The story takes up where we left off at Sa'jathan's last writing.
Chiana has come to the Research Facility on Sanctuary. The rest is behind the cut, with more to follow soon.
Chiana lowered her body from the ceiling vent in a silent arc until she could feel floor beneath her boots. In the dim light of the cell, Meelak sat unmoving, his hands folded in his lap.
He looked smaller than she remembered, in the grey, plainwoven garment they had dressed him in. Everything he was carrying must have been discovered - including Chiana’s beacon, and crucially, the chip containing information Meelak had told her was vital to the Resistance. Chiana crept close, and peered into his face. His black eyes met hers through the silence.
She fought against being overcome with regret for planting something on him that he would have had no way of explaining. Certainly he must have been questioned about the attack upon his vessel by the Peacekeepers, the loss of Varla, and his returning emptyhanded from their mission to bring Chiana to the outpost as his prisoner. The presence of the beacon she had so impulsively placed on his uniform would have led to more thorough scrutinization, harsher questions. Her mistake had cost more than she could ever have forseen. Now, in the Establishment Research Center, the young Nebari sat speechless and still.
“Meelak,” she whispered, trying to make her voice sound strong. “I’m gonna get you out of this place. Come on.”
But though she said these words, and reached to try to support him, she knew he could not be gotten back. Meelak gave no response. He continued to stare at her, his lips a slack line.
Chiana blinked her tears back. Her brother Nerri had wanted her to stay out of the situation. He may have been thinking of her well being, but he may have also thought she could not be depended upon. Nerri knew she could not see more than a hand's breadth into the future, nor calculate consequences, when emotions clouded her mind. And here, she had confirmed this. All she had thought of was getting to Nerri at any cost, once she knew he was still alive. Mourning her brother's death one moment, and seeing his recent holo image speaking to her in the next, had been too much for her. Now the whole Resistance, including Meelak and probably even Nerri, would be made to suffer because of her.
Chiana felt her blood run cold. Her fury at herself cleared her mind in a microt. In Meelak's low-ceilinged cell she straightened to her full diminutive height, fingers extended at her sides. There it is, she thought to herself, her every nerve tingling. I am always at my best when I don't care if I live or die. She dwelled in this sensation for a moment as she decided what she must do, even if it meant annihilating herself, or perhaps especially so.
She'd made Rygel give her the echoslip reader he'd stolen on their way through the base, before leaving him at the top of the Research Hospital's ventillation array. Most of the doorways in the Research Facility were still equipped with an antiquated code-based system. Chiana fished the thin metal card out of her vest, and prowled noiselessly to the door. She pressed the echoslip against all of the the code pad keys with equal pressure. There was a dull flash of rust colored light as the pad and the echoslip interfaced. When she pulled the echoslip back to look at it, she could clearly see six points showing brighter than all the rest. The symbols had exposed against the reader in descending levels of brightness, depicting the order in which they had been punched. Easy. This was the code used by the last person to exit the cell. Now it was a matter of simple tracking. She could do that in her sleep.
A lightly shifting footfall echoed in from the corridor. The sound was as faint as a gartnik on a poly pane, but Chiana's mind and body reacted to it instantly.
With a last glance at Meelak, she slid silently back upward into the shaft. She would find the person who had done this to Meelak. Then, she would find out all she could about this Contagion, and bring down the Establishment with her bare hands if she had to.
Nar’iel stood frowning at his notes for the opening presentation as they snaked across the screen. The story he had to recite was familiar Establishment propaganda. He read it to himself in the anteroom, resigned. My colleagues. The Contagion has been successfully spread. Many hundreds of young Nebari traveling to every port city and outpost in the sector have unwittingly done their work well. Some of our young fancy themselves adventurous rebels, evading the Establishment, and flying in the face of its structure. [Pause for laughter to subside]. We are proud to say that in fact, they are its finest agent to date, toward further solidifying the Nebari Establishment’s rightful hold upon every known trade route and every galactic and intergalactic resource imaginable. The Contagion our young carry with them has been given to all with whom they have had carnal contact. The Contagion has been brought to the hosts’ home worlds, where it continues to spread in secret through each population. Enough are now infected so that, when activated, there will be widespread chaos, resulting from so many willing to conform. Nebari forces will meet little resistance, and face few casualties. Successful colonization of the host worlds is ensured.
The senior scientist turned from the screen, the hem of his ceremonial robes swirling about his formally cinched dress shoes. He stared at the display on the room’s image port. It showed, in a view from above, the crowds of Nebari Establishment leaders and commanders gathering to mill about in the Great Hall. Such pomp and bluster. So certain their beliefs were for the promotion of a Greater Good, and not just another shit-flinging Imperialistic maneuver that the histories of every race in every galaxy were all too full of.
Nar'iel fantasized standing before those assembled leaders and telling the truth about the Contagion. He would fill their self-congratulatory minds with the horror they had unleashed, and tell them how it would snap back at them and their families with equal devastation.
The Contagion is no mere mind-frell, he imagined saying. He imagined how their faces would change if he could tell them what was really underway. Nar'iel paced in the small anteroom, and allowed his thoughts a moment to wander.
It began, he would say, as a series of experiments to time a pathogen's reproductive cycle to that of known flora with predictable fertility periods and prolific seed production. I was first to discover a way to genetically endow a highly pathogenistic, highly virulent flagellant microorganism with the predictable and hearty characteristics of the narcotic Orliandis plant - the traditional symbol of peace for our people. Research was moved out of my hands and given to specialised Establishment-appointed teams. I watched my project grow into the monster that now lurks in my conscience. After years of development and planning in the hands of others, I am now bearing witness to Contagion set in motion.
Upon inoculation into its host, the Contagion pathogen avoids provoking any natural antigenic reaction by cloaking itself in the host's own genetic material. The host notices almost no symptoms of infection during the incubation stage. There is only a heightened sexual urge, which is a manipulation on the part of the pathogen to aid in its own propagation. Contagion is spread primarily through sexual contact. It is highly adaptive to biological variation in alien host populations. In all test species, Contagion resides unnoticed within mucousal membranes and/or related glands. It has also been isolated in the bloodstream and bone marrow, in those species whose bones contain marrow. Incubation-stage Contagion spreads to as many hosts as possible, and waits for the virulent stage of its own reproductive cycle to be triggered.
Though Contagion will not have infected the entire population of any host worlds, enough will be infected by the time it is released from its incubation stage to throw those worlds into chaos. Helpless planetary governments will be attacked by their own people, who will make demands that something be done to stop this new plague. Native religious institutions will be questioned, perhaps even torn down, in the resulting panic. Old superstitions will rise up and scapegoats will be found. Whole social systems will be upended in light of the horrors these populations will experience at our hand.
Diseased individuals display symptoms which are immediate and debilitating. In all test species, initial high fever, severe headache, convulsions, delerium and brain damage are reported. In species whose bones contain marrow, there is relentless crippling pain throughout the skeletal structure, especially in the long bones. For all species, Contagion brings rapid expulsion of infectious blood and mucous from every bodily orifice and membrane surface. As Contagion continues to reproduce inside host, it causes total systemic failure, shock, and finally, death. The progression from onset of symptoms to death may take up to three solar weeks. All cases of infection have a 100% mortality rate, unless treated with our laboratory-bred antibody.
And our invading Nebari forces will be there to offer it to them, bringing renewed order, safety, and salvation to every stricken world. In return, we will be given a stranglehold on every profitable trade route, every key resource.
Nar'iel rubbed his eyes, and looked back at his propaganda-based presentation notes. The lie cloaking the truth. Incubation stage. And when the Contagion was activated, the truth would come raging out of its cloak for the Nebari as well.
In development of the antibody, Nar'iel had begun to see evidence of Contagion mutating after the host's death. This mutation had the same pathogenicity and virulence as its original form, but could be spread on its own through water supplies without need of a host vector. If ingested, it was every bit as deadly. The antibody they were formulating was not effective against this mutation. There was no knowing how far it would ultimately spread, or if it could be stopped. But the Establishment would not listen - and placed a watch over Nar'iel and his research. They had their magic formula for domination, and it was at hand. What Nar'iel saw was that when they tickled this dragon's tail, it would most assuredly bite back.
In desperation, Nar'iel had found connections to the Resistance, and they in turn helped him contact his son. There was no time. Nar'iel had to begin real world tests on the antibody. His first priority was to find his own children and keep them safe from the disease they carried. Nar'iel had named his antibody "thresher", and it had its own physical cost. In order to destroy Contagion, the thresher antibody must first trigger the pathogen to shed its genetic costume and hard exterior coat. There would be Contagion-like symptoms. However, they would be mild in comparison to full-blown Contagion, and run their non-fatal course in a solar day or two as the antibody did its work. Nar'iel considered this to be his last tribute to his poor ruined brother Dakari, from whose mad and resilient blood the antibody had been distilled.
The Resistance were depending on the information chip Nar’iel had entrusted only days ago to Meelak. It contained all of the data concerning the true nature of the Contagion, which was to be distributed to those worlds believed to have been unknowingly infected. News of Meelak's arrest came as a heavy blow to Nar'iel, leaving him shaken. Meelak was one of their best.
There was no mention of the data chip in the official report of his interrogation. Nar'iel's examination of Meelak's physical state afterward confirmed that the young Nebari had indeed destroyed the chip before it could be found by his inquisitors. As all couriers were aware, data chips contain an agent that, when swallowed, would destroy the language centers of the one who had ingested it. This was a necessary measure of further protection for the Resistance. No amount of cleansing or coersion could bring forth any information from Meelak’s mind now.
Other Resistance couriers would surely be on their way to carry information and antibody cultures, in stasis, to infected worlds. But time was running out.
Nar'iel's disciplined mind allowed him to put these things aside for the moment. Running his slender hand backward through his hair, he set his expression to neutral, and stepped from the anteroom to face his fellow dignitaries in the Great Hall.
The Great Hall was crowded with Nebari Establishment brass. Guards were posted everywhere. Surveillance system viewers hummed about over their heads, reminding Aeryn a bit too much of the daggerflies at the charnel repository they'd just crawled from. The smell of dead Nebari test subjects was still in her hair. This was yet another unpleasant expedition on behalf of their wayward young Nebari friend, and Aeryn was not at all pleased. She wanted to spit to clear her mouth of the stench that clung to her senses. She refrained from doing so. The surveillance droids would surely notice one of their highly disciplined guard troops spitting on the floor, and come buzzing round to investigate.
Crichton looked about as pleased as she felt. They stood rigidly in their guard disguises at the perimeter of the large room, trying to see into the crowd for any sign of Chiana. This seemed to be where the action was. If Chiana were on form, as she always was in a crisis, she would not make herself easy to locate. Stealth was her specialty. But if she'd come to this place searching for information about her brother, the Great Hall was as likely a place as any to find her.
The attention of the crowd turned at once to the stage, where an elegant Nebari had come to stand. He was introduced as engineer of the Contagion, senior scientist Nar'iel. Recognition lit in Crichton's eyes. This was one of Chiana and Nerri's sires.
"My colleagues," Nar'iel began. "The Contagion has been successfully spread. Many hundreds of young Nebari travelling to every port city and outpost in the sector have unwittingly done their work well. Some of our young fancy themselves adventurous rebels, evading the Establishment, and flying in the face of its structure."
The crowd laughed. From her place across the vast room, Aeryn squinted. For just a microt, she thought she saw a look of disgust flash across the senior scientist's face. He continued.
"We are proud to say that in fact, they are its finest agent to date, toward further solidifying the Nebari Establishment’s rightful hold upon every known trade route and every galactic and intergalactic resource imaginable. The Contagion our young carry with them has been given to all with whom they have had carnal contact. The Contagion has been brought to the hosts’ home worlds, where it continues to spread in secret through each population. Enough are now infected so that, when activated, there will be widespread chaos, resulting from so many willing to conform. Nebari forces will meet little resistance, and face few casualties. Successful colonization of the host worlds is ensured."
Applause rang out, and many in the audience raised the open palms of both hands to him. This seemed to be a gesture of respect.
"I will now open the floor to your questions and comments," Nar'iel said, looking tired but still attentive.
Many Nebari stepped forward, admiration in their eyes.
From high in a darkened corner alcove above the stage, Chiana had observed the proceedings. It had taken very little detective work for her to find the last person to leave Meelak's cell was in fact Nar'iel. She was easily able to discover her father was to speak at the adjacent meeting facility. Her heightened instincts absorbed all that had occured in the Great Hall, and her mind reduced Nar'iel's words down to their essence. She needed to take hold of herself. She could not let her emotions cloud her reaction to what she had just heard.
It was her father who had designed this Contagion. It was he who must have tortured Meelak until he could no longer speak.
She tried not to feel sick. She must not let the events of the last cycle obstruct her thinking. Her instincts told her she needed to isolate Nar'iel from the others. She must focus on this. Chiana eased herself through the alcove's small doorway, staying close to the wall. Dust from the disused maintenance conduit clung to her as she made her way down to the Hall's anterooms.