Effie headed straight for Tohan and climbed into his lap, cheeping and butting his head against Tohan’s chest. Tohan startled for a moment before putting down the bracelet that now sprouted a tangle of wires and seemed to be connected to a small grey box resting on the desk. Tohan looked over at me and grinned.
“That didn’t take long. Or at least I don’t think you were gone that long. Dead end?” he asked as he started to give Effie the chin rubs he’d promised.
Effie’s eyes closed, and he made soft peeping sounds at Tohan’s touch, obviously loving the attention. I set Tohan’s weapon on the desk and noted with approval that he immediately picked it up and slipped it back into the holster strapped to his thigh. We were in as safe an area as we could be so the weapon readiness Tohan was using was likely unnecessary. I still liked that he did it automatically.
“We were gone slightly less than an hour. Most of the doors I encountered were electronically locked, and I couldn’t open them. I did see something down there that we should discuss, and we will in a moment. Effie opened the door to the computer room. When did you teach him that, and why?”
“He did? Cool. Hy’prae are really good at memory things and solving puzzles. Generally, they’re good at pattern recognition, too. I didn’t think he was really paying attention when I did the code as we left, but he can also look in multiple directions at once because of his six eyes. How many tries did he need?”
“At least three that I saw. He was at the door before me, so he probably could’ve tried another three, maybe four times. You’ve seen him do this before?”
“Hell, yeah. That’s why anything that’s super important requiring locking up gets an old fashioned physical key lock. He can’t pick a lock, and if the key is on me, he can’t open the lock. He seems to think it’s some kinda game I play with him when I lock shit up. I could do some sort of bio-lock to keep him out of things, but that seems a bit extreme. Usually, he just opens whatever I locked to show me he can and be a little shit about it. He understands about doors and locking them though, so he won’t randomly unlock the door to this room unless he wants to go out. I think he likes the concept that he can keep his space from being invaded by others because of locks.”
“Why isn’t this data in the information about hy’prae?” I asked curiously.
Tohan shrugged. “I think it might be just Effie who does the lock thing and only because he’s been with me for so long. He’s been with me longer than any hy’prae has ever been recorded staying with someone. Remind me at some point to tell you how I happened to end up with him. It’s kind of a cool story. So, what did you find?”
“A lot of locked doors and things that didn’t answer any questions but raised more instead.”
“Naturally,” Tohan said with a chuckle. “So what questions got raised, and do you think we have a chance of answering them? I guess, technically, it doesn’t matter as far as what I’ve been hired to do, but I’m a curious person. Who wouldn’t be curious about a secret passage sort of deal?”
“There were two levels. The initial hallway led to stairs that went down three floors. The doors on that level were all locked with no identifying marks or way to see into the room beyond the door. I couldn’t hear a single sound and am assuming that the area is soundproofed to keep any questions about mystery noises to a non-issue. A second set of stairs went down two more levels. There were fifty doors with numbers on them and what appeared to be one-way observation panels set in the doors. There was also a larger door at the very end of the hall that had no number or observation panel. All the doors were locked on that level, and there wasn’t a single sound I could hear either. Effie was very agitated while we were in the lower hallway and physically tried to get me to leave almost the entire time we were down there.
“In the cells on one side of the hall were prisoners suffering from some sort of disease. One of the cells had what was possibly blood on the walls and floor; although I’m not sure of that because I could only see that through the observation panel. There were prisoners of multiple species in various stages of the disease, but something about the progression of it seemed off to me. I’m not a medical expert, but I do have access to a rather large database. Even so, I have no idea what those prisoners were suffering from or why I feel like there was something not quite right about the disease progression I saw.
“Effie became very persistent about leaving the area when I moved to the doors on the opposite side of the hallway. The prisoners in those cells were also infected with something, but it was very different from the first prisoners I saw. There were also two prisoners to each cell, always of different species, and they were chained so they couldn’t reach each other. I saw one try to attack her cellmate, so I can understand the need for the chains.”
Tohan continued to pet Effie absently and seemed to be thinking of what I’d said. I waited for him to get his thoughts in order. Perhaps Tohan would have a different take on what I’d seen.
“How can you be sure the diseases were different? A disease can present with varying symptoms depending on the stage. It can also take on different characteristics depending on the species it infects. I’m generally shit on the biology end of things when compared to a healer or doctor, but I know way more than the average person because of the schooling I’ve had. I assume the database you mentioned would make you better at understanding the biology of diseases than the average person, too.”
I nodded. “Better, yes. An expert? Not even close. The prisoners I first saw had what looked like ugly bruises and appeared to have trouble breathing as the disease progressed. The bruising appeared to get worse as well with those in later stages of the disease. They also appeared to be bleeding from somewhere as there were blood stains on the sheets, but I couldn’t see any wounds that would account for the amount of blood I saw. That was more or less universal for the ones I saw regardless of sex or species infected with whatever that disease is.
“The other prisoners had blisters on their skin that faintly pulsed. I saw one break open on the face of a female prisoner. An orange liquid leaked out, and when it did, she screamed. At least, I assumed that she did based on what I saw as I couldn’t hear anything. The scream scared her cellmate briefly before they both lunged at each other. They fought hard against the chains with one female dislocating her shoulder in an effort to get to the other female. She didn’t appear to even register the dislocation when I know that is a painful injury based on personal experience. An electrical shock hit both of them after a few minutes of them trying to get at each other, and I think that was the only thing that stopped them. Prisoners in what I assume were the final stages looked like skeletons with paper-thin skin stretched over their bones. They no longer had the blisters at that point although you could see where the blisters had healed. At that stage, they had what I can only call a hungry look in their eyes. It was unsettling to say the least.”
Tohan stopped petting Effie and sucked in a sharp breath. Effie nudged Tohan’s hand and cheeped at him to continue with the chin rubs. Tohan absently started petting Effie again, but his focus was entirely on me. I couldn’t have said why, but my stomach tensed and I felt a shiver of dread slide down my spine.
“You’re sure about what you saw with the second set of prisoners? Like super, absolutely, without a doubt sure? I’m talking about the ones with the blisters and orange shit that leaked out,” Tohan said in a voice that held more than a bit of dismay.
“Utterly sure. You can play back what I saw if you want to see for yourself. I can send it to your wrist com again.” The bad feeling in my gut grew at Tohan’s grim nod.
I sent the entire video of the file of my trip into the secret area to Tohan’s wrist com and watched as he cued it up. He skipped over the upper level as there wasn’t anything of interest there. He alternately played and skipped forward over the footage of the first set of cells I’d looked in on. He watched the entire section of the video showing the prisoners with the blisters. Halfway through the viewing, I noticed that his hands were shaking. Effie had opened his eyes at that, saw the video playing, and immediately growled low in his throat. Tohan stopped the playback when I left the lower level, and there was genuine fear in his eyes when he looked at me. Fuck. This was going to be very bad. I could feel it.
“I know what that disease is, and there’s no way it could’ve ended up here accidentally. I’m one hundred and fifty percent sure about that. It’s called <i>ruhlex-mar</i>, and it’s native to Awh’an. You get it from improper sanitation after contact with a small, flightless bird called a <i>dwen-sta</i>. You also get it from eating the undercooked or improperly prepared meat of one of the little bastards. They’re apparently fantastic tasting and highly nutritious, but I’ve never wanted to spend the crazy amount of money necessary to eat some when the possibility of being infected is more of a risk than I’m comfortable with. Chef’s need to train for one Awh’anise year, which is equal to two and a half Standard years, and have to test cook meals, which only they eat, multiple times during their training before being given a license to prepare <i>dwen-sta</i>, assuming they make the meals right and don’t infect themselves at any point.
“There’s no cure or vaccine for <i>ruhlex-mar</i>. Once you start showing symptoms, it’s too late to do anything about it except to ride it out. It makes a person highly aggressive physically and sexually. While you think it would be easy to avoid either fighting or sex with someone who has those blisters you saw, the liquid mimics pheromones indicating a readiness to breed, increasing the scent by at least three times the norm. Your brain will tell you to run away, but your body just wants to fuck and frequently wins the fight with your brain. I’ve heard that it can even be so strong an urge that people like me who only do one sex will have zero problems fucking anyone even if that person is the ‘wrong’ sex for it to happen naturally for them.
“<i>Ruhlex-mar</i> isn’t fatal on its own. What it forces your body to do or ignore to satisfy those fighting or breeding urges can be fatal. What you become if you survive the toll the virus takes on your body frequently leads to suicide. I’ve never heard of a non-Awh’anise getting this virus, but it’s not something easy to catch and given the general hostility of most of the flora and fauna of Awh’an, we’re not exactly a big tourist destination making non-Awh’anise infections not a thing. In my opinion, the hacking attempts have just gotten shoved to the bottom of the importance pile of serious-shit-that-needs-to-be-taken-care-of-right-fucking-now.”
“Fuck,” I said as I blew out a sharp breath.
If accidental infection of <i>ruhlex-mar</i> was highly unlikely, and I had no reason to doubt Tohan’s words, that shone a very disturbing light on what I’d seen in the secret area.
“I’d personally go with fuckity-fuck-fuck, but I know more about this at the moment than you, I think. Check the data dump Moswen did. Info about it might be in there. I don’t know though since it’s something pretty specific to Awh’an that would be very hard for a casual visitor to Awh’an to come across. We don’t advertize about the <i>dwen-sta</i>, there’s very few restaurants that are licensed to serve it, and finding one of the little shits in the wild isn’t easy since they’re generally shy and live in remote areas, thank the stars. People are infected every year by <i>ruhlex-mar</i>, but it’s not like it’s an epidemic. The numbers are fairly low, but that’s mostly because the people directly exposed are low. Still, last I heard a couple of hundred people catch it every year mostly because it spreads wicked fast.”
“So it was brought here somehow? Could there be an Awh’anise prisoner here who was already infected before arrival?” I asked as I checked the database in my head.
“No. Incubation time is short before symptoms start showing if I’m remembering right. About a Standard week, maybe? If we’re talking typical prisoner transport time from Awh’an to here it would likely take a week, and that doesn’t include any of the processing time on Awh’an or processing time on the prison facility end before the infected person would be dumped into the general populace. Somewhere along the way, symptoms would start cropping up, and somebody would sound the alarm that there was a problem.
“As a species, we’re super paranoid about letting any of our native nasties get out into the universe because they are just so damn nasty. Awh’an has actually signed several accords promising to do our best to not let certain things off-planet because of the threat they could pose to others. Somebody definitely brought <i>ruhlex-mar</i> here. The most important question in my mind now is why. For the record, my paranoid little brain isn’t liking the reasons its coming up with.”
“There’s nothing in the database Moswen gave me on <i>ruhlex-mar</i>, but if it is as uncommon as you say, I can understand why it’s not there. I’m also not liking the possible reasons that a highly contagious virus was brought into a prison facility. It further makes me question the origin of the disease that the other prisoners I saw were suffering from. Add both of those things to the stuff we already knew about—the hacking, the missing power and water data, and prisoners having access to places they shouldn’t—I’m getting a very, very bad feeling about this mission.”
“I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. This is all Moswen’s fault with his damn chaos effect. I told you it was going to be a clusterfuck of epic proportions when it hit. Sometimes I pure hate it when I’m right,” Tohan said with a heavy sigh.
“I’m going to hate it if you are right, too, and things are pointing in the direction of you being right. We’d better start figuring out a game plan on this. There’s way more going on here than either of us was told, and I think we’ll need to be careful about what we reveal to whom. This could have the potential to blow up in our faces in a big way, and I’d rather not end up dead because we said the wrong thing to the wrong people.”
“You and me both. I have way too many kinky ideas to put into motion with you, so death is not an option right now,” Tohan said with a grin.
I laughed at that. “Good to know you have your priorities figured out.”
“Always thinking, Warrick. Now, let’s see if I can figure out this damn bracelet and get it to work again. Once that’s done, it might be in the best interests of saving our hot asses to let the Awh’anise military know what’s going on here, give them the bracelet, and let them deal with whatever. It’s kind of their thing to enforce the keep-the-nasty-shit-on-Awh’an rule.”
I nodded. That indeed might be the best course of action. Dealing with what I’d discovered in the secret area was most definitely outside of my mission parameters. Assuming something new and bad didn’t leap up and bite our asses, someone was going to have to take responsibility for what we’d discovered and shut it down. Just who that someone was, I wasn’t sure, but I highly doubted it should be either Tohan or I since neither of us was prepared or suited to handle the situation.
<b>Ruhlex-mar:</b> Extremely contagious virus carried by a small flightless bird, <i>dwen’sta</i>. The virus is spread by contamination from the bird’s droppings, improper sanitation after handling the bird (alive or dead), or by eating undercooked or improperly prepared meat of the bird. The meat of the bird is very tender, naturally flavourful, and highly nutritious and is an expensive delicacy. The virus is completely harmless to the <i>dwen’sta</i>. It is not fatal to other species on its own, but the symptoms the patient suffers from almost always lead to fatality.
Incubation is 3-5 days, during which the infected person seems perfectly fine and rarely shows any symptoms. Transmission is via bodily fluids. Onset of symptoms include greatly increased physical and sexual aggression, tripling of pheromones indicating breeding readiness, and breeding cycle commencement regardless of when the last breeding cycle began. For patients too young or old for a breeding cycle, the virus will force a cycle to start.
Faintly pulsing blisters will form on the face and upper torso after 4-6 days of initial infection and for 2-3 days, the blisters will release a virulent orange liquid that mimics the scent of someone in a frenzy to breed/be bred. The scent is almost impossible to resist despite knowing that the infected is highly contagious. Anyone within a fifteen foot radius capable of smelling will be affected. If there is no penetration to start a cycle, the infected will experience the symptoms of cycle sickness (high fever, intense arousal, delirium, etc.) but it will not cause death as is typical, instead sending the infected into a vegetative state.
Later stages of the infection have muscle begin to waste away as the infected is not concerned with eating, only sex. They will eat if food is given but won’t seek food on their own. They will be consumed with a powerful thirst and will drink large quantities of whatever liquid is available. Eventually, the virus stabilizes in their system rendering it harmless to the host but still capable of infecting a sexual partner approximately 25% of the time. Muscle mass never recovers well, and the survivor is left hyper-sexualized and sterile.