By this time five colonists had died of internal haemorrhaging, fifty were seriously ill and another twenty were either coming out in the first blisters or suffering from dysentery. It was clear that at the first sign of illness the sick ought to be isolated and given a level of care which was not available in the village. With heavy hearts they abandoned the work in the ship’s laboratories, although a goodly amount of equipment was brought down in the shuttle and set up in a newly constructed workshop. The two remaining scientists were determined to do what they could for as long as they could.
Once that was done the shuttle was turned into an ambulance, the flight-deck being sealed off from the passenger and cargo areas and given a separate entrance.
‘The ship is now off-limits,’ Haednoth declared at his last meeting in the village. ‘No one is to enter it if they are not already showing symptoms of the sickness. Tomorrow I will be taken up to the ship to prepare a hospital’ – ‘a hospice,’ he thought to himself, – ‘ where I will care for the sick,’ he said. . .’If it comes to the worst I will speak the last words for them and dispose of their remains with reverence and due ceremony.
‘If’ – ‘when’ he thought, – ‘I fall ill you must choose someone to take my place, but until then no one else is to come aboard.’
Turning to the shuttle pilot he said, ‘When you bring the patients up, you must avoid all contact with them. You are our only remaining pilot, so you must stay away from them at all times. Even down here you must be as careful as you can not to catch the infection. I will fetch the sick from the shuttle and they will be my care from that moment on.’
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
By the end of the week all the sick were installed in the new hospital. Four cargo bays had been turned into wards through which the sick would move as their condition deteriorated and they needed more care. Bay One, for those showing the first symptoms, was more like a community dormitory than a ward, it had a seating area at one end where the patients could move about and socialise if they felt able. In this bay they were expected to care for themselves.
Bay Two was for those who were no longer able to do much for themselves, and Bays Three and Four were for the most seriously ill, each sufferer being linked up to drips and monitors, their wastes removed and taken to the incinerator by the ship’s robots. Haednoth’s task was to keep the support systems working, to spend time being sociable with the newer patients and, for those approaching their end, to be their last human face, their last voice of comfort and strength, their last loving touch.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He had taken over the captain’s quarters and made himself as comfortable as the isolation and the work allowed. The shuttle brought him fresh food in sealed containers each time it came, and he had the use of the ship’s library and databases. But six times every day he had to visit the sick. Six times a day he went through the airlocks, the shower, the final door; six times a day he touched whatever part of their skin was still there and unscarred, spoke their names and offered the human contact which they needed. Six times a day he saw the growths appear and grow in size.
The first growths had appeared on patients in Bay Three about two weeks after the move to the ship, and they grew with horrifying speed, often forcing him to remove dressings. Looking like an ancient condition known centuries ago as Elephantiasis, they erupted anywhere, and had a grey, crustlike surface – he didn’t want to name it skin – which was repulsive to see or touch, though at least once it had hardened it didn’t weep.
Occasionally one of the dying was able to speak. Invariably they begged him to end their suffering, but though it was permitted, and he sympathised with their request, the first time he tried he found he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t in him to take their lives, not even out of mercy.
He lay awake that night, tortured by his dilemma. He knew it wasn’t forbidden to ease someone’s passage out of this life, but with the syringe in his hand, and knowing all he had to do was attach it to the drip, he couldn’t do it. Surely to slip into a painless sleep was better than bleeding to death, or suffocating as the growth on your face closed off your nose and mouth?
Unable to lie still any more, he sat up and screamed, ‘Help me! Help us! Do something!’ He went to the observation lounge, and sitting in one of the reclining chairs stared out at the vastness of space above, and the beauty of the planet below. Who could have believed it would prove so deadly?
He didn’t know who or what he’d called out to. Like many men in these days of interplanetary travel he held no specific religious beliefs. He was happy to honour whatever was good in the universe, and he refused to bow down to evil in any form, but now in his last extremity he needed more than that.
He was under no illusions, they would all die, and that very soon. It wasn’t death he feared, but the manner of this dying, and his inability to help the people who looked to him was so appalling he felt it was breaking him. He sighed, and then letting the stress slip out of him, fell asleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next day he did it. He gathered his courage and his compassion together, and going to the one who had begged him for death, he laid his hands on the growths which had swallowed up most of her face and spoke the words of farewell. He spoke them slowly, clearly and gently, and when he had finished he reached out and released the drip which would enable her to go in peace and comfort. And he held her hands, blistered and raw as they were, until her breath ceased and her monitors went blank.
The robots carried her to the incinerators, but he went with them, as he had already done too many times, and as the fire took her body he spoke the words of release for her spirit.
It didn’t become easier, but in the next month while with great sorrow he brought more and more colonists into the ship, he also released more of his erstwhile companions from their present suffering into the vast peace which lay beyond it.
And then, one fateful day, the shuttle arrived with no passengers. He opened the hatch and stood looking blankly at the empty seats, his mind refusing to accept what he saw. Then the door to the flight deck opened and the pilot appeared. He held out his blistered hands. ‘If what you said still holds, Haednoth, this is the last flight.’
‘How many? . . .I’ve lost count. How many are left?’
‘Three. That’s all. Megan, Thorold and Franko. They begged to come with me. “Don’t leave us here,” they said. “We know we’ll have it soon. Take us with you!” But I wouldn’t.’
He looked at Haednoth with pleading eyes. ‘Was I right?’
‘Supposing by some miracle they aren’t poisoned, then, down there they could survive. Stranded up here they couldn’t. . .You were right.’ He put a hand on the pilot’s shoulder, ‘Come on in and we’ll see it out together,’ and pulling up his right sleeve he showed the pilot the small blister in the crease of his elbow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
‘Will they be able to save it?’ The boy looked up anxiously.
‘Haednoth’s Shrine, mother,. . .will they be able to save it?’
‘Oh yes. They’ve brought their best engineers across half the quadrant. Your father says they’ve almost finished strengthening the hull, and next week they’ll use a tractor beam to tow it into a safer orbit.’
‘But won’t that mean we can’t see it?’
‘I don’t think so. Grandmother Megan said she could always see it, even in the first year of the second colony. It’s just slipped a little lower over time, so they’ll put it back where it’s safe and re-establish the synchronous orbit.’
‘Have they been inside?’
‘No, son. No one goes inside. It’s dangerous as well as sacred. They’ve scanned it several times over the years. That’s how they know Haednoth’s is the only body left. We think he programmed the robots to remove everyone else but to leave him where he died.’
‘Lying in the observation lounge,’ the boy murmured.
‘Yes. His last transmission said he wanted to lie under the stars.’ She said nothing more, but she thought, ‘Though how he could see them when the growths had taken his eyes no one knows. But he would know where he was, and perhaps there was enough of his mind left to remember how they looked.’
‘How could he have known our Great Gran and Great Pas wouldn’t die?’
‘We’ll never know. The pilot said to Grandma Megan, “If Haednoth lets me, I’ll come back for you. But I won’t disobey his order without his word.” ‘
The boy looked around at the busy town which lay along the bank of the river and he smiled.
‘It’s turned out to be a good world after all, hasn’t it? I’m glad I belong to Haednoth’s World.’