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It's Really not Funny

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It starts with a cough. A tiny, irksome harbringer of the feverish days and nights awaiting. Fear begins to creep through your physical shell, seeping as an unquestionable hormone through every cell, infiltrating muscles, slinking through the lymphatic system, alarming the brute machinery of the heart, and cat-burglarizing the fatty vaults of the brain. The lungs, powerless to stop their convulsing as Theta Prime is to reverse its orbit, cough again.

There remains some time, perhaps three days, or five, before it begins in earnest. Reactions to the onset range from denial to suicide. Nobody is sure what to do with the bodies; it is too risky to bury them in the usual place, but it also seems wrong, somehow, to throw them down the shaft with the other victims.

But most do not take their own lives. Irrational belief in one's survival is an integral part of human nature, not to be erased by a strange planet and a little isolation. It is, then, understandable that each frightened cougher says, "I will be the first," and goes on with life.

On a laboratory bench, hunched over a C-scan microscope, in the colonial outpost of Pianosa, in an isolated, forested section of Theta Prime, a man sits. He is young, with copious amounts of curly brown hair; the rest is concealed by a surgical mask with a filter and an ungainly pair of safety goggles, the heavy elastic strap slicing a track over his right temple and across his ear. A laminated tag clipped to his lab coat reads, "Dr. Eli Misch." He is looking for something, something lying, dreamlike, just beyond his range of vision.

The cough began two days ago, and Misch is no fool. His first reaction was to throw out all the other researchers and the clinging, slightly servile interns. He retains a vestige of hope for the interns, but his colleagues have sucked down too much of his recycled air for Fortune's wheel to keep them healthy. Any regret he feels for their impending ends is kept distant and surreal by the high buzzing of the microscope, the cold implacable watchfulness of the shining tiled laboratory, the limbic urgency of his search.

Always the search. On the ejection of the lab personnel, he had walked, slowly and with resignation, to his bench. He had powered up the microscope, and he had begun.

For what he sought, exactly, he did not know. He understood only that every moment of his search was begged, borrowed, or stolen, and would eventually have to be returned, with interest, pried from his grasping hands.

His hands. Eli Misch glances down at them furtively, a bead of sweat forming on his oily forehead to hover, poised, on the seal of his safety goggles. Was that a twinge, a moment of fragility? But no, it cannot be. Always, he comforts himself, always it is at least three days -

- A sudden spasm in his arm twists the focus knob, throwing the hard-won images into blurred twilight.

"No!" Misch screams, his vocal desperation flung back at him by the hard white walls, "No!"

But the twisted muscle fibers of his forearm feel otherwise.

Jerking away from the microscope, Misch staggers to his feet, staring at his extremities with the horror of one who has pulled the veil from a mirror and spied a monster. His eyes dart to a tray of surgical instruments on the far side of the lab. He steps cautiously, then breaks into a sprint. It strikes him, midway across the floor, that this may be the last run of his life. But then he is at the tray. Shaking, alien fingers grasp a lancet, its delicate blade fresh and sterile (Misch knows, he ran them himself), holds it momentarily above his wrist, then slices softly and precisely. There is a hint of silver in the blood.

Fool! He turns, limping on a throbbing left shin, and haltingly stumbles back towards the microscope, gripping his oozing wrist. His blood falls malignantly to the floor, each drop a mockery of his ambitions.

By the time Misch reaches the microscope, fiery pain has crept up from his shin through his knee, thigh, and hip, finally curling around his spine. Collapsing onto the bench, he allows some silvering blood to flow onto a slide, which he seals and shoves clumsily under the lens. "Fine motor control is going," he muses distantly, and awkwardly twists the focus knobs until the red smear crystallizes.

For a moment, he watches, transfixed (this beauty, this wonder, is why he came to science), as his immune cells spray the invaders with a silvery shellac, sealing them off from the other cells. He feels a rush of gratitude for these small white warriors, fighting a hopeless battle in the narrow channels and aquifers of his body. Taking advantage of the sleek C-scope he fought so hard to have carted here from Earth (the last time it will be used - nobody will touch it after his death), Misch punches some buttons for a centrifuging and spectroscopic analysis, as well as some other tests just for grins, then falls unwillingly asleep with his head resting on the lab counter. He has been searching for ten hours.

When Misch wakes, he finds that he cannot move his legs. Even straightening to read the results presented by the urgently beeping C-scope is almost impossible. It takes a moment for the data to sink in.

The virus has been linked, by rumor, anecdote, and insinuation, to sewage, water filters, sex, and potatoes. Now, looking at the undeniable root of the illness, Misch begins to laugh. Sagging over the counter, legs twisted uselessly beneath him, ribs and spine melting towards a gelatinous union, face stretching into a twisted ruin, silver obscuring his beleaguered corneas, Misch laughs - and coughs.




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