Monday, May 11, 2015
May 18, part 3
A bunch of us gathered in a conference room. There was Captain Wotref, his first officer, Ebnad the weapons subcommander currently in charge of ship’s security, Oses, Betra, me, and Katrina, along with Tep. Katrina and I were considered Candy’s next-of-kin, which was why we were invited ... along with the fact that Katrina and Wotref are an item these days.
We were anxious as Tep showed us the scans he’d done of Candy. “I’ve seen organic parasites with intelligence that take over other sentients. I’ve seen self-replicating armor. But I’ve never seen anything that does both. This is what has taken over Matara Candy.”
“Taken over?” I asked, my voice weak.
Tep nodded, his gaze on me compassionate. “For all intents and purposes, yes. It hasn’t completely infected her, but it has gone far enough that it is the entity in control now.”
I fought off tears. I prayed things weren’t as bad as they looked.
Tep brought up a picture of Candy’s armored arm. “As you can see, the armor is something of an exoskeleton. It’s made mostly of calcium. It’s strong as rock, as strong as the toughest metal known. There are even some metallic elements to it like iron, copper ... the things we find naturally occurring in the human body. It’s being reproduced at a significant rate to cover the skin.”
Oses frowned. “Aren’t elements like copper lethal in large doses?”
Tep nodded. “Normally, yes, but since it’s generating as a covering rather than within the body, it’s not toxic to her. These tube-like structures are actually large veins feeding nutrients and circulating waste from the exoskeleton. Interior scans of the armor plating—” he brought up a shot of something that looked like a cross-section of an ant colony “—show smaller arteries and veins also at work.”
“Organic armor,” Ebnad breathed. “How impervious is it to attack?”
I glared at him. “Attack? Candy is a victim, not an enemy.”
“Easy, Shalia,” Oses soothed me. “We need to know how to best protect her as well as ourselves.”
I subsided, but I still gave the weapons subcommander mean eyes.
Tep said, “It’s a good defense, superior to almost anything else I’ve seen. We estimate it could withstand a nearly point-blank percussion blaster hit set at narrow stream.”
There was an audible intake of breath from everyone in the room. Candy’s armored arm was damned near impervious to a conventional weapon.
“Multiple simultaneous hits?” Oses asked.
Tep nodded. “That’s what it would take.”
Wotref rubbed his chin. “Can you get it off her?”
Tep blew out a breath and brought up the vid of a full interior body scan. It showed a human form with all its pink innards, white bone, and gray brain. It showed something else too. More of those green arteries snaked all through the body. Most of them concentrated in one arm and the upper chest, but more spread like streams to the brain. A few ventured into the other arm and legs. I saw only a couple of thin ones in her lower abdomen.
This was Candy’s body. That thing was all inside her, all over the place.
Katrina folded her arms on the table top, lay her head down, and softly wept. I was too shocked to cry. All I could do was stare at those terrible trails of alien organism eating into my friend.
Tep’s voice sounded like it came from the other end of the universe. “As you can see, she’s infected throughout. The exoskeleton is a part of her now. It would be impossible to surgically remove the armor. Even taking her arm off would not help at this point.”
Betra blinked as if he was trying to wake from a nightmare. “Can you give her something that would kill it off and yet not harm her? There must be something ... right?”
Tep nodded. “We’re trying several different medications, along with nanite antibodies programmed to fight off infections. It’s going to take time to see if anything works. Our analysis tell us this is completely alien to us, something we’ve never come across. There are even synthetic markers, suggesting it may not be a naturally occurring life form.”
“A bio weapon?” Oses leaned forward. “Something developed in a lab?”
“Impossible to say right now. We need time to research the organism, to discover all its components, cellular structure, what it needs to survive – everything.”
Wotref speared Tep with his intent gaze. “But do you have that kind of time? How fast is this thing transforming Matara Candy’s body?”
The doctor licked his lips. “Fast. Plus it’s resistant to stasis, which I put her in immediately. The one good thing is that her body’s natural resistance to infection seems to be slowing it down. It’s trying to change her entire body’s makeup, but it hasn’t gotten much beyond the exoskeleton. That’s why I have hopes that the nanites might have some effect.”
Betra took my hand before asking the million dollar question. “How long before she’s lost to us?”
Tep drew a deep breath. “If her body continues to fight, two or three weeks. Maybe even a month. But this thing is reaching into her brain and taking over a piece at a time. If it possesses intelligence – and there is evidence to that notion – once it finds the part in charge of her natural defenses, it could turn them off. Then it will spread like wildfire, completely transforming her in a matter of days.”
“Either way, there is not much time,” the first officer said worriedly. “Not when you’re talking about all that research you need to do.”
Oses shot me a warning look before asking his next question. “Doctor, if it succeeds in absorbing Matara Candy entirely – how dangerous is its potential?”
Tep shuddered. “From what we’ve seen of the little it can do now? Impenetrable armor, advanced intelligence ... don’t forget that it accessed the ship’s computer without being detected and used the programs to its own advantage. That means it understands our language, our coding, and has infiltrated our security protocols. That might be the scariest thing of all.”
Oses sat back in his chair, his expression thunderous. “It would be nearly impossible to stop. Best case scenario is severe loss of life on this ship if it gets loose.”
Wotref’s face was a careful blank, not giving a clue as to his feelings. He asked Tep, “Where did this organism come from? How did it infect Matara Candy?”
The doctor shook his head. “I have no idea. We should probably look at that last shore leave. Run tests on everyone who went down on Darotkin to make sure no one else has been affected.”
“Do it. Send word to the destroyers that their crews must also be tested.”
The first officer pointed out, “Bio sensors picked up nothing when everyone returned to the ship from shore leave. But you say this is a biological entity.”
Tep shrugged. “Maybe it was dormant until it found the right host. Full stasis can fool bio sensors. Maybe this thing was in a kind of stasis.” He shook his head. “It’s completely alien to our medical library. Who knows how it got through? All I can do is guess at this point, and my best guess is it got here from Darotkin.”
Betra whispered to me, “Thank the Mother of All you and Oses didn’t go on shore leave.”
“But you did,” I whispered back. “So did Katrina, the captain ... most of the people on this ship and all three of the destroyers.”
Holy shit. If more people are infected, we are screwed. But for now, fear for Candy remains uppermost on my mind. All I can do now is hope Tep finds an answer fast.
He has promised me and Katrina that he will not stop looking for answers until Candy is cured ... but there is a look in Tep’s eyes that tells me he’s as scared for her as I am, that he is afraid this is beyond him.