Losira awoke with sweat dripping from her brow and a pounding headache. Rubbing at her temples, she found that her arms were numb and her fingers had a slight quiver to them. She blinked rapidly to clear her blurry vision.
Oh, no; not now, not yet.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed to quickly get to her feet proved to be a mistake; the headache got worse and it made her dizzy. Pausing to get her bearings, she reached for the first thing to throw on before heading to the command center. It turned out to be her sleepwear. It had become so hot for her that wearing nothing was more comfortable while she slept. She winced as a cramp twisted her stomach; she hadn't been able to eat anything for cycles as her innards would revolt.
Fastening the rank collar of her normal uniform around her neck, she rose off the bed slowly so as not to lose her equilibrium. Satisfied she wasn't going to fall flat on her face, she left her living chamber and walked with an even pace to the comm center.
Losira giggled a little at the thought of walking through the base wearing almost nothing, the half tunic barely covering her chest and the flimsy fabric fluttering around her legs that she could almost feel against her skin. She chuckled even more when she realized that she didn't even need bother wearing anything and could have easily walked to the center nude. There was no one else there to see her; she was alone.
Her eyes widened when she realized that she couldn't feel the leggings on her lower body. Her legs were numbing as well.
Stage Three of the sickness, she thought; numbing of the extremities. I thought I'd have more time than this. All those treatments accomplished nothing but to prolong the inevitable.
Losira forced herself to concentrate on the matter at hand and not what was to come. As the commander of the outpost, it was her duty to follow her orders and carry out the mission right up to the end.
Who would have thought it would end like this, she mused as she entered the command center.
* * *
"When did it reach the outer warning guard?"
The scanner control officer turned to his commander, knowing the question was directed at him, "It just came within range of our detectors only a moment ago."
Commander Losira Bym'Rehm peered over the shoulder of her scan officer to see the white blip on his screen, indicating the position of the unknown guest, "Estimated time of arrival?"
"If their course is unchanged, the vessel will reach orbital status within three quarter-cycles."
"Good," said Losira with a grin, "that gives us time," then, turning to her operations officer, "Bring planetary reactors to full power. Prepare molecular transport array; set to one thousand sub-cubicans."
Her Ops officer, Joman, turned sharply at the order, "Yes ma'am, but..."
Losira glared at him just as sharply, "'But' what, Centorn?"
The officer blanched a little at being addressed by his rank instead of his name. Being stationed here for many revols, the outpost personnel considered themselves more of a family than a station crew and had long abandoned the formalities of rank except when protocol demanded it. He didn't think this was one of those times; they were free to voice concerns over certain matters without fear of reprisals, if those concerns were serious and this one certainly was in his opinion.
"Commander, at that range it will take them season-cycles to get back to their home space, if not a whole revol."
"I'm aware of that," she answered curtly, "The situation regarding other species has changed. We need to keep all but Kalandan ships from nearing this outpost for the time being."
"But why? Our standing order is to contact other..."
"You have your orders, Centorn, carry them out!"
The entire command center crew all started at the heated retort from the base commander; she had never needed to raise her voice to anyone... ever.
"Yes, Commander!" Joman programmed the reactors to cycle up to full capacity and called down to the transport technicians to arm the array.
"Once the vessel is in range, activate the array," Losira gave her Ops officer a sideways glance, "Send them back along the same course they were traveling, so they won't be too far from their home," her lip curled into a smirk, "Satisfied?"
He swallowed hard and nodded as he complied with her orders.
All eyes carefully watched Losira leave the command center, Joman's glare wrinkling his forehead.
She's been acting this way for three season-cycles now, he thought. Something is wrong, and she's not telling us.
"Any progress, Doctrate?"
The elderly scientist swiveled in his chair to greet Losira as she entered the lab.
"Yes... but it's for the worse, I'm afraid."
"You haven't found a solution, Mika?"
"There is no solution," he answered, turning back to his console and activating the screen on the wall in front of them, "I've found the reason for this station's instability, but there's no practical way to stop it."
On the viewscreen, a breakdown of molecular patterns appeared as Mika continued, "When they first started making this planetoid, they were using materials from the immediate region only; ores, soils, different plant cells for the vegetation. But then they started using some of our natural resources to finish the job, that alloy they created to strengthen the crust and inner hull of the station."
"Yes, I know the history," Losira sighed.
Kalandan outposts were a combination of different materials molecularly bonded to create the perfect camouflage: an ordinary small planet, barely able to support live other than breathing. The topsoil used to cover the outer hulls, along with the faux vegetation, was just that; a cover. Only beneath the surface could water, warmth, and consumables be found. Once the main construction was finished, the inner hulls were covered with a strong, durable alloy called zetherbium made from fusing two very different metals that weren't suppose to go together. Once fused, the alloy was strong enough to resist high temperatures and any type of bombardment, from weapons fire to asteroid collisions. The Kalandan scientists that created this alloy hailed it as a success, giving engineers the opportunity to build stations more quickly and more durably than before during the colonization period.
"What they didn't realize is that in creating this alloy, they made the structure of its new nucleus slightly unstable," Mika adjusted the view of the readings to focus on a particular section of the string of molecules, "There is an extra element in the mix, one that nobody detected because it's growth is so slow. It's moving away from the alloy's main molecule chain and migrating out of the outer hull of this station. That's why we've been getting tremors as of late; as it leaves the alloy, it destabilizes its molecule structure for a moment. The energy we use here keeps the destabilization in check for the most part, but the more we use power for the array or any other main system, that's just that much more power we're taking away from the energy used to keep this planetoid from shaking itself apart. Eventually, the zetherbium will stabilize itself once this new element is leeched away. The planetoid may suffer aftershocks here and there afterwards, but for now..."
Losira stared at the readout, still confused, "Did they know this would happen?"
"I doubt anybody knew," answered Mika in a pained sigh.
"How did you find it?"
"The plant life they created for the outer covering has the same molecule in it. It must have leeched into the soil and thus into the plants. This molecule seems to attach itself to organic forms much more rapidly than to inorganic materials."
"So," Losira whispered, "you were right. Using materials from this region of space in combination with our own is what's making this station unstable."
"That's only the half of it," Mika sighed again, changing the view on the screen. This time, the image showed a different string of molecules, "The element mixed in with the plant life created an organism that breaks down normal protein chains, stunting their reproductive processes."
Losira just glared at Mika, "Do you know what you're saying?"
He nodded slowly, "It acts like a disease, spreading itself through the system and blocking attempts to destroy it. There's no error in the data, no doubt anymore; any organic form is vulnerable... including us."
Losira stared off somberly at nowhere in particular and said, "So... my decision to keep others away from this outpost was the correct one, after all."
The whine of the power capacitors screamed through the station as the floors and walls shook violently for a moment or two.
Steadying himself against his desk, Mika simply said, "And there goes another one."
She then turned to her old friend and smiled, "I was hoping you were wrong this time."
Mika just smiled back, "When was the last time I was wrong about any analysis?"
Still smiling, she shook her head, "I can't remember that far back. You said there was no 'practical' solution. Is there an impractical one?"
Mika nodded with a small laugh and answered, "Destroy the whole thing and start over, this time without the zetherbium."
Losira chuckled, and then changed her look from consoling to sadness, "How long do we have?"
"Could be revols, could be a matter of season-cycles."
She then touched his shoulder, "And our ships that have already been here? Are their crews infected, too?"
Mika shook his head, "Hard to say; they might not have been here long enough to contract the disease. We can't even contact them to warm them; they're too far out of range of our comm system, probably halfway to Kalandis Prime by now."
"Is there anything we can do to stop it?"
"There are a few treatments I can try; they might help."
Losira straightened up, "Get on it. The sooner we eliminate this thing, the better."
"I'll do my best."
She left the scientist to his work and headed for her chambers, her head flooded with procedures and her brain trying to shuffle them into a correct plan of action.
Losira snuggled up next to Pelor, laying her head on his shoulder and draping an arm across his chest.
"You feel warmer than usual."
Pelor looked into her eyes and said, "That's the usual result after doing what we just did."
She smiled back at him and kissed his chin, "I'm hungry," and got out of bed.
"That's another side effect," he laughed.
Losira peered over her shoulder with a smirk, "We weren't that aggressive this time."
Pelor sighed and raised himself up into a sitting position, "I'm tired for some reason; more so than usual."
"You want something to eat?"
He shook his head, and found that it ached a little, "Haven't been eating too much, either; my stomach's upset."
Just then, the comm signal blared from the speakers, "Lab Station Two to Commander Bym'Rehm; respond."
Losira huffed in disgust, "Always when I'm eating." She hit the comm panel and replied, "Losira; go ahead."
"It's Mika; I need to see you down here, right now."
"On my way," she clicked off the comm and quickly donned her uniform, "Go to the Health station; see if the physicians can give you something for your stomach. I'll be back later."
Pelor nodded and got out of their bed as Losira left their chambers.
As she made her way down the corridors, she nodded to others passing by on their way to their next assignments. But some of them looked different, she noticed. A few looked okay, but were moving a little slower than usual; others were at a normal gait, but looked pale. A couple even winced slightly and rubbed at their abdomens.
Losira entered the lab and was surprised to see Mika and another doctrate hovering over someone lying on an examination table.
The technician looked unconscious, her body draped with a sheet and it rose and fell slowly with every labored breath. Perspiration rolled off her brow and her skin looked almost ash colored.
"It's starting," he said, knowing who was behind him, "The other station techs said they found her at her console like this; she had been complaining about feeling off for the past few meca-cycles."
"And nobody said anything?" Losira asked, aghast.
"According to the Health station, the physicians gave her some medication to ease her symptoms and they seemed to work for a while. Then she started getting worse over the next few dura-cycles; fatigue, inability to hold down food, fever..." he reached to touch one of her arms, but produced no reaction, "and now, numbness in the arms and legs that could lead to paralysis."
Losira looked down at the poor girl, gently brushing hair off her forehead and feeling the heat from it, "Those treatments you mentioned; can they help?"
"We're combining the meds that Health gave her with something that I've been working on. The serum I've come up with doesn't cure the disease, but rather keeps it in check. That combined with the meds Health developed might do the trick," Mika carefully took the technician's hand, "We've just administered the new serum mix; we'll find out in the next few cycles."
"And in the meantime..."
Mika gave Losira a hard look, "In the meantime, I suggest you find another way to take care of any 'uninvited guests'. Draining away any power that keeps that element from producing the disease will only make things worse. We have to keep our exposure to it at a minimum if we're going to have any chance against it."
Losira nodded, "That means we'll have to implement our secondary defensive protocols," she paused to give Mika a foreboding look, "You do know what that means."
Mika nodded solemnly, "Given the choice between our high statute of preserving live or the possibility of spreading this disease and infecting other Kalandans as well as other species, I don't see that we have any alternative."
"Agreed," Losira gave one last glance at the tech lying on the gurney, "Keep me updated on her progress, Mika."
He nodded, still keeping close watch on the health monitors that hovered around his patient, as Losira left the lab.
* * *
She entered the command center and looked around, out of reflex more than anything. The consoles were still unmanned, the view screens were still dark, and the lighting was only at half power along with the rest of the main systems. The only brightened area was the console that operated the outer warning guard, able to detect any approaching vessel within a thousand cubicans. It had remained silent for many season-cycles.
The numbness in her legs was becoming more pronounced; she knew paralysis was the next phase in the disease's third stage... then Stage Four, the final stage: death. Her final duty had to be performed, and soon before the disease overwhelmed her.
She went to the center's lavatory to make herself more presentable; if she was going to leave any last message for the Kalandan forces that were sure to follow and take over the station, she'd be damned if they were going to see a recording of her in such a disheveled state.
She washed at her face, more to cool the fever welling up inside her than anything, and then properly smoothed out her hair as best she could. She had to leave it long, for she had no clips to hold it in its usual, tightly coiled, coif.
Once done, she stared at her reflection and noted the slight discoloration of her skin. Her fair beige cheeks were now fading to a light ash gray, and her eyelids were showing signs of fading as well.
Pelor looked like this when he...
Losira shut her eyes tight, wanting to blank out the images that swirled in her mind for dura-cycles, but they wouldn't go away.
* * *
He heard her voice next to him, muffled and vaguely distant. He could not answer her, his tongue was numb and he couldn't make his lips move.
"I am here, my dearest," Losira whispered, a tear tracking down her cheek.
Pelor was crying, too. He could see that his beloved was holding his hand, but he could not feel her touch.
Mika stood next to them, carefully perusing the readings on the monitor over Pelor's gurney. The sadness in his eyes already told Losira what was to come.
"The treatments aren't working anymore," the old scientist grumbled, "We've managed to hold off the effects of the disease up to now, but it's become stronger and more resistant to anything we can throw at it." He turned away from Pelor, rubbing at his forehead, "If only we had discovered this disease earlier, we might have been able to..."
Losira smiled a little at her old friend; she knew he was just trying to be consoling, and very sweetly.
"Don't punish yourself, Mika. No one saw this coming; you said so yourself."
But the scientist couldn't help beating himself up for this, "The treatments were working. We should have been able to hold off the progression of the disease until the supply ship arrived with the proper medicines," he pounded his fist on his desk, "Why didn't it work?"
Losira's heart ached for her friend; he was taking this personally and he shouldn't be.
"The treatments kept us going this far," she said, "Without your help, we'd all be dead by now."
For almost a season-cycle, the treatments were doled out to the station personnel and became routine. At first, the explanation for the treatments was kept simple as to not panic the station crew. But as the Health stations began filling up with more and more infected, the truth of the matter could no longer be kept secret. By then, the entire twenty-four hundred crew compliment of the station knew what was happening. The deaths started only a few meca-cycles ago; Pelor would be the eighteenth.
"We were just prolonging the inevitable," Mika sobbed, "It was only a matter of time before..." He leaned against his desk, his hand cupping his face.
Losira jumped when Pelor's breathing became erratic and labored. She leaned into him, gently brushing away the perspiration on his hot, ash colored brow.
"Pelor," she whimpered, still holding his hand, "I'm here. I love you, my dearest... I love you."
Pelor couldn't reply, couldn't feel her presence. But in a final gesture of love, even though he couldn't feel it, he had found the strength to squeeze her hand letting her know he had heard her last endearment. His body shook for a moment and his lungs blew out his last breath, his body becoming still.
Losira laid his hand down and leaned over to kiss him one last time, one of her tears splashing his cheek.
The alert whistle sounded, followed by a call from the command center.
"Commander Bym'Rehm, report to comm center immediately."
Losira saw the pain in Mika's face as he looked sorrowfully at her beloved mate, now dead, "Dispose of the body, Mika; standard containment measures."
"It's all right. We have to follow proper procedures, no exceptions; you know that."
"But to incinerate him without a formal ceremony? He was a high ranking Kalandan official."
"We must destroy the disease wherever possible," Though it didn't show on her face, Mika could hear the anguish in Losira's voice, "You, yourself, set the standards on how the bodies should be disposed of; it's the only way to be sure the disease gets no farther than it already has. I would expect you to do the same for me," she pointed to Pelor's body, "He would."
"The entire station is infected, already," Mika replied, exasperated, "What difference could it make now?"
"I was thinking of others who will come here after we're gone and not just our people."
Mika shook his head, "We don't even know if the disease will affect other species the way it has affected us; they may be immune."
"Are you willing to take that risk?" Losira hissed, "We have a duty to our fellow Kalandans, but we also have an obligation to other life forms. We may not have to interact with them, but we cannot let them carry this disease beyond this station. It could potentially decimate species throughout this sector of space. I may leave this existence, but I will leave it with a clear conscience. Will you?"