If you’re just joining the tale, you might want to jump back to part 1 first.
Dr. Vega, hands on her hips, wearing her high-end, cyan-hued hazmat suit, stood blocking the airlock when we arrived. We both stopped and stood before her. My chest was heaving—the run in my bulky suit had done me in.
“Bring him this way.” Vega turned and started walking away from the airlock.
“Where... are... we…. going?” I asked between gasps.
“Here.” She gestured to a nearby daycare centre. “The doors all lock and there are observation cameras.”
“Right.” Of course, Ned couldn’t go through the airlock to the uncontaminated part of the colony.
Ned said nothing—highly unusual for him. I glanced his way, his face was pale. I felt like I should say something to cheer him up, but what?
In silence, we followed Dr. Vega into the daycare’s main playroom. Colourful toys were spewed around the room, making the space feel simultaneously festive and cluttered. I spotted a pink elephant, a plush dragon and an apple red flying saucer interspersed with the kind of smaller, pointed building blocks that would cause infinite pain if stepped on.
“You certain the plague is airborne?” I asked as Dr. Vega pulled out a compact wire rack of sample vials and a syringe from a sleek pouch on her belt.
“That’s the only way it could’ve spread so fast.” She turned to Ned. “You might as well take off the rest of that suit.”
Ned striped off his hazmat suit. Underneath, he wore his usual khaki cargo pants topped with an obnoxious sweater featuring way too much pink. Before dumping the suit on the floor, he removed his comms device and slipped it into his pocket.
“How long until someone becomes like them?” I waved in the general direction of the other colonists.
“It acts fast,” she said before extracting several vials of blood from Ned. Ignoring Ned, she looked directly at me. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We’ll figure this out,” I said to Ned, before forcing what I hoped was an encouraging smile onto my face. “When you’re cured, I’ll buy you a whole pie to keep to yourself.”
“Sounds good.” Ned bit his lip and sat down on a too-small-for-an-adult chair. He smiled. “I’ll just hang out here and relax.”
“I’ll keep you updated.”
Nodding, he pulled out a roll of candy from his cargo pocket. “At least I packed extra of these. Who knew their new flavour would be this good.” His monotone voice didn’t give any hint he actually thought the candy was fantastic. He ripped open the glittery package and popped one in his mouth.
“I’ve got to get analyzing this.” Dr. Vega waved her wire rack of samples as though they were a shuttle ticket. She turned and marched out of the room.
I smiled back at Ned, and noticed his smile didn’t reach his eyes. A knot turned in my gut as I followed Dr. Vega out of the room.
After leaving Ned, Dr. Vega and I went through the complicated decontamination process her people set up. Once relieved of our suits, I followed Vega into her lab. She gave Ned’s blood samples to an assistant before continuing on to check on some equipment, as though I was an invisible shadow.
My blood started to boil as I stood in the centre of the space. I put my hands on my hips and glared at the back of Dr. Vega’s head. She continued to ignore me, so I surveyed the room.
The mobile lab bustled with people in lab coats and goggles. Everyone appeared hard at work peering at the readouts before them. As I glanced at their screens, it became immediately clear that I had no idea what any of it meant. Then I saw the video feed from the daycare. In the glitchy black and white image, there was Ned, still sitting in the same chair but now bent over with his head in his hands. Even though he regularly annoyed the crap out of me, I had to do something for my partner.
“How long until he becomes a zombie like the others?” I asked, breaking the concentration in the room.
“Huh?” Vega replied as all her technician’s heads swivelled my direction just like the colonists had.
“How long until Detective Diamond becomes like the colonists?” I pointed at the screen showing my partner.
“We haven’t finished analyzing the data.” She turned back to the screen before her.
“Has anyone looked at the dome’s video feeds?” I demanded in a tone that couldn’t be ignored.
Dr. Vega didn’t even bother glancing my way. “I don’t see how they are relevant.”
Heat rose in my face. I couldn’t just stand idly by and wait. Clenching my hands into fists at my side, I vowed to do something—I owed Ned that much.
“We could use the footage to figure out when people began acting strange.” Why didn’t a room full of eggheads start with the basics? “Build a timeline.”
“Go ahead.” Vega still didn’t look my way. Part of me wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake sense into her. “Morris, set the detective up.”
A young man in a pristine white lab coat and glossy black hair waved me over to his screen. I walked over.
“Which feed do you want to look at?” Morris asked as he switched a series of complex plots over to a simple video feed.
“Do you have one of the pond?” I crossed my arms over my chest and watched him work. A moment later an overhead view of the orchard appeared mid screen, with the pond at its centre.
“This is right now,” he said.
All the colonists were standing, naked, in the pond—just like I had seen in real life, a few moments ago.
“Okay, run it backwards and speed it up.”
He did as I asked. The infected colonists started moving backwards, still milling about as though hanging out in the pond was the only activity they needed to do. Eventually, backwards-moving colonists disappeared out of the frame until a single woman stood in the pond.
“Stop here.” The frame froze the dark-haired woman in the centre of the screen. “Who’s that?”
Morris looked up at me. “Do you think she’s our patient zero?”
“She was the first one there.”
“Let me run our facial recognition algorithm.”
“Bingo!” Dr. Vega shouted from the other side of the room. We all turned to look at her. “We’ve got it. The sample from Detective Diamond has shown us the infection is a fungus, one that normally infects ants.”
Morris’ face lit up. “Ooooo, is that the one that drives the ants up to a high place then a mushroom bursts out of their heads?” His enthusiasm for the concept disturbed me.
“That one’s an exact match.” Vega crossed her arms with a smirk.
“It can be cured before a mushroom bursts out of anyone’s head, right?” I asked. The room fell silent, and no one would make eye contact with me.
“Without knowing the source…” Vega’s words drop off. She inhaled so deeply, I could see her shoulders rise. “We need a sample of the spores produced by the flowering stage.”
“We can’t just wait here until someone’s head explodes!” I glanced over to the screen showing Ned, then to the colonists milling around the pond. “There has to be another way.”
“Maisy Newport,” Morris said as he stood from the workstation running the facial recognition AI.
“Patient zero?” I went over to his side.
“She was the first to arrive at the pond.”
Dr. Vega came over and stood beside us. “It looks like she got there an hour before the sensors picked up the pathogen and called us.”
I looked at the time stamp. Maisy arrived at the pond roughly eight hours ago. “Can you show me Maisy now?”
The image flipped back to the current view. Morris zoomed into where Maisy stood in the dead centre of the pond. She wasn’t moving. I bit my lip, half expecting a mushroom to burst out of her head.
“And now all the colonists are infected?” I asked.
“It looks like everyone in the apple orchard dome has been.” Morris looked at his screen for a moment. “Wait… one colonist isn’t there.”
“Who?” I asked as I leaned forward to see over his shoulder.
“David Newport is missing. Maisy’s ten-year-old son.” Morris studied his readouts then pointed to a map on the screen. “And there he is. In the family dwelling. Unit 21C.”
“So everyone, except David, has been driven to the pond.” I pulled myself up straight and faced Dr. Vega. “I’ll go talk to the boy.”
Dr. Vega shrugged. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to help, but do what you like, we’re busy here.” She strode off to talk to a group of her staff.
Beside me Morris unwrapped a candy and popped it in his mouth before he noticed me watching. “Want to try a Space Chew? It’s their new flavour.” He raised the package towards me.
“Sure,” I said before taking the entire roll of candy. I turned and left.
to be continued…