Sunday, May 4, 2008

Chapter twelve: What do you know of the Plague virus, Mr. Honlin?

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Landau said, "About a year ago, a woman by the name of Lucy Dahl entered Sky City Psychiatric Facility. She was complaining of a variety of ailments, including hallucinations, both auditory and visual. Ms. Dahl was not a Sky City resident; she lived in one of the larger Darkunder clusters, a place called Carnival. Are you familiar with it?" I nodded yes.

"Sky City medical facilities tend to pretty much anyone who comes to them, since we like to keep track of the public health situation on Venus, so Ms Dahl was admitted.

"After a brief observation, her doctors concluded that Ms. Dahl was in the midst of a psychotic episode of unknown origin. Therefore, she was given anti-psychotic drugs in an attempt to stabilize her sufficiently to form a reasonable diagnosis. This is standard procedure.

"Ms. Dahl then proceeded to go into anaphylactic shock and died before anyone realized what was happening to her. She was rushed to Sky City Intensive Care, but it was too late for resuscitation. The anaphylaxis had induced major encephalitis and there was extensive brain damage.

"The circumstances of death were sufficiently strange to warrant a full biochemical autopsy, so a number of tissue samples from Ms. Dahl were sent to Anchorage for testing. Unfortunately, the rest of Ms. Dahl's body was cremated shortly afterward."

Landau reached over and touched a button. "Dr. Morales, are you ready?" he asked.

"Yes, Dr. Landau," came the reply.

"Good," said Landau and he pushed another button.

A second wall flickered and suddenly there was another person in the conference. Dr. Morales looked to be another Luna émigré, short, slender, of mixed race and coloration. Darkish brown hair going bald on top. He was wearing a white lab coat, and looked like he'd just stepped away from the glassware.

"Your turn, Mike," Landau told Morales.

Morales looked at me and gave a nod of introduction. Unlike Landau, he started in immediately.

"What do you know of the Plague virus, Mr. Honlin?" he asked me.

My skin had tightened a little when Landau had told me how Lucy Dahl had died. Now the shiver of it went up my spine. I knew more about the Plague virus than is legal to know, probably, but that's one of the things I don't volunteer.

"Maybe you should pretend that I'm completely ignorant," I told him. "Better to hear it twice than to miss something."

He nodded. "Okay, first the short form that everybody knows." He sounded like he was giving a lecture for the hundredth time. "One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the Plague hit the Earth. Its effects were both dramatic and rapid. It drove people insane, with a particular tendency toward paranoid and megalomaniacal delusions. Some estimates place the incidence as high as one-quarter of the entire population of Earth, more than enough to bring down human civilization. Nuclear weapons were used, among other things, and the Earth's Skyhook was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, Earth dropped out of contact with the rest of the solar system, even to the extent of a cessation of all telecommunications. Some subset of Earth's missile defenses remained, however, even after all communication was cut off, to the effect that any powered or large ballistic craft that attempted to enter the Earth's atmosphere was destroyed. The last such attempt was over a century ago, but we can still detect the radar of the defense systems, so it's assumed that the extreme defensive posture remains in effect.

"Fear of the Earth's automatic defense systems, and the machine intelligence devices that operate them, are the stated reasons why no attempts are made to resume contact. In fact, such attempts are illegal."

I nodded at this and concentrated on Morales' face, the way his lips moved when he talked. Keep to the here and now, and don't think of the past, Honlin.

"The biological nature of the Plague is not a subject in common knowledge," Morales continued. "It's one of the restricted subjects, in fact. However, those researchers who have studied the reports from Earth and the few Plague cases that occurred on Luna and elsewhere in the system, are pretty well convinced that the Plague was artificial in origin."

"How can they tell?" I asked, because that was what I'd asked the first time I'd been told about it.

"Because the Plague is too complex a phenomenon to be an accident," Morales replied. "In fact, it is not one virus, but two, called a 'primer' and an 'activator.' That is a biological warfare technique. The primer/activator setup is also one of the reasons why the offworld colonies were spared. The primer hadn't spread very far, and the activator didn't really get off the Earth at all. There wasn't time for it.

"The primer virus was a B cell leukocyte retrovirus that passed by sweat contact. The spread was moderately rapid on Earth, but very slow offworld. We don't know why this was so, but that seems to be the case. It may simply be a matter of differences in vector opportunities. Or some of the spread on Earth may have been artificial. Whatever. The activator was a form of influenza. The effect of the primer was to modify the antigen response of B cells to influenza. Basically, certain neuropeptide chains were added to the antigens and those neuropeptide chains were unstable, breaking off into pieces that could pass the blood brain barrier. After a period of only a few weeks, insanity ensued."

He paused again, for effect, I think. "One vicious little irony of it was that you didn't need the activator per se to do the job. Attempts to immunize against the activator virus also triggered the reaction. So when it looked like there would be a bad 'flu outbreak that year, public health officials in a hundred countries did their jobs -- and poisoned their own populace. By the time anyone realized what had happened, it was far too late."

"So who did it?" I asked. "Who set off the Plague?"

"No one has any idea," Morales said. "I personally think that speculation is pointless. We weeded out all occurrences of the activator virus from Luna, Venus, and the other colonies over a century ago. That's one of the routine blood tests now given to every infant, and every traveler. As far as we're concerned, it's extinct, though obviously, that may not hold for Earth."

"So why tell this to me?" I asked.

"I'm getting to that," he said. He wiped his hands on his shirt in what I took as a nervous gesture. He continued, "One of the occasionally reported symptoms of the Plague was an allergic reaction to several classes of anti-psychotic drugs. Exactly the sort of reaction that Lucy Dahl had shown."

"So you think that she had the Plague?" I asked.

He shook his head. "No, she didn't have the Plague. I tested for that first thing, of course. So we first thought that it was just coincidence. There are plenty of other possible allergens that she could have been reacting to. And when the Plague test came up negative, her body was disposed of." Morales grimaced like a man kicking himself mentally.

"So?" I prodded.

"I didn't stop at that point, however," Morales continued. I continued with some blood tests, protein fractions, that sort of thing. After several weeks of work I found a set of proteins in Ms.Dahl's blood. Let me show you."

Morales went behind his desk and touched a few keys. Suddenly, in the space in front of his desk, there appeared a set of molecular model forms. Right, I thought to myself. One of the advantages of appearing via holovid is that you can put your three-D view screen anywhere you want.

"These two fragments here," Morales began, and as he said it, two of the four floating forms began to glow. "Are taken from Lucy Dahl's blood. The other two are peptide fragments that appear in those of Plague victims."

"They're not the same," I observed.

"Right," he said. "But look at these sections." He tapped a few more keys and parts of both pairs of the forms began to glow.

"Those have the same shape," I said.

He nodded. "The same shape and the same functionality. Those are part of the neuroactive fragments of the Plague antigens. I've isolated no less than twelve similar pairs. Lucy Dahl was probably suffering from something that was very similar in its antigen response to the Plague. Her anaphylactic reaction just underscores that similarity."

"Probably?" I asked. "So you're not certain?"

He grimaced again. "No, goddamn it, I'm not certain. I couldn't isolate a virus from the tissue samples, nor could I get one to grow, at least not that one. I got a couple of dozen viruses, from Ms. Dahl's tissues, and I managed to culture at least half of them, but none fit the profile of something that could give psychoactive antigen fragments.

"But she'd had a recent, fairly severe viral illness, there were several traces of that, things like interferon levels and so forth. And I did manage to analyze her B cell makeup sufficiently to know that it wasn't a primer/activator kind of thing. I think we're only dealing with a single virus, and my hunch is that it's not spread by casual contact. If nothing else, if it were, we'd already have seen more cases. This isn't a slow growing disease. It seems to be acute; at least it was for Ms. Dahl, unless her recent viral reaction was a complete coincidence."

"But you don't know for sure," I said.

He sighed. "No, I don't know for sure. I can't be sure about any of it. I can't rule out the possibility that this is a disease with a long incubation period, and that it's spreading through the population of Venus. I don't think that's the case, but it might be."

Dr. Landau spoke up then. "Ed, if we knew for sure, I'd have declared a medical emergency long before now. I'd put all of Venus into quarantine before I knowingly let something like this get out. But I won't…I can't shut down interplanetary trade just on the basis of some medical guesswork. That would cost lives in other ways, too. I'd be removed from my post before I could carry it out. And I can't go public; the panic would have nearly as profound a negative effect as a full quarantine."

"So what do you want from me?" I asked.

Landau looked to his right, at what I assume was his teleconnection to Morales. "That's all we need now, Mike," Landau said. Morales nodded at him and then to me. "Keep in touch, Mr. Honlin," Morales said, with a trace of irony in his voice. Then the screen went blank, taking the pretty molecular pictures with it.

Then Landau said to me, "I've tried putting some of my medical investigators on this, and they can't even get out of the starting gate. Lucy Dahl lived in Carnival Cluster in Darkunder. You know what things are like in Darkunder."

I grunted. "Yeah," I told him. "You're lucky your men didn't come back dead."

"One of them was assaulted," Landau told me. "Not badly injured, but enough to scare him off."

"So you want me to try to trace this Dahl woman," I said. "After your boys have already messed up the trail."

He moved his head wearily. Maybe it was a nod. "Yes," he said. "We've screwed this up about as badly as you could ask for. We need help. Can you give us some?"

"What about Reed and Carlyle?" I asked him.

"The agents from the Special Guard?"


"I don't know where they are," Landau said. "They don't report to me, and they've gone undercover."

I thought about that for a moment. Something tried to nag at me. One potato, two potato, three potato…

Hot potato.

"So you handed the thing over to the Guard," I said to him. "They told you, 'fine, we'll take care of it.' Is that right?" He nodded, a look of misery spreading across his face.

"Did you send your own investigators before or after the Guard got involved?"

"Before," he said. Then after a moment's hesitation he said, "Mostly before."

"But you've kept investigating," I said. "And when the Guard found out about it, they ordered you to stop." Again, that miserable nod.

"But you don't trust the Guard," I said. "You lack the necessary faith." That put a little steel back into him.

"Don't patronize me, Mr. Honlin," he told me. "This is my job here, to protect the health and safety of Skyhook, and by implication give similar protection to the population of Venus."

"And you can't just hand that responsibility over to some assholes from Luna," I prompted.

"Something like that," he answered.

He got up from behind his desk and walked toward me, stopping with his face just inches from the screen. His voice was plaintive.

"Mr. Honlin, a Plague of Madness one-tenth the incidence rate of the one that hit Earth could doom Luna and every other human colony, with the possible exception of Venus. Skyhook certainly would never survive; there are too many people in too many critical positions. We depend too much on a very advanced and touchy technology. Sometimes I lie awake at night trying to think of how to protect us against something like this, and I get no answers. Then I go to sleep and things get even worse.

"Maybe it's nothing," he said. "Maybe it's all just a coincidence, and maybe there's no danger. But my subconscious thinks otherwise. I haven't had a good night's sleep in over six months. I keep dreaming of new ways to blow up the Skyhook. I keep having visions of more ways to die."

He looked at me with that pained look of a man used to giving orders, not asking for favors. "I hope I'm wrong, Mr. Honlin," he said. "I hope that it's just me who is going crazy. I wish I didn't have the gut feeling that I really, really need your help. But that's the feeling I have. Maybe it's all just silly bullshit, but I have the firm conviction that having you investigate Lucy Dahl is the only thing that is ever going to let me get another good night's sleep."

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