Lil couldn’t remember the last time she had slept. Two weeks had passed since Roon’s death, and they still had no idea where this new disease had come from or how to stop it. The medical reasearch team was starting to question whether the strange molecules they’d identified were even to blame for the disease, but if it wasn’t that, they had no idea what it could be.
Meanwhile, fourteen more people had died. Fourteen people out of a little over a thousand, and the hospital wing was overflowing with the newly sick. The clinic lobby and a few of the lab rooms had been taken over to accommodate patients, and the researchers were stepping on each other as they worked. Lil herself was working out of the little tool shed in the front garden, close enough to be on hand when she was needed while still keeping out of everyone’s way.
Her tablet pinged from its perch on top of a small work bench. She punched a button, and her father’s exhausted face popped up on the screen. Behind him, she saw his office, and shook her head. He was supposed to be at home resting right now. They still weren’t sure how the disease was spreading, so he’d given in to her request that he stay away from the med center, but nothing could keep him from working himself as long and hard as everyone else. She didn’t bother to scold him. She knew what he’d say. A leader works harder, stays longer, exhausts himself more. That’s what it means to lead.
He was right, but her heart ached at how old he looked. She had thought she was too numb to feel anymore, but something about his eyes made her throat close up.
“They’re bringing in two more,” her father said, and his voice cracked. “Lil, it’s Max and Van.”
Lil forced herself to nod, even though the tightness in her throat was making it hard to breathe. She had known this might happen, but still, she had hoped…
“I wanted to come with them, but Fern won’t let me out of her sight.”
Lil tried to swallow, but it didn’t work, so she forced the words out, even though they scratched, “Ye…yes. She’s right. We need you well. I’ll meet them.”
“You need rest, too, Lil.”
She couldn’t smile, but she tried to lift her head and look more energized that she felt. “I’m fine. I should go.”
“Give…” Her father broke down. Lil looked away from the screen. “Give them my love.”
“I will,” she whispered.
Outside of the little shed, a cold breeze hit her face. For just a second, Lil felt sharper. Then the headache crept back in at the edges of her brain. She walked through the scraggly bushes to the front of the garden. From there she could see the cluster of people carrying two stretchers. She didn’t run.
The man at the front of the larger stretcher gave her an understanding smile. Tan was an engineer, one of the best they had, and he had volunteered to head up the emergency service now, too. Lil nodded her appreciation and looked down at the figure on the stretcher.
“Hey, little brother,” she said. “If you wanted a day off, you could have just asked.”
Max’s neck was covered in rash, his eyes bright with fever. “No way,” he said. “You’re too much of a slave-driver.”
“True. Still, this seems a bit drastic.”
Max closed his eyes, clearly in pain. “How’s Van?”
Max’s son was on the next stretcher. His face showed rash, but he didn’t have any signs of fever yet. He pulled a candy stick out of his mouth and gave her a grin.
“Aunt Lil! I have a charberry stick! I get to eat the whole thing! And we’re going to see Ma!”
Max’s wife, Bette, had been brought in the day before. Luckily, her case was still in the early stages.
“Let’s get you there quickly then,” Lil said, taking Van’s hand.
The stretcher-bearers moved steadily, and the tired nurse at the door of the med center found them a place to set Max and Van while beds were made up for them.
“If you can put them here, maybe Bette can be moved here, too?” Lil asked. “I’ll take a shift of caring for them.”
The nurse tossed her a grateful smile as she turned away.
A hand on Lil’s arm made her jump.
“Can I have a moment?” Tan asked.
Lil was still watching as a second nurse came out to take Max’s vital signs. “Um…yes, of course.”
“This is in the report we sent, but I’m not sure what Val said about it. She isn’t convinced it’s important.”
Lil turned toward the engineer, saw the intense look on his face, and tried to focus her brain. “Isn’t convinced what is important?”
“You asked us to double and triple check anything new from the last several months, so we have, and you were right. I think it’s the key what’s causing this. The fibers we’ve been processing from the Reddi vines? Our new processing system is one of the key recent changes.”
“Yes, we’ve investigated that. There’s nothing toxic in the Reddi or in the process. We tested the Reddi vines and the newly produced fibers, but we didn’t find anything.”
“I know, and that’s why Val dismisses it. But I’ve spend sometime studying the Reddi fibers, and there’s something we haven’t considered. Our new process breaks down the vines on a chemical level in order to make them softer for fabrics. It separates molecules, strips away some of the bonds that made it stiffer. You can read the details in the report, but basically it comes to this: all the tests we’ve done have been on newly produced fibers. I think we need to test the fabrics we’ve made after they’ve had time to rest. I think it may take time after separation for the problem to show itself because I think molecules we separated may have bonded with something new to form the infective agent.”
Lil’s head hurt. “Is that something that can happen?”
“Then test it. Test whatever you have to.”
“That takes supplies from the medical labs. They aren’t eager to let those go right now.”
Lil looked at Tan, noticing how his dark curls fell into his eyes. The man needed a haircut. She shook off the irrelevant thought. He also needed lab supplies.
For once, there was a problem she could actually solve.
“I was wrong!”
Lil jerked her head up, dropping the cool cloth she’d been about to put on her brother’s head. The angry words on the tip of her tongue died when she saw Tan’s shining face, but she did gesture for him to lower his voice.
“I was wrong!” he whispered, still excited. “It didn’t form a new bond!”
“If you’re wrong, why are you so happy?”
“Because I was also right! We broke it apart from its twin, and it’s going around looking for a bond it can’t make.”
“So…?” Lil’s exhausted brain just couldn’t keep up. Max’s fever had raged all night. She was thankful that he was still restless..it was when they went still that you knew the end was close…but she had been forced to physically restrain him multiple times.
“So we know where it came from. And we don’t need to kill it. We just need to give it back the other half it’s looking for.”
“The infecting agent they’ve been calling morcillus is actually…” Tan stopped abruptly as Max began to thrash behind Lil’s back. For the first time, the engineer seemed to take in her slumped shoulders, her dark-circled eyes, her family laid out around her.
“You don’t need the details,” he said. “I’ve already sent the results to the lab to confirm, but I’m right. I know I am. They’ll confirm it, and we already have the equipment we need to separate out the twin molecule. This is a cure, Lil.”
“We screwed something up. We didn’t understand the biology of these plants, but we can fix it.” He put a hand on her shoulder. It felt impossibly warm. “They’re going to live.”
“I’m not sure…”
“You don’t have to be. I am. You pointed us in the right direction. I can get us where we need to go.”
Someone called his name from the direction of the laboratory wing, and with a final squeeze of her shoulder, Tan strode away.
Lil sat on the edge of her brother’s bed, stunned and unbelieving. She should call her father. She should go see if the researchers needed help. She should check on the other patients in her area. But there was no strength left.
She picked up Max’s hand and held on tight. It was all she could do. Someone else would have to do the rest.