That explained the wild rumors, about aliens and assassins and other wild things.

Again typing, because there was no air left in her lungs to make the question: “How did Dr. Quiria die?”

“Suicide.” The database’s tone was cool, chilly. “Dr. Quiria had volunteered for many experiments to find a cure. Dr. Burton oversaw the procedures.”

That explained the marks, then, and the appearance of murder. He must have been truly desperate, to turn himself over to those butchers.

Ashtar’s fingers trembled on the keys. “Where is Dr. Burton?”

“Dome D, in his lab.” A pause, as data was collated. “He is alone in the complex.”

“No guards?”

“He has been abandoned by his guards.”

There was only one other thing that she could ask. “Am I infected?” she whispered in a breathy rasp.

A pause. “Insufficient data to determine at this time.”

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“Single-called Martian organisms exist in the polar ice cap; analysis has been attempted several times but each subsequently resulted in contamination with human DNA. The current quarantine protocols were written to prevent any possible mutation or spread of the resulting organisms.”

“What about decontamination,” Ashtar said. “Kill all the…hybrids…or whatever.”

“Decontamination protocols exist,” the database replied. “But they are expensive, time-consuming, and have a high barrier of absolute secrecy.”

Those rich bastards hadn’t been going off-world, Ashtar thought. They’d just been decontaminating.

“Is there…a record of known infections?”

“Affirmative.”

With trembling fingers, because she couldn’t trust herself to croak the name, Ashtar entered her brother’s name.

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Ashtar tried again, speaking as clearly and calmly as possible into the database. “Why did the Mars colony of Bloomville fail?”

“It did not fail.” The system repeated itself with the same emotionless, but smug, affect. “It was quarantined.”

“…what?”

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“He killed me, poison, and it’s only now that he learned of my gold horde he wants to speak to me.”

Speaks-With-Skulls looked up from the ritual ossipathy altar, his hands still splayed across the white bone. “I’ve made a connection.”

“Lead him to destruction, and I’ll tell you where the gold is as a reward.”

The customer shifted nervously, one foot to the other and back. “Does…does my father say anything about having something to tell me?”

“There’s a sinkhole near the cave that you can trick him into. It wouldn’t be murder.”

“Oh yes,” Speaks-With-Skulls said, evenly. “This one’s very receptive to ossipathy.”

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She smiled. “My grandfather was ‘Bull’ Penn. I may not look it, but I’ve got this town in my veins.”

“‘Bull’ Penn?” I said. “I feel like I’ve heard that name.

“He was one of the all-time great football players to ever come out of this town,” said Dr. Penn. “On the college team in the 50s, and a pro in the 60s. He played for Texas in the AFL championship, same time as town was falling apart over integration. Really gave the folks here something positive to latch onto, you know?”

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“Doug, please. I was expecting a woman, based on your name.” The corners of his eyes crinkled up in a genuine smile; that much, at least, I could still see around his mask. A mask with the old team mascot on it, in point of fact, a cartoon slaveowning plantation owner leaning nonchalantly on a cane, eyes shaded by a massive hat. The mascot looked like he ought to be selling fried chicken, not emblazoned on NCAA merch.

“J. Terry Plummer,” I said, reaching out a gloved hand. “The Terry is for Terrence. I’m sure you can guess what the J is for and why I don’t use it.”

Doug grasped my hand and pumped it vigorously and once. “I have a cousin that does the same. L. Maddie Leslie. She’d be Leslie Leslie otherwise!” A barklike laugh, almost a cough, bubbled up.

He pointed me to a seat, which I took, sinking rapidly into the expensive fabric.

“Now, your email said that you were with the paper,” Doug said, his eyes shining above the cartoon plutocrat. “But I happen to know that you’re also a private investigator, isn’t that so?”

I responded with my own–fake–laugh, but I made sure my eyes crinkled just right. “As the most powerful man on this campus, sir, I shouldn’t be surprised to find you so well informed.”

“It’s all the alumni and the fans,” Doug said. “They’re better than the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.”

“Well, your football fan bureau of investigation is quite right; I’m a private investigator licensed to practice in Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming, and a registered member of the Mississippi Private Investigators Association. I’m doing contract work for the newspaper, and I’m sure you can imagine why.”

“Yes, I read about the editor being down with the Chinese virus,” Doug said. “And I imagine they want someone with less of a stake in local politics, am I right? A private investigator isn’t so different from a reporter. Might even be better, since there’s some professional ethics and courtesy there.”

I nodded, eyes artificially crinkled. There was no way for him to know I was po-faced behind my protective Mario mask. “I’m not surprised that you did your homework,” I said. “But I am surprised you agreed to see me.”

“During the Chinese virus, all the unpleasantness in town, and in person to boot?” Doug said. “Look, Terry, I’m going to be honest with you. I want to make two things very clear. First, I have nothing to hide. You’ll find we’re an open book here. And second, we are trying to get back to normal around here. Our mayor still insists on the masks, for now, but before long this old virus will be a dim memory. And what says back to normalcy like giving a press interview in person?”

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Created by experimental hybridization of Eurasian rock pigeons (Columba livia) and African Cape turtle doves (Streptopelia capicola), the Africanized pigeon was originally intended to be a superior messenger, guano producer, and street food. With up to twice the white breast meat of ordinary pigeons, longer flight endurance, and a prodigious appetite, it would seem like the perfect pidge to fulfill these needs.

However, Africanized pigeons are also highly aggressive and invasive, attacking interlopers with claws, beak, and a “Stuka-like” dive bombing maneuver that has led to guano splattering across a target area of five square meters or more. This has led to them becoming widely feared and sensationalized, while preventing the predicted fast-food market from developing.

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Pirates (pronounced pyh·raa·teez) is a physical fitness system developed in the early 17th century by Cap’n Bloodburn. It is practiced worldwide, especially in major shipping lanes, straits, and sea trade routes to the Orient–to say nothing of internet forums, bittorents, and file-sharing hubs. As of 2020, there were thousands of people practicing the discipline regularly with hundreds of experienced instructors.

Pirates developed in the aftermath of the early 17th century physical culture of looting and plundering in order to alleviate ill health. There is, however, only limited evidence to support the use of Pirates to alleviate things like lower back pain. Evidence from studies show that while Pirates improves bank balances, it has not been shown to be an effective treatment for any medical condition, other than evidence that regular Pirates sessions can help muscle conditioning, swordfighting skills, and general gunnery in healthy adults, when compared to doing no exercise.

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For every justice, an injustice
For every step forward, two back
As soon as we think we’ve made progress
The chasm still opens a crack

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“The chancellor isn’t granting any media interviews,” the secretary said. “If you’d like, I can email you an official statement from his office that addresses your questions.”

“If you’ll forgive me for asking, ma’am,” I said, trying to put on my most obsequiously polite voice, “why is that? It seems like he’d want to keep the media updated.”

A huff on the other end of the line. “The chancellor is dedicating himself to learning about his new job and taking care of the university community in a time of crisis,” said the secretary. “Speaking with fake journalists is just a waste of his time when everything you need is right there in the daily emails.”

I tensed up for a moment when she mentioned ‘fake journalists’ before realizing she was harping on the old thought-terminating cliche of ‘fake news’ rather than somehow having cottoned to the fact that I was, in fact, an impostor journalist. “I’m not a student, faculty member, or staff person,” I said, telling the truth for once to see where it’d get me. “How am I supposed to read those emails?”

“Take a class. They’re cheap. Maybe learn how to write better, while you’re at it. I saw no less than seven typos in the Sunday issue.”

“Did you buy it?” I asked.

“Of course not!” the secretary said. “I was glancing at it in the checkout line. I don’t agree with your paper’s liberal bias.”

“You’ll have to take up the typos up with my boss, then,” I said. “They fired the copy editor because not enough people were buying papers.”

A click. “Well,” I said into the silent receiver. “If you’re listening to this for training purposes, perhaps you can tell me what she’s done wrong here today.”

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