I must have written this one years ago. Time flies.
by S A Rudy
We established the outpost on Tyler34 under the strictest of quarantine. It was almost as if we never left the ship. Our only interactions were through force fields and sensor probes. It felt confining, even uncomfortable at times, but we'd all grown up on stories on xenocide from the common cold. Nobody wanted to cause the death of our newly discovered alien race - or to be the first to experience an alien disease. They seemed to take our precautions as perfectly sensible. Perhaps they'd had a smallpox experience in their past as well.
Still, we managed to study one another well enough, speaking and staring through transparent barriers and passing along electronic data with the probes. There were only ten of us then, doing the bio-chemical scans to see if it was safe for the rest of us. Perhaps, because of the data we were gathering then, our children and theirs might breathe the same air, touch one another without walls in between.
They were telepaths, if you can imagine it! They even said they could "hear" us - a funny buzzing and whispering. When they knew us better, sometimes they could sense more - words, sentences, an image. As my field was communication more than biology, I spent nearly all of my time working on that alone. They assigned me one of their sages and we would sit for hours, a thin wall of energy splitting our worlds, trying to teach me the language of thought. I never felt a thing, of course, but the structure and flow of it was more than I could ever study in a lifetime. Kri was equally fascinated by the viewpoint of the alien, how the isolation of mind causes fragmentation of thought. We spent so long together that our soft, craggy faces began to seem more alien than their smooth fluted ones.
She was endlessly patient. She, all of them, seemed uncannily even tempered. They didn't seem ever to hold on to their emotions, just letting them ripple and vanish in mere seconds. They exuded a serenity that would have made the wisest mystic green with jealousy. To them, my Irish temper must have seemed stranger than our faces, or our ships, or our many tongues. Kri told me more than once that she had never seen anyone more kinetic than the calmest of us.
This calmness almost kept me from noticing when Kri became sick. Her tranquillity became rectitude. She spoke less, responding with shorter and shorter replies. I first noticed it when she kept worrying at some sort of rash on her arms. I asked her if she was all right, and she responded with the closest thing to irritation I had ever heard from her. "It is not an alien thing," she told me dismissively. She left almost immediately. I'd begun to be able to read expressions, but the one she wore then was beyond my experience.
It put it down to imagination. It is easy to read human signals when there are none. The next time I saw her, I knew I had been wrong. I wished I'd said something to my superior, or one of the other aliens. Her skin was mottled, flaking in places and one eye was conspicuously swollen. I noticed an unusual moisture between her joints. "You're sick! Are you all right?"
She blinked her good eye at me. "I am not sick. Why do you think that?"
I almost dropped the subject. Perhaps it was some taboo thing we hadn't yet encountered. How would I know? "Because you..." What could I say that wouldn't offend her? "...when you move, you move like you are in pain," I finally told her.
"Well, perhaps I should be in pain," she said, so softly I almost did not hear.
"Nothing. Do we not have work?"
I stood and moved to the wall between us, as close as I could get to her. "No. Why did you say that?"
"It is nothing. I am fine. I am just tired."
Her expression was still unreadable. There was something in it I almost recognized, but I couldn't place it. In the entire time I had known her, I had never known Kri to lie. I had never heard of any of the aliens lying. But I knew she was. Perhaps that was the new expression - the lying expression. "You're more than tired, Kri."
She flicked her arms at me and rippled, their sort of shrug. "It does not matter. Nothing matters. There is only badness, sadness...being so miserable as I should have only such...should die in pain and go away and not upset good friend and hurt and hurt and..." She began to babble, half in her own language and I couldn't make out one word in ten of it. Even that much was enough to frighten me. Her tone was violent and ragged and the moisture in her joints began oozing.
"Kri! Stop it! Kri! Are you all right?"
Kri was almost beyond hearing me, lost in her own world of misery. "No. Dying, dying..." She began clawing at the rashes, pulling off hard strips of skin. She wouldn't respond to anything else I said, just chanting softly to herself, "dyingdyingdying..."
I believed her. And I panicked. I didn't know how to call one of her own kind or how long it would take if I could. And I knew she needed help right then. I ran to the field control and opened it. The security was simple enough - they hadn't expected anyone to be foolish enough to deliberately turn the mechanism off. I ran across to her and took one hand, ignoring the viscous liquid coating it. "Kri...what is wrong?"
"...don't deserve to live...deserve to be dying...miserable...horrible...only sadness, only anger, only failure..."
"No, Kri! You're not! You don't deserve anything bad." Knowing she could sometimes hear me, I projected love and support with all the energy I had. "You're wonderful! Please be all right. Please..."
Slowly, she stopped babbling and clawing and looked at me. "I need a doctor," she said finally.
"Yes, you do."
I called my people and she called hers, warning them both that I'd broken quarantine. The came in in airtight suits to separate us. They took Kri away, presumably to their infirmary and stuck me in isolation. They wouldn't talk to me, their silence communicating their contempt for what I'd done.
They told me in the morning that Kri had died a few hours later. The lesions she'd opened had infected. It was one of their infections, but the accusation was in everyone's eyes anyway. My only contact that day was from the doctor who examined me for alien anythings and the project supervisor, who yelled at me. I pointed out that she was sick before I opened the field, but he still seemed to blame me for Kri's death. I got a clean bill of health, but they decided to keep me in isolation indefinately - to keep me from causing any more trouble.
The doctor told me the next day that three more aliens had developed the same symptoms as Kri had had. And they had never seen anything like it before. It sort of cleared me, as none of them had been anywhere near the human outpost for several days. Still I stayed.
The next day, two of the sick aliens had died and another four had developed symptoms. They had rashes, aches, swollen eyes and joints for no discernable reason, digestive problems, and a dozen other mild complaints with no known cause. And all of them were babbling and crying and refusing treatment. They seemed to have lost the will to live.
I sat in isolation, lost in thought, running over the last few minutes with Kri. She'd gotten better, right at the end. She'd been coherent and she had asked for help. I asked for transcripts of what the other sick aliens had said before they died. I don't know how the doctor convinced them, but he brought a disk to me within the hour. "Why did you want this?"
"I have a theory..." I punched up the data. The aliens babbled and cried, mostly incoherent. They seemed to be entirely concerned with death and pain and that they somehow deserved it and wanted to die. None of them showed last-minute coherence. I played them over and over, trying to understand what they meant. The words were familiar - a version of what we all think on a bad day, just a hundred times magnified.
The doctor stood and watched me. "You know, if they were human, I'd diagnose extreme depression. But they don't have any such disease here."
That stopped me cold. "Didn't." I told him.
"Oh, God. I did kill her. I killed her. I killed all of them!" I stared at him through tear-coulded eyes. "I killed them..."
It took him a few minutes and a tranquilizer to get past my hysteria. "How could you? We've already proven they were sick before you broke quarantine."
"No. I killed her. They didn't have immunity. We're all immune. We have it for five minutes and we cure ourselves, but they don't have the immunity. I was in a bad mood and I gave it to her and she gave it to them and they gave it to each other and they're dying because they never developed an immunity."
"You said it youself, Doc. Depression."
story copyright 1994 by S A Rudy
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