Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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The Plague Merchants

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt




"He's coming around... pump another cc of interfix into him, orderly." The smoke surrounding him was etched with flashes of red pain. Shapes took drifting form and became a circle of white uniforms.

"Okay, Corporal, sign here on the dotted line."

A clipboard swam before his eyes, dazzling him with the reflection of an overhead lightbar. "What... sign what?" he mumbled, gagging on a wad of congealed blood, teeth.

"This release form, Corporal. The frag beam what took out your ship at the invasion of New Saturn made mush of your body. We have to transfer your sentience to a cybernetic andrex."

With an effort Bullard focused on the holder of the clipboard. "Why can't I be patched up? I don't feel all that bad," he croaked.

"Are you kidding? My lead hypo man puked all over the floor when you were wheeled in."

Another body lay on a table beside him flanked by a looming mass of equipment. He stared at the nondescript protoflesh face and realized he had seen it everywhere, from loading docks on Ganymede to space bars on Dropoff. The standard andrex profile; blonde, cleft chin, steel blue eyes.

"This is your lucky day, Corporal. The warehouse ran out of enlisted men's units so you get the officer's model, the 25J. This baby has taste, smell and one hell of a protoflesh hard-on, guaranteed to keep the old lady down on the farm. You married, Corporal?"

Naked fear shafted through the paingas fog. "But I don't wanna be a model 25J," Bullard moaned, "I wanna be me!"

"Your bioreadings are dropping fast, Corporal. Better sign, ticky-boo." Clipboard and attached servipen hovered in the gathering fog. "What'll it be, soldier? A shiny new 25J... or a body bag?"


******


"Next applicant, please."

Bullard slipped the grimy folder from his vest and moved up to the window. He glanced around him at the dejected crowd milling before the departure gates, all outworlders like himself, he mused, trapped on Kloak by the disease which was knocking off pinkeyes like pawns in a fast game of so-do, clutching forms and wads of paperwork with eyes fear-bright. Guards toting needleguns slouched by the gate leading to the launch terminal. In his cubicle the Kloakan clerk brooded over a desk piled high with datatapes, gazing at a viscreen as if pondering an oracle. Bullard dropped a stack of forms on the counter.

"Well, here it is, pal, forms DD214 through ZZ500, notarized, testified and plagiarized in triplicate," he declared. "Now are you gonna let me get the hell off this planet?"

The Kloaken looked up from the viscreen and surveyed Bullard bleakly, drooping jowls and pink eyes exuding melancholia. "I am familiar with the paperwork, Mr. Bullard. Please be patient."

"Yeah, well I've been patiently filling out forms and cooling my heels for the last six cycles," he retorted. "I came down here and worked for you people, got your machines fixed and topped off my contract. Now I wanna go home to Earth."

"All you outworlders want to go home, I'm afraid. But let me remind you Kloak is a plague world, under interplanetary blockade and quarantine." He lifted Bullard's application and ran a pensive glance across it. "Earth has only a small amount of shuttle craft willing to evacuate non-indigenous life forms. We have diplomats and technicians on the wait list and I see here you are merely a mechanic."

"Merely a mechanic, huh?" Bullard pulled a cigar stub from a vest pocket and jammed it between his teeth. "Next time the plasma hydros go out on one of your big ore freighters four tabs after liftoff you just call in a diplomat and toss him some tools. Then see what happens."

The clerk lifted a restraining hand. "Mr. Bullard, try to see things as a Kloakan. We are a race dying of an unknown disease, shunned by all sentient worlds, are government collapsing in despair and our people maddened by religious fanaticism. We deserve your understanding and compassion."

Bullard fired up his lectroflash and blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. "So what's my number on the wait list to leave this paradise, if you'll pardon my sarcasm."

"Not at all. You are number 5,016 on the evacuation wait list of 9,862."

"Golly, I'd better stampede back to my squalid living quarters and hurriedly pack." He dropped his cigar butt on the carpet and stepped on it. "Thanks a lot for your kind attention."

Wind blew grit against the viewport of the waiting hall. Outside on the launch pad a starfreighter thundered skywards while he struggled into his storm jacket. Several more rejectees trudged in from the departure terminal and lined up before the racks.

"Excuse me, I think that's my face filter under your dust goggles." The woman behind him was petite wearing antique eyeglasses over dark observant eyes. Dusky complexion, black pageboy hairdo. Hispanic background somewhere, Bullard guessed.

"Got the old steel-toed number ten from the terminal bureaucrats, huh?" he commented affably. "How low was your wait number?"

She turned and studied him. "My wait number?"

"Yeah, your name on the wait list for a ship outta here."

"I'm not on the list," she replied. "I already have access to a ship, although it may as well be a pile of slag. What I needed from the Terminal Commission was an authorization for a mechanic to repair the hyperdrive system. They handed me a wad of forms to fill out and put me on the service list, of course. Cooperation was never a trait of Kloakans-." She paused at the sight of Bullard's widening grin and stared. A smile of dawning realization crept over her face. "You wouldn't happen to be a mechanic, would you?" she asked tentatively. "Timephase certified for a Class IX Terran shuttle?"

Bullard swung the goggles from a finger and grinned even wider. "I'm here to tell you I can fix anything but a bad attitude." He held out his hand. "Jim Bullard, at your service."

"Dr. Elena Christiana." Her hand was tiny and warm with a man's grip. "Perhaps we could work something out. My office is at the Madon Clinic."

"Didn't that used to be called the Kloakan General Hospital?"

"Not any more," she answered, reaching for her atmosphere suit. "The Director and his committee died of the plague. Madon Interplanetary Realty took over ownership."

He nodded. "I suppose the director and his boys were pinkeyes?"

The corners of her mouth turned down, eyes disapproving. "I regard the word pinkeye as a derogatory term, Mr. Bullard. I believe the correct term is Kloakan."

Bullard smiled. "Yes, ma'am. I consider myself suitably rebuked."

"Shall we say after two this afternoon?"


******


Climbing out of the cab Bullard handed the fare to the Kloakan driver, pink eyes somber above the protective facemask. Most of the Kloakans passing him on the walkway weren't wearing them. Maybe they figured out masks were a futile gesture considering the death ratio.

"Excuse me, but shouldn't you at least be wearing a facemask?" The clinic receptionist was wearing one, plus gloves and a full atmosphere suit. The eyes behind the faceplate looked female and incredulous.

"No ma'am, don't need it," Bullard assured her.

The faceplate leaned closer. "You're an andrex?"

"Yep, made from the finest protoflesh, nuts, bolts and staples."

"Oh, I see... can I help you?"

"Hope so. I'm here to see Dr. Christiana."

"You would be Mr. Bullard." She waved a glove over her shoulder. "Down the hall, turn right at the isolation ward, first door on the left."

His boots squeaked on the polished linoleum. Traffic in the hallway was sparse, humans encased in atmosphere suits, Kloakans in masks and gloves. They all stared at him, edging away. Halfway down the hall he passed a long window. Beyond the glass was a vast ward, blindingly lit, rows of beds holding sheeted Kloakans. White-suited figures moved among them, adjusting tubes, checking the readouts from blinking machines. An occupant was being eased into a black body bag. Against the far wall was a stack of filled body bags. Lots of them.

"Please take a seat, Mr. Bullard. I'll be with you in a minute." Dr. Christiana sat behind the largest desk he had seen outside a museum. Probably a twenty-first century antique. Her I-love-me-wall was hung with awards and certificates. There was a framed photo of her in a karate gi. Now that was interesting.

"Now then." She dropped a stack of reports in a basket and leaned forward, steepling her fingers. "Down to business. You want transport off Kloak and we have a ship which needs expert repairs."

"Well, I didn't come all the way down here for a prostate exam," Bullard remarked. He reached for a cigar in his vest then thought better of it under that basilisk gaze. "When are you planning on leaving?"

"Hopefully in two days, sooner if you can correct the problem with the hyperdrive. I think that's what they called it."

"Yeah, I've done lots of work on them in the Service." He leaned back in his seat. "You can start loading your passengers and goodies aboard and get your evacuation permit dated and signed."

"We don't have an evacuation permit at this time"

"Excuse me?"

Dr. Christiana adjusted the glasses on her nose. "Did you happen to glance at the isolation ward on your way here, Mr. Bullard?"

"Yeah, but- "

"The plague on Kloak has so far killed two thirds of the population. Their mortality rate is 83.4 per cent. Do you know that the mortality rate for humans is 98.2 percent? The bubonic plague or the ebola virus is a mild case of the flu compared to it."

"I know that's a rough deal but--."

"Will you please allow me to finish, Mr. Bullard?" The eyes on him were luminous. Looking at her a thought came out of nowhere that she would probably be quite a handful in bed. "I have years of research in the disease and a sample of the virus. If we can get those to the advanced labs on Earth I believe the virologists there can come up with a vaccine." She was gaining momentum, like a snowball pushed from the top of a mountain.

"The problem is, I can't convince the Kloakan Council how urgent it is to move me up the evacuation list. The only ones immune to the plague are the madons and they are moving into the planet and buying up every asset left by a deceased kloakan." She paused, her face flushed. "As far as leaving Kloak, that's not a problem. We have a plan."

"Oh, you have a plan?" Bullard retorted. "Stinky Ed Valdez had a plan too when his timephase calculator went on the fritz. Came out of warp to find himself in the middle of a sun." He waited for a riposte that didn't come. Instead she leaned back, looking at him as if he were a patient terminally late for a scheduled appointment.

"How long have you been number 5016 on the evacuation wait list?" she asked.

That stopped him. If she knew that then the kloakans at the immigration office knew. Andrexes didn't get the plague. He might be number 5016 on the wait list for a very long time. Like forever.

"If it's a problem with the hyperdrive I can have it back online in a few hours. Who else is going with us?"

"The ship is owned by Mr. Sleez. He and his associate are both madons." She pushed a card over the blotter, tapping it with a fingernail. "Be at this address at the main starport tomorrow morning with your tools, Bullard. Do you have any farther questions?"

Bullard eased himself up and leaned against the door. "Just one. Why does such a little sprout like you need such a big desk?"


******


Ghost town. That's what the main Kloakan space terminal reminded Bullard. Rows of assorted parked jumpships from assorted worlds waiting departure permits, decontamination, bribes to officialdom. He got directions from a lethargic kloakan lounging by an empty baggage slider and found himself looking up at a sleek office tower. Madon Interplanetary Realty, LLC was emblazoned over the entrance.

"Ah, there you are at last!" Bullard looked to see two madons approaching, one tall and beaming, the other squat and sullen. Tweedledum and Tweedledee. He lowered his toolbelt to the asphalt.

"I'm Mr. Sleez, Director of Interplanetary." He advanced wearing an aura of vast congeniality that somehow seemed sinister on his vaguely reptilian face. "I'm so glad Dr. Christiana was able to locate you for our little journey."

Bullard had never much liked madons. It was said if you get in a turbolift with one it was wise to move your wallet from the back pocket to the front. Taking in the duo before him he decided he liked them even less. "Yeah, I suppose the makes two of us. Or three." He eyed Sleez's companion.

"Oh, let me introduce Mr. Skamm, my assistant and pilot."

"Stgfrijh eb shyebf." Skamm's lizard face remained impassive.

"As you can see, Mr. Skamm is not familiar with Terran."

This was not good. "Really? A starship pilot that can't speak terran?" he asked, acidly. "Any idea how he can communicate with the Interworld Controllers?"

"Are you a pilot, Mr. Bullard?"

"Matter of fact, yes, although my Class V license has expired--."

"Then I think Mr. Skamm will do quite well," said Sleez, slamming the door on farther discussion. The amphibian smile ratcheted up a notch. "Are you planning on returning to Kloak after the plague has ended?"

"Huh?"

"Madon Interplanetary Realty has just acquired a starship repair facility. We could offer you any number of subprime loans, zero percent interest the first thirty cycles, compounded on the descending lateral index featuring an attractive hourly interest recalibration," he declared, rubbing his hands together. Bullard was reminded of a hungry fly.

"Mr. Sleez," he said tiredly, "I wouldn't drag my sorry ass back here if all the honeys on Radnor's Pleasure Asteroid arrived, passing out all the free beer I could swill." He looped the toolbelt over his shoulder. "Wanna take me around to your problem child so I can get my mitts into it?"


******


It was like making love to an amorous woman. Knowing which place to caress, moving into position, finding the right level of touch. Timephase engineering wasn't just tech manuals and computer diagnostics. It was more of an instinct, acquired over years of experience. What worked and where. Bullard slid a memory disc into place and was rewarded by a line of green lights and a contented hum. He allowed himself a satisfied grunt, leaned back against a bulkhead and pulled out a cigar.

"Excuse me, but I could smell that all the way from my cabin." Dr. Christiana crossed her arms before him, exuding disapproval like spines. The lab coat had been replaced by a sleek jumpsuit which snugged her curves nicely. "And where did you get that thing? I thought tobacco was illegal?"

He leisurely blew a cloud at the ceiling. "I have my sources." He was somehow becoming fond of pulling her chain. "Haven't you heard the old expression... a good cigar to a man is like a good cry to a woman."

She looked ready to unload for a moment but settled for a toxic glare. "Mr. Sleez would like an update on the repairs I might assume you're working on."

He nodded agreeably. "The repairs are done."

"Thank you. I'll pass that information to him right now."

"Speaking of information..."

She paused, half turned and eyed him. "Yes?"

"You haven't mentioned to me how we're gonna get this ship off the planet without an evacuation permit," he said. "It's kind of been on my mind since I found out how painful it is to be vaporized by the quarantine fleet."

She seemed to ponder an answer in some private space of her being. "Very well. I'm treating the wife of Ghak, the Kloakan High Counselor. She has the plague. He's willing to allow us to slip away from Kloak on the chance my research material reaching Earth can save her. Happy now?" She favored him with a pale smile and headed up the corridor.

Bullard frowned to himself. Things were starting to look a little flaky around the edges. There was a big picture somewhere and they were letting him take little peeks at it. There was a lot going on he didn't know. And that was starting to worry him.


******


The hatch cover atop the silo grated open raining dust and night shadows on the ship squatting below. Inside the command deck Bullard eased himself into his seat and watched Skamm key in the liftoff sequence. Dr. Christiana was gazing absent-mindedly at the forward viewscreen while Sleez lounged next to Skamm with his customary lizard that ate the canary expression.

"You sure your little friend won't need a tiny bit of help with this thing?" Bullard asked.

The smirk remained fixed. "Oh, Mr. Skamm is doing just splendid. He's made the trip from Madon to Kloak quite a few times with only a few mishaps."

"Only a few mishaps?"

"Well, I feel entitled to point out any pilot can end up in the wrong star system from time to time."

"Soirnvtht bgeui en brbht." Skamm nodded to Sleez.

"He says he's ready for liftoff."

Bullard was slammed into the plushness of his seat as the shuttle vomited skywards. He caught a glimpse of city lights strung out like bright scattered beads before vanishing into the smog blanket. They climbed steadily, the pressure of liftoff easing.

A buzzer sounded in the cabin. Dr. Christiana pulled a comm disk from a pocket and held it to her ear. "Yes, this is Dr. Christiana. From whom? She did what... when?" Her face paled. "I'm so sorry to hear that, Councilor. But she was quite... hello? Hello?" She looked from Sleez to Bullard. "That was Ghak from the Kloakan High Council. His wife just died from the plague."

A red lightbar came to life above the main control board. "This is Blockade Control contacting Madon Interplanetary Realty shuttle," a metallic voice blared. "Your evacuation permit has been revoked. Return to launchport at once."

"Oh crap!" Bullard felt his protoflesh testicles retract. "There goes the plan, Doc. We gotta abort!"

Dr. Christiana bit her lower lip. "We can't go back now. We'll never get a second chance in time." She looked at Sleez. "Tell Skamm to engage timephase."

"You're totally cycled!" Bullard clawed himself up. "There's a good chance we'll burn up this deep in the atmosphere!"

"This is Blockade Control to unauthorized shuttle. You are hereby ordered vaporized under quarantine directive sixty-five--"

"Timephase engaged."

"Not yet! Not y--"


******


The ceiling lightbars shimmered, came into focus. To his right was the viewport, white with drifting stars. A hand moved over his forehead with a soft cool touch. Dark eyes moved into his vision.

"Are you quite back with us, Mr. Bullard?" Dr. Christiana asked. "You've been out for over an hour."

Bullard blinked. His head hammered away the anvil chorus. "Yeah, just terrific." He eased himself to a sitting position on the bed. "Andrexes are as tough as hell but they can't take too much timephase shock. I take it we're all in one piece."

"Mr. Sleez says there's some hull damage and we lost the port qualifiers, whatever that is."

He rubbed his eyes. "Serious hull damage would have shut down the engines. But we'll need those qualifiers for landing. I'll check it out."

"Well, since you're obviously going to live, I'll get back to the command deck and see about our arrival time." She smoothed the seat of her jumpsuit and eyed a pile of cases on the cabin table. "What's all that?"

"My luggage, dear."

"That's not luggage, those are cases of beer!" Sparks seemed to radiate from behind the antique glasses to the ends of her pageboy. "Have you any idea of all the files and priority equipment we were forced to leave behind on Kloak? Five cases of beer!"

Bullard messaged a knot in his neck. "Look Doc, in your luggage you have makeup, shoes, clothes and undies--I hope from Victoria's Secret. I--have beer."

It looked for a moment that she was contemplating slugging him but settled instead for a scathing glare. "You really are a dinosaur, Mr. Bullard," she said slowly. "Two hundred years ago men like you drove old pickup trucks, married first cousins and broke wind in church."

"Oh yeah? Two hundred years ago wedges like you walked around barefoot, wore flowers in their hair and sported a butterfly tattoo on their rear."

"As a matter of fact, I do have a butterfly tattoo, but not on my rear." She spun about in feminine fury, slamming the cabin door leaving Bullard speechless. He stared at the door for a moment then gathered up his tools.

"Port qualifiers. Yeah. Better go check them out," he muttered. So where in hell was that damned tattoo, anyway?

He walked down the corridor toward engineering. From a viewport he could see the blue disc of approaching Earth, a crescent moon on her left. He felt relief wash over him. Relief to be off Kloak, to be out of timephase, to carry on his life, such as it was inside an andrex body. Still, he mused, better than extra crispy in the plasma vortex.

He stopped. A storage bin on the far wall had cracked open, probably due to the rough liftoff. Bullard grabbed the lid and tried to close it. A broken hinge fell to the floor. He squinted sideways into the locker. There was some kind of open case holding a row of glass vials, madon hieroglyphics printed on the labels. The vials held what looked to be a grey pus, swirling with an evil malevolence. He contemplated them for a moment before stepping to a comm box on the corridor wall.

"Dr. Christiana, this is your former patient," he announced. "What's your location?"

A tired voice. "I'm in my cabin, trying to get some sleep."

"Could you stroll down towards engineering. I think there's something you should look at."

"No, Mr. Bullard, I don't want to come down there and have a beer with you," she replied wearily.

"I'm not talking about happy hour, Doc. I found something really weird in a wall cabinet."

The comm box was in silent debate. "Very well, I'm on my way."

"This is strange." Dr. Christiana studied the vials. "New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles," she murmured, reading off the labels. "These are major cities on Earth." She peered up at him. "When did you find these?"

"Just a few minutes ago. Any idea of what they are?"

"This can't be what it looks like. It just can't be." She slipped a test pen from her shirt and passed it over the vials. Immediately the end of the tester glowed red, emitting a harsh shriek. She backed away from the cabinet, eyes wide, fixed.

"Well, what's your prognosis, doctor?"

She straightened, pocketed the test pen. "These vials are filled with a liquid carrying the Kloakan plague."

"Aren't these the samples you were taking back to research a vaccine?"

She shook her head. "No! These are enough to infect an entire world."

"Actually they are samples. Sales samples, you might say." Sleez and Skamm were standing by the viewport, the former wearing his brightest smirk, the latter holding a pulse gun on them. "Sorry to have eavesdropped on your private cabin line, Doctor."

"I'm not getting this right. These vials of plague are yours?" Dr. Christiana demanded, incredulous. "You're planning on turning the Kloakan Plague loose on Earth?"

"Such righteous indignation about a simple business transaction." Sleez idly tapped the viewport window and smiled. "Madon Interplanetary Realty made record real estate profits on that unfortunate situation on Kloak. It occurred to our directors what a splendid investment opportunity it would be if something similar were to happen on Earth."

If Bullard thought he was good at pulling Dr. Christiana's chain it was nothing to the look she gave Sleez. "You are talking about mass murder here, Mr. Sleez, not a business transaction!"

Sleez shrugged. "We madons tend to be more practical and less philosophical on such matters. Will you excuse me?"

He reached past Bullard and pulled out the case of vials, cradling it like a baby. "There's so much I admire about you, Dr. Christiana, such a pity. But business must take precedence."

"Fnmntujr db ndhjtnn nfntnt." Skamm lifted the pulse gun, clicking off the safety.

"Mr. Skamm suggests that if you two humans would like to bid each other farewell, now is the time."

Moving closer to Dr. Christiana, Bullard put his arm about her waist. She looked at him, surprised. "You know the best thing about being a cybernetic andrex, Sleez?" he asked. "Those turds at the army medlab gave me the niftiest model too. I'm finally starting to appreciate it."

Sleez made a bored face. "If it's something not profit-oriented, I can't find myself too interested. What is it?"

"Strength." Bullard wrapped his free hand around a support beam and tore it from the deckplates. He hefted it and before the two madons could blink reptilian eyelids he threw it at the viewport behind them.

A typhoon exploded in the corridor. Dr. Christiana's cry was obliterated by a rush of air howling through the broken plexglass. Sleez and Skamm, the latter minus his smirk and clutching the case of plague vials was plucked from the deck and sucked into oblivion. Alarms shrieked and lights flashed up and down the corridor. Abruptly, emergency shutters clanged down over the broken viewport. Air roared from vents, building up cabin pressure. Silence settled around them.

Her arms were wrapped tightly about his waist, her glasses askew. He could feel her heart thundering against his chest. He looked down into her upturned face. "Shall we dance?" he offered.


******


He hadn't lost the touch. His hands moved over the controls, feeling the vast bulk of the ship respond, dropping toward the cloud-wreathed blue world in the forward viewscreen.

"Orbit achieved, Control Center," he said into the throat mike. "Awaiting landing confirmation."

"Roger that. Maintain position until clearance schedule is approved. Cleveland Space Center out."

"Copy that, shuttle out."

A heavy case was dropped beside him and Dr. Christiana settled herself into the opposite chair. She was wearing her best enigmatic expression and he couldn't detect much of what was behind it. "Looks like you're the bearer of tidings, "he ventured. "Good or bad?"

"That would depend on which planet you happen to be on," she replied smugly. "I just finished speaking to Counselor Ghak on Kloak regarding that little episode we had with Mr. Sleez and Skamm. They've put a freeze on all Madon Interplanetary Realty dealings on Kloak and are planning a full investigation into their activities."

"Now that's good news. I can just picture a Kloakan lynch mob heading down to their office right now."

She nodded. "It might come to that. The plague seems to have initiated about the time the madons started arriving on Kloak."

Bullard made a wry face and turned back to the controls.

"Gimme a minute, time to input the landing sequence."

She watched him work the controls, adjusting minor inputs, scanning the readouts. "You really love this ship, don't you," she observed.

Bullard grinned. "Yeah. I started out in orbit scows, moved up to starfreighters and piloted troopships in the war. Nothing as Gucci as this, though."

"It's yours, you know."

"How's that?" He looked up, startled.

"That's the really good news." She savored the expression on his face. "This ship has Kloakan registry. Since her owners are now floating in space you can file a salvage claim."

"You're kidding me."

"Not at all. I would guess a cruiser of this type has a net worth of two point five million creds."

The enormity of the situation flooded over him. He swallowed hard.

"Of course, that's after decontamination and a period in quarantine. I also suspect we'll find a sizeable stack of creds tucked away in Sleez's cabin."

He shifted his gaze from her amused and slightly mocking expression to the case sitting on the deck. "So what's in the steamer trunk?"

"My research information on the Kloakan plague, case histories, data discs, vaccine prototypes." The sky beyond the viewport lightened as the ship dropped. Clouds floated past, painted by a Westering sun.

His eyebrows raised. "I hope that plague sample you mentioned isn't in there," he mused. "I noticed you dropped it kind of hard."

Dr. Christiana pondered this, watching him. "Oh, you can rest assured it's in quite a safe--." The tester in her breast pocket began to pulse red. Slowly, then gathering speed.

"Hey, your little widget must have a short," Bullard observed. "Either that, or one of us is a candidate for a body bag."

She gazed at him and her eyes darkened, filled. This was a side of her he had never seen, somehow vulnerable, almost frightened. A tear slid down one cheek.

He cleared his throat, aware of a sudden foreboding. "What is it?" he demanded.

"I'm the sample."


******


The isolation ward was a dismal copy of the one he had seen on Kloak. Antiseptic white walls, spectral figures in white atmosphere suits moving among the machines and dangling cords. The difference here was there was only one patient on the sheeted bed.

"You must be Mr. Bullard,"said a voice at his elbow. "I'm Doctor Bell."

They must have some rule against non-conformity, Bullard thought, taking the offered hand. White lab coat, first stage of male pattern baldness, fishy brown eyes, beginnings of a second chin. "Yeah, that's me. What's the latest on Dr. Christiana?"

"Not very good, I'm afraid." A professional shrug. "Her kidneys have failed, lungs are disintegrating. We're giving her as much neomorphine as we dare. It would appear the patient's condition will finalize in a few more days."

"Finalize? You mean die?"

"Well, yes." His mouth drooped in regret. "The ironic thing is her research data is right on the mark. I believe in a short time we can produce a vaccine which will inoculate both humans and Kloakans from the plague. Yes, it really will be a shame to lose her."

"So into the astral toilet for poor old Doc Christiana, huh?"

Bullard had a mental picture of his hands wrapped around that fat, complacent neck. He pushed his face closer, nose to nose. "So tell me sawbones, how do you think it would feel if you were finalized?"

"Well, not something I would find enjoyable..." He inched back from the latent menace in Bullard's eyes.

"Do you know what I am?"

"Er... yes," he replied, sweating. "I believe you're a military-issue cybernetic andrex, plasteel skeleton overlaid with protoflesh exterior and full sensory inputs."

"Right on the mark, Doc," said Bullard relaxing into affability. "I hear they started producing a female model lately."

"Yes, that's true," Bell admitted. "It's a pretty standard model, although there is an outlet, here in Cleveland as a matter of fact, that can replicate original features. But I understand it can be quite expensive." He shrugged, pursed his lips. "I trust you're not thinking we can initiate an andrex transfer for Dr. Christiana, Mr. Bullard. Our medical facility is sadly overworked and our budget is so underfunded."

Bullard looked out into the ward, at the lonely sheeted figure on the table. "Okay, doc. Here's what I want done. And forget about your budget, it's on my tab."


******


Sunlight. Flowing past the frilled curtains of the private room, splashing over the pillow and sheets. She stirred as the warmth touched her face. Her eyes opened, blinked and looked slowly about her. A man sat in a chair by the bedside.

"Morning, sleeping beauty," smiled Bullard. "Don't expect a kiss until you've brushed your teeth."

Dr. Christiana stared at him, at the curtains and the sunlight beyond the window. "I'm alive," she whispered. "Why am I alive?"

"I'd say you beat the odds." He brushed a strand of hair from her forehead.

She shook her head. "I know the odds, Bullard. Mortality rate is 98.2 percent for humans. And... I feel strange, so strange."

"Here, try these out." He passed her a mirror and her glasses. She settled the glasses on her nose, pondering the reflection in the mirror. She ran fingers over her hands and neck, exploring.

"I'm an andrex duplication," she declared, "That's why I'm still alive. Why do I get the feeling you're somehow involved?"

"I have two cases of Aghaid beer left and I hate drinking alone, "he admitted.

"I thought having the Kloakan plague was bad enough but now I have to put up with your chest-beating male pomposity," she retorted but her hand reached out, covering his. "I'm exactly the same as I was?"

"Well, they forgot to duplicate your butterfly tattoo, so I had them add that later."

Dr. Christiana nodded. "That's right; it was on my left shoulder." He pulled down the sleeve of the hospital gown, searching. "I don't see it."

"Nope, I told them to ink it someplace else."

"Somewhere else? Where?"

Bullard looked down at her and smiled.


THE END


2013 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt is perhaps an international man of mystery presently on a dangerous mission for an unnamed secret organization or is perhaps a risk-taker who did not include a bio, which forced the editor to make something up. You must decide for yourself.

E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

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