Castaway Resolution – Chapter 10
“What’s wrong with them?” Pearce Haley asked, a tiny tremor audible in the normally-controlled voice. “And why hasn’t it hit me?”
Laura shook her head, trying to banish any personal concern. That wasn’t easy; anything that could take down the boys from Emerald Maui could presumably get her children, too. “I don’t know yet,” she said, following the projections and analyses in her omni. “Akira, how are you coming on the programming station?”
“It’s operating, love, but the initial calibration and test runs will take a few hours unless we cut them short.” Akira’s low, grim tone held the unspoken question as to whether they could afford the few hours.
Maybe not. But even less could she afford to do any shortcuts here. There weren’t any people or machines to catch her mistakes if she cut the wrong corner. “No,” she said. “We have to be absolutely sure it’s working at one hundred percent.”
Ah. There’s something. “A toxin. Complex protein structure. Catalytic inhibitor action on several nerve groups.”
Pearce connected in; she could tell that the Lieutenant had some medical training just by the way she was examining the data. “How do you mean that?”
“Many poisons — perhaps most — kill or injure by a direct chemical action; the poison reacts with some part of the body and damages it through that reaction, and the poison is generally consumed by that reaction.” Laura had her medical library start comparing the structure of the new toxin with others. “But others are more efficient about their damage; they contact a particular type of nerve receptor, for instance, and cause some kind of shift in its response. . . and then move on, to the next receptor. They catalyze a damaging change, but they aren’t themselves consumed in doing so, so that one molecule of the toxin can damage many nerves. Those require the active defenses of the body, or a direct antitoxin, to neutralize.”
“That. . . sounds pretty scary.”
“It is. Generally such toxins can be lethal at much lower doses than others. And this one seems to have something in common with the top-end bacterial toxins like tetanospasmin or botulinum.”
“So it’s a bacterial infection?”
“That’s my guess. Something like that, anyway. Something that can be triggered by very small numbers of organisms, so the ordinary nanos didn’t catch it right away. I found something like this in the early months when we were here, but it’s obviously not identical or my quick patches to your nanos would have caught it.” She shook her head. “But this incubation period. . . amazingly slow. Usually you see this in some forms of viral or even prion-based infection. Bacterial infections usually have a much shorter incubation period.”
Pearce considered that. “Oh. And the reason it hasn’t hit me is that I was in suspension for most of the time.”
Laura nodded. “You may not even have been exposed; it might be something native to the island Emerald Maui landed on, and only those who went outside on that island would have run into it.”
“But now that we know what’s going on, they’ll be okay.” Pearce’s green eyes looked at her sharply. “Right?”
Laura made sure the channel was sealed again; she didn’t want this discussion available to the kids. “There’s a good chance now. But it’s not certain. I’ve got to design an antitoxin, and that’s not trivial work. Oh, it’s not too hard to make some kind of molecule that will break apart or inert the toxin, but you have to also make sure that that molecule isn’t poisonous by itself.
“Killing off the bacteria — if that’s what our source is — is something I’ll also have to do, but make sure that it’s done safely. In some cases — like shuddering fever on Vandemeer — the infectious agents release large bursts of toxin when they die, so the last thing I want to do is risk dumping more of this into their systems until I’m sure we can safely negate it all.”
Lieutenant Haley’s jaw set as she stared at the shelter where the rest of Emerald Maui‘s crew were. “So we could lose them?”
“We could,” Laura said bluntly. “But I don’t think we will,” she added, putting a hand on Pearce’s shoulder. “One huge advantage we do have is that the nanos can be used, at least for a while, to substitute for the absolutely vital nerve functions, so even with Franky — who’s the worst off — he’s not going to stop breathing or anything like that, at least not as long as I can keep the rest of the body reasonably functional.”
“Why did it happen so fast?”
“It wasn’t quite as fast as it looked,” Akira’s voice answered. “Undoubtedly there were small symptoms previously, but when you combine the significant reserves of healthy people with multiple changes of environment and unusual stresses, the incremental change of a slow-developing crisis can be overlooked until the situation reaches a critical point. Especially with nanos trying to compensate for small shifts; a slow, incremental change over weeks or months is easy for the systems to miss without constant baseline comparison.”
“In a way, I’m relieved,” Laura said absently.
“On human-compatible worlds, the single most common disasters are medical, usually diseases. Four or five major pathogens per world that present real problems is the rule of thumb. So if this is one of the big ones for Lincoln, I’m that much closer to getting us past the worst danger for our little colony.”
Pearce stared at her a moment, then managed a smile. “I suppose I get that. But aren’t there like, hundreds of terrible diseases on Earth? Why wouldn’t there be at least as many on other planets?”
“Well, first, we evolved on Earth, so human-specific pathogens are only going to be found there, at least to start with. But more importantly, it’s more a matter of how much better we are today at medical science. There are hundreds of dangerous pathogens on every world. But only a very few are sufficiently complex, subtle, or both that they manage to evade our modern medical prevention methods and require a doctor to actively figure out how to neutralize them.” Laura leaned forward and found herself smiling again. “And there you are.”
A dusting of faint blue shaded an outline of two lobes in a human figure. “Respiratory. Probably inhaled while working outside. If I had to guess, most likely during the excavation work, since that would have turned up almost everything in the dirt and thrown some of it into the air.”
“And would fit with me not having any.”
“Exactly.” She studied it. “Hmm. Might be more fungal-related, if I insist on using Earth-standard nomenclature. Inhaled fungal-type infections are very nasty and often difficult to diagnose at first.”
A faint chuckle was heard. “Serves us right,” muttered Campbell.
“Sam! How are you doing?” Pearce said, brightening visibly at the sound of his voice. “And what do you mean, ‘serves us right’?”
“How am I doin’? Rotten, right now. Feel like utter crap. Better off than the kids, probably because of the military enhancements, plus I’ve been around enough worlds and had enough updates that my nanos are probably just that much better at the job.” He gave a weary grin, visible in the omni’s feed. “As for what serves us right? Well, it’s not like we haven’t had to learn the lesson about wearing dust masks over the last few centuries, is it? So we went around with our bare faces hangin’ out as we threw alien dirt into the air, and got about what you’d expect.”
“Those kind of procedures always take a backseat in emergencies, and on new colonies,” Laura said. “Maybe they shouldn’t, but human beings haven’t changed. And us colonial types are more risk-prone.”
“Can’t argue that; staying at home’s so much easier and more comfortable, only us lunatics really want to come out here,” Campbell said.
“I prefer to think of myself as curious,” Akira said. “I can’t do cutting-edge research on an alien world unless I’m actually there.”
“Hah! That’s what field expeditions are for. Leastwise that’s one of the things my old commanders used to say; we were there to take the risks so you smart boys could get your samples without getting killed. And I’ll bet you’ve got about eleventy-hundred other guys in your field that do stay home most of the time.”
Akira laughed. “All right, I yield the point. Even after crash-landing on this most peculiar world, I still enjoy the thrill of walking through alien woods and never quite being sure something isn’t around the next tree waiting for me.”
“Lunatics all, then,” agreed Campbell. He gave a big sigh. “Aaand I’m already runnin’ out of steam.”
“Neurotoxic infections will do that to you,” Laura said. “But while I’m not talking about the details to the kids yet, I think we’re going to be all right. I’ve been watching your nanoresponse and it’s already giving me some useful data on antitoxin design.”
“Then,” Campbell said, “Let’s just hope nothing gets worse in the next few hours, ’cause then you should have your full medical nanoprogramming suite ready. Right?”
“Right,” said Laura.
And I’m virtually certain I can keep everyone alive for days even without treatment. Now that I know the cause, I can stop this. She tried not to let the worry show on her face, but she couldn’t relax yet. The real question isn’t whether they’ll still be alive.
It’s whether I can fix all the damage. . . and how long it will take.