Michal rasped as if someone had shoved a handful of wet cloth down his throat. He jerked and convulsed upon the smooth, steel operation table as he struggled to fill his lungs. His skin was rough and dotted with tiny red marks that creeped across his face and arms.
Ardenia could feel his face burning from the fever that was ravaging his body, the antibiotics were not acting quickly enough. Whatever was attacking his system was winning, just as it had many times before.
Ardenia whispered to herself as she secured her face-mask, trying to not let the other see her shaking hands, “You can do this. You have to save him. You cannot lose another.”
If only she could track down the source. Thus far her results had all come up negative.
“Please Dr. Wakeman, hurry!” shouted the Captain, “He’s choking here! Do something!”
“Please remain calm Captain Irani,” said Ardenia as she reached to the surgical tools tray, “I am doing the best I can.”
“Excuse me Captain,” said a smooth and level voice, “The Doctor knows what she’s doing. I don’t believe yelling will help Michal.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do Cordell, you empty suit!” said Cpt. Irani, “I will not abide losing another crewmate!”
“The Doctor is quite capable and making a spectacle of yourself does not aid the situation. Now please, be calm lest things get away from us.”
“She’s lost eight crew members. Eight! This situation has already gotten out of hand.”
Dr. Wakeman ignored the two men as she grabbed a scalpel from the table. She tried to hold the patient, but his rasping had grown more ragged causing his body to shake and twitch erratically.
“Quit your bickering and get over here. I need you to hold his head and torso down. Or he will die, right here and now!”
The Captain and Cordell stopped their shouting and rushed over to the table. One man grabbed Michal’s shoulders and the other his head. He was still jerking, but his head was now stable. Dr. Wakeman removed the face-mask of Michal’s med-suit. Pressing her nail into Michal’s throat, she made a mark for the cut directly on his esophagus.
Grabbing Michal’s throat with one hand below his jaw, she pressed the cold metal of the blade smoothly through his flesh. His rasping grew worse as he nearly jerked off the table, but he was restrained by the Captain and Cordell. Running her hand down and inch, she made the incision larger.
The blood slowly dripped from the fluttering wound, Michal’s gasps growing fainter with each breath. Dr. Wakeman reached for the instruments tray and grabbed for a surgical tube. She pressed the plastic tubing into Michal’s open incision and air immediately flowed through. Michal continued to convulse, his breath still ragged and sporadic even through the tubing. The airway was not blocked, the disease was in his lungs.
A wave of dread washed over Ardenia, she knew what was coming. This would make nine victims that had succumb to the disease, and there was nothing she could do but watch. Once the disease manifested itself into visible symptoms, which were different for each crew member, the loss of bodily functions and ultimately death were quick to follow. She felt the last bits of her soul rend and pull apart as she watched her friend and collogue slip away.
Michal’s shaking grew still as his breath ceased. He lay motionless upon the table. A small trickle of blood streamed from his open wound down onto the steel table. Ardenia let out a long, staggered sigh and clenched her fists into tiny balls. Her head felt as if it were about to explode, the flurry of emotions had finally caught up to her.
Ardenia took a long breath and calmed herself as there was more to do. She reached for Michal’s throat, pressing her fore and middle finger against his jugular as she searched for his vein. She could not find his vein, but she did feel a massive lump in his lymph nodes
That is abnormal, she thought to herself. She instead reached for his wrist and found his vein. The pulse was still, the heart had stopped.
Cpt. Irani and Cordell let go of Michal’s dead body and backed away from the table. Without a word the Captain took three long steps through the surgical curtain to the counter on the other side of the room. He grabbed the metal surface with both hands and tightened his arms, as if he were trying to push the counter away from him.
“Damn it!” shouted Cpt. Irani as he slammed a fist into the hard surface.
“I’m sorry Captain,” said Cordell as he took a few steps towards the wall, removing his latex gloves and tossing them away. He rested his hand upon his mouth, his eyes desperately searching the room for answers that were not there.
Dr. Wakeman tossed her gloves into the trash as well and strolled over to the viewport of the Med Bay. The starry sky twinkled behind the transparent hull shielding. The Med Bay had a spectacular view of the molten planet as it glowed brightly off in the distance. Their satellite installation hovered hundreds of kilometers in the planet’s orbit. Ardenia didn’t think the planet had been named yet, it was a new discovery. But she would have called it “Hell” if given the choice.
She rested her arm upon the transparent viewport, slamming her head against her soft flesh rather than the wall. Her heart felt as if it were being torn apart. But she knew she needed to keep a calm head in order to figure out what exactly was going on. She stifled a cough as she stared into the blazing inferno.
A mining drone flew past the viewport on its way down to the planet's surface. It was towing a large container that would be filled with Cytostadtium before its return.
Eighteen months, Ardenia thought to herself, That’s how long that waystation has been here since the mineral was discovered, and there hadn’t been an illness until the last few days. Why now?
Each of the crewmembers were tasked with getting the installation up and running, and they were successful in that endeavor. But things had quickly turned for the worse as the installation was nearing its final stages. Yuan Lee-Jy had come down with a respiratory disease. But Ardenia had calibrated the filtration systems for the station. How did Yuan picked up the ailment? The ore sample had passed the testing parameters set by the company. It had come back clean and free of contaminants. That’s what the company safety report had said. Their equipment had been sterilized, and each member tested for ailments before coming aboard.
“What do we do now Dr. Wakeman?” said Cpt. Irani, interrupting Ardenia’s train of thought, “Everyone aboard this station has fallen ill and died.” He drew closer to her and the viewpoint, her eyes fixated on nothing in particular. Cpt. Irani slammed his fist into the transparent polysteel. “How do you account for that? It was your job to keep them safe!” The Captain began to cough loudly, hunching over as he attempted to catch his breath.
Cordell pushed himself off of the wall and rushed over to the pair, “Please Captain, emotions are running high but we must not lose our tempers.”
The Captain composed himself and turned toward Cordell, his eyes hot with rage. “Lose our tempers? It seems like you’re keeping cool enough for all of us. Did you even know their names? Hmm? All you care about is that we get this facility up and running in time so that your Board of Directors can give you a raise!”
“Of course I knew their names Captain, don’t be absurd. My first priority has always been the safety and well being of my crew.”
The Captain scoffed, pushed off of the viewport and walked to the other side of the Med Bay. Cordell followed and continued to calm Cpt. Irani down, their voices faded away into background noise as Dr. Wakeman ran over her notes.
Yuan Lee-Jy, Lead Geologist, had come down with Pneumonia. It had been mild at first and didn’t hamper with her ability to process the ore samples that came back from the planet. The coughing and phlegm had been manageable, so Yuan had tried to hide the fact that she was sick. The facility had a tight deadline to meet in order to be on schedule. The illness grew worse.
Once Ardenia found out Yuan was ill, she prescribed a low dosage of antibiotics. Yuan was young and perfectly healthy before the Pneumonia. But her brain was baked by the fever that ravaged her body. She had been instructed to remain in her quarters to rest when Ardenia had found her. She shivered as the sight of Yuan’s cold dead eyes.
Arlold Walders, Lead Robotics Expert, was the next to contract Pneumonia. Followed by Mase Enkins, Technical Manager - Software, and Georgi Arbatov, Assistant Technical Manager - Flight Logistics Software. Each had worked together closely with Yuan and had alerted Ardenia to Yuan’s ailment. She quarantined them to their barracks, prescribed an average dosage of antibiotics and standard Pneumonia treatments.
She began to dig around the facility searching for the cause of the outbreak. She checked the air filtration system. It was operational. She investigate the worker's stations for any signs of contamination. Nothing.
“You’re the one who worked them to death, Cordell!” screamed the Captain. “They should have just taken it easy. Gotten better. But no, you had a schedule to maintain!”
Cordell’s eyes fell to the floor. His hands came up to his chest and clasped together. Looking deep into Cpt. Irani’s eyes he said, “I am truly sorry for the pain that has befallen you. But the illness was the one to kill the crew, not me.”
The Captain stood tall and walked closer to Cordell, getting within inches of his face. “Was it worth it? The facility is up and running, on time for your first shipment to go out tomorrow. Everyone died just in time for the facility to become autonomous. You have your precious metal for your precious little devices. Were their lives worth it? For handheld Data-pads? Comms? God Damn Computers!?”
The Captain was seething, his nose flaring and hissing with each breath. His anger was about to boil over. Dr. Wakeman placed a hand upon his shoulder and the Captain jerked his head in her direction. But his anger receded as he saw the pain and suffering in her eyes. She was suffering as much as he was.
“I’m sorry Reid… I truly am.”
The Captain stood down and backed away from her and Cordell. He found a chair and collapsed in it with a thud. His features were wrecked with fatigue and sleeplessness. He coughed into his clenched fist.
Cordell was as stoic as always, keeping calm and composed throughout the entire ordeal. He sniffed and grabbed a handkerchief from his suit pocket. Cordell stifled a cough with the cloth and wiped at his nose.
Ardenia took a seat as well, racking her brain for some sort of clue as to what happened. Weldon Cedeno, Chief Mechanic, had been wary to come in contact with any of the sick crewmates. He had taken to solitude in his own quarters once Yuan had fallen ill. He had been a hypochondriac. But he had developed a skin ailment despite his best efforts. A rash had formed in the area between his shoulder blades. He hadn’t noticed its rise until it became painful for him to even lay down. Cellulitis had formed, the deeper layers of skin and connective tissue under his skin had swollen, grown red.
Staphylococcus aureus, a staph infection.
Diego Yueh, Mechanical Engineer - Propulsion Systems. Necole Desai, Cpt Irani’s First Mate and Second in Command. Madalene Harcrow, Facility Chef. Each of the remaining crew, save for Cordell, the Captain, and Michal, had somehow picked up Weldon’s Staph infection. Ardenia had been run ragged with running to and fro on the satellite. Caring for each person and their symptoms required twenty four hour surveillance and she was running out of antibiotics.
Michal Volante, Assistant Physician. He had been by Ardenia’s side throughout the whole ordeal. Helping her care for each of the crewmembers and trying desperately to save each and every one. She had failed him… just like all of the others.
Dr. Wakeman stood up and walked slowly to the operations table. Michal lay motionless upon the table, the surgical tube still in this esophagus. Ardenia took in a deep breath and placed her hand on his throat, grabbing the surgical tube and removing it. As she did so, she felt the swollen lymph nodes she had grazed before.
Ardenia’s eye grew wide. Dr. Wakeman grabbed the scalpel that she had used before from the surgical tray and carefully made an incision in Michal’s throat again. Cpt. Irani stood up quickly, his eyes wide with horror.
“Dr. Wakeman, what are you doing?!”
“Captain, I have a hunch but I’ll need to work through it. Just a moment.”
Arenia removed the swollen lymph node from Michal and carried it over to her desk. She grabbed a glass microscope slide and placed it off to the side. Placing the lymph node upon a surgical tray, she used the scalpel to slice off a thin piece of the tissue and placed it upon the slide. Ardenia then inserted the slide into the microscope and began to examine the material.
“Each person was given antibiotics which should have quelched the disease. But none of them took to the medicine. Why?”
The Captain looked to Cordell who gave him a quizzical shrug.
“I’m not sure Doctor.”
Ardenia adjusted the microscope to bring the cells into view and let out a long sigh, “Cancer. Mutated cells. See for yourself.”
“What?” said both Cordell and Cpt. Irani in unison.
“How could it be cancer?’ asked Cordell. He strolled over to the microscope and looked for himself. The cells within the slide were misshapen and covered in small clusters. Even he could see that something was not right. The Captain took a look as well and shook his head.
“The lymph nodes are vital organs in the lymphatic system. They are attached to the circulatory system and a vital part of the immune system. The crew had a suppressed immune system and their bodies couldn’t fight off the diseases.”
The Captain brought a hand up to his face and shook his head. “It would make sense. But what would cause the cancer? We were all screened for it before we arrived.”
The Captain and Dr. Wakeman looked at each other nodded.
“Cytostadtium,” said Ardenia, “The material may have some form of radiation that caused the cancer to develop quickly. Perhaps that is why Yuan was the first to develop a disease. She worked with the metal most closely. It was then warehoused as the reserves were built up for shipment.”
Cordell shook his hands and projected loudly, his calm composure finally breaking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Come on. You’re making a lot of leaps here. We don’t know for sure it was the Cytostadtium.”
“What else is there Cordell?” asked Cpt. Irani, “What else about the situation changed for us? We were all on this facility getting it up and ready for operations. It wasn’t until a month ago that the Drones were up and gathering the material.”
“The report came back clean Cordell. For the Cytostadtium. Did the testing detect radiation?”
Cordell’s eyes shifted back and forth between Dr. Wakeman and Cpt. Irani before finally resting on Michal’s lifeless body. His cool composure broke and he slouched down rubbing his face. “It had small traces of radiation. Deemed inconsequential. Harmless in small quantities.”
“We have to stop that shipment before it gets out. The Cytostadtium will be processed and put into countless different devices. It could affect countless innocent civilians,” said Ardenia.
“I’m putting an end to this right now,” said the Captain as he grabbed his jacket from the chair.
Cordell’s eyes grew wide and he ran to the surgical table. Grabbing a scalpel, he launched himself in front of the Med Bay exit. “You can’t stop that shipment, it needs to get out. Otherwise the entire project will be a failure.”
Through a clenched jaw the Captain said, “I knew it. You spineless, corporate lackey. It was always about the material. The project is a failure. Everyone has died! We will likely be next you stooge!”
Cordell brought out a datapad with his other free hand, holding it closely to his body. Ardenia inched closer to him, speaking calmly, “Cordell, please put the scalpel down. We don’t need anymore harm, we’ve had enough for many lifetimes. Let’s talk about this.”
Cordell looked at her, his composure returning, “We’re done. The project is complete and we can leave. The Cytostadtium is fine is small doses. Once we leave the facility will be autonomous and it won’t matter.”
“We need to make sure that it does not happen to anyone else,” said Ardenia, “Let us pass. We cannot assure the safety of others, so the material cannot go out.”
Cordell shook his head, “No. That material needs to be delivered. I have responsibilities to the stakeholders. We don’t know for certain that the Cytostadtium has caused this. We don’t even know that each of the crew had cancer. You failed them, not me!”
With a loud crack the Captain landed a right hook into Cordell’s jaw, knocking him to the floor. Cordell dropped the scalpel, but as he fell he landed upon the device. The facility shook with the sound of an explosion, and the Doctor and Captain ran to the viewport.
In the distance a large cargo-freighter was beginning to warm its burners, the propulsion system aglow with its early stages.
“Oh no…” said Ardenia.
“Come on, we have to stop that freighter.”
Both Ardenia and Cpt. Irani rushed towards the exit, overstepping Cordell’s collapsed figure. Slamming the door controls, the hatch opened up with a hiss and the pair ran down the long hallway. The sounds of their coughing echoed throughout the empty corridor.