . . ."

Jake didn't hear the rest. He looked at Malia sleeping in her bed, wondering how something twelve centimeters long could fit inside her skin without damaging her. He rubbed his eyes and felt like crying, but didn't.

"The operation should be a simple matter of extracting the fetus, much like a C-section."

"Let me get this straight," Andrea said. "You're going to weaken her immune system while she's got a parasite inside her? And then you're going to operate on her while she's prone to infections. And what about the other kids? They swap diseases every other month while we're cooped up in here."

"Her body mustn't reject the Bruma fetus," Dr. Venus said, nodding at the Major's contracting exit hole. "As for contagions, we'll keep her in isolation. That way she should be okay."

Should be, not will be. Jake's gaze sought the porthole to Lightspace. His mind gnawed at the thought that they were in a place without certainties.

The side effects of the immunosuppressives weren't as bad as they'd feared. Malia had to have plenty of blood samples taken, which she hated, and ultra sound scans, which Jake hated more than anything for fear of what they'd find. But she lost all contact with the other kids her age. Jake and Andrea had to take turns entertaining her during the day, and both discovered that playing was much, much easier for a five-year-old than for an adult.

Those problems would have been easy to bear if it hadn't been for the underlying fear that something could go wrong with Malia. That she'd get an infection, that the Bruma would damage her organs, that the operation would . . . but no, of course nothing would go wrong.

The thing that cheered him most in those days was to see Andrea's stomach grow with their new life. Andrea worried over the day when the baby arrived, but as they kept reminding each other, Malia would be clean by then, and everything would be fine.

Still, the three months of Malia's pregnancy passed in slow stress and increasing isolation. Jake was supposed to review schematics for the irrigation systems that the Blue Two agricultural board had sent him. Before Malia got infested, he'd started designing reservoirs that would be pumped full under solar power in the day and drain in the night under its own pressure, a low-tech solution that fitted Blue Two. Now he'd lost all passion for the project.

Andrea fared better at her job at the power plant construction team, exactly because it was a team. Her colleagues took turns to mind Malia so Andrea and Jake could go to the community meetings for their future region on Blue Two. These mass meetings with more than 5,000 attending colonists took place in large, oppressively brown chambers that the Bruma ship gorged out of its flesh for them. A lot of children attended, which made the meetings rather chaotic and made Jake miss Malia. And for the most part, he didn't find much understanding among the others. One colonist even had the gall to tell Jake he should be lucky he got to spend so much time with his daughter. He tended to avoid the meetings after that.

The truth was Jake did not feel lucky. He felt imprisoned by Malia's infection, and as the three months until the operation wore on, he found it harder and harder to plan for a future with so much uncertainty.

It got worse when Malia vomited blood three weeks before the operation. Doctor Venus told them it was an ulcer, a side effect of the immunosuppression drugs, but he deemed it safe to keep her on the medication.

The day after that, Major Blutnikov knocked on the wall to form the peephole that was the traditional request for access.

"I just wanted to check on Malia and her family," Major Blutnikov said. "May I come in?"

Jake almost stroked the wall to close the peephole, but somehow he had the feeling that the Major wouldn't take no for an answer. Besides, a boiling anger goaded him into showing the Major just what kind of life he'd condemned them to. He punched the wall twice, creating just enough of a doorway for the Major to squeeze through.

Major Blutnikov took a tour of the room as far as the furniture allowed. His eyes were on the walls, as if the table and chairs were nothing more than human detritus.

"Go ahead and check," Jake said. "You won't find any of the blood Malia vomits up from her ulcer, because your beloved Bruma sucks it all up for us, making our life so damn easy. And you can see she's not causing any trouble at all, because mostly she's watching TV shows instead of playing with her friends like a normal five-year-old. And you definitely won't find any coffee, because we drank it all just to stay awake. You know, the doctor says to make her food anytime she's hungry? It doesn't matter if it's three in the morning, we get out of bed and butter her biscuits whenever she hollers."

The Major finally turned and looked at Jake.

"Did you know my brother spawned two first-variety Brumas?"

Jake almost said, "Did you know I don't give a damn?" But something in the Major's pose said he didn't quite deserve that level of enmity.

"We were on a Bruma Lightspace transport nine years ago. My family was relocating to Green One when we found the passengers. Johnny had to put up with three months of drugs and threw up blood for nine weeks. He gave birth to two Brumas just before we were ready to land, and healing up after the c-section took him two weeks longer than planned. He was to land on a later shuttle, but he never made it downside. It turned out a third Bruma had been hatching in his brain."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Jake managed to say. "But why didn't the doctors find the Bruma in time?"

"The egg was too small to spot, but the doctors said afterwards that with regular brain scans things might have gone differently."

A new anxiety rolled through Jake's stomach. He was worried enough as it was about the operation, about the ulcer, about his sanity. Did he really have to worry about hidden fetuses too? And how come Doctor Venus hadn't told them of that risk?

"Well, Jake, now you know why I take such an interest in Malia. I'm worried for her."

The Major's gruff voice ought to cast him in a new light. Still, Jake sensed that something about the story didn't fit. This was a man who had caressed his way out of sick bay when Doctor Venus gave them the diagnosis, even though he could have just hit the wall.

"Don't you hate them?" Jake asked warily.

"What's the point? It'd be like hating the weather because hurricanes kill people. The Bruma are part of the universe we live in, something we can't control. We'll just have to deal with them the best way we can."

"But that doesn't mean you don't want revenge."

The Major's face tensed. "We're depending on them to take us to the stars. We need to learn everything about them, about their ability to fly through Lightspace. After that, we can liberate ourselves. If we don't, all humans will be at their mercy forever, particularly people like Malia and my brother. But until then we serve the human race by being friendly."

"Wait, does that mean you're studying them?"

"Them and everything I can get my hands on."

And while that should technically have made them allies, Jake heard the unsaid "and everyone." He was almost glad when Malia shouted in the other room. "Dad, I'm gonna be sick!"

"Then get back to liberating humanity," he said, pointing at the contracting wall. "I have to take care of my child."

"I don't believe it," Andrea said. "His brother?"

She had been sitting on the couch they'd formed out of the wall when Jake told her of the Major's visit, but now she was pacing their little cabin furiously, as if her huge stomach didn't weigh a thing.

"That's his story," Jake said.

"And he just happens to tell us that after Malia started throwing up blood?"

Jake got up. He wanted to hug Andrea and calm her, but she kept pacing. When she was in that mood she gestured as much as she talked, so he let her go.

"It's just too damn convenient," she said. "The Major hears we hit a bump on the road to bringing more Bruma into the world, so he invites himself over to see how we're doing. And while he's here just happens to strike a little fear into the hearts of Jake and Andrea Durow to keep them in line. How is that a coincidence, Jake?"

Her words stirred Jake's lingering desire for liberation, which had spurred him into leaving Earth. The dictatorships and police states had become increasingly adept at manipulating the media since the Bruma arrived. Truth? Truth never entered into it when the government wanted something.

"I hear you," he said to Andrea. "Loud and clear. But can we take the chance that he's telling the truth?"

Andrea stopped in her tracks, finally seeking out his embrace. She sobbed, and Jake felt his own irritation at the Major for making his wife cry.

"We don't have to decide anything yet," he said.

Her fist hit his chest with enough power to get his attention.

"That's not the point, Jake. If I find out he threatened our daughter, he'll need every last one of his Bruma friends to keep him safe."

He felt proud of Andrea just then. At the same time he wished he could muster the same kind of resistance. Because true or not, the Major's story had scared him worse than anything Doctor Venus had ever said.

Malia looked like a sleeping doll after the operation: a breathing, living, beautiful little doll that snored just enough to be extra cute. All the energy that had poured out of Jake while he waited on the couch (and the chair and, and, for a while, on the floor) in the hospital room, came crashing back at the sight of her in bed, in the form of love and relief. She'd be off the drugs now, and when they arrived on Blue Two she'd be able to play with the other kids. They'd all be settled in when the baby came.

"The operation went fine," Dr. Venus told them when he and the nurse came by for the post-op. "The Bruma is out and alive, a healthy first variety female. We looked over your daughter's organs and there's no visible damage."

He drew in breath and the pitch of his voice fell. "However . . . we found four more eggs nested in front of her liver. I expect Major Blutnikov will be able to identify the variety, but my best guess is they're third variety males. Quite small when they're born, so the pregnancy should be easy. Unfortunately the literature say they gestate slowly."

"Slowly?" Jake asked. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"They'll be ready six months from now, and we'll need to operate on Malia again to get them out."

Six months. One hundred and eighty days. Three months and seven days after they arrived in orbit around Blue Two. They'd be stuck here long after the other colonists landed, staked out the best land, built a roof over their heads, and settled in. And what if they couldn't even leave then? What if the Major was right and Malia had to be checked again for more Bruma in her brain?

"She'll be on drugs for six months?" Andrea asked. Jake knew she was thinking about all the practical matters of caring for both a baby and a sick child. And he loved her for it. As long as she had day-to-day routines, she wouldn't go mad.

He wasn't so sure of his own sanity.

"And her head?"

"The scan came back clean."

Before Jake could say anything, Malia woke and started crying. He narrowly avoided crawling into bed to comfort her.

"We'll talk later. The nurse will give her something for the pain," Dr. Venus said. And then, as he was turning to leave, he stepped close to Jake's ear and whispered, "I couldn't take them out. The Major had two men in the operating room."

Three months later, the ship docked with the Bruma space station that orbited Blue Two. Jake, Andrea, and Malia moved to a fleshy two-room home in the organic part of the station while the other colonists started a slow exodus down to Blue Two in space shuttles.

The Durow family had little time for envy, though. Four days after their arrival, little Stuart was born.

Still, after the number of colonists had thinned out, they fought about going downside. The point was moot, since the Major wouldn't let them leave the station, but that didn't stop them arguing.

Andrea refused to believe Major Blutnikov's story. She kept saying that none of the brain scans had turned up anything, and she said it so often even Jake felt his own fear wear off.

Nevertheless, he continued arguing how Malia would need the best clinic for the next C-section, and The Blue Two authorities didn't want Bruma babies on the surface. But as Andrea pointed out every time, the real reason was the lack of brain scanning facilities on Blue Two. She was right too, and it made him feel like a coward.

Jake could never quite explain to anyone what it was like at night, waking up at two to give Stu his bottle, pacing the floor with the infant in his arms until he slept, and gently, gently putting him back in the cradle with a feeling of dread that if the child woke, he would collapse in exhausted tears. Slip into bed, pull the covers up over his nose, wondering how tired he would be the next day; listening to Malia's breathing, drifting off and waking up forty minutes later because Malia was crying and hungry. Going to the kitchen alcove, heating a brick of blue pudding, only to have her ask for hot milk and biscuits. Back to the kitchen, stirring Fantomalt into the milk, finding the whole-fat biscuits, buttering one up for her, and sitting cross-legged on the floor while she ate three bites and promptly fell asleep.

Some nights he'd fall asleep on the floor. On other nights he took a walk on the space station. Vast and populated by humans and Bruma in the daytime, the long tunnels and spacious viewing decks were the embodiment of solitude in the night. Jake could spend hours staring out the windows into the eternal darkness of space and never meet a soul.

Perhaps other insomniacs used the windows to stare at Blue Two far below, but the sight of the planet always filled Jake with jealousy and frustrated hopes. Only space seemed to understand the darkness in him.

Somehow the remaining three months and seven days passed. The second operation was a success, for Malia and the four newborn third variety Bruma males. Doctor Venus declared Malia clean, and apart from a two-month quarantine to get her immune system up to speed, the Durow family was medically approved for going downside. Normality beckoned, and Jake craved it.

Major Blutnikov was the only obstruction on their way to Blue Two. He didn't object to them leaving; he simply failed to sign the release form that allowed Malia to go downside. After a bit of heckling, Jake got the station manager to arrange for a shuttle to the surface, but the manager made Jake understand that the Major could veto their departure.

On their penultimate evening on the space station, Stu slept in the cradle they'd coaxed out of the station's floor. Andrea was boxing the supplies they wouldn't use downside, and Jake was wrangling the cargo manifest.

They had an allowance of seventy-five kilograms, and so far he'd packed ninety-four.

Malia was skipping around the room, and Jake grinned as she tried to do cartwheels. She'd learned that in the low-grav section of the Bruma station, but in the makeshift living quarters, the pseudo-gravity was too strong for her arms. That didn't stop her. Nothing stopped her. And nothing ever would again if he had anything to say about it.

"Whoops!" she shouted, and then she started laughing in earnest. "They're tickling me, Dad."

Her words turned Jake's stomach to ice all over again. "Where, honey? Is it your tummy?"

"No, silly," she laughed. "Not real tickling. It's like they're in my head."

"Where in your head?" he demanded. The coldness was spreading through his body, slowing his movements. He dropped the manifest and hurried over to Malia, who took a cue from his mood and stopped laughing.

"Dad, they're just playing a game. They're having fun up in the nest room, hiding from the overseers."

The word "overseers" tricked something in his mind that soothed his immediate terror. He understood about parasites in stomachs, and this wasn't it. It probably had nothing to do with Brumas, just some weird side effect of the infestation or the drugs. Or even an invented story. But the icy feeling didn't pass, so after a hushed debate with Andrea he punched the com unit.

Doctor Venus didn't take the call, though. A nurse told Jake to relax, that there was nothing they could do until morning, and that maybe Malia had had a dizzy spell.

"Even if it's Bruma-related, you'll just have to wait," the nurse said sympathetically. "You might as well do that at home." Her words were simultaneously the truth, a wild understatement, and a curse.

Jake returned to his manifest and prepared for a long night of senseless worrying. Every other moment he glanced at Malia, but she didn't mention tickling again.

At ten in the evening, as Jake was contemplating a sleeping pill, a message from Dr. Venus ticked in on the wall com.

Jake, I got your call that your departure has been moved forward for tomorrow. I'll drop by the launch bay to see you off and discuss that question you mentioned.

Jake's first reaction was to think that Dr. Venus hadn't heard about Malia. Then he noted that the departure date was wrong. They weren't leaving until the day after tomorrow, and he almost messaged Doctor Venus back to tell him so. Almost. But before he could do anything, a revised departure schedule ticked in, asking them to report to the shuttle bay the next morning.

It dawned on him that Dr. Venus might very well be sending them a message to get off the station.

The launch bay dwarfed them all, a huge hall of dull metal and carbon stretching out into space from the meaty part of the Bruma station. It was the first time Jake had seen it since seeing the other colonists off, and he was still impressed by the great empty space allocated just for cargo handling. Four technicians were inspecting one freight shuttle's friction shield, and a threesome of loaders fussed over balance distribution in another. They'd add the Durow family's 74.9 kilogram allowance soon.

Stu had had a laxative so he'd arrive with a mostly empty diaper. Malia was strutting about in her flight suit as if she owned the world. She would, when they got downside. If. She'd mentioned tickling twice in the last hour, and Jake was so afraid that the Bruma were back that his shuttle-suit's biometrics kept ordering him to take deep breaths.

While they were going over the suit's security routines, Doctor Venus joined them. A young ethnic Chinese man wearing the same outfit as the dock workers shuffled after him with a hesitant, even unfriendly look that made Jake wonder if he'd packed too much. Other than that, the doctor had his full attention.

"Malia says it tickles," Jake said.

"In her head," Andrea said. She looked terrified, but she said what Jake had been thinking the whole time. "We need to discuss a brain scan."

"I'm reasonably certain there's nothing wrong with Malia," Doctor Venus said.

"How . . . You can't . . .," was all Jake could say.

As always, Andrea managed a more coherent string of words. "I've picked up enough medical knowledge to know you'd never make a diagnosis without an examination. Why would you skip the scan?"

"Because Major Blutnikov wouldn't let you leave if he suspected Malia isn't Bruma-free. And trust me, he'd know the minute I started up the MRI-scanner. Fortunately, I happen to know he's otherwise engaged at the clinic today, or he'd be keen to hear about your departure."

Which explained why they had to go to the shuttle a day early. It didn't explain much of anything else, though.

"It's her brain we're talking about," Jake said. "As much as I don't want to be stuck here, we can't just leave on the assumption that she's fine. They don't have the equipment down on Blue Two to properly check her out."

Doctor Venus nodded, firmly but not looking worried. "I can't rule out that there's a Bruma fetus in her head. But I think there's a good chance we're dealing with something else."

He turned to the young man. "Cai here was the first human host to a Bruma embryo. He has another explanation for what the tickling means. Cai?"

"It's not tickling," Cai replied in English with distinct Cantonese intonation. "It's the lingering effect of the Bruma. I don't feel them all the time, but they are there."

A lingering effect. At once Jake was flooded by fear for Malia, and fear of being locked away with her indefinitely again.

"What does that mean?" Jake said. "What lingers?"

"Nothing physical," Dr. Venus said. "I've seen Cai's scans, and there are no embryos anywhere in his body."

"Did I say I had Bruma in me?" Cai asked.

Jake felt Cai's glare as if the young man had to explain the most basic thing in the world.

"I have two sons," Cai continued. "One young and fast, always running in circles, always playing. One larger and calmer, contemplating life. He's a philosopher. I have contact with them both, but they don't live in me any longer. My first son shares his moods with me quite often. He is very, very far away, but the Bruma don't measure distances the same way we do. From what the Doctor tells me, Malia's first daughter is the same variety as my second son, so that one probably hasn't spoken to her yet. But her last four children will be playing by now, like my firstborn."

"Wait, your Bruma sons?" Andrea asked. "Who talk to you? What . . . they're telepaths? Did they leave something in your head? "

Cai threw up his hands. "I told you they wouldn't understand!" A litany of what Jake supposed was Mandarin curses followed.

"Cai is in contact with the Bruma he gave birth to," Doctor Venus said. "Malia is the mother of five Bruma babies. I think it's a fair assumption that Malia recently had her first telepathic contact with her children. The oldest hasn't matured enough for conversation yet, but the wee ones are probably communicating now. Their thoughts and feelings are likely what she describes as 'tickling.'"

Jake lowered his voice so Malia wouldn't hear him. "Likely? Probably? If there's still Bruma stuff left in her head, I want it out! We don't know what it'll do to her. What if she hemorrhages when we go downside? What if they take over her mind to control her?"

"They're her children," Cai said. "They won't do that."

Something in Jake wanted to grab Cai and scream She's my daughter. But Andrea spoke before he did.

"Is the Major keeping you on a short leash, Cai?" Her voice was full of kindness, and Jake knew that her empathy was helping them a hundred times more than his aggravation.

Cai's voice filled with hard emotions. "Men like him are always following me. Asking to do tests, offering to take samples, checking that I'm alright. They should just let it be, accept it. But they won't. They ask me about every thought my children share with me. Sometimes they put machines on my head and watch what is triggering in my brain. They don't care if I don't want to tell them. They just keep asking. And I'm not going downside, ever."

A chill went through Jake. Dictatorships on Earth had a way of monitoring people, but this was worse, an intrusion that neatly fit the label "Thought Police." He'd be damned if he'd let Major Blutnikov turn Malia into an object of study.

Doctor Venus said, "If the Major finds out that Malia has these abilities he'll never let her go."

"Men like the Major live for this kind of thing," Cai said. "Don't give in to their fears. Just accept that the Bruma are with Malia. They're a gift, not an illness."

A gift? That was pushing the crap cart too far.

But Andrea took his hand, and while they looked at each other, his thoughts tumbled into place.

Malia would always have the scars across her stomach. But if Cai was right, she would have something else as well. A link to another species. A connection that could stretch across the galaxy. A whole new kind of motherhood. He didn't need to ask Andrea to know she was thinking along the same lines.

"Why are you helping us?" Jake asked the Doctor.

"People in power have used diagnoses to have their way throughout history," he replied. "Illnesses like leprosy, HIV, and schizophrenia have caused people to be mistreated and isolated. Transsexuals and people with Down's Syndrome have been branded as sick deviants. I don't intend to spread those misconceptions to Blue Two."

Jake turned to Malia. "Is the tickling in your head disturbing you? Is it giving you a headache?"

She shook her head and smiled.

"No brain scan," Andrea said, echoing Jake's thoughts.

"There are no guarantees in life," Doctor Venus said. "But I think getting out of here as quickly as possible would be a very wise decision."

Cai nodded emphatically, and they said their goodbyes.

While the Durows waited for departure, Jake stood gazing one last time out the port window screen at the deepness of space outside. Empty still. But for the first time in ages he found himself staring at the stars that shone in the darkness, millions of stars offering what light they could.

It felt good to notice the light.

He turned to Andrea and saw the stars reflected in her eyes. He read anxiety as well, but the courage in her eyes clearly won out and settled over him.

"Let's go," he said. "It's time we moved on."

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