Dr. Stephen Connor signed the final requisition form in the pile. The last hold the office had on him before the weekend. He glanced at his son, head bent over an electronic game. They had been spending more time together since his promise made during the Colima assignment, but this was the first trip out of N.I.H.'s clutches. Jack had been patient with half the day spent in the office because of the paperwork, but he would be more than ready to leave now. They would miss rush hour traffic too if he took an early exit. Connor opened his mouth to tell Jack to pack up his game when the phone on his desk rang. "Connor."
"Doctor, you have some visitors for a consultation."
Connor glared at the clock, but he was still on N.I.H. time and agreed to see them. His son's eyes bored into him when he hung up the phone. "I have to take a meeting before we can get out of here. Come on."
"We are still going camping, right?" Jack followed him into the hallway between offices, their laboratory, and conference room.
He tousled his suspicious son's brown hair. "Yes, and your old man will try to teach you how to fish."
Frank looked up from his computer. "Just be sure to have the first aid kit handy so he can stitch himself up when he shows you how not to put a hook through your thumb."
"Very funny. I have a meeting; can Jack stay with you?"
His bearded colleague and friend nodded, then directed his attention to Jack. "I got some state quarters for you. Your dad says you're collecting them."
Connor left them and met the opening elevator doors. They were a couple of college-age kids, dressed in suits to practice being grown-ups, which they needed more of because they both gaped at him. The boy with curly dark-blond hair stammered, "Dad?"
"I don't think so, I was more careful during my college days."
The girl with long, dark hair and wide, blue eyes giggled. "Sorry, but you and his father, wow, could have been separated at birth. We're here to see Dr. Connor."
"I'm Dr. Connor. My office is this way, Miss?"
"DG Gale and this is Jeb Cain." They followed him back to his glass-walled office. "We really appreciate you seeing us, especially this late on a Friday."
"And I hope the case you have won't interfere with my weekend plans." He moved behind his desk. "Do you have a case file?"
Miss Gale pulled a slim black notebook out of her shoulder bag and passed it across the desk. It was handwritten in a neat script, not typed. People first come down with a fever, dry cough, and runny noses and complain of headaches, sore throats, and muscle pain. Sounds like the flu, but the day after the fever starts the cough starts bringing up bloody mucus. On the day after that, the skin starts bruising. After that, the patient dies. Older and younger people are holding out longer than young adults and teenagers. Fifty-six villagers of Neverdale were dead when the government team of fifteen people arrived three days after Neverdale sent for help. Members of that group developed the fever two days later. Six soldiers were sent in to replace the sick guards before quarantine was established to keep everyone in Neverdale and everyone else out. He frowned. "This wasn't put together by medical professionals."
"No, it wasn't." His glare pulled further explanation from Miss Gale. "You see, our country is recovering from a civil war. The former regime targeted the medical community; if you didn't work for them, you had to run or be executed. When we won, the doctors on the regime's side did a Jonestown." She shrugged, "They made Mengele look like a great humanitarian. But all we have are midwives and battlefield surgeons."
"Neverdale's midwife was one of the first ones who died," Mr. Cain said. "The Army surgeon." He paused after, like he was unsure of his pronunciation. "Was part of the third group in and caught the illness."
Connor frowned at the scant details in front of him. While he preferred gathering his facts unhindered by conclusions drawn by others, the only conclusion here was lots of people dying. And they wanted him to help stop it. "You need a first diagnosis before you can get a second opinion."
Miss Gale frowned right back. "And I told you why the notes are not up to any standards. I'm trying to get my people help before this outbreak escapes the quarantine we set up and without wasting time on governmental red tape."
He thumped the notebook on his desk. "If these numbers are accurate, it would already be news here, no matter where your country is. So what are you really after?"
Mr. Cain shifted nervously in his seat. Miss Gale didn't flinch however. "I need a doctor who can cure my people or," she swallowed, "keep this illness from spreading."
She spoke faster to override her companion's interruption. "And why you haven't heard anything is because our country is on another planet and we use magic to get there."
Mr. Cain looked ready to bolt. Miss Gale was rigid to withstand whatever Connor would yell. Connor didn't want to waste any more time on them. "Cute, but I have to take my son camping, so you can go back to whoever set this up." He stood up behind his desk.
Miss Gale silently held out her hand. His jar of red licorice on the bookshelves behind his desk wobbled. Her forehead creased with concentration and the jar floated off the shelf. It bobbed across the room until she grabbed it, opened it, and took two sticks out. She passed one to Mr. Cain, who stared at it puzzled, then set the jar on Connor's desk. "Go ahead and check it, Dr. Connor." She sat back down and crossed her legs.
"What is this?" Mr. Cain hissed at her and waved the licorice.
Her blue eyes rolled toward the ceiling. "It's candy, Jeb." She chewed on the one she claimed for herself.
Connor picked up the jar. Nothing was different about it minus the two pieces being eaten. No strings, no magnets, but it had floated to the woman in the office. He set it back on the shelf, sat down, and stared at the pair in his office.
Miss Gale smirked, but her eyes were sympathetic. "Which part is harder, magic is real or he doesn't know what licorice is?" She jerked her thumb at her companion.
"Oh the licorice, definitely."
His sarcasm made her smile. "I can do a lot I didn't think possible with my magic, but I can't snap my fingers and heal people."
"What else are you leaving out?" Connor pressed his lips together.
Her smile faded. "My parents and sister were in the second group who went into the town. My mother had already caught it when I was told. I don't know how long my father and sister have." She tucked away her pain and looked him in the eye. "I am here begging for help, but I'm prepared to offer whatever compensation you think is fair because this situation is so unorthodox."
Connor glanced at the framed photo of Jack on his desk. So many broken promises because of other people needed his help. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You couldn't have showed up on Monday."
"You don't get to spend enough time with your son either." Miss Gale's soft voice drew his attention again. "Bring him along."
Connor raised his eyebrows.
"We'll keep him away from the sick, obviously. Heck, I'll even babysit since nobody wants me to catch it either. I can promise you no interference by the government, whatever you need we will get it. Plus whatever pay you think you deserve." She cocked her head to the side. "Even though me and my foster parents were taxpayers when we lived in Kansas."
"And you can make good on all those promises?" Connor resorted to his poker face, but had to wonder if this young woman would be able to read that too.
"I've got a little pull with the government I'm willing to exploit." Mr. Cain stifled his chuckle at her comment. She gave him a look before turning back to Connor. "Do we have a deal, Dr. Connor?"
"I have to speak with my team first. Dropping everything to go to another planet is not what they joined the N.I.H. for." He sent an email to meet in the conference room to the rest of the team, and then password-locked his computer. "We are dealing with humans, right?"
"Everyone who is sick is human," Mr. Cain answered.
Connor nodded. "Wait here then."