‘This is bad.’ Juan thought, warm air coming in humid and salty through his sweat-soaked bandanna mask.

The sun crested to it’s zenith in the sky, beating down warm, life-giving light and energy to the farmland below. It hit harder for those who worked out in the fields, and it hit particularly hard for the few humans who still worked the land, most of which were blood relatives to Juan Esteban – which meant, come hell or high water, they would stay on the property for as long as possible, personal safety be damned. The alien – well, that term didn’t work on a planet where none of the residents had evolved – the non-human farmhand labor had doubled in headcount over the past week alone as more and more of Juan’s human employees and friends had to bow out due to the air quality.

To Persimmon’s credit, Juan did get some grants to float him through the hard times, and he did notice a few more “safety calls” from the local fire brigade and PDF, but outside of the sheriff stopping by more frequently nothing was being done. His farm was safe, and the illegal brushfires had dropped down the price of the surrounding land which he and his family snapped up – if anything, at least as a buffer – but the fires continued.

And that was the problem.

When the fires were closer, the smoke tinted the sky and you could just look up and know that you needed to put on a mask. The days of constantly cleaning the barns and the HVAC vents were over, as the heaviest soot now fell in either untamed wilderness or already-burnt land. The problem now was, as far as Juan could tell, that the finer particulate was still making it’s way overhead. The super-fine stuff, the stuff that was smaller than dust, that nothing stopped, that got everywhere, and that bothered everyone

Juan shifted the tractor into park as he felt another coughing fit start. He inhaled deeply, trying to trigger it just to get it over with.

No luck.

Leaning back against the seat, he looked out on his field, his freshly-dug fencepost holes marking his progress for the day: Barely an acre. This whole thing wouldn’t be so bad if it just didn’t train the life out of you – any other type of sickness would be ok—

There was a rough spasm, and Juan lurched forward, gripping the wheel tightly as he started to violently and wetly cough, his body shaking with the effort of expelling something foreign from his chest. It never happened – mucus came out, sure, but it was never black, or red, or anything concerning. Just the pain, the wet cough, the shortness of breath… then it went away. After a few moments his breathing normalized, and he stayed hunched over to catch his breath.

It was bad. He’d sent Michelle and baby Isabella – the second, not the first – off of the farm as soon as the cough spread, but from what he’d been seeing with their video sessions in Silver City, it wasn’t getting better. Everyone was chalking it up to “seasonal allergies”, but Gentle Expanse doesn’t have seasons like Earth did; even so, what would be the odds that every human being on-planet reacted the same way? Most people brushed it off, and a cough here or there is no big deal, they say…

Juan lightly hit the wheel with his palm, leaning back slightly. It was the fires, it had to be – this coughing was stirred up the soot, or something, and the government knew it!

Smog. They’re treating it like smog or coal fires, as if this was old India or old China! But, hell, if wood fire smoke is bad for you, then what would this, burning this… fungal brush do to a body? Planetary government so far hasn’t figured it a big deal as no other species are complaining, and the human district provisional government hasn’t had any “severe” cases for this to be a big issue. Air quality index is green on most days, they say. No need to worry, they say.

Juan opened his door and spat out a mouthful, reaching for his bottle of water. Giving his mouth a swish, he spat that out too.

‘This is bad.’ Juan thought, as he popped the clutch and sent his tractor into 1st gear. ‘And it’s going to get worse.’

‘This is bad.’ Ngruzren-of-Arzgr murmured as he looked at the final few questions of the test, the tiny-chomper proctors wandering the auditorium aisles as they looked for cheating. It had been a week or so since class started; the days were blurring together with the excitement of having something to do again, each class new and interesting. However, Ngruzren was facing his most difficult challenge and what he was assured would be his first real inflection point: The multiple choice test.

“{If…, ok. If a tiny-chomper infant has been bad and the tiny-chomper infant still has a soft and pliable skull, is it an acceptable punishment to put them on the pottery wheel? That’s B, No.}”

Ngruzren-of-Arzgr idly picked at a loosening tooth with his tongue as he thought over the obvious question. Was it too obvious? It made sense, but, sometimes that’s a false moon, so… hmm. It didn’t help that Doctor Tiny-chomper-wiggle-hands expressly stated that about 35% of people will fail this test and be ejected from the course – of course, that too could be a false moon.

“{A tiny-chomper patient has been admitted after a round of antibiotics to combat a dirt disease, and are presenting symptoms of orange sweat, urine, and eye coloration. What is this a symptom of? That’s… that has to be C, The Blood Rage.}”

Quickly looking at the timer indicator, Ngruzren relaxed slightly. He’d finished a few minutes ahead of schedule, and took the time to review his answers.

He needed to be in that 65%. It’s not that he didn’t love his pups, or his extended family for stopping in, or the playdates or his house or his wonderful wife… it’s just that now Ngruzren had a purpose again, and… and…

Ngruzren sighed as he felt the focus leave him, gave a mental shrug, and tapped “submit” on his terminal. With a cheery little ding his test was turned in, and he let his mind wander as he looked over the remainder of the class. What were … he’d have to say about 200 people to start had dwindled down to roughly 50 or so, and it had been just a few short days. The tests, the homework, the stress was getting more and more intense, and it was starting to show. Why was it that he wanted this so badly? Was he unfulfilled? Was it selfish of him to think so? Did he settle down too soon? If so, maybe he could do like uncle Arrzgren did and take a couple-century break between litters? It would depend on what Zngrer would like, sure… she’s young and in the PDF, and young girls in uniform only want one thing and it’s absolutely fucking-


“[And time’s up! Screens are locked, no more inputs allowed.]” Doctor Tiny-chomper-wiggle-hands said, his voice echoing oddly loud in the silent auditorium. With a few grunts and groans there were a chorus of pings from the other terminals around Ngruzren as tests were force-submitted, the other people in the room reacting to the test’s end with varying degrees of concern.

Almost too much concern. The test was easy…

Wait was Question a Mambo? Or a Mamba?! THE TEST WASN’T EASY HE WAS JUST DUMB-

“[Ngruzren?]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump said, the Dorarizin turning to face the human nurse. “[You doing alright?]”

“{Yeah, I just… sorry. That test was rough.}” Ngruzren admitted, smiling without showing teeth in the tiny-chomper way. “{I wasn’t expecting you to go easy on us, but at the same time-!}”

Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump laughed, reaching up to pat Ngruzren on the forearm. “[I know, I know, but remember what I told you? It’s to get under your skin, to get in your head.]”

“{Fair enough.}”

“[Oh wow, the test must have been really hard, then – you don’t seem so playful any more. What’s wrong?]”

“{Nothing – I mean, nothing that I should share with you, in class. I’m just trying to figure out why I want to be here, what’s really driving me.}” Ngruzren admitted, leaning back in his chair as the tiny-chomper nurse hopped up to sit on the table. “{I’ve got everything I could want, so why push myself? And these are my first pups, so why spend the time away from them?}”

“[I’m going to be honest with you, Ngruzren, it’s a very good sign you’re asking those questions.]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump said, tapping Ngruzren’s desk with his knuckles. “[And no, that’s not part of the test too, we’re not that diabolical – I know you were going to ask!]”

“{I mean, you are devious with these things!}” Ngruzren grinned, ears perked forward. The two spent some time looking at each other… until it got a bit awkward.

“{So, uh, not that I don’t enjoy the small-talk, or your company, but-}”

“[Why am I here and what are we doing? Well, you’re coming with me on a round.]”

“{A round – wait, like an actual-}”

“[Yep!]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump said, hopping down from Ngruzren’s desk. “[We’re going to be doing some rounds with a few classmates each to give you a feel of what it’s like actually working under pressure. You won’t have to – actually, let’s just, hold on.]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump pulled out a small tablet from his pocket and pinching both corners pulled it apart to give him a larger surface area. The screen lit up, and after a little bit of playing on it Ngruzren’s desk pinged, along with about a dozen other people.

“[If you have a Red Circle, you’re with me!]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump said, holding up his tablet high over his head that now had… a single red circle covering the screen. “[Come on over and I’ll tell you what’s going on!]”

“{Want to give me a bit of a hint?}”

“[Two words:]” Tiny-chomper-lookit-him-jump said, grinning in a manner that Ngruzren decided he did not like, “[Field Trip.]”

The idea was pretty simple, as Than mo explained it: Everyone was going to be doing a round as an observer, following a team of nurses as they made their rounds. This was to accomplish a few things: First, to show people what to expect in the day of the life, and Second, to show the hopefuls what their jobs would entail when they’re not helping humans.

What, you thought it was going to be no items, humans only, final destination? Please. Only scrubs played that way.

And so, the group of volunteers followed Than mo and the other licensed nurses as they made the rounds. One thing became abundantly clear very early on, which really any nurse or doctor would have told you if you just listened to them but you don’t, do you, you still have to lose that weight and stop referring to eating a tub of cheetos as “the accident”, but anyway. Point was?

There was a lot of paperwork.

Sure, modern medicine had done away with a lot of the problems of yesteryear; there were therapies that regrew limbs or provided the attachments of prosthetics, you could destroy internal pathogens by literally injecting people with nanomachines (though there were problems with this as well), mental disabilities were either genetically destroyed or, through repeated therapy, cured, and some surgeries that would’ve been invasive a hundred years ago were outpatient procedures practiced today. But the one constant remained the same:

Paperwork. Who did what? Who administered what? Under whose authority? When? What’s the dosage, what’s the time, what symptoms were present, was the full dose taken? Did the patient comply with physical therapy? What is the patient history? What other medication were they on? What branch of wetware is installed? Has it been rebooted? Is the medication prescribed compatible with internal cybernetics? And on and on and on…

Than mo was only half-watching the Jornissian attendant on duty work his bedside manner as he adjusted the ambient heat on one of the patient beds. He’d been through all of this and more when he was first assigned xenos duty; not only did he need to get used to working with these other species but he might also have to work on them. Granted, when it was just him there were a lot more attending nurses and doctors around, but an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure. No, Than mo was watching everyone else; who was bored, or interested? More importantly, who wished this would end? The easy pickings were long gone, and now came the hard part of every class – finding the ones who would otherwise be great from book knowledge, but had no knack for the human side of things.

Than mo hung out at the back of the group while the newbies got an impromptu lecture on how the beds worked. Some took notes, some politely listened, some “politely listened”. It seemed like it was going to-


“AYYY HERE WE GO!” Than mo clapped his hands, getting the attention of everyone in the room – including some of the patients, who did their best to eavesdrop without looking like it. “EVERYONE TO TRAUMA!”

“[Wait, what?!]” One of the Dorarizin females said, looking around at the group. “[We’re just observing-]”

“YEP.” Than mo said, already turning a heel to jog down the hall. “OBSERVE EVERYTHING, INCLUDING TRAUMA!” Than mo called out behind him, and soon was joined by the hesitant half-power walking footfalls of his charges.

“[A-are you sure this is safe? We’re not scrubbed up or anything!]” One of the Karnakian students said, pacing the smaller human as they rounded a corner.

“Of course! We’re just observing, not doing surgery! Besides-”

The triple-doors slid open on silent hinges, the trauma ward already a bustle of activity as a few other groups of volunteers had been shepherded in, Than mo’s colleagues already donning PPE in the ‘welcome’ center of the ward. Doctors and nurses were setting up a side room, and some of the office staff were doing… paperwork. As if on cue a bright white light went off above an exit door, and from what was apparently a ground-level transport drop-off came wheeled in a thrashing Jornissian. The trauma table the patient was lashed to creaked under the strain, and as the patient slammed his head back against the table with an audible thwak he screamed a wordless, rumbling howl of rage.

“-what’s the worst that could happen?!