One of the well-known but unspoken perks of being on the front lines with human integration into multiple-species anything is that… well, everything is them sized when you start out. So when you’re issued “standard” rations, “standard” living quarters allotments, “standard” utility bill allowances – everything turns out just peachy, and for once you can live like royalty as a grunt on the government dime. “Standard” Clothing or “Standard” fitness training? …not so much. However, what would’ve been considered a modest integrated apartment for low level on-call staff at the Hospital was a 3,000+ square foot floor plan to any human who happened to move in, and seeing as how being new means being novel, and being novel means you can get away with things…
…Well sometimes Than mo got lost in his Director-Level on-call quarters.
The unadorned, bare wall blinked to life, an over-sized generic female face greeting the viewer. “Thank you for calling the Central Bureau of Human Medical Affairs, this is your digital assistant, how may I help you?” the generically cheery voice echoed throughout the mostly barren room. Than mo sighed as he sat down in the single fold-out chair, cracking his fingers in idle exhaustion – and grim determination.
“Option One.” Than mo droned out with unfortunate practiced ease.
The AI Assistant face smiled, and nodded slightly. “You have selected-”
The AI Assistant nodded once more, turning her head to the side. “You have-”
“Y-” the AI Assistant twitched cheerfully, her programming not used to someone spamming through the various automated gates.
“I’m sorry, that’s an invalid option. Please make another selection.” Generic Becky said, smiling a stretched customer-service smile. Than mo stared at his wall blankly, and the AI assistant cheerfully, and unhelpfully met his gaze.
“Where did I-”
“I’m sorry, that’s an invalid option. Would you like to return to the main government services menu?” Generic Becky said, smiling that same damned smile, meeting Than mo’s eyes with what he knew was a vacant stare, but what his hind-brain felt was more mocking than neutral.
“Fine you bitch, let’s go.”
“I’m sorry, that’s an-”
“Operator.” Than mo stated, with all the authority in his voice.
“I’m sorry, that’s-”
“Operator.” Than mo chanted, rising from his chair.
= = =
Central was known by many names; The Mothership, CASINO, The Feds, TERMINUS – however, the people who worked within what is officially known as “Central United Human Territory Command: Gentle Expanse Colony Division” (or un-officially by employees as “CUTCO: GECKO”) didn’t really care what they were called, as long as everyone knew that the proverbial buck stopped with them. Other government branches did various, necessary things, and they most certainly had authority, but Central was Central. If they said no, the answer was no, regardless to what anyone – elected or otherwise – said. Great power came with great responsibility, and with great responsibility came impressive caffeine addictions.
The XXL espresso mug tapped against the desk loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to draw attention. What few people did look up quickly realized the sound was not directed at them, but merely born out of exhaustion of the current crisis that the human colony was facing on Gentle Expanse. It was a well-known and almost concentrated exhaustion in this particular crisis/war room, as their task was to “solve” this problem – if it could be solved.
“Dust.” Growled The Analyst, frowning over his desk. “What an uninspired name.”
Dust, of course, wasn’t actually dust; the best any of the medical and xenobiology wonks could figure out was that it was some sort of pyriscence plant or pseudo-fungi that was just getting absolutely everything out of it’s system, and the fires that licked the ground out in the wilderness was the perfect signal to release all the spores. Fascinating as it was from a clinical perspective, it was concerning for the simplest fact that only Humans seemed to have an adverse reaction to the giant cloud of smoky plant nut.
The Analyst looked up from his personal terminal, the multi-story back wall of the “war room” aglow with a massive map of all human territories on Gentle Expanse. Overlaid on top of the map were passive data feeds coming in from various hospitals, clinics and the planetary government itself. To all the outside world, there was nothing new or interesting happening today that didn’t happen yesterday or the day before – there was no indication of a mass pandemic anywhere else on the planet: No closure of stores, no masks, no vaccines being developed, no panic, nothing. Xenos air traffic control treated the Dust as “just a light haze” that cleared up once the sun set and the wind picked up. Dust was, all told, a minor inconvenience to everyone and everything else on the planet – if they even noticed. Green across the board.
Yet, if anyone were allowed into the human-only areas of the city, they would find a ghost town.
“What does Command say about a shell game evac?” The Analyst asked the room, his body leaning back in his computer chair to stare at the glowing wall for answers.
“Nyet.” Came the response to his right, his fellow Teammate responding and shaking her head without looking away from her screen. “Our bunkers still aren’t full, and they’re rated for biohazard. More people are healthy than sick, so life still hobbles on. The real issues is keeping people quarantined-”
“The real issue is that we’ve not found a fucking cure short of a lung transplant.” The Analyst said, spinning his stylus in his hand. “-And that’s not a permanent solution, either, due to re-exposure. Costly as fuck, to be honest. We still forecasting 8 months to a vaccine?”
“Well yes, but actually no.” The Teammate helpfully responded, pulling up a digital binder of her notes to reference. “8 months at best, but the coats still haven’t decided on if this is a parasite or fungus or what, so-”
“So they’re making up numbers to get more funding.” The Analyst concluded, tapping his stylus against his desk. “We really need to start shipping people to somewhere that’s better suited for R&D. Ganymede?”
“Well you sure sound certain.”
“Well, look at it from Command’s perspective; they bring this shit back to Sol, and then what? Incurable pandemic at our home system? With free travel between in-system colonies, this would hit Earth in a matter of days.” The Teammate said, letting out a mirthless laugh. “Hell no. Our own colonial fleet would shoot us out of the sky before we left Gentle Expanse, civilians or no. Why the hell else do you think once we raised the flag they suddenly parked a destroyer in geo? To facilitate trade?”
“Speaking of, GEPCO is continuing to ping us about our lack of air traffic-”
The Teammate groaned. “Aaahhh… I think the new line we’re supposed to use is ‘implementing new traffic control ai’. That should buy us another month or so.”
“Mmm. And for people asking questions about personnel?”
“I… don’t know. We don’t have anything as of yet, and they’re not buying the ‘mandatory zumba training’ thing anymore.”
A light silence settled in between the two coworkers, the larger crisis room murmuring working like a white noise machine.
The Analyst mused for a moment, before pointing his stylus questioningly at the green map overlay, human settlements little spots of crimson along the wall. “So we’re still burying everything? That’s not a tenable solution – At what point do we reach out-”
“Never.” The Teammate said, her fingers starting to clack against the keyboard. “That’s the official line: we are not letting anyone know that the first colony world we landed on could fucking kill us.”
“That, and more.” The Teammate murmured, passing on some files to The Analyst’s console. “This was one of the better spots for our first colony and from what I’ve been able to glean here and there, there were a lot of backroom deals made to get us out to here, specifically. Pulling the plug so early would absolutely ruin probably decades of work, and centuries of goodwill moving forward. Not to mention, optics: We run into one little bump and start dying by the thousands, what. They swoop in and “save” us again? Once is an accident, twice is a pattern.”
“Aah. Yeah, that wouldn’t exactly help us out – and I for one can’t stand living in habs.” The Analyst grimaced, frowning. “No sky is fucking weird.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being raised in a spoke! I got to go on my first spacewalk at fiv-” The Teammate said, before being interrupted herself by a status notification. “-oh, well.”
“What?” The Analyst said, pulling up weather reports to begin his daily forecast for his C.O. “Usually you don’t let anything interrupt your chatter reports.”
“Mmm.” The Teammate said, tapping her console screen. “Than mo Tran, assigned to Caring Touch – Group Charlie Seven.”
“What about him?”
“He’s pulled his ripcord.” The Teammate said, connecting her feed directly into Than mo’s monitor. The vietnamese man – a very irate one at that – was squatting on a single fold-out chair in what looked like a bare office conference room, hands raised in an incredibly rude gesture. Although the sound was muted, The Teammate could very much read his lips.
“…what he’s saying is entirely unnecessary to get in touch with us.” Teammate murmured, frowning. “We already recorded his emergency phrase… Do you want to take it or should I?”
“Ah hell.” The Analyst said, shrugging. “Patch me over. Who am I going to be this time?”
The Teammate tapped a few commands into her console, and the Analyst’s terminal was taken over by a very irate Than mo. “Why not try Michael this time?” The Teammate said, resting her chin in her hand as she watched the drama unfold, multiple encryption subroutines beginning to run in the background.
= = = = =
“-king-midget-fighting-goose-shit-” Than mo ranted at the spasming AI, it’s millions and millions of decision-tree neural networks frying at the overload of nonsense being spouted from the incomprehensibly irate human before it.
“AEIOUAEIOUAEIOU” It babbled back against the 7-minute-long rant, it’s customer-service voice racked with artificial pain as everything from the assistant’s neck up twitched violently. The neural net of “normal body language responses” had long since fried, and whatever ghost in the machine was in the driver’s seat.
“Well that was uncalled for.” A decidedly male – and real – voice suddenly kicked in, the AI customer service avatar resetting eerily smoothly. The AI avatar began to babble something silently, pulling up nonsense reports. “You’ve reached Central Medical, I’m Michael. We caught your… statement among all that colorful language. I’m going to need the 5th times the 3rd of your number.”
“Fifth times Third? That’d be… 36.” Than mo said oddly calmly, his body language going from panik to kalm in a matter of moments. “I can give you my phrase as well.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Michael said, the AI continuing to silently babble. “You’re on a secure line. Our smokescreen isn’t too distracting, I hope?”
Than mo shrugged, and feigned interest in the reports being shown. “No, but I don’t think it’s necessary. They’re not out to get us, and nobody’s recording my screen – or looking through the window.”
“And I appreciate that optimism, but we don’t know what bugs are where and how they work.” Michael replied.
“Look, you’ve swept my room once a week for the past few months; can we please stop with the cloak-and-dagger bullshit for just one second? I’m not calling to just check in.”
Michael sighed, and leaned forward on his desk. “We figured, seeing as how you’d just talk to your Central liaison when he’s there. What do you need?”
“I need to contact epidemic control.” Than mo stated matter-of-factly. “I think we’re starting to see some shit out here, and I need to cross-reference information, and I can’t get anyone to give me straight talk.”
‘Michael’ looked up from his terminal to The Teammate, who was emphatically shaking her head no. “Ah. Why do you say that?”
Than mo sighed. “Still with this? Alright. I’ve got two cases – one terminal, I’m guessing we’ll have to put him in stasis and evac him over to you guys – and one in the beginning stages of what I can assume is a respiratory infection caused by Dust.”
There was a pregnant pause as The Analyst pursed his lips, looking up at the map on the wall. “So what you’re saying is, is that the Dust is causing sickness… in Caring Touch.” He pointed his stylus at the map with his off hand – a part of the map that, until this phone call, had been considered a safe zone. “All the way up there.”
“Look, I don’t give a fuck about your power politics or whatever; all I’m saying is, is that we’re all seeing a pattern here and I’m the only one willing to risk his neck going all the way to you, immediately, before this becomes a thing.” Than mo said, opening his arms wide in the universal “come at me bro” gesture. “So I don’t care if this goes in my report or whatever, I’m not some ABC agent, I don’t care – but I have to know.”
“Upwind in an atmospheric depression.” Than mo’s wall mumbled back at him, the AI avatar smiling brightly.
“I’m sorry, what.”
“Sorry.” Michael said, tapping his desk with the stylus. “We are monitoring the impact of Dust among all our secondary and tertiary settlements-”
“Michael. Can you please not give me this bullshit right now?” Than mo groaned, punching his palm in frustration with his off hand. “You put me on hold for 30 minutes and this is supposed to be the emergency line-”
“Than mo.” ‘Michael’ responded, cutting off the irate nurse. There was a pause, and then a sigh. “I want to help you out, so please, listen. The official statement is that we are monitoring the impact of Dust among all our secondary and tertiary settlements. If you submit medical reports of these cases, they will be considered the first reports at your location, and added to any others, if they exist.”
Than mo chewed his lip as he listened, head tilted to the side in concentration.
“I can assure you, we read and respond to every concern we get from wherever they come from, even if they came from Central itself.”
There was a pregnant pause as the two men studied the situation; The Analyst, hoping this nurse could read through the lines on his very softball breadcrumb trail of clues, and Than mo, who sat there with an inscrutable look on his face, both of them separated by a wall both physical and legal.
After a while, ‘Michael’ broke the silence. “That’s all I can tell you. Is there any request you’d like to make?”
“Yeah.” Than mo said, his tongue running across his sharp canines. “Two things. Well. One, I don’t think our shipments of PPE came in to the… new standard. Could we get something expedited?”
“Absolutely.” Michael said. “What else?”
“What’s the Dust weather report? From me to you. We don’t get local channels up here.”
Michael looked up at The Teammate again, who gave a little noncommital shrug. “You’ve already ignored the spirit of the law up until now,” she said, grinning as she continued to rest her chin in her hand. “Why not give him an honest forecast? Looks like we’ll have to unfuck our models anyway with this new data.”
Michael smiled, slightly, and then turned back towards the nurse. “Than mo, looking at the forecast ahead I would highly recommend that everybody, but especially you and the rest of your team stay inside, preferably in… hypoallergenic suites.”
“Ah.” Than mo sighed, nodding his head. “Until the weather changes, I’m assuming. So how many days will that be?”
“Yes.” Michael replied, typing out a rush order for Caring Touch.
“Yes, until the weather changes, or yes to how long that will take?”
“. . . Yes.”
Than mo inhaled deeply, then sighed as the weight of the news hit him.