Chapter 10: The Virus
It had been a rough 48 hours and Victor Bergman was tired to the bone, but he glanced with satisfaction at the work he had completed in the lab. After finally isolating the agent from several blood samples, he had managed to identify it as a virus with a short double helix DNA string that invades the brain by infecting olfactory cells that nourish smell-sensing neurons. From there it issues a stop code for the production of dopamine and serotonin. He had also managed to calibrate a few bioscanners to pick up the agent in the air.
With the help of Bob Matthias and two unaffected microbiologists they had also found that the life of the agent once released from the shell was a mere 3 hours or so, and that after it had infected a host it was not contagious as airborne. What they did not know yet was how long the virus remained active, if the condition could be cured or if it would leave permanent damage.
The 71 people affected had been moved to the medical centers in Uzazi and Kukua, where they remained in their lethargic, confused state, but there had been no alarms as to it affecting the vital functions of the human body. The patients were awake but took no interest in doing anything but lounging where they were put, had trouble verbalizing thoughts, were confused and often just babbled incoherently. And they were all apathetic and tired, not interested in eating or drinking and took quite a bit of energy taking care of.
Victor rubbed his tired eyes, but before getting any rest, he wanted to take his final achievement to Bob Matthias so they could make a decision about it. He carefully packed the three tubes containing the dopamine/serotonin solution he had synthesized into a padded container and then inside a carry-case: time to head to medical.
In the medical unit he found an equally tired Bob Matthias. "Anything new, Bob?"
"No, Professor, they are all the same. Conscious but incoherent, vital functions stable. No sign of improvement yet in the first group affected, but they are no worse either."
"Our other people?"
"No new patients. Those who were unaffected have returned in limited numbers to the areas scanned as safe. As the children were all OK, they are being taken care of in a residential unit by Sandra and some other unaffected women. Service personnel have been going around in both communities to provide people with food rations. The hydroponics area has been cleared and a team is back at work there. Lastly, we have a few teams searching for the missing three units of the agent; we've only been able to account for seven."
"OK. Well, here it is," Victor patted the case. "I synthesized some dopamine/serotonin and suspended it in an aerosol for nasal application, since it has to reach the brain. Given in hypodermic or medicinal form, it won't breach the blood-brain barrier. With this nasal application, the active dopamine and serotonin should bind with the same smell-sensing neurons affected by the virus and be carried to the brain. Now, we just need to test it and see if it works." He had taken out one of the tubes. "All you have to do is place it in a nasal applicator."
"Wow," Bob said.
"Of course it won't destroy the virus yet. We're still working on that. I'm hoping though that a patient given some of this will recover sufficiently to be somewhat coherent for a while."
"How are we going to test it, Professor?"
Victor sighed. "A few months ago I would not have hesitated to infect myself with virus and then tested it on myself, but Thor has somewhat changed things."
"I understand, Professor."
"I'm of the opinion that despite their apathy and lethargy, the patients can still understand. They just can't be bothered to respond. I was hoping to talk to John, perhaps, and ask him if he would be willing to try. The nasal spray will not harm him in any way. The only problem we may have is that it doesn't work."
"If it won't harm him, it's worth a try, Professor."
Victor nodded. "I'll leave it with you so you can get it into a nasal applicator, Bob. I'll go see Thor and Helena." He squeezed the other man's arm reassuringly. "We're going to need to get some rest soon; Bob, or else we'll be useless."
"You're telling me, Professor," Bob agreed.
In neonatal Lesley was attending to Thor and Victor sat down for a minute, watching her.
"He's growing stronger by the day, Professor," she smiled. "He'll be out of here in no time. We have him sucking on a pacifier now."
"Thank you, Lesley. Now we just need to get everyone else well, so things can return to normal."
"I'll be so grateful if this is all over," she agreed. "Doctor Russell in the main room with all the other patients. We felt it best not to take chances with the baby."
"I understand, and that's very wise, Lesley."
"Professor, may I ask you something?"
"A few days ago we brought you in here with only a slim chance of survival, several broken bones, liver and lung lacerations and a whole list of other injuries. Yet, here you are, completely healed up as if nothing happened. How is that possible?"
Victor shrugged, pushing his hand through one of the ports in the incubator as he noticed a tiny waving hand. Then he shook his head. "I don't know. Lesley, I really don't. I seem to remember dreaming… rooms filled with light… John was there. There were voices telling me things, instructing me, but with all this virus stuff going on, I've not had much time to reflect on it. For now, I'm just accepting it as one of those cosmic things we don't understand… and accepting it gratefully."
"I wish we knew more, perhaps we could heal everybody now if we did!"
"That's true," he said. "Perhaps those who come after us will develop that kind of knowledge. We're still very much trapped by our earthbound natures."
"Do you think we'll be able to cure the virus, Professor?"
"I hope so, Lesley. Bob and I are getting ready to test a temporary medicine that might help."
"That's great news," she exclaimed, watching as the little fist had latched onto a finger. "Strong little fellow," she smiled. "He's going to live up to his name."
Victor smiled somewhat sadly. It was bittersweet: sweet, enjoying his son; bitter that Helena was under the influence of the strange biological agent. They should have been enjoying him together. Then he jerked himself back to reality, realizing that he had nearly succumbed to a nap. "I got to get going," he said. "Bob should be ready by now!"
Victor had pulled up a chair next to John Koenig's bed, while on the opposite side Bob Matthias stood with the nasal sprayer.
"John? Can you hear me?"
Koenig looked at his friend through half-lidded eyes and nodded slowly.
"I know talking is hard, John, but I'm convinced you can understand me."
"You have been affected by the Bethan virus, John. It attacks the brain's production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters necessary for sending signals to and from the brain."
John merely looked at him with an uncomprehending expression.
"I know your brain is intact. It just can't communicate, John. Do you understand?"
John blinked; then nodded slowly.
"I have made something which I think will temporarily negate the effect. It is a synthetic dopamine/serotonin solution."
There seemed to be some comprehension in the eyes. "Give… give…"
"That's why we're here, John. Bob and I… we need to test it. It's in the form of a nasal spray."
John nodded, sitting up sluggishly. "Yes… Vic… tor. Much to… do… no will… power."
Bob Mathias held out the spray applicator. "It won't harm you, Commander. The worst thing would be that it just doesn't work. But it'll take some dopamine and serotonin to directly to your brain."
John nodded. "Want… give."
"Just one dose, Bob," Victor said. Bob Mathias brought the spray up to Koenig's nose.
"Deep breath through your nose, Commander!"
The two men watched their Commander carefully as he closed his eyes. After a few minutes, their eyes met across the bed. Victor shrugged. "Should take a while."
It looked as if John Koenig had fallen asleep. After a few more minutes, Victor put his hand on Koenig's shoulder. "John?"
The Commander slowly opened his eyes and looked from Bob Mathias standing over him; then to Victor sitting beside him. "Victor? You're up?"
Professor Bergman smiled broadly at Mathias, giving him a thumbs-up. "Yes, John, I'm up, and I'm fine. How are you feeling?"
Koenig clutched his head. "As if I've just been hit with some powerful upper. What's going on?"
Bob Mathias held out the nasal spray. "You've been infected with the alien virus, Commander. We just tested this on you."
Koenig studied the small bottle before looking at the two men again. "You'll have to tell me more. Some things are coming back, but it's fragmented."
"I'll leave you to it, Professor," Mathias said. "I'm going to start the teams on the feeding and care rounds, and then I'm going to get some sleep."
"Thank you, Bob," Victor said. "Get some good, solid rest. We still have work to do." Then he turned to John Koenig, who had sat up completely, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "Take it easy, John. You're not out of the woods yet. This is just a temporary measure."
"But you're completely out of the woods, Victor," John smiled. "When did you get up?"
"Couple of days ago, John."
"How do you feel?"
Victor held up his arms. "I feel just fine, John. Not a thing wrong. I have no idea how it happened, but I have a suspicion you had something to do with it. However, that's not important now." Victor held up the nasal applicator. "I need to bring you up to date on what's going on here."
"Right. I'm starving. Any chance for something to eat?"
"Sure, we can get something." Victor slipped the small bottle into his shirt pocket. Koenig stood up, looking steady on his feet. They moved through the medical unit, where almost every space was taken up by extra beds on which people were listlessly lounging.
"I remember now," Koenig said. "The Bethan girl had the glass oysters. She was in the command room and got lasered. She dropped them and they broke."
"Yes, John. Three, as far as we could determine. All of you in the command unit had the most exposure."
"How many people?"
"In total, 71 had been exposed, John. The pilots in the eagle hangar, the hydroponics unit in Kukua, the recreation center, lab and command unit here in Uzazi. We still have three of the glass containers unaccounted for, and teams searching."
"Is it contagious?"
"Once released in the air, the agent is only effective for around 3 hours or so. And no, after infecting a host, it is not infectious by air. Bloodborne… we're not sure, but of course we are careful."
"So, what has it been doing to me?"
"It is a virus that attacks the brain's ability to produce dopamine and serotonin, both neurotransmitters necessary for sending messages across neurons. It doesn't affect any of the vital organs like the heart and lungs, but causes extreme apathy, confusion and lethargy. Like I explained to you in there," Victor indicated back towards the medical center, "your brain is still there it just can't send messages as to what it wants you to do."
"But you've cured it?"
Victor shook his head. "Not yet, John." He took the little bottle out of his pocket. "This is merely a temporary measure. It combines dopamine and serotonin in a solution as a nasal spray, binding with the same receptors affected by the virus so it can temporarily replace those chemicals in the brain. I have no idea how long the effect will last. You're the first guinea-pig."
There were a few other people in the cafeteria, and they came over to greet Commander Koenig enthusiastically. As he explained, however, that his cure was only temporary, the faces fell again. He got himself a tray of food and joined Victor at a table. He suddenly realized his friend was exhausted.
"How long have you been going on, Victor?"
"Couple of days."
"You're not eating?"
"Naw, I'm not hungry. Still just thinking… thinking… We have no idea if the virus effect is a permanent one, or if it will eventually wear itself out. Patients have not been getting worse, but they're not better either."
"Why don't you give me that little spray bottle, Victor, and go get some rest."
"Well, see John, I have no idea how long the replacement dopamine/serotonin is going to last. I have no idea if you will know once the effect starts wearing off, so that you can dose yourself in time. I've not given it to anyone else, because we can't have people all over suddenly becoming affected by the virus again if the spray works out. It was hard enough getting everybody to one of the medical units already. We know far less than we ought at this time."
"We could use a buddy system," Koenig offered. "I've had this medicine for a while now. I could give some to someone else, and they could shadow me. If I start showing signs of becoming a zombie again, they could dose me. You simply cannot just keep pushing yourself."
"That could work, John. That solution should not have any side effects if the dose is not exceeded, but excess dopamine can cause a whole list of physical symptoms, as well as mania and other psychological effects. Excess serotonin can cause seizures and can be fatal. Plus, I have only three batches made. Your system could therefore work for six people."
"That's a start, don't you think?"
"Who else on the leadership team has been affected?"
"Helena, Paul, David and Alan. Angela Robinson too, they were in the lab and broke one of the glass containers. She'll be useful to have around with the workload. And of course Helena in medical."
"And you're sure the virus is not contagious?"
"As sure as I can be it's not airborne from an infected host."
"How about we pair Helena up with someone else from medical who may have been infected? They can then join their colleagues in the medical center."
"Toshiro Fujita. He was in the hydroponics unit in Kukua, but he'll have to be brought to the medical unit here. He's a good all rounder to have."
"Then we pair up David and Paul. They can get back to the command center and help coordinate from there. We don't need any eagles at the moment, and it won't be good to have a pilot at the controls if the effect of your medicine wears off. So, I'll need someone to pair with me."
Victor nodded slowly. "As long as you keep the dosage low, that could work, John. Bob has gone to get some rest too, but I'll let medical know. Perhaps you can stay in the command unit with Paul and David too, so you can all monitor each other.
"Go get some rest, Victor! I'll get the others to brief me on what else is going on."
Through a sleep-fogged brain Victor became aware of a hand rubbing his back. It felt good, and he enjoyed it for a minute before slowly opening his eyes. Helena was sitting on the bed beside him and he dragged himself upright. "I'm glad you got some medicine," he smiled drowsily. "After a bit of rest I need to go make some more and then work on a cure so we…"
She placed her fingers on his lips gently and he was surprised to see two big tears making their way down her cheeks. He used his thumbs to peck them away. "What's wrong…?"
Even more surprising was that she flung her arms around him and clung to him almost desperately, the wetness of her tears against his shoulder. "Oh, Victor," she whispered, "I thought I had lost you and I thought I was going to lose our baby. I was so afraid…."
"We'll be all right now. We'll find something to destroy this alien virus and then…"
She looked up at him, her eyes still moist. "No science now," she sighed. "Just be… with me…"
His green eyes held hers as he ran his fingers through her hair, but because he didn't know what to say, he remained silent.
"When you went to that ship," she finally started, "and the Sidons left, I was so happy… but then the Bethan ship kept coming, and you were still in there. I was so afraid, Victor, and our baby was coming and all I could think about was that you were not here and that they might kill you… then they landed, Bob kept me up to date, and John came to tell me about the decision to destroy the ship… and you didn't even know about Thor…" Her tears were flowing freely now.
"They were mapping our defenses." That was something he could talk about. "Their commissioner was unhinged and planning something desperate, I could see. I got that one message out…"
She sighed deeply, running her hand down his arm. "Bob told me that you had somehow gotten out of that ship… and that Alan had shot you down… on John's command…"
"They didn't know, Helena…"
"I know! I know," she appealed to him, "I'm just overwhelmed, Victor. I don't need the facts now… just let me vent…"
He nodded silently, pulling her against him again. "They brought you into medical, Victor, and I could see… I could see…" she shivered against him, "that you were completely broken… I knew… I knew that hope was slim…"
"Yeah," he mused. "That much I've gathered, and I don't understand it at all."
"John came with this fantastic story," she said, now looking up at him, her eyes huge, "that he had spoken to someone… some entity… he said 'as you think it to be, so it will be', or something like that… and now you're here… it's all just too much to process."
He simply cupped her cheek in his palm. "I love you, Helena."
She placed her hand over his, her eyes still misty. "And I love you, Victor. I realized how much when… when… I thought I had lost you."
He had no reply but to lean in and kiss her tenderly. Then he sighed. "I've got to get back to the lab. I have to synthesize some more of the dopamine/serotonin solution. Then we've got to start working on a cure…"
"I was selfish, Victor. You only had about two hours of sleep. I had to see you…"
"I'm OK now," he smiled. "When the work is done, there will be time for sleep." He dragged himself out of bed, throwing on some clothes while she watched him.
"When the work is done, we need to talk. I still can't get over how you recovered. Medical curiosity requires that I know."
"You may never get those answers," he replied, grabbing his commlock. "As soon as I have some more medicine, I'll bring it over to medical. Meanwhile, it'll be good to know how long the medicine lasts."
"I'll let you know, Victor." Then he was gone, the door sliding shut behind him, and she couldn't help but shake her head, smiling to herself. One day, she hoped, there would be nothing urgent to occupy his mind, so she could have him all to herself… Then she laughed. If that day ever happened, Victor would not be Victor. Finally she headed back to the medical unit herself to assist with the other patients and the efforts to overcome the alien virus.
"So, right now we are dealing with three issues." John Koenig was meeting with some of his leadership team in his office. "Paul, what is the situation with the three missing virus containers?"
"Not been found, Commander. All communal buildings have been searched, and people have been told to be very careful in their residences."
"Second issue is that we've not yet agreed on a way to dispose of the remaining glass containers secured in the lab."
"Commander, those are secure, so perhaps we can table that until after we've defeated the active virus?" David Kano asked.
Koenig thought for a moment, and then nodded. "Agreed. So our most pressing problem right now is how to kill this virus. Helena?"
"Well John, strictly speaking a virus is not really alive. It can only do its work once it has invaded the host cell and can replicate itself. Sadly, earth medicine has not yet made many strides in destroying viruses. Treatment is mostly symptomatic, like our current medicine, while the body tries to deal with the virus by itself."
"So we don't have much hope?"
"We've learned a lot these past five days, John," Helena continued, "but the virus itself shows no sign of letting up. The nasal solution gives us about a four hour window with no observed side effects. Everybody exposed to the virus has been treated; with good results. Victor and a team are working round the clock to find a cure, but of course the virus may simply go dormant in our bodies or work itself out. Viral infections typically last from a few days to two weeks, except some persistent infections."
"And we're dealing with something alien, so we just don't know," John sighed.
"Commander," David Kano interjected, "I've been thinking of this virus in terms of a chess game to try and understand why the Bethans would have developed it the way it is: their move, enemy move and so forth."
"Let's hear it, David."
"I think it is interesting that they've developed a virus to attack serotonin/dopamine production. That tells me that for their first move they must have chosen something that would affect a wide range of alien life, so it seems many forms of life in outer space conform to the human type."
"And Virea told us that they could use the virus to take over a planet without war, but that Theia had not considered releasing it here."
"Exactly, Commander, so it was not meant for us. We have established that they wanted the women, so… perhaps they didn't release it because there is no cure and they didn't want a bunch of zombie women?"
"That's not very encouraging."
"Well, Commander, my thought on their second move was that if they took over any alien planet, logic would determine that eventually they would need inhabitants of that planet to guide them in the way of that world, right? So maybe taking over a planet with that biological agent instead of outright killing makes sense in the way that the virus does have a limited lifespan and by the time all their take-over measures were in place, those affected would be coming out of their fog to teach the Bethans?"
Those gathered around the table mulled over that thought for a while. "That makes sense," Helena finally volunteered. "We may have to just wait it out after all."
"It may be safer to keep working on a cure anyway," Paul mused. "Just in case it doesn't go away."
"Yes," John said, "it would be best, in case the virus is one that goes dormant in the body, only to flare up at a later stage."
"Oh, I agree," Helena said. "I just meant that it may work itself out, not that we don't keep working on it."
"Anything else, David?"
"That other girl, Virea, said that she did not know of any antidote for the virus, Commander. It affected her too, she had been in the hydroponics unit in Kukua when it hit there. That makes me think that after the initial infection period, it would be safe, because the Bethans would not want to take over a planet where there was a chance of further infection days later, right?"
"Yeah, sounds logical."
"Except," Paul offered, "we're dealing with aliens who may not be logical in our terms." There were a few smiles.
"Well, at least Victor's medicine gives us a window. Let's see if there is any news." Koenig punched the communications console in his office. "Koenig to lab?"
"John!" Victor's face appeared on the console.
"We're meeting Victor, and just wanted to know if there is any news yet?"
"Nothing definite yet, John. We have determined that the virus does not mutate… or at least has not in the short time we've been studying it, so we're thinking of something to alter the surface proteins on the virus, thereby allowing the body's immune system to identify it as an intruder much earlier and hopefully destroy new virus cells before they have a chance to bind to new cells. Alternatively, we're considering creating a booster to the body's own defense by combining double-stranded RNA with a protein that induces apoptosis."
Those gathered at the meeting looked at each other uncomprehendingly, but it was Helena who spoke: "That sounds like a solid idea!" She faced those at the meeting. "That would cause cells infected by the virus to kill themselves before the virus can replicate," she explained. "If the cell infected by the virus dies before the virus can hijack the genetic material for its own purpose, the virus will die too."
"Yes, we are leaning strongly in this direction," Victor said. "It's Angela's first choice too, so we're creating the necessary cultures for testing as we speak. We're working on making the drug selective for the virus-infected cells."
"You have the drug synthesized?" Helena asked, astonishment in her voice.
"We have a substance," Victor replied. "It still needs a lot of work, but because the virus itself is not very complicated, the work has been satisfactory. The virus is also very specific in the cells it attacks, and extremely localized. All of that helps. And of course, we have a large team."
"That sounds great, Victor," John replied, relief in his voice. "How is everyone holding up?"
Victor chuckled. "We're mostly tired, John, but with a possible victory so close, no one wants to stop. Power-naps are the in thing here right now."
"Well, you all just take care of yourselves! The medicine has brought relief, so we don't need you dropping from exhaustion."
"We'll drop when we're done, John," Victor smiled. "We'll get this thing beat so we can all return to our lives and our future here on Berg, don't you worry."
(To be continued…)