Viruses on Mars

virus1So it occurred to me that, when two colonies separated for about fifteen years meet again, one or both might have viruses the other hasn’t encountered.  After all, something as simple as the common cold virus supposedly mutates frequently.  We already know of about 200 different viruses associated with the “common cold.”

Well, now I’m not so sure.  I’ve done some digging and it appears that these types of viruses don’t survive for more than a few weeks in the body—our immune system does a fair job of wiping them out.  And they don’t live outside the body for more than a couple weeks, either.  As far as I can surmise, the common cold viruses stay alive by hopping from person to person, so that there are always people out there harboring the viruses, keeping them alive.

So how would a population of about 20 people keep the cold incubating?  After a matter of months, any cold virus going around would effectively be obliterated.  Fifteen years later, it seems very unlikely there would be any kicking around at all.

Well, it’s a question I haven’t been able to answer with any certainty.  Maybe I’m wrong and there’s a way for the common cold to stay active in a small population.  But in the meantime, a Facebook friend supplied me with a better possibility:  the Epstein-barr virus.

This is the virus we commonly associate with “Mono” in high school or college.  It’s characterized by fatigue, possibly a sore throat, a fever, swollen lymph nodes, etc.  The fatigue can drag on for several weeks, even after the other symptoms have subsided.  It turns out, nearly 90% of humans have had the virus by the time they reach adulthood.  We don’t all notice it, however, because it doesn’t always manifest symptoms.  If you catch it as a child, it’s likely you won’t ever have symptoms, or the symptoms will be mild enough your parents might think you just have a cold.

Unfortunately, as we get older, the symptoms can be more severe.  This is why some teenagers or college students who get the virus experience “Mono,” that fatigue that goes on for weeks and weeks.  In a small percentage of cases, the symptoms can be far worse.  Epstein-barr has been linked to encephalitis and several types of lymphoma.  It would therefore be a serious concern for the colonists.

And the best part (from the perspective of my story) is that it never leaves the body, once you have it.  The virus can remain dormant for decades, until some stress on the body causes it to reactivate.  At which point, it can be passed through contact with the infected person’s saliva—something as simple as a mother kissing her child, someone taking a bite of something and sharing the rest, or a parent picking up toys that have been drooled on.

(In reality, I don’t think this is “cool.”  The person who brought all of this to my attention learned about the virus when it struck her family in a particularly tragic way.)

So after researching this, I’ve had to go back and rewrite a couple chapters.  When it was just the common cold I was dealing with, I could play it for humor.  Now it’s not going to be a horrible tragedy for the colonies—that would derail the story too much—but they’ll have to take it a bit more seriously.

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Sometimes you just need to wing it

marsI just spent three days trying to figure out whether a Martian pressure suit would have difficulties with a Martian night at the equator under normal circumstances, or whether I would have to contrive a malfunction in order for someone to be suffering from hypothermia after spending a couple hours lying on the ground.  I was also trying to figure out how bad off he could be without actually dying, and how he could be saved, if his rescuers couldn’t get inside his suit for a while.  Plus, I needed to know how long they would have to remain in the airlock before they could get inside his suit.

I could, of course, fake all of this.  I can make my Martian pressure suits behave any way I like, since they don’t actually exist  I can make the airlock take as long as I like, and I can fudge the details about how my character is injured and how he’s treated.

But I really hate that.

I want accuracy.  I don’t want to just make it all up.  I want to know what’s medically and scientifically possible, and I want to use that detail to make my novel feel real to the reader.

But after three days—with a lot of help from friends on Facebook, mind you, who sent me links and gave me information from the perspective of medics and EMTs—I realized I’d hardly written more than a paragraph.  That’s no way to write a novel.  They tend to be longer than a paragraph by a considerable amount.  I don’t need to be writing this thing twenty years from now.  By that time, there may very well be people walking around on Mars, at least for a visit.

So I’m using the information I collected to put together a scene that at least seems reasonable, and then I’m plowing ahead.  I’ll come back to it later, and hopefully I won’t have to do much restructuring of the chapter.  As of about an hour ago, I made it past that chapter and now I’m starting a chapter that won’t have so many nit-picky details.  I hope.

Anyway, I thought I’d post an excerpt from the chapter.  This is when the main character, Dylan, convinces his friend, Alex, to go out on the Martian surface with him before sunrise, because Timur—the guy he’s befriended at the rival colony—told him to meet him by the satellite antenna.

I’d been too fidgety to sleep and I’d called Alex a couple hours before it grew light. That had given us time to sit around in the airlock for an hour, adjusting to the lower pressure outside, while Alex complained bitterly about how tired we were going to be during our work shift at the farm. We were out at the antenna a bit before the sun was visible. Technically, it was just past sunrise for our latitude, but the crater walls still cast long shadows over us. The temperature was well below zero and we were jiggling up and down to keep ourselves warm.

“This is his idea of a joke,” Alex grumbled. “He’s probably in bed, warm and toasty right now.”

“No. He’ll be here.”

“If there was a crawler coming, we’d see the headlights by now,” Alex said.

He had a point. It was too dark out on the canyon floor to see much, apart from the slightly darker peaks of some prominent rock structures. But we sometimes caught sight of lights at Huozhing, when someone was working outside at night, just as they could probably see the lights from my headlamp and Alex’s, at this very moment. Crawler headlights should be visible for several kilometers.

There was nothing.

“Maybe we should have brought some blankets,” I said. There were blankets packed in lockers just outside the airlocks. They had outer layers of Mylar and inner layers with battery-powered heating elements built into the material. They couldn’t protect people for long in the middle of a Martian night, but they certainly helped.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have been suckered into this,” Alex replied.

“He’ll be here.”

“If you say so. But I’m going back to grab a couple blankets.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t like the idea of being out here on my own, but I was really starting to feel the cold. Blankets would be a good thing. “I’ll wait here for you.”

Alex took off at a trot. We were within sight of the airlocks, so it shouldn’t take him long. In the meantime, I scanned the floor of the canyon anxiously, searching for any flash or moving spot of light. Nothing. The sun gradually peeked above the east wall of the crater, illuminating a sliver of stone wall just above our colony. Supposedly, our parents had chosen to build the colony in this location in part because the sunlight reached it first thing in the morning. By building on the other side of the canyon, Huozhing had deprived itself of that benefit. But their governments insisted they be on the opposite side.

As I waited for Alex to return, the light crept silently down the canyon wall behind me. I kept turning around to check for Alex, and eventually saw him running toward me through a pool of sunlight that now stretched to the solar array. He crossed into the shadow I still stood in and pulled up in front of me.

“Here,” he gasped, holding out one of the folded blankets.

I took it from him and unfolded it. The battery pack was a long, flexible strip along one side about a centimeter thick and a few centimeters wide. It was activated by squeezing a circular spot on one end. I did so and wrapped the blanked around me, hoping the damned thing would warm up soon.

“Thanks,” I said.

Alex and I stood together, wrapped in our blankets for a while longer, until the shadow of the canyon wall had receded enough that we were finally in the light.

I could now see into Alex’s helmet, so I saw him frown and shake his head. “This is ridiculous, Dylan. He’s not coming.”

I wasn’t far from admitting he was right. But I was stubbornly clinging to the belief that Timur wouldn’t have made me stand out there just to be mean. I was sure he’d intended to meet me, which meant that something had to have prevented him from coming. Had he been caught trying to sneak out? Or was it more serious than that? “What if he crashed the crawler?” I asked.

“I’ll bet he never left Huozhing.”

This argument was going in circles, so I let it drop. For a few more minutes, we stood in silence, watching the line of sunlight slowly inch across the crater floor. Then, about fifty meters away from us, it illuminated something that made my hair prickle on my scalp in horror. What had looked like no more than a pile of rubble on the crater floor when it was in shadow now revealed itself to be a pile of heavy-duty containers like those used to transport water or other liquids. And lying still and motionless in the midst of them was a man in a pressure suit.

Timur had been lying there the entire time we stood at the antenna arguing.