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The Blight

The next morning, Ruis awoke in his bunk on the Ship feeling terrible. His eyelids were stuck closed. He could barely breath, and only through his mouth. Somewhere close came wheezing that matched his own. Samba. The legendary blight had struck.
Ruis huddled miserably on his bunk. He groaned, stopped as a cough ripped from him, racking his body. With great effort, he pried his eyelids open, then squinted at his Fam. Her sides heaved, her nose looked crusted, her harsh panting ended with an awful rattle with each breath. She sneezed.

Now his eyes, which had felt as dry as if they'd been rolled in grit, watered. An irresistible wave rose within him, tickling his nose. He sneezed. Chain reaction had him coughing again, jerking upright to try and ease his pain. He still felt as if he tore his insides.

"Ship," he croaked. "Ship!"

"Yes, Captain?"

"This is the blight," he ran out of energy and flopped back down on his bed.
He thought he heard a soft whirring, but wasn't sure because his ears rang as well.

"Uhhhnnn," he moaned.

"We are scanning the crew for health readings," Ship said.

Suddenly he was cold. Ruis pulled the slippery covers up to his chin, no small feat with Samba lying on them. She opened a reddened eye and mewed weakly between ragged breaths. Ruis snuffled, in desperate need of a softleaf. "Softleaf, now!" he commanded.

"We are unfamiliar with that term," said Ship.

Ruis' words stuck in his throat. He coughed them out with phlegm onto the bedclothes, then snorted with revulsion. He groaned again at his own repulsiveness. His self-image included immaculate grooming and style. "I need something to wipe my nose, and a wet cloth to clean my linens and...." he stopped to cough again.
His body ached all over, this time from the inside out. It brought back memories. Usually Uncle Bucus had preferred binding young Ruis to a tree outside his cottage and using razorslits, but a couple of times Bucus had beaten Ruis. He hurt like that.

"Permission to insert a cleaning robot into the Captain's Quarters," said Ship.

"Yes, yes, yes," Ruis agreed, closing his eyes and concentrating on breathing. He didn't like how he sounded, or Samba. "My Fam has the blight, too."

"We have determined that you simply have a common cold," said Ship.
Ruis pummeled a headrest the Ship had called a "pillow," and curled into a fetal position. Yet he still heard the doors to his quarters open and a tinny rumbling.

"What is ACommonCold?"

Ship didn't answer. The mechanical clinking came closer. Ruis squeezed open an eye. A small achine, no taller than the bunk and looking like a bulky stool, trundled in. At any other time, Ruis would have been fascinated and his fingers and mind would have itched to learn the robot. Now all he wanted to do was find a comfortable spot on the bed. He straightened out his legs and started to roll on his back. Samba hissed, and he turned back onto his side.

The little robot stopped right in front of Ruis' face. Lights in a circular pattern around the top flickered green and yellow and red and white set in polished silver. The shine hurt Ruis' eyes.

Samba sat up, stumbled over him, and Ruis grunted. The cat settled herself near his waist. Her rheumy eyes peered at the robot, then she squawked when the thing clicked open one of many round ports and telescoped an appendage. The end was covered in a soft sponge. It dabbed at Ruis' nose. He sneezed. It dabbed. He shot upright, appalled. "Stop that!"

The sponge was sucked down the tube of the appendage and a new swab appeared. The flexible arm wiped at the phlegm on the sheet. A strong scent of chemicals penetrated Ruis' clogged nostrils. Ruis and Samba sneezed in unison. "Ship, what is ACommonCold?" Ruis wanted to thunder, but his voice cracked.
The robot beeped as if in alarm and rolled back. Its top opened and a box of thin stuff appeared, then was catapulted to Ruis. He caught it reflexively. The box was of sturdy papyrus, the wisps of material extruding was soft on his hands. He pulled at it and sneezed into it. It held up. Samba came over to paw at the stuff, shredded some near her then buried her nose. She sneezed.


"We have determined that crew has the common cold. We have also sampled the Celtan atmosphere around the Ship. There is no indication that the two hundred viruses associated with the cold have survived on the local planet. Therefore we extrapolate that this temporary sickness is not well known on Celta. We were not aware that the bacteria were so virulent as to affect visitors after such a short amount of time, but we hypothesize that without any immunity to the viruses--"

"Ship, explain ACommonCold," Ruis shouted.

"We are having trouble understanding you this morning, Captain. The common cold affects the sinuses and therefore the speech pattern of those who have it. Crew may rest assured that we have located the breeding grounds of the viruses in the air vents and will eradicate them immediately. We believe that in the small ducts, even the rare opening of the Ship's ports to the local atmosphere did not allow so much air in to destroy the viruses as happened planetside."

"I'm leaving, then. Outside will cure me." He stood, weaving, dizzy. The robot squeaked and trundled over to a corner. "I'm taking Samba with me. The blight," he said in disgust. "There really was a blight. No wonder none of your visitors returned if this is how you treated your guests."

"We extrapolate that the outside atmosphere will not kill the viruses any faster than our methods," Ship said stiffly. "In fact, from what we can garner from various records, we believe that the local medicos, the Healers, usually let the sickness take its course. It is troublesome, but not dangerous at this point. Crew should not be concerned."

Ruis pulled on the old-fashioned robe he'd retrieved from his former rooms. The clothes he'd come aboard wearing had yet to reappear. "Healers couldn't help me anyway. I suppress their Flair. There is one animal Healer, though, and D'Ash can relieve Samba, at least." He scooped up his Fam, grunting again at her weight. She gave a polite mew but rested limply in his arms, eyes closed. A piece of tissue stuck to her nose.

Ship whirred. "We request that the Captain and crew remain aboard. We have every concern for your health and will treat you well with old Earth remedies. The greensward will have raw materials for fresh medicines. You have not visited the great greensward. The area has a proven effect for soothing the nerves. The temperature is eighty degrees.

"The local temperature is forty-nine. We humbly remind the Captain that we did listen to his words about the anxiety he and crew experienced. We did investigate, and we did solve the matter of the subsonics before he returned last evening. We will also resolve this problem. We respectfully submit that the Captain is not up to standard operating levels and would be better off resting in the Ship."

Ruis blinked at the passion of the lecture. Words seemed to fade and sharpen in his ears as he snuffled, trying to think. Ship still seemed afraid that he might abandon it to be alone again. It couldn't prevent Ruis from leaving, he'd learned enough to open any portal manually. Ruis sighed. He knew that once he felt better he'd be compelled to return to work on the myriad alluring projects in the Ship.

Shivers rippled through him. He was cold here, outside it would be worse. "The greensward," he coughed and grabbed more of the strange softleaves. He remembered "greensward" from ancient texts that never defined it, but stated that each Ship had one and they were essential for human emotional nourishment and recreation.

"The greensward will calm you. Miriam's Glade is still well-kept, per instructions of the last Captain. The rest of the greensward is overgrown. There's a stillroom near the glade that can be used to make remedies under our instruction. We are quite knowledgeable regarding this sickness and can cure you of it in a few days. If you leave the Ship, we calculate that the outside environment will kill the viruses over a period of two weeks."

Ship's words buzzed in Ruis' brain. He frowned, irritated that it was taking him so long to think, as if his mind swirled with thick fog he had to batter through. The greensward was warm, warmer than a Celtan autumn. His knees weakened and he locked them, then moaned as his joints ached with the effort. Samba protested by nipping his arm. The small pain cleared his head a bit. He was in no shape to try and outwit the guardsmen of Druida. He had no place to go outside the Ship.

"Ah lak dub gwnsshhhwwahhhd," Samba muttered. Ruis shook his head, trying to figure out what she'd said. Ship was right, the blight affected her elocution. Ruis looked down at her. The tip of her tail raised languidly. The sickness also blurred the crispness of her movement that she used to communicate.

Could he make it to D'Ash with Samba? There was the formidable T'Ash, looming like a black shadow in Ruis' vision, the equally impressive Fam Zanth, sire to Samba, who would recognize her in an instant.

The thought of crafting a plan to leave Samba with D'Ash without revealing himself to the others made his very bones hurt. He moaned.

"Cart coming through," Ship said.

The outside doors opened and a small, four-wheeled vehicle pulled up in front of Ruis. Bright yellow of spotless material that didn't look like any Ruis had ever seen, it rolled on four fat wheels and had a control panel in front and a lever that appeared to be a steering mechanism angled over a padded bench. He blinked in amazement at the sight of the antique. Celtans had used psi-spelled air-cushion technology instead of wheels on their gliders since the second generation. This thing was a relict of a past on a different planet. Tingles of fascination prickled through Ruis, diverting him from his sickness. A wheeled conveyance. He wondered how fast it would go.

"Transport to the greensward," Ship announced.

Samba snorted and it echoed. Ah'll not catch mice 'n greensshwahd, packed with irritation, her meaning was clear.

"Crew is relieved of carrying out her duties until she is well," Ship agreed.

Ruis eyed the cart, then slid onto the bench and sank into cushions. He was comfortable. Samba hopped up next to him.

His eyes watered. He looked for the controls, but the cart started itself, wheeled into a neat three-point turn and sped out from his bedroom into the sitting room then through the doors and out of his quarters.

Curving metallic walls zoomed by in a recurring rainbow theme. The ride was smooth and noiseless. Ruis found himself grinning with cracked lips as the speed lifted tendrils of hair from his face. He licked his mouth and wondered about the greensward and the stillroom and the cart and the robot. There was much to learn.

"Let's go play," he croaked.


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