The Pion

16 Aug

Dr. Lesin Cahot gazed out the viewing circle at the planet named Protista as the space bateau prepared to make its descent and landing. Will I be able to treat any of the ailments breaking out down there? the renowned psychognostic asked himself as he surveyed the world of ubiquitous ocean and three hundred islands.

As the vessel moved to lower altitudes, his sharp navy blue eyes out wide patches of red, brown, gold, green, yellow-green, magenta, puce, violet, murrey, minium, and cinnabar on the limitless water of the planet famed for its export of algae in a rainbow of colors. Algae were the lifeblood of the Protistan economy. The very name of this world referred to its one-celled eukaryotes. And the entire system of growing, harvesting, and transporting was held together by the corps of gifted psychics whom he had been summoned to help. For they were now falling into cataclysmic peril. Their future wavered in a storm of difficulty.

The bateau made for the towers of Monera City, where Dr. Cahot had an appointment to meet the dirigeant of the capital island.

Would he be able to deal with this plague of illness? the therapist wondered.

From the window of his hotel suite Lesin could see the huge facilities where algae were processed for export elsewhere in the sunstar system.

He was surprised by a knock on the violet kingwood door of the apartment reserved for him.

Opening it, the psychoanalyst looked at a small, stooped figure with citrine eyes in a weatherbeaten face. “I am Dirigeant Moue Fent,” said the stranger. “May I come in and speak with you, Doctor? It is very important that we talk.”

Lesin made way, closing the door and ushering his surprise guest to the most comfortable-looking divan in the parlor of his suite of rooms.

Once he himself was seated opposite the island’s leader, Cahot began to speak.

“It is a wonderful hour to have you meet with me, sir. I must tell you that I have vowed to dedicate all my knowledge and experience to the solution of these suddenly emerging problems among the metapsychics of Protista, starting here on Monera Island. My efforts must start at once. I have studied all the reports that were sent to me, but there is nothing to compare with being on the spot and meeting some of the suffering patients. I am eager to get to the spital facility as soon as possible.”

“That is why I am here,” smiled the little official. “We shall go there together. My government vehicle is waiting below. I shall be taking you to see some of those who are ill.”

Thus it was that Lesin rode to the outskirts of Monera City with the man elected to govern this central island among the three hundred others on the planet.

Dirigeant Fent did most of the talking as they rolled along in the chauffeur-driven autocar.

“We depend on the metapsychics in a multitude of ways. It is their kinetic abilities that move our sea ships and aircraft. The bateau that you traveled to Protista in was brought down and landed by mental control. Our islands are falling into disaster because of what is now happening to this class of individuals upon whom we completely depend. All of us are suffering from this immobilization of the gifted ones.”

“They are only a small fraction of the population,” muttered Lesin as if to himself.

“Less than five percent, yet they are the pivot about which everything revolves. The bulk of our communications are carried telesthetically. They are the conveyers of thought and information for all of us. We would have little transport without them. Yes, we are a metapsychical world that produces the algae that feed all the other twenty-six planets in our solar set. And this central function of our existence now faces a threat that no one can define or deal with.

“That is the reason that aid from off-planet had to be called for,” explained the dirigeant. “If you can solve the problem on Monera Island, then that same cure can be applied everywhere. Every inhabitant of Protista will be beholden to you, Dr. Cahot. Our history books will name you the one who saved us from ruin.”

The vehicle stopped at the entrance to the spital. The two passengers climbed out and walked into the large, tall lobby of the gigantic structure. On all sides, translucent materials gleamed with reflections. Fent led the way to the corridor of the executive offices.

Out of the porcelain door at the end of the hallway emerged a huge, sinewy man with milky eyes and short-cropped straw hair. He stepped forward and welcomed the pair. Fent introduced Lesin to the head of the spital, Dr. Ombligo Zaguan. The latter led his visitors into his office suite, where all three men took stuffed armchairs.

“Ombligo is not a native born on Protista, but no one is more dedicated than he is to the irradication of the unknown disease devastating our whole population.”

“I was born and raised on Meseta,” said Zaguan, “but my homeland is now Protista, particularly this beloved isle of Monera.”

“Our friend here has read all the literature and reports on the psychic ailments,” said the dirigeant. “He is prepared to tour the spital and examine your patients.”

Zaguan focused his whitish eyes on the other medical.

“My psychologists in these institutions have come up with a wide variety of diagnoses. Some call these sicknesses cyclothymic disorders, others see them as dysthymic. I have heard them use terms like dissociation and disconnection. A number of therapists speak of hypomanic states and episodes. Identity disorder and schizoidism are attributed to the most serious of the cases. Cycloid, multipolar, and obsessive mechanisms of the mind can be discovered in the metapsychics who are suffering.

“I can only view these sicknesses from the outside, since I myself am not a metapsychic,” confessed the chief doctor of the spital with a moan.

“Neither am I one of them,” softly said Lesin.

“No one in this room is such,” added the governor. “None of us can experience what those souls are going through.”

Zaguan rose from his chair. “Let me show you some of our worst cases,” he said to the newcomer.

“I cannot stay, but must attend to my duties,” said Fent, turning to Lesin. “I will have my vehicle return to take you back to the hotel in a few hours.”

He excused himself and made a speedy exit.

“Follow me please,” requested Zaguan.

The psychognostic from off-planet followed him through a recessed side door.

Each patient that Lesin was introduced to appeared sullen and lost.

All of them were unable to make use of their inborn telesthenic capabilities.

After each separate examination, Dr. Zaguan interpreted the patient as either an epicycloid or an hypocycloid. He identified cases of decompensation, amnesia, escapist flight, displacement, depersonalization, fugue, cyclothyme, reversion, ambiversion, and simple negativism.

“These are most interesting,” thoughtfully said Lisin.

The last patient shown him was a short, small young woman with auburn hair and avellane hazel eyes. She sat at the window of her room, looking out.

“This is Encaje Wecht,” said the director. “Encaje, this is a new doctor who has arrived on Protista. He is called Dr. Cahot.”

The latter greeted the patient, but she only stared blankly at him.

“I am happy to make your acquaintance,” grinned Lesin. “My hope is that I can be of some help in recovering your lost ability.”

All of a sudden, the one called Encaje rose from her chair with unexpected energy. She spoke in a metallic, hollow voice with a ghostly tone.

“I know who took away my telepathy and how,” she declared. “The one thing you can help me to learn is the reason this was done to me.”

Her hazel eyes peered intensely at Lesin. They swerved for a second at Zaguan, then once again turned and focused on the man who had just come to Protista.

“We will leave you to rest, Encaje,” said the director as he began to move to the doorway. Lesin excused himself and followed his guide out as well.

As the two moved along the wide spital corridor, Zaguan gave an explanation.

“The poor woman suffers a form of paranoia concerning her metapsychic loss. She has had a memory mix-up and believes it all happened here. The staff and the therapists are evil villains in her distorted mind.”

“She appeared to be quite intelligent, though,” said Lesin.

“Encaje has an advanced degree in biology and once worked in a virological laboratory before entering the telepathic profession.”

“A very interesting case!” muttered the newcomer, almost to himself.

He soon returned to his vehicle and rode back to the hotel.

Lesin fell into a pattern of taking a jitney to the spital early each morning and staying till late at night. Yet hours of talk with the once psychic patients seemed to be a blind alley. All but one of them appeared unable to explain or describe what had happened to them.

The psychognostic was intrigued by the story told by Encaje Wecht.

Her voice was always low and guarded, as if she had things to fear in her present surroundings.

“I am no longer here voluntarily,” she told him as the two sat opposite each other in her room one afternoon. “Dr. Zaguan has refused all my requests to leave. He says that only a court decree can restore my full liberty to move around on my own. Why should such confinement exist for me and all the other metapsychics who have been imprisoned?”

Lesin tried to reassure her. “You are not in any jail here, Encaje. The restrictions are only aimed at your own safety and well-being, that is all.”

“Do they think I might harm others or myself?” she asked with heat. “Or are my captors afraid of what I will reveal to the public?”

“You are suspicious and fearful about things that do not at all exist, my friend.”

“I do not consider you my friend, Doctor, unless you liberate me from this horrible place.”

“What would you do if you walked out of the spital, Encaje? How would it be possible for you to operate as a metapsychic if that capacity has disappeared from out of your mind?”

She pondered a moment, staring into his navy blue eyes.

“You seem to be ignorant of what is in reality going on,” she whispered to him. “Can I trust you to do something for me?”

Lesin felt a jolt. “What is it that you want?” he asked with curiosity.

“They do not let me see journals or periodicals in my own field of virology. Would you be willing to smuggle some in to me? You would be breaking the rules of this spital, of course.”

“I can try, Encaje,” he replied, seeing here a way of winning her trust.

“Go to the Biotical Library in the center of the city,” she told him in a lowered voice. “I will tell you what to look for and borrow for me.”

Her co-conspirator brought the journals into the spital in a brown paper bag.

She closed her door and attacked them with ferocity, going through the tables of contents of each. As Lesin watched her, he realized that this patient had a specific, definite goal in mind. She was hunting in a clearly limited area of science for something in particular.

Lesin decided to make a bold inquiry as she hid her treasure in the room’s closet.

“Are you looking for a special subject? I can be of help if I know, for then I can make a search for it through the entire library.”

She searched his face as if putting it through a test. Can this man be trusted?

“You must have had some exposure to the nature of viruses in your medical training. All physicians and psychognostics have to take course work in the field. Let me ask you a question. Do you know what a virino is, and how it differs from a viroid?”

The therapist felt a sudden embarrassment.

“A viroid, I recall, contains a small amount of nucleic acid that is termed RNA. This is ribonucleic acid and contains the inherited characteristics of the viral form. As far as I can remember, a viroid can cause a specific disease in humans. Am I correct?”

She nodded that he was, then asked him another question.

“How about the virino? What is that?”

He looked down as he answered “I am not at all certain, Encaje.”

“A verino contains a single molecule of a nuceic acid within a protective coat of protein. It has no cellular structure whatsoever and was until recently considered the tiniest possible viral agent. But no longer.”

“There is something smaller than that?”

“A single strand of protein, lacking all nucleic acid or RNA, can self-duplicate. It can also act as an agent of infection. The name for it is a prion.”

“A prion?” reacted Lesin.

“It received that title from its being proteinaceous but also infectious. This tiny entity is composed entirely of protein and nothing else. There is no nucleic acid connected to it. I understand that on planets where animals are raised for food, it has been found to infect them with fatal diseases. A prion can cause great harm and injury, even death.”

“You are fascinated with these prions, I can see,” said Lesin, staring intently at her.

“I know that they are capable of carrying traits basic to all organisms. Why not test to see whether they can affect the powers of a metapsychic?”

Unable to give any answer, the psychgnostic did not even try.

He excused himself and left her room with much to think about.

A galvanophone call came to Lesin in his hotel room that night.

Who can it be? he asked himself when he heard the instrument ringing.

“Hello, Doctor. How are you, and how is your investigation progressing? Have you learned the cause of our calamity yet?” asked the dirigeant.

“Nothing definite to report, sir. I am only at the beginning of what I intend to carry out.”

“If you need any help of any kind, I am sure that I can provide it for you.”

Lesin thought quickly. “There is one thing I will need.”

:What can that be?” asked the official.

“A laboratory of my own that no one knows about, all to itself.”

No immediate reply came over the land line.

“There is an unused algae station on the city’s shore. There is a lot of equipment that has not yet been removed from the place. I can have the keys turned over to you, Doctor.”

“Thank you. I shall be in your debt.”

“I wish you all success in this endeavor of yours.”

The diregeant said farewell and closed off his end.

The investigating man from off-planet found a treasure-trove of devices he could use at the unused algae facility at the edge of the ocean. He was most thrilled with the magnetic ultra-microscope now available to him. It opened for him the universe of the ultra-small.

First of all, he took saliva and cell samples from the mouths of a dozen of the former metapsychics who were now spital patients. One of those included in this was Encaje. She submitted to his request with reluctance, not certain how his effort was going to end.

Lesin set to work late at night, after a day interviewing more patients.

Little sleep or rest occurred for the anxious researcher, looking for speedy results.

Was Encaje right about what the single-molecule prion was capable of?

Could a simple protein be so dangerous with the biotic information it carried?

He lost track of these bigger questions as he concentrated on the small, immediate ones. The tasks at hand eclipsed almost everything else. His attention narrowed and narrowed, until the desired revelation occurred to him in the course of his laborious searching.

There was no surprise, shock, or spectacular burst of light. It just happened.

Yes, the saliva and the sample cells contained nanoscopic prions.

No question but they were present in every one of the tested individuals.

There was no exception whatever, all shared the common contamination.

Lesin glanced at his timing ring. He had four hours of rest, then he planned to go to the spital to inform Director Zaguan what he had discovered.

The two men sat across from each other in the spital chief’s office.

“I now know what is causing the pathologies in the metapsychics,” began the psychognostic without fanfare. “They have been infected with prions made of protein. This is what has caused them to lose their telepathy. We must now sanitize and cleanse them of this ultra-microscopic evil.”

All at once, Zaguan raised himself to his feet.

“You have proven yourself to be clever, my friend, but there are things you have failed to perceive.” He paused several seconds. “This infection is not a result of chance, but has been consciously planned and carried out. It was specific virologists who developed the agent used. The entire operation was financed and subsidized by certain industries that intend to profit from the atrophy of matapsychic activity on Protista.”

“What industries are you referring to?” asked Lesin, interrupting the other.

“Galvanic communications and transport of all sorts. All the substitutes for what we have had the metapsychics do for us. Our planet will no longer be dependent on them.”

The off-worlder stared at the director with wonder and disgust.

“That is despicable,” he lashed out. “The prions are ruining the lives of all these telepathic patients.”

Zaguan suddenly made a sinister, sardonic grin.

“There is no reason why you cannot receive beneficial payments the way I do,” he whispered.

“What?” said the startled Lesin, his anger rising.

“I can see the dirigeant this morning and make the arrangements to recruit you into our combine.”

“Why was I brought to this planet? Why was I hired to delve into these maladies?”

The Director gave a laugh.

“Window-dressing, my good fellow. That is all you were meant to be. No one expected you to uncover the prionic secret. That was unforeseen. It happened by accident.”

Lesin rapidly considered the situation, deciding to make a pretense of cooperation.

“It appears that my personal interest lies in going along with you and the interests behind these activities.”

With that, he rose, turned around, and exited the office.

I must speak to Encaje, Lesin told himself. We must see each other at once.

It was not at all difficult to sneak the ailing metapsychic out of the spital after midnight. A jitney waited for the pair, rushing them to the space port outside the city.

Lesin and Encaje identified themselves as newly-weds going off on their honeymoon in the interplanetary void.

No questions were asked and no special documents demanded.

The bateau lifted off nearly empty.

Through the viewing window the two fugitives looked down at the receding shape of Protista, the algae producer with its suffering metapsychics.

“My planet will no longer be known for its telesthesia, sadly moaned Encaje.

“I believe that your abilities will return elsewhere,” opined Lesin. “They have not been lost forever. We will be free of a planet with all those created pions that bring illness to psychics.”

The pair smiled confidently at each other, both of them thinking of a future without pions about.

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