Prologue: Not Yet an Epidemic
Dr. Ro-Tal inspected the wound one final time before he would exit the operating room so that the healers may clean up and take the patient to recovery. The arm had been severed just below the elbow, a nasty result of an accident involving an ion-bike ridden by a showoff. The cut had not been clean, which made reattachment surgery considerably more difficult, but never undoable. And now the thin scar marking where the separation had been was barely visible to the naked eye, merely a thin, slightly whiter line circling his arm. The procedure had been perfected by Kryptonian doctors centuries ago, and by Ro-Tal in his first suncycle in medicine. It was hardly stimulating, doing something so routine, but in these last few days 'routine' was something he desperately needed. Otherwise he stressed. He wondered when the last time a doctor on Krypton stressed about anything medical in nature. They had cured every disease, mastered every surgery, healed every ailment, concocted every drug and antibiotic—even slowed the aging process considerably—in the great medical revolution in Krypton's Fifth Age.
Ro-Tal took one look at the man, still unconscious due to the anesthetics, and studied his hard, angular face. The face of a Graazeran, probably a poor factory worker in the city. Just the sort of person who would save up his money for an ion-bike, a reckless status symbol that would almost get him killed.
"He should be fine, go ahead and wake him," said Ro-Tal to the healers. Then he turned to the patient and offered the advice that wouldn't be heard, "Try not to flaunt so much in the future."
He exited the room while the flurry of cleaning began behind him. He made his way through the pearly white halls of the Healing Center, nodding hello to people as he passed, secretly hoping that someone would have something for him to do. Polite replies are all he got, perhaps a 'Good Morning,' but nobody asked him for a moment of his time.
Ro-Tal was Chairman on the Counsel of Medicine in the city of Brokatonn. It had always only been ceremonious, bestowing respect on whoever was appointed, whoever was recognized as the most gifted mind and talented surgeon of all the doctors in the city. It was a position of distinction, not of duty. But it then fell to him to face something no doctor on the planet had seen in a millennium.
He reached the hoverlifts and stepped onto a plate. The holographic panel appeared in front of him, and he typed in his office code on the number pad. It disappeared and the lift lurched upward as the cylinder of hard light formed around him, a web of white energy that prevents a rider from falling of the disc. He was carried out the pod door to the outside of the huge, spire shaped structure, one of the tallest in Brokatonn. It was an architectural and technological monument in the city, which says a lot, when one of the more impressive things in your home is a Healing Center. Brokatonn was not the most exciting destination. It lacked the grandeur of Kryptonopolis, the capital city, the sheer size of Atomic City, the culture of Kandor, rooted in its rebirth from the ashes after its utter destruction. It was not the City of Tomorrow that Argo City boasted itself to be, with its vast and numerous research and development centers pushing technology ever forward and reshaping the city into a futuristic metropolis. No, Brokatonn, once a mining town when the planet relied on the black coals of Element-6 for energy, was now the destination of cost-shaving industrialists and wild-haired geologists, who talked about rocks the way you should talk about women.
Still, it was a beautiful building, and as the hoverlift whipped Ro-Tal up and around, curling to the opposite side of the structure in a fast, graceful arc to the top story where his office is located, he looked down to the city street hundreds of feet below and allowed himself to feel the sensation that he was flying above it, unassisted and self-propelled. It was a childish dream he had always had, but even at this age, maybe even especially at this age, he'd like to believe a man could fly.
'A flying Kryptonian,' he thinks to himself, chuckling slightly. 'That'll be the day.'
The glass door of his office hissed open as the hoverlift approached. It carried him inside and the energy field disappeared, allowing him to alight. Before he could blink, the disc shot back outside and zipped downward back to the station from where it had come, and his window closed behind it. Ro-Tal stood at it for a moment, looking out at the West to the Three Sisters, the enormous super volcano rising high and fierce on the horizon, the reason so many geologists flocked to the city. It was a scientific marvel, they insisted, as they talked about the discoveries one could make about their home planet by understanding its seismic and volcanic activity. They spoke about it reverently, which is fitting because it was believed that, before the fourth age, it was treated as the home of a deity that demanded Kryptonian sacrifice. The steady steam of smoke rose from the rightmost peak, as usual, a putrid black fog floating into the sky.
Ro-Tal broke his gaze from the mountains and looked at his desk-screen, where the files he had been looking at earlier were still on display. He inhaled deeply, wondering if this exercise was worth continuing. He had run everything through his mind several times, had searched the digital database for anything that might help him, but there was nothing in the network, no insight, no hint, no clues for what was happening.
Slowly he walked over to his desk. He touched the screen, which flashed to life from its sleep-mode and un-dimmed, showing the files clearly. The faces of the recently deceased peered from the right hand corner of their respective file. Ro-Tal put his hand on one. The touch screen reacted, and the file popped up in front of the rest and 'stuck' to his finger. He moved it aside, and with a few quick taps, he pulled up several more pictures of victims. He read the notes again, though he could have recited them from memory without much of a problem.
There was one saving grace, and that was that these people were rather old. The youngest had seen 86 suncycles, only a little below the average of 93. The next youngest was 91, and then the rest were 95 and older. Still, it was all very… troublesome.
His holophone buzzed. He looked at it nervously before pushing the button to answer it. The face of a healer in the Crisis Center appeared, frazzled and nervous. Ro-Tal did not need him to, as he already knew what was about to happen, but the healer said, barely masking his discomfort, "We have another one."
Ro-Tal called for a hoverlift and rode it down to the first floor to the Crisis Center. It was a plummeting drop, accelerated since most trips there are an emergency. If the trip down hadn't always been so urgent, he might have enjoyed them, like a ride in an amusement park.
He stepped onto the ground and into the Crisis Center. The healer who called him, a young man named Dan-Yu, met him at the entrance. He spoke quickly as he led Ro-Tal to the patient.
"Came in from the Westside. She's in examination room 3. Same symptoms. Except…"
In his pause his face contorted into one as sad as it was nervous.
"What?" Ro-Tal asked.
"This one is younger." Dan-Yu replied.
"How much younger?"
Much younger. Too young. She was a child, and had only just seen her sixth suncycle. Her mother sat stroking her hair from her face, her father stood in the corner of the room staring at her intently, gnawing on his thumbnail, probably loathing his futility in the situation. Ro-Tal rushed to her bedside, opposite her mother, and started examining her.
"Her name is Mairu." The mother explained as if the information would prove helpful.
Ro-Tal didn't look up, but he said, "That's a beautiful name," as he turned the girls arm to see the underside. Her breathing was labored and she sweat profusely. Ro-Tal could feel the heat emanating off her. But that's not what disturbed him most. Looking at her arm, her veins were thick and pulsing, a sick, dark green color.
"Has she been sick long?" He asked the parents, as he started to take off little Mairu's shirt. She groaned a little as he sat her up.
"Well, yesterday she started complaining that she felt like she was going to throw up, and that she had a bad headache, so I put her to bed early. When I went to wake her up this morning, she wouldn't. Then I noticed that. I got online onto the Healing Directory, but I couldn't find—"
"It's not there," Ro-Tal interrupted her. He had checked it himself, several times to be sure. Now that Mairu's shirt was off, he could see that the discoloration of her veins continued all over her torso, crawling up her chest and onto her neck like thick, deadly vines. When Ro-Tal pressed his finger into one, it felt so hot it burned him. The little girl flinched and groaned, but never opened her eyes.
"What can you do?" Her father asked. "You can fix it, right?"
The question hung in the air until the uncomfortable silence answered for him, but it was Ro-Tal's job to say it, to make it real. "No." He replied, not coldly, not kindly. "I'm sorry."
"What do you mean, no?" Asked her mother, her voice and body teetering on the hysteria she was about to succumb to. "You're a doctor."
"I'm sorry." Ro-Tal repeated.
Their eyes went wide, their expression horrified, and Ro-Tal did not know what to say or do. Each victim had the same symptoms, but then, they had all been much older. Fever, sweating, nausea, headaches, were all amongst some other less common, and less pleasant, symptoms. But it was the highly unusual blood poisoning that really did it to them. When they did an autopsy on the first victim, they found that her blood had hardened into a black-green gelatin and her organs and veins had been scorched, absolutely burned, from the inside.
A week later they worked on another victim, trying anything and everything to save him. It came eventually to cutting him open just because they had to try something. When they did, the blood came up, thick and dark, which was disturbing enough, except that it was bubbling. Boiling. There was no parasite, no fungus, no virus, no bacteria, no sign of foul play or poison, nothing on the bodies that identified what caused the heinous illness.
A few hours after Mairu had breathed her last, Dan-Yu and Ro-Tal sat in his office. Ro-Tal had his head in his hands, clutching it in a desperate agony. There's nothing quite like asking the grieving parents if they can study the corpse of their child, because they need answers and they don't know where else to get them.
"There were only four victims last mooncycle." Dan-Yu says. "There have been twelve this week."
"I know," replied Ro-Tal in an almost groan.
"Should we tell the people?"
Ro-Tal thought for a moment. "No. That will only induce panic. There's still only been 16 deaths, and only one has seen fewer than 90 birthdays. We don't need to frighten them. We only need to alert the populace if we're seeing an epidemic. And we're not in that territory. Not yet."
"She was young. The Media Counsel will find out any day. They'll be curious."
Ro-Tal nodded. "Try to keep quiet about it."
He didn't want to start a panic in the people, but he was starting to feel it himself. Sixteen deaths, under normal circumstances, was just about the point when it was appropriate to start getting nervous. But with this, it did not matter if it was sixteen, sixty, or a single death. He still had to deal with something that Krypton had not had to for thousands of suncycles.
An incurable disease.