(This short story first appeared in the 12/12/16 edition of Perihelion Sci-Fi Online Magazine)
Zebra babies melted her heart—from a distance. Up close, no human in the cosmos would bother making friends with them based solely on the merits of their charm.
Prime example? This foal. He bared his nubby teeth with tufted ears flat against his skull, charging Nilah again and again in the confines of the vetting stall. She crouched, arms out-stretched, halter in hand. In her hip pocket a vaccine hid from view, syringe loosely capped and ready. She’d only get one chance so better make it good. A feint, a head toss and tail flip—then the little shit whirled and landed a halfhearted kick directly on the bridge of her nose.
Stars. Not an urban legend. Nope—these were real. Nilah counted at least a dozen of them spinning just above her eyes, flitting and sparking at the edges of her vision while something warm and coppery filled her mouth. She stared up at the barn roof for a couple more sec-onds before she rolled over and spit blood into the pine shavings.
“Oh God—Dr. Tate! Are you okay?” The voice came from somewhere over her head and to the left. Female, shrill, addressing her by title.
“Ugggggh. . . .” Nilah plucked the syringe from her pocket, where its needle had poked through her trousers and dug at least a quarter of an inch into her skin. Too bad she wasn’t a horse. If she were, she wouldn’t be catching any mosquito-vectored hemorrhagic diseases any time soon.
“Dr. Scarborough’s on chat,” the perky undergrad said. “Should I tell him you’ll get back to him later?”
Nilah pushed herself upward, onto her hands and knees, and watched blood drip into the shavings from the direction of her nose. “No,” she said. “Tell him I’ll be right there.”
“Is it broken?” Doc Scarborough studied her through the Netcam, his grizzled face pinched in scrutiny.
Nilah shifted the cold gel pack a little higher up her face. “Probably.”
“Ouch. You’ll have yourself a nice set of raccoon eyes by tonight.”
“Procyon lotor—the common barnyard ringtail. A much cuddlier species than the zebra, known for their affability.” She felt bones moving underneath the gel pack and lightened the pressure a bit. “Pets, really. Cute and fluffy. Like kittens.”
The older veterinarian laughed. “I see he didn’t kick the bullshit out of you.”
She hoisted the middle finger of her free hand.
“Nilah, do you remember the Equus Project? We talked about it in third year.”
She lowered her hand. “Yeah. Dr. Elgin Fitzroy put a bunch of Dartmoor ponies on a transgalactic freighter and flew them out to Terrafour. Never to be heard from again.”
“Oh, they were heard from. Just haven’t been in the news for the last twenty years.”
Nilah mopped her forehead with the ice pack. Was she sweating? Five minutes ago she’d been cold. “Seriously? They survived?”
“They did more than survive. Apparently he has quite a herd of them. More than he can handle. He sent word that he’s looking for a second vet. An equine specialist…one who also happens to be good with African mammals.”
“African mammals?” Nilah wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. Clammy? Or condensation from the ice pack? “Exactly what all does he have out there on Terrafour?”
“Just prey species—for now—oryx, and watusi. He recently introduced chimpanzees. They’re all thriving.”
“And how do you know this?”
“Because he contacted me. Wanted to know who I could recommend.” A pause, pregnant as a raincloud. “Can I send him your name?”
“My name? Seriously?” She peered into the Netcam, blinking against a sudden but mercifully brief bout of double vision. “Doc—are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No,” he said, with considerable emphasis. “I pretty much despise the thought of losing you.”
A beat of silence while she thought about everything he’d said, and hadn’t said. “Then…what?”
“We’re not talking about a summer with the Peace Corp. It’s no work study. Not a temporary placement. But Fitzroy asked who I could recommend. Truth is, I only know of one eq-uine vet who meets his specs. And I have a feeling he only knows of one, too.”
She took a deep breath. That double vision thing—it wasn’t going away. Neither was the cold sweat.
“Nilah, he didn’t just roll these particular dice and come up with me. He went to considerable effort, putting this packet of data in my hands. Photographs. Case studies. Documentation of his research. He found the pond with the prize catch and that’s where he dropped his bait.”
Nilah took another deep breath. Gave her head a quick shake. “You have photographs of Terrafour?”
“Not just Terrafour. Animals living on Terrafour. In a natural state. Healthy. Disease-free. Reproducing.”
“Repro—” She broke off, not daring to finish the thought. “Is he crazy?”
“Probably.” Doc Scarborough clasped his gnarled hands in front of him and stared hard at her through the Netcam. “But the offspring show no ill effects of gravitational disparity. Car-diovascular soundness, good bone density—maybe his kind of crazy will end up saving us all.”
“I definitely want to see those photographs.”
“I have them with me, at my compound. You want to see them, you come here. They’re not stepping one foot outside these gates. Sorry, Nilah.”
“This evening good for you? Tonight?”
She nodded. “Okay. Hey…Doc?”
“Yeah, Nilah. What is it?”
“The Haithun vaccine—any reported nastiness from accidental human exposure?”
“Don’t say ‘uh-oh’ unless there really is an ‘uh-oh.’ What happens when a person gets injected by accident? Any adverse effects?”
“Well….” He sat back, stroking his chin as if it helped him think. “It’s a modified live virus, so there’s a minute chance it could revert to virulence if the immune system is compromised. But the human body is an imperfect host, so it probably just becomes inert. My concern would be site reaction. There are some adjuvents in that vaccine that might cause sub-dermal irritation—where’d you get stuck?”
Nilah poked gently at the bridge of her nose. “My ass.”
Silence from her mentor. Then he cleared his throat. “I don’t think I even want to know how that happened.”
She glared at him.
“You’re coming over tonight. I can—” He cleared his throat again. “—take a look at it if you want.”
“I do not want,” she said. “But maybe….” She took another deep breath, dropped the ice pack and grabbed the edge of her desk with both hands to keep herself upright. “Doc—I think I need a medic.”