By Veronica Scott
I’ve always been fascinated by epidemics and the measures that the medical profession must take in order to deal with an outbreak. My Dad had cholera as a kid and I believe was the only person in his state that year to have it, and eventually the epidemiologist tracked the source to an apple he’d eaten, from a tree near an infected water source. At least all these years later, that’s my recollection. Hearing my father and his siblings talk about this incident when I was in elementary school inspired me to read a book on epidemiology, with fascinating stories of doctors locating Patient Zero, or the first person to come down with the disease in question, and trying to figure out where that person acquired the illness, among other things which medical authorities need to know to stop the spread.
The ebola crisis in 2014 where a man traveled to the United States and was later found to already be sick was a tragic example of how the ripples of contagion – and fear – spread from the first incident. If you recall, there was even a panic at a bridal gown store in another state because one of his nurses had gone there to try on her wedding dress during a period where she could have been contagious (at least as far as what the general public feared was possible). Ebola is a compelling example of a deadly, scary-as-can-be disease with no known cure, no known original vector or source (bats?) and the way it can spread where you’d least expect to find it.
Movies like “Outbreak” and “Contagion” have dealt with similar issues in riveting fashion. There’s a 1992 TV movie entitled “Black Death” with Kate Jackson, about the plague breaking out in New York City that I rewatch on occasion. Of course these fictional tales have a happy ending, and the cure is found or the spread stopped.
So long story short, I always wanted to write a plague story. At the same time, I also wanted to write more novels about interstellar cruise liners. I created a wonderful starship for Wreck of the Nebula Dream and then of course had to destroy her, but as time went on, I kept thinking of intriguing stories I could tell on a cruise ship sailing the stars. I loved the idea of using the ship as my “village”, with a recurring cast of characters. The two ideas came together, in Star Cruise: Outbreak, partially inspired by a run of news stories about noroviruses on ocean-going cruise ships. I pondered what would happen if a seemingly benign-but-unpleasant bug hit an interstellar cruise ship and was really the start of a much more serious outbreak, harbinger of something never seen before.
I used the design and details I developed for the Nebula Dream to create a newer, upgraded liner named the Nebula Zephyr, and staffed her with a crew and passengers who have to deal with this outbreak. After a lot of research into various earthly diseases, I came up with an alien ailment that combines deadly aspects of several real viruses and conditions. I decided my heroine Emily would be the ship’s doctor and the hero would be the head of security. Both are military veterans and suffering from varying degrees of PTSD, so that’s an added complication for them to work through on their way to romance, as they handle the outbreak. I greatly respect veterans and others who suffer from PTSD, so I did a lot of research into the condition and did my best to be correct about how various people react to their previous traumatic experiences.
Here’s the story:
She saved countless soldiers in the wars … but does she have the weapons to fight an outbreak?
Dr. Emily Shane, veteran of the Sector Wars, is known as “The Angel of Fantalar” for her bravery under fire as a medic. However, the doctor has her own war wounds–severe PTSD and guilt over those she failed to save.
Persuaded to fill a seemingly frivolous berth as ship’s doctor on the huge and luxurious interstellar cruise liner Nebula Zephyr, she finds the job brings unexpected perks–a luxe beach deck with water imported from Tahumaroa II, and Security Officer Jake Dilon, a fellow veteran.
However, Emily soon learns she and Jake didn’t leave all peril behind in the war. A mysterious ailment aboard the Zephyr begins to claim victim after victim … and they must race against time and space to find the cause and a cure! Trapped on a ship no spaceport will allow to dock, their efforts are complicated by a temperamental princess and a terrorist–one who won’t hesitate to take down any being in the way of his target. If anyone’s left when the disease is through with them…
“We have a dead passenger,” the ship’s AI said, speaking louder as the door chimed.
So much for minor ailments. Keying the portal to open, Emily came face-to-face with Red, in uniform, a discreet security badge on his jacket.
“Sorry to meet again so soon under these circumstances,” he said. “Jake sent me—”
“Yes, the ship told me you were coming.” She let the portal close behind her and set off at a rapid pace toward the nearest gravlift. The corridor was deserted at this time of “night.”
Glancing around to make sure there wasn’t anyone close, Red nodded. “Passenger Edvar Groskin, in his cabin.” He allowed her to precede him into the gravlift. “Groskin hadn’t been seen for a day or two, missed an appointment for dinner with some prospective clients who reported not being able to reach him. Had the do-not-disturb signal on, but the chief stewardess was concerned, so she asked Maeve to check.” Red leaned closer. “Passenger privacy is of utmost concern on the CLC Line, but there’s a point where we have to intrude.”
“You must be positive he’s deceased, not to have called the ship’s emergency response team.”
“Yeah, we’re sure.” He flicked a glance at her. “Not a pretty sight.”
“No doubt I’ve seen worse.” Emily clenched one fist where he couldn’t see, nails biting into her palm in hopes the tiny spurt of pain would forestall a flashback to some of the horrific scenes she had endured. Now wasn’t the time for an incident, and echoes of the earlier nightmare lingered. “Suicide?”
“Doubtful.” Red didn’t appear to notice her preoccupation. “Groskin was a hanger-on with the wealthy crowd. He used to be a minor celebrity, some kind of athlete. Always had a dozen schemes and scams going on. Upbeat guy, from what I’ve been told. He was going to the big surfing competition on Sector Hub.”
“I treated a surfer today. Got washed off his board and cratered on the bottom of the beach deck sand,” she said. “Poor guy had a broken arm, scrapes and bruises.”
“Yeah, we’re running our own competition on the starboard side of the beach, trying to tie into the big event.” Red shook his head. “I had beach duty yesterday. Made me nervous watching passengers try to act like extreme athletes. Of course, Maeve doesn’t generate the big waves.”
They’d reached the late passenger’s cabin, where the portal was half open.
Jake was waiting in the foyer. “Sorry to wake you, Doc. Guy’s on the floor in the bedroom. We’re not sure what he had.”
Emily stepped into the room. The bed was in disarray, and the passenger had obviously been quite ill in his last hours. Clothed in synthsilk pajamas, the body was already in the first stage of rigor mortis. Activating the sterile barrier on her hands, she ran her scanner over the man, noting the readings, especially in the heart and lungs. Sitting on her heels, she said, “Heart attack, probably brought on by pneumonia, is my initial diagnosis.” She looked at Jake. “Without an autopsy, we won’t know for sure, and I should warn you I’m not a pathologist.”
“We’re not set up to do autopsies anyway,” Jake said. “The unpleasant job’ll be for the authorities at the next port of call. I need you to sign the provisional death certificate and state there was no crime involved as far as we know at this time. Different regulations kick in if there’s any evidence of foul play.”
Emily raised her eyebrows and checked the body again. “Nothing to indicate any kind of crime.” She leaned closer. “Odd.” Pointing at the corpse’s upper chest, revealed by the gaping shirt, she said, “See those purple splotches?”
“Like spider bites.” Jake shifted position to get a better view. “Something to worry about?”
Best Selling Science Fiction, Fantasy & Paranormal Romance author and “SciFi Encounters” columnist for the USA Today Happy Ever After blog, Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Seven time winner of the SFR Galaxy Award, as well as a National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Veronica is also the proud recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal relating to her former day job, not her romances! She recently was honored to read the part of Star Trek Crew Member in the audiobook production of Harlan Ellison’s “The City On the Edge of Forever.”