Emerging from the forest into the meadow, Kathryn’s team found their way to a river which was flowing down from the mountains at their back. They remembered from the topological maps and imagery of the colony site that this river would eventually lead them right into the middle of the town they were on their way to investigate.
An hour and a half after the last communication, Jaren had contacted them again to give them an update on the progress the Orbital One team was making. “They’ve successfully powered up the central processor and comm system,” he reported, “but they’ve only just begun to feed the data sheets in to restore the operating system. Shouldn’t be long now, they should be finished by the time they orbit beneath us again.”
“Good to hear,” Kathryn affirmed. “Keep us posted. Surface team out.”
“I’m most interested in knowing if there is indeed enough rotational control fuel left to stabilize the gravity,” Irvina commented. “One would think that automated systems would have used up the last drop maintaining orbital altitude, but if there is still some left we should eventually be able to restart the reactors and fully restore the station. That would be nice.”
Kathryn shook her head a little with a grin towards the ground.
“What,” Irvina asked.
“Nothing,” Kathryn answered, “it’s just… I wish the rest of your people could get into this they way you can. Was Orbital One and the other facilities in the system not a big enough lure for them, even if they’re only interested in technology?”
“It’s enough of a curiosity for us to have gotten around to it eventually,” Irvina suggested with a thoughtful wrinkle above her nose, “but other things like establishing rifts around more stars has so far taken priority. It’s more a question of… allocation of resources than a total and complete lack of curiosity. As for myself I’m an engineer, and getting the station up and running is just a problem I’m happy trying to work.”
“Right. Well no one would be happier than me if we can save that station and get it operational. The possibilities are endless if we can.”
Deirdre grabbed at Kathryn’s shirt from behind and when she looked back at her the woman had a finger to her lips, indicating for her to be quiet. She then motioned towards the ground for her to get low and hide. The four of them got as low as they could in the impression the river had cut into the valley. This left them belly down on the river bank, peeking over the top. They saw a group of six humans off in the distance walking in their direction along the bank of the river, beyond a bend off to one side.
Mangy was the only word which came to Kathryn’s mind in description of them. Their hair was either cut very short and very roughly, or was past their shoulders in thick clumps. From a distance one might think they were rough braids, but upon more careful inspection the hair was just incredibly dirty and great clumps of it clung together. Their clothing appeared to consist of animal skins and furs, but Kathryn was struck by how well tailored the primitive clothing nevertheless appeared to be.
“Well there they are,” Terey observed. “What’s the play?” he asked Kathryn.
“I’m going to go say hi,” she mused, amusing herself with her own casual remark. “Alone,” she told them.
“Captain?” Irvina asked with concern.
“All of us emerging at once could scare them off. They could run back to their camp in panic and create all kinds of problems for us here. Low impact is what’s called for here.”
“Very well, but we should inform Jaren.”
“As you wish,” Kathryn acceded. It was indeed prudent to do so. “Jaren?” she asked after pressing a small button on the side of her PANEs.
“We’ve spotted some… Earthlings?” she said in a questioning tone with raised shoulders as she looked to the others for their opinion of her use of the term. The rest shrugged their lack of a better one to use. “Some people anyways, and I’m going to attempt to contact them alone.”
“Alone?” Kathryn could hear his eyebrow raising from hundreds of kilometers away. “Are you sure that’s wise?” he asked as casually as he could, which was less casually than he would have liked.”
“Wise or not, it’s what I’m doing.” she answered definitively.
“Very well,” Jaren said with unspoken reservation, “we’ll monitor your progress from here on the ship’s telescopes.”
Kathryn gave a single nod to herself in confirmation that the conversation was over and closed the channel. “Alright, wish me luck…” she offered nonchalantly to the other three before cautiously raising her head and climbing over the ridge. The group was about half a kilometer away and when she emerged she put her hands above her head in what she hoped would be the interstellar gesture of ‘I come in peace, please don’t attack me.’
The earthlings seemed to squack and scramble in a bit of a frenzy before settling down and cautiously advancing on her as she did the same. The experience was surreal for her. Until very recently it was unknown if Earth itself still existed, now here were humans just like her whom she was getting to meet on it! The last couple months her life so far seemed to be one continuous string of ever greater peaks experiences one after another and here she was, her life newly peaked yet again.
A couple hundred meters from each other she began calling out greetings, the standard ‘hello’ and ‘I come in peace’. She could see them smiling and nodding as if they understood her. They were making no attempts to directly communicate with her and this increasingly began to put her ill at ease. She more and more got the impression that they were placating her, trying not to scare her off even more than she was trying not to scare them away. Closing to less than a hundred meters she began to feel more and more like she was walking grinning like an idiot into an obvious trap. As they closed to less than fifty meters from each other, they still had yet to make any attempt to communicate with her and at about the point she was on the edge of turning around and running for her life, one of them pulled out a long straight tube, put it to his lips, and blew a dart at her.
The dart hit her in the chest, and her first reaction was one of simple curiosity, wondering what this meant and why they had done this. When she began to feel drowsy a couple seconds later she came to understand the significance. She pulled the dart out and tried to turn and run, but she only tripped over her feet as she found herself increasingly impaired by whatever had been in the dart. She hit the ground and the last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was the feeling of many foreign hands touching her body, and being lifted up over somebody’s shoulder.
“KATHRYN!!!” Jaren cried out on the bridge of the ship as he watched this all happen from a bird’s eye view on his monitors. He frantically opened a channel to the rest of the surface team who were still hiding in the gulley of the river. “You have to go after her!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t think that’s wise.” Irvina harshly replied. Her, Terey, and Deirdre had seen the entire event as well, between peeping up over the ridge and watching the same telescope view on their scrolls which Jaren had been observing.
“But you have to! She’s, she’ll, they…”
“Jaren!” Irvina said with a harsh tone nobody had heard her take with her superior officer before. “We are unarmed, and they have a poison dart which is merely incapacitating at best. If we go after her, now, like this, we are likely only to suffer the same fate as her whatever that is. You will continue to monitor her from orbit while we return to the New Horizon. We plan our next move from there. If we want to mount a rescue assault we can do so very quickly and I’m happy to lead it myself, but I’m hoping a better option will present itself. Such an action would be dangerous, and more so the more we rush without thinking. Are we clear?”
“Yes Irvina… yes of course you’re right. Please return to orbit as soon as you can so we can discuss our options.”
“I thought Jaren was your superior,” Terey questioned Irvina.
“He is… technically. But we have a history.”
Terey raised his eyebrow at her. “History?”
Irivina sighed. “We used to be married. A long time ago.”
“Ah. Now I get it.”
“You don’t seem as panicked about losing Kathryn as I’d expect. Neither of you do.”
“Good training,” Terey shrugged. “And we haven’t lost her, I have every intention of getting her back safe and sound. Losing our heads certainly won’t help us do that.
“Good training indeed,” Deirdre observed. She looked at the scroll showing the telescope imaging. For now they seem to just be carrying her back to their town. We obviously have to do something, but we can’t do anything right now and there’s no indication she’s in immediate danger. Let’s get back to the ship as quick as we can.”
“Agreed,” Irvina nodded. “Try to keep up.”
Back on the ship, Irvina, Terey, and Deirdre met Jaren on the bridge. He was alone, so the rest of his New Horizon team must have been assigned to various tasks about the ship.
“Status?” Irvina asked.
“They’ve taken her into their town and put her in a small single room structure. The infra-red imager shows her alone and still unconscious on some kind of bed. She seems alright at the moment.”
Irvina looked at the monitors Jaren was so intently observing and saw the false colour blue, yellow, and red infra-red image on the monitor beside a true image of the roof of the structure on an adjacent monitor. “And Orbital One?” she asked.
“Up and running,” Francis reported as he entered the bridge and came over to give a long lingering hug to his daughter Deirdre. “The parts we need immediately anyway.” Pulling away from his daughter he turned to Terey. “I’m very sorry to hear about Kathryn, Terey. We’ll get her back, don’t worry.”
“Damn right we will,” Jaren stated definitively.
“Loading the operating system worked like a charm,” Francis continued, “so we can relay comms through the station and set up an orbital triangle whenever we want to, but we would need to take New Horizon out of geostationary over Kathryn to do so.”
“We’re not doing that.” Jaren said with a determined tone.
Irvina stared at him for a moment with contempt in her eyes. “Nadelle is back onboard?” she asked Francis.
“Affirmative. Everyone besides Kathryn is back on board.”
“Good. Please take Terey and Deirdre and have Nadelle meet you in the medical bay. I want her to run a complete medical examination of them with Koboli equipment, right down to the molecular level. You never know what we might have picked up down there. I’ll meet you there for my own exam shortly.”
“Understood; prudent precaution. Come along you two, poke and prod time.”
She stood in silence behind Jaren, waiting for him to notice her looking at him expectantly. Finally she came around to stand in front of him, between him and the monitors he was staring at.
“Jaren. We need to talk.”
“Of course,” he said as he shifted his gaze to another set of monitors she wasn’t blocking.
“Jaren!” she yelled angrily. “I know what’s going on but you need to focus.”
He looked at her finally.
“We are all worried about Barnes and we are all going to do whatever we can to get her back, understand?”
“I love her.”
“Oh for fuck’s sakes…” She rubbed both eyes with her thumb and forefinger. “I know,” she said with a roll of her hand. “We all know!” This time she waved back at the crewmembers who had just left. “I know you two thought you were being subtle but you failed utterly. It’s the worst kept secret in the galaxy Jaren.”
He seemed wounded to her somehow, perhaps it was embarrassment. She pulled up a rolling chair and sat down in front of him. “I know you love her Jaren, but you don’t have a monopoly on being worried about her, alright? We all are, and we all need to have our heads definitively out of our asses if we’re going to get her back safe, right?”
Jaren shook his head as if knocking cobwebs loose. “Right, of course. I’m sorry Irvina, we really thought that we could keep things secret.”
“We all knew that was your intent so we indulged you. I’m your second in command though, it’s my job to snap you out of it if you get lost.”
“I’m also somebody who cares about you, remember?”
Jaren smiled. “Yes, thank you. I cherish you in my life Irvina.”
“Great. So now that that’s out of the way, we need a plan to get her back.”
Leaving Xion on the bridge to keep an eye on things, the rest of the crew convened in the conference room. Nadelle had discovered something curious while conducting medical examinations of Terey and Deirdre and wanted to share it with everyone at once.
“We’ve found something in examining the surface team which might answer a lot of our questions.”
“Go on,” Jaren said, leaning in.
“Well, we may have solved the mystery of why Earth went dark!” Terey excitedly exclaimed.
“Well… let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Nadelle cautioned.
“I don’t know how you could see it any other way!”
“Hey!” Irvina exclaimed, taking on more of a leadership role in Kathryn’s absence. “Slow down. Start from the beginning. Explain.”
“It was a virus,” Terey explained. “A virus which… we’ve all presumably been infected with now.”
“So, are we… all going to die then?” Parker asked, attempting to blunt his mortal fear with nonchalant humour.
“No,” Nadelle replied. “Well ultimately yes of course, but not… from this virus.”
“The advanced medical technologies of the Koboli are capable of dealing with it and curing us of it, but the New Horizon’s medical chambers can’t even detect its presence.”
“How does this solve the mystery of Earth?” Teresa asked.
“If Earth technology of the era this ship launched in doesn’t even recognize it, then it certainly couldn’t cure it,” Ana explained. “We suspect that the entire global population suffered a catastrophic die off as a result of this virus in the environment.”
Several people put a hand to their mouths to stifle their gasps.
“That’s horrific,” Reed commented.
“Well…” Parker said, “based on the limited population down there now, we knew that something like this must have happened at some point. If this thing is so fatal, why are there any people left down there at all?”
Nadelle shrugged. “Natural immunity I suppose. It’s common for even the most pernicious infectious diseases to leave a small percentage of the population immune by chance, by an unexpected quirk of physiology. Even if point-oh-one percent had some sort of natural immunity, from a population of ten billion…”
“Right, that’d still be a million people,” Parker observed.
“Which sounds like a lot,” Deirdre commented, “but for a global population that’s nowhere near enough to sustain a high technology culture like Earth had had beforehand. Especially when you consider that’s young and old, and a completely randomized selection of what professional skills the people still left around happen to have.
“Exactly,” Nadelle agreed.
“What more can you tell us about the virus?” Jaren asked her.
“Well, it was synthetic for one.”
“Meaning it was engineered, deliberately. Either it was something experimental being worked on in a laboratory which just happened to be released accidentally, or…”
“Or for some reason it was developed and released maliciously,” Ana said, finishing the thought for Nadelle.
“I don’t… I don’t know what to make of that,” Jaren admitted.
“It doesn’t matter much now,” Terey offered somewhat distantly. “However it happened, that’s definitely what happened. At least we know now.
There was a somber moment of reflection which hung in the air for several moments before anyone spoke up again.
“I’d like to refer you back to my original question regarding… are we going to die?” Felix reiterated.
“No. I’ve already cured myself, Terey, Deirdre… Although it wasn’t recognized by New Horizon’s medical facilities, the medical equipment we brought with us from Kobol made rather quick work of it. When we’re done here I can cure the rest of you.”
“I didn’t realize Koboli medical technology was so advanced,” Reed commented.
“That’s the funny thing, actually. It’s not,” Nadelle offered. “I mean it certainly is more advanced, but not that much. This virus seems to have been specifically engineered to not be detectable to modern Earth medical technology of the day.”
“So it was developed maliciously,” Jaren asked.
“I still couldn’t state that definitively,” Nadelle countered. “Researchers could easily have developed something like this just to learn about it and how they might counter it if someone else did. Biotech can be as much of an arms race as anything else… there’s really no way to know. Don’t get me wrong, it has all the appearances of being a weaponized virus, but such a thing could be developed specifically to figure out how to counter it if it was developed by someone else.”
“Can you tell me what the disease progression would be without treatment?” Jaren asked.
“Simulations suggest that there would be no apparent symptoms for up to a week, during which time it is highly virulent and contagious, followed by a rapid decline over only a few hours resulting from multiple organ system failure.”
“Wow,” Teresa uttered. She and several others seemed quite disturbed by the description.
“Like I said,” Nadelle reiterated, “it’s weaponized. It’s designed to kill as many people as possible, to be a… global killer. With how interconnected Earth civilization would have been at the time, I’d bet most people on the planet were infected before the first person died from it.”
“Those poor people…” Deirdre uttered. “What about the colonies elsewhere in the system? What about all the ship in space while this was going on?”
“It ultimately wouldn’t matter if they were infected or not,” Terey explained. “Certainly many were, but even if they weren’t it would mean a fate almost worse. There were no places off-world in the system which had the capacity to be self-sustaining, that’s part of why all of our generational starships were built in the first place. The outposts in one form or another all still needed some sort of supply from Earth. If they didn’t get infected and die right away, they’d… die when their supplies finally gave out in the end.”
“Even worse…” Reed commented. Terey seemed to agree with a slightly conflicted nod.
“Kathryn.” Jaren uttered in a low voice through a tight face.
“Yes…” Nadelle confirmed. “There can be no doubt that she was immediately infected as well. If we can’t get to her before the rapid decline phase of the disease…”
“But one way or another, we’re not going to let that happen,” Parker stated firmly.
“No we are not,” Jaren confirmed.