Rambling Rose

She didn't look like much. I hardly noticed her at first, though I was scanning everyone who came in. Medium height, overweight, perhaps 90 kilos. Dumpy, actually. Not young; early forties, perhaps. Her movements were awkward, as if she felt out of place. Mousey brown hair bobbed short, not very evenly -- it looked like she'd cut it herself. I found out later that she had. Space-tanned. She was wearing a black jumpsuit, loose, slightly faded; it fit her like a sheet over a couch. On the left shoulder was an embroidered flower -- a silver-colored rose. A green stem and leaves spiralled around it, ending at her right foot. By the time I realized this must be the person I was looking for, she was almost at the bar, a meter away.

``Set 'em up for everyone,'' she said. ``The usual for me.'' Her voice was a rich contralto, and her eyes were the most extraordinary grey. The bar had gone dead silent, and half the men in the room had raised their glasses in her direction. It had to be her. Rosie.

Two days before I'd been in my nice, cosy lab in Palo Alto. ``Thanks for volunteering,'' George was saying. ``You have two choices. You can take a cosy berth on the Queen of Space. Phyllis has it booked as a backup. She leaves from Earthport a week from now, and gets there in two months. Of course, it'll all be over by then.

``Or, you can try to snag a charter. If you go up by laser, you'll have almost the whole week to find one. I'll see if I can arrange something at this end, but you're probably better off at the scene.''

``Doesn't sound like much of a choice to me. I assume you have my lift ticket?'' He did. I had about three hours to pack.

By next morning I was at Mauna Loa staring into the butt-end of an electromagnetic canon. I'll say one thing for the laser -- it's reliable. They run a shell through it every ten minutes: a conical vehicle about the size of a family car on top of a ten-ton block of ice. They toss the thing up with the canon, then a two-gigawatt laser blasts the ice away. Ten G's and five minutes later you're in orbit. Fast, safe, reliable, and cheap. Plenty of empty spaces. Now I know why.

What the brochures don't mention is that even on a fluid-padded couch, it's like being hit from behind by a semi followed by five minutes with an elephant on your chest. Then about fifteen minutes of free fall while you match orbits with Earthport station while at least one of the six passengers barfs into their nosebag.

I booked into a room in the half-G section to give my back a rest, and tried not to think about the rates. Well, if it all worked out the company could afford it. If it didn't work I'd probably end up dead. Experimental treatments are like that. The concierge pointed me at the charter office.

``You may be in luck,'' the girl at the counter told me, ``There are three charter ships in dock right now, and one arriving this afternoon. Skip the Kensington; she's ancient, and the skipper's a flake. Hmm. Skyhawk Lines is totally reliable, and Osprey could make the trip easy. A little slow. Jim Davis is pretty hungry these days; he's an independent. I'm not so sure about his ship, though; Saturn's a long push.''

Her voice trailed off, and she gave me an odd, appraising look. ``Might work. Look, your best bet is Rosie. Rambling Rose. She just pulled in. If she likes you, she'll take you to hell and back. You'll find her at Harry's Bar about nineteen-thirty this evening.'' I hoped it wouldn't be a one-way trip.

The barkeep -- Harry? -- had handed her something greenish in a sipper bulb, even though the gravity felt almost normal. The bar was high up on the spaceward rim of Earthport's main torus; the view of the stars from the window was astounding. She was silhouetted in front of it, her face and her twining rose almost the only things to be seen against the blackness.

She seemed to know everyone. A crowd had formed around her, mostly men but a few women, too. Mostly she was laughing, head thrown back with total abandon. In the intervals she seemed to be looking past whoever was in front of her, gazing at something only she could see. I seemed to be the only groundhog in the bar; the only one she didn't know. Inevitably she saw me.

Everyone in the bar seemed to be looking at me as she walked over. Probably they were. She carried herself like a queen. ``What are you here for, kid?'' she asked. ``You look like you just got off the shuttle.''

I felt my face go red. ``Laser.'' She raised one eyebrow. A little too quickly I added ``I came here to find you, actually. I need a charter.''

``Well, that's a pickup line I've never heard. Where to?'' She was obviously expecting something along the lines of ``your place or mine,'' and I must confess I was tempted.

``Saturn. There's an outbreak of r6-E variant in the biotech labs on Enceladus. My lab has what might be a better cure for it.'' I didn't mention that, if we did, it would be the only cure. Apparently I didn't have to.

She sat down and waved me into a seat beside her. ``I mis-estimated you. Sorry about that.'' She took a long pull on her bulb of whatever-it-was and shuddered slightly. ``Heard about it. Ebola is, what--ninety percent fatal?''

``Eighty in this case -- r6 is one of the mild ones. Weakened for experimentation. Apparently not enough.'' And the Ebolas were the latest terrorist weapon of choice.

``And a laser launch. You're either braver than I thought, or a whole lot crazier. And in a hurry, too. Damn; I was just getting set for some serious drinking.'' She sucked down the last of her drink and raised the empty bulb. The waitress came by almost instantly; I was surprised to recognize her as the girl from the charter office. She gave me another look.

``Business or pleasure?'' she asked Rosie.

``Two hackers' coffee, on his tab,'' Rosie answered.

``Business, then. Have a good flight.'' I've heard Turkish coffee described as a sweet, brown sludge served in tiny cups at knifepoint. I don't know what they use for coffee in Hacktown, but the stuff gave the laser some serious competition. A taste of chocolate, caramelized sugar, and maybe cardamom. I could have used it during my residency.

``I don't know what you've heard about me,'' she said. ``My rates are high, but fair -- I assume your company is paying for this.'' When I nodded, she continued. ``I charge by the day and I'm fast, so except for fuel it's probably about a wash with a commercial flight by liner. Reaction mass and He3 at cost plus five percent, food, drinking water and oxy free. The rates don't change if I decide to sleep with you; Rambling Rose isn't the Venus.'' I'd heard about the Venus, and blushed again. ``Card?''

I handed her the limited-use company card I was carrying. She held it a few inches from the rose on her shoulder -- I assumed there was an induction terminal in it. ``Silver-Rose: credit check for hire. Round-trip, Saturn, fast.'' Her ship's computer murmured inaudibly. ``Voice ID? Name and company.''

``William R. Ferris. Neotic Engineering Enterprises.'' The computer murmured again.

``OK. Silver-rose: book it. Order and load supplies, expedited. End. Buy a skinsuit from Owen the Chandler in the morning, and meet me Dockside at eleven tomorrow; lock thirty. Have Owen vacuum-prep your luggage. Mention my name and he won't cheat you too badly; he'll be expecting you.''

She flashed me a grin, then stood up abruptly without a backward glance. It was like turning off a light. She drifted over to join a group that included a huge red-headed man and an oriental-looking woman about two-thirds his height whose hair came down to her waist like a black waterfall. I saw them leaving arm-in-arm a half hour later, Rosie laughing between them.

The next morning saw me in the hub by the entrance to the Dockside corridor. I'd phoned George to tell him my arrangements. When I mentioned the Rambling Rose he paused unexpectedly long, then said ``you'll be in good hands. Good luck!''

Owen had, indeed, not cheated me. At the mention of the Rambling Rose he had become both businesslike and talkative. ``Lovely lady. Lovely ship. Fastest ship in the system. I love her...'' He sold me a Hacktown suit, at about twice what the next model down was going for. ``Only the best suit if you're flying with Rosie. Keep you alive through anything. Micro-robotic. Is this all your luggage? Put the suit on while I box it for you...''

I came out of the changing room to find my luggage in a bright yellow box with concave sides; evidently the air had been sucked out. The suit felt slick, unfamiliar. My one previous space trip, to the Moon, hadn't required one; a custom-fitted skinsuit was usually the mark of the experienced spacer. The theory was that the slightly porous fabric kept pressure on your skin while allowing your perspiration to keep you cool. It had a narrow backpack, metal shorts, and a hood.

Owen showed me how to pull the hood on; it seemed to assist me, and fastened automatically in a way I couldn't quite understand. Owen grinned. ``Micro-robotic. Only the best for Rosie's charter. Standing order. Here. Part of the package.'' He handed me a black jumpsuit. There was a patch on the left shoulder with a silver rose. ``Lock thirty. Up to the hub and turn left.''

I stared down the seemingly endless corridor and took a few tentative steps, the hooked fabric on the soles of my jumpsuit making ripping noises on the carpet. A child in a brightly-painted skinsuit and airfins sailed past me, graceful as a fish. ``Grab a rope, stupid!'' I finally noticed the moving handropes and grabbed one.

The tube was about six meters in diameter, with four strips of carpet and four of transparent plastic. The locks were some thirty meters apart, spiraling around the corridor. Through the plastic I could see the ships at most of the locks, a motley collection of run-down family ships, a couple of yachts with fast lines and bright trim, and the immaculate shuttles of the spacelines, red carpet in front of their locks. A pair of corridors near lock ten led to the shell-catchers for the lasers on Mauna Loa and Cape York; a few dazed-looking passengers floated at the junction. I pointed them back toward the station.

Rosie looked me up and down like a general inspecting a poorly-turned-out private. ``You'll do,'' she said at last, and unceremoniously reached behind my neck to pull my hood on. She had luggage, a squat ugly thing almost as tall as herself, covered with what seemed to be fishnet. What looked like four handles protruded from the corners at one end. She pulled a pistol-like device out of the webbing, and clipped a piece of rope from her luggage to mine. ``Onward!'' and she grabbed my wrist and launched herself toward the open lock. I had been in Earthport less than twenty-four hours.

As the lock cycled, I felt the skinsuit change. The fabric gripped me tighter; I flexed my fingers and felt the glove compensate for the slight change in volume. I realized, suddenly, what ``Hacktown suit'' meant -- even the fabric was micro-robotic. Nanoscale machinery might be tantalizingly experimental, but those renegade wizards in Hacktown had been perfecting their micro-scale wonders for almost a century now.

There was no ship at the lock, not even a skiff. Rosie pulled her luggage up beside us. ``Grab the net,'' she told me, and clipped a short line between the netting and my belt. ``Rosehip: launch.'' The ``handles'' extended into four long arms, and I saw the brief shimmer of gas-jets. When we had cleared the lock they flared into tiny flames.

There was a cluster of ill-assorted shapes in the distance ahead of us. Freighters, mostly, along with an assortment of cast-off tanks, girders, spheres, and indescribable junk. I could barely identify individual ships, let alone recognize one I'd never seen. The luggage seemed to know the way, however. The ``high rent'' district, with its neat rows of yachts and spaceliners and right-angled girdering, was behind us on the opposite side of the dwindling tube.

Once out of the lock, I had seen Rosie visibly relax. Here, clearly, she felt at home. There was a quiet confidence in her slightest movement. Gazing ahead, one hand twined in the netting, she might have been standing on the deck of a clipper with one hand on the rigging, the trade winds in her hair.

``I'm sorry about the informality,'' she said. ``I usually have the skiff over, but we're leaving on short notice so I sent it ahead with the last-minute supplies. Fuel and standard provisions are cheaper at the moorings anyway. If Grimshaw hasn't loaded them by now I swear I'll skin her.''

Since she was talkative I decided to venture a question. ``Grimshaw is on your crew?'' She laughed.

``Grimshaw? Hell no! Wouldn't have her on a bet, the old skinflint -- she runs the fuel concession at the moorings. I'm the crew. Captain, crew, and cabin boy. Just me, the Rose, and the stars.'' She went silent again.

We glided among the tanks and the wreckage. Ahead was narrow cylinder, much like the others. A little cluster of tanks and engines wrapped around her stern; a tiny sphere at the other end must be the living quarters, brilliant white in the sunlight. It looked small and fragile for such a long trip.

There aren't many distance cues in space. As we approached I realized my mistake -- the ``tiny'' sphere was at least thirty meters in diameter, the whole ship half a kilometer nose to stern. Taut wire cables, almost invisible, braced the central column like the mast of a sailing ship. It was clear that huge tanks had once nestled between them. ``She used to be a tanker-freighter on the belt-to-Saturn. She was a wreck when I bought her with what Dad left me; I was in hock eight years for what she cost to fix. Tanks off she's the fastest thing in space.''

A silver-grey rose loomed ahead on the side of the living sphere, the petals spanning the cargo lock. The stem curled around to spell out ``Rambling Silver Rose'' around it. The segments of the lock dilated as we approached. At what seemed like the last moment the little luggage-skiff made a neat loop to decelerate, leaving us motionless in the center of the huge lock.

``Home. Rosehip: passenger luggage to cabin three.''

She unclipped me and grabbed my wrist again. A few puffs of the gas pistol took us to a tiny side-lock, and we cycled through. I assumed the luggage would take care of itself somehow. Past the lock, most of the deck was cavernous open space, a scattering of objects stowed seemingly at random, mostly near the walls. Above and below, more decks of expanded metal. She cast off toward the ladder in the center, grabbed the railing with one hand, spun, and flipped neatly up. It took me considerably longer, walking the carpet strip along the deck and going hand-over-hand along the railing.

``This is the mid-deck,'' she told me. ``Galley, the old crew's quarters, rec room. Everything here is yours. I recommend cabin three; it's convenient and has the best acceleration bunk. You'll be needing that. Next deck up is mine. Invitation only. Topside is the bridge and engineering. Again, invitation only, but the invitation's open as long as I'm on deck and you don't get in the way. I'll call you for boost-off, about ten minutes if we're fueled. Silver-Rose: status.''

I heard the ship's voice -- her voice, or nearly -- answer her as she cast off up the stairs. ``Fueled and ready. All supplies loaded. Charter account credit check OK. Passenger luggage cycling in sublock two...'' it trailed off as she reached the bridge, two decks above.

I gawked at cabin three. My berth on the way to the moon had been no bigger than an airline seat. A luxury cabin on the Queen of Space would have been spacious -- for a walk-in closet Earthside. This was huge. She must have ripped the walls out between three of the old crew's cabins -- it was the size of a good-sized hotel room, and had a compact toilet and shower that it shared with cabin one, which was equally spacious. There were three portholes on the wall.

``Five minutes to boost. Secure luggage in closet.'' My suitcase had, indeed, arrived outside my door; I found elastic straps in the closet and tucked it in beneath them. Hanging in the closet were two more jumpsuits, in my size. I made my way upstairs.

She was floating at about ninety degrees to the deck, one hand holding the captain's acceleration couch. She seemed to caress it, as if she was holding a lover's shoulder. I hadn't realized until that moment that I had been hoping, longing, to share her life. That hope was crushed in the same moment, by the same gesture. Our eyes met and I knew she had seen it die.

``The Rose is my home and family, you know,'' she said gently. ``Good friends in port, the stars and the Rose between.'' She grinned suddenly. Helen of Troy would have killed to grin like that. ``Hope you like your cabin.''

``My God!'' I answered. ``I've had a room half that size in a luxury hotel in Tokyo.'' She waved me to the couch beside her and I started fumbling with the unfamiliar straps.

``Just think. You could have had a berth on the old Queen.'' She reached over and buckled me in, then gave me a kiss. It was fast, hard, emphatically sexual, and totally unexpected. She was strapped in her own couch before I knew what had hit me.

``Silver-Rose: ahead one tenth gee until clear, one hundred klicks; turn and boost when ready.''

``Aye-aye. Ahead one tenth.'' A little weight returned. The ship's computer called off the distance at five kilometer intervals. ``Turning. Boosting at two point five.'' There was no countdown; suddenly it felt like another person was lying on top of me. It was oddly comfortable.

``Tell you what. Next time I'm groundside you can show me Tokyo. Or your home port. I'll buy the drinks.'' Somehow I'd gone from paying customer to abandoned lover to drinking buddy in the space of about ten minutes. Rosie scanned her console for a few moments and nodded. She unbuckled and stood up in a fluid, feline movement like a lioness, seeming not to notice her more-than-doubled weight. I realized that most of her extra mass was muscle, not flab.

``Be careful getting up and going down the stairs. Take it slow. You'll find that you need more food, and a lot more sleep. Your muscles are working more than double now. We'll have lunch in the rec room in about half an hour.'' It took me most of that time just to get down the stairs.

Space travel is boring. Nothing happens; the scenery hardly changes, except for the shrinking sun that you can't look at anyway. On a liner there would be the social whirl: gaming in the lounge, drinks and flirtation in the bar, elegant dining. To be honest, I hardly noticed.

Rose was a superb hostess. Her ship may have been the fastest thing in space, but she could have lined up fares for a garbage scow. An excellent cook, witty conversationalist, daring though not brilliant chess and backgammon player, enthusiastic and surprisingly tender lover (though not at 2.5g). She sang intricate harmonies with her ship's computer, recited poetry, told stories, tended her plants, embroidered roses on her jumpsuits. But mainly she was simply pleasant to be around. Somehow, she made me feel the way I did when I spent a summer with my grandmother -- as though some old friend of my parents had invited me into her house.

It was easy not to think of the journey's end.

I'd remarked on her strangely motherly air. ``I can't have kids, you know,'' she answered. ``Radiation damage, and I wouldn't have the time to raise them anyhow. But I've fostered six girls on this ship. Three were formal apprenticeships. It's a pretty good deal; the kid gets a bit of an education and a one-eighth lay, the father (they were both widowers) gets a kid off his hands who's too wild for a boarding-school, and I get free crew for a while. Well, free except for feeding them.''

I'd had to look up ``lay'' -- it turned out to be the share of a whaler's profits a crewman got at the end of the voyage.

``The first two were strays. I found them in a dive on Phobos -- corridor kids. Twelve and fifteen, working the bars for drinks and cash. I don't know what the hell I was thinking; I just wanted to get them out of that filthy place. Had to bang a few heads together to do it; Phobos was rough back then--still is, for that matter--and the scum pretty-much ran it.

``They were ragged, ignorant, bitter; they'd been on their own for a Martian year. Turned out OK, though. Maggie--that's the older one--went back to Phobos and so help me organized the Whores' Guild. That makes her a solid citizen, things being what they are down there. Does pretty well running a house on the side. Between us we put Jess through college Earthside; she does life support engineering for Cunard.

``Kendall Ormandy was a charter while Jess was still crewing for me. I took him to be at his wife's bedside when she died. He was the first one who 'prenticed his kid to me. He didn't know a damned thing about raising kids; Laura was spoiled rotten when I got her at fourteen. I did what I could, but she was always a bit of a pain. Not one of my successes, really, though college mellowed her out a little. I think she'll be OK.

``Laura wanted space pirates, and dashing ships' captains, and exciting ports of call; intrigue, adventure, and zero-g sex with celebrity passengers. All that rot. What she got was two-g boosts between a bunch of rocks, hauling everything from pigs to politicians. Hmm, that's not all that far, is it? I don't think her mom so much as made her clean the dishes; I taught her cooking and celestial navigation, and I'm not sure which one she liked less.

``Akira Takahashi was another widower, going back Earthside from Ganymede with his three daughters and his wife's ashes. I think that's as close as I've come to having family on board. I took him and his two youngest back the next year; Reiko and Mitsuko stayed on as 'prentices. They taught me Japanese, or tried to. Weird language.''

``Reiko's my real black sheep; she met up with this guy nearly twice her age in Hawaii, got married, and started a fish farm. I nearly died! Can you believe it? Fish, fish-pens, fish-food, babies, little house by the sea with a white picket fence, all within sight of the launch-path. A fish-farmer's wife! I'm going to get her daughter when she's old enough.''

``That's five.''

She smiled. ``Gillian's my favorite. I might have gone partners with her, but she needs a soul-mate and some day she'll find him. Meanwhile she's mistress of her own ship now, in hock up to her eyeballs, and loving every second of it. She'll be serious competition for me in the charter business soon, and I can't wait.'' She chuckled.

``Gill was another stray, of course. Hotfooter; her father died in a mining accident on Mercury. Booked passage to Luna to finish school with her mother's people. She was a hell-raiser and a bit of a dreamer; always down by the portside looking at ships and hoping to get picked up by something romantic. Getting into trouble, too. Maggie and Jess and I were in port for a little reunion pub-crawl; saw this kid in black leather getting thrown out of a bar after going in with a couple of punks I didn't like the look of.

``There she was, trying to look like an eighteen-year-old hooker and not even coming close; Maggie can spot 'em at a hundred meters. Gave her a tongue-lashing up one side and down the other, then Jess took pity on her and we sat her down in the local soba shop and plied her with noodles and good advice.

``Well, one thing led to another over the next week or so. We talked it over with her aunt and uncle, and she shipped out on the Rose on my next passage. She didn't have any more idea what she was getting into than Laura, but she'd turn to and work her tail off just to prove to herself she could do it. You'd like her.''

Saturn filled our view as we jockied for position among its moons. The rings were a golden sliver off the port bow. ``You never told me exactly what this is about,'' she said quietly, ``but since I'm going down there as your assistant, I'd better know the details.''

``Like hell you are! Ebola is the deadliest stuff in space, and I hired you as fast transportation, not as a martyr. You don't know what you'd be getting into.''

``I have kin down there. Friends. People who took in a scared little orphan girl and gave her comfort and welcome. People who let me look at my mother one last time before they cleaned out our rooms with a plasma torch; they wiped her blood from my iso suit, burned it and dried my tears. My parents died of that stuff, and you don't have an option.

``Now, what's the deal? What exactly are you carrying from Earth that the best bio labs on Enceladus haven't developed.''

``Actually, our parent company has a lab there. They were nearly wiped out; I had friends there. But what I'm carrying came out of some research we did at Stanford. It's something new, basically artificial bacteria -- we call them bio-bots. Somewhere between artificial cells and nanotech, but closer to cells. They have to be programmed on-site for both their target and the patient's immune system.

``So far they've handled everything we've put them against, but of course all the Ebola-qualified labs are out here. They also have a subsystem that's supposed to repair blood-vessel damage; that seems to work, at least. They're scheduled for clinical trials as a treatment for arteriosclerosis. The long-term consequences are unknown, but they haven't killed me yet. If you're still game we can save some time if I get a blood sample from you now. We can get your colony going, and upload the Ebola program when we get the strain fully characterized.''

She bared an arm, and I took the sampling kit out of my belt-pouch.

The warning came over the emergency channel as we were starting our approach. ``WARNING: Enceladus is under medical quarantine with an uncontrolled outbreak of airborne Ebola. Keep away. Do not attempt to land. You will die if you land. Keep away. Repeat: WARN--''

``Silver-rose: mute the e-channel. Route voice in parallel to ground control, ship-to-ground rescue, and space-weather warning channels. Record and repeat until acknowledged. Begin. Enceladus -- this is the Rambling Silver Rose arriving from Earthport with medical assistance. Check with Neotic Engineering for details if possible. I need pad coordinates for my skiff. If I don't get them I'm coming in anyway. Jim, Leena, Reg -- who the hell is still alive down there? End repeat.''

The Rose slipped into a three-hour parking orbit. The mottled surface slipped by in the downward viewports. The terminator cut the view like a knife-edge, a few lights twinkling yellow on a surface as black as a hole in space.

``Rosie! Thank the gods! This is Jim; Leena's dead; Reg's dying. The kids and I have been in iso suits for three weeks now. It's -- shit -- it's bad down here.

``Pad two is clear for you. Neotic got your message; they have your equipment set up in the hospital, but they've been hit pretty hard. I've paged their suite, but I don't think you'll get much help.'' His voice shook. ``It's -- gods, Rosie; I'm gonnna lose it again...''

The woman I'd been planning to marry came on the screen a half-hour later. Sally Brand was grim-faced, flushed, and haggard; her eyes were bright red and there were beads of pink sweat on her forehead. She was walking dead, and she knew it: once the bleeding started there wasn't time for the treatment I was bringing; all you could do was manage the symptoms and hope.

She smiled weakly. ``Glad you could make it, Will. Not exactly what we planned for a honeymoon, is it, love? I hope Rosie's been treating you well. Rosie, make love to him for me, will you? I have a headache.'' We all knew that was the first symptom. ``Look, I have the surface proteins mapped, but you'll have the data transfer and a couple of hours of number-crunching left to do when you get here. Harry and Cal and I are the only ones still standing from the lab and, well...'' She switched off before I could answer.

I looked at Rosie. ``Fiancé?'' I nodded. ``Like my mother the day before she died. I'm sorry.'' Tears were streaming down her face. ``Thank you, Will; I wouldn't have come here otherwise. Silver-rose: ready the skiff.''

We made love fiercely then, the first and only opportunity of the voyage, as we waited for landing position to come around. We both knew was probably the last time. At the end she kissed me gently ``for Sally.''

The girl in the charter office, an age ago it seemed, had told me Rosie would take me to hell and back. So far she was dead on track -- the hospital at Enceladus would have given Dante nightmares. Ebola isn't a pretty disease: the binding between cells weakens; blood leaks out through the skin and into the lungs; eventually the victim drowns in it. Then the body disolves. On second thought, hell would have been an improvement.

I'd brought isolation suits and we wore them over our coveralls and skinsuits for extra protection. The combination was hot and clumsy. We worked furiously, Harry and I tending the reactor tanks where the biobots multiplied, Rosie and Cal feeding blood samples into the reader. Sally had set up the phone tree and the triage; she ran it for the first half day to train her replacements and set up the first appointments.

Time and exponentials were the keys. The biobots would multiply in the bloodstream as well as in tanks, but doubling the dosage cut half an hour from the time it took to build up to a useful level. Meanwhile the virus was doubling, too. Get it right and the bots would win the race; guess wrong and the patient died. Double the dose too many times, and you'd run out before the virus ran out of victims.

We tested the stuff on ourselves first. Harry, Cal, the three nurses who were all that remained of the hospital's day shift. Rosie and I could come later, since we hadn't been exposed at all. Sally, with nothing to lose, went first. ``I know,'' she said; ``It's not much of a chance. But you'll get some good data, right? Besides, it might kill me...''

She cried. I'd never seen her cry before. ``God, that stuff burns! Feels like my vein is on fire. Oh! Shit! If this stuff kills me... be an improvement! Sheesh!... Oh, that's better...'' It took about five minutes for the burning to subside. We'd gotten through Cal and Harry before we learned to start out with a quick wipe of alcohol and a local anaesthetic. It still hurt but at least it took the edge off.

We already had blood samples from most of the colony. Sally's triage team polled for symptoms: people with the initial symptoms but no bleeding were the ones we had to treat first. It took about twenty minutes to program the 'bots for a patient; we could get them in to be treated in that time, if we had their blood on file. We had five programming rigs so we set up an assembly line, firing them up four minutes apart. It proved to be the limiting factor: we put together a team to cobble up some more.

As patients came in, Sally switched from phones to the wet-work -- she had nothing to fear from exposure, after all. She kept it up all afternoon, chatting lightly about cooking and embroidery with Rosie and the nurses. We recruited a few assistants as people came in.

It might have been straight out of Dante. The young mother, bleeding into her iso suit, comforting her children as best she could as they screamed that their arms were burning up. The bleak-eyed couple in their forties who had lost parents and children within two days. The little boy who told Sally, ``Mommy told me to stay here tonight so I wouldn't see her die.'' The man who died watching his wife recieve her shot. Rosie carrying Sally in her arms like a child. The rows of cots in the corridors. The screams. The blood. The tears. The makeshift morgue, bodybags piled like sacks of liver in a butcher's shop.

Sally sent me away after a few minutes of teary farewell. ``Goodbye, Will. Go back and get some sleep before you fall on something. I love you. I wish -- oh, never mind. Take care.'' I don't even remember what I said in reply. I reported back and lay down in a corner to sleep -- after the trip at 2.5g I could have slept on nails on Enceladus.

Rosie woke me, it seemed like seconds later. ``Sally's gone, Will. About two hours ago. She didn't want me to wake you.'' She handed me some coffee.

``She wouldn't have. We were going to be married when she came back to Earth from her post-doc here, you know.''

``She told me. I wasn't there when my mother died: she'd sent me off on an errand. Sort of makes up for it, somehow. She was very calm, right up to the end. Just, you know, trailed off. Toward the end she said to remind you about the `busman's holidays.' It seemed to be very important to her, but I understand dying people often talk about getting ready for a journey. I wasn't sure.''

``No; that was real. It was something we'd discussed -- spending our vacations doing medical work out in the Belt or around the outer planets. Doctors are scarce out here, we'd heard. There are some groups that set up a clinic out here every year. Ancient tradition in the medical profession.''

She nodded. ``I've heard of them. Tell you what -- get a group together and give me a month's notice and I'll haul you out and back for free. Ten or twelve people and equipment from Earthport and return. Deal?''

``Deal. Let's say, about a year from now?''

``If we're out of here before then. Finish your coffee; we have patients coming in.'' It was three more weeks before we could leave.

We had forty refugees going back with us, mostly orphaned kids bound for Earth and Luna to be with relatives. The voyage back was much more leisurely, at a steady half-g. It was still crushing to the kids, brought up in Enceladus' minuscule gravity-well. Then a week of free-fall quarantine in the yard off Earthport. There was plenty of time to talk, all around.

Rosie practically threw me at the oldest kid, Andrea Sterling. It turned out she had no relatives to go to, but she was in her last year of high school and had been accepted at Stanford, so I was the obvious choice for a local contact.

We parted over a round of drinks in Harry's. There was never a ``goodbye'' between us; we talked about our plans. Then the crowd in the barroom gathered us in: travelers with a tale to tell. We -- Rosie, mostly -- must have told it a dozen times before the place closed around us.

I think I had started to realize, even then, that I wouldn't be staying Earthside forever; certainly Rosie must have guessed. Our second voyage together took us to Phobos: STD's, knife cuts, malnutrition, and worse; a night of talk, song, and the local rotgut at the House of the incomparable Maggie. Then back to Saturn: the red-brown skies of Titan; Enceladus rebuilding after the horror. A mining camp down-belt from Juno: crushed legs, frostbite; little kids in leg-fins, as agile as fish in the spheres and tubeways drifting among the rocks.

The Solar System is big, and I was starting to learn that there would never be enough doctors for all its needs. We could have run our little month-long expeditions for a hundred years and it wouldn't have been enough. You have to try, though. We'd had our little traveling clinic built by then; cobbled together in the Belt out of an old freighter tank that Rosie picked up on the cheap, and we'd started to fill it with donated equipment.

The year after that was Andrea's graduation; she begged me to come along on our annual expedition, before starting med school in the fall. Our next voyage took us to Triton.

It was there, staring up at the ice-hard stars and the tiny, actinic disk of the distant sun, that I knew I wasn't going back to Earth. I turned to see the enormous face of Neptune hanging over the rock-domes of the town. There was a storm upon it that could swallow one of the little inner worlds without a trace. Between the white cloud-streaks was a blue the exact deep color that Sally's eyes had been the day I met her. Rosie had come out to find me.

She stood beside me looking up at the storm-world hanging in the sky. ``There's a grandeur about the outer worlds, isn't there?'' she said. ``You can lose yourself in a sky like that.''

``I already have. I think I'll stay here a while.''

``Next scheduled passenger ship isn't for ten more months.''

``Sounds about right. There's some work that needs doing on the clinic, and Mrs. Lee's going to have a rough pregnancy with those twins she's carrying. I'd better stick around.''

``Thought you might. The freight line's out of Jupiter; you could have them drop you and the clinic at Ganymede and I'll meet you there next year with the vacation crowd. And Andy -- she certainly plans on becoming a space-doctor herself someday. A space-doctor's wife besides, if I read her aright.''

``Well, if this didn't scare her off! I'll be glad of the companionship, and Space knows the job is big enough for two. So you two have been conspiring behind my back, eh?''

``Just one of my various services. Come on in; I'll stand you both a drink.''

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Stephen R. Savitzky <steve@starport.com>