Pendulum Ch. 30: The Foothills

Maon stared at his hands. The last two days had been busy. He still counted time in this way, even though the evening had barely passed, and dusk turned into an unusually bright night. Corporal Hill moaned on the sickbed, his face purple and the throat swollen. The following hours would decide if he’d make it through the severe fungal infection that had spread throughout his respiratory tract, all the way up the trachea. The bronchia were a fertile breeding ground for the fungus; moist, warm, and dark. It had proven to be resistant against the usual line of antifungals, but Maon had not given up hope. Modern medicine knew other ways to handle hardened invaders.
They had finally reached the foothills of the mountain range the druid had insisted on visiting. Huge, steep white mountains towered in this alien landscape, dominated by, from the looks of it, the very fungus that had infested his patient. If humanity had the intent on colonising the place, they’d have to adapt to the system. Changing the biosphere of this planet was out of the question. As far as they had come, some things were just too much of a hassle, and time was of the essence.
Maon checked the displays. The nanobots had entered the bloodstream and examined them from the inside. He had injected only a small number for now. They would move toward the diaphragm and attack the fungus, trying various methods. Once he had found the most effective way, he would have his AI calculate the number and resume the treatment full-throttle, but blindly injecting numerous bots and hoping for the best was not the way, no matter what Murray might have been thinking.
“We won’t get through this easily, and the Wisp can’t fly in this environment. We weigh too much, with our supplies and the large team.”
Adams sounded as tired as Maon felt. He, too, was infected, but for reasons he didn’t understand yet, not much had happened. His comparatively small rash hadn’t spread, and no other complications set in. This was not enough to make a prediction, though. He’d monitor the exobiologist.
“I need to get to the other side. Cailean found what I’ve been looking for.”
Adams raised his eyebrows and turned back to his control console.
“It’s gonna take us a while. There’s a pass on the other side of the river, but I’m not sure the Wisp can make it through.”
Maon turned his attention back to the displays. As interesting as the conversation might have been, he had other priorities right now. The bots had reached the diaphragm and begun taking samples and analysing them, but the results would still take a while. Their com unit was primitive, but there was only so much the engineers could pack into a tiny machine, barely bigger than a Mimivirus, the largest such virion known so far, and if the local fungi were any indication, humanity had seen nothing yet.
The results came in. The molecular structure of the fungus wasn’t so different from forms at home, with some variations that resisted topical antimycotic agents. It was composed of polymers, very similar to known species, containing cellulose and proteins, but no chitin. The microfilaments had a structure Maon had never seen; but the bots took them out, and that was what mattered. If he could make sure they were all destroyed, they had won, but maybe things weren’t quite that easy. The AI finished the calculation and configured the injection.
“We have to take the risk. If I don’t get there, our mission was for nothing.”
“I understand that. But this planet has existed for millions of years and won’t go anywhere. Either we find a safe passage, or we come again, when the Tuatha can assist us better.”
The druid opened her mouth, but fell silent when Adams turned around to look at her.
“Fine. We will attempt to cross the river, but I will look for a spot with a weaker current. There’s a waterfall over there, and I won’t risk sinking the Wisp.”
Deirdre smiled. “I can live with that. I didn’t tell you to rush it, but I need to see the place.”
“I got it. But if I determine it’s too dangerous, you won’t complain.”
“Promised.”
Finaly the IV was ready. The diag unit changed the fluid inside the drip, and the new cocktail was ready. The system waited for his confirmation. Maon gave his approval. Now they would see if human medicine was able to cope with the problem, and give them a taste of future problems they’d have to overcome. It was a fungus, after all, not a bacterium. It shouldn’t mutate.

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