Chuck smiled as his blood filled the syringe. “Wow. I don’t even feel it!”
Andrea frowned. “You mean it doesn’t feel bad?”
“No, I can’t even feel the needle. That’s pretty nifty! What did you rub my skin with?” He poked his arm above the syringe.
Andrea answered, “Basic sanitizer. Nothing more.”
Leaning against a nearby desk, Mark watched the proceedings without a word. Dead nerves? Whatever this was made people happy and deadened their nerves? That couldn’t be right. None of the doctor’s notes had mentioned that.
Chuck grinned at Andrea. “You’re almost as pretty as my wife.”
“You’re married?” Andrea removed the needle from Chuck’s arm and pressed a cloth against the skin. “Here, hold this.”
Chuck pressed the cloth to slow the bleeding and nodded. “Well, yeah. Jeanie’s been watching lots of television lately. She doesn’t like doing much else. I brought her food the other day, but she hadn’t eaten it when you came. I think she might be dying.” The colony head swallowed. “I want to be sad and worried, but I can’t. You’d think being happy all the time would be a good thing. Like heaven or something, you know?”
Andrea labeled the vial with Chuck’s blood. “Maybe that’s because there’s no such place. It’s just a dream. And anytime we try to make haven here, we fail.”
Mark cocked his head. His second in command didn’t believe in heaven? Maybe getting transferred wasn’t about him. Maybe it was about sharing the Truth with different people. And what better time than when possibly facing death?
“There’s a heaven, Andrea.” Mark stood and walked closer. “And it’s nothing like this.” He placed his hand on Chuck’s shoulder. “Everyone there is always happy, because there’s never any reason to not be. Not like here, Chuck. Not like here.”
Chuck clapped his hands in glee.
Andrea frowned. “We’ll need more samples. Chuck, can you come with guide me to some more people? Maybe we can visit your wife and try to help her.”
– – – – –
Chuck’s home lay in a section of town that should be green. Yellowed lawns dotted with purple weeds surrounded skeletal trees. A cracked sidewalk led to a red one-story building. Chuck led them inside.
A large entertaining room lay off the entrance hall. Several sofas formed a half circle around a wall panel. A gaunt woman reclined a couch. A plate of moldy buttered bread lay beside her. Her eyes tracked the movement on the panel. It was an old episode of “Random Numbers.”
On the screen, Palfrey made mistakes on his fifth-dimensional homework while poor Mr. Griggs shook his head. The laugh track exploded with mirth.
Chuck’s wife managed a weak smile.
Chuck introduced them. “Marky, Andrea, this is my wife, Polly. Polly, this is Marky and Andrea. They’re here to try and fix us.”
Polly’s eyes slid from the panel to look toward the people around her. Words fell from her lips with the force of a puff of breath, “That’s wonderful, dear. Do they know any new jokes?” Her thin lips cracked as she formed a smile. “I would be so happy to hear one.”
Chuck knelt and took his wife’s frail hands. “Polly, it would make me very happy if you ate something.”
“I’m not hungry, dear. I’m happy just laying here.”
Andrea bent over the reclined form. “Ma’am, my name is Andrea. I’m here to test you, to see if you’re sick. May I take some blood?”
Polly blinked as her gaze slipped from her husband toward Andrea. “But I feel fine. Just fine.”
Mark turned and walked back to the entrance hall. He tapped his transmitter. “Patch?”
“I want you to take the guards. Get into the hospital and see if you can find any kind of fluid nutrition. Make a count. How many people did your men see that were still alive?”
“Most of them, but not a lot of healthy people. Everyone’s either super fat or super thin. I think they counted a population of almost three thousand.”
Mark sighed. “If you can, and there’s enough, start force-feeding people the nutrients. If they can still eat, get them food. On basis of need. Can you mark my location?”
A soft ping informed Mark that Patch had located the tracking device in his implant.
“Good. There’s a woman here, named Polly. She’s Chuck’s wife. She’s going to need something, and soon.”
“I’ll get on it.”
Mark signed off and returned to the entertaining room. Andrea stood while labeling a new vial of blood. Chuck whispered to Polly. The second officer walked to Mark. “How many samples should we get?”
“Well, we’ll need one from each of us. We should probably see if we can get some dead samples. A good cross-section… oh, twenty samples from living colonists? You think that would be enough?”
Andrea shrugged. “If the whatever-it-is lives in the bloodstream. Otherwise it might be a waste of time.” She paused, weighing her next words. “Like telling someone lies about heaven.”
Mark tightened his lips, glancing back toward the entertaining room. “Let’s step outside.”
As they exited the building, he turned to his second officer. “I don’t know if this is time for this kind of chat, but I’ll give you this order now: you are never to belittle what someone else believes, especially in a time of crisis like this. Am I clear?”
Andrea smirked. “I figured. You were too tight to be anything else.”
“You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
“Only Christians are as tight as you are. They never want to have fun, and they never let anyone else have any fun. And you haven’t relaxed since you were transferred.” She sighed a chuckle. “Even with that chair we found you.”
– – – – –
Mark and Andrea separated. They split up the needles and vials she had retrieved from the hospital. After about an hour, they returned to the courtyard where the shuttle waited for them. The blood went up for Regan to analyze as best she could with the limited resources on Magnus.
Mark called a meeting for his planetside crew once the shuttle returned. “All right. Until Regan either clears us or finds a cure, we’re stuck here. I want you to watch yourself for uncharacteristic giddiness. If you experience any, report immediately to either me or Andrea.
“In the meantime, unless Regan tells us she wants us to do or get something, our first priority is to help the colonists. We’ve found a fair number of nutritional packets that we should be able to get to some of them. Start going door to door and helping out the worst of the people you find. Do what you can.”
Mark dismissed them to get the job done.
Andrea pulled him aside. “You know that this isn’t our mission, right? We’re not supposed to help out. Just report on what we find and gather up what the colonists owe the Company.”
Mark gestured toward the buildings outside. “You think we should just ignore them?”
“No. I do think it’s a waste of our resources, though. We can be doing more to find a cure.”
“Humanitarian aid isn’t a waste of resources.”
“It is when we waste resources on others that we might need ourselves.”
Mark turned away. “You want to hoard what little there is for ourselves.”
“Let’s admit it: we’re the best chance anyone else here has got. If we don’t keep sane and well-fed, we’re all dead eventually anyway.”
“All right, Andrea. See what the stores of food are here and come up with suggestions on ways to secure more. We don’t have enough on Magnus to feed the colonists, obviously, but check into ferrying food for just us if it comes to that. That fair?”
Before Andrea answered, a tone sounded in Mark’s ear.
Mark answered, “Yeah?”
“Captain, this is Regan. I want you to get down to the hospital there and run some tests. Grab a few of you, and a colonist or two if you can swing it. I have a theory. Call me when you get there; I’ll give you directions then.”
Mark signed off and gathered Andrea, Patch, and Bastion. They found Chuck and a few other colonists and met in the hospital.
“All right,” Regan continued once they called her up, “I want you to find the imaging device. I’m guessing it’ll be an older model, but still newer and more precise than anything we’ve got up here. It’ll look like a plastic box with a tube cut out. The tube will be big enough to fit a person lying down. It’s probably white.”
Bastion searched through the area until he called out, “Found it!”
“We’ll need to do this with everyone, but for now, have one of the colonists lie down and stay still. Is there some way to patch me through so I can run the machine?”
Bastion studied the control panel on the wall. “I think I can make it swing,” the science officer reported. “Give me just a bit.”
While he fiddled with the controls, Mark and Patch helped Chuck onto a bed that stuck out from the hollow tube. Chuck giggled the entire time. “I’m ticklish!” he cried.
Mark shook his head. He hadn’t felt the needle, but he had felt tickling?
Lights within the tube turned on and the bed began to retract. As Chuck slid into the bright artificial cave, he cheered. “It’s starting!”
The machine began to clack.
Regan spoke over the connection, “I’ve got control, if you couldn’t tell. Take a look up at the monitor. It should be showing pictures of this guy’s head.”
“His name’s Chuck,” Mark reported.
“Whatever. He’s still alive and he’s got it, that’s what’s important,” Regan answered. “Now, examining the blood, I didn’t find any pathogens that I would guess would have any kind of delirious effect. I did notice an enormous amount of endorphins, though. That’s a chemical made in the brain that helps the body deal with stress. Usually the pituitary gland secretes it during exercise or intense pleasure or pain. It’s not usually found in the amounts I found it in the samples.”
The image on the monitor showed an image of Chuck’s head, see-through. It shifted to a black-and white image with some color added. One area lit up bright green.
“That’s what I thought,” Regan continued. “The pituitary is producing endorphins off the scale. A ridiculous amount. No wonder everyone down there is happy. They don’t have a choice in the matter.”
The image on the monitor continued to change as Regan adjusted the image from different angles and using different filters. “Now, this is interesting,” her voice returned. “The pituitary is producing nearly twice as much endorphin as the machine detects in the body. Where did the rest go?”
The monitor continued to change until it finally settled, again, on a close-up of the pituitary. “Well, I think I’ve found it,” Regan sighed. “All the endorphin is right there. On the pituitary itself. Take a close look.” She zoomed the image as tight as possible.
“There’s some sort of film on the gland. Is that normal?” Mark asked.
“No. That, captain, appears to be some sort of infection in the brain. It’s stimulating the gland to produce endorphins.” Regan paused. “I need a sample of diseased tissue if I have any hope of killing this thing. Preferably a whole person, so I can test other aspects of the body. I can do all my scanning remotely from here, and I want more scans. Somehow, though, you need to get a whole person up here that can stand to loose a portion of their brain.”
“Does the person need to be alive?” Mark asked.
Regan sighed. “I don’t know. It depends the cause of the infection. I do know that it’ll be near impossible for me to work on a living person without serious danger to them, so give me a cadaver first. Either way, we’ve got a problem: if we’re going to do this, we need something that can be kept in a sterile area. We need something small.”
Mark nodded. “I know exactly what you’re looking for.”
– – – – –
“This is wrong.”
Mark ignored Andrea’s protest. “You’ve got the canister?”
When Andrea didn’t answer, Mark turned to her.
She struggled out the word, “Yeah.” She held out a cylinder three foot long and about a foot and a half across. It was the largest glass container they had. While they couldn’t sterilize the contents, glass was easy to scrub free of any possible contaminants. They’d used a similar container to deliver the blood samples. Once on Magnus, the contents could be deposited on a larger tank and kept safe as Regan worked with them.
Now Mark pursued finding contents for the canister.
Andrea repeated, “This is wrong.”
Mark stepped into the nursery of the dead. “Do you believe in God, Andrea?”
The second in command stopped on the threshold of the dark room. “No.”
“Then what is right or wrong? Not long ago you were urging me to withhold help to dying people. Wouldn’t that be wrong? More wrong than using the dead to help the living?”
Andrea avoided eye contact. “Here.” She held out the large glass tube.
Mark accepted the offering and stepped deeper into the quiet room. He breathed lightly as he stepped between the rows of cribs. He needed a child small enough to fit within the tube. If possible, a recent death.
He ignored the pain he felt as he examined gray skin and closed eyes. His breath remained shallow as he brought his face close to examine each child. His eyes grazed the name plates.
Each child had a birth date. He saw no recorded death date.
Here. This boy’s skin looked healthier than the rest. Mark slipped on the hygienic gloves and reached in to pick up the child. He turned the baby over in his arms. Yes, this one seemed appropriate for the need.
Mark held the baby up and examined his face. A fine nose and tiny, sculpted eyebrows framed hollow eyes. Dark fuzz crowned a delicate head. His small mouth hung slack. Mark checked the card on the crib. The baby’s name was Mason.
“Captain… Mark. Please. He’s a baby. Don’t,” Andrea called from the doorway.
Mark ignored her. “Mason, I’m sorry.” His kept his voice hushed, as if afraid to wake the child. “You’re so small. You should be bigger. You should grow up. You should play catch with your dad and be a pain to your mom. You should have the chance to laugh when your sister tickles you, and you should have the chance to cry when you skin your knee. You should.”
Mark swallowed. It was hard to talk. “You should know what it’s like to get a sunburn and run a race and work so hard you can’t even fall asleep. You should look at the stars and wonder how many there are and who put them up there for you.
“But you can’t. You’ll never get a sunburn. You’ll never laugh. You’ll never cry. But at least I can show you the stars.
“Mason, we need you. We hope that by looking at you, we can find out what’s wrong with us. But to get you to the doctor, you get to ride out among the stars. Please forgive us, Mason. We don’t want to move you. We don’t want to take you away from your resting place here in the nursery.”
Mason’s face blurred in Mark’s vision.
“Mason, we’re sorry. Please don’t hold it against us.” Mark slipped the child’s body into the canister and sealed it. He wrapped his hands around the glass surface and lifted the delicate package.
He turned to Andrea. The light of the lobby beyond silhouetted her still form.
“Andrea, I would like you to accompany Mason in the shuttle. It’ll be his first trip on a shuttle, and his last. Be gentle.”
Andrea’s eyes locked onto the floor. She hovered for a moment and then turned and walked away, leaving Mark alone, surrounded by babies who no longer breathed.
Read Part 4 here.