The whispers in the docks, fairways, and corridors of KEL Port were darker tonight. Up near general intake, where new arrivals to KEL26 were processed, Port Security officers were clustered in small groups muttering amongst themselves. In the cozy noodle shop on Sub-Level B, the little family of Tau-Ceti immigrants weren’t greeting customers with their usual cheer. And down in the Mog’s cantina, where most of KEL Port went to eat and drink, kindly, straightlaced Loadmaster Teller sat in corner, plastered out of his mind, having an angry argument with an empty chair.

Something was surely amiss, Radco thought, but puzzling out exactly what was proving to be a difficult task. Calamity was like a disease to humans; it might not have struck anywhere near them, but it deeply affected them nonetheless. To remain unaffected by the general air of unease would mark him as an outsider, unnatural and automatically suspect.

Radco shivered at the thought. Humans were notoriously cruel to outsiders.

A pair of security officers hurried past him in the corridor, and Radco quickened his pace just enough to keep their conversation in hearing.

“I don’t know,” the shorter one was saying. “It’s still confined to the Hinam sytem, isn’t it? What’s got them so afraid it’ll spread?”

“Because it probably already has. Didn’t you read the bulletin?”

“Of course! We all did. Well, I mean, I skimmed it.” The officer shrugged, as if to say, But what more can you expect?

“So you saw the section detailing symptomatically similar outbreaks in other systems, right? They’re on the verge of calling it an interstellar outbreak. They don’t say this part, but that means it’s been silently hopping star systems for weeks, maybe even months.”

The smaller officer shrugged again. It seemed to be the human’s favorite gesture, and Radco felt his own shoulders twitch as if trying the expression on for size.

“So what? The bulletin said that most of those infected on Hinam Prime recovered after one to three months. I don’t see what the big scare is.”

“The big scare is what they’re not saying,” the larger officer hissed. “No projected survival rate. No word on a vaccine. No planets that have successfully beaten it. And a response that seems overblown compared to the threat itself. That’s a statement, Fielding. The Federation big shots are scared shitless of this thing.”

The shorter officer snorted. “Federation data pushers are scared of everything. Trust me– in a few solar cycles this’ll be another Octavian flu.”

Radco shivered violently and adjusted the collar of his insulated jumpsuit. The Octavian flu had been the panic of the cycle way back when he was first learning to live among humans. With a mortality rate between 84 and 93%, it had all but wiped out the human settlements on Octavia, her satellites, and her neighboring planets.

As soon as it learned of the outbreak, the Federation had forbidden all contact with the Octavia Sol system. Traders and transporters ceased to visit. When it was learned that smugglers and fly-by-night human transport operations had taken their place, Federation warships were dispatched to prevent traffic into or out of the system by any means necessary.

At the time, Federation leaders had congratulated themselves on the success of the quarantine. In actuality, the Octavian flu had little to no effect on non-Octavian humans.

After a decade of study, human scientists arrived at a conclusion: the Octavian flu only caused fever and fatal brain hemorrhage in humans with a specific set of genetic mutations. Those mutations were found exclusively in the descendants of the original colonists of Octavia, allowing them to breath the oxygen-thin, semi-toxic gasses of the planet’s atmosphere without experiencing adverse effects.

Not that much of that made it into the official history of the ‘Octavia Incident,’ Radco thought bitterly as his path diverged from that of the security officers.

In the last official history he’d read, the mortality rate had only been about 48%. Present-day Octavia Sol was portrayed as a bustling system, wealthy off the export of raw minerals and textiles; the text politely left out the fact that most of the residents were newcomers who lived in dome cities, unable to breath the toxic air.

Oddly enough, most humans who knew the truth seemed fine with the omission. Humans, he had learned, saw others through a filter of “us” and “them.” The Octavians’ divergent genetics put them on the wrong side of that line.

As Radco made his way back to his quarters in the dank lower levels of the Baron Cargo barracks, his finely tuned hearing picked up a dozen more conversations that seemed to pertain to the current sense of unease. Only two mentioned the seasoned cargo handler killed in a lift truck accident earlier that day.

The latter filled the shadow with a strangely cold, gloomy feeling. Miko had been a memorable human, uniquely wise and kind. He’d looked out for Radco ever since the shadow first started at Baron, giving the new handler tips on everything from lift truck operation to which members of management were best avoided. Miko hadn’t just been his friend; he’d been everyone’s friend. It seemed to Radco that the handler warranted more than a brief mention as yet another of the company’s preventable deaths.

Unfortunately he didn’t get to dictate what humans found newsworthy. This week it was an outbreak of plague on the far side of the galaxy; next week it would be some inane thing like an increased markup on the import of Terran chickpeas. Ignored by the local news cycle, his fellow cargo handler’s death would pass unmarked and unmourned by all but those who had worked with him.

A Shadow of a Rumor © 2020 Leland Lydecker

A Shadow of a Rumor belongs to the Iceball Planet series of stories, and bridges the gap between the death of senior cargo handler Miko and the arrival of the contagion on KEL26. The Iceball Planet stories center around Loadmaster Teller and other employees of a shady flier outfit called Baron Cargo; the events depicted in these stories are loosely based on my experiences at the Other Job.

Radco the shadow was first introduced in A Shadow Among Shadows. Many of my main characters have a little of myself in them, and Bradley Radco, the shadow struggling to fit in among humans, is no exception. If you’d like to read more of the Iceball Planet series, theses stories can be found on my Patreon at the link below.

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