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If someone made an air fryer large enough to orbit a sun once every one-hundred-seventy-three days, that air fryer would be the planet Auxo during its summer. It burst through the seams with greenery during the wetter seasons, but as soon as this galaxy’s sun tilted hot and persistent in the middle of the year, everything turned sharp and gold.

Kun had seen images—he’d studied the weather patterns, life cycles, microclimates, how the flora thrived and then burned or drowned, then lived again. Over the span of four years at Earth’s eastern station in its astrobotany branch, he’d studied Auxo for just over five months in a negotiation to save and retrieve an endangered species of neotropic-proximal bryophyta.

He was there, now, three steps away from the landing pod he’d used to arrive in the southwestern sector of their main continent, and he could already feel his eyes burning in the heat and searingly dry air.

Earth had been at an entente with Auxo for half a century and seeking a stronger treaty primarily upon scientific grounds. Science treaties were the most valuable, but also the most vulnerable. Initiating combat-warfare was a death sentence in the larger network of galaxies, so the only available aggression was biological. Thus, scientific secrets were kept close to the chest, but were the best resource for allyship as well. That Auxo was extending this opportunity—not only to investigate, but to assist—was massive. 

The planet’s biological expert and ambassador, Dr. Xiao, had stringently recommended Kun carry a third of his body weight in water at the outset on this planet, and as Kun parted his lips to taste the air, it made sense. He felt his mouth go dry like someone had shoved one of those sucky dentist’s tools between his teeth. God, what a hell-climate for humans.

Around him was an entire, dwarfing forest of color-stripped flora, the thick paro-lycopodiophyta trees trembling long, bushy leaves of dark brown and bronze in a lazy wind cartwheeling through the air and drying the prickle of sweat on his upper lip. Around his legs and ankles were some golden, low-lying gnetophyta of a kind, the leaves sharp in their flat crescents, then crawling paro-marchantiophyta protecting the thick earth underfoot that sunk like dry sponge every step he took.

It was stunning to see everything up close around him and an entirely different experience identifying all of the plants he’d studied in their natural clime.

His one-day mission was to find and collect a larger sample of the endangered bryophyta from three different areas of the forest—the last sector where the plant was not quite endangered but declining quickly. He was suited with water bags strapped to his hips and thighs, a packed bag full of his tools and equipped with a noise polluter that would discourage the local predators, and a skin-tight piece of full-body clothing that would prevent him from turning into a brown raisin under the central star.

Dr. Xiao had assured that the human body was incompatible with Auxo, which made Kun an ideal dispatch as both a human and reliable scientist. His human skin oils wouldn’t destroy any fragile plant skins, and his bacteria wouldn’t survive—nothing would be invasive because none of him could realistically survive the climate longer than a few days without assistance from outside means (i.e. he wouldn’t die because he had food and water and supplements and training, but everything else wouldn’t make a scratch).

With a humid exhale sucked instantly dry and his head covered with a hat that saved him from starburn, he plunged further into the spikey mass of light-drunk flora.

Nothing was so sharp as to slice through his second skin, but just about everything could poke through and make him feel like he was wading through a forest of needles. On his short trek to the first corner of the sector, he got to the point where he was starting to wonder if he was bleeding a bit under his suit—even after less than fifteen minutes of walking.

Dr. Xiao had also assured him that the concoction he’d been taking for the past two weeks would more than compensate for any contact-toxins he might snag from the unfriendly flora. That didn’t stop him from feeling like his legs were being subjected to amateur acupuncture. 

It took thirty minutes to get to the first area he was meant to extract from, but the next two stretches after the first site were meant to take his entire evening then morning over the next 24 hours.

With astroflora, it was slippery ground comparing alien species with human words and distinctions. Something that looked like a fir tree on a planet in the outer system almost assuredly wasn’t a fir tree. Auxo, however, had flora that was Earth-proximal, and it wasn’t the only planet that was classified as such. There were planets that had evolved in similar patterns, rising from some of the same building blocks and developing plants that functioned or appeared not unlike Earth’s.

Kun could see, for instance, the fibonacci sequence in an Auxian “xirchorium,” its twenty-one notches up its stem of a mature, thirteen-petal bloom so very familiar in its likeness. But the plant he was trying to find didn’t have a matching likeness to anything but Earthen moss, diverging in how its sporophytes were prone to web-like secretions for catching pollen during fertilization season.

According to the Auxia, there was a virus cutting through this particular moss—the moss resembling a polytrichaceae pogonatum and dubbed “istostoma”—that disabled the webbing between the heads of the stems. 

After twenty minutes of walking, Kun switched from wading through shin-gnawing needles to pushing through sap-sticky and stiff plants at breast-height, the thin tips of branches stroking his covered throat as he elbowed the horizontal-growing paro-gaultheria. There weren’t paths cutting through this thick-weeded forest, just Kun’s burning thighs and steady heaves of breath and limbs. The ten more minutes it should have taken for a straight shot from pod to site took twenty more, and by the time his locator box locked him in on the plateau cliff face he was supposed to collect from, Kun felt like he was dying.

He’d worked out for this during training—worked out in general even before this—so he was supposed to be able to handle the challenge easily, but it was an entirely different experience to be in the precise Auxian climate and be carrying some fifty pounds of equipment.

His hands weren’t quite shaking when he pulled out his extraction tools, but his lungs were.

He knocked his chin into the recording box and fed it information as he dropped his bag among a mass of dry and seeding sedge. 

“Arrived at site A,” he said, breathing settled but muscles still twitchy. “I’m seeing hornwort start in the crags where the sun looks to hit over the canopy. The istostoma is below that line, sparse at the top and becoming denser at the bottom where the face slopes.” He spoke everything as he observed it, laying his knee on a patch of hard ground and fishing out of his bag one of the basic extraction terrariums. The little sphere was just larger than three fists and made from modified plexiglass—the odds of it breaking were slim.

“The istostoma here is alive but matured. I’m not seeing any newly-seeded buds or gametophytes growing from the dead mosses,” Kun continued, finding an edge of the larger spread’s growth and beginning to pry it from the rock.

The work proceeded from there—explaining what he saw or didn’t see, identifying what he could of the surrounding flora, collecting some of the rock underneath the istostoma’s bed, and capturing any pictures of the site that might just possibly assist. This was the easy part.

It was only after he was done that he stood among the biting weeds with his stinging skin and bath-like sweat that he paused. “Fuck,” he said, recorder safely turned off, because he had hours of hiking ahead and a will writing itself in his skull.

His body viscerally complained when he crouched to shrug on his bag again, and all he could do was send it a quiet, long-suffering apology.

Twenty-three more hours.


If he thought the first hike was difficult, it held no flame to the second stretch. He should have expected it, but it still took everything out of him to trudge through entire networks of unfettered plantlife for an entire day. Even fed and watered throughout the trek, by the time he hit the second site, he was dead on his feet.

He’d have to ask Dr. Xiao if he’d ever traversed the territory he was supposed to be an expert on (because this was hell, and Kun would have liked a bit more warning). Their meetings had been telegraphic but intense—intense because they were unsettling and no-nonsense. He had given Kun readings like an academic, but had spoken to him like a scientist with perfectly-detailed bullet-points.

The information had been sufficient and instructive, but had failed to elaborate on the experiential toll. “Your route is unpaved,” Dr. Xiao had said, rather than, “You will feel your brain leaking down between your guts because you simply cannot continue to use your head and still move your legs.”

Considering that exhaustion, Kun didn’t bother extracting anything from this site for the night—he’d have to do it by lamplight, and he barely had the energy to set up his tent let alone delicately pry an organism away from its base.

With the sun down, the environment was chilled, the kind of cold that attempted to lock up his gloved fingers and make him a fumbling mess. The tent, at least, took minimal effort and scaffolded itself a near meter above the ground so he didn’t have to find bare earth or try to make himself comfortable on top of the ground-crawling flora.

Swinging his bag into the tent now firmly sunk into the dry earth, Kun crawled himself away from the insensitive murmurs of the Auxian world around him—the slow breeze of chill shuffling through the night-darkened trees, the insect wildlife cricketing and jumping from leaf to leaf.

The noise polluter stayed on—especially since the zipper locking up his tent didn’t quite block out a hole at the top, a gap about as wide around as his pinky. He wasn’t taking any chances.

Stripped and wrestled out of his suit, he felt like his skin was gasping for air, aching and swollen. Swallowing down the rest of his first container of water, Kun yanked sanitizing wipes out of his bag to wipe down his legs. Prickled with spots and smeared with old blood, the wipes stung so badly that he had to crane his head to the side and inhale through his teeth for a moment.

He was dehydrated (his piss was proof enough of that) and tingling from the restraints of the suit, but wiped down and spoiled by several mouthfuls of water, he had enough energy to wriggle himself out of his last layer of under armour and into the singular pair of soft, woven flannel boxers he’d brought, then straight into his sleeping bag.

His misery ended the second his head hit the little built-in pillow.

The programmed alarm woke him up way before he felt ready, though there was no possible way he’d feel comfortable waking up ever given his condition.

He got a nosebleed in the middle of the night if his clogged nose and the cakey brown he pinched away from his nostrils meant anything. There was blood on his pillow and a metallic taste at the back of his tongue, made more obnoxious by an angry burr in his throat. It felt like he’d tried to swallow a rock.

Grabbing more sanitizing wipes, Kun wiped at his nose until the cloths came away without dark smears in the pathetic early daylight. Shivering with half his sleeping bag zipped down and his chest bare, he reached for the tube and mouthpiece of his second bag of water, draining down the rest of the blood and the knot of discomfort in his throat.

His lips tasted like salt and general soreness, cracked badly in the night, but the rest of him was intact enough to survive a half day of punishment. Probably.

It was a generous supposition given the hysterical pain and exhaustion signals his body tried to give him as soon as he so much as tried to bend his legs.

“Why,” Kun moaned—if only because there was no one to hear him be a little bitch about it. He had every intention of finishing this mission, not only because it was deeply significant for Earth negotiations with Auxo, but because he wasn’t a little bitch.

He forced himself to move his legs and face the pinprick blood spots scattered across his calves, shins, and lower thighs. Rubbing his hands over his face, he untangled himself from his sleeping bag, got out of his boxers, and stared down his suit.

“Twelve hours,” he murmured. “Twelve.”

With a shuddering, aching sigh, he shoved himself back into his under armour, then the synthetic death trap (he knew it was to protect him, but damn if it wasn’t a symbol of suffering already), and pushed himself to defeat the rest of the day.

Unsurprisingly, it was the worst thing he’d ever put himself through—occupational obligation or no. The second extraction was a good start, and the hike to the third site didn’t take any longer than two hours, but the last stretch back to the pod was six entire hours of knowing he was on the very brink of passing out at any given moment.

He didn’t pass out only because he ate like he was supposed to and nearly drained his water and had more willpower than to just give up the ghost on an alien planet, but it felt like a close thing.

With three extraction terrariums safely encasing the isostoma, three complete reports of his process, and home so close he could almost taste it past his papery tongue and split lips, he made it back to the pod in one spasming piece.

After one shaky punch-in of his code, fingerprint, and iris scan, he shoved himself into the cockpit and sank into his seat, bag abandoned off to the side and not yet secured.

When he looked down at his thighs, he saw them twitch with his heartbeat, pulse strong in his fatigued muscles. It was easy to forget his body was its own organism when it was working without a hitch, complex and intricate, but at that particular moment, he was painfully aware of every organ and fatigued breath.

Locking the exit, he allowed himself a moment of silence, lungs heaving the stale air of his small mission spacecraft, before pulling his bag toward himself and doing a contents check. His fingers were clumsy navigating its zippers and seals, and rifling through it all was slow. He drained the rest of his water whilst doing it, then finally rested back when he was sure he was thorough enough, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes.

His brain swung like a pendulum in his skull.

Before he could pass out on accident, he shook himself out and slapped his hand down on the dashboard, blindly searching for the inter-spacial transmitter.

It beeped pleasantly when he pressed his nail into the button, and within seconds, a voice crackled over the speaker. “Report.”

“Qian,” Kun sighed, then rattled off his code in the designated phonetic alphabet for his station’s Earth quadrant: F3J7-QK. “Reporting at the thirty-first hour on planet Auxo, extraction complete, carrying three secured organisms registered as ‘isostoma.’ I am in sound condition, ready to return home.”


“None,” he said, clear though all he wanted to do was close his eyes and mumble through any other questions the dispatcher deemed necessary. 


“All accounted for, clean, nothing dropped or lost.”

It was his luck that there seemed to be nothing more. There was a mild buzzing sound, and the rest of his controls woke up for his usage.

“Launch programmed to initiate in one-hundred-twenty seconds.”


Another, different beep signaled the transmitter disconnecting. In its absence, the air filtration system kicked into overdrive.

With a wheeze, Kun pushed himself off the back of his seat and twisted—painfully—to secure his bag, then strap himself down so if he ended up knocking out in the next few seconds, he wouldn’t slide out of his chair and slam his skull against the pod walls as soon as his spacecraft lifted off.

The flight itself was taken care of. The most he would have to do is jerk awake if the alarms just so happened to go off for needed course correction or other issues.

He had a proper five hours of being dead to the world while he skipped through space, otherwise. Such were the benefits of accelerated technological advancements since Earth’s first alien contact.

Frankly, he was amazed that locking into Earth’s outer station’s arrival port woke him up, though he supposed the bright white lighting would startle his eyes awake if nothing else.

He felt like shit on fire when he stumbled out of his pod and right into the connected cleansing receptacle. Closed off, it was designed to receive anyone coming in from an alien expedition, equipped with molecular security and painfully clean air. The only equipment the room provided was a horizontal, open cylinder for his bag and an intruding doorway and tunnel that would carry him through an entire gamut of stringent cleaning.

Already, he could feel the bloody pinpricks of his legs screaming from the fast-approaching chemical beatdown. 

Barely managing to heft his bag into its vestibule that would scrounge over it for any foreign matter, he then struggled under the space station lights to not fall out of his suit.

He elected to succumb to the indignity of sitting down and wrangling himself out of the skin-tight clothing, body once again gasping at the open air like its own organism, then sliding off his under armour. Naked, he pushed himself to his feet and pulled himself toward the doorway that would blast him with sanitizer on steroids.

He’d be taking supplements for days to replace the healthy bacteria this machine would strip from him.

Personally, he’d only gone through the process once thirty-six hours prior, and it was just as awful this time around, with the added pleasure of being still utterly naked on the other side of the tunnel, an entire scan to endure, and two people looking over the entirety of it.

One of them was Dr. Xiao, the glass barrier doing nothing to make him seem less than striking. Even through that layer of glass and embarrassment (the latter being Kun’s—Dr. Xiao looked less concerned over Kun’s nakedness than he did finding his tea running cold), Dr. Xiao’s winter features were uncomfortable in their attractiveness. Like STEM was the passionate alternative to a lucrative modeling career.

Maybe it was pretty privilege, but Kun had already committed to swallowing back his criticisms of how Dr. Xiao had prepared him for this trip—not only was Dr. Xiao his superior, he was also one of the most oddly unnerving people he’d ever had to meet.

As Kun walked on the other side of the protective glass and stepped into the scanner, he tried not to feel anything less than professional. That being said, he was actively bleeding again, and his lips not only felt like someone had taken a knife to them, but they were also bitter with chemicals. The rest of his body was a map of bloody dots and hairline scratches so that when he looked down at himself from within the mechanical scanner, he looked like a boy tangled in the finest of red thread.

Exhaling deep, he lifted his heavy, aching arms and locked his fingers at the nape of his sweaty, chemical-dried nape, placed his feet shoulder-width apart, and waited for Dr. Xiao or the woman with him to give him clearance to proceed.

Proceed, that is, straight into the robe and slippers they’d give him and take the miraculously awkward “swan dive” of pseudo-shame down the neck of the station’s Atmosphere Needle where it anchored the outer station to earth and served as a vertical light train to the ground station. From there, he had to take the awkward walk of pseudo-shame back to his private room, where he’d strip himself completely, crank the shower, and die under the hot spray of water.

He did everything except the last thing in that list of desires. While he didn’t die, he definitely did fall asleep, then wake up god knew how much later with the room all steam and his fingers resembling prunes.

Moving was pain. Everything was pain. His skull felt swollen and empty all at once as he tried to leverage himself onto his knees, body slack like a broken fish line, whimpering a little because he was alone and there was no one to assess his dignity.

He pawed off the water, crawled out of the shower, and curled up on the bath mat as his bones tried to sink into and through the ground. “God.” There was a part of him that wanted to cry. “I need to eat.” His voice was in that painful sort of middle register where it scraped against his throat on the way up like something worming out of his esophagus.

Coughing once, he used his elbows to push himself up, inching enough distance to grab the ledge of the sink and pull. And he cried because his legs bawled at him to stop, and maybe he would have cried even with someone there to assess his dignity.

Offering himself small spurts of verbal encouragement through deep breaths and plaintive, massaging fingers to his quads (it hurt so bad fuck it hurt so bad), he got to his feet, dragged a towel around himself, and nudged along the walls until he was out of the bathroom. From there, it was the achingly slow task of getting dressed without falling flat on his face.

He prayed he wouldn’t run into anything on his way for his medical checkup, but given that he rammed his shoulder into the doorway on his way out, there wasn’t much hope to bank on. In his head, he composed a conversation with the nurse where they would offer him either a shot that repaired his muscles all in one go or gave him painkillers that would both feed him and knock him out for the foreseeable future.

They did neither thing.

They checked his vitals and blood pressure, drew his blood, asked him for symptoms, prescribed him probiotics, and told him he was suffering from severe muscle fatigue, which...yeah. 

“Your average anti-inflammatory will help,” they said, and then offered up a travel-sized bottle of over-the-counter ibuprofen. “Eat well, hydrate, rest up,” they said, and listed a number of symptoms he should expect: major tiredness or sleepiness, headaches, dizziness, muscle weakness and soreness, slowed reflexes and responses, a lowered immune system, and poor concentration and motivation.

“I’m expected to report to the lab two days from now,” he said.

“Then make sure your two days off are healing ones,” they said. “We’ll message you your blood test results in less than a full day. Perks of being in the science wing.”

He wasn’t really concerned. He mostly wanted to keel over on this damn stool they made him sit on.

Next step was sustenance, and the station mess hall wasn’t half bad. He knocked back two pills over a protein smoothie he blitzed together while leaning half his body weight onto the partially-cleaned countertop of the self-service blender station. Only one blender worked and he still had chunks of ice to crunch on even after standing there for two whole minutes of distraught buzzing.

It was an odd hour, so there weren’t any major dishes being offered, but rice and eggs was always an option, and he figured part of the “eat well” directive was just eating more than usual in general. He’d had half the training staff scrutinizing him leading up to his mission for being somewhat underweight, so the Kun of today adjusted proportionally.

And then he made it back to his private room and promptly ceased to exist.

If possible, the next day was worse, and he cried out from his bed at the mere suggestion of movement toward his muscles.

“Fuck Dr. Xiao,” he said with his teeth clamped around a pinch of pillowcase and a thin sheen of pain and exertion prickling across his body. He knew, logically, that it wasn’t Dr. Xiao’s fault the human body was marginally prepared to take a death hike on a foreign planet, but it slipped across his tongue anyway.

Somewhere between unattractive oaths and intense tremors, he was able to sit at the edge of his bed, dig his elbows into his swollen thighs for a moment, and sob a little.

It took an hour if not longer to stretch—slowly, slowly, carefully, praising and pleading with himself to relax and not injure—and then he soaked himself in another shower to steam out the sweatiness of sleep and coerce his body to not give up the ghost. He didn’t let himself sit this time for risk of falling asleep or having an emotional breakdown when it was time to get up again.

He carried that momentum to the mess hall, ate, and then found his way back once again in a pattern of bare-minimums and exhaustion.

When the morning came around, Kun did his best to prepare himself in such a way that he wouldn’t feel like a full-blown disaster meeting with his team again. The reason he went through hell at all was for this portion—the actual science portion of this opportunity and not the “risking his physical sanity” bit.

“You look like a post-apocalyptic mannequin,” said Junhui, and all Kun had the energy to say back was, “Shut up.”

According to the tests and experiments they’d started during his two off days, only two out of three extractions appeared to have the virus, but the team was still breaking down the virus’s actual makeup and how it attacked the isostoma. The current observations could be summed as the following:

  1. The virus did not terminate all cell processes—just the proteins involved with the reproductive webbing.
  2. The isostoma, because of the selectiveness of the virus, was therefore able to continue to survive a whole lifespan.
  3. According to the given data, the average life spanned fifteen to twenty years.
  4. It was unknown, currently, if all three zones had been infected at the time of extraction, but the vocal log Kun had given suggested that they were.

“So we may have gotten lucky,” Kun said as he shuffled through the printed data—almost everything was done digitally on a professional front, but processing things was much easier done on paper.

“There’s a chance,” Sakura said, working him through the data while the rest of the team prepped for another minor test. “But the other possibilities are just as likely—it could be dormant or benign and we’re simply looking for the wrong thing. The extraction we’re not seeing it from is younger than the other two by far, at least from what we can tell, so—”

So they needed to assess the ages of all three isostoma, then try to nail down the makeup of the virus, which they thought they could identify on an electron scale, but certainly not in terms of sequences or any proteins.

The rest of the day was spent planning tests for separate hypotheses—starting small but broad, then ideally working from there. Science was almost entirely about failure, testing different angles multiple times to see what would fail until the answers were reached. There was a reason scientific progress took decades.

They only had a month to bring their first findings to the table. They needed enough. They needed something to present in a substantial manner or else this entire enterprise would either be entirely shafted or taken into different hands.

Kun was the team leader—their analyst, planner, coordinator—and this team had been created by his recommendations and insights plus Victoria’s. He asked for someone, she vouched or denied him, and this was the team he’d been given: Yan An, Wen Junhui, Wong Kahei, Miyawaki Sakura, and Han Dong.

He had the utmost confidence in them, directly proportional to the anxiety he felt upon their possible lack of success.

One month. If they found something during that one month, they’d be granted another—all according to Dr. Xiao’s assessment (of all people).

So Kun ignored his aches and pains for this small window of opportunity not only for himself, but for everyone involved. They’d be gone over the next few days anyway.

He met with them at the ass-crack of dawn over breakfast in the mess hall, and if it weren’t for the time of day, he’d be feeling better. He was tender and stiff, but his muscles weren’t crying out at every inch of movement, and they responded well to the small amount of stretching he could fit in. The comparative alleviation was a godsend, really, because life would start to get harder again from here on out. 

Breakfast was evidence of that alone. He got maybe one bite of his sweet potato pancakes for every five minutes he would have to set his utensils aside to reroute or reframe an idea.

“We’re going with the first branch,” An said, “where it’s an Earth-proximal intracellular parasite travelling through plasmodesmata.”

“We can’t go there yet,” Kun said, having not picked up his chopsticks since last time he talked. “Yes, we’re working with the E-prox intracellular hypothesis, but we can’t try to figure out how it travels until we identify the particulars, first. We don’t even know if it’s a dsRNA virus or an ssRNA yet.”

“Hell,” said Dong, “it could be a dsDNA.”

Worst case scenario, it was nothing they were familiar with. The idea behind Auxo giving them the rights to this project was that, at risk of sounding Earth-centric, Auxo was an E-prox planet. Again: same building blocks.

Kun’s entire team was working off of optimism and a small shred of trust that Auxo wasn’t trying to fuck them over. Kun hadn’t yet been a pawn in stellar politics—he hoped that luck hadn’t run out.

The samples Kun had extracted weren’t inadequate, but they needed everything they had. The experiments lab that held them was especially meticulous for their preservation, because the most horrific possibility was the extracted isostoma dying, of all things, and forcing them to negotiate another extraction. It wasn’t in Kun’s team’s hands, though. Wang Yibo and Chong Tingyan were the keeper of the samples, and they had as much insight as Kun’s own team did—if slightly left field.

“What if we changed the climate of one of the isostomas and led it into its wet season?” pitched Tingyan over lunch. Yibo was at the lab—one of them had to be at all times. “If we did that, it would at least grow some, right? And you’d be able to assess a mature plant’s new shoots.”

There would be a benefit, too, of being able to experiment on an engorged specimen. The current samples were being kept in their dry season, dessicated states, which made everything narrower, smaller, more cramped, and more fragile.

“Besides, they can’t reproduce. They can spread just fine,” said Tingyan.

“And,” said Sakura, worrying her mouth over the tips of her chopsticks in thought. “And we would be able artificially replicate reproduction. Maybe take a look at its protonema and assess what’s going on there.”

It was a lot, and that was the trouble—they still had so much primary identification to do before they were ready to replicate or modify, but stabilizing the isostoma in a new season would take time and so would any new growth. Complete sporophyte maturation traditionally took at least four months. If they wanted to do it, they had to do it now. Delaying the decision would only make it a foolhardy decision down the line.

“We’ll talk to the rest of the team,” said Kun, pushing his plate away from him and feeling slightly more at ease. “Get a decision over the lab by tonight.”

For the next few days, he returned late to his room and woke up early, working through the cycle of planning, experimentation, compilation, and analysis with care but an increasing urgency. Things were going well—as well as the most primary stages of a process could go where the analytical risks were low and the rewards were arduous—but the stress, as productive as it was, started to settle in. No better was the exhaustion.

He’d planned for his, his own stress responses mapped out through thirty-something years of life. Though he grew accustomed to four hours of sleep or less, that exhaustion compounded. Eye strain, hand cramps, backaches from stooping, mental fatigue from everything, setting multiple alarms, overcompensating on food intake for the energy reserves alone.

He was still technically in recovery, and he was sure that not allowing himself to fully do so was also exacerbating his condition. On the seventh day of his return, his stomach and intestines finally made a proper comeback into their stress-reaction: being an utter bitch-baby about certain, unpredictable foods, and forcing him to battle mild bouts of distracting nausea and discomfort.

Absolutely nothing was ideal health-wise. He sat with Kahei for five hours taking notes and logging information down as Junhui and Dong executed the experiments they’d been planning. The entire process wasn’t the normal ideal—they couldn’t just take pieces of the isostoma back to their main lab with them. Just as Earthen things weren’t made to prosper on Auxo, Auxian things weren’t made to prosper on Earth. For good reason, the climate Yibo and Tingyan maintained in the holding lab was particular and stringently maintained.

Because of that, the testing days were isolated, long, and painfully high-tension. Of their own volition, they did not take breaks. It wasn’t a relaxing day for Sakura or An, either, who cycled in and out to collect information and ease off half the processing load they would have to do the minute they woke up the next day.

Yibo cut them off an hour past their allotted limit, their slot having been the last before the lab was set to close.

“I’ll see you in two days anyway,” he said, “and you all need sleep.”

Eleven p.m. was a generous bedtime, and though they had every intention to use Yibo’s astute excuse to finally go to their respective rooms, they went back to the team lab instead and got sucked into the neverending flow of work. It wasn’t until three a.m. that Kun finally stepped out into the station hallways, experiment notes shoved from his sight.

At some point the hunger had turned into pain, and despite the reprimand in the back of his head that sounded a whole lot like his mother, he ate before bed.

His bloated body did not thank him for it three hours later. It didn’t thank him for anything three hours later, honestly—not even for the food the team ordered in, because apparently something didn’t sit well.

In a lull between hand-cramping diagrams and scans, debate, and a water break some five hours after An washed out his emptied pot from the hotpot they’d arranged, Kun asked, “Just checking if it’s just my stomach or something. Is anyone feeling—” Sick? he wanted to say, then bit his tongue. He wasn’t an incredibly superstitious person, but he couldn’t afford to be sick whether he was or not. He didn’t want that word in the air. “Did the hotpot not agree with anyone?” he finished lamely.

Dong drew her hands through her hair with a sort of pinched expression, but shook her head, and Junhui volunteered, “My appetite’s bad, but I feel fine.”

As a whole, his team already looked worn at only one week in—not in a way they couldn’t stomach yet or else they would tell Kun that they needed some form of break (they couldn’t afford much, but he’d figure something out).

They got used to it, though—or Kun did, at the very least. He started locking into the patterns, his body accepting its newly-chronic sleep deprivation, and he was narrowing in on just which foods made his insides hate him. The answer was, it seemed, the comfort foods: greasy, spicy, meaty. Not like he needed some form of comfort during this whole ordeal, no. Of course not.

Meanwhile, they made strides in their studies, finally nailing down a consistent protein sequence. It was a bare minimum that would, at the very least, give them an audience longer than one minute with Dr. Xiao.

“You met him and came back alive,” said Sakura from where she was working on diagrams, a teasing tone only appropriate for how fucking late it was in the day. Kun had been working for hours on a writeup for Kahei to present to Victoria and the man himself in a matter of hours. 

Dr. Xiao had his hands in the process in his own way; he was the one they had to “sell” to, whereas with Victoria, they could speak more on the nitty-gritty. She had started out in this sector. She knew their jargon and processes, not that Dr. Xiao wasn’t also a scientist. They couldn’t bullshit their way with him, either. Biology was a very close cousin.

“Literally,” Kun said, drafting his third attempt at writing the same damn paragraph. All this would go toward their final paperwork in half a dozen years when they would presumably have this over with, which meant his toil now would ideally be worth something to the Kun of the future. Aside from that, though, this was serious enough to warrant a push to sunrise. “Auxo nearly had me.”

“You said he was serious?” asked Kahei, looking up from her tablet where her slides were.

“He’s…” Kun stalled, brain on two different tracks, and he really needed to finish this sentence. Conversation respectfully petered as they attended their tasks and Kun wrestled with the written language.

The virus, still unnamed, most resembles -ssRNA, but requires a reverse transcriptase enzyme to—

“He’s very to-the-point,” Kun said, finally drawing his own attention away from his computer screen. “You’ll ask a question, and he’ll give you the most straightforward answer. Don’t expect him to be friendly.” Ideally, it would be him reporting to Dr. Xiao and Victoria as head of the team, though Victoria’s somewhat arbitrary stipulation in this entire arrangement was insisting that every individual on the team communicated with them to “ensure competency” she’d said.

Kahei sighed, rubbing at her eyes, the whites gone pink, likely gone dry from looking at screens for too long. Kun felt the urge to blink his own as he watched.

“He won’t cave if I offer to suck his dick instead?” Kahei mused, sharply tongue-in-cheek, and exhaustion was truly speaking at this point.

“That’s not an image I wanted in my head,” Kun said, but laughed nonetheless. “No thank you.” He didn’t have to ask her to take this seriously—she already was. That was obvious regardless of four a.m. wisecracks. There wasn’t a single person on his team who wasn’t putting their all into this study.

They weren’t lacking in effort or skill. The only things they were praying for were sanity and luck.

He figured he deserved the pain he woke up with on some level. He’d barely eaten or slept in favor of preparing Kahei with Sakura, but he felt it, now—in his guts, his skin, his eyes like needles and burning thread.

“Christ,” he hissed into his sheets because his bed was the throne his pains lounged upon. Then he stripped himself from the mattress, trying to rub the lethargy from his eyes while his body ached from the inside out.

His eyes wouldn’t focus without at least three preceding blinks, blurry with its stubborn film. He could feel them wigging out while he shoved himself into his clothes and tipped back a cup of water. Though annoying, it was preferable over the hunger pains even if he was ten minutes from a mess hall run.

It wasn’t until halfway there, actually, that he realized just who texted him yesterday while his attention had been funneled so efficiently.

From Sicheng: leave me on read if you’re still alive

Kun had to laugh, though a certain form of guilt pinged through his headache. Sicheng was the only other classmate from his alma mater who got into Earth’s eastern astronomy station with him, though he was in an entirely different branch. Sicheng studied astroentomology, which was not Kun’s cup of tea on any level.

To Sicheng: Let’s have breakfast sometime. I’ll prove to you I’m still in the flesh.

He hit send at five-thirty a.m. and got a message back approximately three hours later, though he didn’t see it until around lunchtime over vegetable lo mein and a bunch of other, healthier things to get his intestines to shut up and leave him alone.

From Sicheng: rather not if that’s the time you wake up. 

From Sicheng: I respect my body. 

From Sicheng: how about lunch?

Kun hissed around his smile—not for resentment, but for getting called out.

To Sicheng: Just wait until you see my eyebags. 

To Sicheng: I think I have time not tomorrow but the next.

He didn’t expect Sicheng to answer promptly, but he did.

From Sicheng: you mean thursday. has work already cannibalized your sense of time

He supposed he meant Thursday. He hadn’t so much as looked at a calendar in a week, and oh, how embarrassing, really.

To Sicheng: Stop making fun of me. I’m stressed.

Kun sent that, but really he was laughing, still, into his noodles, and it felt good to talk to his friend again and not avoid the topic of suffering. It wasn’t that his team wasn’t witty, but he would not allow himself to complain even for the sake of humor.

From Sicheng: yeah I can do thursday. don’t die before then

He’d do his damnedest, though he didn’t dare promise. Work sucked the everliving daylights out of him after lunch. It was another day of experiments, five hours of the afternoon spent with a glass barrier and screens between where Kahei and he sat and Dong and Junhui worked.

This time, they’d be able to take a very small sample back to the team lab so they could have less restricted time to study some of the cells with their electron microscope. The amount they were able to do without samples was aggravatingly negligible, but, again, deemed necessary until this point.

That Tingyan and Yibo were allowing this was substantial. The fact that Victoria had cleared the proposal was a downright miracle, and the entire team had Kahei to thank for it.

The small victory for the team was short-lived, however, and what started out as a promising development was quickly littered with roadblocks. The day was long—seemingly unending after their time slot at the foreign specimens lab ended and they pored over the six sample slides they’d been allowed in their own lab.

They had to get everything they’d observed, written, and detailed organized and lined up, but there were multiple permutations of every observation. The mutation in the third specimen was such an unknown that it belonged in several categories, and then there were ideas they had no idea what to do with. Most of all, they were trying to determine why or how the virus was isolated to reproduction before they tackled how it traveled, and they were hitting a wall.

“It’s not physically isolated,” An said, the strain of six hours hashing out hypotheses showing in the sleepless ash of his face. “It’s in all of the cells, but it doesn’t even look active.”

“It’s not reproducing,” Dong said. “It’s not active because the ‘stoma is in its dry cycle.”

“We can’t wait three and a half months to study that,” An said, but they’d said this before. They’d said all of this before.

Kun rubbed his hands over his face—he hadn’t done anything remotely serviceable to his complexion in a week and a half, his skin in terrible need of exfoliation, and his facial hair was coming in harsh from neglect over three days. His scalp felt sore and itchy.

“Let’s sleep on it,” Kun said, raising his head from his palms and ignoring his sudden, obsessive fixation on his own hygiene. He’d turned into every horrific stereotype assigned to all of the STEM students in undergrad. “Let’s take a break. Get five hours for once. We have a good opportunity with these samples, and we’re going to figure something out with what we have until we can gain more time.”

His proposal was met by silence, which he expected. It was a bittersweet suggestion, if not an order. It would be an order in a second.

“Up,” Kun said, rising himself. “Tidy up and get out. Don’t take any paperwork with you. Call time’s at seven.”

His team lagged for a moment, but they managed to pick themselves out of their chairs and collect their limbs into a human resemblance. They shuffled their files and left them on the work table, and Kahei even left her tablet, her hands rubbing over themselves in agitated, fitful motions. Junhui swayed out the door, and though Sakura laughed at him, she’d been plucking out her eyebrow hairs with her fingertips for days.

Everyone looked bad, and as Kun saw them out and locked the lab behind him, the pain in his body settled in like it had been waiting for him to give in, if only a little. For a moment, in the empty, past-one-a.m. hallways, he pressed his forehead to the lab door and tried to resist pushing his hands against his navel.

He hadn’t eaten since lunch, and his body was kicking him for it, though he didn’t understand why what he’d eaten at noon hadn’t been enough. Even under the worst of circumstances, he’d always manage to eat enough to override the effects of his own anxiety. 

Back when he’d been in his early twenties, this physical neglect wouldn't have made him bat an eyelash. He wasn’t even old, but there were still all these minute things his body slowly began to reject as the years went by. 

Once again ignoring the motherly voice in the back of his head, he took the risk to his GI tract and ate late—ate a lot late in the hopes that being overstuffed with rice and vegetables would knock him out. They were safe foods. He’d be fine.

He woke up with the feeling of cotton wool webbed across the roof of his mouth. His alarm screeched, like a blaring siren drilling into his skull. Kun moaned as he kept his eyes pinched closed to turn it off, his brain desperately fighting to resist its call. Slowly, he pushed himself upright and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. 

He felt like a truck had hit him—and it wasn’t just the fog of waking that had him feeling awful, but the subtle, sharp pinch that stabbed under his left rib, and the wave of nausea that wrapped around his throat. He was accustomed to stress making his intestines pitch a fit, but this feeling wasn’t quite like that. It was a bit too intense than he was accustomed to from his intestines, and unprecedented given that he was supposed to feel better, not worse.

As he leaned toward the shelf next to his bed to reach for the cup of water he'd had the foresight to leave before sleep, the pain in his side turned hot, like a molten swell of fire that flared up from his ribs and down to his hip bone. He coiled back into his upright position, right arm clutched across his body and holding onto his waist.

“Jesus,” Kun spat. His chest heaved as his heart pounded in his ears, and he willed himself to calm down. 

Was this just from overeating? It hadn’t been this bad last time, and he thought it would be worth it. He’d felt a hell of a lot better after eating last night than he had the entire day combined, and by the time he hit his mattress, he’d completely forgotten he’d been feeling like total garbage.

But he felt significantly worse than the last time he’d enacted his mother’s subtle taboo of eating before bed. There was an ache that started to anchor deep in his gut, much like the pinch that poked near his ribs. The sensation half-startled him as he felt his body tense up, not wanting to feel the same shock again from moments before. 

He looked down as he rubbed a hand over the plane of his bare belly, skin pale and smooth as he made note of how the ridges of his abdomen had softened. The ache started to bloom deeper, rooted in him lower now as he held in a breath. He dipped the tips of his fingers beneath the elastic waist of his briefs. 

The skin felt warm, and stiff from bloating when he swiped a thumb over the trail of fine hairs beneath his belly button. Kun was missing his usual exercise routine, but couldn’t feasibly fit it in. He could either sleep or eat or work out, and given that he was sacrificing a hefty one-point-five between those three, he supposed it was no wonder his body hated him.

Eating was non-negotiable, though. It was the only thing that would settle that awful two-a.m., stomach-gnawing sensation of stress and anxiety, even if last night’s misjudgment was giving him serious nausea. He’d eat small this morning to coast him through until noon, and when all of this was over—this month, this first trial of competency—he’d put more effort toward getting his routines back to normal.

There was nothing he would have loved more than to pop into the med bay’s clinic and ask for something to settle his stomach, but even the smallest requests went through the system, and he didn’t have time to spare for scrutiny or being called in for gastrointestinal fussiness.

After carefully sucking down his water and praying he wouldn’t vomit—he didn’t have time for that, either—he braved getting out of bed and moving around the severe discomfort from bloating.

No more eating so fucking much before bedtime, he tapped into his phone, because his mother was right: the instant gratification was simply not worth it.

It did ease, though, by the time he grabbed two of those packaged pastries left over in the mess hall. Even for the science wing, the mess hall was still sparse this early, so it was just Kun and Junhui mulling over the hurdles they’d set aside just five hours prior.

Junhui looked just as bad as Kun felt, under-eyes bruised with his double-lid cutting into his skin, a little peaky and quick to deny a pastry for himself.

“Didn’t sleep well?” Kun asked, uneasy at the possibility. He wanted to give his team a break—not make everything worse.

“I did,” Junhui said, digging his fingertips into his eyes. “You know when your body gets used to sleeping two hours and then getting more than that fucks you up?”

Watching Junhui’s showered hair slip over his thin knuckles, Kun winced.

“I feel fine,” Junhui murmured into the edges of his palms. “Just like, drugged, kinda. I’ll feel better later.”

Kun was ready to accept that when his phone erupted into vibrations in his pocket. His newly-settled stomach plunged through the mess hall bench when he saw the caller ID, and all traces of inertia disappeared from Junhui’s face when Kun mouthed Victoria Song at him.

He removed himself from the table and picked up, trying not to tug at the hem of his shirt.

“Good morning, Qian Kun,” said Victoria while Kun’s stomach pinched in anxiety. There wasn’t a single goddamn call with Victoria that didn’t send his blood pressure through the roof from stress.

“Good morning,” he said when she didn’t immediately continue.

“Wong Kahei dropped into the medical bay at three-a.m. this morning and will be quarantined for twenty-four hours,” she said with ease and composure as Kun felt his own slip through his fingers.

“From what?” he couldn’t help asking, though he narrowly dodged sounding the question through a gasp. “What happened?”

“She’s developed a rash of some sort,” Victoria said with the clarity and sudden flippancy of a plebeian, “and given the samples we let out of the foreign specimens lab, we have to take the necessary precautions to make sure she hasn’t been infected by something of an Auxian source.”

“No one else has—has developed anything of the sort,” he felt himself say without thought or eloquence. Then, “Is she okay?”

“And if anyone does, you will report to me immediately. Until then, you are to take extra precautions with the samples you have taken. Chong Tingyan will be present in your lab today to make sure your procedures are acceptable.”

Kun felt that last word like a blow to the chest.

“Wong Kahei is not in critical condition.”

His attempt to swallow failed him, throat too tight. Pain was falling across the back of his skull in active time.

“The foreign specimens lab will also be closed for the day while Wang Yibo leads a lab inspection. It’s entirely possible that she was exposed to something else.”

Kun wanted to protest—she hadn’t stepped foot in the lab itself, separated the entire time by the glass divide—but Victoria’s tone was so final that all he could do was say, “Okay.”

“Keep me informed, Qian Kun,” Victoria said and hung up.

Proceeding as normal felt damn near impossible after that phone call, and yet Kun was the team leader. He had no choice.

“Kahei’s in the med bay for today,” he told the group when he reached the team lab, and Dong froze as if struck. Tingyan, at the back of the lab, watched him with her legs crossed as he gave them only the most sufficient information. “She’s fine. Tingyan’s here to make sure we do proper procedure with the samples we took yesterday on Victoria’s orders.”

Over the course of no more than thirty words, the steady blanch in An’s face went from a slightly healthier, soft peach to an ash more deeply desaturated than the night before.

To Kun’s relief and gratitude, however, they did not vocalize any questions, instead asking him over their group chat: Did something happen?

Kun answered: Unclear. Let’s see what we can get done today.

The answer to that was: woefully little.

Though Kahei was irreplaceable, she wasn’t so critical as to ruin any advancement in her absence, but it ended up appearing that way nonetheless.

Most of their progress was conjecture—maddening, worrying, desperately nauseating. The break Kun took for lunch was the only ease on his physical anxiety, which was just nearly debilitating enough that he left for lunch at all.

What he ate tied him over, stomach easing for several hours while they drew up new diagrams and tried to approach their progress block from new perspectives, but the headache and general anxiety stayed.

It was frustrating to have granted a break to his team only for its effects to be squandered.

The steps they made that day were wrestled from the grasp of a day that Kun felt had fucked them over. He wanted it to end. That was all.

From Wong Kahei: Stress response.

From Wong Kahei: The rashes were from stress. I’m so sorry, guys. That’s never happened before.

Stress responses can kiss my ass, he wanted to reply, having woken up with pain and nausea so acute he’d stalled for ten entire minutes in bed before motivating himself to fix his problems and eat.

He was tired of it—tired of eating twice as much as he was accustomed and exhausted by his own body pitching a fit when it was the least opportune. Kahei in the med bay had enervated the team like a prolonged ice bath. If he did the same, he could kiss this opportunity goodbye.

“Fuck,” he’d told the mirror over knicking his face while shaving, and it had been ten days since he’d cried. This one wasn’t physical, though he wasn’t feeling great. This one was everything, and hilariously, he’d give almost anything for severe muscle fatigue to be the worst of his problems.

“Jesus, you look like roadkill,” Sicheng said over lunch, and it wasn’t a jab, Kun didn’t think. It was an honest observation.

“I feel like shit,” Kun replied, honest and partially choking the admittance around the tightness in his throat. “I’ve never had to do something so damn difficult in my life.”

Sicheng stared at him with no veil of social consciousness, surprise heading straight for a concern that called out the divots in his smooth features and made them deeper. He opened his mouth to say something to Kun, perhaps, but ended up closing it within two seconds while Kun knotted one hand in his own hair and sucked at the straw of his protein shake—he didn’t give a shit if his stomach boiled him raw. Not today.

“Is there something I can do?” Sicheng said after Kun sucked three centimeters off his drink. Kun closed his eyes, his headache pressing up against the back of his eyes until he felt they were more marbles than ocular devices.

“Get me contraband bismuth subsalicylate?” Kun said, barely laughing into his wrist. “The stress has my stomach fucked up and I can’t risk being detained at the med bay. We already lost a day when Kahei was kept there.”

“Your immune systems are bound to be taking a hit,” Sicheng said slowly, as if he were cautious of flicking one of Kun’s buttons, but Kun had to concede.

“Mine can take a hit after this month is done,” he said. He usually got sick after anything remotely close to this level of stress, and he would accept nothing sooner. He could be crippled by cold after they had more time to work with.

“You’re not…” Sicheng started, even slower, now, softer. “You’re not pushing your team too hard, ge?”

Kun scrubbed his hands over his face. His stomach was already pitching nausea up into his chest from his ill-advised “meal.” “We’re pushing ourselves,” he said. “I’m trying.”

It was all surface-level. Sicheng understood what Kun was going through, if only in part, and the most he could offer was reminders and a space to complain into. Though abstract at best, it did ease something in Kun.

He had to remind himself that this was bigger than him—they weren’t just trying to save a plant species. They were the first steps to a major scientific treaty with Auxo. Their work was political. It was a test of competency not only for his team, but for the entire human race.

The added pressure didn’t help his stress, but it did force him to pull back on his self-pitying. He couldn’t waste his energy on getting distracted by all these little sufferings all the time. He had to start acting like they weren’t there the minute he stepped into the lab. That was the only way to do this.

Tingyan had been recalled, and they were still left with the samples. They worked backwards, this time, their dead-end too dead for them to excuse any more wasted time on it, and rerouted for one of their third major hypotheses with a restlessness that was embodied most by Kahei.

She didn’t look great, and Kun could see some of the rashes she’d developed, but she had been taken out of commission for a whole day that rejuvenated her in some form. She pulled at the team with an anxious energy they all benefited from.

“I had twenty-four hours to just think,” she said, and thanked An, who had gotten her tablet past clearance while she’d been quarantined. “The more I thought about it, the more I think we should at least go through the processes to rule out—” She gestured at the projections of half a dozen sub-hypotheses. “—all of these. What if it’s not a single virus type? What if its localization is just a different strain of evolved cells?”

They had a very late night in trying to attack a new approach with more vigor, and they pooled cash for ordering the same comfort food Kun knew would only fuck him up further: an assortment of everyone’s votes for dishes in the form of char sui, fried chicken, mozzarella corn dogs, and fried cheese balls. He indulged, and he was right, and he just had to grin and bear it, his organs self-cannibalizing in anger over his willful hubris.

He paid for instant-gratification in pain, but he needed some reprieve in the midst of all this backtracking. He could just hear Victoria in his head telling him he’d lacked a thorough approach from the start, and it plagued him worse than his stomach did.

And yet, for once, he woke up feeling okay. A single hour maximum of fitful sleep that buckled into desperate unconsciousness, and he woke up at five a.m. feeling less than absolutely wretched.

Granted, the bar was very low, but his insides weren’t crawling with miserable discomfort, and for the first time in a while, the battle of willpower enacted in his own bead had nothing to do with aches and pains.

And, almost like his condition affected their productivity, the strides they made were the most promising they’d had in days. They negated an entire swath of hypotheses, and the string of failures to prove them wrong felt like a positive turn of fate—they were getting somewhere because that’s what failure was. They knew, now, due to their work for the day and the data they’d already obtained, that there had to be a leaky stop codon and subgenomic RNAs, among a string of other details they’d neglected in the name of pursuing their first promising pathway.

They had just two and a half more weeks to discover and compile enough breakthroughs to grant them the grace of God, if Victoria and Dr. Xiao could be given such prestige.

They could do this. They could.

“No,” was the first word he murmured upon waking, pressed into his pillow like a plea. “No, no, no, nonono,” he complained and pleaded through a stomach cramp so severe it yanked him from sleep half an hour before his alarm was set to go off.

He wanted more than one day. He wanted a reprieve that wasn’t bookended by his body warring with his force of will. His guts were begging for a holiday he couldn’t take, and he was begging for a holiday from them when they were woefully essential to his living processes.

“Fuck,” he cried through a spasm in his intestines that cramped and persisted. If he got up to eat, it would go away. He knew that. But he needed sleep, too. He needed sleep so bad and his emotions were delirious from the preemptive waking.

He sobbed into his pillow for five minutes before passing out, and when he woke up twenty-five minutes later, his eyes were swollen in protest, and it was as if his goddamn organs were sore from their own anxiety and trouble.

Over a breakfast of steamed sweet potato and congee, he truly wished he could pop into the med bay and ask for something even though they were miserly at best. They’d only given him as many painkillers as would last him two recovery days. Somehow, they managed to be both useless and incredibly hindering, likely to give him half a cup of some over the counter stomach relief concoction at maximum, then bar him from returning to work for 12 hours minimum in the same breath. It was some legal specification that they were bound to, and it sucked.

Could he handle seventeen more days of this?

He survived, though. He continued to. Over trying to isolate and activate stripped enzymes, tackle the idea of paro-multipartite genomes in the cells they had yet to investigate, and generally trying not to keel over, they once again made strides—this time unrelated to Kun’s condition, which remained irregular at best. By ten-p.m., they had hope in their hands, and by three-a.m., they were finally satisfied enough to call it quits, if reluctantly.

Every part of Kun wanted to ask his team to sleep in and have a late start, but not for their sake. For his own. His team almost looked sprightly, visual fatigue and pallor aside.

He got back to his room with a wrestled-down stomach manhandled by dinner and sheer willpower that caved as soon as he chased unconsciousness. Begging for a restful sleep, he wanted nothing more than to wake up like he had the day before.

Nothing felt right.

It wasn’t like most mornings over the last two weeks had felt right to Kun, but as his brain crawled out from its slumber and into delirious consciousness, his body quickly told him this time was much different.

A fever woke him out of his sleep before his alarm could. His body was cradled in a blanket of sweat; his nightshirt clung to his chest, and his face was smashed up against the side of his pillow. It felt like a soft bed of coals, but it wasn’t the faux-down that agitated him, but rather his head was on fire and set to split in two. There was so much sweat, strands of his hair plastered against his forehead, but that was nothing compared to unbearable cramping that ebbed through every muscle. His body had curled into a tight ball, knees tucked to his chest with his hands curled into fists. Every muscle was pulled taut, the strain of his involuntary clenching compounding cramps in parts of Kun’s body he hadn’t felt before.

This was a terrible day to wake up feeling poorly—his team had made an incredible breakthrough last night, even as he nursed away the anxiety that attempted to disembowel him every time anyone even alluded to Victoria. 

Kun moaned a split second after a fresh spike of pain throbbed deep in his gut. Where his body had tensed, his mouth had gone slack, and a puddle of drool dribbled out of the corner of his mouth and soaked the corner of his pillow. 

Relax, he told himself. And in spite of feeling on the verge of death, the more he tried to will himself to calm down, the harder his heart pounded in his ears. 

“Move,” he sobbed as he pried open a fist. As he slowly pushed himself upright onto his elbow, he felt the muscles in his lower back contract, and his nausea wrangled deep in his throat to wretch out a gag from his mouth.

Kun slapped a hand over his mouth as he gagged again. His brain overrode the pain that swelled between every achy joint and he pushed himself off his bed to hobble across the room toward his toilet.

Each step felt like a mile in sand. He retched again, hand covering his mouth as he remained hunched over with each step, but collapsed under his own weight as soon as he breached the door frame into his bathroom. He choked out another sob as his palms slammed onto the floor—but it was cool, and he let his face fall to rest on the cold tiles with a small sigh of relief. He felt pathetic, small as he scraped up another burst of energy before another dry heave could make its way up his esophagus.

This time, he knew, in the back of his mind, it couldn’t have been the food he ordered. Even through his tension headaches and work exhaustion, there’s no way vegetables over freshly cooked rice could make him feel this fucking terrible—unless the eggplant was spoiled. Would spoiled eggplant really shred up his innards like this?

A pinch stabbed under his ribcage as soon as he grabbed the edge of the toilet. He flung open the lid with little grace as his hands started to quake, and the faint, acrid taste of bile lingered in the back of this throat. He could smell it, even—rotten, hot, burning in his nose. The smell made him wretch again, and this time as his joints seized up, he felt the weight of his body dig into the porcelain and pinch at his wrists. 

“Ow, fuck,” he hissed. His brain split and fired between every stabbing ache as a fresh gag gurgled up into his throat. There was that smell again—sharp, soured—and he braced himself with his head hunched over the bowl, knuckles white around the edge, as he surrendered one final hurl.

Kun pinched his eyes closed as he felt a small wave of warm liquid leap from his mouth. Based on the bitterness, Kun deduced it was bile. He couldn’t relax his grip around the toilet, but he opened his eyes, lashes gone sticky with the start of tears, and looked into the bowl. 

He’d expected the hideous, fluorescent yellow—what he hadn’t expected was for anything else to be in there with it, too. Floating on the surface of where the bile had begun to mingle with the toilet water were a cluster of clear spheres bobbing around the surface. They were exceptionally small—about the size of masago, Kun observed—and even the mere thought of sushi of all foods made Kun’s stomach turn in another unpleasant way.

Masago was roe harvested from an unspawned fish—


There were few moments in Kun’s life when he could remember the world screeching to a halt. The first was when his parents bought him a microscope instead of a cat for his eighth birthday (much to his disappointment, but turned out to be his delight), the second was completing his thesis, and the most recent was being hand-selected by Victoria Song to lead this research on Auxo. Not once had those instances made the blood in Kun’s veins freeze over.

He felt sick—nothing like a head cold, or a flu, but feverish in an entirely foreign way that seared him from the inside out.

Quickly, Kun placed his hand into the bowl and managed to scoop a few dozen his palm. He winced through the agony of having to get back on his feet, and was less concerned with the puddle of bile that slipped between his fingers and more to ensure he had all of the—well, whatever the fuck that came out of him—didn’t slip onto his floor as he scrambled to find a container. 

He flung open the medicine cabinet and found a near-empty bottle of allergy meds. Rattling in his free hand, he chucked it into his sink with a curse when he noticed the safety on the cap would make it impossible to do with one hand. He was too weak to handle such coordination with a palm-full of his own sick.

“Shit,” he hissed as he watched the specimens slosh around in his palm.

“Keep me informed, Qian Kun,” echoed around in his brain—he needed to tell Victoria, but he also couldn’t be sure what the hell this could mean for anybody right now. He couldn’t comprehend the level of danger he was in even though he knew this was not okay, not normal, and nightmarishly real.

His arm felt like it was holding a bag of bricks as he raised his free hand to close the door of the medicine cabinet. A reflection stared back at him—a face Kun could only half-recognize as himself. His face looked gaunt, with his eyes appearing to have sunken in with dark bruises around them. That was hardly a surprise—tired eyes were somewhat of a uniform for Kun over the years, but this time he looked like Skeletor with the apples of his cheeks sharper than the edge of a blade. His hair, usually lush and shiny, looked dull and frail, but the worst of it was the mottled pallor of his entire appearance.

Where the neckline of his sweat-soaked shirt slipped to the side of his shoulder, a patch of skin under his collarbone bloomed in violet-coal, a darkened bruise he hadn’t noticed the day before. He brought a shaking hand up to the side of his neck to touch the inflamed, reticular pattern etched onto his skin. It hadn’t stung when his fingertips brushed against it, but it was hot to the touch.

He nearly dropped the specimens in his other hand, but got a whiff of his magnificent bile and rewired his adrenaline to sort out his priorities—

Kun shuffled to his kitchenette, bile now gone dry and tacky on the back of his hand. Each step took a Herculean effort not to double back into pain each time his legs pushed forward, the aching between his hips dulled by his own will to safely store the contents scooped from the toilet. A freshly cleaned jar was in the first cabinet he opened, and he carefully funneled them inside. He capped it with the lid, no time to wash his hands, and brought the bottom of the jar up to his face.

He stared at them, all idle and uniform in size—with the exception of several that were larger, rounder, plumper—and when he squinted he noticed they looked to be full of whatever the smaller things were.

“Jesus,” Kun mumbled. Stunned with the realization these were inside him, he had to get to the med bay—someone had to take a look at these. Perhaps handing over evidence would be enough to receive actual concern and treatment for his ailments this time. 

What the fuck were they? What if there were more of those in his stomach? No—that was the wrong question. 

How many more of these were in him?

Once Kun secured the specimen from his toilet and wrapped it in a hand towel, he didn’t bother to change out of his nightclothes. It was still early yet—the clock read quarter to six a.m.—and most of the station was quiet until closer to seven a.m.

The med bay was located well on the other side of the base—it would be a haul on Kun’s feet.

He felt a fresh wave of adrenaline take over as soon as he closed the door to his room behind him. Kun cradled the specimen close to his chest like a dragon guarding its treasure—he couldn’t allow anything to happen to them, he needed answers. Kun tried to put his pride aside as he thought about how odd his huddled posture might have looked to anyone who might pass by him, so he kept his head down for the most part, and tried not to wince or hiss too loudly with each step.

Death had certainly warmed over—now that Kun had seen what had come out of him, he started to feel like there was a constant itch all over his body. His stomach not only felt like a hot air balloon, but his abdomen felt like it had been run over with a steamroller. Hardly the worst and certainly the least of his worries, nearly half-way into his crawl to the med bay, Kun was disappointed he never got a chance to relieve his bladder that now felt like it was about to burst. His pain was now compounded with his discomfort of having to tense every muscle in his body to hold himself together—he wondered how much longer he could endure before the inevitable headache came crashing down on him.

Kun rounded a sharp corner, gaze still trained downward to watch each hobbling step. His lungs started to burn, his diaphragm inflated like a taut balloon and pressed up against his lungs. 

He felt heavy. Every breath that curled out from his mouth felt weighted, thick, as he propped a flat palm against the wall of the hallway. His wrist went limp as his shoulder crashed into the wall with a moan, and he cradled the wrapped bottle closer to his chest as he barely stopped himself from collapsing to the floor.

“Sorry for dragging your ass out of bed this early,” a familiar voice rang down the hallway.

Kun snapped his neck up toward the sound and let out a hiss under his breath as he clambered through the agony to stand upright. Maybe if he stood still enough, whoever it was wouldn’t notice him—

“You should be,” the other voice said, and all the hairs on Kun’s body stood on end. It was Sicheng of all people, awake, at the asscrack of dawn, with Yibo headed toward the foreign specimens lab.

“It was the soonest I could get you in,” Yibo said, voice louder with each tap of their feet that pattered down the hall. “Though I didn’t visibly note much of a difference in their environments, I did get a notification of a rapid drop in temperature in the enclosure—”

“Please, God,” Kun whispered. “Please, not today.”

The pressure in his lungs started to flood him—and this time Kun had a hard time parsing out if it was a result of his physical decline or the beginnings of a panic attack. He kept stock still against the wall, body swimming in fire with each inhale, and turned to face his back to them. As painful as it was, he tensed his body as much as he could to help himself walk in a straight line back around the corner. 

Much to his only relief, their footsteps faded down another passageway, but Kun still felt his heart rattle in his ears, and his lungs hardly deflated even after knowing the two of them could have run into him.

He waited, if just a bit longer, and his focus narrowed in on his intestines without his consent. There was an active sensation he could feel occurring in his body similar to when the tiniest pockets of gas slipped around in his intestines on a bad digestion day, but that comparison wasn’t quite it. It was happening closer to the surface, elsewhere, outside his guts, like champagne bubbles being released under his skin.

In the silence of an empty hallway, he lifted his sleeping shirt, but saw it in his forearm, first: these fine, sparse and irregular bumps like a breakout across his skin. Holding his cup to his body with his inner elbow, he grazed his fingertips over the raised blips, collected closer together the nearer they got to his inner elbow.

Their texture was firm where he rubbed up against one, and when he passed his shaking hand over the back of his arm where he couldn’t see, he almost startled from a larger bump that itched and burned and ached as soon as he touched it.

Terrified, he pressed there blindly and felt it break apart, the small point of pain immediately easing across a small raised area of tiny, flattened deposits.

He looked down at his abdomen and the flinching flutter of pain and panic beating through his body under hundreds upon hundreds of minute lumps, some of them collected in painful welts that did exactly what they had at the back of his arm when he pressed on them, but visible this time. Visible in the way they bloomed out from where his skin turned yellow from the pressure and red from the irritation.

The urge to gag returned, no more hindered when he saw a little spurt collect near his navel that hadn’t been there seconds before.

In the crook of his arm was less than a gram of these things, and once again he was reminded, unwillingly, of fish eggs.

His intestines heaved in revulsion, then came alive, and he lurched in a panic, pushing himself from the wall with a stumble. 

The med bay had never seemed so far away.

He clutched his specimens and rolled his mind back, away from the sensations he was feeling across his body. If he stopped to think, he wouldn’t get there at all—he was sure of that. Nothing would stop him from collapsing to the ground and vomiting between his legs.

“Qian Kun.”

Kun turned to follow the sound with a hiss. He silently cursed his instinct to respond to his name, especially when he hadn’t known who’d called for him—but it was too late.

Over his shoulder, he spotted Dr. Xiao briskly press down the passage toward him. Kun, frozen in his place, whipped his head forward and threw the front of his nightshirt over his belly. Once he noticed those things under his skin, he couldn’t scrape them from his mind. The image of looking at himself in the mirror earlier flashed to the forefront of his brain, except this time, all the holes in his brain started to fill in the hideous bumps and boils that plagued his skin. What a sight he must be. Dr. Xiao couldn’t see him. Not like this—

“Dr. Qian,” Dr. Xiao called again, his voice firm yet quiet as his quickened steps came to a halt next to Kun. The man gave a sharp inhale through his nose as Kun tried not to cringe into nonexistence. “Look at me.”

Kun shivered, body quaking as he focused his eyes on the floor. Maybe if he didn’t acknowledge Dr. Xiao, he’d wake up from this nightmare—

He gagged in the midst of his thought, reflexive to a lurch of nausea outside of his control, and he doubled over in pain, hold never relaxing on the sample hooked in the crook of his elbow as he bowed over. He did it again—this time provoked by a cramp in his stomach—the sound echoed off the walls, and he slapped a hand over his mouth.

A featherlight weight settled on his shoulder, and in the haze of his agony, he noticed it was Dr. Xiao’s hand.

“We need to get you out of here,” Dr. Xiao said, voice distressingly calm given the circumstances. Did Kun not look as bad as he thought? Did Dr. Xiao not understand?

Kun felt his knees buckle as he leaned against the wall and let out a small sob. “It hurts,” Kun begged. His sinuses started to sting, like a weight pressed behind his eyes, and he felt the beginnings of his resolve burst like a dam. “I feel like I’m dying—”

“Get it together, Qian.” Dr. Xiao kept his touch light, and Kun finally looked over at him. His sharp features were softened not by concern or sympathy, but Kun’s own wavering vision, swimming with a haze of torment and tears.

“I was sick—and, and I—there’re things inside of me—” Kun’s voice sounded detached from his body, a voice he couldn’t recognize as his words started to slur into each other and his eyes closed.

Dr. Xiao wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pried him free from the wall with a small grunt, and escorted Kun with ease into a pivot and away from the med bay. Kun settled most of his weight onto Dr. Xiao as he struggled to stay upright, then wrapped his free arm around Dr. Xiao’s waist. His toes started to tingle with each step, like he was walking on shards of broken glass, and an unbearable itch settled into his body, reminding him of them sliding around inside of him.

“Victoria,” Kun remembered suddenly as they trudged along. “Need to call her—”

“No,” Dr. Xiao interrupted. “I’ll inform your team. We need to take care of you first.”

Kun used all the reserves of his energy to allow Dr. Xiao to guide him down the hall. He stumbled over his own feet a few times and only clung tighter to Dr. Xiao’s coat.

It took an age to arrive in front of a room located in a part of the base Kun had only been to once before in preparation for his trip to Auxo. A black placard next to the door read DR. XIAO DE JUN in blocky white letters. Dr. Xiao propped Kun against the wall and dug out his key card from his coat pocket to unlock his door. 

Kun’s arms felt weak, but he repositioned the sample into the fold of his other arm and took a moment to catch his breath.

“What’s happening?” Kun asked between breaths.

Dr. Xiao turned to him, his expression still unreadable, and let out a long exhale through his nose. “In,” he commanded and threw Kun’s arm back over his shoulder to pull him into the office.

It was larger than Kun remembered—space sparse and stark white. The desk in the center of the room had a small stack of reports in the center of it with two metal chairs perched in front of it that Kun remembered being rather uncomfortable. Dr. Xiao kicked one to the side and urged Kun to sit on the edge of the desk, then reached behind him to grab the papers to toss on top of a cabinet in the corner.

The hard metal of the desk beneath Kun was cold and uncomfortable as he sucked in a deep hiss of pain. He placed the cloth-wrapped sample next to his hip and felt his left slipper fall off his foot as he tried to kick out a cramp—and there it was again: the acrid smell lingering in the back of his nose.

“I’m—I’m going to be—” Kun threw a hand up to his mouth before he could even finish and felt the bile burble up into his throat. Dr. Xiao lunged toward the right of his desk as Kun clamped his mouth shut. It was a bad move—his eyes swelled as the bile bypassed his mouth and went straight up and out of his nose. A small, neon yellow stream dripped down the back of his hand, the front of his shirt, and onto the tops of his thighs.

Dr. Xiao held his small metal bin in front of Kun to catch some of the drips of his sick, and caught the next wave of bile that Kun allowed to fall from his open mouth. He’d be damned to make the same mistake—he’d rather not projectile his acidic stomach fluid through his nose ever again.

“I’m sorry,” Kun whispered, voice sounding hoarse. His eyelashes stuck together as fresh tears gathered at the waterline of his eyes.

He wasn’t graced with a response, which did nothing less than cow his pain-hazed mind further. Instead, Dr. Xiao placed the bin on the metal chair along with Kun’s sample, not even looking at the contents while he shrugged off his coat.

“I cannot give you pity,” were Dr. Xiao’s first words in this office, “but I will give you an explanation.”

Underneath his coat, he was wearing a slim, long-sleeved turtle-neck the color of midnight, and his hands were strikingly cold when he reached to touch the bare skin of Kun’s arm, flipping his bruise-like veins up against the yellow-toned lighting.

“You’re dying,” Dr. Xiao said, and Kun could not compute that.


“You’re a scientist,” Dr. Xiao continued, pressing his thumb up against Kun’s wrist and pressing down and up his arm, the little bumps in Kun’s skin moving with the pressure, “so I expect you’ll want to pay attention. Keep up.”

Kun’s breath, shuddering and feverish, was tight and sour coming through his throat. 

“A parasite native to my planet entered your body while you were gone that I was not aware was a risk to your mission,” Dr. Xiao said, and there were so many words whose meaning Kun suddenly failed to understand. “You were primed against all calculated risks and checked for them when you returned, but this one was under the radar. I will not apologize—” Dr. Xiao looked away from Kun’s arm, then, and held his gaze. “—for your condition, but I will remove the parasite from you.”

“What—what kind?” Kun asked. “What kind of parasite?”

“It resembles your phthirapteras if they were endoparasitic like your helminths, but you don’t have anything like it,” Dr. Xiao said. His voice was even and direct. “It’s not a worm,” he clarified. “It’s an oviparous insect.”

Kun was not an entomologist, but his best friend was, and he knew what “oviparous” meant given what he’d seen and already tried to reason away.

“Eggs,” he said, starting to lose himself somewhere between processing Dr. Xiao’s words and saying his own out loud.

“Yes,” Dr. Xiao said, flat and dry. “Dr. Qian, I will be removing these from you, but if you leave this office after I am done and give witness to what I have done for you, I will destroy your career.”

The sharp turn into Kun’s occupation, delivered with such burning clarity, jolted Kun out of his writhing fog. “What?”

A flash of impatience scrawled across Dr. Xiao’s distinct features, and even through his pain, Kun could feel the mood suck the air dry. “I am not from your planet, Qian Kun. I have no choice but to do this for you, but I will ensure you are dead or ruined if you speak a single word to anyone of what you see here. Is that clear?”

Kun tried to swallow around the acid in his throat, but could not. “You’re from Auxo.”

He had one second to process the flex of Dr. Xiao’s hand before it was changing like a cat’s claws unsheathing from tufts of nonthreatening fur, Dr. Xiao’s nails elongating and squaring off at a centimeter length while his tendons protruded like marionette strings.

“I’ll show you,” Dr. Xiao said, and slit the skin of Kun’s inner arm with less than a run of a single nail across his skin.

Kun expected pain—he gasped for the expectation of it—and instead felt nothing except horror when his skin parted over his muscles like eyelids splitting over an eyeball. There was no blood, like Kun had been taken to with a harmonic scalpel. There was only Dr. Xiao dropping his face closer to the incision he’d made and opening his mouth.

Horror did not make Kun scream. It made him freeze. Like prey, he did not move a muscle apart from the involuntary shivers of his insides as a thin ribbon of pale, soft yellow muscle dropped from out of Dr. Xiao’s mouth and slipped under Kun’s open skin.

He couldn’t have explained the sensation if he tried. It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t painful either even as he could see it move up to the collection of eggs and, like a siphon, pull them from him. Like beads of dew, they traveled up the thread of its muscle and disappeared between Dr. Xiao’s lips.

“Is that your tongue?” Kun asked right before his insides lurched and tossed and he had to throw his head back to swallow down acid. His throat and sinuses burned, punishing, and he swore he could feel the dots of eggs in his throat flow, then ebb as he choked the bile back down.

He felt something pulsing, cool, and wet press up against his wound and jerked his head back down to see Dr. Xiao’s open mouth pressed up against his arm. It went from cool to stinging, what felt like teeth pinching his skin together, and Kun jerked on instinct. Dr. Xiao’s hold tightened harshly, his nails pinching into Kun’s skin while his nose wrinkled in displeasure.

The next second, Dr. Xiao detached from his arm, leaving a crescent of red against his skin where the incision had been. He nearly tossed Kun’s arm down into his lap. “Do not do that. Don’t move while I’m helping you.”

Kun nodded with a shiver—from the shock, the pain. Neither his body nor his mind could compute so much. He knew Dr. Xiao had cut him open, sucked the eggs from his body, and sealed him up. Where the eggs went, Kun didn’t know, but he did not doubt that he was dying. He did not have to trust Dr. Xiao to be sure of that.

“It will proceed like this,” Dr. Xiao said, “except I do not have the time to do it on such a small scale, and neither do you.” He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and gestured to Kun’s whole body. “If the eggs have passed into your interstitium, they’ve already run out of room in your stomach and intestines. You have three orifices I need to enter: your mouth, your anus, and your urethra. It will be easiest if I enter all three and clear out your less-accessible organs and esophagus, then cut you open for both your intestines and the spaces between your organs.”

Kun’s head spun as he processed the information Dr. Xiao just relayed to him. Despite having felt a small stream of eggs drip from his nose only a moment ago, he still couldn’t quite comprehend the volume of these inside of him. He was too stunned to respond.

“I need you to remove your clothes,” Dr. Xiao continued, “and piss in the bin. If you vomit while doing it, aim that for the bin, too. I will give you privacy if you want it, but what I will have to do will be violating nonetheless, so it’s best to get over the shock now.”

All Kun could be was shock—there wasn’t a single fully-functioning thought in his body. Nonetheless, he slid off the edge of the desk, the subtle impact against the floor skidding through his body and making his knees weak.

With Dr. Xiao’s eyes on him, their color colder the longer Kun became accustomed to them, Kun dropped his shorts and underwear over shaking legs and stepped out of them and his remaining slipper. He could not bite back the hiccuping moan of pain and resistance. For a moment, he thought he would hurl while his shirt was stuck around his head, but he was freed from it with a firm set of jerks, and he was left gasping with his hands on his knees.

Dr. Xiao folded the shirt in half and tossed it over where he’d left his jacket on the kicked-away chair. He gestured to the bin as Kun tried and failed not to hunch over the pain of merely existing in this pocket of the universe where his insides were living independently of him and he was stripped bare of his own volition over little choice, shamed and exposed in front of his superior.

He tilted the bin with trembling fingers and took his cock in his hand.

“It’s going to be painful,” warned Dr. Xiao a moment before Kun’s reflex to relieve himself kicked in, and he was correct. Kun cringed with a strangled sound as urine left him in spurts, eggs clogging his urethra, and over the heat of humiliation, he barely noticed the scald of his crying.

How had it gotten this far? How was he supposed to have known? He’d peed fine yesterday.

“I can’t do this,” he sobbed as the last dribbles leaked from his slit like tears. His lungs were heaving in his cramping body, heart in his throat and ears, and his bladder still didn’t feel relieved even as there was nothing else for him to piss.

“You’ll do this or you’ll die,” Dr. Xiao said, then gestured back to the desk beside him. “Lie on the desk.”

Kun coughed around his sobs, hands shivering around his face until he had to use them to lift himself onto the surface.

“Lie down,” Dr. Xiao said more precisely, and the metal of the desk felt downright cold in comparison to Kun’s feverish skin. He could feel things shift beneath his skin and under the pressure of his own weight as he settled down. His insides churned in protest at so much shifting, and Kun clasped his hands over his face to steady himself and ebb the shame.

“I can’t put you under,” said Dr. Xiao. “There are too many reasons for it. You will simply have to endure, and you’ve gotten this far, so you can get even further. Tilt your head back and remove your hands.”

Kun did as he was told, too afraid to disobey and without enough knowledge to defy anything confidently. The stakes had been presented to him very clearly. There wasn’t room for misinterpretation.

The touch under his chin was, again, shockingly cool, but Kun couldn’t think about it in favor of looking Dr. Xiao blurrily in the face. “Open your mouth. Close your eyes if you must.”

With shuddering panic, Kun opened his mouth like he might at the dentist's, chin tipped up and slack, and Dr. Xiao positioned his fingers to pinch at the juncture of Kun’s jaw to keep it open. “Do not bite me,” Dr. Xiao warned.

“This won’t kill me?” Kun garbled out the next second, and Dr. Xiao released his jaw.

“What did you ask?”

“This won’t kill me?” Kun repeated, hardly more than a whisper. He could feel tears slip from the corners of his eyes, involuntary even if he had the will to hold them back.

“None of what I do will kill you.” It was the first time anything Dr. Xiao had said to him had both meant something somewhat comforting and sounded like it too. There was the barest hint of assurance in Dr. Xiao’s voice embedded in a harsh confidence, and Kun clung to it tightly.

“I won’t bite you,” Kun promised, and opened up from him again, accepting the near-painful pinch of Dr. Xiao’s fingertips, the sharp nails a silent threat.

“No,” Dr. Xiao said, “you won’t.”

And where Kun had started to close his eyes, the soft wetness that sounded above him made him keep them open in a dry terror as some large and yellow pulsating muscle—nothing like the thin ribbon—parted past Dr. Xiao’s lips and plunged between Kun’s.

Kun convulsed, and the pinch against his jaw tightened as Kun felt this cold, wet protuberance enter his mouth and pry it open, flattening his tongue to the bottom against his teeth. Kun clutched at the desk with his spasming hands, hard, tiny breaths coming through his nose against Dr. Xiao’s cheek, and then he felt the ribbon. He felt something cold and small slip down his throat like a thin surgical tube and muscle past his closing throat.

Tears shook from Kun’s flickering eyes. He wanted to shove at Dr. Xiao to get him out and away from him, but he could just as strongly feel his squirming guts and the kiss of death breathing down his sweaty neck.

He’d gotten this far, and he would endure the rest.

Kun let it happen, trying desperately not to gag with this thing down his throat and the slowly-warming muscle holding his mouth open wide from the inside. He could feel the gentle wisps of Dr. Xiao’s breathing through his own nose tickling at his jaw, steady like a monitor.

The numbers of eggs lessening was not something Kun seemed to be able to sense, but he could feel the little ribbon of muscle expand and contract like its own elongated throat, doing something down there. It did not become less uncomfortable. Kun could not relax. His jaw and throat ached, his muscles flinched, the tears kept squeezing out while sweat prickled at his pores all over his body and stuck him to the top of the desk like a rubber glove.

He could hear a clock ticking, neither of them moving except for Kun flexing his hands and curling his toes and feeling the urge to vomit without being able to. Dr. Xiao’s eyes were closed, eyelashes lying against his hard cheekbones as minute microexpressions twitched against his skin.

Minutes must have passed before Kun started to feel Dr. Xiao extract himself, smoothly and quickly, contracting inside his mouth and removing his hand, sucking the yellow muscles in past his own lips, and Kun retched. His insides seemed to contort around themselves, throat sore and flexing like a panicked heart. Kun coughed and retched again as he shuddered through his next breaths, his hands trying to correct his jaw where it clicked and hurt trying to close.

And then there was a small settling respite where his reflexes dimmed and he stared at the ceiling in a silent, unspeakable emotion.

He turned his head to see Dr. Xiao, who wore an expression Kun could not decipher even as it was so obviously there, deeply etched in his features and around his eyes. “Are you done?” Dr. Xiao said, cold and hard around the edges. He had his arms crossed over his ribs. “Your bladder should be quick.”

Kun was not past the point of reactionary revulsion if the reel and pinch of his empty stomach was anything to go by, but he nodded anyway.

“I should say this now, because with this it will be obvious,” Dr. Xiao said, positioning himself to a stand at the side of Kun’s crotch. “You’ve been humiliated enough already, I reckon, so this will be nothing.” There was a pause where Dr. Xiao touched Kun’s flaccid penis with his cold fingers and rolled back the foreskin. Kun’s entire body flinched, knees knocking together—not from arousal, but resistance and mortification, thighs already shaking. “You’ve likely been in pain for so long that being relieved from it may feel pleasurable to your body, whether you would like for it to be or not. It is in both our interests to keep this entire ordeal clinical and quick, but if your body reacts with pleasure, know that I expect it and do not care.”

Kun froze under the words, preemptively mortified, but he didn’t have time to respond. He just caught the flash of yellow from Dr. Xiao’s mouth, tossed his head back, and cried at the intrusion while his hands fisted and tried to bite crescents into his palms.

He could feel everything, this time, and his body reviled against it, legs trying to pitch themselves up, muscles tightening and spasming in adrenaline, and then a gasp took Kun violently by surprise. He coughed for half a minute, gagging on a sensation of relief that made him feel like he was pissing himself, the knee Dr. Xiao didn’t have pinned popping up and down in a panic.

“No,” he wheezed as he felt himself harden against Dr. Xiao’s ribbed hands as the tiniest pearls dragged up his urethra. There was a painful pinch deep inside the base of his cock as Dr. Xiao’s intruding tongue kept the pathway to his bladder open and the one to his testicles closed. It was enough to make Kun flag and pinch tears back into his eyes, near hyperventilating from the sensation as his bladder was cleared and emptied and that area of his body noticeably ached and fluttered with relief.

And then it was over, Dr. Xiao slipping out of him and leaving Kun petrified on the tabletop. He could feel the very last of his piss leak out of him, and he could do nothing about it. Even with having his bladder relieved, the sensation was quickly overshadowed by a new spasm in his lower back that caused him to whimper.

“Which would you prefer?” Dr. Xiao asked, snapping Kun out of his thoughts. “To be on your elbows and knees? Or for me to pin your legs back?”

It took Kun a moment to realize Dr. Xiao was asking how he wanted to receive the extraction from his anus. 

“I’m not clean,” Kun gasped, fingernails biting into his forehead in agony over the impending situation as soon as it hit him.

“Would you like to shit in the bin?” Dr. Xiao asked. “I’ll wait.”

For a moment, all Kun could do was hyperventilate, almost blinded in opposition.

“If it’s any comfort,” Dr. Xiao said, and his voice was frigid, “I’d be shocked if you have a single composed solid in your body. I’d prefer to proceed without enduring your attempts to relieve yourself.”

I can’t do this anymore, rose to Kun’s lips, slammed immediately by the internal rebuttal: Then you can die.

“Wh-which position would be...faster?” Kun said, voice quivering through the reflex of tears that were running out.

“Elbows and knees if you have the strength for it,” Dr. Xiao said plainly, and Kun wasn’t sure he did have the strength for it, but he pushed himself onto his side anyway, every muscle jerking and ungraceful.

The journey onto his elbows and knees was an aching agony. His body was shutting down in active time, preferring to collapse over endure, but Kun wanted this done, so he drew on what reserves he had left anyway.

His mind started to fade out in the steps that proceeded: flinching from the cold as Dr. Xiao pried his asscheeks apart and pinched him open with the press of his thumbs, the needle of pain where Dr. Xiao pushed past his rectum into other organs, letting his thoughts slink away to suppress his imagination at something far less sensational than his urethra but almost more violating, the shake of his biceps that held him up and his prolonged attempt to keep his knees from sliding further apart.

How long is his tongue? How does he look so human? What—

Just as Kun was growing used to the feeling, he felt the cold, wet press of Dr. Xiao’s mouth leave him.

“Done,” he said, brusque, then, “Get on your back again.”

Kun collapsed cheek-down onto the surface of the desk, the metal warmed by his arms, and dragged himself back onto his spine. He was back to reacquainting himself blankly with the ceiling, chest heaving from the exertion it took to get back into this position. His brain felt decidedly less foggy, but the ghostly sensation against his asshole had to have been a dream. Or a nightmare.

“You will not die from this,” Dr. Xiao reminded him one more time, cold gaze trained away from Kun’s eyes and instead remaining on his chest. “Stay conscious.”

Dr. Xiao dug his nails into Kun’s sides like needles deep into his flesh and Kun almost screamed, almost pitched up like a snapped bow before Dr. Xiao was letting go and flicking out a nail. Kun watched it extend, lengthening enough to—as Dr. Xiao slid it down Kun’s torso—cut past skin and muscle both.

The surreality was so severe that Kun’s mind wiped completely blank watching Dr. Xiao cut an upside-down “Y” into him, then peel back his skin and muscle with delicate nails.

There were eggs everywhere.

Oh god.

Oh god.

There wasn’t a surface or curve of one of his organs that wasn’t littered with translucent dots, piled in the crevices of his bare intestines, hugging the throbbing of his viscera. His ribs were open to the air, protecting his heart, lungs, and countless more eggs.

Kun could see his exposed insides contract before he even felt the urge to hurl, and he gagged, coughing dry into the air, exposed lungs spasming violently.

“This is going to look grotesque, but I need to do it,” Dr. Xiao said, ignoring Kun’s reaction, and that was Kun’s only warning before Dr. Xiao opened up his mouth and the large, pulsing yellow muscle past his teeth unpuckered like a sphincter and drooled over his exposed insides where the eggs glistened like tiny pustules.

It took Kun several seconds of horrified watching to realize he was not breathing, then several seconds more to realize he wasn’t in agony from being split and peeled open like drenched citrus.

Dr. Xiao lowered his inner mouth—that yellow, muscular thing, and arranged Kun’s muscle so he could press that cold kiss to the inside of his skin and almost delicately remove every egg and sac he had access to. From his skin was then the surface of his muscle, then the thin ribbon of a tongue slipping out of the larger muscle and searching up between both layers in the areas neither of them could see.

Kun could feel all of it faintly, like frigid fingertips skating over his outer skin, but inside. For a moment, Dr. Xiao slipped all the yellow back into his mouth, cleared his throat and said, “I’ll do your arms and legs after I finish here.”

All Kun could do was nod, jerky and small.

Dr. Xiao used the larger muscle to collect everything on the surface, then the smaller ribbon to search in the places that were harder to reach. It lengthened and widened, flattened and searched like a more evolved proboscis, longer than Kun thought it could be, paler the longer it stretched and more vivid when it contracted and bunched.

He saw in real time entire strings of eggs slip up the inside of that strand of a tongue, slipping in between his organs, up under his ribs. When Dr. Xiao neared his heart, Kun flinched, and the look Dr. Xiao gave him was withering.

When Dr. Xiao brought his nails back to center, Kun almost didn’t realize what was happening until it was already done—he wouldn’t have noticed at all if it hadn’t been for the moment of pain, then numbness, then quivering sensation so insane Kun had to throw his head back once again and try not to writhe as Dr. Xiao cleared out his intestines.

“Look,” Dr. Xiao said before Kun had been able to clear his head, and Kun looked down. In the cupped center of Dr. Xiao’s palm were three things varying in size—one as small as Kun’s pinky nail, the second even smaller, and the third large and long, as big as his thumb.

That one was slightly brown in parts and filled with what could have been glitter but was presumably especially tiny eggs. All three crawled so slowly in Dr. Xiao’s palm that Kun almost didn’t realize they were insects.

“These are matured parasites,” Dr. Xiao said.

“Why are you showing me?” Kun asked, no more than a terrorized whisper.

“From one scientist to another, I figure you would want to know what’s killing you,” he said, eyes holding Kun’s steady. “I imagine this is horrifying, but I suggest you look at everything differently. For your own sanity.”

Kun gasped through a convulsion of panic, wrestling with it, clawing his nails down its lurid abstraction. “Why is it so big?” he asked, his adrenaline kicking back in and kicking him to run. To slop onto the floor in a collection of sliced open organs, bloodless out of paralysis alone.

“You fed it well.”

For the first time in a while, Kun tossed his hands back up to his face and sobbed.

“Qian Kun,” Dr. Xiao demanded firmly. “Dr. Qian, pull yourself together. You will live, and if you don’t want to be mentally crippled for the rest of your life, I need you to understand this as an opportunity to learn.” His tone was so hard as to verge on a sense of anger, curt and rooted into the air like his claws digging into Kun’s skin. “I am your only confidant in this or else you will experience the consequences, so stop being so pathetically human and start being a scientist. If you don’t, you may live, but you will never survive this.”

“God,” Kun gagged with his chest open and heart exposed. “Why? What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Dr. Xiao said. “One of these could have crawled down your throat while you slept. I can’t say. They’re insidious. If you don’t have the capabilities, you won’t detect them easily until it’s too late.”

Silence cloaked the office. Kun thought maybe he could hear his own heart abuse itself in panic and agony.

“I’m going to ask if you would like to hold one, and you are going to say yes, Dr. Qian. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Kun wept, and held his shaking palm out before Dr. Xiao could force him to do it. The sound that left him when the largest bug was placed in his palm was unlike anything he would ever like to hear from himself again, disgusting and pitiful and wet. He could feel it drag against his clammy skin.

“Look at it. It will cling to you. You won’t drop it if you hold it up vertically.”

Kun held it up like he was told, panic and loathing seizing him in intense bouts of torture as it held onto him with its tiny little legs.

“Would you like me to explain it to you? We have a few minutes until I have to pay attention to your intestines again.”

This time, Kun felt he could maybe say no and Dr. Xiao would allow it, but he pushed and said, “Yes.”

Dr. Xiao leaned closer so he could gesture to the bug, and Kun’s vision was clearer than it had been when he entered the office. Xiao Dejun looked impeccably human aside from how unbelievably beautiful he was, but he didn’t look the same to Kun, anymore. He was a confused emblem of emotions Kun could not parse for himself, ranging from deeply negative to a sort of positive Kun didn’t want to look in the eyes.

“As I said at the start, this is an endoparasitic paro-insectoid. It makes a home of its host’s stomach first, usually, because it feeds from what its host eats. It is incapable of gaining nutrients from meats, dairy, heavy proteins and oils, and the like. If you felt better after eating those things, it’s because you starved them enough that they had to shut down and hibernate, depending on how little you ate their preference, which is mostly plant-based foods.”

Kun digested this information, recalling the evening Kahei had returned and the entire team had binged on meat and grease. He’d paid dearly for it immediately, but the next morning of relative bliss made a lot more sense with a fresh shade of bitterness attached.

Dr. Xiao’s elbow was tucked up against Kun’s side. He pointed to the end of the bug that held the eggs. “They take an incredibly short amount of time to create eggs and lay them, and the eggs take an even shorter time to hatch. This little one—” He plucked up the smallest insect from his own palm. “—is freshly-hatched, but will be able to lay eggs in a day or so. This one—” The middle one. “—is fully mature and has already lain its eggs in you today. The one you’re holding,” Dr. Xiao said, “has been in you for a long time. It may not be the first one, but it’s certainly one of the first. They don’t get much bigger than this, but in rare cases they can double in size.”

Kun inhaled slowly. His heart was coming down from a peak of anxiety—not easily, but it was—despite how horrific the information was in context. It helped to have it laid out in plain, clinical words somehow.

“They’re what humans call a hive-mind, so they will all oviposit at the same time, will hatch at the same time, will progress to the next stage at the same time. Their hosts are breeding grounds, and they will kill them if it gets that far. You could have survived one more hatching, but you would have been inert by the end of today until then. Though you would have put the hatched ones in hibernation because you wouldn’t be able to eat, all those eggs would hatch, and your body would not be able to survive that. If you managed to eat during that period, you’d be even worse off, and you would have endured one more laying, and they would have stopped your heart.”

Dr. Xiao pulled back and plucked the insect out of Kun’s palm. “I eat these by crushing them with the oral organs I have that I’m sure you’ve seen by now,” he said, “and swallowing everything down. Their fluids are what I keep, and their carcasses are waste.”

Kun watched him demonstrate, the ribbon of his tongue slipping out to enfold one of the smaller insects and dragging it up its tubiform length. The form of the insect gradually disappeared from something complete to almost nonexistent by the time it should have reached Dr. Xiao’s parted lips.

He was not so visual with the other two, lips closing around them, and Kun didn’t even hear them get crushed.

“Now I have to resume,” Dr. Xiao said, and steadied, Kun nodded. The motion was weak, though not coerced, and Dr. Xiao did indeed resume, slitting open a different section of Kun’s intestines.

“Can I ask questions?” Kun shivered before Dr. Xiao unfurled his tongue.

“I will not be able to answer you immediately, but you may,” he said, and did not wait for an example, instead slipping into the incision with no more delay.

Questions didn’t come immediately to him, but gradually, relief did. Slowly, bodies and eggs were pulled from him, organs kept wet by Dr. Xiao’s drooling mouth, tongue skating around and extracting pain from him with only the soft sounds of slippery things.

It did feel like pleasure, at some point as the minutes passed, and the echo of Dr. Xiao’s exhale against his organs when the head of Kun’s cock demurely touched the tendons of his neck already haunted him.

“What is it like for you?” Kun asked when Dr. Xiao retreated to make another incision elsewhere.

“It’s a form of food,” Dr. Xiao said, and there was an odd edge of reluctance that Kun was likewise reluctant to pursue.

At one point, Dr. Xiao stopped cutting into his organs and methodically closing him up and instead resorted to sweeping searches with his tongue between his viscera, muscles, skin, breath close to Kun’s organs. The pain was becoming less of a crawling agony and more of a bruised, sore aching, Kun’s body slackening and losing any urgency over threads of relief and pleasure.

“I can close you up, but I will have to make other, less invasive incisions elsewhere,” Dr. Xiao said, tongue slipping back into his mouth.

“Arms and legs,” Kun said. It was a little slurred.

“And back. Your neck, too.”

Kun did not have a response, but a question. “Will it scar?”

“It’s possible. Normally, no, but your body will be doing a lot of healing, so it's possible.”

Quietly, Kun watched from his lifted head where Dr. Xiao took the sections of muscles and pulled him back together over his beating organs, ribs, and shuddering heart. When the two sides met, Dr. Xiao lowered the bulky muscle of his inner mouth, running the end of it along the seam like a soft, worn-down crayon.

“How are you doing this? How am I not bleed-bleeding?” Kun stuttered the last word as soon as he realized how he sounded. The slow, clunky, slurring words that were in a much worse state than his brain which, while tired, was significantly less frantic and mulish. “Why am I drunk?” he asked this time, fainter, and Dr. Xiao gave a short exhale out of his nose that wasn’t an answer, but an acknowledgment, at least.

What had been a soft stroke of yellow muscle over his own, pink and stripped bare of skin, became a sudden pressure, sharp and tugging, like Dr. Xiao was pulling at the seams and pinching them through a tight suction.

Kun’s body reacted like it had been electrocuted, every muscle spasming from his split abdomen to his fingertips, eyes burning again with the beg of overwhelmed tears, and then a quiet nothingness as Dr. Xiao leaned back and ran a finger over his handiwork.

Heaving breath quavered through his entire body, and he stared at Dr. Xiao, who looked like that reaction was par the course and he hadn’t yanked Kun out of the lull they’d established.

There was still his skin to fix, but when Kun looked down, his torso looked pretty much precisely how a skin-stripped human upper body would appear.

“You’re full of my chemicals,” Dr. Xiao told him, bending down again to focus on Kun’s skin. “That’s the answer to both questions.” He gently pulled at Kun’s skin, then glanced back up where Kun was still watching. “They won’t hurt you.”

“The chemicals,” Kun murmured, “not the eggs.”

Again, Dr. Xiao breathed out through his nose, short and punctuated, and Kun was left wondering if it was meant to be a laugh as he was subjected to the same process, skin jolting in shock during that last streak of pain.

“Arms,” Dr. Xiao said, but this part was familiar, and Kun gave over his right limb no problem.

The small incisions were much more tolerable and much less pain, but still made Kun flinch when Dr. Xiao pinched the wounds together with his teeth. His thighs were odder, and Kun had to still a sort of internal shiver that he knew was an uncomfortable form of arousal once again, but refused to entertain.

“Just a little more,” Dr. Xiao said, and for the first time, Kun wondered if Dr. Xiao was getting tired. “On your stomach.”

“Are…” Kun inhaled, feeling like the muscles of his mouth were liquid. Kun lowered onto one elbow and gently turned over with more fluid grace than he had been able to when getting on his elbows and knees earlier, though his body possessed a different ache. “Peeling?” he huffed against the tabletop. The metal fogged up with his breath, and Dr. Xiao answered by drawing a nail down his back.

This one was quiet, and Kun lost himself to the trace sensations, trying to feel every stroke of Dr. Xiao’s tongue. His state of consciousness was far more lucid and subdued now that most of the pain he was experiencing had subsided. Between that and whatever chemicals Dr. Xiao had been transferring onto his incisions, his brain started to lean into the pleasurable feeling left by Dr. Xiao’s tongue. He only gritted his teeth and groaned when it came to sealing him back up again. 

“Dr. Qian,” he said, pulling at Kun’s shoulder. “Over.”

One last time, Kun turned over, but instead of the ceiling, he saw mostly Dr. Xiao and wondered how something so horrific could have slowed to a pace such as this.

“If you could close your eyes,” Dr. Xiao said and tilted Kun’s chin up with his knuckle. “This one’s fragile, so please don’t move after I start.”

Kun, tired and warmed over like a body dragged from the roots of hell, had no intention of resisting and would do his best to relax enough to steady his involuntary reactions.

This last incision was gentle and delicate, and Kun breathed slow and evenly, feeling this the most intimately than anything else. He was calm enough to feel the flutter of his artery when Dr. Xiao grazed over it, Dr. Xiao’s hands steadying him far gentler than they had when he’d had a handle on his jaw, and the very last eggs were removed carefully and quietly as Kun watched phantom shadows behind his eyelids.

After a biting pinch, the next thing he heard was the sound of a metal chair scudding across the floor a small length, a long inhale, and then silence.

Kun lifted his head up off the tabletop, then lifted himself up onto his forearms.

In the chair Dr. Xiao had kicked away sat Dr. Xiao himself in a state less than graceful, slumped and neck stretched for his tilted head, arms limp, eyes squeezed closed.


“We’re done,” said Dr. Xiao from his taut throat, the bob of his Adam's apple clear. He lifted himself up off the chair, composure collecting itself like magnetic puzzle pieces, and he lifted Kun’s shirt off of his own coat, holding it out for Kun to take. “I will talk to Dr. Song,” he said as Kun pushed himself up further around an aching sit, abdomen shuddering in a soreness reminiscent of his Auxian return. “And your team will be informed. I’m sorry that they must already be worrying about you. I recommend that you do not respond to the messages on your phone in order to make my job easier, Dr. Qian.”

Kun gazed slow and long at the man in front of him from a body littered with healing crescent marks and chemicals. Dr. Xiao’s eyes were something like night, reflecting back from his rolled-sleeve turtleneck in a tone much darker and more emotive, if hardened.

“I am sure there is nothing left in you, but you may come see me tomorrow and I will check one last time,” said Dr. Xiao.

“Thank you,” Kun returned, words dripping in a distinct lack of control, and he swore he saw a sort of flinching smile in Dr. Xiao’s face before it disappeared without a trace. He could feel dozens upon dozens of questions scrawl loosely through his brain, but they slipped through the cracks before he could hold them.

“Do you feel better?” Dr. Xiao asked, and Kun did not have the energy to be startled, though he felt maybe he ought to have been.

Kun set a thumbs up on his thigh, liquid and clumsy as the movement was, because he no longer had faith in his tongue.

Dr. Xiao inhaled once, held the breath, then said with abrupt finality, “Please leave. Get your clothes on and leave.”

And Kun, who had gotten used to Dr. Xiao giving him orders, only felt a small tinge of confusion before slipping off the desk and stumbling on weak knees and ankles. The urge to apologize this time collected at the back of his mouth like the aftertaste of bile, but he could not justify saying anything more.

His underwear felt filthy and still damp with sweat as he pulled them on, then his shorts, shuffled on his slippers, and with sore arms, tugged his shirt back over his head.

Dr. Xiao had his back turned as Kun reached the door and looked behind, the man picking up the bin and sample from the chair with his ink hair slipping over his eyes. His hands were human again, his jaw belying no yellow masses of muscle, fingernails curved and clean. There was only the shine of fluid on the metal desk, the overhead lights glaring off streaks and dribbles.

When Kun left the office and faced the hallways with the click of the bolt behind his back, he was faced with a small stream of reality, station residents passing by without giving him a proper glance. 

An emotion, far more uncomfortable than the one that had nicked him when Dr. Xiao had given his dismissal, dropped into his chest and knotted its hands there. It was something like change, laying into him thick until for a moment he could hardly register the daylight in the windows that told him time had moved. He had also moved. Farther than he was able to comprehend, and not in a way he could reconcile.

He was marked by a silent graze of death like a bullet stroking his cheek.

His lungs trembled with every breath it took him to walk back to his room, the hallways stretching long as he looked away from the human faces around him.

The hand he touched to the handle of his door and felt like he was dragging himself still halfway back down the hallway, glancing at the pieces of ground he’d placed his feet on when he was hunched over and terrified.

Kun opened the door to the sour, sweaty, spoiled scent of his room and gasped. The gag reached him like a wave and he retched before he could bring his hands off the handle of his door and clap them over his mouth. All it did was make him cough and pant and sweat and heave, and then suddenly start to cry, running his hands over the walls as he tried to steady himself on the way to his window.

Fresh air leaked in like water to an open wound, brushing up against the phone on his bedside, which was faintly ringing for an alarm set four hours ago, message after message piled up below the alert and a dying battery.

He turned off the alarm and held down the button on his phone until it fell asleep, and he was left swallowing mouthfuls of crisp air that mixed with his chemical-clouded lungs and turned the streaks down his face cold.

Dr. Qian, pull yourself together, his brain said, and Kun didn’t know how he could.