Read Part 1 here.
Trees dotted the cement courtyard at aesthetically pleasing intervals. Water arched from a fountain. Buildings of stone and black glass lined the open space. The shuttle whined as its engines remained in standby. A group of four people skipped toward them with giddy laughter.
The guards closed tightly around Mark, pistols at the ready.
Mark recognized the uniforms the approaching people wore Though spattered with blotches of bright paint, the plain gray overalls were still certainly standard issue for exploratory colonists. The captain pushed out from behind the guards so he could address them. “I’m Captain Mark Reynolds from Magnus – oomph!”
The burly man at the front of the skipping line hugged him. The guards pointed pistols at the embracing mass, not sure whether to shoot or get a pry bar.
“Oh, we’re so happy to see you!” The man smiled as he released Mark’s body and seized his head in both his meaty hands. “We’re so happy. So happy!” he crowed.
Mark untangled himself from the man’s grip, checking the identification clipped to his shirt. “You’re in charge here?”
“Yes!” the man chuckled. “I’m… oh, my, I’ve forgotten again. Ha! Hey, what was my name again?” He turned to his companions, who had fallen to giggling.
One, a rather tall woman, pointed to the ID and answered, “Chuck!”
“Oh, that’s right! I’m Chuck!” He saw the serious look in Mark’s eyes and attempted to calm himself. “I mean, I’m Charles Colders.” His eyes widened and he whipped around to address the giggling mob behind him. “Did you hear that? Did you hear that? That was the most serious I’ve been in ages! Wow!”
His companions crowded around for a group hug.
Mark glanced behind him.
Patch couldn’t decide whether to grin or scowl. “They’re friendly. Completely nuts, but friendly. Apparently.”
Andrea and Bastion conferred toward the back of the group. Bastion shook his head, and the first officer answered with a vehement nod. Mark couldn’t hear their discussion over the babbling of the natives.
“Um, Mark? Was that your name?” Chuck approached him. “Maybe we should talk,” he added in a stage whisper.
– – – – –
Chuck led the group toward one of the more impressive buildings, a five-story columned edifice the bore the label “Colonial Oversight.” Mark knew such buildings; these were usually the first ones slated for construction after the terraformers left. The building would house the offices for the bigwigs and necessary facilities, such as a hospital and some limited food production. The idea was to get the important stuff done quickly, and then other buildings would start specializing as needed.
They entered a massive dark granite lobby. Chuck chattered, “We’ve been hoping someone would come for a while now. I mean, we couldn’t do anything about it after we dismantled the satellite. That was a fun day. It was a bad day. It was a fun day.”
“Why’d you dismantle the satellite?” Mark furrowed his brows. The first satellite in orbit would have helped the settlers immensely in coordinating efforts and monitoring things like weather and tectonic shifts.
Chuck shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Captain!” Andrea had wandered to one glass wall along the lobby while most of the group had stayed near the center, making their way toward a massive staircase to the second floor.
Mark made his way, noting that a label above the glass wall announced “Hospital.”
As he approached, he saw a few rows of incubator cribs. Usually, if occupied, they stayed in the mother’s room, but Mark noted that every cradle was occupied.
He stopped short of Andrea when he saw that no baby moved.
He turned toward Chuck. His voice was flat, “What happened?”
Chuck flattened his shirt and glanced around him, emitting a giggle. “Um, they never cried. They never ate. They were happy babies that didn’t need anything.”
“Your doctors didn’t put them on IV’s?”
“The doctors said that if the babies were happy, they were happy. And we trusted the doctors.” Chuck smiled. “And really, everyone likes being happy, don’t they?” He chuckled before stopping himself. “I’m sorry, Marky, but there’s not much we can do. We can’t even feel sad for them. We tried. We tried.”
– – – – –
The walls of Chuck’s office were fingerpainted various shades of pink and yellow. Several smileyfaces dotted the marble floor. A plaque on the wall, partially painted over, proclaimed the room belonged to Charles Colder, colony head.
He spun behind a desk covered in various wildflowers. “Marky, I’m so glad you’re here!” he sang.
“Not Marky, please. I can live with Mark.”
Chuck stopped spinning and stared at Mark. “I’ll try,” he spoke in serious tones. “It hurts to do this. I’m serious. It hurts me to set aside the giddiness.” He slipped into a snicker but regained control. “I haven’t been able to keep from laughter for more than a few minutes of awake time in… oh, in years. Food’s getting low. You can’t concentrate on work when you’ve got the giggles!” He twittered half a minute before gasping for breath.
Mark kept his distance. He had no idea what was going on, and this man was hardly helping.
His unease grew the longer he remained in the man’s presence. Chuck wasn’t causing his discomfort; no, he was worried that they wouldn’t be able to help at all. They had a medic on Magnus, of course, but she specialized in accidents, not diseases. Of course, Farholme had a viral specialist. But Mark didn’t captain Farholme anymore. Mark gritted his teeth at the thought. All his old resources were useless right now. He was stuck with a crew substandard to any situation.
“We need to get away from here, Marky! You know how when you laugh so hard it hurts? That good feeling you get when you just gasp and sigh after a spell like that? Imagine not getting that sigh for years. Just laughing and more laughing. We need to stop, Marky! Make it stop!” He fell into guffaws that melded with sobs. Tears ran down his ample cheeks. “I want to mourn my baby but I can’t!”
Mark glanced at the door and back at the sobbing, laughing, blubbery hulk of a man before him. “Colder, we want to help you, but we need to get all your records. Can you authorize me?”
Chuck nodded and tapped his desk, activating the panel on its surface. Through sobs and laughter he stuttered, “Authorize Marky, um, him, to get stuff.” He closed his eyes and concentrated. “Authorize Mark to access all data in the systems here. Authorization code, um, purple unicorn.” He sighed, long and deep, his eyes somewhat glazed over. A grin twitched on his face. Every muscle in his body seemed to relax as he fell into a deep stupor.
Mark stepped over to check on him. Chuck breathed. His eyes fluttered as if in deep pleasure. He groaned.
Mark left the office. He didn’t like hearing those kinds of sounds from any man.
– – – – –
Andrea eyed the three other members of the greeting committee. The guards stood about, watching the various entry points of the lobby. Patch paced the perimeter of the room, waiting for Mark to return from the office. Bastion kept himself occupied with his various scanners.
One of the colonists, a tall man in gray overalls stained with various paint splatters, approached Andrea. “You have no idea how happy we are you’re here. Do you think you can fix us?” His smile must have hurt his cheeks.
Creases appeared on Andrea’s forehead. “You know you’re not acting normally?”
The man threw his head back and let out a bark of a laugh. “We know it’s completely wrong. We can’t stop being happy. It’s terrible! When Pat died, we couldn’t take it seriously. We could barely handle burying him. We just kept laughing and laughing even though we knew we should be sad.” He eyed Andrea. “You’re very pretty.” Suddenly his entire body stiffened. His eyes rolled back into his head and a slack smile spread on his face. And then his body relaxed.
Patch rushed over to catch him as he fell. The other two colonists congratulated Patch on a job well done.
“Thanks, I guess,” Patch answered as he laid the stricken man to the floor. He waved off the other guards as they rushed to assist.
Andrea crouched over him. She placed two fingers under his jaw. “Pulse is steady.” She looked up at the other two colonists. “What just happened?”
A woman with dark hair answered, “We do that sometimes. When we have a reason to be happy, even beyond the stupid grins we all got, we go into overload. Tell you the truth, I’ve been fighting it. We’re all hoping you got something up there that can fix us.”
Andrea turned and muttered to Patch, “So when do we tell her we’re basically just a delivery ship?”
– – – – –
They set up in one of the administration offices that remained relatively unscathed from the attack of crayons and chalk. Andrea, Patch, and Mark combed over files, while the five guards checked around the alpha site, as guided by the welcoming committee, to try to get a bead on the population. Mark had sent Patrick to do aerial recon of the beta and gamma sites. Bastion went with to get more atmospheric testing done.
Mark had denied any of them going back to the ship in case this was catchy. It would do no good to infect the rest of the crew.
After a few hours of combing various files, Andrea transferred a window from her tablet to a wall panel, enlarging it so all three of them could see. Alongside the text, the picture of an animal that looked somewhat like a frog that grew brown wool appeared.
“Look at this; it’s the last exploratory report. The colonists found a bunch of these animals – they named them reynaldos – near the tundra in the northern hemisphere, on the untouched half.”
Mark grunted at the name. He loved it when settlers tried naming animals after discovery and terraforming staff.
Andrea continued, “These guys live all over the planet in various breeds. They’re pretty versatile. But this batch, they seemed to do nothing more than sit around and breed on occasion. They were in a relatively predator-free area, so their numbers just increased. When biologists did research, they found out that their hormones were off the scale; it was as if they were constantly mating, even though the actual event happened fairly rarely.” She clicked on another tab, bringing up a new report. “They brought some of these guys here for closer study. And apparently that’s when things went nuts.”
Patch scanned the files as Mark tapped the subdermal transmitter behind his ear. “Callista? Andrea’s going to send a batch of files up. Have you briefed Regan?”
Callista’s voice piped directly into Mark’s ear. “I forwarded everything you sent up.”
“Get her on the line, would you?”
A chime indicated that Callista made a new connection. A second chime let Mark know Callista was off the line.
Regan’s throaty voice answered, “Yeah?”
“Hey. We’re about to send up some data we found. A few reports.”
Andrea waved at Mark and pointed at another file she’d found: doctor’s notes. Mark smiled. Goal.
“Regan, we just uncovered doctor’s notes. We’re fairly certain this is a medical event of some kind. See if you can find the cause, and then figure out if we’ve caught whatever it is. Hopefully, if it’s medical, it’s spread not spread through air or cursory contact so we don’t have to worry.”
The doctor sighed. “I’ll do what I can, but unless it’s close to something already in our files, it’s probably beyond me.”
“I know. Do your best.”
Mark signed off and closed the transmitter’s connection with a tap.
And then Patch swore. “This thing sounds like some sort of drug.”
Andrea nodded. She glanced at Mark. Seeing he was offline, she gestured back to the report. “Once someone’s infected, they act giddy constantly. It’s impossible for them to get sad or angry or anything else. Just… always happy.”
“Like the idiots we met.”
Patch nodded. “Sounds like a great weapon to me.”
Mark raised an eyebrow.
Patch continued, “What I mean is, you drop this on the enemy. All the people who are already stupid think it’s great, at least at first. But as they get happier, they can’t concentrate. The welcoming committee mentioned that. They can’t make food right now. They can hardly do what they need to do just for day-to-day living. They’re always happy, so they never need to change anything. No need to find a woman or anything; they’re already content. No baby’s viable anymore; we saw that. Eventually they die out. If you’re patient enough, you can wipe out an entire population and take over everything else. And because everyone died happy, there’s none of the usual looting or equipment destruction that usually accompanies biological warfare.”
Mark’s eyebrow didn’t drop.
Patch shrugged. “Hey, they pay me to think tactically. If this is a bug, we could get big bonuses for taking it back for the company.”
Andrea nodded. “It is part of our mission. If there’s anything unusual found on any of the colonies, bring it back home for study. And this is unusual. Assuming we can go home.”
Mark shook his head. “One thing at a time. Let’s find out what’s causing the colonists to get giddified.”
Patch grinned at the comment.
Andrea asked, “Giddified?”
“I’m the captain. I’m allowed to make up words.” Mark chuckled at his little joke.
He stopped himself mid-laugh. He hadn’t loosened up that much, had he? He pointed up at the report, still on the wall panel. “Andrea, how long between bringing the reynaldos here and the outbreak of strangeness?”
Andrea scanned the file on her tablet while Patch contemplated the same words on the wall. Andrea answered, “About two months.”
“So me laughing at my own stupid joke and being worried about it is probably hypochondria?”
“I hope so.”
They tried to find more reports, particularly medical ones, but apparently the doctors were among the first affected. Their files became increasingly unhelpful, until the last recorded entry read, “Writing this sucks. It’s nice outside. Mary’s waiting for me at home. We should go make love.” This was followed by a rather large smiley face.
A few more hours passed as they continued their research, forwarding anything of interest up to Regan.
The guards returned. Jaime made the report, “We saw most of town. Looks like most people just sort of lay around most days and eat whatever they can find. Most of their supplies are gone and they haven’t been farming at all. A lot of the cattle are dead; the colonists just didn’t care about feeding them, I guess. We did find a few dead people. They were in front of their wall panels, comedy shows on repeat. No one seemed surprised when we found them like that.”
Mark grunted and asked, “Any kind of damage to anything?”
“Other than lots more art than I’d expect? Not that I saw.” Jaime shrugged. “Everyone’s happy and dying.”
Mark turned away to reread at the report currently displayed on the wall panel. “I’m ordering a general quarantine, but it doesn’t matter. No one will hear it. We never got our satellites up, and now no one can. Anytime I try to sit down and do something official like this, I get a terrible headache. It’s easier to just let it come now. As my last official act as colony head before removing myself from office, I order all residents of alpha site to remain in their homes until this crisis passes. Signed, Chuck Colder.”
A tone chimed in Mark’s ear. He tapped the transmitter. “Go ahead.”
Regan’s voice filtered through, “I’ve got some information, captain. You might want to put Andrea and Patch on, too.”
Mark dismissed the guards to try and relax next door before asking Callista to wire them all together to one conference conversation.
Regan reported, “Well, I’ve confirmed a few things. Looking at the spread of symptoms and so on, I’m pretty sure you were right in thinking this is viral of some kind. It looks like the reynaldos had it. It must have mutated and made the jump to humans. Without some sort of samples, there’s no way for me to be sure, of course.”
Mark nodded. “Bastion’s getting atmospheric samples. After we get some blood samples from the colonists, I’ll send the shuttle up so you have something solid to work with. We wanted to get as much info down here as possible first.”
“Well, I’m not the one on the timer, captain. After checking through the reports, checking the pattern of spread, it looks like this isn’t contracted through any kind of contact. I’m pretty sure it’s through the air. Which means –“
Mark cut her off. “Which means, we probably already have it.”
Patch shook his head. “I guess that means we’ll die happy, huh?”
Read Part 3 here.