I pause outside the door of the private patient dwelling, as I do each time I come to this particular room.
The girl in the hospital bed reminds me of my sister, and while it would normally be a source of amusement and perhaps a bit of banter with the patient, in this instance it is slightly disconcerting. The chart lists her age as fifteen, which is a couple of years shy of my own sister’s age, but the girl has the same wild brown hair and a near constant smirk, despite the circumstances of her visit.
This patient had presented with the first symptoms of the disease currently occupying the attention of most of the EDC. Though it was only first diagnosed two years and six months ago, initially in the southern regions of Mexico, the Drought had already been prioritized for research by every medical facility on the planet, not least of all the EDC—the Earth Disease Control Sector.
I straighten my shoulders, let myself smile, and raise my hand to knock. I use the same silly, complicated rhythm of alternating knocks each time, just as I do with any patient who is on the younger side and in need of cheering up.
“Just a sec, Stacy,” the girl calls. Her voice is cheerful, if a bit raspy from the disease. The patient, Kaylee, has been in observation for two days, but has yet to let it dampen her spirits.
“Alright, come in.”
Kaylee is sitting up in bed, scrolling through her phone, pausing intermittently to scrunch up her face and think before pressing some unseen button with the pad of her finger. I stroll through the small, sparsely decorated room. The girl will be here a while longer, as it isn’t remotely safe to send her home and away from medical supervision. I can’t imagine spending any significant amount of time as a teenager in a room devoid of posters and stuffed animals. I should tell her father, the next time I bump into him in the hallway, to bring some of her things. Reaching the bed, I pull out the small light tucked into my pocket, and click it on, angling it at the proper height to peer into Kaylee’s throat. Or it would be, were Kaylee’s mouth open. Her eyes are still fixed firmly on the screen in her hand.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Kaylee looks up, smiles sheepishly. “Just a dating sim,” she says, opening her mouth and allowing me to look inside. The tissue there is still swollen, though the anti-inflammatories they keep pumping her full of, along with fluids, have done their work at keeping her out of the woods. The Drought kills quickly without medical intervention. Any contact water makes with mucus membranes results in swelling of the airways. It usually begins with small changes that progress overtime, like Kaylee’s, but thus far, it has always proven fatal in the end.
“What’s the verdict?’ Kaylee asks.
“Better than yesterday,” I answer easily, brightly. “Which means the medication is doing its job. Still on the swollen side though.”
Kaylee lifts one shoulder, smile fading slightly for just one short second, before she rallies, and brings it back. “Could always be worse.”
I clear my throat. Part of any nurse’s job is to steer the conversation somewhere light-hearted, and throughout the years of college and clinical practice that preceded this job, I like to think I’ve perfected it.
“Tell me about this dating sim. I need to know what the kids are up to these days.”
Kaylee gives me a short laugh. “Sure. But you’re not that old. You’re like, what, twenty-five, max? And you said you were an intern with the EDC. Interns can’t be old.”
“Close,” I say. “Twenty-six.”
Kaylee nods, as though filing the number away to reference in the future. I busy myself with checking the patient’s vitals, which is, professionally speaking, the sole reason for my visit. Admittedly though, I have allotted the job more time than I would have otherwise. Kaylee is good company. Her chatter fills the room as I work, counting her respirations and jotting the number down on the tablet I carry.
I try to follow along with her very colorful description of the dating sim she’s currently engrossed in. Apparently, the whole premise is hooking your avatar up with a variety of hunky alien men. I fix the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
“Arigs are super hot, don’t you think?” Kaylee asks, holding up the phone to showcase a picture of an alien with skin that looks like plated armor.
I tilt my head. “Not doing much for me.”
“Really?” Kaylee seems to be in disbelief that people have varying tastes. I nod. “Alright, to each their own. What about Velorians?” she asks, switching to a picture of an alien with red skin that has an odd sheen to it and spines poking up from his shoulders. I lean in a bit, intrigued, as the species isn’t one I’m particularly familiar with. The latest count claims there are up to 300 various alien species, so it isn’t exactly surprising. Being a nurse on my home planet of Earth, I have only concerned myself with memorizing human anatomy. Some of the pictures Kaylee flips past are more intriguing than others, and I find myself wondering what it would be like to be with an alien man. I’m torn between weird and sexy, but leaning toward sexy.
I am about to give a slightly more positive answer, actually taking the time to examine the photo, when the door opens. There is no knock signaling the approach, and both Kaylee and I jump a bit, the teenager quickly pressing a button to turn her phone screen to a safe, empty black. We share a conspiratorial smirk before we turn to investigate the interruption.
“What are you doing here?” a man’s voice says, and I can’t help but sigh a little when I see that the speaker is Amos Darwin. When I first heard his name, I assumed he was a genius, or at least a great scientist, but I quickly learned to lower my expectations. The first thing he does is look to my chest, searching for my name tag, despite the fact that we have worked together several times before. My annoyance only grows when I realize that his staring falls a bit below the name tag, and his gaze lingers for far longer than it would have taken to read my name. I have a small frame that most others call petite; ample breasts, and a pretty nice butt, if I do say myself. Still, most people at least pretend not to stare so blatantly. Beyond my own irritation is the question of whether he does the same with his female patients.
Clearing my throat, I walk around to the front of Kaylee’s bed. The movement snaps him out of his daze.
“I’m not a visitor. I’m your intern,” I say, keeping my voice calm, though I cannot resist the urge to turn to Kaylee and stage whisper, “Have been for months.”
The EDC medical center isn’t much different from your garden-variety hospital at first glance, but it’s taken me a long while to learn the subtle politics that are more prevalent here than at other, less qualified institutions. Despite its merits, and the quicker than average advancements of its research, it feels like too much of a boys’ club for me to ever feel truly comfortable. I’m not the only intern, but the others receive far more respect than I do, perhaps because I don’t go out drinking at the sports bar with the guys. Even with nursing school under my belt, my opinion doesn’t seem to be worth much to the bosses or other workers, especially Amos Darwin.
Darwin obviously heard the snide remark to Kaylee, and I tense with anticipation as his lips quirk into a superior smirk. “Well,” he says. “If you’re an intern, you may as well make yourself useful. When you’re finished with the patient, bring me a sandwich to Meeting Room B.”
Darwin walks to the door, presses a series of buttons on the electronic clipboard, and goes on his way.
“He could have at least read my name before he came inside,” Kaylee says, shaking her head incredulously. “Everyone else at least pretends they remember me from the day before. What was he even doing in here? You’re the one doing the work.”
I silence Kaylee by holding out the thermometer, and she quiets just long enough to hold it under her tongue the required few seconds before it issues a beep. Slightly elevated, but nowhere near dangerous. Not yet at least.
“Why’d you let him talk to you like that?” Kaylee asks.
“Because I love this job. And part of any job is dealing with assholes.”
Kaylee raises an eyebrow. “Your student loan payments are too high to quit, huh?”
The girl’s guess is dead on, but it’s not the only reason I’m here. I’m here to help people like Kaylee, who don’t have much of a chance at any kind of life if the Drought isn’t cured. I’m here to make a difference in my small corner of the galaxy. This would be enough to make most people happy, but I can’t help the longing that sometimes fills me for something more.
“You’d think it was the twenty-first century, the women scurrying around doing the chores for the men,” Kaylee says, still going, and though her tone is light and teasing, I can’t help the slow evaporation of my good mood. “Maybe he’s actually the reincarnation of the late, great Darwin himself,” Kaylee suggests.
“I don’t think he’s smart enough,” I say back, trying to keep my voice light. It isn’t Kaylee’s fault her words are annoyingly close to the truth. The girl is laughing when I leave the room, eyes bright and not at all afraid of the inevitable closing of her throat, and I consider it an accomplishment.
Once I close the door behind me, there isn’t much reason to keep smiling, and I let it drop from my face, sighing with vigor as I head toward the closest staff room, where there should be a few lunches up for grabs in the vending machine. The staff room is blessedly empty; I’m certainly no longer in the mood for the idle small talk of the other nurses and interns. I snatch an egg-salad sandwich from the machine, since Darwin didn’t specify. It’s the grossest one I’ve tried. My lips twitch just a bit as I head to Meeting Room B, fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen to be his favorite sandwich.
The meeting has already started, and I can already imagine Darwin pausing the proceedings to berate me for taking too long while everyone else looks on, and I’m in no position to argue.
I pause outside the door, trying to make out the muffled voices as I repair the disarray my honey-blonde hair has fallen into. I don’t usually like any attention won from my appearance, and try to stick to clothing that doesn’t show anything off, but that doesn’t mean I want to look frazzled and unkempt in front of room full of people who are likely important.
I don’t bother knocking before I enter the room. Interns are trained to call little attention to themselves, and though I’m slightly worried about Darwin’s need to flaunt his position, it seems more likely that they won’t even register the interruption.
The meeting room is dimmed somewhat so that the men gathered around the various tables can better make out the hologram projected there. I keep my eyes on Darwin, the end goal, and do my best not to let myself become distracted by the projection. Darwin gives me a dirty look when I make it to him, but I avoid the poison of his gaze and sit the sandwich down in front of him. He pokes skeptically at the bread and frowns. I turn away, smiling widely, and begin to make my way back through the maze of tables that separates me from the door. I’m halfway there, when a familiar voice makes me pause.
I turn, discreetly, and recognize the Big Boss of the EDC, Edgar Reynholm. I’ve heard him speak before at a few of the organization functions that even interns were invited too, but I’d never seen him so close. He’s a tall, imposing man with gray in his beard, but not in his hair, and piercing blue eyes.
“The lack of diversity is shocking,” Reynholm says, seemingly addressing the room at large. “We’re forming a crew for the mission to find a cure for the Drought, a problem that affects all of us—and this is the best we can do?”
My mind hears the word “cure” and latches on. It’s all I’ve thought of since getting this job, and the urge to speak is overpowering. “The cure?” I say. My voice isn’t loud, but neither is it a whisper, and I find myself meeting Reynholm’s gaze as his eyes find me in the center of the dimly lit room.
He smiles, plainly optimistic about the subject. “You heard correctly. We received a distorted message one week ago, and now that our techs have deciphered it, it’s clear what they’re offering.”
Darwin clears his throat, obviously thinking the explanation for my benefit is a grand waste of everyone’s time, but Mr Reynholm keeps plowing forward, apparently relishing any opportunity to speak about the discovery.
“There is supposedly a plant that grows on Veloria capable of curing the symptoms of the Drought. Not just relieving them, slowing their progress like we’ve been doing, but actually eradicating the disease.” The man’s smile is wide, contagious, and far more genuine than I would have expected the smile of the Big Boss to be. Perhaps he got into this for more than money.
“The meeting will be very dangerous, of course,” Reynholm continues. “Our anonymous messenger is only willing to meet us on a planet not under Federation control. They won’t be obligated to follow any of the agreed upon intergalactic laws that the rest of the planets have created together.”
One of the scientists speaks up. “That means we don’t have to follow them either.” A few of the others laugh, but Reynholm doesn’t look amused.
“Sounds like a trap to me,” I say, speaking so that my voice carries across the room to Reynholm. His response to me earlier seems to have given me a little extra confidence.
It does sound like a trap. Experience has taught me to be skeptical of things that sound too good to be true—like this job, for instance.
“And you,” Reynholm says, “just might be sharper than most of the people in this room.” He looks to Darwin. “Give me one good reason why this lovely lady isn’t a part of the crew? This mission is one of the most important things the EDC may do—ever, and I need to be sure people are chosen for it based on merit, not … popularity, Amos.”
Oh, snap. I press my hand to my mouth to conceal my smile. Seems as though Reynholm sees right through my boss, and it’s so refreshing to hear.
Darwin’s face pales, and when he finds his voice, he stammers more than a little. “Of course, she is coming. She’s a key member of our team!”
I try, but I cannot resist the urge to roll my eyes. Much of the room is looking in my direction now, and the action wins me a few chuckles.
“Take this seriously, gentlemen,” Reynholm says. He looks to the hologram projected rotating in the center of the room. I can see now that it shows a plant with spiky leaves and flowers that look almost translucent, like ice. “This could be how humanity is saved.”
Even if it is a trap—and it probably is—it seems like too good an opportunity to pass up. I have always wanted to travel. I consider it second only to my desire to help people as much as I can. Between paying for school and sending home the odd bit of money to my sister, there wasn’t much room for non-necessities. I have to go, both to give in to the urge to explore that has always lived in my bones, and to save that planet and the people that I love so much. Maybe, if we get the mission underway quickly, there will even be time enough for Kaylee to be treated.
The holographic image switches to one of an unfamiliar planet, named only X24. All planets that are not affiliated with the Federation bear such uninspired names—in English, at least. Still, the notes that appear alongside it claim that it has pleasant enough temperatures, atmosphere, and gravity that don’t differ much from Earth.
It probably won’t be that bad.