Chapter 18

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The signals came to many areas this time. Again, unerringly as ever, the Legion sprang into action and the swarm executed their deadly task.

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[Mora]

"Are you ready?"

Samir nodded. With that, I opened the sample container and began the warming process. Four open containers with plants, insects, and animal tissue analogs surrounded it. I hoped that the cryogenically preserved blight samples I took at the south settlement still contained active pathogens, or whatever it was, so we could closely observe the effects, all safely from outside a sealed bio-containment cabinet.

We watched as the sample temperature slowly increased. We didn't have to wait long. First, the plants began to droop and stems slowly twisted like a sick pantomime. What was once vibrant green, faded. Eventually, black streaks appeared and merged, producing the black death we have seen at blighted areas. It horrified me to observe up close, especially as a botanist. The insects and tissue analogs fared no better, although the process took somewhat longer.

I turned to Samir. "Did you get the air filter sample?"

He nodded. "Yes. Chilling the filter now."

We know now that the blight does move thru the air. Samir removed the micro-filter element from the filter holder and placed it under a micro-imager. While he did this I reviewed the microscopic images taken during the controlled blight exposure.

I pointed at the screen. "There. See Samir, it is like we suspected. The blight ruptures the cell wall structures. I've never seen anything like this."

"And here they are."

Samir pointed to the image on his screen. Strange looking microscopic particles lay trapped among the magnified filter fibers. We both gazed at them, ellipsoidal in shape, smooth except for several hook-like appendages.

He continued. "It resembles a virus, but not like any I have ever seen. These are about two-hundred nanometers in size, bigger than the typical virus. Let me do genetic and molecular analysis."

Normally a virus got inside a cell by injection or deceit, either by binding to specific receptors on the surface or tricking the host cell to ingest it. If I were to guess, I would say those hooks simply gave it the ability to rip cell walls. But why would this thing tear apart a host cell before it could reproduce itself?

We both jerked back when one of the virus-things jumped out of the image view.

Samir's mouth gaped as he turned to me. "Self-propulsion on this scale? Incredible. That is how they spread much faster than normal air diffusion would allow."

Samir walked off with the filter element safely rechilled and encapsulated for further analysis, but I wanted to do one more test. I moved another potted plant into the enclosure and waited, but nothing happened to it this time. The blight appeared to have turned itself off, just as we observed in the field. Another mystery. A typical virus has a single-minded purpose, to reproduce until something stops it. It did not simply turn itself off.

My viewer pulled me out of my thoughts as a call came in.

"Gan?"

"Mora." The normally playful intonation in his voice was missing. "It's striking again."


Director Sander stopped me in the hallway by putting a hand on my shoulder. I turned and shot him a glare, to which he removed his hand and backed up a step, presumably to be out of range of a lifted knee. A panicked look replaced his usual signature big smile.

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