— Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
If I must die
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.
— Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
I’d never wanted anything more in my life than to see the good ol’ Enterprise again.
That wasn’t where our molecules reassembled themselves.
Jim was already giving orders. “Bones, Spock, we need to know what happened to the Cassandra’s crew, and see if they have any decent medical facilities. And hurry. Sooner or later, the Magna’s going to figure out we didn’t go where she intended.”
The others were already off at a trot, to where a massive ship lay, lodged at a desperate angle, its loading dock gaping open.
The Cassandra had plowed a long, deep furrow as it ground to a final resting place on a broad, barren plain. It was more or less in one piece, looking particularly ungainly out of its natural element. An escape pod sat maybe two dozen meters away, having possibly broken free during the violent landing. Other debris littered the area, ominous evidence of the impact.
I was still trying to frame a coherent question when Bones’ voice came floating back toward us, “Dear God!” he exclaimed. “Spock, see if you can find some hazmat suits – we’re going to need them.”
Jim turned back to me. “You’re okay?” he asked. I nodded, and he pressed on, tersely. “Tell me what you learned.”
So I told him, as best I could, part information, part suspicion, part speculation.
“But you…” I broke off my spiel, “How do you feel? Any effects of…?”
“No,” he shook his head dismissively, as if Fate couldn’t touch him. “I’m fine. Let’s just hope Bones and Spock can come up with more data.”
“But how did we get… here?” I asked.
“Contingency plans, Hani, always. I arranged several… options.. with Scotty before we beamed down. Did you notice how agreeable the Magna was to our leaving? You don’t think I was going to go back to the ship without knowing if this disease is communicable, do you?”
Ah. That was what Bones had tried to tell him; what he already understood. “So can we contact Scotty from here?” I asked hopefully.
“No. But it did buy us some time to solve that problem,” he smiled, not his usual beaming grin, but still heartening. Jim had a reputation for getting out of tight spots. I could only hope this wouldn’t be the episode that ended his lucky streak. He was already working on it, I could tell. He told me to stay put as he jogged off to check out the escape pod.
It wasn’t too long before a couple of startling figures emerged from the ship, clad in white. Bones and Spock peeled off the bulky headgear of their hazmat suits. The faces that emerged were grave.
“Gentlemen? Report, please,” Jim’s impatience was showing.
The two exchanged glances, as they carefully shed the rest of their protective gear, leaving it at a safe distance from us. It was Spock who launched in. “Captain, it appears that, with a few exceptions, the crew of the Cassandra sustained only minor injuries from the crash itself. However, within approximately 20 hours, they were all dead. The ship’s logs indicate that a party of Ardrossian women boarded the ship with emergency supplies, including food and drink. I think we can safely assume that’s how the bio-weapon was delivered.”
“Was the crew of the Cassandra all male? That seems unlikely,” Jim asked.
“No, not all male, but in the end it didn’t matter,” Bones took over, scowling. “You have no idea how bad it is in there, how bad it must have been for them. Not a single survivor. We didn’t have time to do a vector analysis, but my best guess is that a only a small number of the crew may have originally been targeted.
“The female crew members appear to have been infected only through secondary means. But the men who first ate or drank what they were given, clearly suffered a bio-chemical reaction within hours, causing cellular mutation, which spread from the source point outward through the body. The result is massive failure of all the vital organs.
“Even worse, once it spreads into the endocrine and exocrine systems, it becomes communicable through normal bodily contact, through bodily fluids – blood, sweat, saliva, tears, urine, semen, discharges of all kinds. That’s what I suspect happened to the women of the crew.”
Bones’ face was drawn; another man might have been in shock from what they’d witnessed. Bones was simply outraged, and I could see his frustration even as he was doing his best to get a handle on this.
He continued, getting more animated as he did, “The damned brilliant part of it is, it’s not necessary to directly plant the mass in everyone. They just had to seed it in a few people and let it spread. Thank God we didn’t beam back to the ship.
“We know this much: It’s lethal; lethal and damned fast moving. In an open population, it could potentially spread like any vector-driven disease, like the plague in the Middle Ages, or the Ebola virus in the late 20th century. I hope to God I never have to see again what we saw on that ship. You may have met your match this time, Jim.”
I listened in horrified disbelief as Bones went on. I simply couldn’t take in the possibility that this was something that could really kill them, so quickly, so devastatingly. And yes, here I was, with them in this deserted place, on this strange planet, without any means of escape, so the fear wasn’t only for them.
Bones’ cold voice continued. “There’s no doubt that what killed the crew of the Cassandra is the same as the bio-mass in the three of us. Judging from the fact that I can still isolate it– isolate, mind you, not completely identify it – I can assume we’re still have a little time left, though God knows how long. A few hours at best, I’d have to say. Spock’s Vulcan metabolism would normally slow down the effects, but his high body temperature must be nearly cancelling out that advantage.”
“There must be something you can do, Bones.” Jim demanded. With all you’ve found out, can’t you find some way to…. attack this thing? Counteract it, somehow? Disarm it?”
Bones shook his head, his face almost white with tension. “Not with the resources we have, dammit, and not knowing how long we have. There’s nothing on the Cassandra that could help us, even if the contamination wasn’t a real issue.”
He paused and I could see his warring emotions. He was still mad as hell with Jim, but his greater compassion was kicking in. Bones’ natural nobility wouldn’t, in the end, let his emotions rule the day. His voice sounded ever so slightly less harsh when he continued.
“I’ll tell you one thing Jim, I’ve never seen anything like this, a purposely designed weapon so… straight out of some cultural prejudice. The Magna is completely insane, but dammit, for what she set out to do, she did it brilliantly. She’s found a way to kill off men whenever she gets the notion, effortlessly, totally cold-bloodedly, through the most direct biologically male path – and any woman within infectious range, too. And apparently she’s created it so that the only possible – the only possible – cure… is as unacceptable as the disease itself.”
“There’s a cure? What cure?” Jim caught on that word. “What do you mean, unacceptable? Dammit, Bones, explain yourself.”
It was Spock, instead, who filled the pause. “It would seem that the Magna has specifically and deliberately created a fatal biological condition for which there is a… sexual cure. She has, I believe, attempted to achieve the ultimate irony.”
“My patience is running out, Spock,” Jim snapped.
“The bio-mass lodges in the testes, the semen. Clearly, this is the Magna’s deliberate design, given her culturally rooted revulsion toward males…”
“Yes,” Jim interrupted, quick to connect the dots. “Hani thinks they use men for… procreation only, and then there’s some purification ritual that may or may not involve actual human – male – sacrifice.”
Spock took in this new information, looking equally thoughtful. “In which case, the motivation becomes even more powerful. When reinforced by the Magna’s personal emotional wounds, a most potent combination.”
“But…” Jim frowned. “If that’s the case, wouldn’t the obvious solution…?” He gave that quick shake of his head, racing ahead of the information. “No, too easy. She’s smarter than that. What is it, then?”
Bones paused before answering. “There are physiological differences, you see, certain subtle chemical responses when… two people are together. This thing, as far as we can read it, is so precisely calibrated – the science of it is actually amazing, Jim. No one’s done this kind of work. Then again, no one we know of is both this brilliant and this… deviant.”
“Deviant according to our own accepted norms, I might point out, Doctor,” Spock added helpfully. Bones scowled at him, but Jim intervened to keep the discussion moving along.
“Clock’s ticking, gentlemen. Bones, get to it,” he said.
Bones focused again, sharp, professional. “Obviously, the cure would be to expel the mass, but she’s essentially rigged the game, every way you look at it.” He sighed, all too aware of the implications beneath his clinical terms. “You don’t want the thing to, well, essentially detonate prematurely. But given its chemical composition, I believe they have allowed for expulsion into the female, a closed, chemically receptive environment.”
“But what about the woman, then?” Jim asked.
“I’m still analyzing, as best I can without more resources, but that’s the point, Jim. As far as I can tell, there are just two potential outcomes: the man dies, or he somehow manages to transfer the thing sexually, in which case… the woman dies.”
I’d been listening silently to all of this, not quite able to take it in. Now I spoke; partly, I guess, just to work my own way through this impossible tangle. “So, the Magna has this cultural and personal thing about men. She creates this disease, knowing, I think, that men on her planet wouldn’t have access to a woman anyway. They’re almost totally isolated. And no Ardrossian woman would voluntarily have sex with a man, outside of whatever that procreation ritual is. If he tried it, that would get him killed anyway.”
I thought some more. “But it’s this complete cultural blindness, isn’t it? I saw it, in all those women. They haven’t been exposed to other worlds, they don’t even conceive that others might see things differently. The Magna’s smarter than most, but she’s still coming from the same place. She’s operating entirely from cultural assumptions.”
Spock was the first to follow up, though I saw them all considering this. “So, theoretically, even the scientific assumptions might contain possible flaws…”
I wasn’t thinking in terms of science. I’m not sure I was thinking at all, now. Some other wisdom was taking over. I looked at the three of them; felt myself trembling, the way you do when you’ve just made a life-changing decision, the kind of trembling that happens when your body has to run to catch up with your heart.
It must have been my heart that spoke now. I can’t imagine my brain ever managing it.
“The Magna assumes we’ve gone back to the ship. She’ll assume the Enterprise will go the way of the Cassandra. Don’t you see, though? The one thing she could never anticipate? The one thing that would be truly inconceivable to her? The one advantage we have?” Three sets of eyes zeroing in, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just babbling out loud.
The words came out of my mouth on their own. I felt them reverberating through my entire body, felt the gravity of them falling into the space between us. “There’s only one option. If it’s the only one, we have to try it.”
I looked from one to another, not quite ready to think too far into this. I knew what had to happen. That was enough.
“She assumed you wouldn’t figure out the cure in time, or, even if you did, that you.. couldn’t do anything about it. But, don’t you see? That’s where she went wrong.” I took a deep breath and completed the thought.
“I’m here. I’m your cure.”
Three faces. Jim’s expression was stunned. Bones looked horrified. Spock, as always, was unreadable, maybe more unreadable than usual.
“No.” Jim said flatly, instantly. “No, Hani. Unacceptable.”
I moved over to him, put a hand on his arm. “No, Jim, think about it. It’s only… logical. The Magna would never predict this, never believe a woman would do this.”
I found myself smiling into his frown as I went on. “Look, I don’t know why I’m here, why I came to be in this life. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is what I came here to do.”
“I won’t allow it, Hani. End of discussion. We’ll find something else, some other option. I won’t trade your life for ours.”
Some reservoir of certainty was propelling me. I heard my own voice, soft but utterly knowing. “I’m not afraid of dying, Jim. I’ve already lived more than most, just in this lifetime. I’ll be back. We’re all just passing through, you know.”
Jim just stared at me, temporarily speechless. I knew that he wasn’t accustomed to arguing the fine points of philosophy.
Spock, though, was. “Reincarnation,” he nodded thoughtfully. “A fascinating argument in favor of an ethical choice.”
In the silence, we all seemed to realize at the same time Bones’ failure to weigh in. That uncharacteristic silence was enough for us all to look in his direction. He was busy again with his data. He stared at his screen for so long, Jim finally prodded him.
“Bones? What is it?”
“Damnation,” Bones muttered. It took him a long time to speak further. Finally he said, “You want the good news or the bad? Though frankly, I don’t have a clue in hell which is which.”