Sunday Serialisation – Back Paige. Chapter seven, part one.

If there’s one thing Jack Turner doesn’t like, it’s an unresolved mystery. If there’s anything Jack Turner can be relied on to do, it’s to conduct a thorough, painstaking investigation. When the subject of his investigation is a living, breathing patient, he is limited to what he and the impressive array of medical equipment aboard the Clive Pillmore can see. Invasive investigative surgery is one of the many things that Jack dislikes intensely and something he will not do except as a last resort.

However, when the subject of his investigation is a corpse, a cadaver, a carcass, he has no such qualms, and he gives full rein to his studies in forensic medicine. And so, he set to work examining Henri’s body for impact or puncture wounds, as well as full toxicology screens and the vast range of invasive and non-invasive procedures available to him to help him discover a cause of death. He was ably assisted by Bianca Moreno, the nurse who had been at the centre of the infection that swept C-pill and who had spoken with and subsequently travelled to the ship with the Strange-Names. Based on her clinical experience and areas of study, Bianca had been assigned to work with Svetlana Levrentiev whenever she needed assistance, and had amassed a useful amount of knowledge in the field of forensics so was a natural to assist at any post-mortem investigations that were needed.

So, after an experienced forensic examiner and a capable nurse had pored over poor Henri’s remains for the better part of two days, you would have thought that they would at least know what had caused his death, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be disappointed. Jack Turner’s report to Andrea offered the simple conclusion ‘cause of death not established’.

“What does this mean?” Andrea asked when Jack presented his report.

“It means that I don’t know what killed him,” Jack replied, “as far as we can see, he simply stopped living. No cause, physical or medical is apparent. No morbidity at all. The man was in the peak of physical health and mentally sound. The indications, and I’ve cross-checked this with Nurse Moreno as well as all our instruments and the AI, are that all his systems shut down, abruptly and without warning, at a single point in time. He simply stopped living.”

“Is there any value in running this by Svetlana?”

“I have done. She’s as baffled as I am.”

“Poison?”

“Nothing in his blood, urine, stomach or soft tissues, also no puncture wound, and the mouth and nasal cavities are clean, as are the ears. We even checked his urethra and anus as possible points of entry. Nothing.”

“Between the toes?”

“Clear. I can assure you, Admiral, there were no toxins in Henri’s body at the time of examination.”

“Could any have been administered previously and dispersed by the time you got to it?”

“Theoretically, yes, but there is usually evidence of the effects of any such poison. There is none. The only thing we found, which is a little odd but doesn’t really tell us anything, is this: following analysis of the cheek swab we took during the autopsy, we found two anomalies: the gene for blond hair and blue eyes was present—”

“What’s unusual about that?”

“Nothing, except Henri was from Latin stock and had dark brown hair and brown eyes.”

“And the other thing?”

“Recent studies are pointing to a particular group of genes that, it is believed, may promote longevity. Basically, the more of this group that express, the longer a person is likely to live – barring accidents and illnesses, of course.”

“And?”

“Henri had only a small expression of this group, and they were all inactive. This was not apparent in the sample we took when he joined C-pill.”

“So, are you saying that Henri suffered some sort of DNA damage, and that’s what killed him?”

“No, Admiral, I’m not. What I am saying is that I have found an anomaly that is worthy of further investigation. It’s far too early to say whether this anomalous situation caused or even contributed to his demise.”

“Okay, Doctor. Thank you for your report, and for your thoroughness. You’ll have to leave it with me for the time being. I shall have to report this to Packway. I imagine they’ll want me to deal with it as a potential murder.”

“I’d like you to include my autopsy report and the DNA analysis in the package you send to Packway. I’d also like the DNA analysis to be looked at by the Crick Institute.”

“I can send through a DNA sample, if you wish.”

“No. Not yet, anyway. One possibility is that his DNA was damaged during the transit from the solar system to here. If that is so, then there is a risk that further damage could result from a return journey. It would be better, in my opinion, to send the raw genome data for them to run their own analysis.”

“I take your point, Doctor. I’ll do that. Meanwhile, is there a risk to the rest of us?”

“I don’t know. I propose, with your approval, to take samples from everyone aboard and compare them with those taken on joining C-pill. That should at least give us some pointers.”

“So approved. This must be voluntary, of course—“

“Of course.”

“And no-one outside this room should know why this is being done.”

“Regular screening, Ma’am. Looking for any residuals from the pandemic,” he said with a smile.

Andrea stood and approached the doctor. “Excellent. Do you have a kit with you?”

“Always.”

She opened her mouth. Jack Turner ran a swab around the inside of her cheek and inserted it into its tube. He thanked his commanding officer and returned to his own office.

Andrea pressed the private intercom button on her desk. “Did you get all that?” she asked.

“Every word,” Ishmael replied, “and, for what it’s worth, I think you’re spot on. I’ll wait for the doctor to call me in for a swab; it wouldn’t do for him to think I was eavesdropping on his conversation with you.”

“There’s a world of difference between monitoring and eavesdropping, Ishmael, but you’re right. Mum’s the word.”

Andrea passed to Packway everything she knew about Henri DuBois’s lateness. Meredith responded within the hour. She was, of course, disturbed at the loss of a senior specialist officer from one of her ships, and worried by the prospect of the MTS system that made all this exploration possible having such a devastating effect on the human body. What bothered her even more, though, was the possibility, however remote, that her ADC and friend, Patsy Pratt, may have used her EPHS prowess to bring about the demise of a man she patently detested.

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