Haednoth wasn’t sure he could do it again, but there was no one left to whom he could make that admission. He was alone with the task he had taken on. Who else could have been expected to do it? Who could have been asked?
After all he was their chosen shaman, their supposed healer – he couldn’t smile at the thought any more – and their leader. They trusted him to cope with anything; every one of these people looked to him for their example. Whenever he heard them say, ‘Your strength helps us. We wouldn’t have lived this long without you,’ he cringed inside. He wasn’t as strong as they thought him, and he had no idea how he’d managed to go on coping for so long as the tragedies multiplied around him.
But he didn’t have time to think about it now. They were waiting for him and he mustn’t be late. He entered the first airlock, stripped, put his clothing in the automatic cleanser and, progressing into the central compartment, showered. When the hot air had dried him, he stepped into the third airlock and dressed himself in the sterile clothing waiting for him. One more sealed door and he was among them again, the sick and the dying.
He sat in the lounge area and chatted with the newly ill, passing on news from the settlement so far below them, and promising to pass their messages back to those they’d so recently left behind. Then he walked among the beds of those too weak to get up or move about, and finally, steeling himself to his task, he visited those who were in the last horrifying days of their lives.
Little could be done for them, and the sight of their blister covered limbs and the obscene growths which were appearing on their bodies made him want to scream, although his screams wouldn’t be as dreadful as theirs would have been if they weren’t so heavily sedated – but no matter what he felt he must touch them, speak to them, look into any eyes which had not yet been blinded, and if he could not bring them hope, somehow bring them comfort. And when he was done, he must return the way he came, making sure that not one molecule of lethal air or water came back through the airlocks with him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In his opinion it had been the worst of tragic mistakes for this world to have been listed as suitable for human colonisation. However no one could be blamed. The initial survey by the Rangers had been as thorough as it always was, and had showed the atmosphere, the water, the plant and animal life as well within the acceptable parameters. Even the personnel of the second survey, which was more thorough as well as more risky, had found nothing amiss.
Second surveys were sent to suitable worlds to make the necessary preparations for a new colony. They would live in a makeshift village for a full planetary orbit, and if all went well settlement would be approved, after which they would continue their work until the colony ship arrived. It had sometimes happened that during that first year a second survey discovered new dangers, such as devastating seasonal storms, unexpected extremes of climate, or predators which appeared in certain seasons. Sometimes they decided to change the location of the proposed settlement. It was not unknown, though thankfully not common, for second surveys to leave in a hurry when an unsolveable problem arose, and some had been lost.
But no such difficulties had arisen here and so after a successful first planetary year, during which land had been prepared and seed from the native flora sown, Haednoth’s colony ship, with its two hundred carefully selected crew and passengers had set out.
Five earth-years later the Rangers had welcomed them to their new world and seen them through their first Summer and Autumn before leaving them to make their new life on their own. The days were a little shorter than they were accustomed to, but that was fine. It was easier than being tired out by a day five or more hours longer, as might happen on other worlds. The year was longer – around 410 days – but longer seasons allowed them to grow two crops of cereals and roots each Summer and Autumn, a necessity to see them through the long and bitterly cold Winter.
At first everything had gone well. After the many disasters they’d created back at home they’d finally learned, too late for Earth of course, not to introduce flora or fauna from one world to another. Their crops, selected from among the local flora and tested by the second survey, had grown swiftly and proved nutritious; they’d adjusted to their new diet, and the one or two indiginous animals which had proved amenable to domestication had flourished and multiplied. They’d needed to do little to the village the Rangers had prepared for them, their homes were soon decorated to suit their particular needs and tastes, and they’d built a hall large enough for religious ceremonies, celebrations and entertainments, as well as their regular formal meetings.
They had the results of the second survey’s explorations and research of other regions to guide them, and in their second year had sent out parties to continue that work. With the help of these discoveries, the sensors and laboratories on the synchronously orbiting ship, they’d made great strides in their understanding of their new home, and looked forward to creating further settlements in the future.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the third Spring, it having been an unusually dry Winter, they decided to dig a couple of boreholes to draw up water from a large underground lake which had been detected by the Rangers’ sensors. Two wells, strategically sited, would cut down the time spent fetching water from the river. Each house had a filtered plumbing system running from a large outside tank to taps and baths, but since they had been concentrating first on a wide-ranging irrigation system for the fields, they hadn’t yet been connected to the river or each other. So every day water for domestic use had to be carried, by one means or another, from the river to the tanks.
The drilling and digging were successful, and soon two deep wells, complete with hand pumps and troughs, had been constructed. Haednoth didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to them to have the water tested. Perhaps it was because the Rangers had already checked the water in the rivers, lakes, and sea and declared it all perfectly safe; or perhaps after two trouble-free years they’d grown to trust this world and had simply assumed it would be safe. Whatever the reason, as soon as the wells and pumps were ready they began to use the new supply. With large water containers and handcarts, it became a much quicker and more simple job to top up the house tanks every other day.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A month later one of the younger men had come to the weekly meeting with small but painful blisters on his arms. None of the usual treatments had helped, and they quickly spread until he was incapacitated by them – his arms eventually being almost entirely raw flesh covered with dressings.
One by one others followed suit. The blisters would appear almost anywhere and had no identifiable pattern. They were dismayed, and then horrified when they appeared in a woman’s mouth, spread down into her lungs and gullet, and brought her to a slow and painful death. Other settlers, more often the mature women, found that in addition to the blisters, their bones were becoming soft and would no longer bear their weight.
Soon, of their colony of two hundred, the number of fit and working adults was reduced by half, some of the sick being specialists without whom maintaining the smooth running of the village became much harder.
But it wasn’t until two months after the first man had been stricken by the sickness (they were carefully avoiding the word plague) that one of the laboratory technicians decided to test the well water.
‘I don’t know what made me do it,’ he said when he brought his results to the weekly gathering, ‘it was an impulse.’
He had discovered that the chemical composition of the water drawn up from the underground lake was utterly different from anything on the surface. It contained compounds as yet unknown to human science; compounds which they now realised were lethal to the colonists. He had worse news – if anything could be worse – the water also contained bacteria which he feared could be passed from one person to another, and which explained the debilitating dysentery which a few of the sick were experiencing.
The wells were sealed, the tanks emptied, rinsed out several times, and twice refilled with river water which was boiled in the tanks before being discarded; but they knew it was too late. There wasn’t a soul in the colony who hadn’t washed in, drunk and cooked with the deep water for the past eight weeks. Sooner or later they would all succumb to its insidious poison.
Messages were sent out to any Patrol vessels which might be in the area informing them of their situation, passing on the chemical composition of the deadly water, as far as it could be understood, and stating that the colonists were willing for the planet to be off-limits until such time as a remedy for their sickness might be found or created.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
. . . . . To be continued