Previously in Only Slightly
While again attempting to retrieve The Geraldine from wherever she went, Bidet and Fridgara find themselves teleported to the mysterious dining hall which The Geraldine had visited before. There they found the same mysterious man, who proceeded to almost drown Bidet in an attempt to get The Geraldine to return - which she did, in the company of Anneka. The man proclaims to the gathered people that his name is Yarek, that he is the last of the Chosen of the Ikhshiid, and that he is about to impart to them the salvation of the human race.
Meanwhile, Bill and Elizabeth have arrived at Arelon looking for Linda after Bill's vision of her death; but instead of a happy holiday planet they find a spaceport converted into a hospital for victims of a planet-wide plague.
Elizabeth's diplomatic ID got her and Bill into the office of the Emergency Medical Services Co-ordinator, which looked like it had been hastily converted from a small storage room. The Co-ordinator was a middle-aged man with greying hair who didn't seem to have slept for at least a week. He invited them inside, shook their hands, asked them to sit.
'What's the situation here?' Elizabeth asked once she had taken her seat.
'Uncontrollable,' the Co-ordinator replied. His name was Harin Tubré, and his eyes had a curious colour cast over the whites, like a tinge of purple around the edges, centred around brilliant red irises. 'This plague is spreading faster than we can even handle reports of cases. We haven't been able to identify an infectious agent, and the infection patterns don't look like anything spreading in the
air, or the water, or by proximity or physical contact.'
'Any work on a treatment?'
'We're trying, of course, but without an identified agent...' he sighed heavily. 'So far, the disease is one hundred percent fatal.'
'How many cases?'
Harin shook his head. 'I don't know. Over one hundred thousand so far. There are nearly twenty-five thousand patients just in this spaceport, and about five thousand dead.'
'You say you haven't identified the infectious agent yet?' Bill asked. Harin looked at him curiously.
'Who are you?' he asked.
'President Bill George Hillary Lewis Lewinsky of America,' Bill said. Harin looked blank.
'He's from Earth,' Elizabeth said. 'He's the leader of about a third of the population.'
'Ah. And you have medical training?' Harin asked. Bill shook his head.
'No,' he said, 'I'm a wizard. You don't have wizards around here, do you?'
'No, we don't,' Harin said. He studied Bill curiously. 'I've heard many rumours since we re-established contact with Earth. It will be interesting to see what you can do to help us. If you are willing to, of course.'
'Of course I will do what I can. I had better start straight away,' Bill said, rising. Harin nodded, and punched a button on his telephone.
'The head of our research team will show you around,' he said. The door opened, and another tired, middle-aged man with the same purplish cast to his red-irised eyes as Harin entered. Harin made the appropriate introductions. The research team leader's name was Dafydd, and his eyes widened when Bill was introduced as a wizard.
'If you could help... that would be marvellous. We've not been getting anywhere,' he said, taking Bill's arm and leading him out of the room. 'All we've discovered is what this disease isn't.'
'Well, you still know more than I do,' Bill said. 'Tell me about it. What are the symptoms?'
'Well, we're not sure about the incubation period as we have no idea what causes the infection yet,' Dafydd said, 'but the first symptoms are a discolouration of the eyes.' Bill looked sharply at Dafydd's purple-tinged eyes, and the other man shook his head. 'No, not like my eyes. That's a genetic modification for tolerance of ultra-violet light. No, the disease affects the irises, turning them a sickly kind of yellow. Although we had one patient here whose eyes were that colour to start with, and they went a rather vivid blue.
'About a day after the eyes start to change, the skin on the groin and armpits begins to flake and shed quite rapidly. This spreads to the rest of the body over the next two to three days, by which time the patient has a high fever. Then the patient appears to lose the ability to absorb sugars from the bloodstream, some kind of modification to the cell walls, and they die very shortly afterwards.'
'And nobody has recovered?'
'Nobody. Blood samples, samples of any other bodily fluid, biopsies of all body tissues show nothing except the damage related to the observable symptoms. Would you like to look at the labs?'
'No. I'm afraid they wouldn't mean much to me. I'd like to see some patients, at varying stages of infection if possible.'
Dafydd nodded, and led Bill into a converted departure lounge. The room had a disturbing silence for one so full, and most of the patients appeared to be asleep or unconscious. Some stirred from time to time, and a few doctors and nurses moved from bed to bed. Several beds had
sheets drawn over the occupant's face.
Bill found himself standing next to a woman with sickly yellow eyes.
'This is Virit,' Dafydd said after speaking to the woman in a low voice for a minute or so. 'Her eyes started to change early yesterday morning, and she's just starting to get skin flakes on her legs.'
'What are you going to do?' Virit asked, looking at Bill.
'I'm going to use a spell to try and find out what's causing your symptoms,' Bill told her. 'It won't hurt you, and you shouldn't feel anything much. Perhaps a slight sense of warmth, or tingling. Are you ready?'
Virit nodded. 'I wanted to see magic since I heard about you wizards,' she said.
'Well, you won't see much of this spell,' Bill told her. He put his hands together, closed his eyes briefly, then held his palms over Virit's body and cast the spell.
'Are you actually doing anything?' Dafydd asked a few minutes later. Bill looked him.
'What? Oh, yes, you can't see it. This is very interesting, actually.' He gestured, and an aura began to glow around Virit. She giggled.
'Tickles,' she explained when both men looked at her curiously. Bill gestured again, and the aura became distorted and patchy, streaked with disturbing colours.
'The infection, whatever it is, has already permeated her entire body,' Bill said. 'But it seems to be concentrated in a number of places. You can see the aura around the eyes is especially dark; that's one of the strongest areas of infection. The groin also appears to be highly infected, as are the energy channels leading down to the feet and hands.'
'Energy channels?' Dafydd asked.
'Yes, and that's odd, because the channels are usually only discernable in people with magical ability, and I can't sense any in Virit at all.'
'What might that mean?'
'Well, I shall have to examine some more patients,' Bill said, 'but what this suggests is that the plague may be magical in origin.'
'Magical? Someone... cast a spell? And caused all this?'
'A very powerful someone, or several people working together, yes. Theoretically, it is possible to do, and it would explain why you've found no bacteria or virus or other infectious agent.'
'How do we stop it? How do we even begin to tackle it?'
'Well, if I can confirm a magical origin of the plague, I might be able to come up with a counterspell to stop it from spreading, and hopefully one to cure people who are already infected. No promises though!' He released his spell, and the aura faded from Virit's body. 'I shall have to talk to Elizabeth, and to the wizards on Earth; there are those far better versed in magical healing and counterspells than I am. If we can ship a team out here we can do a lot better than I
can by myself.'
He ended the spell with a flick of his fingers, thanked Virit, and then Dafydd took him to see several other patients at varying stages of infection. The last, a young man about the same age Bill had been when he started his training as a wizard, was barely aware of what they were doing, and was having difficulty breathing. His aura was barely discernible, and only a minute or so after they arrived at his bedside,
his chest fell, and did not rise again.
Dafydd reached to pull the man's sheet up, but was stopped by Bill's hand on his arm.
'No,' he said. 'Look.'
Faintly, Dafydd could see several streaks of light rising from the body.
'What are they?'
'I don't know,' Bill said. 'I don't like the look-'
Abruptly the streaks of light moved, one each directly at Bill and Dafydd, too fast for Bill to even start a shielding spell. The others went off in other directions; one of them went straight through the floor. Bill stared after it for a moment, then worked his diagnosis aura on Dafydd. In only moments, he was able to see a slight darkening around the eyes.
'I think we've found your infectious agent,' he said.