As Doctor Hannigan checked the new data uploading to her screen, Ness waited patiently. The soft-faced woman was seated in the bench across from her, her hands in her lap and a calm smile on her face. Cybele noted how her spirits never fluctuated, never wavered, even in the face of all she was dealing with. It was no wonder the Captain thought so highly of her.
The numbers finished compiling, and they were bad. Lymphocyte apoptosis wasn’t exactly irreversible just yet, but T-Cell counts were steadily dropping by the day. “How does it look,” Ness asked, her curiosity finally winning out.
“It says here you’re faking it.”
Ness laughed, a sound like wind-chimes dancing in the spring. “That would be so lovely if true.”
Doctor Hannigan smiled. “It’s about what I expected.” She put down the screen for the time being. “What about you, how are you sleeping?”
“In small doses. I’ve been having some intense dreams.”
Ness’ skin shimmered, betraying the light beneath. “Doctor Hannigan, that’s a very personal question,” she fake-scolded. “But no, just nightmares. I wish I had the energy to go into the studio, I’ve had enough inspiration to last a lifetime.”
“And your skin?”
Ness tried to smile. “Still hurts.”
“We’ll up the dosage on your painkillers, there’s no reason for you to be uncomfortable.” Doctor Hannigan leaned over and made a note on her screen.
“I’m sure my wife hasn’t thought to thank you,” Ness said. The Doctor looked up from her notes, caught off-guard by the statement. “We both appreciate everything you’re doing.”
Captain Ashby had been confrontational lately, even more-so than usual. Cybele preferred to spend her energies on treating her patients rather than fighting with their spouses. It was no coincidence that she scheduled her house calls when she knew the Captain wouldn’t be home. “Well, she’s a busy woman,” Hannigan offered.
“Whereas I have nothing but time on my hands. I always wanted to be a kept woman, but I never meant like this.”
“Ahh, be careful what you wish for.” Hannigan smiled. “Anyway you can thank me when your tests come back clean. Then we’ll share a drink and celebrate.”
“God, a drink sounds great,” Ness sighed. Doctor Hannigan noticed a tinge of resignation in her voice, like she didn’t believe it would ever happen. It was the first time she’d noticed a slip of confidence in Ness, which led her to believe the pain was worse than the woman was letting on. She gathered up her screen.
“I’ll let you get some rest, but I’ll be back in two days for the next checkup. Anything you want to add before I go, any new symptoms I should know about?”
“No, nothing new, I just…” The woman’s face suddenly looked like a crystal chandelier about to fall apart. “I want you to know, regardless of what Jennifer says-”
“It won’t come to that.”
“But if it does, no matter what she tells you, I’m the third most important part of this equation, okay? Not first, not second. That’s my decision.” Her eyes glinted with all the things she wanted to say but couldn’t.
Cybele nodded. “Okay, Ness. Okay.”
Ness nodded back, a pained smile on her otherwise smooth face.
“Sunn, that’ll be all,” Doctor Hannigan said. With that Ness dissolved, the hologram deconstructing and fading away, leaving an empty bench behind. Doctor Hannigan stood and moved to the recently-installed window, where Ness waved from the quarantined half of the quarters. She was, as usual, surrounded by medical equipment and dog-eared books and everything else she’d been using to pass the time. Sunn stood next to her. He watched Ness wave, then repeated the gesture with yellow light still shining from eyes set to repeat mode. How Ness managed to sit through their visits with Sunn looking at her like that, his eyes two, glowing cameras, Hannigan didn’t know. Sunn had always made her a bit uneasy to begin with, let alone staring void-like.
“Is this quarantine still necessary,” a voice suddenly asked. Doctor Hannigan turned to find Captain Ashby in the doorway, still in full uniform. There was no telling how long she’d been there, or what she’d heard. Doctor Hannigan pulled her screen tight to her chest, like a shield.
“As long as she’s showing symptoms, absolutely,” she replied. The Captain frowned at her.
“There hasn’t been a living mosquito in a thousand years.”
“Yes, I know. We wiped them out. It didn’t help if you remember.”
“That’s because it was too late. That was a much later stage, as you’ve explained to me so many times.”
Cybele shook her head. “That’s not the point.”
“Oh? And what is the point, Doctor?”
“That viruses can and very often do mutate. It was mostly vector-borne back then, but who knows about now? I’ve asked you this before but I need to bring in more people on this. At the very least let me talk to someone with advanced knowledge of Virology or-”
“No. No one else.” The Captain was immovable when she wanted to be- and she always wanted to be. Doctor Hannigan had to change her approach, lest she find herself crushed under the woman’s will.
“She’s getting worse,” Hannigan said.
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I know you do. It’s obvious. Listen, I’ve kept this quiet out of respect for you and Ness, but rumors are spreading through the ship.”
The Captain scoffed. “People will always whisper, there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“No. I’m sorry, Captain, but you can’t just brush them off like that. Those people are your responsibility.”
“Thank you, Doctor, I’m quite aware of the lives that have been placed in my hands, and what Ness- what this- means for them.” The Captain moved past her, peeking in on her wife.
“Then you understand that I have to do what’s necessary to protect them.” Cybele paused. “Jennifer,” she said, softening her voice. The woman turned to face her. “What I’m saying is, you need to make a decision soon.”
The woman’s eyes drifted to some far-off place. “How long?”
“As soon as possible. A week at most.”
The Captain was silent a moment. She nodded almost imperceptibly, then offered to show the Doctor out. Halfway to the door she suddenly turned back. “I still don’t understand how that fucking virus got on the Ark,” she suddenly blurted. “We were supposed to all be clear of it, or we weren’t allowed on board.”
Doctor Hannigan knew why the Captain was upset, other than the obvious. She’d read the woman’s file, knew how she came to be on the Ark- and more importantly how her parents hadn’t. “It’s possible the scans just missed it. These things can start very small, a single bacterium hiding in the spinal fluid is enough to be a carrier, then one day for whatever reason it begins to divide, and soon-”
“Can it be stopped?”
Cybele exhaled. “Part of why we left Earth was because it couldn’t, and we haven’t learned much about it since.”
“A thousand years and we’ve made no progress whatsoever.”
“No one has bothered to spend time on it because, quite frankly, we thought we’d left it behind. They didn’t even bring samples on board because it would violate the quarantine. The best thing I can tell you is, at least if Ness goes into Cryo she has a chance, which is better than she has now. That’ll give us time to study the samples, do some testing, and find a way to help her.”
The Captain glanced back toward the other room. “But that’s not what she wants.”
“No. It’s not. You do have a say in this, though.” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “You two have a lot to discuss, so I want to be perfectly clear with you: if Ness goes into Cryosleep, the baby won’t survive the freeze.”
Ashby’s face was like stone. “Thank you, Doctor,” she replied, and finished showing her guest out. Hannigan said her goodbyes and exited the room, standing back in the expansive hallway of Deck Five. The moment it shut behind her, she could hear soft crying coming from the other side of the door.
She took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. At times like these she had to remember why she’d chosen her Vocation in the first place, to ease the pain of fellow passengers, to improve their quality of life and to help as many of them as possible reach their promised destination. The oath she’d taken on her first day reminded her she wasn’t treating a disease, she was treating a person. That meant her responsibility included all the things that came with being a human being- and that included family.
Looking around, she suddenly realized just how late it had gotten. Most of Deck Five had turned in for the night, with only a few stragglers left wandering the halls. She headed to the elevator, wanting to stop by her office and check on a few things before heading back to her quarters for the night. As she walked she noticed there seemed to be some strange elements lurking about, small groups of two or three people engaging in hushed conversations that stopped as she passed them by. It was no surprise. Talk of one or more cults operating in the shadows had done much to unsettle the passengers, and the rumors about Captain Ashby locking up her sick wife didn’t help. Then there was Erick Desanto’s little performance, getting a skull full of electricity right in the middle of a crowded cafeteria, delivered to him by an overzealous Peace Officer.
Things had been interesting lately, and as the old curse went: May you live in an interesting cycle.
As she neared the elevator, her thoughts lingered on Desanto. He was a fascinating if not haunted man. There was something behind his eyes that intrigued her, an intellect beyond his years that shone through despite the memory loss. He was something of a puzzle, and she liked puzzles. It didn’t hurt that he wasn’t too harsh on the eyes, either.
When she reached the elevator she found it was on lockdown, the failsafe engaged. It was a rare sight. In fact the only other time she’d seen it happen was when a hawk escaped from one of the environments and got into the transportation ducts. It spent three days feeding on mice and evading capture until someone managed to hit it with a Tranquilizer. If this time was at all similar, someone was having a rough night- including the mice.
She glanced up, a play of light catching her attention, and noticed an intricate web had been constructed where the wall met the ceiling. A fat spider was hunched at the center with some poor insect in its clutches, wrapped-up tightly like the mummies of old. Cybele didn’t like spiders. Something about the way they moved, the unnaturally quick motions of their legs. It wasn’t quite arachnophobia, but it was close enough. The insect, probably a fly, twitched out it’s last few movements in the spider’s grip, the life leaving its doomed body.
Hawks. Spiders. It was, it seemed, a night for predators.
“Screw it,” she said, deciding to head back to her quarters. It was a long walk to the next elevator, and anything she had to do in her office could wait until the next day. She’d only gotten a few steps away, ten feet at most, when a strange, whip-like sound turned her back. It was a wet, reaching sound, like what she imagined an octopus would sound like if it hunted on land.
There was nothing behind her, just an empty hallway all the way to the next bend. She returned to the elevator, thinking it had something to do with the failsafe, some emergency she would need to report, but the elevator remained shut, the message on its screen unchanged. Before heading off, she glanced one more time at the web above, an old habit of needing to keep track of spiders. She didn’t like looking at them, but they always seemed so much worse when she couldn’t see them.
Not only was the spider gone, but so was its meal, the cocooned insect it had held to its body. The broken web floated on the air in tatters, looking like someone had walked through it or otherwise destroyed it with a violent swipe of the hand. Considering the web was eight feet off the ground, and there wasn’t another person in sight, that option didn’t seem likely. It was if some phantom presence had fallen on the spider and obliterated both it and its home in the span of a blink. She chalked it up to one of those strange, little unexplained phenomena a person witnesses throughout their life.
After all, she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over one less spider in the world.
Shaking it off, she walked to her quarters in silence. She saw only a few people along the way, and none she knew particularly well, save for Theo Miller, a teenage boy whose father she suspected of having involvement with one or more of the cults operating on the Ark. The boy had a tendency to sit on a chair outside his door and watch the people walking by. The way he looked at her had always made Cybele uncomfortable, and tonight was no exception.
Finally inside, she looked around at her quarters. It felt good to be home after a long day, especially one that involved a call to the Ashbys, and truth be told she’d barely spent any time in her quarters lately, always running from patient to patient, freeze to thaw. She poured herself a glass of water, drank it, fed her lonely fish, brushed her teeth, applied some moisturizer to her hands and face, and eventually, some time later, got undressed for bed.
Sitting in bed in her underwear, she pulled up the old files on her screen. She scrolled through photographs of skin lesions and red-stained eyes. She watched footage of men and women displaying the mental degradation that was common in the later stages, when meningitis attacked the brain and caused it to swell inside the skull. The confusion. The anger. The erratic twitches.
Oceanus pestis they called it, named after Oceanus, the Titan God whose river of fresh water stood between the habitable world and the underworld of ancient Greece. Scientists always seemed to turn into poets when they were tasked with naming a new disease. Most people had simply called it the Titan Virus.
In spite of the heavy material, Cybele had to see the humor in what she was doing: where most people would be winding down with a book or an old movie right about now, maybe even enjoying one of the newer movies made by the filmmakers on board, she was sitting in her bra and panties, watching the people of Earth die.
Earth. There was no telling what it would be like now. The oceans had risen almost sixty meters by last measure. Coastal cities, they were all but gone. The flooding had pushed people inland, where they were packed so tightly it only made the virus’ job of wiping them out that much easier. Even after the mosquitoes were eradicated, the Titan Virus had flourished. It resisted all treatment, side-stepped every vaccine. By the time the Ark’s construction was completed, Earth’s population was hovering just under three billion, and still dropping.
The oath she’d taken rang once again in her ears. I will prevent and cure disease on board whenever I can, though I will remain a passenger of the Ark, with obligations to all my fellow passengers both healthy and ill.
Having seen enough, she turned off the screen. Eleven billion people had died of that wretched virus. Eleven billion souls lost to its cruel biology. If Titan was truly back, if it was on the Ark, she had to do everything in her power to make sure it stayed confined to Ness- even if that meant it had to die with her.