Regan, Andrea, and Bastion had made an inventory of their supplies. Using the numbers Patch’s men had produced for population, if they used up Magnus’ medical supplies as well as what they had planetside, they could cure about half of the people that were still alive, and only half. A good number of the components were synthetic; they’d never find a way to produce more out here.
Andrea shook her head after the report. “No way. We can’t afford to use up Magnus’ stores. We’ve got twenty-three more colonies to visit before heading home. Who knows what we’ll find there? We can use what’s down here, but what’s on the ship is for us.”
Mark ignored her for the moment and reviewed the numbers. There had to be a way to save the colonists. Somehow. He looked at Andrea. “We can’t leave them here to die, and there’s no way they’d live to the next visit from the company. That’s five years! I want some alternatives. Anyone?”
Patch shrugged. “What eats mold in nature? Can we get some of those and grow more of them?”
Regan answered over the transmit, “No way. That would take genetically encoding something, and that’s way beyond my expertise.”
Andrea frowned. “If we use just planetside resources, we can cure three, four hundred people. That’s enough to keep the alpha site running for five years. It won’t be easy, but they could do it. It would take some very selective rationing, of course.”
Mark closed his eyes before nodding. “That’s the absolute last option. I won’t be deciding who’s living and dying if I can help it. None of us will.”
Patch raised a finger. “Bigger problem. What if no one wants the cure? I mean, we’ve seen that not everyone’s actually happy, despite what the mold does to them. Chuck tried to kill himself! But for a lot, well, I wonder if the cure would be worse for them than the disease. I mean, never being able to be happy again? Can we force the cure on someone?”
Mark was about to answer when Regan spoke, “Yes. If we have reason to believe that their faculties are impaired, I have authorization to force medical actions taken on anyone in our jurisdiction. And for right now, they count.”
Patch shook his head. “No. Your jurisdiction is Magnus. The colony is autonomous. And besides, given the side effect of never being happy again, even if we had a legal right, would it be right for us to do it? To make that choice for someone against their will?
Mark heaved a great sigh. “We’re finding more problems. More wrinkles. I want solutions.”
“Then I’ll give you one,” a voice sounded from behind Mark.
The captain turned to see Chuck stumbling out of the other room. “I will take your cure. I’ll tell you right now: none of us wants to be this way, even if we’ve run away from trying to fight it.” He coughed into a chuckle. “Give me the cure and let me help you with this.”
– – – – –
Regan insisted that Chuck be sedated. “We don’t know what effects the mold’s death will have on him in the short term. As the mold dies, large chunks of dead matter will float around in his brain. It’ll hit him hard.”
“Last chance, Chuck. After this, you’ll never smile again and mean it.” Mark held a small needle in his hand, ready to inject the colony head. He’d insisted on taking the responsibility.
“Marky, there’s a difference between feeling happy and being happy. I feel happy, but I haven’t been happy for a long time. Anything’s better than this.”
Mark nodded and pushed the needle into the artery under Chuck’s jaw, letting the contents join the bloodstream rushing to his brain.
– – – – –
The next hours proved difficult. Chuck’s temperature spiked, he convulsed, and his breathing became erratic. Regan controlled as best she could from Magnus while the planetside crew did their best to follow her orders. After three long days Chuck opened his eyes and looked around the antiseptic hospital room he had stayed in. He focused on Mark, who sat near the door reading reports on his tablet.
“Hey, captain. Sorry for calling you Marky that whole time.”
Mark looked up from his reading material and smiled. “Hey, Chuck. You remember everything?”
“Clear as day.” His voice clouded over. “And please, call me Charles.”
– – – – –
About twenty-four hours later, Regan cleared Charles to begin the arduous process of deciding who would live and die on his colony. He met with Mark and poured over lists of those still living, along with who would most likely live once they had received the cure. The results were not pretty.
“We don’t have what we need left for people. Not with the number of doses you’re giving us.” Chuck waved at the names on the panel on the wall. “We need more. I know you haven’t broken into your ship’s stores yet. Send down enough for another fifty or sixty doses. I know you can’t rescue everyone. Let me rescue some more, though. Please.”
– – – – –
The planetside crew returned to Magnus that night, leaving Charles the only sane human on the globe. Regan cleared them to rejoin the general population of the ship after just a few hours. Now that they knew the colony would likely remain habited, once Charles made his tortuous decisions, they went about the process of dropping off the delivery pods they’d been tasked to deliver. A few more resources, particularly seed and building components, comprised the bulk of the supply list.
Mark asked after the medical supplies in the pods. They were minimal, and Regan had already counted them among the colony’s supplies. “It belonged to them anyway. I figured I should count it in my calculations.”
Of course, there were other pods for other colonies along their run, but Mark didn’t consider offering them for Charles’ use. Those other colonies would likely need those supplies over the five years it would be before the next ship would show up to deliver the next set of delivery pods.
Of course, Magnus was fairly well supplied at the moment. This colony, Greta, was their first stop. They had enough they could produce more of the antifungal. If they wanted to give up a large amount of their medical supplies in the process.
– – – – –
“Begin recording. What I am about to do will end my career. I will be acting directly against the counsel of my second in command as well as my medical officer. I do this of my own free will and without the knowledge of anyone on this ship. I cannot in good conscience allow thousands to die when we could cure more. It’s true that we might need those resources on Magnus in our future missions before we can get home to replenish supplies. But that’s a might. These people will die unless we get them aid. And that certainty overrules any maybes I can fathom. Perhaps I will curse myself in the future. That doesn’t matter if I cannot live with myself in the present. ‘I should fear and love God that I do not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and be a friend to him in every bodily need.’ I cannot turn my back on them. End recording.”
– – – – –
Mark took the short walk from his cumin-scented quarters to the medical bay a few hours after Regan signed off for the night. The ship’s lights were dimmed for night rotation. His steps echoed along the corridor.
His shadow faced him on the door to the med bay. He reached out a hand and tapped the panel for access. The door slid away, and light from the hall struck the plain gray floor inside. Mark stepped in and reached to tap the panel beside the door and cut off access from the hallway. He waited in the dark a full minute before calling, “Lights.”
Cold white lighting flickered on. Patch sat behind Regan’s desk, facing Mark. “You ought to be less predictable. Your conscience makes it easy to foresee what you’re going to do.”
Mark turned to pace toward the supply cabinet. “Well, it’s the last time you’ll have to predict. I’ll likely be relieved of duty for this.”
“Why are you risking your position for a bunch of blithering idiots?” Patch stood and strode over to Mark as the captain began searching for the needed components and placing them inside a medical carrier.
“They’re not blithering idiots. At least, they shouldn’t be.”
“They got you sick. You could have easily died down there if Regan wasn’t good enough to figure things out. And now you’re willing to throw away what little you have left, your captainship here, for them. For people you’ll never see again. Why?”
Mark slid three components into the sleeves on the carrier. “Because I won’t have their deaths on my conscience.”
“What about our deaths?”
“We don’t know if we’ll need these meds. They do now.”
“Of course they do. But what does that matter? They’re not your crew. We are. And you can’t save everyone down there, anyway. You can’t save everyone, captain. That’s not your job.” Patch reached up and closed the cabinet, narrowly avoiding hitting Marks’ face with the swinging door. “Your job is to serve this ship and this crew. Not them.”
Mark stared at the closed cabinet before turning away. “I hate this. Before, I only had a crew to worry about. Now the lives of hundreds are in my hands. We can cure them.”
“But that’s what I’m telling you, captain. You still only have a crew to worry about. At least, we are your first responsibility.” Patch turned to lean against the cabinet. “When you’re married, you take care of your family and make sure they’re fed before adopting an orphan from some colony, right? Pretty often your family’s more fed than anyone else. Same thing here. The only difference is that instead of food, it’s medical supplies.”
“You’re being tactical on me again, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. And it’s working.”
Mark swore. “All right. You win, Patch. The meds stay here. At least, most of them. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation.”
“Of course not. You and Andrea turned it into all-or-nothing. I have no desire to see anything that way.”
Mark shook his head. “I’ll see you at the staff meeting in the morning.”
– – – – –
In the morning they went over the numbers. After some contentions, he and Andrea agreed to send down enough supplies for another two hundred colonists. Andrea wanted to hoard more, but finally agreed that the likelihood of Magnus needing those last few vials was slim.
Mark made the delivery himself.
Charles shook his hand. “Thank you. I know it’s difficult to make these decisions. Trust me.” Tears filled his eyes.
Mark accepted the thanks. “How are your deliberations going?”
“With this addition, I think we’ll be all right. We should be able to cure enough of us to care the rest of us. The reynaldos adapted to live with the infection where they were. Maybe we’ll find a way to survive, too.” Charles turned toward the window overlooking the broad plaza where Mark’s shuttle waited. “And thank you for staying to cure us. I know a lot of the company’s ships would have simply turned around and left us to die.”
“You needed help. We gave it. Nothing more.”
Charles turned. “Captain, you’re not used to this duty, are you? Doing colony checks, I mean.”
Mark considered. “No. I was captain on a terraforming vessel before being assigned to Magnus.”
“You’re not used to seeing colonies fail then. You’re going to see more. The chances of success on most are very low. You’ll find a few dead colonies by the time you get back home.”
Mark nodded. “I know the numbers. Doesn’t mean I have to like them.”
Charles turned to face Mark. “Thank you, again. And I hope you understand we don’t have any offering for the company according to stipulations. All we can offer is the mold itself, but I hope that offers enough new DNA to play with for the gen-techs back home.”
Mark shook his head. “I’ve ordered all specimens destroyed. This bug shouldn’t be used. My tactical officer already outlined how it could be a weapon. I don’t like that. We’ll keep records, but hopefully by keeping the mold itself away from any techs, we can prevent replication of the bug.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. “Your crew went along with that?”
“Hopefully.” Mark changed the subject. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. Content. I’m actually happy.”
“Like I told you before, there’s a difference between feeling happy and being happy. Now that nothing’s forcing me to feel happy… well, I am happy. I think I’m still in shock at the magnitude of this thing, and I haven’t been home since… well, since. And that’s going to hurt. For now, though, I have things to do that’re keeping me distracted. Like spreading the cure.”
– – – – –
Magnus stayed to help with cleanup and left only a few days behind schedule. It looked as if Charles had the situation as well in hand as he could, given the circumstances. It looked like the colony might even thrive once they made it through the next few years.
Shortly after the last doses of the cure had been administered, Charles held a memorial service for all the dead. Mark escorted Mason back to his native soil. Andrea accompanied them. They buried the child together. Andrea did not speak the entire time.
Mark did order all samples of the mold destroyed. Regan agreed; she didn’t like the idea of a weaponized version of the mold running around. Even Andrea assented to his command decision.
Magnus jumped toward their next destination. Mark prepared to jump out of the way of the fire suppressant system.
And Patch, as the ship repowered for the next jump, slipped into his quarters. He tapped a timed pattern on the bottom left corner of his mirror, and a panel slid aside to reveal a hidden compartment.
The vial had survived the jump.
If the captain was going to ignore company orders, let the axe fall on him. Patch knew the value of this little thing. He’d save it and deliver it on arrival, even if the bleeding heart wouldn’t.
And in the meantime, it might prove useful.