2092-07-02 Local Time 0223
BetaMountain – MPQ 217
The sound came unexpectedly, crept from the peripheral circles of his perception into the focus of attention. He searched for a connection... He was immediately wide awake.
"Gas grenade. Out of here!" He pulled her out of bed without a thought for her nakedness. She woke up; the information trickled into her mind over the bridge into his thoughts. She leaped up and ran for the door. The man was like a shadow behind her – she thought. When the door sprang open she turned around for him and saw him lying collapsed on the ground.
"Shane!" The panic in her voice frightened her. Without regard for the yellow-green clouds of gas, she ran back to him, pulled him into the corridor and shut the door. "Shane!!" She shook him. He coughed convulsively and red blood poured over her hands. Pain and panic filled his mind and burned into her brain. She tore herself away and ran for the nearest transmitter: "Medical emergency. Personnel apartment 217 – security alert phase 1 – Ranger Gooseman wounded. Attack with an unknown gas."
One of the medics had given her a blanket. They insisted that she had them examine her, too, but she didn't leave the floating stretcher. Shane's coughing had stopped, but still the sheet was soaked with light-red blood. She couldn't feel his breathing any longer... "He's suffocating!" The medics reacted immediately. One of them pushed her back into the arms of someone behind her. She struggled to free herself.
"Miss. You can't help him now." It was one of the security officers who had cordoned off the apartment while the men from the hazardous materials department approached in full gear with heavy breathing apparatus.
"But I–" Tears started to trickle down her face. She sobbed.
"Let the medics do their job." He tried to calm her. "You should let them examine you – you were exposed to that gas, too. Come on. I'll take you to MedoStat. Shall I contact somebody for you?"
2092-07-02 Local Time 0401
BetaMountain – MedoStation
Zachary found Niko wrapped up in a grey-green terry robe in the waiting room. She sat, grey-faced, arms slung tightly around herself and legs drawn up, on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs. "Niko. How are you doing? Where–"
She sobbed and clamped her hands around her upper arms. "Still in the OR. They say, noth..." She swallowed heavily. "Nothing is certain yet but..." she sniffed, "they don't believe that themselves." She stared despairingly at the ceiling. Zach silently cursed her gift. "That doesn't make any sense!" she whispered. "I had at least as much of this toxin as he..."
"Wait here. I'm going to talk with the physicians. Maybe they'll tell me what's happening because I'm his commanding officer." He touched her shoulder soothingly with his bionic hand. She didn't need the fears her words caused him on top of her own.
"I don't want to mislead you, Captain: It looks very bad. In fact, the whole respiratory system is a single open wound. How he can still get oxygen under these circumstances is a mystery to us. The tissue actually seems to be liquefying. If we can't stop this process successfully..." Niko stood outside at the window and stared through the glass into the OR. Dr. Miyar looked earnestly at Fox. "It would be better if you prepared the young woman for it." He shook his head. "I've never seen anything like this before."
"Would batches of that gas do any good? I can arrange it."
"Certainly. But I doubt that we have the time for an analysis. We don't even know how this process works, let alone how to stop it. And there's still the question of why this stuff that's strong enough for a Supertrooper has no effect on a young woman like Niko. We–"
"Of course! – Keep him alive. I know who may be able to answer some of your questions, Doctor." Fox ran for an intercom. "Verbal identification: Fox, Zachary, Galaxy Rangers Series-5, Captain. Request an immediate secure contact with Walsh, Joseph, Base Commander."
2092-07-02 Local Time 0438
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Take your personnel out of here, Doctor. We're taking over."
"He's my patient! I'm not going anywhere until I've exhausted all chances of helping him."
The floating brain unit broke in: =Swear him in, Joseph. We have no time to lose. I'm a geneticist, not a general practitioner.=
"What's actually going on here?"
"Your patient is something – special."
"I've already noticed that, but–"
"Raise your right hand. Do you swear never to pass on in any form what you learn about this patient or any matters related to him, now and in the future?"
"Only if it doesn't harm my patient."
Negata studied the indicators above the bio bed. =How have the values changed since admittance?=
"Blood pressure has stabilized by about 60 to 65 percent standard. Breathing is heavily reduced and the patient accordingly cyanotic. At this time it's taking six units of blood plasma per hour to compensate for the loss of fluids."
=Are there any witnesses to the incident?=
"Ranger Niko was with him when it happened, Professor. She's in the waiting room."
=I need to talk to her.=
"We were asleep, sir. He woke me, shouted something about gas. It came out of the ventilation system. We ran for the door. He was just behind me..." She trembled again and Fox standing beside her chair laid his hand on her shoulder supportively. "Or that was what I thought... till I turned round and... there was gas everywhere."
=Describe the gas.=
"It was... shaded somehow, orange and yellow-green, and it smelled like... like..." She faltered, searched for a comparison.
=Like apricots and gasoline?=
"Yes." She flared up. "Then you already know this horrible stuff!"
"Then you do know how to help him?"
=No, Niko." The brain unit floated for the door. "Send her home, Joseph. She's okay.=
"Fox, get her–"
"I am going nowhere at all!!" Niko flared up like a kicked cat and spat her words at the commander. "Not until I know that Goose will pull through!"
"You can't stay, or–"
"You'll freeze me?" she snapped. "I won't go! If I have to I'll spend the winter here. But I won't go."
"The same goes for me, sir."
Walsh followed Negata with a resigned sigh.
"Is it what we feared?"
=Yes, old friend. Genomtoxin.=
"You have to help him..."
=Joseph, I don't even understand why he's still alive. Genomtoxin destroys all tissue based on artificial DNA such as STJ. He should already be just a red puddle!=
Walsh lowered his head, bit his lip. "Maybe I have an explanation." He took a deep breath. "Gooseman's DNA is only partly based on STJ."
=What did you say?=
=And the rest of it!?=
"He's Leana's and my child."
=For heaven's sake, Joseph. Do you know what you're saying?=
"Yes. And I think it's his only chance."
=Who was the geneticist responsible?=
=He's dead. Do you have his papers?=
=Then we'll have to see whether the natural DNA sequence is enough or not.=
"What does that mean?"
=What do you know about Genomtoxin, Joseph?=
"Only that it was developed after the Wolf Den riot as a special weapon against Supertroopers."
=It works on the basis of the standardized inactive code of artificial DNA like STJ. That's almost 90 percent of the helix. In artificial DNA the inactive part is simply a permanent repetition of a short inactive standard fill sequence, the SFS, while the inactive components of natural DNA are as complex and differentiated as the active parts because they were formed during the evolutionary process and sorted out later. Genomtoxin actually is nothing but a protein that cracks the SFS in an enzymatic process. The molecules of the gas penetrate a cell based on artificial DNA, destroy tissue structure and function – as it were, the construction plan – and go on to the next cell. A single gas cartridge can kill almost an unlimited number of STs. The received dose of the gas only influences the time until exitus. – And it is totally harmless to normal people, since natural DNA doesn't include the SFS.=
"My god. Does an antitoxin exist?"
=No. It was never developed. Wasn't necessary.=
"Then we have to get it out of his body..."
=It is tissue transitive, Joseph. His chest seems to be the only affected tissue because lung tissue is designed for gas absorption. We'll try it, but if he survives long enough... Call QBall over and get me a direct connection with the main computers. If we program the molecule structure as the scan pattern, we should be able to separate the gas molecules from his body matter.= The brain unit floated toward the operation room. =While I get this know-it-all to keep the test object alive.=
"Owen. He isn't–"
"I'm ready, Professor." QBall straightened up and pushed his goggles higher up his nose. "The computers can't make a better resolution of the gas structure."
=Feed the data into the matter scanner. – Doctor, do you use cell lasers on dirty wounds?=
"Of course. We're up-to-date. But–"
=Use the matter scanner data as target coordinates.=
"They have an error of more than 8 percent compared with the instrument's own detector. It will unnecessarily injure the patient."
=You're not listening to me, are you? If we don't remove the toxin inside him, there won't be anything left of your patient! So start, will you!=
The yellow-white beam shot glistening into Gooseman's chest, focused on a gas molecule deep inside the bloody pool of his respiratory tract, heated it until it reached the reaction enthalpy of the compound. The molecule broke into ions, which immediately reassembled into new compounds. Foreign substances of many different structures began to accumulate in Goose's lungs: carbohydrates, cyanides... some highly toxic but not capable of specifically destroying DNA. They would clean up these leftovers later. The laser searched for a new target; focused, hissing. The smell of burned flesh filled the room. The body strapped to the operation table twitched. The physician, green-faced, changed the bags of plasma in shorter and shorter intervals to compensate for the loss of body fluids. Walsh dug his fingernails into his palms. Time was running...
2092-07-02 Local Time 2305
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"That's how it looks now. We are still neutralizing the gas in his body. I can't say how long it will take." The physician looked tired.
"Is he faring better yet?" Niko had dark rings under her eyes and was still waiting, clothed in the terry robe.
"We can't stabilize him before we have removed all the toxin. It depends on whether he survives till the end of the procedure."
"He will make it!"
"Your friend is extremely seriously wounded, Miss. Don't forget that. And you really should get some sleep. You won't help him by staying here."
"I'm staying." She pointed at a sports bag next to her chair; Zach had brought it to her during his lunch break, telling her also that Poss had appeared at his place and that Eliza was taking care of the cat now. "But I would be grateful for a room to change clothes."
"You can go into the nurses' room." He tried an encouraging smile. "They probably also have coffee and some cookies."
"I don't feel like eating."
"Still here?" Doc arrived a short time after her return from the nurses' room. "You must look after yourself. Goose wouldn't want you to–"
"Forget it, Doc. Everyone around has already tried to get me to leave. And that's exactly why I'm staying. Nobody can take him anywhere without my noticing." She slumped down on the plastic chair. "I'm frightened out of my mind about him..."
"Hey! These are the best specialists in the world. You can trust them. If someone–" He broke off when he noticed her expression, the fear, the fatigue and the fury behind it.
"These specialists – QBall, Walsh, Negata and the whole club – drove him through hell at Wolf Den, Doc. And now he's been poisoned by a gas that doesn't work on me at all. I'm sensing clearly that they know what it is – and that they never thought it necessary to find an antidote for it. So don't talk to me about trust!"
"You mean, one of them is–"
"No. But Supertroopers were never rated highly. Except for Walsh, I believe everyone in there is capable of seeing Goose as nothing but a test animal." She trembled.
"You look ready to drop. You need a few hours' rest."
"No, I won't give up, no more than he..." She nodded in the direction of the OR with tears in her eyes and whispered, "I can feel him, Doc. The pain, the panic, the fear..."
2092-07-03 Local Time 1517
BetaMountain – MedoStation
=He mustn't use his abilities, Joseph.=
"The implant is already discharged."
=That doesn't mean that his bio defenses are inactive, they're just not enhanced. And especially since the affected artificial DNA forms the base of his powers, I can't foresee the consequences.=
"What could happen?"
=The tissue could degenerate, the different DNA components could turn against each other. He must not use his bio defenses for any reason before his body has fully regenerated.=
"He is trained to use them automatically when he's wounded."
=That has to be prevented.=
Brows drawn together, Walsh looked at the motionless figure in the breathing apparatus. "When it will happen?"
=If he doesn't regain consciousness within the next five hours...=
The doctor's voice roused her out of a doze. "You can go and see him. The commander wants to talk to you first. Shall I contact your colleagues?"
She was already half out the door. "Yes, please."
"And be warned: He's more dead than alive."
She looked with shaded eyes at the doctor, who suddenly remembered what was said about the woman on the Series-5 team. "I know."
...the first sensation was pain: burning, throbbing, surrounded by numbness and cold; then the weight of his unmoving ribs. Shaky pulse beats penetrated as sounds into the focus of his attention, combined with the searing wheeze of the vanishing breath, and were pushed aside by green-black spots in his visual field: lack of oxygen. His body didn't reply to his desperate, reflexive attempts to breathe. The panic grew, together with the number of spots. Again gas was pressed into his lungs, was forced coldly burning through the upper respiratory tract, tore open the scarred-over bronchii, and reached the alveoli. The green-black spots were expelled by white, burning pain. The white faded to a pale yellow. Shadows moved on it between the reappearing spots. Other sounds interfered with the wavering pulse: electronic bleeps in the same rhythm, a metallic clack. The wheezing of air, vanishing again, drowned out the bleeping, called back the fear of suffocation. Again breath was pressed into the lungs, the cold expelled the inner burning, and his relief at getting air vanished in the pain of inflamed wounds. The white faded again. The shadows came closer. A voice echoed inside him...
"Shane?" Niko gripped his hands, massaged them till the skin seemed less transparent. They grew no warmer. She felt cold sweat tingling at her fingers as her thoughts cleared themselves a path through the chaos.
"Is he awake?"
"I'm not sure, Commander." She concentrated, again tried to break the barrier of pain, and cringed under the striking waves of agony and fear when she reached him again. Confusion welcomed her, desperation. Fury touched her senses, confirmed the success of her first attempts. "He understands it, sir." She stumbled when the contact broke off and the recollections of it were written into her memory. "He can hardly get any air, Professor. His dominant feeling is the fear of suffocating."
=I know, Niko,= Negata answered, =but he has only about 40 percent of his lung tissue left intact. The rest is eaten up into a bleeding mess and full of poisonous products from the decomposition of the deradiated gas molecules. For the wounds to close we had to adjust the artificial respiration to the lowest life-supporting level.=
"Why isn't he being respirated via the blood, sir?"
=His lungs are a single bloody clot. The scar structures will close the respiratory passages if we don't force them into movement.=
"And scars don't breathe..." Walsh added in a hoarse voice.
...the rage died, seeped away at the order not to use his bio defenses. The voices became blurred, were sucked away by the green-black spots. Then the next wave of white, burning pain broke down on him and drowned him in the darkness...
"Professor, how long until he can use his bio defenses?"
=Not until his injuries are fully healed. I don't know what would happen if he did.=
"I should set a psionic block the next time he regains consciousness."
"A mental barrier to prevent him from involuntarily activating his abilities."
=Do it right now.=
"He has to be awake, Professor. If he's unconscious I can't reach him that deeply."
2092-07-04 Local Time 1456
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Captain Fox." Walsh awaited him at MedoStat's entrance. "Get Niko out of here and put her to bed. She's been here for nearly 72 hours."
"She won't want to go, sir."
"Fox, either she goes now voluntarily or the physician gives her a tranquilizer. We don't need another emergency on your team."
"How is Goose doing?"
"He regained consciousnes for a short period a couple of times. Whether he has a chance or not will be decided when the artificial respiration is stopped."
"When will that be?"
"Not until the day after tomorrow. And whatever's going to happen, she'll need a clear head, so get her to sleep. And be sure that she gets at least 48 hours of rest. If necessary, stand next to her bed with a stunner," growled Walsh, rumbling.
"May I visit him?"
"Yes. You have to go in anyway to get her out of there." After an angry sigh: "Don't tell her, but I'm going to drop the matter of her refusal to obey orders."
"Thank you, sir."
"Forget it. I've known for quite a while that the two of them cling together like leeches. But as long as I don't have to notice it officially..."
The metallic clacks of the respirator's heavy ventiles marked the time in the room, divided it into intervals of five seconds, each of them filled with the burning pain or the excruciating hunger for breath in the otherwise motionless body on the bed.
Zachary remained next to the door, tried to get control over his thoughts. The respirator's tubes, as thick as three fingers and transparent, were connected to the permanent tube via handles. A grey-white aerosol was mixed into every forced breath. Different IV needles stuck out of Goose's left elbow and hand. Sensor stickers on neck, temples, and chest connected the ST with the supervising medo computers.
Half-open green eyes wandered over to the curled-up figure in the chair next to the bed and returned to him, though veiled in the rhythm of breathing, with a questioning look.
"She's okay, Goose," he said faintly. "The poison had no effect on her."
The green eyes closed in relief for a moment, returned to him after three breaths, rested for a moment, searched Niko's face again, and burned back into Zachary's eyes with a furious sparkle inside them.
"I'm here to get her to bed, Goose," he said, smiling. Some things never change: this man will watch her even out of his grave! Zach startled at the thought: He's not far away from there... He walked over to her, had a short look at her sunken cheeks and the deep shadows of exhaustion around her eyes. Two people have fought for a life here. A thermal coffee pot and empty paper cups stood on the floor next to the chair – probably a little present from the nursing staff. "Wake up, Niko. It's time to sleep in your own bed."
It took some time for her to react and straighten up. "I can't leave..."
"Niko, you can't go against the commander's orders forever."
"The commander knows what h–"
"Lieutenant!" Fox became slightly louder. "You need rest. You're of no use to anyone in your condition."
"Even he wants you to sleep, Niko."
She winced and turned her attention away from Zach. Her gaze unfocused briefly when she touched the pain and pushed it aside to feel for Shane's self... Rage met her; fury penetrated the chaos, threw to her out of his wounded self a single word that crashed into her mind: Sleep. She retreated, stood up, trembled and met Goose's urging green eyes.
"I'll go." The relief in the ST's gaze was cut off by his eyes closing.
She was so exhausted that Zachary had to steady her. As he closed the door the control panels next to the bed showed the patient's fall into sleep: a single green lamp amongst a cascade of yellow and red.
2092-07-04 Local Time 1532
BetaMountain – Apartment 219
She was already asleep as he pulled the blanket over her. Zach watched her for a moment, then walked into her kitchen and made himself a coffee. He took a seat on the sofa with a heap of mission reports, put his feet on the coffee table, and tried without success to do some work. The impressions from the medo station pushed themselves in front of the letters. Gooseman was always fair-skinned, but now? His skin was almost transparent. You could see the dark-violet blood vessels. The cascade of needles in his arm, the violence of the respirator, under which the restrained body twitched at every stroke... He tried to imagine a day made of such pain in five-second intervals, with the knowledge that the next day will be the same, and the day after it... with the permanent sensation of suffocating. He pushed the image far away with a shudder, got up and looked in on the curled-up figure in the next room. Niko slept with her arms wrapped around the pillow and her face, even in sleep, showed the pain of her being a witness... This isn't only Goose's battle.
After two more hours, he initiated a computer connection with his own apartment three cross-corridors away.
"I'd better be far away when she notices this," he murmured faintly, put the note on the table next to the door, and left.
You should sleep for at least 48 hours. Do that. GV won't open your door earlier. Doc knows he'll spend two years at Pluto Base if he lets you out before that, so you can save the call. I'm sorry. It's an order from the commander.