Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 3: It’s goo again.

     Eddy Laughing Bear and Siula were walking between the rows of corn in one of the vast domes his tribe used for farmland. Their horses were nibbling on some grass and drinking from a pool in one of the many irrigation channels which ran throughout the dome, watering their precious crops.
     “Ah, here it is!” Siula exclaimed as she led the way towards a patch of corn that looked as if it was slowly melting back into the ground from which it was growing. “See, I told you I saw some blighted corn.” A disturbing sight amidst the surrounding sea of healthy high-yield corn bursting into fruition. Sickly, weakened stalks bent over under their own weight. Some of the worst affected plants looked as if they were turning into a shapeless, runny goo and melting back into the ground. She then turned back to Eddy, “Did you bring the sample bags?”
     “Huh?” as Eddy snapped back into the present moment from his idle day-dream of lazy love-drenched afternoons he’d spent with his wife, Crystal. “Oh, yeah, sure.” As he put on a pair of protective gloves and passed a pair of gloves and a handful of bags to Siula.
     “Remember to put each plant in a separate bag. We don’t want the samples getting mixed up.” Siula continued in her easy manner as she took control of the situation. “Especially that runny goo. “ As she herself scooped up several handfuls of corn-goo into a bag. “And try not to get any of it on you.”
     Eddy set about bagging samples of the stricken stalks. He noticed that the plants towards the middle of the patch were the worst affected. As if it had started there and was spreading outwards. “Do you think it’ll spread much further?” He asked Siula rhetorically. They’d both seen scenes like this one before, some much more extensive. The blight never really spread that far from where it struck. Which suited Eddy just fine. The thought of total crop failure and having to subsist on synthetics and Earth Fed handouts didn’t really appeal to him. He’d heard rumours that the blight was a bio-warfare tactic started by the corporate farms to ruin the independent farms, but wasn’t sure whether to believe them or not.
     There’d be a team along in an hour or so to cauterise this patch and mark it off. Sometimes it worked and you could replant and affected patch the following season and it’d be fine. Some patches were so blighted that even after repeated cauterisation, anything grown on them would die. All very hit-and-miss. Not at all reassuring on a world where the certainties of science ensured that life could flourish, yet somehow reminiscent of the fuzzy, imprecise nature of life on Earth.
     They were careful about not touching any of the affected corn stalks. Eddy remembered the long, overly-informative and tediously boring health-and-safety lectures that he had to attend about dealing with the various hazards of farming on Mars. Aside from learning how to deal with dome ruptures and the attendant decompression, there were long talks about the Martian Blight. First and foremost was: ‘Never touch any affected plants or animals directly otherwise you’ll be next’. Eddy had never seen any human victims of the blight, though he’d seen livestock succumbing to it. An agonising sight. There was no option other than to put them down. Siula, on the other hand, dealt with this almost daily in the Red Wind Tribal Farms’ labs. They were supposed to send their samples off to Earth Fed labs for analysis. But she knew for a fact that they were completely snowed under and vapourising over 90% of all blight samples send in to them.
     As a result, the Red Wind tribe was only sending in a nominal quantity of blight cases and analysing the bulk in their own labs. Which was where today’s sample was destined. Siula looked up and could see two fliers in the hazy far distance of the dome making their way over to where she was. She hoped they were bringing some fresh clothes, as they’d have to discard the overalls they were wearing as they’d undoubtedly brushed against some of the blighted corn and continued collecting samples.
     Eddy was just getting fed up with bagging these sickly samples when the fliers pulled up overhead. One dropped down lower and the pilot leaned over from its' open cockpit. “Okay, hand us up the bags and then we’ll burn this patch clean.” Moments later, a door on the fliers’ side slid open and two men appeared, arms outstretched, ready to take the blight samples from Siula and Eddy.
     When the were done, Eddy called out, “You got any clean suits for us? We’ve gotta bag these duds, too.” The pilot turned around to talk to his co-pilot. They could hear a bit of scuffling around inside the flier. A few moments later the pilot replied, “Sorry, it looks as if we forgot ‘em.”
     Eddy grumbled and went over to some uncontaminated ground to strip off his overalls. Siula saw the smirk on the co-pilot’s face and spat out “Bastards!” as she went over and joined Eddy. The two fliers quietly manoeuvred themselves so that their crews could get a good view of Siula. “Damn men.” She fumed. “Don’t they ever grow up?” As she stripped off her overalls and gave them to Eddy who, to his credit, seemed somewhat embarrassed by the other farmhands’ antics. As they walked back through the corn towards their horses, Eddy could hear some of the men whistling and laughing from inside their fliers.
     “You’d think they’d never seen a woman before.” Siula tetchily grumbled.
     “Uh, well, they’re probably bored or something.” Not wanting to be blamed for his friends’ lewd behaviour. “I don’t think they meant any harm.”
     “Yeah, well if I ever see any of that lot again, I’ll stick them nose-first in some blight and see how they like it.” Siula cursed. Eddy knew better than to talk at times like this and they walked on in silence. Siula mounted her horse hurriedly, whipped it angrily and galloped off as fast as she could make her horse run without even looking back to see if Eddy was following her. ‘Damn, damn, damn those stupid bastards.’ She cursed. ‘Here I am naked riding my horse and I can’t even enjoy it because they’re ruined it for me.’ Siula was doubly angry. Not just because the farmhands had humiliated her for a cheap laugh, but because they’d also ruined one of her favourite fantasies. Her anger was gradually consumed by the effort of staying in the saddle as her horse galloped on across the dome towards the access tunnel which lead to the living dome. A few people stopped and stared as a naked madwoman charged on horseback through the access tunnel at full gallop, flecks of foam flying in all directions. By the time she got to her adobe-style house, her anger was gone. Her horse, an American Palomino mare, was exhausted. Siula dismounted, led her into the communal enclosure to join the other horses there and then ran into her house to get dressed.
     A couple of hours later, Siula, fully dressed and still slightly peeved, made her way over to the labs where she worked. No-one paid her much attention as she made her way across the village square with its’ collection of totem poles and ceremonial drums dotted around it, the children that always seemed to be running around them, their mothers and the collection of old folk who gathered there daily. Siula noticed the pallet of blight samples she and Eddy had bagged earlier waiting in the workroom next to her lab as she came down the hallway to her workplace in the Farms’ labs. ‘At least those yokels can do some things properly’, she thought darkly as she glanced around for any sign of the offending farmhands. None were to be seen. Only a group of teenagers in lab coats offloading the samples and sorting them out by categories for analysis on the various tables and benches in the workroom.
     As Siula walked over, she could overhear them. “Sludge and slime over there, melted stalks here and put the ones that that look pretty well intact on the bench by the door.” One of the boys looked up. “Oh hi, Miss Siula. We’re sorting out these blight samples for you. Some of the farmhands dropped them off an hour ago. They said you were in a hurry to examine them. Doctor Ramon told us to sort them out for you.”
     “Oh did they?” She replied darkly, only barely able to hold herself back from taking her anger out on this boy. He seemed so nice. Would he turn out bad like so many of the men she’d known?
     “Is something the matter, miss?” he asked.
     “No, not at all.” Siula replied apologetically, coming to her senses. “You’re doing a fine job here. Just be careful handling the bags.” And then louder so that they could all hear her: “Be careful handling the blight samples. You all know what happens if you get any of the blight on you. We’ll start analysing these samples later this afternoon, if any of you want to come in after class.” With that she turned and went into her lab to finish off some work she’d been doing that morning before she’d been called out to inspect a new occurrence of blight.
     A little while later a short pudgy man who looked like a cross between the laughing buddha and an Amazon Indian with greasy straight hair and bottle-lens glasses (they don’t make contact lenses that thick and surgery was out of the question for him!) ambled in. “More sludge, huh?” He asked by way of greeting.
     Siula looked up from her work. “Yeah, just the same as every other bunch. I feel as if we’re just going through the motions, Ramon. We’re still no closer to finding a way to stop the blight.”
     Ramon hummed sympathetically. “Well, I’ve got some good news, if you can call it that.”
     “Oh?” Siula clutched the straw the Ramon offered her. At least he didn’t play up the way those farmhands did.
     “We intercepted some internal reports from the Hamamitsu-McSpillers corporate farms near Huygensville and they seem to bear out what I’ve been suspecting for a while now.” He proffered cautiously.
     “Yes?” Siula was getting interested, but why did this Amazonian nerd have to waffle so much?
     “It looks as if they’ve been hit by the same nanites that are causing the blight everywhere else.” Ramon continued in his offhand manner.
     “Does the Council of Chiefs know about this?” Siula interrupted.
     “Where do you think it came from?” Ramon asked rhetorically as a way of unburdening himself of responsibility. “The Council’s spies on the McSpiller’s farm.”
     “It could be disinformation they’re spreading, just to detect security leaks.” Siula countered.
     “That’s what the Council thought. But it’s old news, so to speak.” Ramon replied resignedly. “They’ve already opened up two domes this week to kill off any contaminated flora and fauna so they can restock with a clean slate. They’re worried about the nanites getting into the food chain.”
     “Aren’t we all!” Siula exclaimed as she remembered the cases of human blight victims she’d been unable to help as their bodies melted into puddles of cells.
     “At least we know that the nanites aren’t in the air.” Ramon tried to reassure Siula.
      “For the time being.” Siula commented. “What about birds and insects? Wouldn’t they be a vector for spreading the blight?”
     “You ought to be working over at Huygensville!” Ramon jollied Siula. “That’s the line they’re taking. Opening up each dome after the harvest to kill off the fauna, sterilising and removing all known patches of soil with the blight and starting all over again.”
     Siula opened her mouth wordlessly before speaking. “That’s drastic! I hope we don’t have to do anything like that.” As she envisaged farm after farm opening up their precious domes to kill off their carefully nurtured bounty of life.
      “More than likely.” Ramon sighed and rationalised calmly. “I think we may need a separate dome for testing new soil before we use it in any of the farm domes from now on. We might as well get the kids started breeding new stocks of bugs, worms and birds. Looks like we’re gonna need ‘em.” Anyway, I’m up for looking at today’s haul of green slime! Howzabout you, Siula?” He asked cheerily and clapped his hands together as way of changing the subject.
     “Uh…..,” Siula groaned. It was always the same thing. Look, Miss Siula, the cells are all there, but they aren’t holding together any longer. Do we put the solution with the nanites in the green or clear jars, Miss Siula? Doctor Ramon, have I got the chromatograph set up properly? More samples for the spectrograph, and on and on. “Yes, I suppose so. It’ll be good practice for the kids anyway.”
     “That’s the spirit!” Ramon effused. “We’ll crack this nut yet. Let’s see what we can do.”
     Siula smiled warily back at Ramon wondering if she could really trust him not to be like the other men. Probably not, she thought darkly at the back of her mind before getting up to help him in the lab. The remainder of the afternoon passed easily enough as she and Ramon eased their after-school group through the various lab-testing procedures. After the last of the students had gone home, Siula and Ramon picked over the days’ results looking for clues.
     Ramon took a gulp from the ever-present cup of Stim-O-Caff which seemed to be permanently glued to his left hand. “Between you and me, Siula, I don’t think our nanites have been visited upon us by the corporate farms or any of the Terrestrial hard-liners.”
     “Why so?” Siula tended to subscribe to the theory that the nanites were part of a bio-warfare program waged by the corporate farms against the independents like Red Wind even though the evidence pointed in other directions.
     “For starters, these nanites aren’t like anything made here or on Earth. They’re made out of organic components and our current nanite technology is metal, semi-metal and crystal” Ramon explained calmly. “And secondly, Earth Fed is running shit-scared of it and they’re thinking of putting Mars under quarantine.”
     “It could just as likely be a ruse they started in the first place to break the Mars Independence Movement.” Siula countered.
     “Only if they’d mined the entire planet with those nanite nodules before it was opened up for colonisation.” Ramon dunked a donut in his Stim-O-Caff, enjoyed his junk-food fix and continued. “I think we have to look elsewhere for our answers on this one.”
     “Such as?” Siula wished he’d get to the point.
     “Our mythical Martians, for example.” Ramon shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe they saw us coming and mined the surface of the planet as a way of getting rid of us.”
     “You really believe that there are indigenous Martians still hiding from us after all this time?” Siula almost laughed in his face. “You know as well as I that the only archaeological evidence found is possibly millions of years old. Ramon, they died out before we climbed out of the trees!”
     “You got any better ideas?” Ramon tried to put Siula on the spot.
     “Earth Fed, the corporations or the mechs.” Siula blurted with the confidence of a religious fanatic.
     “Fine. OK.” Ramon placated. “So how do you explain the fact that the nodules are turning up on corporation farms as well as under cities that have been in place for over 50 years?”
     “Decoy tactics.” Siula explained with the assurance of the religious zealot who finds answers to every question ‘in the scriptures’. “So that they can wage their dirty little war and still come up smelling of roses once they’ve done their damage.”
     “Possibly.” Ramon conceded diplomatically. “But don’t you think that if someone here or on Earth had been able to produce organic nanites in the last 50 years, we’d have heard of it by now? No-one could have kept a breakthrough like that under wraps for so long.”
     “So we’ve got to look for little green men with an attitude problem?” Siula joked.
     “Not necessarily.” Ramon rallied. “What about the Raiders? It’s the type of stunt they’d pull off. Bringing people to their knees and then selling a cure at extortionate prices.”
     “I’d almost buy that one, Ramon.” Siula replied with the slightest trace of contempt for her colleague. “But somehow I doubt if they’ve got the resources for it.”
     “At least we agree on something.” Ramon was relieved that their conversation wasn’t degenerating into a loyalty test. “Y’know, Siula, I’d buy into your conspiracy theory if it weren’t for the fact that the nanites are almost entirely made up of d- opto-isomers.”
     “It just that Gaia is mostly l- opto-isomers.” Ramon mused aloud. “Terran biochemistry just doesn’t use d- isomers.”
     “From which we’re supposed to assume the nanites were made by LGM’s? The Mechs could have just as easily made them.” Siula intercepted Ramon’s line of thought. “Earth Fed or any of the corporations might have deliberately used d- opto-isomers as a red herring. And, how can you be so sure the Mechs don’t want the entire planet for themselves?”
     “Possibly.” Ramon conceded calmly. “But I don’t quite buy into the conspiracy theory quite as much as you do, so I look in other directions as well.”
     “Just keep the LGM theory to yourself.” Siula cautioned, barely able to suppress a cruel laugh. “You know what Hiram thinks about them. He’d laugh you out of this lab and maybe even your job.”
     “Yeah well, we’ve got enough to get on with just finding a way to stop the damn things.” Ramon muttered as he came to the realisation that Siula had already made up her mind as to the cause behind the nanites. Ramon didn’t like the conspiracy theory about the nanites. It was just too sinister to believe. Nor could he wholly trust the Mechs. And they were also suspects in the blight nanite problem. “Have you ever considered the possibility that the nanites might be all that’s left of the Martian biosphere and the civilisation that created the artefacts?”
     “And that all that’s left of them are nanites which dismantle Terran multi-cellular organisms?” Siula casually set about demolishing Ramon’s next theory. “A non-living weapon?”
     “Look, Siula. Just try to keep an open mind on this.” Ramon pleaded. “You might be right, but those nanites could just as likely be the work of someone or something else. Either way, we’ve still got to find a way to stop the nanites once they invade an organism.”
     “So we conduct endless rounds of tests and pipe the results back to Satori for processing? What good’s that going to do?” Siula’s voice had just the slightest tinge of a whinge.
     “First off, we might just crack it.” Ramon began to brighten up as he realised that he had the upper hand now. “Secondly, what are you going to tell the kids who come here to the lab? That there’s no hope and that they might as well start digging their own graves, if there’s anything left of them to pour into it? Look.” He continued. “We can kill the nanites with fire and lasers. That’s a start. Next we find a way to sterilise any contaminated food, if that’s at all possible. And finally we’ll try to find a cure for infected hosts that doesn’t kill the host in the process. Count yourself lucky they don’t reproduce.” Ramon winked and was jollying up to his usual self now. “Given enough time they’ll all wear out and break down.”
     “If there’s anything left alive.” Even Siula was reluctantly beginning to pick up on Ramon’s good humour. “Provided no-one’s planting any more nodules in the ground.” A cloud of tension seemed to pass away from Siula. “I’d be happy if we could stay on top of this and contain it for the time being. Then I could get back to working on the genetic crop-enhancement program for a while.” The Red Wind Tribes genetic engineering program was very different from any of the agri-corps’ commercially driven genetic engineering. Red Wind was determined to break the corporate stranglehold on Martian food production by licensing their genetically engineered crops as freeware to all independent farms so that they could hold their own in the harsh Martian climate. Most independent farms supplied their local communities, but the larger independents not only supplied some of the cities, but also the huge mining ships working the asteroid belt. The latter was a difficult, but extremely lucrative market to break into. One that was largely sewn up by the corporate farms. Some mining companies like Hamamitsu had even merged with a food conglomerate for the sole purpose of supplying their mining ships as cheaply as possible. Others, like TransGlobal, didn’t mess around. They set up their own supply farms and company towns specifically to supply their own mining fleet. The fact that the farms had a surplus left over to sell on Mars was of little interest to the mandarins in the corporate farms. It was this gap in the market that allowed the independent farms to survive.
     Ramon waddled over towards a work console. “Let’s see if we’ve got any interesting results today.” He spoke half to himself and half for Siula’s benefit. Ramon punched a few keys to bring up the day’s results and whistled. “Hey, Siula! Those kids of yours sure worked hard today. At this rate, we’ll have no trouble accumulating enough data to work on.” He hadn’t really expected much to go on from the school kids helping out in the lab, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they’d done nearly as well as any group of lab technicians could have done. And they’d done a fairly good job of it. Many of the standard tests revealed the same results he’d reached many times before, so he was prepared to take their work a little more seriously. ‘Let’s see if they’ve found anything in amongst that lot.’ He muttered quietly to himself as he set about getting the lab’s computer to collate and compare the day’s results.
     Always the same infuriating results. The nanites happily breaking down the inter-cellular structure of every organism they invade with impunity. Nothing they’d tried so far seemed to stop them. Not even toxins that outright killed the host organism. It was like banging his head against a brick wall. Except that eventually, that particular wall would fall down. It had to. Ramon wasn’t the type to give up easily. Especially on something as crucial as this. Labs in farms and universities all over Mars were working on finding ways to beat the nanites. Even Satori had pitched in use of its’ massive data processing centre. Though for the life of him, Ramon couldn’t see why the mechs were all that bothered. The blight only affected living organisms, and they were, well, machines. “Damn, nothing significant today. You got any ideas, Siula?”
     “Well, what about trying d- opto-isomers of the toxins and pathogens we’ve been trying out on the nanites. After all, you pointed out that the nanites are made of d- opto-isomers, so maybe that’s what they’ll react to.” Siula suggested hopefully
     “Hmmm, worth a try.” Ramon nodded his head in agreement and wondered why he hadn’t thought of something so obvious but was glad Siula was on the ball at this late hour. “I’ll give it a go. Do you want to help me set up some test batches while you’re here?”
     “No, not really, Ramon” Siula was exhausted after a long day and wanted to be at home with her children. “Look, I’ve got to go Ramon. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
     “I might as well knock off fairly soon. We’ll set ‘em up tomorrow and get some of the kids to help us.” He sat down at his console as Siula bade him farewell, had another gulp of Stim-O-Caff and began punching away at its’ keys. He decided to go for a thorough comparison different blight samples to see if there were any variations in the rate of infection in different species and set the search parameters to cover any variations that might be the least bit significant. Ramon was hoping to see if any species was more resistant than the rest and to isolate the substance or group of substances that provided the added resistance. Which just might lead on to a workable cure for the blight.
     The Red Wind labs had a fairly large collection of blighted plants from different parts of the various domes that made up their farm. So he decided to include all of them and their healthy counterparts in the search with an added instruction to look for any variations between the various blighted samples. Corn, wheat, rice, barley, rye, beans, soya, peas, cabbages, greens, potatoes, carrots, turnips, you name it. As well as several samples of bison, yak, llama, vicuna, camel, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens which had been affected by the blight. Just about everything grown on the Red Wind farm had been hit by the blight at one time or another.
     Ramon was getting into a fighting mood just organising the data for the labs’ computers and leave them running for the night when he decided to patch into the Mechs’ city of Satori. His console screen cleared of all its’ data to show a glossy VR image of an office reception room with a bipedal black-and-green mechanoid seated at the desk. All very realistic, but a total illusion. This was the Red Wind Tribe’s account interface with Satori’s central data processing core. “Hello, Dr. Ramon Escobal of the Red Wind Tribe,” the warm, friendly, neuter voice of Widget, their account interface program, greeted him. “What can Satori do for you this evening?”
     “I’d like you to check over our data on the blight.” Ramon explained quickly. “See if you can find anything significant.”
     “Ah yes, the blight” Widget replied mysteriously. “For your information, we are currently processing six other accounts relating to the blight. Would you like us to correlate your data with theirs?”
     “Uh, I don’t think I’ve got security clearance to authorise that, Widget.” Ramon played for time. He’d have to run this past his supervisor, who was probably at home right now. Undoubtedly his supervisor would make it wait until the following day when he’d dump it on the Tribal Council’s doorstep. “It’s a bit late. Can you tell me whose blight data you’re handling?”
     “Three yes’s, two maybes and a no. That’s Mulligan Produce, Magic Harvest Collective and the Centaur City Farms.” Widget replied brightly. “I’ll check the others for you.”
     “Hang on a minute.” Ramon rallied. “Six other accounts at this moment? How many sets of data has Satori processed so far?”
     “Quite a few, Dr. Escobal.” Widget replied vaguely.
     “Aw c’mon, be specific.” Ramon wheedled. “You’re a mech, so let’s have the facts’n’figures, huh?”
     “I’m sorry, Dr. Escobal” Widget apologised blandly. “But I can’t tell you because of..”
     “Security clearances?” Ramon interjected in mock dejection. He could see it already. Satori was busy processing most peoples’ data on the blight, accumulating it into one massive database and correlating it for themselves. And maybe even suppressing the results if they were really behind the blight. Clever old mechs! Now how to blag it off them?
     “More or less.” Widget explained cautiously.
     “Look, you’ve probably correlated all the data you’ve been handling anyway. So it makes little difference if I formally allow you to use our data or not.” Ramon started his argument with Widget.
     “An understandable assumption, Dr. Escobal,” Widget conceded in its’ friendly tone of voice.
     “If we authorise Satori to have use of our data for its’ own work, do we get access to your results?” Ramon haggled cautiously.
     “The Red Wind Tribe would have access to the results from all non-classified data being processed in the current session.” Widget parroted what was obviously routine policy at Satori. Certainly useful, but Ramon felt like going for the jugular. After all, what had he to lose? It was going to be an awkward evening and day after no matter what happened. He made sure his console was recording this session with Widget so he could replay it to his supervisor, an old Inuit who was convinced his lab was staffed by bungling idiots.
     “And what about the results you guys at Satori reach using everyone else’s data?” Ramon decided to mine this vein for all it was worth. “That’s a cheap way of getting some pretty extensive research done. And I suppose you guys are gonna capitalise on everyone else’s efforts if and when you hit a cure. You think anyone’s gonna be happy paying for your magic bullet to beat the blight when you used their research data without them knowing? How can we be sure you didn’t make the blight nanites?” If mechs could be guilt-tripped and blackmailed, Ramon was giving it a go. “How’d you like it if I put out on the News Net that you guys were busy using everyone’s data without their knowledge? And that you might be behind the blight?”
     Widget waved its’ arms defensively. “Look, Dr. Escobal, there’s no need to get so worked up. These matters are all under consideration. If a cure for the blight or way to stop the nanites can be found, we will release it immediately. Would you prefer it if Astrobelt Mining Corporation got there first? Or any of the other corporations?” Widget knocked Ramon’s attack down with ease. “We are your best bet, Dr. Escobal. You don’t have to trust us, but maybe some day you will.”
     “Okay, okay. You win.” Ramon conceded, annoyed at being so easily outmanoeuvred by a mech AI system. “But I’ve still got to get clearance on this. I’ll get back to you later.”
     “By all means.” Widget politely agreed as it signed off leaving Ramon staring stupidly at a short advert to ‘Visit Magnificent Satori! The city that can’t sleep welcomes one and all! Human, mech, clone or otherwise. A holiday destination like no other!’ It rattled on and on, showing impressive eye candy of various locations in and around Satori before ending with the announcement that: ‘This blipvert has been paid for by the Satori Tourist Information Council. You are now returned to your local system.’
     Ramon’s console screen had returned to displaying some of the Red Wind labs’ blight data as he reached over to activate its’ comms unit. “Locate Professor Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal.”
     After a short pause, his console replied: “Professor Lok-Nur-Kal is currently at Winston’s Lucky Seven Jazz Club in Montgomery and is not accepting incoming messages.” Ramon banged his head against the console in despair. ‘Damn! The old fart’s out blowing his saxophone tonight. He’s not gonna like this one bit…’ Rubbing the light bruise on his head, he addressed his console: “That may be so, but he has to accept calls from the labs.”
     “I don’t follow you.” His work console replied blandly.
     “Because he works here and it’s part of his job contract.” Ramon was getting annoyed. “You ought to know that by now.”
     “Let me see…” The console trailed off as it turned its’ attention to data elsewhere. “As far as I can see, Professor Lok-Nur-Kal hasn’t violated his terms of employment.”
     “Look, I need to get a security clearance that I’m not authorised to give.” Ramon hated having to argue with the cold, impersonal computer terminals in the Red Wing labs. “The only person who can give that sort of authorisation is the head of department. Which happens to be…”
     “Professor Lok-Nur-Kal.” The console conceded.
     “Thank you.” Ramon was finally getting somewhere. “What is the procedure when the head-of-department is off duty?”
     “That depends on the nature of the request.” The console responded blandly.
     “Well, yes, it’s pretty darn important.” Ramon was getting fed up with this robotic jobsworth.
     “Could you please be more specific?” The console inquired in its’ emotionless voice.
     “Look here you bunch of old wires, do you think I’m working late for my health?” Ramon flustered.
     “That is possible, Dr. Escobal” The console hypothesised.
     “Fine.” Ramon gritted his teeth. “Who else is authorised to give a level-3 security clearance right now?”
     “Any member of the Council of Chiefs, their deputies, and any department head.” The console verified.
     “Put me through to someone out of that lot.” Ramon insisted.
     The console was quiet for a moment before announcing: “Connecting you to Bella GoodFortune, deputy Chief of Culture and Arts.” ‘Culture and Arts’ Ramon thought. ‘What’s one of those airheads gonna know about this?’ A thumbnail photo of Bella, a smiling well-rounded woman with bushy, dark hair appeared on the console screen as she answered Ramon’s call in audio only mode. A rush of sizzling, bubbling, rattling and clattering poured out of the console as Bella answered Ramon’s call. In the background he could hear a woman’s voice (Bella’s?): ‘Yes, it’s in the fridge. I’ll be with you in a minute’.
     “Hello, yes. What is it?” Bella sounded decidedly rushed and in the middle of things.
     “Ah, it’s Dr. Escobal from the Agricultural and Bio-Sciences lab. I need a level-3 security clearance and you’re the only person I could get hold of who could authorise it right now.” Ramon explained hopefully.
     “What? Is this a joke or something?” Bella exclaimed. “Look, I’ve got a meal that’s burning and boiling over in front of me and you want what…? Get real. How could I even tell if your request is genuine? Who’s your department head?”
     “Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal, but he’s off-line right now.” Ramon explained.
     “Who? Never heard of him.” Bella fired back. “Oh, hang on a minute. Yes, there’s his name on the list. You say he’s off-line, well he shouldn’t be.”
     “My console won’t connect me.” Ramon bleated pathetically.
     “Okay, I’ll patch you through, but don’t come running back to me if he nixes your security clearance request.” At which point Bella’s picture vanished from the console screen as she broke her connection. Ramon’s console eventually announced blandly: ‘Connecting to Professor Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal, head of the Red Wind Agricultural and Bio-Sciences Laboratory’. Moments later the lab was filled with a momentary sudden blast of New Orleans jazz as Hiram switched off his commset. Ramon set his console to keep reconnecting until Hiram answered in person. The blasts of jazz got shorter and shorter until Ramon’s console announced: ‘Professor Lok-Nur-Kal is aware of your call and will answer shortly. Please wait.’
     Ramon took this opportunity to get himself another Stim-O-Caff and a couple of donuts from the food dispenser in the lab. He was halfway across the room and stuffing a donut into his mouth when Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal’s heavily wrinkled face came up on the console screen. “What’s the matter, Ramon? Scared to leave the lab in case you get a life?”
     Ramon ignored Hiram’s taunt. Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal was a firm believer in living a balanced life. Which, amongst other things, meant having interests outside of work and pursuing them. Such as the Golden Oldies Jazz Band which met every Thursday night at Winston’s Lucky Seven Jazz Club. Ramon, who led a totally unbalanced life and couldn’t really care less, went on to explain Widget’s offer on behalf of Satori, their conversation and his own thoughts on their offer. Hiram pumped Ramon for as much info as he could get. He was obviously interested. “Well, you’ve done the right thing, kid!” Hiram broke out into a rare smile and an even rarer congratulation. “Go ahead and set it up. While you’re at it, see what data you can squeeze out of ‘em. Then do yourself a favour and get out of that lab before you get square eyes! Gotta go!” Hiram winked and waved his saxophone in front of his commset and signed off, leaving Ramon alone in the lab. He finished off his junk food snack, wiped the crumbs from his mouth and punched up the buttons to reconnect to Satori.
     “Ah, you’re back, Dr. Escobal” Widget greeted him warmly. “I take it everything is in order?”
     “Yes, you can add our data into your infernal database.” Ramon grumbled helplessly. He didn’t like being outmanoeuvred by mechs. “Be sure to pipe us your results ASAP, huh?” He begged noncommittally.
     “Certainly. The results will be with you in the morning.” Widget reassured Ramon.
     “Look, have you got any other data on the blight?” Ramon wheedled.
     “Of course we have, Dr. Escobal.” Widget explained. “But most of it is classified.”
     “Well, how about sending us a copy of everything you’re not keeping under wraps?” Ramon kept up his wheedling. He was determined to get something out Satori.
     “That’s nearly 400 terablocks.” Widget announced calmly. “Do you have sufficient storage space available? It’ll take a while to transfer as well.”
     “Hang on, I’ll take a look.” Ramon got a sudden surge of excitement. ‘Something for nothing!’ He did a quick check of the labs’ computers and reserved as much storage space as he could. “We ought to be able to do it if I hook up a few more blank cubes.” He replied casually. “I’ll be a few minutes.” He switched off his console screen, raced across the lab, ripped open the cupboard door, and grabbed as many boxes of blank cubes as he could carry. He then began plugging them into every blank slot he could find on the server, its’ data racks as well as every console in the lab. Minutes later, he was back at his console, catching his breath, wiping his hair out of his eyes as he plugged in the last data cube. He set the labs’ computer system to initialise its’ newly acquired wealth of data cubes.
     He switched his console screen on again. Widget was waiting, drumming its’ virtual fingers on its’ virtual desk. “Ah, back again, I see. Are you ready to begin?”
     “I’ll need a few minutes to initialise the cubes.” Ramon explained hurriedly. “How come you mechs are so interested in the blight? It’s not as if you’ve got to worry about food or anything like that.”
     “It affects us too, Dr. Escobal.” Widget replied sombrely. “Plazflex is semi-organic as are many of our components.” Widget disappeared from the screen for a few minutes while it displayed clips of Mechs who’d been afflicted by the blight. Sure enough, Ramon could clearly see their plazflex musculature melting away.
     “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.” Ramon blustered apologetically. He felt like an idiot apologising to an AI program. It hadn’t occurred to him that plazflex might be affected by the blight. Up to now, he’d only considered it as being something which affected cellular structures. Well, that’s something he’d test right away. And he’d get two results! Whether or not the blight affects plazflex and whether or not Widget and Satori are being straight with him and the rest of the human population on Mars. Ramon could never bring himself to completely accept mechs. Oh, he’d recognise their rights by all means and he’d never dream of joining an anti-mech organisation. But, try as he might, he could never really accept them as equals. They just weren’t human and to Ramon they were Frankenstein’s monsters come to life.
     Lights began winking on Ramon’s console indicating that the data cubes were ready. “Ready when you are.” He announced. “Just one thing before you begin. Is there any way of getting rid of those stupid adverts you run every time we sign off?”
     “The Red Wind Tribe has the budget account service, Dr. Escobal.” Widget explained with the infinite patience of an AI program. “Those ‘stupid adverts’ as you call them are what makes our budget account service cheap enough for you to use. I’ve contacted your admin department frequently about upgrading your service, but they inform me that it is beyond your means. Is that so?”
     “Quite likely.” Ramon replied glumly. At least he wouldn’t have to witness the advert at the end of this session, as he’d be at home in bed by then. “Well, I’m off now. So you can start transmitting right away.” Widget acknowledged his instruction and began sending over their non-classified data on the blight. He then went over to the samples shelf and picked out a medium-sized block of plazflex, put it in a sealed sample jar and infected it with a hefty dose of blight nanites. “You’ll be giving me some answers in the morning” he spoke to the jar as he placed it in the safe room for contaminated samples.
      Ramon then set the labs’ computers to disconnect automatically at the end of the transmission, put on his jacket and set off home through the cold night air. Ramon could see the vast canopy of stars through the transparent dome. The stormy season with its’ opaque dust clouds was still a month away.
     Siula was back at home watching a sit-com with her children, Ben and Jessica on their 3-D viewer. It had been a long day for Siula. Ben and Jessica were contentedly escaping into the fantasy world of entertainment after another day at school. Jessica would be graduating at the end of this school year. It was a forgone conclusion that she’d spend a couple of years away from home working on the mining ships before going on to study further or settle down to life in the Red Wind Territories. Either way, it would give Jessica the nest egg to build her life that Siula was unable to provide. Jessica was in no hurry to settle down to family life. She didn’t want that kind of responsibility quite yet. She wanted to go to the Art College or Drama School in Huygensville. She liked the idea of making and acting in vids. It seemed like such exciting fun!
     In reality though, Jessica, like most other young adults on Mars would need the money they earned on the mining ships just to make sure she had somewhere to live. Unlike Earth, living space doesn’t come for free as part of nature’s bounty. Life was much harder. Everyone had to pay their way one way or another. Even if she blew all her money in the big city, she could always return to the Red Wind Territories and work on the farms or maybe as a lab technician with her mother and her friends.
     Jessica and Ben were second-generation Martians and as members of the Red Wind Tribe, its’ territories would always be their home. At least they had that to fall back on. Kids growing up in the company and independent towns had to make their own way as soon as they left home. Only Red Wind, some of the communes and the Rising Star neo-socialist autonomous district had any real safety net. But it was usually limited to their own citizens to keep their communities from collapsing under the weight of an influx of freeloaders and carpetbaggers.
     “And now for the Ten o’clock News round-up.” A handsome and serious-looking young man read earnestly from his autocue. “Burt Halley and Melissa Fonda IV have been chosen to star on the new epic production ‘Empire of Time’. The Olympus Gods have made it through to interplanetary slam-ball finals. Terrorists released an unknown quantity of lethal biogens in Zurich earlier today. Earth Fed Security Services have yet to make an announcement, but Mars Liberationists are suspected. The entire city is under quarantine and the population is being evacuated as we’re on air. This footage from our earlier report.” Siula could see armed Earth Fed troops wearing sealed combat CBW outfits milling around in the background herding worried-looking people into large, white mobile decontamination units. Whatever it was, they weren’t taking any chances. The camera panned around to a demolished apartment block next to a small park while the commentator voiced-over. “This is where the bomb exploded releasing the biogens into the environment.”
      Siula could clearly see that some of the trees in the foreground were showing signs of blight. But on Earth? The implications were far too much for her to take in late in the evening. “Officials have as yet been unable to identify the biogen.” Like hell, Siula thought. “But you can clearly see how it has affected these trees on the screen behind me.” The camera then switched to a shot of human victims, some already dead and disintegrating fast. “Civilian casualties have been light, but the authorities are taking no chances. Also on Earth, Senator Bieljebuk of Central Asia, has called for an alliance of the underdeveloped regions to press for reforms in the World Assembly. He claims that development at home is being neglected in the race to develop off-world industry and that the interplanetary trade is unsustainable. Business news: Astrobelt Mining, Centaur Shipping and the United Metals Group have merged in a mutual buy-out to form the first totally integrated corporate unit from raw materials in the Asteroid Belt to finished products coming out the factory gate. Terrestrial stock markets jumped at the announcement.”
     Siula lost interest in the news program and switched her 3D viewer off. She wanted to go to sleep, but her head was full of unanswered questions. Who would want to release the blight on Earth? Even the Mars Liberation Army, a hardcore brigade of militants if there ever was, had hardly ever bothered taking their battle to Earth. And anyway, most of their targets tended to be obvious. Corporate headquarters and off-world installations were their usual targets. Life on Mars had been fairly uneventful the last few years. As far as she knew no group on Mars had a grudge big enough against anyone on Earth to want to pull off something like that. Maybe it was some poisonous little war that had been festering quietly over something on Earth that she’d not heard about. Whatever it was, the group (or was it a lone clone?) had gone to a lot of effort.
     The more she thought about it, she realised it could have been very easy for one person to do most of it. Picking up samples of blight on Mars and shipping them back to Earth could be fairly straightforward. The security checks were minimal, most often non-existent on the gravity-well barges that took processed ores to Luna and Earth. Making a bomb’s not so difficult either, she realised. It could have been done by a lone clone with a grudge, but unlikely. What was their motive? And on and on, but Siula had had enough of speculation. She’d find out soon enough. Earth Fed would soon be parading the perpetrator to jail in full media glare, or else they’d fake it if they couldn’t find the real terrorists, if that’s what they were. She wondered idly how long it would be before Earth Fed took the lid off the facts and told the people on Earth what really got loose in Zurich. Talk about shit hitting the fan! There was bound to be unpleasant fallout from it. Earth Fed and the corporate security forces were bound to toughen up here as a show of force. ‘May you live in interesting times’.
     Ramon returned to the lab bright and early the following morning to see if there were any nuggets of useful information in the mountain of data that he’d downloaded from Satori the previous night. He switched his console on and accessed his treasure-trove. The Satori Data Services screen faded away…
     “Katweazel’s Kustom Kave!” A manic grinning man with one mech arm and a cyborg cerebral enhancer hyperventilated happily through his sales pitch in demented tones reminiscent of Wolfman Jack. “This is the place you’ve been looking for. We’ve got the mods, parts and programming you need. Look no further. The best service and lowest prices on Mars. Cortex Enhancers! Bionic replacements! Superior Cybernetics! Dust-resistant bearings, the highest spec with a lifetime guarantee, yes, that’s an unlimited no-quibble lifetime guarantee! High yield power cells! Cool-running ultra-low wattage cores! You know it makes sense! Don’t stop with our off-the-shelf service because we’re not called Katweazel’s Kustom Kave for nothing. Nosirreee! So come on down and see what we can do for you. You’d be surprised!!! That’s Katweazel’s Kustom Kave, Satori-7, with branches in Huygensville, Cassini and Olympus.”
     ‘Damn!’ Ramon thought. ‘They sure rub it in that we’re in the economy class.’ He took a deep swig of his Stim-O-Caff, wolfed down a donut and set about trawling through his ocean of blight data for what? He wasn’t sure, but there had to be something in amongst all the data collected, even if it was classified and hidden at Satori or somewhere else. Talk about looking for needles in haystacks! It wasn’t such a bad life, really. It was just that Ramon preferred his puzzles and challenges to give themselves up relatively easily. The blight was thumbing its’ nose not just at Ramon and the Red Wind Tribes’ lab workers, but just about everyone else on Mars. He’d be glad when this one was over and done with. Uh oh, look busy. Here comes the boss…
     Sure enough, Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal pushed his way in through the labs’ swinging doors with his characteristic ‘I’ve got more life in me than any of you kids’ spring to his step. Hiram was an old Earth-born Inuit. He’d worked with all sorts of surveying teams looking for everything from oil to gold to uranium to brothels. He struck lucky when Global Oil & Minerals decided to send him on a training course at the University of Alaska. Hiram never came back from that training course and the university gained a worldly polymath student who later joined its’ faculty. Always on the look out for new challenges, he packed his bags and went to the Red Wind Territories on Mars as soon as he’d saved up. He’d managed to convince his tribal elders that they should send him and his family to Mars as their contribution to the Native Americans’ nation that was just starting up at the time.
     “Well there, Ramon. Busy as usual, I see.” He breezily greeted Ramon. “Found anything useful?” Not waiting for Ramon to reply, he continued at full steam. “It’d be quicker if you just ran it all through our computers and then flushed out all the data that matches up with what we’ve already got. We must be missing something that’s so obvious we’re not seeing it.”
     “Why don’t we try using d- opto-isomers.” Ramon suggested timidly, remembering his conversation with Siula the previous evening. “After all, the nanites are entirely made of d- opto-isomers. It’s worth a try.” Ramon wheedled in an attempt to get into Hiram’s good books.
     “Hah! Why hadn’t I thought of that.” Hiram exclaimed. “Well, Ramon that certainly makes up for all your screw-ups. There’s hope for you yet! Set up a batch of nanite samples and hit them with d- opto’s of anything we’ve got lying around and see what happens. I’ll see you at luchtime, let me know how you’re getting on with it.” Hiram gave Ramon his orders for the morning glad to find such an easy excuse to keep this bungling idiot out of his hair for the next few days.
     Ramon took his cue and scuttled off into the recesses of the lab to begin setting up the batch analyser in the safe room. On his way in he inspected his sample of plazflex. It was in serious meltdown. So, Widget was telling the truth. Ramon was almost prepared to rule out the Mechs as a possible suspect for the blight.
     Later that morning Siula dropped into the safe room to see Ramon. “How’d it go this morning?” She asked.
     “Well, the old boy liked your idea about the d- opto’s so much he’s got me running batch tests from now ‘till doomsday.” Ramon quipped, his good humour having returned. He hated the way Hiram outclassed him. It reminded him too much of his own inadequacies. “Oh, I think we can begin to rule out the Mechs as far as the Blight goes.” He added so as to entice Siula to work in the safe room with him. He could do with a bit of company right now.
     “Why’s that?” Siula asked quizzically. She was always a bit wary when someone began to challenge her belief systems.
     “Well, I put a block of plazflex in that jar on the shelf beside you and gave it a massive dose of nanites.” Ramon explained coolly. “Take a look for yourself.”
     One look was all that was needed. She could clearly see that the plazflex was being broken down by the nanites. Where did this place the Mechs in her scheme of things? If the nanites affected the Mechs too, then maybe they weren’t behind the blight. She realised, too, that this showed that Ramon was fairly rational after all. He wasn’t the type to base his opinions on wild flights of fancy, prejudice or fear. That was something she appreciated in people. From now on, she decided, she wouldn’t reject Ramon’s ideas out of hand. “I see what you mean.” She said quietly as she nodded her head in agreement with Ramon’s results.
     “Ah, if you’re not doing much this morning, how’d you like to help me setting up these batch tests?” Ramon asked in his best attempt to win some human company while he worked, especially female company.
     “I’m sorry, Ramon. I can’t.” Siula apologised, glad not to have to work alone with Ramon. “Hiram’s got the rest of us sifting through all that data you downloaded last night. We might have enough of it done by this afternoon so that some of us can help you on this one.” She didn’t want to hurt Ramon, but was glad to have a genuine excuse to get away.
     “Oh well, never mind. It’s Mercurio, that warrior prince of yours, eh?” He chuckled, referring to one of Siula’s lab assistants. “See you at lunchtime then. Hiram wants to see me over lunch, come on over and join us.”
     Siula blushed momentarily not sure quite what to say. “Thanks, Ramon. I’ll think about it.” And she turned to join the others at the data consoles picking through the data Ramon had downloaded the previous evening. Ramon sighed and got on with his solitary task.
     Lunchtime rolled around and Ramon was only too glad to escape from the safe room for an hour to join Hiram. Sure enough Ramon found him in the canteen chatting amiably with some workers Ramon didn’t recognise. He felt his jollity draining from him and sat down unobtrusively hoping Hiram would ignore him. Ramon plunged further into pits of despair as he worried about why Hiram had such a bad affect on him. It wasn’t as if Hiram was a cold taskmaster or anything like that, he could actually be great fun to be around at times. It was just that he’d always pick up on your mistakes and never let you forget either. A perfectionist. While Ramon saw himself as a realist who’d long since accepted the human condition which included the famous aphorism ‘We all make mistakes.’ He was ruminating on the differences between their characters when Hiram interrupted his cogitations.
     “Glad to see you’ve joined us.” Hiram welcomed Ramon. “Would you like to tell us how you’ve been getting on with the d- opto’s this morning? That was a pretty smart idea of yours to try out the d- opto-isomers on the nanites.”
     “Well, it wasn’t all my idea.” Ramon confessed hoping that if the research time proved fruitless, he wouldn’t get all the blame. “I set up the batch tester with some likely candidates. We should start getting some results later this afternoon. But it’s early days yet. It could take weeks.”
     Hiram was secretly thrilled that Ramon had found a way to keep out trouble for a while to come. “Really, that’s very modest of you.” Hiram was in a good mood this morning. “Who else cooked up this idea then?”
     “Well, Siula and I were talking about the blight nanites last night.” Ramon explained to the best of his recollection. “I mentioned that the nanites are composed entirely of d- opto-isomeric organic compounds and that we’d been testing toxins and pathogens taken from our largely l- opto-isomeric biochemistry. She suggested that we ought to try using d- opto’s instead and it seemed like a good idea to me, so I mentioned it to you this morning.”
     “Ah, that Sultry Shawnee on loan from the crop-enhancement team.” Hiram beamed the jollity that Ramon had just felt draining from himself moments before. “She’s a bright spark, I had a feeling you’d make a good team.”
     Ramon took advantage of Hiram’s good humour to explain how his work had been proceeding that morning and ended with his nagging doubts that all their research was going in the wrong direction. “We’ve been going at these nanites as if they’re living organisms, hitting them with toxins and pathogens they way we would try to knock out a bacterial or viral infection. But they’re not. They’re machines.” Ramon was beginning to get agitated as he explained himself.
     “But they use the organisms they break down as fuel, similar to the way a bacterium or virus would, so it’s worth a try.” Ordo Hopalong, a virologist from Olympus who was visiting Hiram that day replied. Ordo’s hairline had receded well behind his ears and made him look a lot older than he really was. Leaving him with precious few strands for the braids he kept the remains of his hair in. Between that and his Clement Atlee-style taste in starched collars and pince-nez glasses made him look like he’d jumped out of an old sepia-tone photograph of ‘the proud savage in white man’s clothes’.
     “That’s true.” Ramon conceded helplessly as he felt the current direction of their research was going up a blind alley. “But we’re getting nowhere. Maybe we ought to concentrate more on the nanites machine nature and look for a weakness or some other way to throw a spanner in the works.” He managed to stop himself from pleading too pathetically for his idea.
     Jenny Jetson, a self-styled futurist from Huygensville University Crystallograhy department with a wacky line in chromo-plaz clothes chipped in. “Well, if you want, we’ve mapped out the basic blight nanite and a few of its’ variants. I’ll get you a copy if you think it’ll help. You freeze ‘em and they shut down until they warm up again.” She rambled pleasantly. You heat ‘em up and they seize up until they cool down again and then the little bastards keep on at it. Burning or liquid nitrogen is all that seems to work on ‘em so far. We need something that shuts ‘em down while they’re inside an organism without killing the host.”
     Ramon turned his attention to Hiram. “Ah, we’ll need to order a few more blocks of plazflex.”
     “Why so?” Hiram looked quizzical. “No Mechs in Red Wind.”
     “I took one of our sample blocks and infected it with the nanites last night.” Ramon explained. “It’s almost completely broken down.”
     “Well that was a bit of a waste.” Hiram amiably joshed Ramon. “I thought everyone knew about that. Yeah, sure put in an order. But not too much, huh? We don’t have much use for it around here.” Hiram’s casual of acceptance of such a far-reaching observation stunned Ramon. He could only assume that Hiram had no axe to grind against the Mechs. They spent the rest of their lunch break discussing all the latest gossip about the blight nanites as well as swapping rumours as to their source. Conspiracy theories, LGM’s, secret wars, ‘The Missing Martians’ and more were bounced off each other. An hour later they were still chatting away in the long-since emptied canteen when they should have been back at work, but so long as Hiram held court, there wasn’t much of a hurry to go anywhere.
     Suddenly a loud crash, screaming, shouting and sobbing echoed down the hall from Ramon’s lab. He froze in fear at the table as the conversation stuck in their throats. Siula was in there with the kids from the high school’s biology class. Fearing the worst, he got up without another word and ran towards his lab. As he rounded the corner, his worst fears were realised. He could see Siula, her lab assistant and a group of the students covered in blight slime and nanite solution that had all fallen off a broken wall unit. A few students who hadn’t been affected were cowering in a far corner of the lab. The look of panic, fear and terror in their eyes was overwhelming. Faculty and staff were running from all directions towards Ramon’s lab.
     Hiram came running up from behind Ramon shouting in his deepest, loudest and most authoritative tone of voice, “Stand back! Freeze!” as he ran into his office, grabbed a canister of Somn-O-Blast knockout gas from the security locker, lobbed it into Ramon’s lab and slammed the door firmly shut. Ramon could see Siula and the kids falling over in their chemical-induced sleep that would buy the hospital workers enough time to get them safely into an isolation unit at the clinic. For what? To watch them die slowly of the blight? They said it felt like being eaten by ants at first, then when it finally took hold you wouldn’t feel anything while your body melted away until it broke down your brain and you died.
     “Call the hospital and tell them we’ve got eleven blight cases under sedation.” He barked before losing his composure. It was a visibly shaken Hiram Lok-Nur-Kal who looked up to the assembled lab staff and quietly gave the order: “Someone call the school and notify their parents and next-of-kin.” He looked every day and more of his 121 years. He’d lived in dangerous places and had seen a lot in his life, but he wasn’t really ready for anything like this. Not least in his safe, secure and well-ordered labs. Hiram had to think fast. He didn’t want any more deaths on his hands. He just couldn’t face it after last time. He’d have to get the students’ parents and lab workers’ relatives to agree to putting them on ice until a cure was found. Cryogenics were fairly reliable nowadays. How could he convince them? He wracked his mind for ideas as the decontamination crew arrived on the scene and then ordered everyone to clear the area so the decontamination and hospital crews could do their work. He turned and saw a shaken, terrified and miserable looking Ramon. He walked to him and put his arm around him. “Don’t take it too hard, son. It could happen to anyone.” And gently led Ramon off towards his own office. “Come on, let’s sort this mess out.”
     Just when he’d been hoping that his life would settle down to an easy routine in his later years, Hiram suddenly found himself unwittingly thrust into the focus of a whirlwind of activity. What a mess it turned out to be! No sooner than news of the accident got out, the Red Wind labs were pounced upon by the voracious newshounds from MarsTel and various other news services. Hot on their heels came the Earth Fed safety inspectorate who went over Hiram’s work record with a tooth-comb as well as casting aspersions on his ‘lax’ safety procedures with veiled threats of closing down their labs if they ‘didn’t pull their socks up and get their act together’. Much to his surprise, Hiram managed to find time to convince the afflicted children’s parents that the best option was suspended animation until a cure could be found. Siula’s assistant, Mercurio, agreed readily, though Siula had reservations because she was worried about Ben and Jessica.
     Hiram pointed out that she wouldn’t have long, a few days at best before she’d be dead from the blight and offered to take them in until a cure was found. She had, at best a day, to break the news to her children and prepare them for their new life as orphans until a cure could be found. Hiram offered to take Ben and Jessica in and look after them. His own children had long since flown the coop, so he and his wife could mange it easily, on top of which, Hiram felt the owed her that much if not more. This episode had made him all the more determined to find a way to beat the blight nanites, though it wouldn’t happen until long after his time. Oblivious to the future, but totally immersed in the present moment, Hiram set about making the necessary arrangements for the blight victims. He was determined to be able to revive and cure them within his lifetime, but that would be one goal which would elude him. Siula, Mercurio and their students would remain in suspended animation for centuries in their subterranean chambers as the course of history intervened wrenching from their own time into an unknowable future.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 2
Chapter 4