The crew of the Quick Sliver crouched on either side of the command center’s door, ready to spring. The Lorak were pressed further away with ranged weapons, while the humans were up close. All except Markus, who was holding Isa upright in his arms. She was shuddering violently.
There was the sound of heavy footfalls outside the door, and a voice called out in galactic common, “We mean you no harm! This is a mandatory inspection on behalf of the interstellar sickness and disease research association. We are doctors, and we are unarmed.”
Isa buried her face into Markus’s neck and said, “No need for a doctor. I’m okay.”
“I don’t think they’re here for you, babe,” Markus said. He had one hand on her abdomen, rubbing slow circles against the soft opening in her chitin where her stomach was exposed.
Carrie looked around, and after getting nods from the rest of the crew, spoke through the locked door. “What are you inspecting?”
“Our records show that your ship has several humans on board. They have been classified as potential biological hazards, and we would like to speak to them.”
Carrie opened the door and stood up. Theresa followed suit, already angry.
“Are you calling us diseased?!” She yelled at the tall, four-legged figure in the hallway. It was an Udomach, she registered. “Every human on this ship has a clean bill of health.”
A smaller figure sidled out from behind the Udomach. It was upright on two legs, far sturdier than humans, but shorter by a few inches. The first thing Theresa noticed about it was that it didn’t have a nose and it was covered in strange pseudo-scales. Like fingernails over its whole body.
Empathy, she reminded herself as disgust rolled through her. Whatever it is, it can’t control what it looks like.
“You may have a clean bill of health according to you, but we have concerns about your microbiome.” The English word sounded strange in their voice. “We need to make sure you aren’t carrying any harmful microbes,” the creature continued.
“No thanks,” she said in English, and then in galactic common. “No, you don’t.”
“We really must insist,” they gestured the Udomach forward.
“Do what the doctor asks,” The Udomach said. Their voice was oddly high-pitched for such a large creature.
Theresa sized them up for a moment. She had never really contemplated what sort of physical capabilities the Udomach had. They were large, yes, but a well-placed kick could put them down. She was, oddly, more worried about the little one. Those fingernail things looked sharp. And there were probably more of them. Also, Isa was making a high-pitched whine that wobbled in and out of human hearing, and she didn’t want to put her through any more public humiliation.
“Alright,” She said “give us a little while.”
“I’m sorry, but you have to come with us now,” The small creature said, and three more aliens appeared around the doors. “You are all under quarantine.”
The whole crew was moved in a sterile, white, in-ship transit from the Quick Sliver to wherever it was they were going. Behind them, they could hear a crew moving through with disinfectant and cleaners, ready to sample and then sanitize every surface in their whole ship.
“Has this happened before?” Theresa asked Shishab.
“Not to us,” He said, “but yes.”
“Alright,” She said, and left it at that.
They were eventually let out into a large, sealed room with raised, medical-white mattresses. The opposite wall was one huge pane of glass, tinted slightly blue.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Markus lowered Isa to the floor.
“Guys—” He started, not worried but definitely stressed.
“We’ll build you a fort out of the beds,” Theresa said, already heading towards the closest one.
They built the room around Isa and Markus while the Lorak watched from the other side of the room, each holding a cloth over their smell-receptors to keep from inhaling the stress pheromones. After they propped the walls up, the humans joined them.
“Well,” Ferdinand said after a few minutes, “at least we’re going to have Lorak eggs to eat.”
Theresa made a face at him, but she had been looking forward to them.
When they had been served Lorak eggs for the first time, after a few months on the Quick Sliver, the humans hadn’t known what they were eating. That was until Markus had come in from the salvage room and screamed at all of them to stop. That was also the first time they learned Markus and Isa were involved with each other.
The Lorak had been eating the eggs too, and seemed mystified at the screaming. Apparently, eating unfertilized eggs was normal. Expected even. Turning up your nose at them was a major faux pas. And all the eggs Isa laid were unfertilized.
They were very tasty, once you got over the fact you had talked to the person who laid them.
After an hour in quarantine, it was clear that no one was going to come talk to them anytime soon, so they made themselves comfortable. Some of the Lorak skittered onto the ceiling, and those who remained on the ground settled down with humans leaning against them. Theresa settled against Shishab’s motorized chair with her head against his chitin.
She was right beside the glass, and she could see down the hallway in one direction. Their glass room was one of many, all of them sterile and sealed, she guessed. She didn’t know much about healthcare in space, but this was clearly a floating hospital. A hospital sent to collect humans and examine them.
Markus emerged from the makeshift shelter, carrying a bundle of blankets. He set it down next to the door and vanished back inside. Theresa turned her head to watch him, and when she looked back at the window, there was an alien looking back at her. It was small (it was standing eye-level with her sitting on the floor), thin, and covered in green fur. It had two legs, two arms, and two limbs that probably could be used as either, but it was using them as legs just then. The whole arrangement gave its spine an odd forward curve, almost like a scorpion’s tail. At least, it would have if their spine had been behind their body, but it was in the front. The boney line ran from the bottom of its chin to the base of its pelvis.
They looked at each other for a long time through the glass, just sizing each other up.
Then Markus came out of the shelter again and asked, loudly, “Do we have water?” They did not.
Theresa looked at the small alien and said through the glass, in galactic common, “You got water?”
It shook its head minutely. A very human gesture that looked downright unnatural on it, but it clearly knew what it meant.
Carrie started banging on the door that they had come through and demanding they be given food and water and more bedding. There was no answer.
Theresa stood up and looked around the room. The Lorak were doing the same thing: seeing if there were any cameras or microphones. There weren’t. There was only the bare mattress frames, the bedding, and what they had brought in on their persons.
“Alright,” She said, loudly. “Carlos? Shishab?”
“Can Isa wait?” Carlos said to Markus.
Markus shrugged, like maybe she could, but it would be a cruel thing to do to her.
“Let’s wait ten minutes,” Carlos said. “Give them a chance to respond.”
They sat and waited, watching their wrist watches and phones. Ten long minutes. And nothing happened.
“Time’s up,” Carlos said. “Let’s make some noise.”
They stood up in unison and went to one of the bed frames. It took only a minute to use the tools in Wendell’s pockets to disassemble the metal frame and break it down.
The small alien watched them pull apart the metal struts and hand them out to the Lorak on the ceiling and the humans.
Theresa hefted her metal pole and swung it at another bed frame, producing a huge clanging that resounded around the chamber. The Lorak all flinched, and their antennae retracted, but a moment later they were all banging and shouting, being as loud as possible.
Down the hall from them, another human pressed their face against the glass and turned their head to see the source of the noise. Theresa saw them out of the corner of her eye, and switched from the bedframe to the glass pane that separated them from the hallway. The glass didn’t crack—she hadn’t expected it to—but it did make a very threatening “thwump.”
That was the magic word apparently, because within moments there were three more aliens at the glass, all of them covered with keratinous growths, waving limbs in the air.
“Stop! Stop!” One of them said.
“Bring us water!” Carrie shouted over the din, “and food! You can’t just keep us here!”
The aliens looked at each other, surprised. “We know how much food and water humans and lorak need in a day,” One said, “we were going to deliver it to you in a few hours.”
“We can’t wait a few hours,” Carrie said.
All the humans stopped and stared hard at them through the glass.
“Because,” Carrie said slowly, “We need water now.”
“Hey!” Someone shouted from down the hall, and then there was a muffled series of metallic thumps and clangs.
“Now look what you’ve done,” One of the aliens said to Theresa, and took off in that direction.
“We understand,” One of the other creatures said, “we will bring you food and water.”
The humans set their pipes down, and a minute later, they were brought containers of water and nutritional slop. It wasn’t exactly appetizing, but it would sustain them. At least, Theresa assumed so.
Markus took four bottles of water and disappeared into the shelter with Isa. She began to click and chitter a moment later.
They set aside their pipes and bars, but the thuds and shouts from down the hall did not stop. There were at least four other groups of humans in the surrounding cells, all of them demanding things now that someone else had.
The small alien at the glass had pulled out an even smaller electronic tablet and was tapping at the screen. It must be some kind of nursing aid, Theresa thought.
“That was clever,” Shishab told her when she settled next to him again.
Theresa craned her neck to look down the hallway. She could see alien doctors making deals with the humans all the way down the hall. “It was a gamble,” she said, “but now at least we know we could break this glass if we have to.”
He clacked his antennae together. “We won’t have to,” he said, “these doctors are for real.”
“I sure hope so.”
A few hours later, when Isa was recovered, they took apart the shelter, and Wendell reassembled the bed. They slept. They ate the slop. And they waited for the doctors.
A small medical team arrived when they were all awake and took each human away in turn. Carlos went first. He came back looking no worse for wear and with only a small bandage on one arm.
“They’re collecting blood samples to test for diseases,” He explained. “It’s very standard.”
They took each human in turn. When it was Theresa’s turn, she was brought to a small room with an Udomach in it, and they took twenty three vials of her blood. She counted. It was enough that she was a little dizzy afterwards. The Udomach also took a vial of her saliva and a swab of her nose.
“Checking for active infections,” they explained.
“I haven’t been sick in almost four years,” Theresa told them. “The last time was a flu from Earth.”
“What is a flu?” They asked, curious.
Theresa shrugged, “It’s a virus. It gives humans a fever and makes us very tired and sore, but it only lasts a week or two.”
“Yes,” They said. “But I understand you and your group quarantined before you left earth.”
She nodded, “For two weeks. To prevent the need for exactly this. We’ve been fine for three years. No alien diseases either.”
“That is good. Well done.”
“So why do you need to test us?”
“There are new concerns about the human microbes infecting other species,” They said. “It’s purely routine. It has been done before.”
“So kidnapping people is standard procedure?”
The Udomach made a strange whistling noise. “No,” They protested, “not kidnapping. We have the authority to pick you up in this sector.”
“And whose authority is that?”
The Udomach recited a long and complicated series of titles and species who apparently helped fund and organize the hospital ship.
Theresa listened, then shrugged. There was no arguing with that.
She went back to the room, where the others had broken into their stash of Lorak eggs. There wasn’t a better snack when it came to revitalizing your body.
“What did they say?” Carrie asked when she sat heavily on the bed.
“They’re legit, and they want to see if we’re carrying any harmful diseases. That’s all.”
“And what happens if they find one?” Carrie asked.
Theresa took a bite of an egg, shell and all, and chewed. “I didn’t ask. Probably they’ll want to treat the disease, like a normal hospital.”
“None of us are sick,” Carlos said, “so we’ll be fine. And if we are not fine, then we’ll figure it out.”
There was a knocking on the glass. They all looked over. The little green alien was knocking and gesturing towards the next human room down the hall.
“Hey!” A man yelled in English, “What are you eating?!”
Ferdinand, the cook, stood up. He held up one of the eggs, and shouted back, “Eggs!”
“Lorak!” He gestured to one of the Lorak, who was also nibbling on an egg.
“Ah,” The other human said, then disappeared. A moment later, a someone yelled, “They’re eating what?!”
Theresa snorted, and the rest of them dissolved into giggles.
They spent a whole week in that room, inventing games and making faces at the humans in the next cell over. Theresa found her place beside the pane of glass on the hallway, watching the passing of doctors and the small greenish creature that seemed to spend all of its time walking back and forth in front of the humans, taking notes, never speaking to anyone.
At the end of the week, they started opening the other doors and letting the other humans out, one group at a time. They lead them down the hallway. There were a few aliens mixed in with them, but not nearly as many as on the Quick Sliver. They waved at those still in their cages while they passed.
“It will be our turn soon,” Carlos said to himself.
It felt like an eternity before the door opened, and one of the small fingernail-covered aliens came in. They all looked at it, holding their breaths.
“I have the results of your tests for you,” The alien said, “and then you are all free to go.”
All the humans breathed out a sigh of relief.
“We found thousands of different microbes on each of your skin, in your saliva, and coded antibodies in your blood, but they all seem to coexist with humans. None are of major concern at this time.”
“I could have told you that,” Ferdinand said under his breath.
“We don’t have to pay for this, do we?” Markus asked from his place beside Isa.
“No?” The alien said.
“Let’s get back to my ship,” Shishab said. “We have work to do.” He reached out two of his left hands and helped Theresa up.
They all filed out, led by Shishab and Carlos, with Theresa right behind. This time, they weren’t transported inside of the sterile transport, but allowed to walk and see the facilities a little. The hospital was impressive. It was full of laboratories and sterile facilities.
“Do you think they treat normal diseases here?” Theresa asked Ferdinand.
“They do,” A voice replied in English from her other side. It sounded slightly robotic, like the speaker was using a walkie talkie. Theresa looked down. The little green alien with the backwards spine was walking beside her, keeping pace with some difficulty. “Hello,” It said.
“Hi,” Theresa said.
Ferdinand stopped beside her, and a lorak bumped into her from behind.
“My name is Schandri. I am a researcher with the galactic library.”
The creature cocked its head just a little, “And Theresa is a name from your faith, is it not?”
“Uh, no. I’m named after my grandmother.”
Schandri seemed vaguely disappointed.
“How are you speaking English?” Ferdinand asked.
“I am using translation implants from the galactic library. They help me make sense of languages I don’t speak.”
“That’s cool,” Ferdinand said.
The rest of the group had gathered around now. Schandri was dwarfed by them all, but it wasn’t afraid. If anything, it was eager.
“Tell me,” They said, “is it true that humans have auditory triggers that cause communal singing?”
“What?” Carlos said.
“Or that you have an instinctive violent reaction to being lightly brushed or crawled on?”
“Well, yes, sort of…”
“Hmm. And what about your home planet being filled with venomous animals?”
“Okay, that one is totally true,” Carrie laughed. “I’ve been bitten by way too many snakes.”
“And do you really prefer to create and consume fictional, fantastical media?”
“Where did you hear that?” Theresa asked.
Schandri turned to her, “From Acharya, of course. I read all of their reports. I wanted to study humans, but I’m not an active surveyor, so I wasn’t allowed to come to Earth.”
Theresa saw Carrie be pulled away by one of the small doctor aliens. Probably to ask about snake bites.
“You know Acharya?” Theresa asked.
“I’ve met them.”
“Are they good at their job?”
Schandri wiggled its stumpy tail. But it didn’t look like it was happy. “Acharya has a unique way of doing things.”
Carlos made a, “hmm,” sound. “Some humans like fiction and some don’t,” He said.
The stumpy tail wiggled again. Theresa really wanted to pet it. “Fascinating,” Schandri said. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions about it?”
Theresa and the rest of the humans turned to look at the Lorak, who were hovering nearby. Captain Shishab clicked his antennae together. “Of course we will welcome a representative from the Galactic Library onto our ship,” He said in galactic common.
The Udomach doctor coughed, “Schandri can’t go onto your ship. They need to stay away from any and all biological hazards. That includes humans for the time being.”
Theresa rolled her eyes at Markus, who snorted.
Schandri stared at the Udomach, and Theresa realized that there was something wrong with their eyes. She had never seen a member of their species before, so she could be wrong. It still made her shiver to see all the tiny green polyps that appeared to be growing on their irises.
Carrie bumped into her shoulder as she went by, beelining towards the ship with a hand over her mouth. She vanished inside of it, closely followed by three Lorak.
“Looks like it’s time to get going,” Carlos said. “We’re so behind schedule it doesn’t matter, but I’d like to make some money soon.”
“Ah shit. All our rations are probably spoiled,” Ferdinand started that way as well.
“Sorry,” Theresa said to Schandri, “I guess you’ll just have to wait on reports from Acharya.”
They started arguing with the doctors in galactic common too fast for her to understand as she turned away.
Theresa found Carrie in the bunks, a medical mask over her face, staring at the wall.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
Carrie looked around at her. “Probably nothing,” She said, “but the doctors said that I have a bacteria in my system that none of you have. They said it doesn’t look dangerous, but they don’t know what it is.”
“It’s probably some funky off-world bacteria from eating food on space stations.”
She made a noise behind the mask. “Sure. I’m gonna keep the mask on just in case it’s something bad.”
“We would have gotten it by now.”
“Maybe,” she said, “and maybe not.”
Over the next few weeks, they spent a lot of time reassuring her that, whatever it was, it wasn’t a big deal. They also took a lot of guesses about what the bacteria could be.
“It’s probably a staph antibody from an old infection,” Ferdinand said.
“No. A bacterial pneumonia you fought off and never even noticed,” Markus suggested.
“Or maybe you just ate something weird,” Theresa insisted.
“Nope: it’s syphilis,” Carlos tried to joke, but it fell a bit flat. And Carrie insisted it wasn’t, as she’d had a clean STI screen right before they left Earth. And she hadn’t slept with anyone since then.
“Really, what’s scarier than syphilis?” Markus asked after dinner that night. “If that’s not it, what bacteria does that leave? Tetanus? Measles?”
“Measles is a virus,” Ferdinand corrected. “There aren’t that many dangerous bacteria you could have that haven’t shown up in three years.”
“Okay,” Carrie said finally, annoyed. “And the mask wouldn’t help with any of that anyway.” She took it off, revealing she had chewed her bottom lip bloody.
“I could always whip you up some penicillin if you’re that worried,” Ferdinand said to her. “I could order the compound and get it next time we stop for fuel.”
“Yes,” Carrie said. “Do that. I’ll feel better about it then.”
That’s what they did, and they called the whole thing solved.