At first the disease seemed minor, no reason for fear. Cooper, the drilling superintendent, checked some dials and smiled. “We’ve put your straw in Ganymede. Take a drink.”
Next to the pump, clear water from the moon’s underground sea flowed into the sample containers. “Testing before drinking, I want to see what’s in it first.”
“Afraid you might not like the taste?” He was joking as usual, but his voice sounded shaky. He sat on a rock to watch the samples being collected.
When the containers were full, I turned to see Cooper clutching his stomach. “What’s wrong?”
Gingerly he stood. His usually ruddy face was pale. “Stomachache.”
“We’re done for the day. Go see what the doc has for indigestion.” Indigestion, no worries.
Next morning in the lab, the base commander’s voice came over the com. “Scott, go to sick bay. They need help with lab work.”
That was the medtechs’ job. “I’m about to analyze our new samples, can’t it wait?”
The sick bay door was locked—why lock a door on Ganymede? I knocked and Dr. Susan Alidou, our chief medical officer, came out and quickly closed the door behind her. She wore a mask and a yellow protective garment that formed seals with her gloves and boots.
I smiled. “Looking sharp.”
She didn’t smile back as she handed me a second outfit. “Put these on right away—mask, gloves, everything. Make sure the seals are tight.” A shout came from inside sick bay, and she ran to see what it was.
After putting on the protective stuff, I went into sick bay. The acidic smell of vomit hung in the air. Every bed was full, some of the patients were softly moaning. Susan and her two medtechs were frantically working on Cooper. His eyes were wide open and unfocused. Yesterday morning, he’d been healthy and fit. After a few minutes, Susan straightened up and pulled a sheet over his face. A cold wind of fear made my hands tremble.
Susan led me to a small lab and pointed to a tray of blood and tissue samples. “We need to identify the illness right away. Analyze those and see if the AI-1070 can find anything in its libraries.”
I did a full chemical analysis of all the samples and took pictures at a level of magnification that would show every molecule. Susan came back as the AI processed the information. Its flat mechanical voice announced, “Tests detected no sign of any known pathogen or toxin.”
Susan snorted with impatience and told the communicator to open a link to the Byrd, the ship that brought us here and still orbited above us.
In a moment, the smiling face of Dr. Simpson, their chief medical officer, filled the com screen. “Morning, Susan, how-”
Susan cut him off. “We have a medical emergency. Twenty-five cases of an unknown illness that doesn’t respond to medication, two fatalities so far, and more if we don’t solve this fast. We’ll uplink data on tissue, blood, and urine samples, and patient vital signs. Symptoms are nausea, rash mostly on the face and hands, fever, and in a few cases hallucinations. Send that information to Mars Base and Earth and tell them to figure out what it is ASAP.”
We talked to Simpson again later that day. He sounded so very calm. “Three of Earth’s best labs have all the information you gave us and are working on the problem full time. But the symptoms are so general-.”
Susan’s voice got loud. “We have ten more cases and more fatalities. My patients may not have much time.”
Simpson shook his head. “You’re in a terrible situation. It almost makes me think of the Ganymede curse.”
Susan’s eyes blazed. “Forget that garbage. Get me an answer.” She hit a switch, and the screen went black.
Simpson’s mention of the “curse” got me mad too. When planning for our base started, they sent unmanned probes to orbit Ganymede. The first three crashed on the moon’s surface. Two attempts to land personnel also crashed, with a loss of all 6 crew members. Exploring new worlds is hard and dangerous, and accidents are to be expected, but they still lead to stupid talk.
Susan lightly touched my arm. “I hate to ask this, but could you dispose of the dead?” She sighed. “We’ll have memorial services later, but immediate cremation may help in infection control.”
“Sure, I’ll take care of them both.”
Each body was wrapped in a sheet, placed on a gurney, and wheeled to the plasma incinerator. I put the body in a chamber, closed the gate, and said a little prayer. Then the incinerator destroyed everything in the chamber, including the germs. That didn’t help. Five more people died the next day.
On the third day, the base commander staggered into sick bay, a sheen of perspiration on his forehead and a rash blooming on his cheeks. He shouted, “I saw them, in my quarters, small and horrible.”
Before the plague, he had been a model of calm reason. Susan came up behind him with an injection to knock him out, then she laid his unconscious body on the nearest bed. He was dead in an hour.
Susan took her frustrations out on Simpson. “I’ve tried every antibiotic, every antiviral, and every antiprionic I’ve got. No response to any of them. Fifty-six cases, ten deaths so far. We could lose every person on this base, and what are you doing?”
Simpson let out a deep breath. “We’ve got lots of people working around the clock, on board, on Mars, on Earth. It’s everyone’s highest priority—only priority. I have to go now.” The screen went dark.
Susan shook her head. “So easy when you’re orbiting above the problem.”
On the fourth day after onset, twenty people were dead and eighty were dying. One group went into the auxiliary dome that held the hydroponics bays, barricaded the connecting corridor, and sent a message that they would kill anyone who tried to join them. Their next message was a despairing voice saying, “The plague is here.” Then silence.
The morning of the seventh day, we lost both medtechs. Susan walked with those bodies to the incinerator. Later, she came to the lab and stood by the door. “A long time ago, I read a story about how a doctor in the early twentieth century treated pneumonia before antibiotics. He’d take the patient’s temperature, pat them on the shoulder, speak in a soothing tone, and listen to them talk while he hoped nature’s healing power would work. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what you’ll have to do.”
“I’m a research biologist, not a doctor.”
“There’ll be no one else.”
I took a few steps toward her. Across the dark skin of her cheeks, the rash wrote its story of coming death. What was there to say but “I’m sorry.”
“I have a few more hours, and I’m going to use them.” She worked with her patients until finally she called me to come. She died the next day.
I stripped off the germ proof clothing. It hadn’t helped Susan or the medtechs. Each morning I went around the beds dispensing comfort and noting who was ready for cremation. Each afternoon Simpson told me how hard they were working to find an answer. No answer came. Soon every other living colonist was infected. There were fourteen patients, then eleven, then seven, then three, then none.
I asked Simpson why I was still alive.
“In almost every epidemic, some people don’t succumb–like the hemorrhagic fever epidemics early in the last century. Some develop the disease but recover. Others don’t get sick at all. Everyone’s immune system is different. Usually the survival percentage isn’t this small.”
“We’ll have to abandon the base. I can’t fly the shuttle by myself. Will you send one down for me?”
Simpson disappeared, and the screen showed his captain. “I’m sorry, Scott, but we can’t do that.”
“So how are you going to get me back?”
“Scott, we don’t understand this plague. You may be a carrier. I can’t risk my crew.”
“I can’t stay down here!”
“We sent down rations for 147 people. Enough of the hydroponics farm and power plant were set up to let one person survive indefinitely.”
Indefinitely! “Do you have any idea when you can bring me aboard?”
He wouldn’t look directly at the screen. “We don’t have enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit any longer.”
“So you’re going to leave me?”
“We have no choice but to return to Mars now. Another mission will be out here in about a year—maybe then.”
“A year alone!”
“We’ll be in radio contact, and so will Mars Base. You have the AI-1070 and enough of an entertainment library to keep you occupied forever. I’m sorry, Scott.”
The communicator screen went dark. The screen that displayed the view from an external telescope showed the Byrd, a glowing orb that burned brighter as it fired its engines to escape orbit then gradually grew smaller and dimmer until it looked like just another of the cold unfeeling stars.