Space Horses

“SPACE HORSES” first appeared in the December 12, 2016 edition of Perihelion Science Fiction Online Magazine.

 

Zebra babies melted her heart—from a distance. Up close, no human in the cosmos would bother making friends with them based solely on the merits of their charm.

Prime example? This foal.  He bared his nubby teeth with tufted ears flat against his skull, charging Nilah again and again in the confines of the vetting stall. She crouched, arms outstretched, halter in hand. In her hip pocket a vaccine hid from view, syringe loosely capped and ready. She’d only get one chance so better make it good. A feint, a head toss and tail flip—then the little shit whirled and landed a halfhearted kick directly on the bridge of her nose.

Stars. Not an urban legend. Nope—these were real. Nilah counted at least a dozen of them spinning just above her eyes, flitting and sparking at the edges of her vision while something warm and coppery filled her mouth. She stared up at the barn roof for a couple more seconds before she rolled over and spit blood into the pine shavings.

“Oh God—Dr. Tate! Are you okay?” The voice came from somewhere over her head and to the left. Female, shrill, addressing her by title.

“Ugggggh. . . .” Nilah plucked the syringe from her pocket, where its needle had poked through her trousers and dug at least a quarter of an inch into her skin. Too bad she wasn’t a horse. If she were, she wouldn’t be catching any mosquito-vectored hemorrhagic diseases any time soon.

“Dr. Scarborough’s on chat,” the perky undergrad said. “Should I tell him you’ll get back to him later?”

Nilah pushed herself upward, onto her hands and knees, and watched blood drip into the shavings from the direction of her nose. “No,” she said. “Tell him I’ll be right there.”

* * *

“Is it broken?” Doc Scarborough studied her through the Netcam, his grizzled face pinched in scrutiny.

Nilah shifted the cold gel pack a little higher up her face. “Probably.”

“Ouch. You’ll have yourself a nice set of raccoon eyes by tonight.”

Procyon lotor—the common barnyard ringtail. A much cuddlier species than the zebra, known for their affability.” She felt bones moving underneath the gel pack and lightened the pressure a bit. “Pets, really. Cute and fluffy. Like kittens.”

The older veterinarian laughed. “I see he didn’t kick the bullshit out of you.”

She hoisted the middle finger of her free hand.

“Nilah, do you remember the Equus Project? We talked about it in third year.”

She lowered her hand. “Yeah. Dr. Elgin Fitzroy put a bunch of Dartmoor ponies on a transgalactic freighter and flew them out to Terrafour. Never to be heard from again.”

“Oh, they were heard from. Just haven’t been in the news for the last twenty years.”

Nilah mopped her forehead with the ice pack. Was she sweating? Five minutes ago she’d been cold. “Seriously? They survived?”

“They did more than survive. Apparently he has quite a herd of them. More than he can handle. He sent word that he’s looking for a second vet. An equine specialist…one who also happens to be good with African mammals.”

“African mammals?” Nilah wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. Clammy? Or condensation from the ice pack? “Exactly what all does he have out there on Terrafour?”

“Just prey species—for now—oryx, and  watusi. He recently introduced chimpanzees. They’re all thriving.”

“And how do you know this?”

“Because he contacted me. Wanted to know who I could recommend.” A pause, pregnant as a raincloud. “Can I send him your name?”

“My name? Seriously?” She peered into the Netcam, blinking against a sudden but mercifully brief bout of double vision. “Doc—are you trying to get rid of me?”

“No,” he said, with considerable emphasis. “I pretty much despise the thought of losing you.”

A beat of silence while she thought about everything he’d said, and hadn’t said. “Then…what?”

“We’re not talking about a summer with the Peace Corp. It’s no work study. Not a temporary placement. But Fitzroy asked who I could recommend. Truth is, I only know of one equine vet who meets his specs. And I have a feeling he only knows of one, too.”

She took a deep breath. That double vision thing—it wasn’t going away. Neither was the cold sweat.

“Nilah, he didn’t just roll these particular dice and come up with me. He went to considerable effort, putting this packet of data in my hands. Photographs. Case studies. Documentation of his research. He found the pond with the prize catch and that’s where he dropped his bait.”

Nilah took another deep breath. Gave her head a quick shake. “You have photographs of Terrafour?”

“Not just Terrafour. Animals living on Terrafour. In a natural state. Healthy. Disease-free. Reproducing.”

“Repro—” She broke off, not daring to finish the thought. “Is he crazy?”

“Probably.” Doc Scarborough clasped his gnarled hands in front of him and stared hard at her through the Netcam. “But the offspring show no ill effects of gravitational disparity. Cardiovascular soundness, good bone density—maybe his kind of crazy will end up saving us all.”

“I definitely want to see those photographs.”

“I have them with me, at my compound. You want to see them, you come here. They’re not stepping one foot outside these gates. Sorry, Nilah.”

“This evening good for you? Tonight?”

“Either.”

She nodded. “Okay. Hey…Doc?”

“Yeah, Nilah. What is it?”

“The Haithun vaccine—any reported nastiness from accidental human exposure?”

“Uh-oh. Why?”

“Don’t say ‘uh-oh’ unless there really is an ‘uh-oh.’ What happens when a person gets injected by accident? Any adverse effects?”

“Well….” He sat back, stroking his chin as if it helped him think. “It’s a modified live virus, so there’s a minute chance it could revert to virulence if the immune system is compromised. But the human body is an imperfect host, so it probably just becomes inert. My concern would be site reaction. There are some adjuvents in that vaccine that might cause sub-dermal irritation—where’d you get stuck?”

Nilah poked gently at the bridge of her nose. “My ass.”

Silence from her mentor. Then he cleared his throat. “I don’t think I even want to know how that happened.”

She glared at him.

“You’re coming over tonight. I can—” He cleared his throat again. “—take a look at it if you want.”

“I do not want,” she said. “But maybe….” She took another deep breath, dropped the ice pack and grabbed the edge of her desk with both hands to keep herself upright. “Doc—I think I need a medic.”

* * *

 

Nilah’s great, great, great, great grandparents hadn’t been born yet when a team of astrophysicists at NASA decided they could move the Earth.

Global warming posed an imminent threat to human existence, they said. A simple gravity tractor, they said, could attract an asteroidal body close enough to their home planet to tug it out of orbit. Just by a few miles, they said. And everything would be better. Life would go back to normal. Glaciers would stop melting. The seas would stop rising. Droughts and floods and marine acidification would cease to be a threat, at least on a catastrophic scale. And it worked.

For a while.

But the problem with shooting pool balls in zero gravity was inertia—an object in motion tends to stay in motion. The earth kept drifting, and more gravity-assisted push-and-pull interventions were necessary to maintain planetary positions. Without them, Earth might eventually bump into Mars, or the moon might become dislodged and float off toward Jupiter—then what would become of the weather? And the tides? Earth’s entire ecosystem could collapse, and all life forms would cease to exist.

Nobody could have predicted the Great Solar Flare of 2189. But with the collective intelligence of all the humans who had lived until that moment, someone should have thought to prepare for such a thing. In one spectacular burst of coronal mass ejection, Earth’s entire power and information grid became just as extinct as the dinosaurs…and NASA. Human ability to instantly communicate across miles was reduced to how far one could shout across a room. Amassed knowledge stored in digital form—centuries of discovery and invention and innovation—was gone, the Library of Alexandria on a global scale. And even though everybody knew the Earth’s trajectory through space required constant gravity-assisted modification, not one human on the planet had enough information stored inside their head to invent a new system for making that happen.

 Power to the planet had been restored long before Nilah came along. Technology was recovering, and science in all fields had rebounded with vigor. Humanity had overcome the setback. But the Earth still drifted, and corrections to its orbit became less and less effective as gravity from Jupiter exerted exponential force on its mass. Distance from the sun increased a little more every year, and now the polar ice caps extended as far south as the Great Lakes, and as far north as the southern tip of Australia. Entire ecosystems had vanished. Entire species. Humanity had gathered near the equator, and when the Interplanetary Space Station was launched in late 2212, nearly half of the Earth’s population applied for the jobs and housing it provided and fled terra firma as quickly as they could charter a starship.

Everyone left behind knew about the exploration, the colonization, the terraforming of moons within Earth’s immediate solar system. Media outlets faithfully reported the limited success of Terratres, the third human effort at modifying a planet outside the homo sapiens’ native galaxy. Coverage about Terrafour had been sketchier. Rumors found their way home about pirates, and interstellar gangs, and opportunistic criminals who robbed and pillaged and marauded—shameful human history repeated throughout the millennia. Nilah knew exactly as much about frontiers beyond the asteroid belt as anyone else still Earthbound, no more, and no less.

Until she saw the photographs sent back via transgalactic freighter by Dr. Elgin Fitzroy. That’s when everything shifted, and she knew instinctively that she’d leave the surface one day and never set foot on home soil again.

* * * 

Two years after she accepted Fitzroy’s offer, Doc Scarborough rang to tell her she and her three dogs had a spot reserved on a transgalactic freighter bound for Galaxo.

“Come to the house,” he said, true to form. “And I’ll give you the details.”

Scarborough’s compound sat far inland, west of Old Miami and just north of the drowned Everglades. It was fenced, gated, and patrolled by timber wolves. He didn’t trust the consolidated world government. And he didn’t like people. This retreat, walled off from society, was his version of paradise. And Nilah counted herself lucky that she’d ever seen the inside of it.

“These mercenary pilots,” Scarborough said once they were safely inside his gates and sitting comfortably in his back yard. “Don’t write them off just because they chose a different path than the military. They didn’t get where they are by flying hang gliders off the Skyway Bridge.”

“I’m still just mad about the policy, I guess,” she said. “United Army not allowing animals on any of their ships.”

“They have other things to worry about,” Scarborough said. “Besides jabbing themselves in the arse with a horse vaccine.”

“Haha,” she said. “You’re not half as funny as you think you are.”

Scarborough took that moment to light an old-fashioned cigar. Tobacco still grew in Brazil, and he had shipments imported regularly to his estate. It was contraband in most parts of the habitable world, but the Doc didn’t care. He reminded Nilah of an aging Appaloosa, liver-spotted and cantankerous as hell, but still the horse you’d want under you if a cougar happened across your path.

She sat quietly and watched him smoke, hidden away in his corner of the universe surrounded by thriving alder bushes and a lawn he kept green with a good stand of perennial rye. Once, long ago, Miami had been tropical. Palm trees and dolphins, alligators, native lantana and palmetto. Scorching sunlight. Warm waves.

Not any more.

South Florida was one of the last places in the hemisphere that still boasted four distinct seasons. Nobody complained about that. Palms and palmettos had long been replaced by firs and cedars, and the last alligator froze to death centuries before Nilah was born. Most of the warm water creatures once indigenous to Dade County had long been extinct. She’d heard rumors that dolphins still swam in more temperate seas near the Ivory Coast, but she’d never talked to anyone who’d actually seen one.

After a few minutes of blissful silence, she spoke. “So who’s this pilot you found who’ll let me travel with my dogs?”

“Fellow named John Rader.” He took one last, long pull on the cigar before stubbing it out in an ash tray he balanced on his knee. “He said he’d take you to the edge of the mapped zone.”

“John Rader,” she echoed. “Never heard of him.”

“Why would you hear of him? He’s a freighter captain, not a Net star.” He set the ash tray on a patio table near his elbow. “You don’t really call them pilots, not for an airship like the Longemeire. He’s good, though. His methods are very tactile—he’ll keep you safe.”

“Tactile?”

“Hands on. He actually flies the damn thing. Doesn’t sit around telling others how to do it.”

“How did you find him?”

“Fitzroy. Some kind of pre-existing familiarity between them.”

“Hmph.” She snorted. “That explains how half-ton African cattle with an eight-foot horn spread ended up on Terrafour.”

“Actually it doesn’t,” Scarborough said. “Rader’s never transported live animals. He does mostly construction material and vehicles for the colonies. The Longemeire is essentially just a floating warehouse—lots of storage area, crew quarters on the upper deck. He said you can bring your dogs, but I don’t know how much access they’ll have to the ship. You may have to keep them in your cabin.”

“Okay.”

“You’ll make one stop at the Space Station in about six weeks, drop off and pick up whatever, then off to Galaxo. That stretch will be more like eight months. Fitzroy will transport you from there. You’re looking at another two weeks before you reach Terrafour.”

Eight months? That was a long damn time to keep dogs locked up in a room the size of a vetting stall.

Nilah sighed. She’d save her protest for another day, another audience. “Why won’t the Longemeire take us all the way to Terrafour?”

“Space is heavily patrolled between here and Galaxo. It’s United territory, a trade route. Pretty safe for traffic. Beyond Galaxo—in the unmapped zone—well, that’s the Wild West. The man with the biggest gun wins.”

“And Rader has a little gun.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that.”

“Well, I don’t want to see anybody’s gun,” she said. “Big or little.”

“Fitzroy knows the airspace beyond Galaxo. You’ll do fine. Once you make it to Terrafour, you won’t have to worry about anything but monkey shit and space horses.”

* * * 

Nilah shielded her eyes against the glare of a faraway sun. At the north end of the main runway, a large aircraft hung silhouetted against the backdrop of an azure sky. It seemed to hover, suspended above ground without sound or motion. Both came all at once. The craft hit the pavement and shot past her, and moments later, the otherwordly pulse of nuclear engines and wind shearing over thermal plates reached her ears. But it was time-traveling sound—once she finally heard it, the aircraft had taxied to a near stop. At the end of the runway it made a turn and rolled slowly back toward the terminal, flashes of orange glowing periodically in its twin reactors, causing ripples of heat to shimmer in the air around it.

She eased closer, separated from the tarmac by a three-meter wire mesh fence. The airship taxied to a stop so close to where she stood she could have thrown a rock and hit it. Engines whined to a stop and the thing hulked in silence, nav lights blinking. She tried to guess where a hatch might appear. The array of thermal tiles looked seamless, dull gray with soot stains, uninterrupted. Until part of them lifted up, revealing a well-concealed hatch just aft of the wing.

Half a dozen men stepped out, grungy in loose fitting shirts and baggy pants with pockets down each leg. They were the grease-stained work clothes of itinerant flight crew, not starched, not military. Not awe-inspiring. Of course they weren’t. Only the best for her, since she had the nerve to travel with dogs.

The Longemeire crew consisted of barely more than a hundred people. It employed the service of five APV, or armored patrol vehicles, like the one that had just landed in front of her. The Longemeire itself could not enter the atmosphere. It orbited just outside the Earth’s gravitational pull, quiet and massive. Loading and unloading was accomplished with cargo shuttles, or so she’d read on the Net. It had already been there nearly week, giving all crew members a chance for personal leave on the home planet, and allowing enough time for the shuttles to stock it with payload.

Nilah studied the crew as they crossed the tarmac. She’d surely meet each of them before her journey with the Longemeire ended at Galaxo. These six had names she’d soon learn, occupations. And hair. Lots of hair. Beards and ponytails, true nature boys who had just dropped out of the sky from somewhere across the galaxy.

They approached without looking at her, not talking among themselves or doing anything except moving as a group. All of them carried some sort of duffel, all walked like men on a mission—long strides, and fast. Purposeful. Not men who spent their hours behind a desk, or watching others do their jobs for them. These were workhorses, Fjord, or Fell. Sheer brawn, nothing finely bred or fancy about them.

Even once they drew alongside her at the fence, none of them cast so much as a glance in her direction. She was invisible. Insignificant, with no status or importance. There but not worth seeing, a fixture, with no outstanding features to distinguish her from the landscape.

Then one man broke formation and noticed her. Reddish brown pony tail, when the others wore their hair and beards flowing and loose. His expression did not change. He did not acknowledge her in any way. Just the eye contact, steel gray eyes set in a storm-weathered face. Her breath caught. What had those eyes seen that left them as hard as metal, and not just colored like it? They didn’t twinkle, didn’t soften. Just moved across her face and moved on, so that he never turned his head, never gave any other indication of her presence. Just kept walking, like he hadn’t seen a person standing there at all.

* * *

She almost didn’t recognize them without their beards. Two had gotten haircuts. The man with the ponytail had not. Three members of the APV team she’d seen earlier that afternoon had walked into the airport commissary and started browsing the aisles in the dry goods section, distracting her as she bought a few last minute items for the trip.

“Will that be all for you?” the clerk asked.

With a curt nod, Nilah confirmed that it was.

“You’re the vet, right? Flying out today?” The clerk finished bagging her purchase and handed it to her across the counter.

She took the bags, aware to an excruciating degree that the APV crew stood within earshot. “Yes.”

“Got plenty of sunscreen with you?”

“Sunscreen?” She fought the urge to glance at the men in the dry goods section. Instead, she kept her gaze fixed on the clerk. “On a spacecraft? In space? Really?”

“Yeah, I guess they don’t always get the right information posted on those tourist Netports. But old freighter class ships like the Longemeire—they still have day panels with the full spectrum. Give you skin cancer just like the sun used to.”

“Uhh—” She would not look at the crew. Absolutely, she would not.

Movement from the dry goods aisle—in her direction—she could see from the corner of her eye that it was Ponytail. He stopped beside her and set three packs of socks and a pair of work boots on the counter.

She barely looked at him, but in that moment was struck by a memory of how weathered his face had seemed. Like he’d been in the sun, or exposed to a lifetime of UV rays without benefit of SPF.

“Let me do some checking.” She kept her tone cool, disengaged. “I’ll figure it out. Thank you.” She turned to go, pointedly not looking at Ponytail or his tanned, weathered face.

“Your taxi’s lifting off in forty-five minutes,” the clerk said. “Better figure it out fast.”

Every hair on the back of her neck stood up. Primal impulses, letting her know this was no simple exchange. The clerk wasn’t trying to help her. He was trying to goad her.

“I’ll ask Rader,” she said, hoping a mention of the Longemeire captain by name would lend some gravitas to her answer. “If he says I need it, I’ll get it.”

“You do that,” the clerk said. He smiled, but it wasn’t friendly. “You go right ahead and ask Rader.”

Beside her, Nilah felt impatience bristle from Ponytail like porcupine quills.

“You don’t need it,” he said. Simple, to the point, but each word was loaded with a healthy dose of “get the hell out of my way.” Instead of articulating that, however, he added one more sentence. “Says Rader.”

She said nothing. Didn’t turn around. Couldn’t.

Damn that clerk, making an idiot out of her not just front of a flight crew, but in front of Rader himself.

“We’re retrofitted,” Rader added.

She forced herself to sneak one glance at him. Did he think this was funny, too? She couldn’t tell. His eyes betrayed nothing. Looking into them was like smacking face first into cold stainless.

“That’s timely information.” She kept it terse. “Thank you.”

She fled the commissary and headed for the terminal to collect her dogs and her luggage. What a terrible way to start this trip. If she’d ever doubted the invisibility of women in a man’s world, or their marginalized value as human beings in a frontier society, she certainly couldn’t deny it now.

* * * 

“Fifteen percent of the crew is female,” said the APV pilot she knew only as Hub as they walked up a short flight of steps to the uppermost level of the freighter. “Ten percent is transgender.”

Hub had been one of the six hairy beasts she saw on the tarmac that day at the airport. White-blond hair, expressive dark eyes—a Haflinger pony, short in stature but long on good nature and strength. He’d been assigned by Rader to help acclimate her to life on board a freighter.

“What positions do women typically fill?” Nilah asked, keeping pace beside him. “Domestic or professional?”

“They fill the positions they applied for.” He nodded at another crew member as they passed him on the mezzanine. “We have women in the galley and in laundry, but we also have a female nuclear engineer, two women in electrical, and four on the bridge.” He gave her a sideways look. “Why so interested in what our women do?”

Nilah knew to proceed with caution. Honesty was called for here, but not opinion. “I’ll spend the next ten months interacting with the people on this airship. I need to understand the social hierarchy, so I don’t get eaten alive.”

He stopped walking and leaned against the mezzanine railing. Below them, off-duty crew members lounged in the common room, basking in a very authentic-looking sunlight beaming down from retrofitted day panels. “Any chance you’re overthinking this?”

She smiled. “Possibly. But probably not.”

He hadn’t been present in the commissary when she and the clerk had their exchange, so she gave him a brief rundown of the encounter. When she got to the part about Rader, he winced.

“I wish I could tell you that kind of shit never happens out here, that we’re an enlightened and evolved people. About the best I can do is wage a bet that Johnny thought that guy was just as big an asshole as you did.”

“Johnny?”

He blinked hard, like he was trying to beam common sense to her through his eyeballs. “Johnny. Rader.” He twirled a finger in the air. “Flies this thing.”

“Ah.”

So not just first name basis, then. First name familiar basis. Interesting.

Hub squinted at her, as if his next words pained him. “Can I give you some advice?”

Nilah nodded. “That’s actually what I’m angling for.”

“Eh, you probably don’t want this advice,” he said. “But I hope you listen. Whatever hang-ups you have about women and boohoo life isn’t fair and penis envy and whatever—this isn’t the place for it. There’s no social unrest on this freighter. You acting like there should be is going to make for a long, miserable ten months, and not for the crew.”

Was that a threat? Nilah studied him carefully, thought about his words—thought about their context—and pegged them ninety percent sincere good intentions, ten percent don’t-fuck-with-us. It was a ratio she could live with.

* * *

The fact that the Longemeire had no windows except on the bridge took a little getting used to. It wasn’t a lack of brightness—the day panels were almost more effective than actual sunlight. It wasn’t lack of view, although that was certainly the case. Her second day on the freighter, she’d mentioned this to Hub and he just shrugged: “There’s nothing to see out there.” And Nilah supposed there wasn’t.

Her almost subconscious objection, like an instinctive, primal aversion to snakes, was not something that couldn’t be overcome, but was definitely something that required understanding to do so. She felt sure it had to do with motion. The speeds achieved by the Longemeire weren’t exactly bone-crushing in regard to G-force, but still were fast enough to require on-board gravitational stabilizers. She felt certain she was sensitive to their effects. Her body knew she was hurtling through space at speeds that should kill her, even though all environmental clues said otherwise. The inability to look out a window and gauge the rate at which they passed other objects in space confused her internal sensors even more. The only thing that seemed to help was total immersion in water, which could be accomplished at the freighter’s fitness center by floating around in the deep end of the swimming pool.

They’d been under way for forty days, were thirty-six hours from docking at the Space Station, and she hadn’t seen John Rader once during all that time. So his appearance in the fitness center startled her into a near-drowning incident that involved a quiet capsize off her inflatable lounger and more water in her sinuses than she preferred. Fortunately, her two seconds of actual distress went unnoticed by safety scouts, so she was able to paddle calmly alongside the lounger, nose barely above the surface, and watch the freighter captain tackle a running mile of simulated Appalachian Trail before he even broke a sweat.

People in the fitness center were off-duty, relaxed. Informal. It proved interesting to watch how they interacted with their captain, which was essentially no interaction at all. Everyone ignored him. Certainly not hostility—maybe deference? It made her think about that first impression back at the airport, when the APV crew walked past her without so much as a glance. If it hadn’t been rudeness, then what? Some frontier social code neither acknowledged nor discussed? She felt sure it was significant that Rader had been the only one out of that group to make eye contact. But how that translated into a meaningful clue about how to interact with these people was anybody’s guess.

Nilah had just finished dressing and was bent forward squeezing water out of her hair when his shoes appeared on the rubberized floor inches from the puddle she’d made. She recognized them from earlier—she’d watched Rader’s entire workout, amazed at how long it took him to get winded. Slowly, she straightened and braced herself for impact with his unyielding stare.

“Will you disembark once we dock tomorrow?” No greeting, no preamble. Then, “You should.”

She grabbed a towel from her bag and draped it over her shoulders, sparing her shirt from the water she hadn’t wrung from her hair. “Why?”

“Because it’s the Space Station. Everybody needs to see it at least once.”

Now he was serving as her personal tour guide?

“I don’t know,” she said, cautious in her response. “I can’t leave my dogs alone that long. Eight hours, max. Hub said in order to really see any of it, you have to go to the interior. And that takes a couple hours, right? Just to get there? So it’s best to find lodging, stay overnight. Except animals can’t be cleared for entry. I can’t take them.”

The Space Station had its share of four legged or feathered residents. All domestic, all serving some sort of purpose. Pets. Service animals. Beef cows. Chickens. Emu. She’d studied the list in second year at vet school, since students were tested on the reasoning behind each species sent from the surface. Animal populations had been established on the Space Station for more than a century. Contagious veterinary disease was one hundred percent controlled in that environment. Now, the only way a new animal could be introduced to the Space Station was by arrival in sterile embryonic stasis.

Rader draped a towel around the back of his neck and held an end with each hand, tendons in his wrists prominent as he gripped the cloth. “I can get somebody to watch the dogs for you. That is, if they’re good with other people.”

She stared at him, maybe a beat or two longer than would be considered polite. “You’d do that?”

“Sure.” He shrugged. “Why not?”

Her dogs were good with other people. Definitely. Not even fearful of strangers. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.”

“I grew up in a province outside Panama,” he said. “We had sheep, cows, goats—and we kept working dogs. Border Collies. Sometimes it’s odd, not having animals around.”

Nilah didn’t know what to say. How to react. Whether or not it was advisable even to smile. She’d certainly never seen him do it. “My three—are they allowed outside quarters? I mean, can I walk them around the upper deck? On leash?”

He nodded. It was a slight gesture, but noticeable. “I don’t have a problem with that. Can’t imagine the crew would, either.”

“Okay. Sounds good. Thank you,” she said. “They’re friendly. Well mannered. The biggest problem I can foresee is that everybody on the Longemeire is going to want a dog after they’re gone.”

For the first time since she’d known him, the ice cracked. Just a little, at the corner of each eye. Almost a smile, but not quite. “They know better,” he said.

And walked away.

* * *

Two days before they hit orbit around Galaxo, Nilah received a summons to the bridge.

She’d been on board the Longemeire for nine months, two weeks, and three days, and had never been asked to report anywhere, much less to command central. Never had Hub shown up outside her quarters unannounced, unsmiling, with instructions from the Captain that in no way involved a choice. Mentally or otherwise, she didn’t have time to prepare for whatever might come next. She showed up at the freighter’s main navigational center wearing the sweats she’d slept in the previous night, unable to recall if she’d even brushed her teeth that morning.

One step across the threshold and she knew none of that mattered.

John Rader stood alone at the controls. His expression was stark. “Thank you, Hub,” he said to his APV pilot without once taking his eyes off Nilah. “We’ll be in shortly.”

In? In where?

Hub slipped back out the door and it closed silently behind him.

“Dr. Tate,” Rader said, indicating one of the swivel chairs in front of the freighter’s massive control array. “Please have a seat.”

She gave a tiny shake of her head. “I’ll stand, if you don’t mind.”

“Fair enough.” Not a hint of irritation or much of anything else registered on his features. “I brought you here to let you know your transport to Terrafour has been cancelled. You won’t be going.”

Nilah blinked. It was all she could do. That, or choke him.

After a long moment, she found her voice. “What? Why?”

“Late last night, we picked up a radio beacon from Galaxo.” He looked grim. “They’re diverting all traffic and won’t clear any APVs to land. There’s been an outbreak. Galaxo’s under quarantine. We’re instructed to leave, or maintain orbit until further notice.”

It took a few seconds for Nilah to realize she was shaking her head. Had been for a while. Possibly since he’d started talking. “I don’t understand. What kind of outbreak?”

“Haithun,” he said. “It’s killing people. Not just animals. And it all started on Terrafour.”

Nilah sat. Hard. In the chair directly behind her. Flopped her head against its high back, and closed her eyes.

Haithun. Killing people. Exactly what nearly every scientist in the galaxy said would never happen—and exactly what her reaction to the modified live vaccine suggested was the next step in pandemic evolution of the virus.

She opened her eyes. “Dr. Fitzroy?”

Rader simply shook his head.

The room was circular, with a rotating floor that could swivel the bridge a full three hundred and sixty degrees. This allowed the flight crew unimpeded visibility of the surrounding skies. She glanced nervously at those skies through the panoramic windows, wondering what might be out there, lurking. As far as she could see, only blackness, a velvet canvas interrupted only by pinpoint stars and cosmic dust.

“I didn’t come all this way for nothing,” she said, her voice like sandpaper. “I refuse to have come all this way for nothing.”

Something softened in his eyes, but Rader didn’t acknowledge what she’d said. “We’ve had intermittent radio contact with the surface since oh-eight-hundred. We’re in transmission range now. Dr. Christine Darzi from CDC Galaxo has asked to speak with you.”

“Speak with me?” Nilah repeated. “Why?”

“She’s on satcom in the conference bay right now,” he said. “Will you join us?”

* * *

The freighter’s conference bay was packed with senior crew, all gathered around a long table that held a few drink cups but nothing else. Most of them were standing, faces somber. Rader took his place at the head of the table. Hub immediately flanked his captain with his beefy arms folded. Gone was the informality she’d enjoyed with the crew for nearly a year. The ease. The sense of family. This felt like something else altogether. It looked like a war room.

Nilah chose a spot to stand about halfway down the table. Middle ground. She tried to corral her thoughts, but they kept whirling. Round and round, making her dizzy. Fitzroy. Dead. Outbreak. Haithun. Her head spun like a centrifuge, heartwrenching details clanging about inside it like pieces of a broken sample tube. The animals….

“Dr. Tate.”

The voice came through the room’s audio system, over her head and all around her at the same time. She glanced up, not recognizing the face on the large screen display. A woman, pretty, Middle Eastern descent. White lab coat. Petite nostils flaring, nose to the wind. An Arabian—flighty, high-strung, and hot blooded.

Nilah straightened. “Yes.”

“Hi, I’m Dr. Christine Darzi, head of epidemiology at CDC Galaxo. I understand you’re enroute to Terrafour?”

“Not any more, from the sound of it.”

“That’s correct. Three weeks ago, a delivery shuttle returned to our docks with photographic evidence of widespread plague activity on Terrafour. All human inhabitants of the planet were accounted for in the photographs and all are deceased. The shuttle and all its occupants were immediately quarantined and observed. Two crew members succumbed to a fast-moving hemorrhagic disease that, on examination, proved to be a humanized form of the Haithun virus.”

Nilah took a deep breath. “The animals?”

“Only the chimpanzees were affected. The livestock were immunized.” Darzi offered a tight, humorless smile. “But this presents yet another dilemma, one we hope to consult with you about.”

“A dilemma?”

“We sent a group of scientists in positive pressure gear to the surface on Terrafour shortly after we realized what we were dealing with. They disposed of the bodies and destroyed the surviving primates. It seems pretty clear that the virus was introduced in some of the contraband shipments Dr. Fitzroy received—probably via mice or other small vertebrates—then made a jump into the monkeys. So in that sense, it’s contained. We know Haithun has a very short incubation period and moderate viability in the environment, provided no potential hosts exist. Galaxo will be under quarantine for another month. Besides the two who died, none of the other crew members have shown signs of illness. We’re cautiously optimistic at this point.

“But that leaves us with Terrafour. Of the immunized livestock, we have documentation of forty-two equine and sixty-seven domestic bovine specimens left on the surface. Thirteen other bovidae. Our scientists released all from captivity so none would starve or die of dehydration. Plenty of grasses exist on the planet as well as reliable water sources. But without predation, the herds will soon increase to the point the surface is unable to sustain them. So here’s where you come in. We need to consult with you about the best remedy for this.”

“Remedy?” Nilah echoed, her thoughts still too scattered to string together a coherent sentence. Chimpanzees. Destroyed. Exterminated. Like roaches.

Then she understood what Darzi was suggesting, and clarity returned with almost painful force. “Remedy” equaled “mass euthanasia.” They were asking her how to efficiently kill every living inhabitant on the planet.

“Let me make sure I understand,” she said. “The herds are disease-free, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to tell you how to kill them.”

Around her, several members of the Longemeire crew shifted position. Said nothing, but the soft rustling of their clothing and quiet intakes of breath told her she had done the math faster than anyone else in the room.

Darzi cleared her throat. “We are without options, Dr. Tate. We do, however, hope for a humane solution.”

Through the view screen, Nilah pinned Dr. Christine Darzi with a stare she hoped could rival that of any Longemeire crew member. “I have a different suggestion. We let them live.”

“Dr. Tate, surely you understand that without a human caretaker—”

“Nobody said anything about them not having a human caretaker. This is Haithun, correct? Most likely, H-7.”

Darzi blinked. “Yes. How did you know that?”

“Because H-7 was the strain our research isolated as the mostly likely to make a jump into primates. It was incorporated into a multi-species vaccine four years ago and blood titers showed antibody response in all subjects we tested within forty-eight hours of immunization.”

Darzi shook her head. “I don’t understand the relevance.”

“The relevance is that two years ago, I suffered an accidental stick of the H-7 vaccine. I had a site reaction that left me with a mass of scar tissue on my formerly quite-attractive ass that had to be surgically removed.

“But let me tell you what I also had. I had a low grade fever that lasted about twelve hours, and then a nosebleed. After that, I had blood drawn. And drawn again every twenty four hours for the next week. Guess what? I had positive antibody response for every Haithun variant known to man. I have sterile immunity to H-7, Dr. Darzi, and so do my dogs. Nobody’s going to kill those animals on Terrafour. Not with me on this side of the galaxy.”

The disapproval in Darzi’s reply could not have been more obvious. “Be realistic, Dr. Tate. How would you even get there?”

For that, Nilah didn’t have an immediate answer.

But John Rader did.

“We have five APV capable of navigating a shielded atmosphere,” he said, and his steely gaze never wavered. “Terrafour has a paved landing strip about three miles from ground zero. I can put the Longermeire in geostationary orbit, get in, and get out without any chance of becoming a vector. Dr. Tate will be on her own from there—” He looked directly at Nilah and did not look away. “But she knows that.”

Slowly, Nilah nodded. Didn’t speak, didn’t so much as glance at Darzi. She couldn’t.

“It’s a suicide mission,” Darzi said. “Absolutely insane.”

Rader shrugged, never taking his eyes off Nilah. “I’ll request permission to bypass orbit after delivery at the construction site. We’ll deadhead to Terrafour and I’ll fly her to the surface myself.”

Then, on his face, an almost-smile, offered only to Nilah and no one else in the room. Not a total thaw, but the end of arctic winter.

She held his gaze, unwavering. Feeling anything but invisible. “Let’s do it,” she said. “Sometimes a little crazy can save us all.”

* * *