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Excerpt - Starship Thrive

Copyright © 2019 Ginger Booth. All rights reserved.

Starship Thrive, book 4 of the Thrive Space Colony Adventures series, launches August 1, 2019.

Captain Sass Collier got her crew to Denali.
Can she bring them home again?

Marooned 35 million miles from their home moon. Not enough fuel to reach orbit again, let alone Mahina. The locals seem friendly. But the planet Denali itself is hostile, from volcanoes to microbes.

Thrive has 6 months until their launch window opens – and closes.

The prizes Denali offers are jewels beyond price. An actual starship awaits on the sea bottom. The greatest nanite scientist of the system can finally tell Sass how she came to be immortal.

Be careful what you ask for.

In the finale of the Denali arc, our heroes visit the ocean floor, battle an aggressive ecosystem, and come to terms with a strange new world.

And just maybe, they’ll win a starship. Fuel not included. Additional taxes and grueling acts of heroism may apply.

Get Starship Thrive now because you love a rollicking space opera with heart! Book 4 in the Thrive Space Colony Adventures.


Chapter 1

Captain Sass Collier eagerly stabbed her comms button the moment her ship set down their containers, her hand trembling from the strain of the past few hours. “Waterfalls, this is Thrive. We’re down!”

Her gunner Ben Acosta shot down yet another pseudo-pterodactyl — pterry for short. “And we’re ever so eager for interdiction,” he muttered.

Poor Ben. He’d never seen wild animals before. He hated having to kill them.

“Thrive, your sonics are live — now,” Zan replied, spokesman for their new hosts here at the domed habitat of Waterfalls. Or at least, Zan led the hunters who held the hostile wildlife perimeter, while Thrive carved itself a parking lot in the riotous jungle. “Remember, do not fly your ship through the sonics. You won’t enjoy it. You’d probably pass out and crash your ship into a dome, killing thousands.”

Worth avoiding, Sass conceded. “Understood, Waterfalls.”

Though Sass was pretty sure she didn’t understand much about how things worked on the planet Denali. They just got here.

She kept the ship hovering to see how effective these ‘sonics’ were. They did seem to keep the monsters on the periphery at bay. But while they were still maneuvering, Zan needed to keep the overhead barrier turned off. He told her to let him know as soon as she was ready to stay below 100 meters. That was an hour ago.

Their hectare of infant spaceport still steamed from Sass burning off the forest, and Ben’s attempts to carve rock and level the site. This wasn’t entirely possible. But their 100 x 100 meter foothold on a new planet now featured one step broad and level enough to park their 4 shipping containers, and a larger shelf for the ship, itself 45 meters long. If the rest of the site was rough sloping ground, well, Ben had performed near-miracles for such quick work.

A pterry dropped to the ground right where Sass intended to park. The beast lay there, one 5-meter wing extended, the other curled to its body, wracked with seizures.

“Aw…” Ben moaned beside her.

“Sorry, Ben,” she murmured. She danced the Thrive, flying on-end like a dolphin prancing on water with its tail flukes, to direct her engine output to incinerate the still-twitching monster. The engines were giving all they had just to keep Thrive in the air in this unfamiliar 1.1 g gravity well. She couldn’t even fly the ship level as they would back home among the low-gravity moons and rings of the gas giant Pono. Back where we belong, she tried not to think.

She cremated one more twitching fallen pterry with one of the high-power rock guns, and sat back a moment. Well, certainly none of the approaching monsters were healthy anymore. However, using a landscaping laser on a piece of empty ground was one thing. If a pterry carcass landed on the ship or their precious cargo, she couldn’t very well blast it to cinders in situ.

She inquired, “Waterfalls, do these birds ever recover after passing through the sonic barrier?”

“Not very often,” Zan replied over the comms.

“Meaning? Like, once a year they destroy a dome?”

“Oh, no! Hunters can shoot them down, of course. But normally they’re eager to escape. They fly straight back into the sonics. Over and over again until they die. So, problem solved. The sonics are effective. You can set down anytime now. Will that be soon?” Zan and his crew had been covering their arrival from the jungle for hours, plus whatever time it took them to install the beacons and erect the sonic barriers.

“Probably. Thrive out.” She turned first to Ben, then consulted her first mate Abel and engineer Copeland in the hold. Nerves jangling with adrenaline from the hell-ride down from orbit, and battling the wildlife, she should be eager to simply set the ship down and be done with it.

Except she wasn’t sure the Thrive would ever lift again.

Ben drew a quick diagram on the display between them. “Park there. Captain, the fueling crew is exhausted.” The youth, just turned 21 on the voyage here, offered a compassionate sad smile. He understood her reluctance.

“Right. Let’s do this.” She danced her dolphin to one end of Ben’s suggested bed, sort of diagonal on the lower end of the lot. She swiveled so the landing struts pointed somewhat downward, and cut in their bottom thrusters to maximum while she lowered the engines within a few meters of the fused rock and soil below. She’d burn a pool of lava beneath them if she kept this up. She eased off the power to the engines and —

THWACK! The ship bounced forward onto its landing struts. No amount of inertial dampeners or internal gravity could cancel out that sudden lurch to the ground. “I hope I didn’t break anything.”

Ben’s chuckle beside her held only a tinge of hysteria at first. In a moment, they both cracked up, Sass with tears squeezing out of her eyes.

As they calmed down, she realized she was not engendering confidence. She sighed. “I apologize, Mr. Acosta. That was unprofessional of me. Too much adrenaline.”

He shrugged, and continued on to stretch his neck. Like hers, it was probably in knots from the hours-long battle to land safely. “With respect, Sass, you’re the only captain I’ve ever known. And I felt the same way.” He leaned forward and turned the external flood lights onto the polar winter night. One quadrant remained dark, its lamp likely a pterodactyl casualty.
They hadn’t exactly been flying blind. But the blinding chaotic lights of out-gassing engine and rock-cutting laser, during frenetic maneuvers, hardly provided a calm, reasoned view of their new surroundings. The impenetrable forest loomed 30 meters high downslope and like a wall into darkness upslope. Greens dominated, in every imaginable shade. But even in the forest canopy, strong elements of red, purple, and white suggested whole trees of those mingled colors. Small splotches of further brilliant colors burst out of the undergrowth. Their new pocket spaceport, blackened browns, steamed in the rain from their efforts to cauterize it.

“Thrive, Waterfalls,” Zan interrupted her marveling gaze. “Please turn the lights off. They agitate the wildlife.”

“Oh! Sorry.”

Ben doused the lights for her.

“No worries,” Zan assured her. “But the selectmen are expecting you this afternoon. Is that still the plan? We should go soon. The bio-locks will take a few hours. For you to enter the dome. Can we fetch you in half an hour?”

“Yes. Thank you. I’ll get my team together.” She signed off. “Ben, you’re on break.”

***

As the final act of their grueling landing festivities, the ship’s engineer John Copeland cut power to Thrive’s gravity. He shuffled aching feet as he settled in to weigh 10% extra for the foreseeable future.

Denali’s strong gravity wasn’t a new sensation. He worked out under 1.1 g, though not 1.2 g like the others. Copeland wasn’t a fully stretched-out sort of Mahina settler. But he’d let himself grow rangy as a teenager to fit in better with his peers, maybe 10-15 cm taller than he might have been. He had the weakest bones of the crew, but he sheathed them in muscle to compensate.

He pumped up the ship’s internal pressure to match Denali’s, and he was done. Or rather, his work was never done. An endless stream of tasks awaited, starting with the fact that his engine room was full of fuel drums, most of them spent.

But he could take a break.

He flipped his podium-like display to the cameras and panned around to survey their tiny domain. Those trees looked nothing like the aspen and spruce of Mahina, nor the fruit trees Sass kept on board. The collage of colors and strange shapes defied his ability to interpret it. Now that they were on the ground, the sonic boundaries seemed effective at keeping the monsters at bay, though they prowled along the perimeter. Unfortunately, the flyers tended to get zapped and fall through, twitching.

“Hey, still working?” Ben asked, arriving to join him.

Cope threw his arms around his room-mate and hugged him close, overcome for a moment. He never fully believed they’d survive a landing. Their margin for error was that close. But Ben was OK. The ship still held air. Its life support systems remained online. And that was a rego miracle.

Abel quipped from his bench beneath the scrubber trees, “Public displays of affection now?”

Copeland hastily stepped back from his clutch, and shot a glower at the first mate. “Thought he might hold me upright. But he’s beat. Great job, buddy.”

Ben nodded a wry smile. “You too. Three. Everyone down here. Hell of a ride. So we’re headed into town? Drinks with the locals? Abel, you’re buying!”

The last thing Cope wanted was to exit the ship and walk into that midnight zoo of horrors. “Sure we don’t want to rest up? Hit the town tomorrow fresh.”

“Spoilsport!” Ben scoffed. “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

Abel warned, “The locals expect an official meet and greet today.”

“They do indeed,” Sass called out, trotting down the stairs from the catwalk. “Abel, you’ve got the ship. You keep Ben. And fix that ankle of yours.” The first mate sprained it while helping untangle a snafu in the fueling operation on the way in.

Sass continued, “Copeland, you’re with me.” She cast him a bracing smile.

“Me!”

Sass nodded. “You. Eli. Clay and me. We’ll kick up our feet in this ‘bio-lock’ and relax for a couple hours.” She paused to digest his consternation. “Weren’t you just discussing that with the guys?”

“Uh, yeah.” He was trying to talk them out of it.

“Jules!” Abel called up to the galley. “Fix the captain a picnic, would you? Send along a few ice wands. For hosting gifts.”


Chapter 2

For Eli Rasmussen, Ph.D., terraforming botanist, Denali was love at first sight. An entire planet, richly covered 100 meters deep in strange plants. Actual living rain poured from the sky. He tipped his faceplate back and marveled as the runnels streamed across.

Copeland suddenly grabbed his elbow, as Eli’s next footfall stretched 10 cm lower than he was expecting. Ben had done a heroic job clearing the terraces for their tiny new pocket spaceport, but the footing was treacherous between shelves. Irritated, Eli planned out his next half dozen steps, then lifted his eyes to the trees again.

If one could call them trees, and no doubt the locals did. Geometry, biochemistry, and physics decreed many of the basic facts of life, here as on old Earth. But where Earth primary producers favored radial or bilateral symmetry first, followed by fractal growth, Denali seemed to favor fractal forms all the way. The dominant plants tended towards fern and fan and spiral shapes. He was dying to know if the scarlet steps jutting from the thick corkscrew trunk ahead were a symbiotic organism. Its shape and texture expression, not to mention its colors, seemed to contrast with the towering pigtail it buttressed.

Copeland rapped his earmuff to catch his attention, and held him back. Oh, yes, the sonic boundary. Their guide demonstrated placing two shiny batons at waist height, across an imaginary threshold marked with corner daubs of yellow spray paint on the ground. One of his cronies on the outside, similarly dressed in baggy safari clothes with shoulder cannon, accepted the opposite ends of the batons. With gestures, the Thrive contingent was invited to walk the gauntlet.

Sass wore their only earmuff-and-breath-mask ensemble that came complete with comms. Other than the headgear, they wore their usual clothing from the ship, no pressure suits. Considering that they were all sopping wet, they were remarkably warm. Amazing.

Cope jabbed him in the back to propel him through the baton gateway. Eli hadn’t paid attention when Sass and Clay went through. When he crossed the threshold, the boom! caught him by surprise. The deep bass sonics seemed to travel up his bones, and loosen his leg joints. He pitched forward onto his hands and knees on the fused rock, his feet still inside the thrumming sound field. The batons and earmuffs clearly dampened the barrier so they could cross, but didn’t cancel it.

Cope stepped over him, then dragged him another meter, and offered him a hand up. Their guides plainly thought this was hilarious.

Grease paint, Eli decided. The black sockets drawn around their eyes, nostrils and mouth must be grease paint of some kind. The pair of men appeared to be hairless, from crown to brow to bare fore-arms. Every part that wasn’t painted black was covered with vivid whorls and stripes of other colors, a few pastel and iridescent, but mostly bold reds and golds. Is that camouflage or war paint?

They left the batons stuck in the mud near one of the markers. A few steps further, they entered a tunnel clearly fresh-hacked from the understory. Eli still felt his feet and leg bones thrumming. Sonic path, milder. Their lean but squat guides kept their massive guns slung across their backs in unconcern. One held up a short green glowing wand to light the way. Chemical light. This brushed the ceiling of their leafy tunnel. Eli’s head almost grazed it as well. Copeland and Clay, both taller, hunched down rather than let the alien plants touch them. That’s a lost cause.

They stepped down a series of radial tree roots as the path curved right. Glancing back, Eli couldn’t even see a glow from the Thrive anymore, though they’d barely come 100 meters from the landing pad. His appreciation for the density of this forest rose a notch.

A couple hundred meters later, continuing downhill, they reached a dim geodesic dome roof. It reached only to waist height on him and dropped off to either side. Apparently they approached this dome from a bluff above its main level. They performed the now-familiar baton routine again, then popped a hatch to clamber in.

A spiral staircase in the airlock took them down a level. The guides bid them wait, and cycled the air. Just as on the Thrive, a red light turned green. And their guides pulled off their air-and-ears headwear, boots, and every stitch of clothing.

Their ears and other orifices featured the same black paint.

Their main guide, Zan, demonstrated how to feed the face plates, ear muffs, air tanks, clothes, personal electronics, and picnic basket into apertures in the wall, each hole clearly marked with pictographs of what to stuff where.

Eli pursed his lips in disapproval. Like settler towns back home, a question mark button offered the user further verbal explanation, or perhaps help. Signage for the illiterate.

“Excuse me,” Eli interrupted, pointing below the belt on one of their guides. “What is the purpose of your decoration?”

He laughed. “Bakkra. You’ll see. Come along. We can’t pass into the bio-lock until everyone’s clothing is in. You’ll get it back, cleaned.”

In the next chamber, they donned little plastic goggles, and were drenched with a gentle whole-ceiling warm shower. That seemed nice, until the ‘water’ seeped into Eli’s scraped hands, scratched arm, and a nick from his morning shave. He watched his arm foam from the scratch. Hydrogen peroxide. With a cautious sniff, he decided there were likely other active ingredients, possibly something related to turpentine.

Their guides handed out washcloths and copious liquid soap, and encouraged them to scrub especially in armpits, under breasts, between toes, behind ears, and other close and tender spots. The Mahinans turned their backs to offer each other a modicum of privacy.

The guides’ black didn’t come off under the onslaught. Nor did any of their other skin decoration, though their colors dimmed a bit.

Zan offered to shave their heads. “It’s easier. No one wears hair here.”

Eli and Clay chose to bow to local custom. Copeland and Sass were asked to lean back into a vat of the stinging water. They shampooed with a vile black tarry stuff that reeked of turpentine, then dunked their scalps into the vats again to work it off.

“Cope,” Eli whispered after the engineer finished his cleaning. “See Sass’s hair color?”

Copeland’s eyes narrowed. “Is mine…?”

“Not platinum blond,” Eli assured him. The engineer’s hair started out black, not honey blond like Sass. “More of a dark red.”

Zan laughed. “It’ll turn white. Hers from one wash. Yours might take three.”

“Awesome,” Cope growled.

“Eye drops,” Zan pushed on them next. “Four in each eye.” Sinus sprays, lung nebulizers, and throat gargles followed this. No enema. Perhaps that comes later, Eli thought dolefully.

But first, they passed through a hot air dryer chamber, down another flight of stairs, and into the next shower room. Where they had to start over and perform the same ablutions. Sass’s hair was definitely white now, no longer blond. Their guides admitted at least two more peroxide showers awaited before their return to the Thrive.

Zan kindly found a mirror for Copeland, then shaved his head on request. Sass agreed to a 2-cm flat-top cut. Eli quite liked the look on her, transforming her angular features from homey farm girl next door to hard-body femme fatale. He looked away hastily when Clay glared at him.

“Eli,” Sass murmured, “I’d like you to be our new biological control officer.”

“Good idea,” he agreed.

Mercifully, the next door led out of the showers. They entered a dim hallway full of a cacophony of noise and a strong stench of urine and feces.

“Dogs!” Clay exclaimed. “Barking dogs.”

“Yes, this is the kennel for city center,” Zan admitted. “Don’t get too close to the bars. And here are your things.” Some reusable shopping bags hung available on a hook for their returned clothing, sealed in plastic. “Don’t reopen those inside the city. Especially not the packages with the red tape. The automated system decided it was unable to decontaminate them.”

The red-tape packages Zan referred to included their comm tablets, grav generators, and shoes. Eli’s hands twitched at the idea of being parted from those. Strangely, the picnic lunch and ice wands passed muster.

“And I leave you here!” Zan said heartily. The guides bowed instead of offering handshakes. “Just follow the corridor to the end. One more shower, then you wait for the doctor in the next chamber.” He smiled.

The guides ripped their packages open and put their clothes back on.

“You don’t live in the city?” Sass asked in surprise.

“Not this dome. We’re out-walkers. This routine is too time-consuming for every day. We keep separate domes. And the farming domes don’t even offer a bio-lock — the shower and airlock system. People aren’t permitted in and out. Only goods.”

“Never?” Sass demanded sharply. “Farmers are imprisoned in their domes?”


Chapter 3

Eli couldn’t blame Sass for her sharp tone. Your ag workers are locked up?

“Oh, it’s voluntary!” their guide Zan hastily assured her. “Not a punishment! But it’s extremely difficult for farmers to get back into their domes. Or leave in the first place. We’ve had to abandon a lot of food habitats due to contamination.”

To Eli, this seemed a reasonable precaution to safeguard the food supply. Whether the farmers appreciated the necessity was a separate question.

After parting ways, the Thrive contingent followed a long sloping corridor between the barred dog kennels. Clay approached the dogs like a moth to a flame. He changed his mind abruptly as the shoulder-high canines went berserk. They hurled themselves at the bars trying to attack. The baying barks and smell were horrific. They hastened their pace to escape them.

“Hunting dogs,” Clay concluded.

Eli agreed, “Not much like our domesticated pets.” Mahina’s livestock were placid. The city even offered a bit of a petting zoo for the children. These Denali dogs were something else entirely.

After yet another shower and spiral staircase downward, they emerged into a dim glassed-in tunnel of wide shallow steps slanting downward across a bluff. On one side the dark forest crowded in. On the other a cliff fell away after a few meters of rock.

A loud beep preceded the door opening at the far end. A woman emerged to join their tube, clad in an orange bio-hazard suit. She carried a large white case marked with a red blood drop.

“Hello. I am Dr. Tyler,” the figure announced coolly. “I’ll examine you and administer inoculations before you enter the city.”

“Why are you wearing a containment suit?” Eli demanded as they continued stepping their way another 50 meters onward and 3 meters down. “I must say, Dr. Tyler, I find your bio-lock procedures alarming.”

“They are extreme,” the woman allowed. “But without treatment you would soon get very ill from your exposure already. You’ll be dead within the day without your shots.”

Sass and Clay crossed their arms over their naked chests. “I doubt that. Eli?”

“Yes, I’ll go first.”

Eli stepped forward. Copeland collapsed onto the last broad step, and buried his face on his arms.

“If your companion is ill,” Dr. Tyler argued, “he should go first.”

“He’s fine,” Eli replied ruthlessly. “Cope, eat something. What exactly do you propose to do to us, Dr. Tyler?”

The doctor prepared an old-fashioned plastic syringe. Eli winced as she squirted off a little liquid, to work out the air bubbles. Up close and personal, he could see through her wide plastic face panel. Her paint job was radically different from Zan’s hunting party. The skull-like black eye sockets she replaced with opalescent lavender, and a pink and coral pattern around her nostrils and mouth, fading into blue. Like the guides, she wore her skull and brows bald, with make-up on her skin everywhere, albeit in more soothing colors.
“This shot inoculates you against all current Denali pathogens and influenza, and patterns your immune system against bakkra. I also have some pills to prime your intestinal fauna to our food supply.”

“Dead, before the day is out,” Eli reminded her. “Tell me more about that.”

“Are you a doctor?” the woman demanded crossly.

“Yes, in fact, I am,” Eli asserted, folding his arms across his chest in an attempt at belligerence. He had a PhD, and not in a relevant subject. Except that all MA doctorates conferred vast experience in standing up to credential bullies. “And I am familiar with the differing medical status of our crew.”

That gave the woman pause. “Differing how?”

“Three of us have active nanite bio-defenses. Those two,” he pointed to Sass and Clay, “have phenomenal nanite defenses. Whereas my colleague Copeland is exhausted. And his nanites, if any, are only proof against inorganic environmental toxins.”

“If any?” But the doctor was perturbed enough to put aside her syringe and rummage in her case for a diagnostic device.

“Copeland, have you been in the auto-doc since your burns early in the trip?”

“Y-yes,” Copeland decided. “The auto-doc wants to rebuild all my bones. They’re a bit fragile. Sometimes I sleep in there. Maybe not since the container incident.”

Over a month ago, the ship lost half its supply containers. This miserable accident was why they were stranded here now. They lost the fuel needed to escape this deep gravity well and return home to Mahina.

Eli nodded a so-so. “Perhaps he has a bit more than just scrubber nanites, then.”

The doctor leaned toward Copeland with a diagnostic cuff. Eli bodily intervened. “Me first,” he reminded her firmly. “Madame, I remind you that we just spent over 5 months in the most thorough quarantine imaginable. Not so much as a sniffle.”

Much put out, the doctor huffily snapped her diagnostic bracelet onto his wrist, and studied her screen. Even more annoyed, she removed the bracelet. “You’re fine,” she conceded.
“Them next,” Eli stymied her renewed approach on the engineer.

With a sigh, Dr. Tyler clamped Sass and Clay in turn to her tablet, and scrolled through screens. “That’s…remarkable. You also…probably don’t need our treatment. Now may I approach the member of your team who is in distress?”

“I’m just tired,” Copeland grumbled. “We screamed down from orbit today, you know.”

Sass murmured kindly, “We need to add a chair and harness at your station, don’t we?” The engineer’s console in the cargo bay looked like a lectern.

“I had that thought,” Cope snarked back. In his naked condition, several bruises stood out sharply, with an especially vicious purple one across his shin. “Especially when you hit that pole vaulting thing.”

Sass snickered and corrected him, “Polar vortex.”

Dr. Tyler looked much relieved by Copeland’s readings. “Well, you are showing a bakkra load. You are susceptible, like everyone else on this planet. You require an inoculation and the pills to prime your gut.”

Eli held up a hand to stop her. “Bakkra. Local ecological analogue of bacteria, correct?”

“Yes,” Dr. Taylor agreed, with a put upon sigh. “Though we also have bacteria, of course. All the necessary human and soil microbes. I understand that Mahina specializes in nanite medicine, and Sagamore in chemical cocktails. Denali medicine is considerably more advanced in gastrointestinal culture.” She turned to retrieve her syringe at last.

Eli grimaced in distaste. “Charming.” Medicine by gut bacteria wasn’t a pretty image. “My concern, doctor, is how we avoid carrying this bakkra back to our ship.”

“You can’t,” the woman stated categorically, and advanced on Copeland with the needle.

Eli blocked her again. “We intend to return to Mahina. Our ship must not become contaminated. How do we accomplish that?”

She poked him with a latex-gloved finger. “Not by letting that man die.”

“I’m dying?” Cope inquired. “Eli, when did what test say I was dying?”

“You’re not dying,” Clay assured him. “The doctor is on a power trip. That’s what doctors do. Isn’t it?” he challenged her.

The pair entered a brief dominance contest by eyeball. She flinched first. Clay quirked a lip in satisfaction.

Eli wasn’t surprised. No one bested Clay in a dominance fight, including the captain.

Sass crouched next to Copeland and reassuringly broke out the picnic. “Nobody’s dying. Do you want Wilder’s beer or Jules’s?” Beer-brewing was one of their pastimes on the 5-month journey here.

Cope shuddered. “Jules.” He kept shivering and grabbed for the ice wand. He poured into a glass tumbler, slowly with the glass tipped to build a nice frothy head, not too deep. Then, in a move that never failed to aggravate Clay, he used the ice wand to draw concentric cylinders of ice through his lager. The glass began sweating cool drops immediately. Cope took a long satisfying pull, then pressed the beer against his cheek.

He does look flushed, Eli realized. They were all warm and sticky, despite remaining naked. He laid a hand on the young man’s forehead. Cope was decidedly warm. I may need to speed this up a bit.

Dr. Tyler stood transfixed. “What is that?”

“An ice wand,” Eli said curtly. “Show me the diagnostic that claims our crewman is dying.”

“Ice,” she whispered in wonder.

When Eli plucked at her tablet, she yanked it away, but set it to display the damning screen of interest.

“Psychedelic influenza?” Eli read aloud. “That’s caused by bakkra?”

“Yes! Well, not exactly. It’s a human influenza that interacts with a mild euphoric toxin from the bakkra. He needs a shot.”

Eli pointed out, “This says he has no harmful bakkra load. Can we inoculate him against the psycho flu without injecting him with bakkra?”

Tyler sighed loudly. “I suppose we could.”

Eli pressed his advantage. “Can you tell from this which of my nanites are fighting off the bakkra? Not theirs.” He waved at his companions in dismissal. “Specifically my nanites. Mine I can manufacture.”

“I could, but I’d need to go back to my lab.”

“We’ll wait,” Sass volunteered sunnily.

Copeland giggled. His sandwich dripped sauce on the floor. “Oopsie!” He shifted the sandwich in his fingers to take a big chomp. A big gob of egg salad fell onto his chest. He got that drip with his tongue.

Still squatting by his knees, naked knees swiveled for modesty, Sass watched this in consternation. “He can’t be drunk.”

On half a beer? For the past half year, Wednesday was men’s poker night on the Thrive. They played five card stud, and seven, with or without high-low. They played Texas Hold ’Em, Omaha, Mississippi, and every other variant they could find rules for. They played in the galley. They played in Copeland’s testosterone-colored shower room. They even bolted some couches to the cargo bay overhead as a ‘man cave’ for a while. Until they got fed up with dropping the cards and occasional beer bottle to the deck, lost to the ship’s gravity when someone set them down by mistake. Cope and Eli were the card-counters. The engineer needed at least 5 beers to make a bidding error. The reminder of his crewmates’ infuriating predictability made Eli long to vanish among the Denali and never, ever play poker again.

He held two fingers in front of Copeland’s face. “How many fingers, Cope?”

“Pink or green?” Cope asked in return. He took another too-large bite of his sandwich, and crooned, “Mm!”

Cope hated Jules’s egg salad, and normally picked the lettuce and pickles off to eat separately. Eli peered closer. The man’s eyes were glassy, and the whites turning magenta.

“Inoculate him for human diseases only!” Eli demanded. “Stat!”

She hesitated and her eyes flew to her bag. “It’s fast-acting…” With a sigh, she conceded defeat, and prepared a new custom syringe.

“Ow,” Copeland acknowledged a full second after she stabbed him. “That hurt.” Unperturbed, he resumed polishing off his sandwich.

“I can check the…nanite versus bakkra thing,” Dr. Tyler allowed. “While you wait.”

She was having a rotten day, Eli figured. Like baby doctors everywhere, some jackass taught her that asserting her authority was prerequisite to the therapeutic process. Against a united front of Eli, Sass, and Clay, the poor woman was out of her league.

“A moment,” Eli said. “Explain this to me, please. If Denali organisms cannot eat Earth biology, and humans can’t eat Denali, why is it that bakkra infest people? How does the parasite relationship benefit them?”

“Um, heat,” the doctor supplied. “Bakkra strains are sensitive to minute temperature variations. The mega-fauna here are cold-blooded. But humans excel at regulating their thermostats.”
“Hm. Not enough,” Eli judged. “There must also be a food source.”

“Oh. Salt. The bakkra that colonize humans eat sweat. The forest bakkra are also starved for carbon dioxide. In the gut… We’re very selective about what we grow in our intestines.”

“Yes,” Eli replied queasily.

Copeland waved the ice wand, now back in his hand after Sass and Clay took their turns chilling their beers. “So would hypothermia kill them?”

“Well, if you could induce…” She paused, frowning. “You can induce hypothermia?”

Copeland stirred his beer again. “Easy. How cold?”

Eli nodded, breaking out in an admiring grin. Their pressure suits even came factory-installed with a hypothermia setting. They’d used it to save crew woman Cortez’s life on the trip here.

“You would have to bring a person below 30 degrees Celsius. Not air temperature. Their core temperature!” the doctor objected.

Copeland took a swig of beer and nodded. “Can do. Would you like this ice wand? As a gift. For saving my life and all.” He powered it up and dabbed it on her clothed upper arms, as though with a blade conferring knighthood. Sitting on the broad step, he couldn’t reach her shoulders.

She hugged herself with a shiver, as though titillated by goosebumps.

Eli reminded her, “If you would be so kind as to check first, on which of my nanites is effective against bakkra? Assuming Copeland isn’t at death’s door.”

“There’s only one of you now,” the engineer reported. “And you’re Eli colored. Your shot works fast, doctor.”

Was Copeland flirting with the doctor? Eli had forgotten that was possible when meeting new human beings. Probably because he preferred plants. They really had been cooped up on that ship far too long. He supposed the doctor was pretty, in a bald and lavender sort of way. Pissy personality, though.

“I’ll be right back, then,” the doctor confirmed. “And I’ll send my nurses in with loincloths for you.”

Sass beamed at her warmly. “Thank you so much.”

Following her lead, they all smiled until the door shut.

“Loincloths,” Clay muttered in disgust. “Like the toga challenge all over again.”

“Please never mention that day again,” Copeland begged. Their container disaster struck on toga day.

“No togas!” Sass and Eli chorused. Sass wagged a no-no finger at Clay.

***

The nurses soon arrived. And they were indeed colored from their bald heads to their fanciful toenails, and clad in nothing but pastel peach and blue loincloths. Because it was warm inside the city, they said.

Apparently they considered their current muggy corridor chilly, because of the river rapids below.

“Is that what that roaring sound is,” Sass mused. They glanced again at the velvety blackness beyond the cliff edge. Not quite the season for sightseeing on Denali.

Eli studied the 2 meter long scarf of…leather?…the older nurse handed him, a lavender tiger-striped affair with a slight velvety nap. The other perkier nurse drew Copeland up by his hands and bequeathed him a zebra-striped strip in baby blue and tan.

“How do I…?” Copeland was unfortunate enough to ask first.

The nurse gracefully dropped to her knees to intimately demonstrate, a process that left the engineer quite flushed again.

Eli’s nurse matter-of-factly followed suit, yanking a bit too tight for his comfort. She gave him a perfunctory nod and turned to tie a softer mottled pink leather onto Sass.

The accomplished clothes-horse among the male crew, Clay tied his own based on watching Cope’s example. “No harder than a neck-tie,” he encouraged.

The younger nurse rose in front of Copeland, and smiled beatifically. She splayed her fingers on his cheeks and kissed him fully on the lips. “Welcome to Denali!”

Copeland shuffled backward, hands up to ward her off.

When they were gone, he muttered to Eli, “Tell Abel and you die.”

Eli chuckled. “I’ll tell Ben.”

Clay sighed theatrically. “You know better, Cope. No secrets survive the Thrive.” Accepted gospel among the men’s poker players.

All too true, Eli thought ruefully. As a child, he longed for brothers. Be careful what you wish for.


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  • Jul 16 2019