Pendulum Ch. 28: Excursion

It had begun with a harmless rash. Just a tiny itch under the armpits at first, where it was dark and damp and perfectly natural to get itchy in a space suit, especially in the humidity they were dealing with. Adams had thought little about it when he was hunting for pieces of gear all over the place, had to pick them up, haul them inside, unbox and assemble them. He had been too busy to care, even when the itch turned into a burning sensation. Mild at first, the typical aftermath of activities while sweating, and a not perfectly fit suit. But it didn’t stay that way for long. The inside of his upper arms followed, and it became clear that this wasn’t just a mild inflammation of the skin.
He sat on the retractable bench and assembled his incubator module while fighting the urge to scratch. As big as the Wisp was, it still felt way too cramped. Made for four, it held fifty percent over capacity, and one of them was a giant who needed the space of almost two humans. Even the air cycling system was audible, working harder than intended, and set up to combat contaminants.
While the filter didn’t worry him, his skin did.
“Doctor, do you have a moment?”
The fir bolg looked up from the handheld device he had been studying, and he wasn’t the only one. Deirdre cocked her head, and Murray eyed him with suspicion.
“What is it?”
Adams pointed at the primary display. They had made progress toward the mountains, and even gained some speed, when the ground hardened and turned more and more into solid rock. They moved at a good pace in the now scarlet light pouring over the already reddish landscape and made the world look as if it were on fire. Nightfall was still a few hours out, but when it came, it would last for almost six days.
“I’d like to look at those fungi over there. Care to accompany me? We might find out something helpful.”
Maon seemed to think for a moment. He creased his forehead and checked on the corporal, who was back in his seat, steering the vehicle.
“I think I can risk it if it doesn’t take too long. Maybe an hour, then I’d like to do another check-up.”
“It won’t be more than that, but your expertise might be helpful.”
The giant nodded and got up from his bench.
“Sergeant Ailbhe?”
“That won’t be necessary, lieutenant,” Adams said. “There is no discernible fauna that could be dangerous, and we won’t wander off too far.”
“What about terrain?”
“Don’t worry about it. This will be the doctor and me. You can rest until you’re needed.”
The lieutenant’s brows drew together.
“Understood. I would appreciate it if you could stay in touch while you’re out there. I’m responsible for your safety, and— ”
“Thank you for your concern. I will ask for your assistance when I feel I need it.”
The inquisitive light in the soldier’s eyes didn’t expire, but he didn’t pursue it any further.
Adams slipped into his suit and checked the internal systems. The tanks had refilled to over the seventy percent mark and would give air for the next few hours. Way more than needed for their brief excursion.

“What is it you really wanted to talk to me about?”
The Wisp was out of sight, disappeared behind a crag, moving at lower than walking speed. They could spend an hour and still catch up with them easily, but that wouldn’t be necessary.
Adams sighed. “Was it that obvious?”
“The lieutenant’s reaction should answer that question. Do you have symptoms?”
“He’s the reason I wanted to talk with you outside. I have a rash. It’s spreading rapidly from the armpits over my arms and back and chest.”
The doctor glowered. Another rock, about ten metres from the group of fungi, stuck out of the red carpet just enough to make for a large enough bench.
“I need to look at it, and even then, I’ll need my diagnostic equipment to tell what it is.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
The two men exchanged a look, Adams frowning, the doctor with concern on his face.
“Show me. I assume it’s safe to take off the suit for a moment?”
“Yes. The air is uncontaminated, and we should be far enough from the fruit bodies to be safe from the spores. If that even makes a difference at this point.”
He sat on the rock and unlocked the clamps of his helmet. It had got more humid now that the wind had calmed, and the air was thick like syrup. Still breathable, but physical labour under these conditions would be exhausting. He stripped off the top of his suit to the waist.
“Let me see.”
Maon pulled up the shirt and examined the rash. It had spread even more since Adams had last looked, and included large parts of his chest. At the current rate, it would reach the solar plexus soon and embrace him all around.
“This doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before. Certainly not any known disease, and no inflammatory reaction. Hmm…”
He ran his scanner over the infected parts of the skin and took a flake of dried skin.
“I will have to look at this in my lab. You can put your suit back on. I think I can give you an injection of nano machines that monitors you and hinders the infection from getting to your organs, but I don’t know how effective this will be. You certainly won’t be able to hide this forever, especially if it spreads to uncovered areas.”
He was aware of that fact. It appearing on hands or face had been a concern, and the last thing he needed was Murray taking over command, claiming security reasons. Their mission was a unique chance to learn more about the biological makeup of this new, alien world, and a scientist should have been in charge, not a soldier. Even if, strictly speaking, his department was part of the Space Exploration Agency, and therefore part of the military.
“Interesting how the same fungal infection expresses itself in such different ways. In corporal Hill’s case, it invaded the lungs. How’s your respiratory system doing? Any problems yet?”
“Nothing. I can breathe freely.”
The fir bolg’s eyes dimmed. He was probably taking notes.
“I can’t keep this secret after we return to the Tuatha, of course.”
“That’s fine. I only need it under wraps for the duration of this mission.”

It was time to return to the Wisp. Their brief excursion had only taken a little over fifteen minutes. But he had taken samples to analyse, so it hadn’t been a useless exercise. When they entered through the airlock, nothing had changed. The corporal was still at the console, Deirdre napping on her bunk and Murray watching the tech with a morose expression.
“Let’s take a look at the samples,” Maon said and opened the door to the medical compartment. Nobody paid them any attention. Hill was busy speeding up the vehicle again through the purgatory lighting, and they gained speed quickly. The two men stepped inside. Maon closed the door behind them, and the sounds vanished.
“I need a moment to program the bots. You can sit down. It won’t take long.”
“No, thanks.” It was one thing to walk into the diagnostic unit and watch the doctor at work, but another to sit down and look like a patient. Only one team member was nowhere to be found. The ghillie dhu had coalesced with the environment like a chameleon, just more effective.
“Finished. They will only last twenty-four hours, but I will have to look at it again, anyway.”
The injection was quick and painless and happened in a split second, while the massive frame of the fir bolg blocked the view of his arm on his way to the door. He opened it and made eye contact.
“Let me know immediately if anything changes.”
Adams nodded. In the end, he’d have to have it treated properly, and that couldn’t be kept secret. Or maybe he could find a way. He’d worry about it when the time came.


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