Sol slowly regained consciousness. His fleshy body hurt while the metal parts of him constantly took stock of his wellbeing. He was no doctor, but his mind chips made assessment of possible breaks in the skin or lacerations to internal organs, as well as chemical imbalances. As he opened his eyes, at once being informed by the time device lodged in his frontal lobe that he had been regenerating for nigh six days, he noted his body was still exhausted and needed replenishment. He looked around the tent and took in six other cots, three occupied with Mariel, Derik and Ishel. Ariahl, Kaster and Topon must have already regenerated sufficiently to leave their beds. Swinging his legs over the side of the cot, he came into a sitting position and rose. His metal legs were steady under him as he strode out of the pavilion and into an overcast late afternoon. He glanced west and saw soldiers guarding the detritus of the fallen ships. They would have to find a place to house the ships so that the Sentinels could gather intel.
He turned and bowed to Moyen. “My lord. How is Toyus?”
Moyen grimaced and shook his head. “Kaster is overseeing his recovery. Despite our best efforts, he has developed a persistent infection.” He swallowed convulsively. “We had to amputate his burnt hand and scrape away the leather from his uniform that had burned into the skin of his back.”
Sol released a breath. “God, I’m so sorry, Moyen.”
Moyen nodded and struggled to visibly control his emotions, his eyes glassy with unshed tears. He gave a watery laugh. “I have not cried this much ever.”
“It’s understandable, sir,” Sol assured him softly.
“We await Mariel, Derik and Ishel’s waking,” Moyen told him. “We need to interrogate the aliens.”
“How many captured?” Sol asked as they turned and headed together towards the medical pavilion.
“Sixty, but twelve died from injuries,” Moyen told him. “They have been burned. We could not allow them to rot and spread disease.”
Sol nodded. “Understood. That leaves 48 we can examine.”
“We captured one of their leaders,” Moyen informed him. He held the ten flap to one side. “After you.”
Sol entered the large tent and paused, his eyes taking in everything at once. There were fifteen cots in this tent and the air was thick with the odor of burnt flesh and chemicals and blood. The cots were set in neat rows with low a table with a basin filled with water beside each cot. Aside from his fellow Sentinels, there were healers in black robes moving from patient to patient. Some of the patients were soldiers in various stages of recuperation. Some were unconscious and some watched curiously as Sol and Moyen moved towards the right-hand side of the tent, where Ariahl, Topon and Kaster gathered around a prone Toyus.
As Sol walked up, Ariahl flicked him a glance. “Welcome.”
He inclined his head and allowed his eyes to fall on Toyus’ prone form. The flesh of the left-hand side of the young man’s face and neck was an angry red, full of blisters and shiny with biologics. Sol controlled the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him, confused and startled. He smoothed his features, cognizant that his fellow Sentinels would be able to detect his improper reactions if he was not careful. He dropped his gaze to the young man’s chest, where an empty wrist wrapped in bandages lay uselessly. His left hand, Sol thought numbly.
“Are the others awake?” his Captain inquired, her eyes sharp and assessing.
Sol looked at her. “Not yet.”
“They will soon,” Kaster said as he flashed a light into Toyus’ right eye. He sighed and stood up.
“How is he, Kaster?” Sol asked his friend.
Kaster frowned. “He has been infected with some sort of bacterium. It was carried in the beam of light.”
Sol’s heart gave a painful lurch. “So, it was a biological weapon?”
Topon shifted. “We’re not sure. It may have just been an incidental.” He shook his head, his dark skin gleaming with sweat. “But how a living organism could survive the heat of that beam–“
“On old Earth, there were organisms that survived in volcanic calderas,” Sol retorted mildly. “Could this be the bacterium that attacked the alien’s food supply?”
Topon sighed. “The bacterium could very well be the same, which worries me. It could attack the food supply of this world and decimate it.”
“Or it could just attack humanoids,” Ariahl offered.
Sol looked at Topon. “How does the bacterium behave?”
“It is an opportunistic infection, replicating at will and causing the body to become overwhelmed. It is also releasing a low level toxin which is causing fevers and other inflammatory reactions.” Topon shook his head. “Toyus is fighting it, but I am trying to develop an antibiotic. I think this bacteria infected Toyus through the burns, which weakened the connective tissue.” He sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. “If this bacterium mutates into one that is airborne…”
Sol nodded. “But human beings are hardy.”
“Yes,” Topon agreed. “Some will survive. The aliens survived well enough, but this bacterium may be beneficial to them. More than likely, it is. The populations of this world may develop a resistance to it.” He flicked a worried glance to Moyen. “It is spreading quickly and invasively throughout Toyus’ body and overwhelming his defenses. I have to find an antibiotic and soon, or he may well die.”
Moyen sat on the edge of Toyus’ cot and picked up the young man’s hand.
“Sir, that is not advisable,” Kaster said.
Moyen scowled. “I am not going to avoid my son. If I sicken, so be it.”
Kaster knelt before Moyen and gazed earnestly up into his eyes. “It is not the fear you’ll sicken, sir. It is that you may spread the disease to your wife or children through touch.”
Moyen blanched and hurriedly stood up.
“Please wash your hands with soap and water,” Kaster directed him.
While Moyen washed his hands, Malida and the rest of the Ekesj family entered the tent, followed by Ishel and the rest of the Sentinels.
“How is Toyus?” Malida asked.
Kaster walked to where she stood. “He has an opportunistic disease. An alien bacterium. We are keeping him alive while Topon searches for a cure.”
Malida gasped, her hand coming to her mouth. She swayed and Kaster caught her as she passed out. He gently picked her up and laid her on an empty cot in a corner of the tent.
Emeida, Soena and Itina hugged each other, burying their faces in each other’s neck.
“Moyen,” Kaster said. “Take your family out of this tent. We will keep you apprised of Toyus’ condition.”
Moyen dried his hands and set the towel on the table next to the washbasin. He nodded. “I want an hourly report.”
“Very well,” Kaster replied, watching as Moyen carried his wife out, followed closely by his daughters. He sighed and turned to his fellow Sentinels. “I don’t have much hope Toyus will survive the infection before Topon can develop an antibiotic. The bacteria is very aggressive.”
The Sentinels looked at each other helplessly.
Ishel shook himself. “I have to head to Castle Draemin to interrogate the prisoners. Mariel, will you accompany me?”
“Of course,” she replied.
They headed out and Sol returned to Toyus’ bedside, sitting on the edge of the cot. He refrained from touching the young man.
A hand grasped his shoulder and he glanced up at Ariahl’s worried gaze.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’ve just grown fond of this family.”
She sighed. “As have we all, my friend. Derik, Topon and Kaster will work on an anti-biologic. You and I will go and examine the fallen ships.”
Sol rose, grateful to have something to do to assuage his worry.
“Don’t cut your fleshy hand,” Kaster warned needlessly as they walked out of the tent.
Ariahl handed Sol a black vinyl bag and thin gloves. “These are latex. Put them on so we can examine the ships. We can collect samples at the crash site and put them in the bags.”
He nodded and complied, pulling the gloves onto both the human and artificial hand. They strode nearly a mile to where the first wreckage lay. Five soldiers stood guarding it. They bowed, their expressions awed, as Ariahl and Sol strode up.
“Good afternoon, soldier,” Ariahl murmured.
The soldier bowed. “Sentinel.”
“We’re here to examine the ship,” Sol told the young man.
He bowed again. “Yes, ma’am.”
They began by picking up the small pieces of the wreckage and setting them aside before they examined the cockpit. There was so much detritus, it took them hours before they had a clear path to the main ship. The window had been shattered. There was blood and all manner of biological material on the metal.
Sol grimaced. “We’ll need to retrieve our contamination suits from the shuttle. We can’t touch anything and possibly get covered with alien blood and biological matter.”
Ariahl sighed. “Yes.” She glanced at the cloudy skies. “If it rains, the blood and tissue matter will soak into the soil. God help us, Sol. I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
He swallowed thickly. “Let’s collect samples of blood and tissue and then work on retrieving the contamination suits.”
She nodded and knelt, opening her vinyl bag to pull out vials. “Let’s get to work. We’ll have to send three Sentinels to retrieve the contamination suits.”
He nodded and set to work.
Sol, Ariahl and Kaster left the camp on lirtah to retrieve the contamination suits from the shuttle hidden in the seaside cave. The journey took half a day and, by the time they reached the cave area, it had begun to storm. It was not a gentle rain but a downpour. Sol felt despair for the first time in a long time. Mother Nature seemed to be working against them. By the time they returned to the crash site, the blood and tissue matter would have soaked into the soil and would possibly be creating havoc with the environment. They were woefully unprepared to contain contamination. The world was poised for disaster and Sol felt helplessness and frustration.
It took them near an hour venturing through tunnels before they found the shuttle. Breaking the protective seal around the shuttle, they removed their boots and climbed inside.
“Touch as little as possible,” Kaster told them. “We’re probably crawling with alien bacteria.”
They went to the appropriate cabinets and retrieved ten tightly sealed contamination suits that would easily fit into their saddlebags.
“We’ll take seven suits for us and three for Moyen, Malida and an extra person,” Ariahl said when Kaster asked her why they were using ten suits.
Kaster nodded. He walked to a second cabinet and retrieved a battery charged microscope, more vials, more gloves and alcohol and bleach wipes. He also stuffed into his large saddlebag hard plastic masks. He handed Sol ampules of antibacterial medicine targeted for different types of terrestrial bacteria. The refrigeration unit hummed as he worked. He frowned. There was no assurance that these medicines would work on the alien bacterium, but Kaster would try everything to prevent the looming disaster.
Once they were done, thoroughly taking stock of all the supplies, they wiped the shuttle down carefully before sealing it once more and heading out into the tunnel.
Outside the tunnel, the rain poured, limiting visibility and lowering ambient temperatures.
The Sentinels donned their waterproof cloaks and hoods and mounted up, heading back to the battle site as quickly as the weather allowed. Their mounts were steady under them, cantering over puddles.
Sol frowned. He knew that, even now, the biologic material at the crash site was soaking into the ground of this pristine world. The aliens had not reappeared in six days, but they had decimated fully half their forces. But the aliens were desperate. They were sure to return, savvier and better prepared. But also fewer in number. Sol did not fear their numbers or their attacks. He feared the unseen, the bacteria and viruses not yet discovered. He knew this world was periodically plagued by a virus called Leptka’s Disease. The disease was indiscriminate, killing thousands before burning itself out and disappearing into the natural world once more. All the denizens of the world could do was offer palliative measures. He knew Kaster was collaborating with Topon to find a vaccine for the disease, but Sol did not think that was wise. The disease was a means of controlling population explosions. Although people died of other causes, Leptka’s Disease was the main reason populations were kept at manageable levels. He made a mental note to talk to his friends about their efforts.
By the time they reached the camp, it was well past sunrise. They had ridden all night, but they were hardy beings and felt little discomfort. They dismounted, handing the reins to waiting guards and entered the medical tent. The others were there.
Sol removed his soaked cloak and shook it, hanging it on a hook of a cloak tree which stood left of the tent flap. He followed Ariahl and Kaster to where they others stood around Toyus’ bed.
Sol looked at Toyus. The young man was pale, the blistered skin of his throat and face stark against the pallidity. “How is he, Topon?”
“He’s holding his own.”
Sol nodded. “I need to talk to you all. We need a vote.”
Ariahl cocked her head. “A vote about what?”
Sol faced her. “I think Kaster and Topon’s efforts should focus on preventing a biological disaster. They should shelf their research into Leptka’s Disease.”
Kaster took a step forward. “What if the plague breaks out at this time?”
Sol sighed. “I think the plague is a way for the world to maintain viable numbers of inhabitants on this world. We should not interfere with anything on such a large scale. The plague is tragic and horrible, but we have to make sure the world can support the number of inhabitants. If populations soar–“
Topon nodded. “I see your point.” He looked at Kaster. “Sol might be correct. We know that at least some will survive Leptka’s Disease, but the alien strain–” He shrugged.
Kaster gnawed his lower lip. “Agreed then. We’ll focus on preventing a new type of plague.”
“God help us,” Mariel muttered and rubbed her arms.