Hiryangana held out the worn imaging crystal in the palm of his hand. Above it a hologram floated. Bacia, glowing with happiness, pregnant with the baby that they would have had.
Even after three years, it brought a tear to his eyes.
“Please,” he said, looking directly at the captain in his blue spacer’s jumpsuit. “This place killed our hopes and then killed my wife. I have to leave.”
“I understand.” The captain said.
Somewhere above them, in the docks at the top of the orbital elevator, a freighter was being unloaded. Its captain was the seventeenth pilot that Hiryangana had approached this month. They never looked comfortable standing amid the age-worn girders of the freight terminal. The slightest risk of being hit by the chemicals the war had left behind, of suffering the crippling diabetes that blighted the planet of Valembra, was too much for most people.
“Please.” Hiryangana sank to his knees. “If I’m ever to have a life, to have a family, to have a future, I have to leave this place.”
“Get up, man,” the captain said. He pointed along the dock. “See that woman over there? That’s Dr Polat, a scientist who hitched a ride with us. She was going to detach her living pod and bring it down to be her home, but maybe you can persuade her to trade instead.”
“Thank you!” Hiryangana almost hugged the captain.
He ran up to Dr Polat. She had angular features and wore plain, practical travelling clothes.
“The captain said you have a transport pod,” Hiryangana blurted out. “I have a house with an office in the city. Will you trade?”
“Who are you?” the scientist snapped.
“Hiryangana Nalule,” he said. “A pharmacist. Please, I want to leave.”
“But your planet needs you,” Dr Polat said. “It needs all the medical professionals it can get.”
“My planet kills. Why would I stay?”
“I’m going to make things better.”
“Good for you. You know what would help you with that? A home and an office.”
Dr Polat frowned.
“You are a small, selfish man,” she said at last. Hiryangana’s heart sank. “But I can hardly change that, and a pharmacist would be useful in setting up my equipment. If you help me to set it up in your home, then I will agree to the trade. The pod is yours once everything is set.”
It was a hard few days. An autumn wind blew in off the ruins of Kemowa township, bringing sickness to the city. At any other time, Hiryangana would have rested and hoped that this was not the sickness that ruined him forever. But the freighter would leave in three days time, once it was loaded. So he alternated doses of sugar and insulin, trying to keep his body going as it swung between faintness and fever.
Being new to the planet, Dr Polat needed only to eat carefully to keep her body in check. Hiryangana pitied her for what she would face later.
The equipment she had brought was amazing. Testing and manufacturing machines of this quality were never found on neglected outposts of abandoned trade lanes like Valembra. Centrifuges and chromatographs, hormone printers and chemical cleansers, all shiny, sophisticated and new.
“You really think that you can find a cure?” he asked, leaning against one of the last pieces of machinery.
“I have had success with similar poisonings,” Dr Polat said. “This will take time, but it is not beyond my skill.”
Hiryangana tried to smile, but even his face felt weak.
“I could achieve much more with a pharmacist to help me,” Dr Polat said. “And I do not think your planet can afford to lose skilled workers.”
“It will have to. The sickness is too much for me.”
Black spots danced across Hiryangana’s vision as he pushed the machine into place. He leaned over to plug it in, the world spun around him, and he keeled over.
He woke up on the floor, Dr Polat’s face hovering over him. Behind her, a clock blinked on the wall.
The freighter would be leaving in an hour.
Hiryangana tried to push himself upright, but his arms were too weak. Tears ran down his face.
“The sickness,” he whimpered. “I cannot make it in time.”
Dr Polat pressed a syringe into his arm.
“This is still at the test stage, but it will work,” she said. “A deal is a deal.”
Already, Hiryangana felt his strength returning. Forcing himself upright, he walked toward the door.
“Thank you!” he said. “Thank you so much!”
“Wait.” Dr Polat held out a worn imaging crystal. “This fell out of your pocket.”
The hologram leapt shining from the crystal. Bacia stood there, smiling and stroking her belly.
Her beauty was all the more striking next to the simple lines of the empty syringe.
“The baby was sick inside her,” Hiryangana said, tears flowing again. “There were complications, and then…”
He took the syringe from Dr Polat’s hand, feeling the lightness of something that made such a difference.
“Could this have saved them?” he asked.
“This version? No.” Dr Polat said. “But the next? Maybe. The one after that? Almost certainly.”
Hiryangana slid the crystal into his pocket. The image of Bocia disappeared.
“You will need blood samples to test this against,” he said. “Let me call some friends, and then we can get to work.”
High above the city, a freighter undocked. On its side was an empty transport pod.
* * *
I know a lot of people who are struggling with how to cope with the current political climate. This story is a response to that. And also to reading about experiments with medical platypus venom, because the world is a crazy place.
If you enjoyed this then please consider signing up to my mailing list for a free e-book and regular stories straight to your inbox. You might also enjoy my collection of science fiction short stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.