Alright, here’s what happened to Ivan between when he left the ship and when the rest of the party caught up with him, as pasted (and minimally edited) from a back&forth email thread between Bryce and myself. Forgive the inconsistent use of present/past tense and first/third person, it’s too much work to clean it all up. :)
Also, it’s really really long. We had fun with it.
At Ivan’s request, Granny Tea came up with a contact for Rim Juhyung, Director of Personnel at Saint Avraamy Mirozhsky hospital in Durmin.
Ivan reached out Rim Juhyung to inquire about which trauma centers in the area were most understaffed and have the most difficult cases. The credentials he provided were for one Gregor Mornik, an associate from back in Ivan’s days of legitimate practice. Fortunately/unfortunately the man disappeared on the way out to an adventure world out on the fringes. Ivan’s co-option of his scholarly rival’s (a respectful rivalry with only a little real tension) identity was fortuitously timed, as the first time he used it was between the disappearance and notification of the family that he was presumed dead. Because of this, very few people knew of the disappearance at all and most assumed that when his name turned up in border colonies that he had simply redirected his trip and life to one of service to the colonies. Insofar as Ivan was aware, no one truly suspected his subterfuge this far out on the Rim.
Granny Tea’s reference was a good one: Rim accepted Ivan’s false credentials at face value, and recommended a small practice out in the TsingTao miners’ barracks. They’d apparently had a very hard time keeping doctors around for some reason, and would probably welcome all the help they could get.
Also, Ivan mentioned his intent to the captain and promised 10% of his earnings in payment for the Captain waiting for him to return if he wasn’t back before the ship was ready to leave. If anything came up, his smartphone was always handy. (Captain Mallorn agreed).
Shortly after the Aces and Eights touched down, Ivan packed up his basic medical gear and headed towards the clinic he’d been referred to. Daylight may be ending, but the evening was young and there was still time to get some work done. Finding a taxi was easy, and he was soon on his way. The taxi was a sturdy aluminum carriage, drawn by a sturdy copper-colored horse and driven by a wiry old man who showed no interest in chatting once price and destination had been agreed.
The sunlight had long passed now, and the top of the canyon, high above the city, soon disappeared into the gathering fog as the taxi descended towards the mine worker residential district. Ivan had heard a bit about “Minertown” on his previous visit to Durmin, but only in passing. The yellow gas lights shone weakly through the fog, but between them and the faint illumination from many of the apartment windows, it was enough to see by. This area of the city was dominated by large rectangular apartment buildings, nearly uniform in design and constructed of the same plain gray brick. Most were four or five stories tall, a few taller or shorter, but otherwise nearly indistinguishable. The driver navigated the maze of narrow streets comfortably, unbothered by the fog.
A few people could be seen on the streets, or resting in the narrow alleys between buildings. They seemed quiet: in fact, after a moment, Ivan realized the only sounds he could hear over the regular drumbeat of horse hooves were the occasional murmur of low voices… and coughing. It was quiet, but around every new corner, he could still hear the sound of someone coughing… and the pronounced rattle of the cough set off warning bells in his medically trained mind. There were quite a lot of sick people here, it seemed.
“Ah, here we are,” said the driver. The carriage stopped. Ivan found himself in front of an apartment building like all the others he had seen, except marked by a large red cross painted on the brick wall near the door. Nobody else was in sight.
After noticing the coughing, Ivan fishes a surgical breath mask/filter from his bag. A sick doctor is no good to anyone. For a mining community, it’s probably not too serious that a few people are hacking and that people are tired and indoors in the evening, but from the feel of the environment, Ivan does pay a bit of more attention to his surroundings and tries to count exits from the hospital as he approaches. The front door, obviously, but as signs pointed to an emergency entrance around the corner, and there was the soft, yellow glow of a translucent door on the other side, Ivan thought it safe to assume he had at least three ground-level exits. The front and emergency exits were very well lit and wide open areas, but the other side entrance seemed more of an employee access and was set closer to the surrounding shrubs and rocks. If he had to beat a hasty retreat, that would probably be the best way out. He cautiously patted the side of his bag where he kept his pistol in an internal pocket, well concealed, but relatively easily accessible…
Following his typical paranoid assessment of the situation, Ivan’s clinical mind kicks in. Given the hypo-allergenic flora in the immediate vicinity, it was unlikely that organic environmentals were the major culprit. The standard list of bacterial and viral infections would be so easily dealt with that any coughing from those could have been dealt with by even the most rudimentary hospital. There could be something on this world that was out of the ordinary, but the most likely cause for hacking and coughing in a mining town was physical abrasions from particle inhalation. Easily enough dealt with, if that was the extent of it. He’d just need to manufacture a self-replicating nanode that would facilitate physical reconstruction of damaged cells. If the nanodes also left a small lipid membrane across the cilia of low enough density to allow gas particles through while dissolving dust into exhalable particulates, future damage and chronic coughing may be able to be resolved. It was similar to one of the chemical weapon augmentations given to every marine in his father’s colonial force.
The clinic was as utilitarian as they come. The first level of an ordinary apartment block had been repurposed without ceremony, internal walls knocked down and others put up in their place to accommodate an appropriate layout. Despite the dodgy aspect as viewed from outside, a pleasant chime sounded as Ivan entered the lobby. The clinic appeared to be in great shape: well-lit, reasonably furnished with lightweight metal and plastic furniture, all nicely arranged and perfectly clean. A weary-sounding female voice shouted “One moment!” from somewhere further back.
As Ivan waited, he double-checked his exits, just in case. He figured that even if all of the main doors (made of the same light aluminum as the most of the rest of the furniture) were locked, he could get through one of the windows. Their small size and high position on the wall would make it awkward, but he was confident that he could kick out the glass and squeeze through. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Except for Ivan, the lobby was empty, and aside from the one voice, there was no sign of anyone else.
A middle-aged woman in a drab-looking (but clean) lab coat stepped out of the back, gave Ivan a critical glance up and down, then shrugged and extended her hand. “I’m Cathy Indra,” she introduced herself, “welcome to my clinic. Heard you’d be coming by… I understand you wanted to get some temp work here for a day or two?” Ivan nodded, and Cathy gestured to a nearby table and chairs, where they both sat down. “I don’t have a problem with that,” she continued, “but I don’t think you’re going to have much to do. Those miners are pretty stubborn, and never come in unless they’re missing a limb or something fell out. These days I find myself mostly just sitting around waiting for the few that are willing to admit they need some help. Haven’t had a proper patient in days.”
“Honestly, if you decide you could be more useful elsewhere, I wouldn’t blame you at all. Otherwise… well, I hope you brought a book.” Dr. Indra shrugged, apparently indifferent about the whole thing.
Ivan considers for a moment and then speaks.
“Do you have computational gene sequencer device? If so, perhaps we can upgrade the miners to rapidly heal from lung damage. Perhaps they would be more amenable to receiving an upgrade, yes? They would be not admitting weakness or sickness. Upgraded lungs would provide many benefit, yes?”
Dr. Indra paused for a moment, clearly caught a bit off guard. “Hang on, lung damage? Right, you probably heard the coughing. It’s… not as bad as it sounds. They manage just fine, more of an annoyance than a real hazard.” She paused again, frowning. “Still, you can’t be seriously proposing dynamic genetic restructuring. Surely you know how expensive that kind of thing can be. There’s no way the miners can afford that, and good luck convincing TsingTao Corp to pay for it.”
She paused again, nodding as if she suddenly recalled something. “One more thing, Dr. Mornik. I read your article last month about the long-term dangers of genemods. Fantastic piece, by the way, but I don’t understand why you would be advocating them in this case?”
Ivan’s clinical Dr. face doesn’t appreciably change—he’s had a lot of practice with reacting to grotesque injuries where a patient was still awake and needed to see his calm demeanor. Still, the idea that Mornik was back publishing—back at all—was disturbing. Maybe something would have to be done to secure his new identity. Still, that was long-term. He had the present to deal with.
“This is not true genemod. The idea is to create self-replicating nano-bot to perform rapid structural repair. It also have fail-safe from gaining beyond control—nano-bot can be made to need proteins not used by body and in liver. It clean out liver for contents. All worker must do with eat very healthy for one week and protein supplies in liver deplete and kill nano-bots. As per articles, genemod on subject itself has danger. Micro surgery—not so much.”
Ivan gauged Dr. Indra for reaction and then shifted the subject. “So you mention coughing is not so bad. What is real problem? Annoyance now can turn into real hazard later.”
Dr. Indra seems mostly satisfied by Ivan’s explanation, but remains skeptical. “Nanites, eh? Can’t afford those either, unless you know something I don’t.”
When Ivan mentions the coughing again, she waves her hand dismissively. “It’s just a seasonal thing. Colder weather plus the fog weakens immune systems, opening the door for mild acute bronchitis. I prescribe decongestants to anyone who comes in, but even without them they’re fine after a week or two.”
Ivan thought that something sounded wrong about this. At first glance, the cough may seem like the result of a viral infection and inflammation, but he was confident that there was more to it than that. His medical instincts are writhing uncomfortably at this point… leading Ivan to carefully examine Dr. Indra’s own apparent health, as well as to consider the current local environmental conditions.
Dr. Indra appeared just fine. A bit tired, but physically healthy as far as Ivan could tell. Outside, it was fairly cool, mostly because of the mist everywhere during the evening. The local season was autumn… of course, on this planet, seasons last the equivalent of an entire standard year. No standing water of note, but there was a nearby river at the bottom of the canyon that the city was built into. This portion of the city may actually have been built on top of it, but Ivan wasn’t sure of the exact geography.
His main reason for distrusting her statements is that the coughs he heard had the wrong tone for the cause she described. Ivan was certain it was more likely to be from particle inhalation. Furthermore, he had done medicine for miners before, and he knew they weren’t THAT stubborn. They may be irrationally against letting you replace their worn-down organs with something better, but they would definitely come in for something like the nasty coughs Ivan had heard. If nothing else, their supervisors would send them to the nearest doctor before whatever it was spread (and also to get them back in working condition ASAP).
“Dr. Indra, is there an office in which I may work for the next several days? If work is slow, I may still at least catch up on some peer reviews that have been requested of me. Also, is there a nearby place where I might find dinner and lodging?”
“Of course.” She gestures towards a hallway and door. “There’s a guest office right there that should have everything you need, including a bed. As far as food goes, place an order at the terminal and they’ll bring you something on the food truck for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not much imagination to the selection, but it usually tastes decent enough.”
Ivan smells a trap at this point. He goes to the office and enters, but leaves the door slightly ajar, bracing it open with a small doorstop between the door and its frame. Once inside, he deposits his coat on the chair and bag on the bed he’s too sleep on.
Something is very wrong with this place, and with that doctor. He takes some of the lab monitoring equipment with audio and visual (like the orthoscopic cameras) and turns them on, pointing them unobtrusively toward the door. Nestled into the mass of equipment on the roller tree, he believes they won’t be found, especially since they’re supposed to be there anyway.
The feed from the camera should, if the hospital is worth anything, be recorded on the lab computer. He turns that on as well, sets a login, and begins the long term recorder program. He then removed the tablet from its docking station and logs in to the wireless network.
As he gets ready to leave, he turns on the privacy mode for the small bathroom, locks the door, removes his pistol from his bag (along with his handheld diagnostic tool, simple synthesizer (can’t handle anything major, but okay for minor trauma), and his injector).
At that point a few minutes may have passed and Ivan quietly slips from the room and heads down the hallway to where he guesses the side employee door would be.
Ivan slipped out of the building quietly, unlocking the side door as he exited in case he needed to get back in that way. The mist had deepened somewhat since he entered the building, and although the air was cool it was not uncomfortably so. The dim lights from lampposts and some windows were just enough to illuminate the shapes of the nearby buildings, while obscuring most of the details. Everything was silent.
After waiting a moment, Ivan didn’t see or hear anything of note… then, from somewhere nearby, a sudden fit of terrible coughing broke the silence. Moving as quickly as he dared, he made his way toward the sound while trying to keep track of the surrounding buildings well enough to avoid getting lost in the mist. The coughing got more pronounced, then gradually weaker and more hoarse, so that even as Ivan got closer to the source it became harder to pinpoint it. Then silence. Ivan continued in what he believed was the direction he had last heard the sounds from, and soon saw two human shapes lying in an alley between two apartment blocks. One of them, seeing Ivan’s shadow appear at the end of the alley, stood up and fled into the night. The other remained motionless, slumped against one wall.
Keeping his pistol within easy reach, Ivan cautiously approached. The slumped figure turned out to be a miner in a tattered work uniform, middle aged… no, younger but with the stresses of middle age upon him already. He wasn’t breathing, and a quick examination revealed no pulse either, although the miner was still fairly warm given the environment. Ivan was certain he’d found the source of the coughing just a few minutes too late to do anything about it.
The near-perfect silence resumed, although faint echoes of more coughing could be heard somewhere in the distance.
As the man is still warm, Ivan uses the diagnostic tool he brought with him to take a scan of the body and try to get some answers.
Brain death is in progress, a few neurons are still actively firing but it’s mostly random.
Major organs seem to be mostly intact, although the diagnostic tool indicates some serious anomalies with the lungs.
If, as you suspect, his lungs have been damaged enough that he’s essentially suffocated to death, resuscitation is going to be extremely difficult without better equipment than what Ivan has on hand. (Nanites/Healing power can’t bring someone back from the dead, and in any case aren’t effective against long-term entrenched conditions).
Maybe Ivan can save this man—maybe even better than new… he has to know the mystery—and save the man’s brain.
Fumbling around, Ivan realized with a groan and Russian curse that his knife and some trauma equipment had been left back in the room. No easy head removal, he’d have to figure out another way to download the man. Improvising with the equipment he has, Ivan uses his injector to draw a large blood sample. He adds a basic steroid to the sample and injects it into the victim’s heart. From there, he locates one of the cortical nerves feeding to the heart and injects a synthesized dose of amphetamines to cause the nerve to starting firing off in hopes of it giving the key impulse to start the heart beating, with help of the steroid.
Next, Ivan starts using the synthesizer as an air filter and the injector to introduce a purified nitrogen/oxygen mix directly into the bloodstream at the connection point of the pulmonary veins and the heart. Hopefully the signals to heart and nervous system, coupled with a steady flow of oxygenated blood that bypasses the lungs will stabilize the brain decay long enough for Ivan to plan his next steps.
He consults the tablet he took from his temporary office, checking the feed from his concealed “bugs” to see if the room has been tampered with and he takes an inventory of the available medical equipment to see if it’s got the tools to properly treat the man’s mind, followed by his body.
After a few tense moments, Ivan breathed out in relief as his diagnostic indicated a resumption of heartbeat and brain activity. The patient was still completely unconscious, of course, and not technically breathing, but his mind was intact. For some slightly generous value of intact. For now.
There was no sign of intrusion in the office. A quick scan of the equipment registered to the clinic indicated that it was surprisingly advanced. Ivan thought that it might even be capable of saving the patient, provided he could get the man there without killing him again.
The streets remained quiet.
Ivan begins to drag the patient, a hand under each armpit, back toward the nearest hospital entrance. As he gets to the edge of line-of-sight with the door his paranoia kicks back in and he sets the man down. VPN’ing in to his temporary office via his tablet (again), he checks his makeshift bugs, looking for any indication that his room as been entered or tampered with.
The distance seems further than Ivan remembers, and he works up a solid sweat moving the patient back towards the clinic. No sign of movement from the office, still.
As Ivan ponders what to do next, Dr. Indra appears and shakes her head. “I should have known,” she said. She takes a quick look at the patient, then exclaims quietly, surprised, “huh… still alive? Well, let me help you get him in.”
Dr. Indra assists Ivan in carrying the patient inside, and while clearly curious about what has kept this particular patient alive, she also seems genuinely concerned with making sure he stays that way. Both of the doctors regress into professional mode, working quickly and efficiently to hook the patient up to the right equipment to stabilize him. It becomes clear that the patient’s lungs are completely shot, and so full of particle damage that they are practically calcified. The overall outlook is grim: the “artificial lungs” are the only thing keeping him alive, and his regular lungs are useless at this point.
Dr. Indra leaves the room for a few minutes, then returns to Ivan. "Look, I’m not sure who you really are, and personally I don’t care. Unfortunately, I don’t run things around here, and you’ve raised a few too many questions for those that do. You’re going to need to spend the night here, and meet with some “important” people in the morning. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. But trust me, the last thing you want to do is leave the building." Her expression is frustrated, but resigned. “Good night.” And with that curt farewell, she leaves the clinic for the upper floors of the apartment block (which are, as far as Ivan can tell, still regular apartments).
On that ominous note, Ivan checks his pistol, closes and locks his office door, and begins to download the man’s consciousness and any memories he can retrieve while the brain remains intact. Once again, before him lay proof that true existence, true transcendence, exists only as a creature of pure information. A conscious avatar, of a sort, in a realm of pure knowledge. Somehow, some day, people would realize this, and Ivan must be there to show them the gateway once they did. This was the white light people saw at death. He was the white light to this man, and would be his salvation, granting him immortality in a world where pure knowledge flows into him eternally and he will know all things. He will know just how right Ivan was to save him.
As the download progresses, Ivan tries to sort through memories to understand what happened to his lungs—and what is in the process of happening to the overall mining operation.
Ivan sets to work analyzing the patient’s brain patterns. It’s a slow process, and it will take days to do thoroughly, but Ivan works late into the night to save the man’s mind and glean what information he can from it.
The most recent memories are clearest: working the mine, getting “the sickness” like so many before, ever since starting the new dig. Refusing to admit it for far too long, while it gets worse and worse. Finally, finding himself sent to the city… but the sickness keeps getting worse, like it always does. Waiting his turn for the doctor. Finally his turn, but the enforcers telling him that nobody is to see the doctor for the next day or two. Trying to walk there on his own anyway after dark, Dale at first trying to stop him and then agreeing to help. The fog is cold…can’t breathe… lungs feel so heavy… the memories blur out after that.
At this point the basic problem is pretty clear to Ivan. Although the exact mineralogy isn’t his area of expertise, something in the dust is destroying miners’ lungs, and somehow creating a condition that continues to worsen even after exposure has stopped, the minerals interacting with lung tissue in a way that somehow causes them to continue expanding their formations.
It’s now the middle of the night: another 4 hours or so until sunrise.
Ivan can’t just wait around for the obviously-bad-guys to come and get him, so he lets the upload continue and takes his equipment (and the tablet, so he can monitor the patient and the success of the upload) and tries to make a call back to the Aces & Eights via his cell phone (assuming there’s reception). No signal. Failing that, he tried an encrypted VoIP call. Blocked. He even resorted to the probably-monitored landline, but once again, no signal.
As Ivan considered his next move, Granny Tea had just noticed some ominous gang communications traffic and was rousing the crew to investigate…