Day 120. And disaster.
Carter lay on his back, craggy hands to his grey head, his skin mottled and pale, his movements slow and laboured. He was in the Royal Ascender infirmary, which was like so many of the other features on the Ascender, modelled on past examples such as those Carter had himself witnessed on the Second Mars Mission, though on a larger scale. It stood to reason, as they would simply be in space for longer, although when one thought about it, four and a bit years was nothing compared to what some cosmonauts spent aboard the ISS, and the medical provision aboard that old hunk of junk was practically non-existent, for all the labs and testing facilities took up too much space. But then, there was always something enduring about the cosmonauts. If they got flu or an infection, they would likely sweat it off and willingly at that. They were without doubt some of the most incredible people Carter had ever met. Although he wasn’t quite in the mood for handing out plaudits at present.
The problems had started with eating. Carter, who ate regularly, but far from excessively, had stopped using the canteen, as his appetite had diminished to almost nothing, and had started to get by on dry biscuits and other snacks that he could bring to hand. Many of his movements had become painful, the act of sitting up for example, seemed to put immense strain on his back and stomach muscles. When he walked, he had begun to find that his legs shook, and he couldn’t hold a mug, or a pen, or anything much really, without his hands shaking intolerably. At first, this being Carter, he hadn’t said anything, under the assumption that he could simply sweat whatever illness he had contracted off, in the same way as the Russians did. After all, he was his own man, and if he couldn’t deal with his own health, then he was putting far too much reliance on the others; something Carter was loath to risking. But it had soon become clear that this was no ordinary illness. He found himself unable to sleep during the dead hours when the crew got their heads down, and yet unable to rise when the others awoke, out of sheer fatigue. He had begun to vomit, quite profusely, at consistent intervals, which always seemed to be inappropriate. Now it was difficult for him to even snack, without horrible cramps seizing his shrunken stomach, and grey beads of sweat pouring off of him. Salem Kalmar tended to notice these sorts of things. Noticing was a large part of his occupation.
He quickly and quietly set to work ignoring rankings, and ordered Carter to med-lab, where he personally tested the colonel. Of course, he had already known what was wrong with him. What kind of doctor would he be if he didn’t? But such tests were part of protocol, and there was no harm in being certain. It was a lesson Kalmar’s past experience had drilled into him, right to the core, so that now he never spoke or acted without first being sure that what he said or did would be totally and unquestionably relevant and safe.
“Yes…” Kalmar said slowly, his fingers alighting briefly on Carter’s damp forehead, and then retracting to make a note on his clipboard. It was hard not to notice a strange look of satisfaction on the doctor’s face, despite the condition of his superior, as if he was pleased to have been correct.
“What…” Carter grunted, before twisting and spitting up in a green bowl. To him, the mucus and vomit were an unusual colour, and he wondered whether he should point this out. Would Kalmar have noticed? Of course he would have. He was a doctor. Strange blobs kept passing in front of his eyes, which were half-closed against the light of med-lab, and Carter got the feeling that he was sinking into delirium. He, too, had little need for Kalmar’s tests. He had known he was fucked. Binned. Done for.
“Well,” Kalmar began, as if wondering how much his patient could understand, “the short of it is, you have contracted malaria. I have absolutely no idea how this could have happened. Perhaps you caught the disease a while back, on the rock, and it has lain dormant. These kinds of things happen. As this is a virus in this case, I would regard it as a faint possibility. Whatever the case, I am hereby forced to put into practice a public health warning. We can’t have other crew members…”
“Other crew members…” Carter interrupted through his pale lips. A thought had just occurred to him.
“I know what you might say, Colonel, but malaria is very difficult to transmit from one person to another. The odds are incredibly small, even if you were to kiss them or something, of catching malaria from another human. No, it is far more likely that you have been carrying the disease; perhaps it was halted by the many vaccinations you have received, and had lain dormant in your body, until it had evolved sufficiently to overcome them.”
“But, fortunately for yourself, we have here extensive treatments and drugs that can have you back on your feet, right as rain, in perhaps a few weeks. We have all the latest viral treatments. In the meantime, though, I am going to have to insist that you stay in bed, and try to sleep as much as possible. You may experience bad dreams. Do not worry, this is normal. Try to relax, and don’t start panicking as to whether you’re delirious. If you’re sane enough to wonder if you are delirious, then you are not, it is as simple as that. Why not catch up on some reading? One of us can bring you meals; I know you don’t feel like eating right now, but it is essential to your recovery. Is that clear?”
“Now, lets get you comfortable…”
Kalmar had spoken into the microphone on the wall of the med-lab, and a few minutes later was joined by Major Bryant and General Grasser, who proceeded to release the clasps holding the board to the theatre’s operating surface, grabbed it by the handles and hoisted Carter up on an ingenious stretcher. The board was actually malleable; a polymer similar to memory foam, that sagged slightly between the two men under the weight of the stricken colonel. The journey passed in a blur for Carter, and next thing he knew, he was back in his quarters, and being sick again, now into a clean green bowl. Mysteriously, over the course of the next few weeks, the bowl seemed to clean and scour itself in the intervals between his vomiting; something he started to wonder about. He wondered if perhaps the bowl was conspiring against him, and he would suddenly grab the edge of his bed and look over the side, to check it wasn’t sneaking off to deposit the contents of his stomach somewhere. Food also seemed to occur in his dorm, as if by spontaneous generation, steaming plates of rice and chillies, curries, stir fry and brown bread. Carter was sure to wolf it down, every time. He couldn’t let the food get a step ahead of him. Often, this process just made him sick it all up again, and the cycle of delirium continued.
Later, much recovered and rested, Carter recounted that the previous fortnight or so had passed almost without him noticing. This seriously unnerved him, and he badgered Kalmar for details of the lost time. He wasn’t sure why exactly. Time was something they were trying to waste, after all. Perhaps because it was so unfamiliar to Carter, who was rarely ill, and never so seriously as he had just been. It was a sign of weakness. Although the procession that had carried him from the infirmary to his room had passed supposedly in a blur at the time, he now remembered the humiliation of it vividly, and had a grudge against Grasser and Bryant that was nothing personal, but they should at least have let him try and walk, and just supported him or something. At least make him seem to be upright and as able as possible. The stretcher was dehumanising, vile. It was still in the corner of his dorm from where they had carried him. An estimated twenty thousand dollars spent developing the thing. Carter had promptly stuck his boot through it, as soon as his leg could muster sufficient force.
The point was, the two men who had carried him would not be able to look at him the same way again, knowing that they had carried him, incapacitated and helpless, on a stretcher. They would take a certain bravado from it, especially Bryant, and if that in any way jeopardised the mission, it could be a disaster. Not to mention how stung Carter himself felt.
As to how the malaria had been contracted, Carter had neglected to tell Kalmar what he had really been thinking when the thought had occurred to him during the diagnosis. He was quite sure that the crew members he was thinking of would not have occurred to the doctor, observant though he was. That was the problem with medical people. They took the easiest, simplest course to be the correct decision, nine times out on ten. Credit where it was due, the man had acted diligently, followed procedure, enforced some public health measures, the like of which Carter was not aware, having just regained full consciousness for the first time in a fortnight. But he had forgotten a vital factor that Carter had remembered. And he sure wasn’t going to tell him. That was what he was here for wasn’t it? To test the others. Make sure they were on their game.
He began to wonder whether Colonel Taylor had any more tasks for Maintenance that she would require him to oversee.