She burst through the double-doors of the Emergency Wing just as the second page was ringing throughout the complex. “I’m here!” she called out angrily to the ceiling. Beyond, clustered around a bed and blocking her view, she could see Dr. Webber and several others. Some were obviously physicians in their pale blue scrubs, still others must have been nurses or orderlies in more colorful scrubs, and then there were several people in navy coveralls. Engineers? Janitors? What the Hell was going on? And why did they need an exobiologist?
Dr. Webber caught her attention and spoke over the crowd. He had ditched his bubble suit and was only sporting a huge face shield with a bright yellow back. He also wore a pale blue surgical gown, and what looked like several pairs of nitrile gloves.
“Dr. Augustine, you’re here.”
Was that relief in his voice? A few of the coveralls looked at her. She saw a woman with a seamed, weather-beaten face, and a small, ferrety man with nervous hands.
Her view of the case was still blocked, however, by the medical staff.
“What’s going on?” she asked, “Why was I paged?”
At the sound of her voice, the bodies parted, and Dr. Sydney Augustine, exobiologist, saw exactly why she was paged.
There was a wiggling, two-meter, parti-colored arthropod attached to blue-faced man.
“Oh my God!” she heard herself gasp. The physicians each gave her sympathetic, if concerned and professional, glances. Apparently she wasn’t the only one to have reacted out of shock at the sight.
“Dr. Augustine, are you familiar with this species?” Dr. Webber asked. His voice was tight. It must be killing him to know he was breathing the same air as this alien bug.
Sydney tried to focus. Of course, she had read about this insect—exosect—in her database from the original astronauts. They had been just as impressed with the beast as she was. But she couldn’t say she had any special knowledge or experience with it.
“Um,” she said out loud, stalling for a moment to gather her thoughts, “No.”
There was a collective sigh of disappointment.
“But,” she continued, now with the undivided attention of everyone in the room, “I think at this point we can go ahead and treat this like a mechanical problem until I can get this critter to my lab and do some tests. I think we all agree that he won’t be any deader if we find out this thing is poisonous, and we won’t be any less contaminated if this thing is shedding any pathogens.”
Nods of assent greeted her words. The engineers—she could see their badges now that she was up close—produced a large pair of loppers from among their ranks. A physician to Sydney’s left called for an aide to bring him a saw.
“Does it look like there are any penetrating injuries?” A physician asked. He was a tall man with a big red mole on his right temple, the one who had called for the saw.
Another physician, a petite woman, answered after a moment of leaning in dangerously close to the centipede’s flailing antennae. “No,” she said, pushing a spiky leg out of her field of vision with an impatient gesture, “Just crushing along the neck, and a marked pinching of the trachea with the—uh—pincers.”
Dr. Augustine backed away from the crowd. She found an empty gurney in the alcove next to the patient, and pulled it over toward them. “I have a bed here for the bug once we pry him off,” she announced.
It didn’t take long to break through the exoskeleton, but with the first loud crack of the chitin, a thick, evil-smelling yellow paste shot out.
“Ugh!” chorused several voices. The insect’s legs and segments began to gyrate wildly. It was quite obviously in pain. Sydney grabbed a sheet to put over the thing and help subdue it.
“Onto the gurney, quick!” she said to the crowd. The larger of the men, and the grim-faced woman engineer, hoisted the writing bug onto the gurney. Dr. Augustine tucked the edges of the sheet down under the bed, trapping the exosect inside the sheet. She spared one look at the unfortunate human patient, who was happily gasping for breath on his own and turning a remarkable shade of crimson, and then slammed bodily into the double doors for the second time today.
Of course, this time she had a giant bug in a bed behind her.