BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Grey Life
Ms. Wellington’s Oak Tree
The Politics of Consumption
Bringing Down the House
Gyges the Terrible
THE BUNKER SERIES
Thank You For Your Cooperation
Your Call Is Important To Us
Can I Be Of Some Assistance
first in a series of
science fiction shorts
First Edition, April 2017
Copyright 2017 by Adam Wasserman
All rights reserved
The universe is a hostile environment. Most of it is space – the space around planets, the space around stars, the space between galaxies. Then there are the vast, unthinkable voids through which the galaxies themselves are strung like ribbons. Despite the utter blackness and lack of air pressure, all this space is far from empty. It is permeated by loose atoms and ionized gas, dust and radiation. And it’s all flowing. If you stare at it long enough, you’ll find that nothing in the universe stays still.
The sky is crowded with stars. Every cadet is astounded by the sheer number of them the first time he ventures from the cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere. How strange to think that of all the worlds that surely orbit those countless pinpricks of light, only the Earth and its pitiful five hundred million square kilometers are safe enough to call home.
The Institute for the Exploration of Deep Space has catalogued hundreds of brown dwarfs, carbon giants, and variable stars, all of them in the vicinity of Sol. Most of them have planets. But the fact is we have yet to find a single world other than Earth where human beings can survive unaided.
The perfect mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, the correct air pressure, abundant water and balmy weather – none of it is replicated anywhere else.
At prestigious universities such as Lagos Polytechnic and the Saskatchewan Institute of Technology highly regarded minds are quick to point out that humanity has only just begun its exploration of the cosmos. The professors will bleat like sheep penned up in their lecture halls when they tell you there simply aren’t enough data points to draw such a hasty conclusion.
But the dry, dusty professors don’t venture out into space. We argonauts, we venture out into space.
The argonauts are humanity’s vanguard in its quest to conquer the galaxy. We are the first to set foot on alien worlds. Are they are appropriate for study, mining or permanent settlement? Our experiences and recommendations largely determine the answer.
The dangers are many. Few of us make it back to Earth alive. It is a small concession that the dusty basins, deep ravines and towering mountains of these strange worlds bear our names. But that’s not why we sign up.
The rain pelted down on the surface of HO-Librae-IV. That’s the official name and the one we use in our reports. But only the scientists use that designation. The rest of us call the planet Zarmina.
Above us an unbroken, yellow sky. The oppressive cloud deck, dark and gloomy, stretched to every horizon, enveloping the planet. The feeble light of HO-Librae never touched the surface, but we knew it was daytime nonetheless.
HO-Librae was always in the sky at two hundred sixteen degrees longitude, forty-one degrees south latitude. Zarmina was tidally locked to its star, which meant it always showed the same face in its orbit. Ordinarily, planets like this one would have a scorching dayside and a nightside so cold the entire atmosphere would lie in icy clumps, frozen out. But Zamina’s planetary ocean was massive enough to efficiently distribute heat. Everywhere on the planet the temperature was in the neighborhood of sixty degrees centigrade.
Sometimes, there was wind. It was slight – gusting no faster than a meter per second – but in the dense atmosphere the force was enough to push stones. Occasionally, one would bump into the exterior of the Biological Safety Zone, a sudden and throbbing bass punctuating the steady staccato of the raindrops.
I had picked a rocky outcropping near the coast of a small island as the site for our base. That’s all there was on Zarmina – little islands thrusting up from the depths of a deep planetary sea. Spread out irregularly across the globe, the largest was about the size of Puerto Rico.
We could see the roiling ocean from the Biological Safety Zone. Tall, powerful waves rippled across its surface, driven by the deceptively slow winds. Even when it wasn’t raining, the ocean was rough.
Zarmina was similar to Earth in more ways than the ocean and the weather. There was life here, too.
The talking heads back at IFEDS just fall over themselves when we report back the presence of life somewhere. But we argonauts have learned through experience to temper our enthusiasm. Life in the universe is as hostile as the interplanetary medium. Perhaps more so. The interplanetary medium is the same wherever you go. Life, on the other hand, has a myriad of forms. Each one is strange, its behavior unpredictable. Past experience doesn’t help.
Personally, I love the landscapes. There’s nothing like setting down on a new planet and getting a first look around. High-resolution photography from one thousand kilometers above the surface just doesn’t compare. It can’t capture the delicate shades of purple left behind by a setting supergiant, reflecting brilliantly in interlocking veins of mineral. The gossamer strands of some as-yet-uncategorized polymer dancing through the wispy fumes of a thin atmosphere, collecting into piles at your feet. The silence of an empty world dominated by angular silicate plains and ravaged by an unforgiving sun.
The universe may be hostile, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful.
Dalia Haggar was standing patiently in the sterilization chamber, waiting for the cycle to end. I could see her round, pudgy face through the tiny window in the inner door. Strands of short-cropped, brown hair were plastered to the sides of her head in the fine mist. In the outer lock next door, the clothing and equipment she had brought with her were receiving ultraviolet treatment.
Dalia was the team's primary life sciences specialist with expertise in micro- and macrobiology. She had also received training as a pharmacologist and chemical engineer.
Esther Sainclair – our nutritionist, dietician, and (in those dire moments of need) primary surgeon – was over by the 3D printer, preparing our midday meal. She constantly referred to an orderly line of vitamin and mineral charts, humming to herself contentedly as she checked off boxes.
Esther rarely set foot outside the Biological Safety Zone. Her place was inside, monitoring the temperature and composition of the air, scanning for alien microbes, making sure we got enough rest. Esther took good care of us. But none of us took her motherly demeanor at face value. She was the quickest and deadliest shot in the team.
Sergei Lebedev was our robotics expert and Level-III programmer. Wherever he went a swarm of small tools and circuit boards followed. Scattered about usually just beyond reach, they all had esoteric and very specific uses. There he was, crouched under his workbench, grumbling that he couldn’t find his oscilloscope. One of the scouts was hoisted overhead in a cradle. It had taken a nasty fall earlier in the day and needed repairs.
Sergei was also our pilot, which according to IFEDS’s regulations made him our team leader.
And myself? I, Jonathan Crozier, was the communications officer and navigator. Which meant I had to fill out a lot of paperwork and file everything with IFEDS. If I didn’t, I got a lot of angry messages from our project leader back on Earth.
The more enjoyable part of my responsibilities was poring over maps and collating the various data brought in by the scouts. Sergei had the final say about the daily missions, but he usually followed my recommendations.
Every argonaut underwent extensive training beyond his specialities. We were all proficient Level-I and -II programmers, for example. IFEDS regulations specifically stated that a crew must be able to operate without any one of its members. For example, I knew a thing or two about biochemistry, and Esther could fly us out of there if Sergei for some reason was unable.
Beyond that, every argonaut was fully versed in how to set up, operate and maintain a Biological Safety Zone. A large, dome-like structure divided internally into habitation and work areas, it was a transferrable, mini Earth-environment. Able to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures, it was also a reliable barrier between terran and alien ecosystems.
“Do you need a hand over there, Sergei?” I asked after a particularly foulmouthed outburst.
“What?” he stammered and pulled his head out from under the workbench.
I pointed at the scout. “Do you want help?”
The edge drained out of his eyes. “Oh, help. Yes. Why in fact I do. Thank you.”
I was glad he accepted. I was keen to hear the results of Dalia’s latest tests on the fungal fields piled up on the rocks below. But the report would have to wait until the sterilization cycle completed.
Sergei looked up and shook his head at the stained, mottled underside of the scout. “Those beds of fungus are corrosive. They do quite a job on these things.”
I helped him test circuitry and replace a few filaments, mostly by handing him tools or pulling back bundles of wire so he could reach behind.
Esther finished programming the 3D printer and joined us. “Has Hornet reported signs of volcanic activity?” she asked. Hornet was the argonauts’ pet name for the mother ship orbiting far above us.
“So far so good.”
As far as we could tell, Zarmina was not affected by plate tectonics, but we were still concerned about earthquakes and tidal waves. They often accompanied volcanic eruptions.
And Zarmina was volcanically active. Several peaks rose above the ocean surface here and there across the globe, but most of the volcanos were buried far below in the swirling depths. The wide, crumbling calderas had been imaged from space.
The planet’s atmosphere was eighty-five percent nitrogen, eleven percent carbon dioxide, and two percent hydrogen sulfide. All of these gasses were colorless, as was the water vapor forming the clouds high above. What exactly gave them their light, yellow hue was still a mystery.
Over time, the carbon dioxide should have dissolved in the ocean, where it would have been deposited as layers of limestone on the seabed, until there was none left.
Unless, of course, something was replenishing it.
Two underground eruptions had been observed before we landed. A link had been suggested between them and an uptick in solar activity.
The red dwarf HO-Librae was a highly variable star, prone to sudden, angry flares and covered in starspots like measles. It was one of the characteristics of red dwarves that made them so inhospitable. The temper tantrums of a comfortable G-class star like Sol were dangerous enough to the planets in its proximity. But HO-Librae was a full-fledged berserker, and Zarmina had a feeble magnetic field. It could hardly offer sufficient protection.
Hornet had warned us yesterday that solar output was increasing. Naturally, we were concerned.
“I wish I could go down in one of the subs and get a closer look,” Esther said wistfully and cast a meaningful glance in my direction.
Sergei started and nearly bumped his head. “You mean of an eruption?” He glanced first at her and then at me. “Don’t you get any funny ideas,” he told us and turned back to the scout. “We’ve already been over this. There are life forms in that ocean. Big ones.”
Esther made a face at his back, but I could tell she wasn’t angry. We both knew Sergei was right.
Eventually, there came a sucking sound from the inner door as the vacuum seal was broken. In stepped Dalia, naked and dry, clutching her equipment in a bundle.
Argonauts live together in close quarters. We can’t be ashamed of nakedness or the sounds we make on the toilet. But it is true that sexuality can be a problem on long missions such as ours, especially when we are cooped up together for so long. An argonaut must be focused on his work, even when he is resting. The idle pleasures of life – from long, hot showers to a pleasant frolic in the sack – are as foreign on alien planets as fresh, unrecycled air.
To help us in this regard, our food was supplemented with hormone suppressants. Fortunately, the effect was temporary.
“Let me get dressed and then I’ll tell you all about it!” Dalia breathed as she lumbered towards the ladder leading to our quarters above. Her steps were slow and awkward as if she were moving through water. Deprived of her gravpads, her muscles were struggling in Zarmina’s natural gravity, a field twice as strong as Earth’s.
Soon, she was sitting with the rest of us, dressed in a simple white tunic and ensconced in gravpads.
“I’ve confirmed it!” she announced and smiled. “Not that we should be surprised.”
“Confirmed what?” Sergei wanted to know.
But Dalia pressed on excitedly. “We already knew there is a large amount of potassium cyanide dissolved in all that sea water. Now I’ve found significant amounts of sodium cyanide in the sedentary rock comprising these islands. In fact, those reed-like structures that periodically shoot up through the fungal fields and then decay just as quickly – I theorize they carry up much needed sodium cyanide to the top of the heap.”
It was amazing news. “So,” I said, “it looks like another entirely new biochemistry, eh?”
“It’s the fifth planet humanity has found life on. So far, no two are the same.”
Sergei scowled as he tried to follow the conversation. That’s when I remembered, he hadn’t been there this morning when we conducted Dalia’s mission preview. He was off on his own mission, checking up on the cybers outside.
“Sergei!” I howled and tried not to laugh. “You look like Esther’s announced fried liver and onions for dinner tonight! Lighten up!”
Dalia quickly explained that life here on Zarmina depended partly on cyanide. “Of course, to us cyanide is a deadly poison. It’s impossible to say how it could be used biologically.”
“Obviously, it has a place in a very complex biochemistry,” I said. “Not just simple fungal colonies.”
Dalia cocked her head. “How do you mean?”
“Those life forms we detected in the ocean! Some of them are five meters in length.”
Dalia shrugged. “You can’t infer complexity from size, Jonathan. Remember those air cells they found on Proxima Centauri-II?”
I did. Another large, rocky planet with a dense, moist atmosphere. The temperature was too warm for liquid water. The entire troposphere – from equator to pole – was swarming with large, bubble-like creatures that floated along with the currents. Some of them were larger than a person, but in the end they were just single-celled organisms.
Fortunately, dinner that evening was not liver and onions.
Esther served us pumpkin soup with heavy cream, a bean and vegetable stew seasoned with pepper and turmeric, and various cheeses with dried bread. For desert there was a mixture of yogurt, nuts, and honey. Afterwards, tea and coffee.
That evening, it was Dalia’s turn to lead the conversation. For some reason, she wanted to talk about education. I was bored as soon as she announced it.
Tomorrow was my turn. I had already settled on a topic. We’d talk about lassoing asteroids!
“I think humanity educates its children well enough,” Sergei was saying. He looked around the table. “We all turned out just fine.”
Dalia nodded and hastily swallowed a mouthful of stew. “All the local regions on Earth adhere to the same principles,” she said. “Once a child turn three, she is expected to begin her general education. She joins a group of no more than five girls and boys, all more or less united in ability and temperament. Every day, six days a week during the morning hours, they meet at a tutor’s home. They learn reading and writing in several languages, the arts, later mathematics and the sciences.”
“Well,” Esther interjected, “it’s not the same everywhere. In Egypt, we start our schooling at four years old. And we have several different tutors. One might be specialized in the arts, another in mathematics.”
“Of course, there are local differences,” Dalia hastily agreed. “But the principles are the same. At sixteen students may choose to apply to any number of academies and technical schools for advanced learning. Or not pursue their education any further.” She shrugged, but it was clear in her body language that she couldn’t understand why anyone would do that.
“I’ve heard that before the Troubles schooling was restricted by age,” Sergei said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I scoffed. “What does age have to do with learning?”
“That’s what I heard. School was only available until a certain age. And the children were herded into large groups. Thirty, forty. Two hundred even. They attended formal institutions not from sixteen onwards but even as small children.”
“It’s true,” Dalia confirmed. “And they taught them subjective material, like history and religion.”
“And all those other harmful habits they practiced back then,” I said, waving a fork over my plate for emphasis. “Politics. Business.”
Esther smiled gently. “Well, it was before the Troubles.”
“I’ve done quite a bit of research on this subject lately,” Dalia admitted. “That’s why I brought it up. I’m curious what you think. Did you know that back then schooling had purposes other than simple education? Schools – that’s what they called them – were supposed to produce citizens.”
“You mean, as in countries?”
Dalia nodded. “Children were trained to feel that they belonged to a group defined by this arbitrary geographical unit. Remember that before the Troubles societies were divided into the small, privileged elite and everyone else. Education – and chiefly topics like history and religion – was used as a tool to shore up this elite’s position.”
“How?” I asked.
“By pitting one group against the others, of course!”
Sergei pushed his plate away and sank back in his chair. “The concept of the nation-state always struck me as primitive and tribal. And yet –” he paused as if unsure he should finish his sentence.
“Now, now,” Dalia pressed him. “There are no ridiculous ideas among argonauts. Out with it!”
Sergei pursed his lips. “Well, it’s just that one benefit of a system such as theirs is that students were taught discipline and conformity. Subjective information isn’t like learning to calculate orbital trajectories or how to synthesize organic compounds. To succeed, you have to learn to spit out what is expected of you whether you agree with it or not.”
His suggestion was met with a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“And is that a good thing?” Esther finally asked.
Sergei shrugged. “Not really, I suppose. Perhaps I’m not explaining myself. What I mean is – we have the perfect life on Earth, don’t we? There is food and energy and medicine, finally enough for everyone. Machines do most of the labor. No one has to work unless they want to.”
“Yes, yes,” Dalia agreed, nodding emphatically. “Every human being is free to pursue her own interests.”
“We’ve become so used to doing whatever we want, we take offense if anyone wants to impose rules we don’t agree with.”
Another moment of silence followed, but shorter this time.
“Sergei,” I began, “I don’t know what you’re on about. Look at us! We’re living examples right here before your very eyes that what you’re saying isn’t true.”
“Not at all.”
“Our entire day is governed by rules – rules that IFEDS has laid out for us! From how long we’re allowed to sleep to when we must bathe – we can’t even go outside without following an hour’s worth of procedures!”
“True, but we like the rules. We agree with the utility of the rules. And by following the rules, we get to explore space. Those students from ancient times – not so much. If they managed to complete their schooling, it also went without saying that they could follow directives and conform to social situations that weren’t to their liking.”
“Perhaps that is true,” Dalia agreed slowly. “But those people were being exploited. I don’t think that is an enviable condition at all.”
Sergei threw up his hands and smiled wanly. “You shouldn’t listen to me, of course. I’ve become a grumpy old man years before my time.”
“Hoorah!” I called out and slapped the table loudly.
We all preferred to agree with him than think he was being serious.
The next morning we gathered around the table to study a map of the vicinity. The bright, sharp markings appeared to be embedded within the thick, transparent tabletop. Contour lines were in drawn black, and – contrasting with them – atmosphere pressure lines in dashed white. A cold front was approaching from the northeast. The fungal fields were colored in burgundy, exposed rock in grey, and the ocean – bleeding off the edges – in blue.
An orange cross near the center of the map indicated our position. It was located at the top of a finger of rock jutting fifteen meters out from the fungal fields.
I pointed. “The cybers completed a stairway down last night.”
Dalia was pleased. We both knew that meant no more scaling the rock face.
Esther leaned on the table and casually asked about the planetary sea. “Isn’t it about time we sent one of the scouts?”
She was teasing Sergei, of course. Everyone knew he was hesitant to risk valuable hardware until he was sure it would return unharmed. He curled his bottom lip and stubbornly shook his head. “We don’t know anything about the shoreline,” he said.
“Then let’s get some data.”
“What’s the big fuss about the ocean?” Sergei protested. “Isn’t there enough of interest up here?”
A loud buzz from the comm station announced a high priority dispatch from Hornet. I hurried over, pressed my thumb to the reader, and words began to flash across the screen.
“Amateurs,” I announced. “They came out of the portal and are descending to the surface. They didn’t respond to a hail, but Hornet thinks they’re on their way here.”
And sure enough, there came a rumbling from above us, a flash of light, and the clouds parted.
The billowing, yellow-tinted clouds of Zarmina comprised a thin layer starting some twenty kilometers above. As the landing craft broke through, it left behind a rapidly collapsing cylinder in the cloud deck. Through the top of our transparent dome, we caught a hazy glimpse of the large, orange disk of HO-Librae. Then it was gone.
Dalia followed the ship’s track at the comm station and watched it land. “Smack in the middle of the fungal fields,” she said in disgust.
Sergei shrugged. “They have every right.” Then, turning to me and suggested, “Why don’t you and Esther go down and welcome our visitors, eh?”
I knew why he wanted Esther to go. After all, we had no idea who we were dealing with and Esther was our best shot. But why me? Like Dalia, I had no patience for amateurs.
After the Troubles ended on Earth – two centuries of war and famine spurred on by nationalism and destructive climate change – there was a great deal of cleaning up to do. Radiation poisoning from nuclear explosions and breached power plants was the most obvious problem, but chemical seepage into the soil and ocean from submerged industrial complexes was just as acute.
No one is required to work on Earth, but most choose to. Some become athletes, academics, or artists, while others perform less interesting tasks. From monitoring the behavior of the cybers to picking up litter, from socializing with the elderly to caring for orphaned children, their work is vital to society. Perhaps the most important involves the ongoing cleanup.
As abundant as they are, resources are still limited. The production of basic consumer goods and services – housing, clothing, energy, agriculture, electronics – is given the highest priority. Next come the needs of the academics, athletes, and artists. Whatever is left over is apportioned based on how much work a person performs.
Some people work a great deal to acquire the resources they need to venture out into space. There is, after all, nothing to prevent them. If they form groups, they can even reach the frontier of human exploration. Occasionally, we argonauts run into them.
Most amateur space explorers defer to our expertise. Whatever they thought about coming here, landing on a lonesome, threatening world and not understanding why it never gets dark outside is a sobering experience. Usually, we can convince them to go back. But not always. Some of these cowboys – none of whom have had the proper training in dealing with alien environments – read up on how to operate a Biological Safety Zone and consider themselves our equals. That’s when we argonauts – fierce trailblazers and hearty survivalists – transform into interplanetary babysitters.
After all, in the twenty-third century ignorance should never be fatal.
Esther and I fetched vacuum suits and blasters from the utility closet, took down the landing coordinates of the newcomers, and exited through the outer lock.
The flattened droplets of rain had settled into a pitter-patter. One of the cybers could be seen near the 3D printer’s feeding duct, adjusting the water basin. The 3D printer required a source of base material, preferably one lightweight and abundant element such as hydrogen or helium and something heavier like carbon or oxygen. Water – when it was available – was the perfect source.
Another cyber was visible inside the membrane protecting our ship, blurry and indistinct. The general shape, however – a squat, irregular cylinder with a number of extensions – was unmistakable.
In the distance, the dull roar of the towering waves crashing on the beach could be heard.
The stairwell cut into the rock by the cyber was easy enough to find. We started our way down.
Below, the undulating mass of the fungus. There was no breeze, but it was moving anyway. Not all at once, but in many small patches. They slid across its surface, increasing and decreasing mysteriously in size, changing shape, sometimes disappearing altogether or reappearing someplace else. It was impossible to discern a pattern – even the computer couldn’t find one.
“It’s not really a fungus,” Dalia told me over the comlink as we slogged through it. “I mean, it looks like fungus. And it’s a clonal colony. Each cell has the same genetic makeup. But so far I haven’t been able to nail down its biochemistry. All I can tell you is that it’s carbon based life. My hunch is it forms an ecosystem together with the reeds and the local strains of bacteria.”
I looked around at the stuff. It consisted of thin, wavy pads like huge sheets of bracket fungi layered on top of one another, angling down towards the bedrock.
Each time I put my foot down, I sank up to my knees in the stuff. The fungus – for that’s what we were calling it – gave way, but I could feel through my boots that it wasn’t crushed. There was a surprising firmness and strength resisting my weight. As soon as we moved on, the pads sprang up again. Looking back, there was no trace that we had passed. Except the stain on our legs: burgundy red smears. They were difficult to remove.
Despite the gravpads, our going was slow. Eventually, we passed another finger of rock. On the other side we came upon the newcomers’ ship.
We stopped and stared incredulously. “We can’t go in there,” I said.
They had put down in the middle of the fungus. Three of them in vacuum suits were clustered near the cargo hold of their ship, watching the cybers pulling out crates. One of them spotted us and waved.
Their ship was unprotected by a membrane.
A mesh of strong, insulating strands of a durable polymer, the membrane allows simple molecular compounds to pass through (such as air and water) but nothing as large as microbes, viruses, or bacteria. It does, however, give way to significant pressure. A human being can pass through simply by pressing on its surface.
Without a membrane to isolate them, the microorganisms these neophytes had brought with them from Earth were freely mixing with the local environment.
Esther activated her comlink and patched through to base. “Sergei! Sergei, answer, damn you!”
A few moments later he picked up. “I’m here, Esther. No need to be rude. What is it?”
“We’ve got a contamination event.”
When he responded, Sergei’s voice had acquired a sudden seriousness. After all, the entire world’s pure, untouched ecology hung in the balance. “How far along?”
Esther looked at me. I held up a hand.
“Jonathan thinks twenty minutes.”
“Okay, there’s still time. And remember, Earth microbes aren’t likely to last long in Zarmina’s crushing atmosphere. Now here’s what you’re going to do.”
Moments later, Esther found the frequency used by their comlinks. “This is Team 2, IFEDS Insertion Unit, HO-Librae-IV. Do you copy?”
The three of them turned to us. I could tell from their body language they were having the time of their lives. “Howdy, neighbor!” came the jolly reply. “We saw your camp on the way in. Fancy dropping by later? We brought beer!”
Esther grated her teeth. “I don’t think you understand. You’re endangering the environment.”
They laughed. One of them started to approach.
Esther drew her blaster. “Stay where you are.”
The laughter stopped. “Listen, sister, you have no right to threaten us.”
“You will go back to the ship and discharge the membrane. Then you will get your cybers to start setting up the Biological Safety Zone. Once it’s completed, you will go inside and stay there. And make sure to strip all your equipment in the outer lock and –”
“– take a sterilization bath. We know. We’re not stupid newbies or anything.”
“We’ll be watching to make sure you do it properly.”
They didn’t like it, but they followed Esther’s instructions.
An hour later, we took took out our scanners and approached their camp. The three of them were inside the Biological Safety Zone, glaring at us unhappily through the transparent walls, two young men and a woman.
The sheets of fungus stirred uneasily around the ship. We focused our efforts there first.
“Yep,” I reported. “There’s terran bacteria all over the place. Some of it’s gone pretty deep.”
“We’ll have to burn it,” Esther said.
I looked at the blasters. “We can’t do much with plasma bolts.”
Fortunately, our Level-II programming would be enough to override the cybers’ security systems.
A few minutes later, they brought us a significant quantity of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine. Using spare parts from the cargo bay, we were able to fashion a crude flamethrower.
We took turns. Bright yellow flame belched forth from the makeshift device. The fungus beds blackened, shriveled and broke apart. The flamethrower kept overheating and we had to shut it down from time to time, but eventually we managed to expose the bedrock in an area one meter around the ship. Tiny, bright yellow deposits of sulfur dotted its suface.
When we tried our scanners again, there were no traces of terran life forms. Nor were there any in the vicinity of the Biological Safety Zone.
Esther got back on the comlink with the amateurs. She lectured them briefly on the importance of sterilization, reminded them that they had put down in the middle of an alien biosphere, and pointed out that there was ongoing scientific research in the vicinity. If they wanted a party, there were certainly less volatile and more spectacular star systems from which to choose.
The rain had resumed. Large, flat droplets struck the fields all around us. The dark, burgundy sheets vibrated angrily.
We marched back to base in silence. I was exhausted. Each step was a determined struggle, as if the fungus were latching on to my feet and trying to hold it down.
After the sterilization bath, Esther and I went immediately into suspension. Hanging upside-down like bats, much needed blood rushed towards our heads.
The gravpads were excellent for aiding skeletal muscle, but the strong gravity of Zarmina worked on bones and circulation, too. Our hearts had trouble pulling the blood out of our feet.
“They got in touch with us while you were away,” Dalia reported. “They were apologetic, but they’re staying. At least for now.”
“Which means we’ll have to check up on them,” Sergei added.
“It will interfere with our work!” I said.
Sergei shrugged. “Perhaps if we keep showing up, they’ll get sick of us and move on.”
The next day, Dalia and I set out for the newcomers’ camp. Perhaps by way of compensation, Sergei also took up my suggestion and sent a scout down to the beach. “Perhaps when you return we’ll have some data to chew on,” he told us as we suited up.
The going was even slower this time. Our feet kept getting stuck in the fungus. And Dalia wanted to take samples.
“So far I haven’t had much success identifying specialization on a cellular level,” she told me as she tucked away a tiny vial. “But I think I’m getting close.”
“How does the fungus absorb moisture? Does it have roots?”
She shook her head. “Directly through the cell membrane. It’s almost as if each cell were it’s own individual entity, and they all work together.”
“Well, maybe they do!”
“I suppose there’s no reason why not. But look around. The stuff isn’t some formless jelly. It has shape. The surface is smooth.” She squatted and pulled the top layers aside. “There are stalks, see? But their purpose is merely to root the macroorganism to the bedrock. The individual cells are indistinguishable from the ones on top. And look how orderly they are! Rows of soldiers from the twenty-first century.”
“That reminds me,” I told her as we continued on our way. “The reeds didn’t come up while we were sleeping. That’s odd, isn’t it? I thought we had established a regular pattern. What was it, twenty hours or so?”
“Nineteen hours, forty-six minutes. Give or take a few.” She bit on her bottom lip. “I guess we’ll have to throw that particular theory in the recycler!”
We rounded the finger of rock and came upon the amateurs. As it turned out, they were on their way to pay us a visit at our base.
The couple, Yong and Priya, were leading the way. Behind them was Chan, Yong’s older brother.
Yong and Priya apologized for being such a nuisance. They assured us they’d been following the sterilization procedures to the letter. I reminded them that they were meant for their own safety.
Chan remained in the background, scowling at us through the visor in his helmet. But when I inquired how long they would be staying, he laid into us.
“You argonauts don’t have a monopoly on scientific interest! We’re intelligent people. We’re conducting experiments of our own.”
Yong looked embarrassed, but the young couple didn’t disagree with him, either.
I had to choose my words carefully. “It’s not a question of intelligence. It’s a question of training. Don’t you remember what happened on Mars?”
Blank stares in reply.
“You know there used to be life there, right? Bacteria deep in the Martian crust. But they were destroyed by microbes carried along by the first colonists from Earth. No one ever got a chance to study them. We don’t want that happen here, too.”
“We’ll be careful,” Chan told me and then motioned to the others. “Let’s go down to the beach. Have you ever seen an alien beach before?”
We watched them go, more than a little jealous that neophytes like those were going to set eyes on the Zarminian coast before we did. Then we took a moment to examine their camp.
“Look!” I pointed in astonishment at the ship.
The fungus had grown back entirely. There wasn’t a trace of the area we had laid bare just twenty hours previous.
A new shade had appeared among the burgundy swirls. Thin, unmistakable trails of purplish blue arced away from the ship like star flares, reaching for the Biological Safety Zone.
Dalia took a few samples and we headed back to base.
For a little while at least, we forgot about the beach. Dalia spent the afternoon in her laboratory, a corner of the Biological Safety Zone crammed with beakers, cookers, and box-shaped analytical devices. The rest of us spent time in suspension, cleaning, and resting. The scout down by the coast sent back a vid feed, but we waited for Dalia before watching it.
“Another breakthrough!” Dalia announced, smiling broadly, as she signed off on her report. “I think I’m finally beginning to wrap my head around these organisms.”
The newest samples exhibited an important behavior that had been mysteriously absent in her previous work. “I’ve found cells that use the hydrogen sulfide in the air for energy!”
“Don’t purple sulfur bacteria do the same on Earth?” I asked.
“Yes. And guess what else I found? This sample has a slightly different genetic makeup! Almost identical, but certainly distinct.” She swallowed hard.
“You’re talking about two different organisms,” Esther pointed out.
“That’s right. Until now we’ve assumed the fungus was singular. But there might be several varieties out there.”
Sergei had sat silently, listening intently, but suddenly he perked up. “Slightly different genetic makeup?” he repeated slowly. “And you found it in the vicinity of their ship?”
Dalia nodded. “I know what you’re thinking. But there were no traces left of terran microbes. We checked.”
She glanced over at me as if for support, and I nodded.
“All it takes is one.”
“You said it yourself, Sergei. Terran bacteria couldn’t survive in this surface pressure!”
“That was a hunch. Anyway, don’t you think the location is remarkable? It’s likely the result of genetic mutation caused by terran microbes.”
“You don’t know that, Sergei.”
“True, but it’s a very reasonable suggestion.”
Shortly after, Dalia approached Sergei and told him she thought it was good idea to inform Hornet. If there was in fact an ongoing contamination event, there were important protocols to be followed. I patched her through, she issued her report, and then I opened our communication channels. Someone in Hornet would now be observing us at all times.
After that, our mood soured. We all knew that if Zarmina’s ecosystem had indeed been compromised, it would be the first time since Mars. A scientific disaster on a planetary scale. Even though it wasn’t our fault, we were still here when it happened.
Watching the vid feed from the scout down by the coast didn’t make us feel any better, even though there were some interesting details. The surf contained foam, for example. And tiny holes appeared in the sand when the water withdrew. They could have been caused by escaping gas, but they could also have been signs of life.
To make matters worse, the next day we had to go out and rescue the newbies. Priya was stuck partway up a steep incline and couldn’t be coaxed any further. Yong called us in a panic asking for help.
This time, Sergei and Esther went. They took one of the cybers with them.
While they were gone, I helped Dalia with some of her experiments. There wasn’t much else for me to do. There would be no more scientific excursions.
And we’d be leaving soon anyway. We’d already spent ten days on Zarmina’s surface, and the doctors on Hornet had only given us two weeks.
It wasn’t long before Sergei and Esther returned. Sergei was the first to go through sterilization. As soon as he entered, we could tell he was upset.
He explained to us that the cyber had used its crane to pluck the girl from safety without any trouble. But when Sergei and Esther wanted to use the opportunity to check up on the new strain of fungus, an argument broke out. Chan accused them of spying and no amount of explanation would change his mind. The argument only escalated when Sergei and Esther insisted on accompanying them back to their camp.
“If we were anywhere else, I would have knocked him out,” Sergei remarked churlishly.
I asked about the state of the new fungus.
“It’s spreading. The blue stretches half way towards base. It seems to be dominating, too. There are no traces of the burgundy variety in areas it’s penetrated.”
Sergei then went on to remark that the fungus seemed to be aware of them. “It only moves in our vicinity. There’s no wind, all around it’s quiet – except where we are.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Dalia scoffed. “First of all, my observations are exactly the opposite. It moves where we’re not. Second, awareness implies neural functions. But this is a colony of single-celled organisms! There are no organs! There’s no place for thought to develop!”
By the time Esther joined us, a full-fledged argument had broken out here, too.
Sergei accused Dalia of being myopic. “You are so enthralled by this single-celled theory of yours that you categorically dismiss contradictory evidence!”
“These so-called observations of yours are the result of paranoia and emotional stress,” Dalia shot back.
“Well, it’s easy enough to determine if I’m right.”
“Even if you are – the data just doesn’t support the notion! There’s no brain! What, do you think it has some sort of hive-mind?”
Esther was able to calm them down. I, however, stayed out of it. It was becoming to clear to me that Dalia was right in at least one respect: we were buckling under the emotional burden of dealing with both the amateurs and the sure knowledge that the ecosystem of Zarmina had been irreparably tainted. It was certainly possible that Hornet – after all, they were listening in on all of this – would eventually decide to abort the mission.
The next morning, we decided to call up the newcomers and try to smooth things over. After all, we still felt some responsibility towards them and bad relations would only make our tasks more difficult. But they refused to pick up. Nor did they take our call that evening.
Now that the blue fungus had spread to the base of the stairwell, we had a source to work on without disturbing our neighbors. But when the following day there was still no answer, even Sergei became concerned. “They’re amateurs,” he pointed out. “They could have gotten themselves into any kind of trouble.”
We conferred with Hornet, and everyone agreed. We’d have to go check up on them.
This time, three of us were going: myself, Sergei, and Esther. We each took a blaster.
When we stepped outside, we immediately noticed the change. Swirls of blue spilled over the top of the staircase. We could see it slowly expanding like an ooze. And everywhere below us, the fungus was moving. Rising and falling in agitated ripples, it looked like a blue field of wheat disturbed by the wind from an advancing storm.
The steps on the staircase were wide enough that we could still use it, but they were slippery. Once we got down, we kept tripping up on thick knots of fungus hidden down by the bedrock.
Eventually, though, we came upon the newcomer’s camp. And what a horrible sight it was.
Mats of fungus pressed up against the outer lock as if trying to force their way through. Inside, the air was tinged with a light purple haze. Patches of what looked like mold had gathered on the transparent walls and furnishings. Among them, three forms could be seen lying motionless on the floor.
We approached in a horrified fascination. Soon we could make out Yong, Priya, and Chan – or what was left of them. Clumps of purplish blue obscured their faces and arms. Fungus poured from their mouths. Through their tattered clothes, we could see that their chests had been cracked open. Undulating pads filled the cavities inside.
We stopped about a meter away.
The fools! How could they have been so careless to let even one microbe inside?
Suddenly, a tongue of fungus leaped from one of the carcasses and smacked against the transparent wall of the Biological Safety Zone – directly in front of my face.
I screamed and leaped back.
The fungus had come alive around us, heaving wildly. A wave as high as my thigh rolled by on my right.
Sergei stumbled and almost fell, but I grabbed his arm and steadied him.
The ground trembled beneath our feet, and a low rumble reached us. I looked past Sergei saw a mound of fungus rise up a full five meters above the roiling surface and bear down on Esther, who was lagging behind.
I shouted and pointed, but before she could look it collapsed on top of her.
The pile of fungus, shuddering sickeningly, sank down to the level of the rest of the muck. No trace of Esther was left behind.
Sergei was in shock. His face was pale and his eyes stared emptily. “Come on!” I shouted, pulling on him.
We struggled to cover the distance back to base. Fungus clawed at our legs as we fought our way through. When we got to the top of the stairs, our Biological Safety Zone came into view. The fungus had swept past the outer lock, but it was still unscathed.
That’s when the first of the reeds broke through the surface. I could immediately tell that these, too, had changed.
Normally twisted, flimsy and fragile, they would bend at the slightest pressure. But not these. Straight and firm, they easily withstood the waves of fungus crashing into them. And they grew more rapidly, too.
Fifty meters separated us from the outer lock.
Another reed broke appeared ahead of us. That’s when Sergei disengaged from me.
Turning back, I saw there was a surprised look on his face. Then one of the reeds appeared inside his helmet. It crossed the space from the bottom of his visor, shuddered slightly, and popped out the top of his helmet.
Sergei collapsed against the reed. I made a frantic dash for the safety of the Biological Safety Zone.
Somehow, I made it to the outer lock.
Inside, it was quieter. There were slight vibrations as the reeds accosted the underside of the Biological Safety Zone, but the structure held.
I sat for a moment, catching my breath, and watched as Sergei’s vacuum suit twitched and shuddered.
What had just happened?
I tried to reach Dalia through the comlink, but there was no answer. A sudden chill swept up my spine. Had the fungus breached our Biological Safety Zone, too?
In hysterics, I stripped off my equipment and entered the sterilization chamber. Through the tiny window, I could see Dalia inside, crying uncontrollably. I was momentarily relieved. But she wouldn’t answer my calls or even acknowledge my presence.
As I stood in the gentle spray, I calmed myself and tried to take stock of the situation.
The fungus had attacked us. And it had somehow breached the newcomers’ Biological Safety Zone. But how? They must have been careless. One of them might have forgotten to give their equipment UV treatment. Or perhaps one of them had used the inner door while the outer lock was still open.
There was a way to find out. The computer kept a log of these activities. Hornet could give us access.
But Dalia had shut me in the sterilization chamber. The inner door was sealed, and there was no way I could get inside.
I banged on the door, but she ignored me. She stood by the comm station. Maybe she was talking to Hornet, demanding an extraction.
But Hornet wouldn’t send anyone. Not only was there an ongoing contamination event, but there were fatalities now, too. This was why part of the protocol grants them access to our communication. No one could depend on people telling the truth in an emergency like this.
They would wait and see if Dalia or myself had been infected before allowing either of us off the surface of Zarmina. Even then, we’d have to go into quarantine. For how long? A month? A year? It would depend on subsequent analysis of the alien life form, I supposed.
I knew without even trying that they had disabled our ship. Not that there was any way we could get to it.
My thoughts turned again to the bodies we had seen, chests cracked open and riddled with fungus.
What if the fungus had indeed mutated? What if it had incorporated some of the genetic material from the terran microbes and now we were an adequate food source?
It didn’t matter, I told myself. It’s just a stupid fungus.
Or was it?
What if Sergei was right and it was intelligent? What if it had figured out a way to get just a single spore inside a Biological Safety Zone?
I thought of the ultraviolet treatment. It was designed to kill organisms like that. Air currents ensured that every surface was exposed to the harmful rays.
But at any given time there were always places shielded from the treatment – the underside, for example, or deep folds. If a malign intelligence was guiding it, a spore could keep moving and remain in safety.
Had we been infected, too?
I looked through the window again and saw Dalia. She had pulled out a mirror and was examining her face.
I knew what she was thinking. That splotch there, that slight blemish. Was it blue? Had it been there yesterday? The week before?
I had to get her attention. There was no way to know if we’d been infected, but it would surely take more than a day to find out. And in that time I’d need food. And water.
“Dalia!” I called and banged on the door insistently. “Open up!”
But somehow I already knew that however long I banged she would never let me in.
Thank You For Your
the Bunker Series, #1
Welcome to the Bunker, an orderly, underground utopia where everyone’s needs have been satisfied.
As far back as he can remember, Terry Renfield has been digging up uranium ore in the mines and getting into the occasional drunken brawl. Until one daystretch on the Loyalty Stretch, he and the rest of the Bunker see someone who looks eerily like himself commit a heinous act of treason. Terry is fired on the spot.
He turns to his girlfriend, Sally Xinhua, for help. Detained and then unexpectedly set free, Terry comes to realize that his misfortunes are no accident. His tiny, insular world shattered forever, he is determined not to be anyone’s unwitting pawn – least of all his own.
Sally pulls him into the orbit of more privileged citizens with security clearances – including Van Johnson, the host of Ten Things I Hate About Treason, and Felix Tubman, the head of Homeland Security. What follows is an unlikely adventure spanning the Bunker, the reaches of space, and the forbidding outside.
Now the focus of a grand conspiracy to take down Control, the principal guiding force in the Bunker, Terry is ultimately faced with an identity crisis of epic proportions. Who is the real Terry Renfield? And what is it to actually be a specific person anyway?
Gyges the Terrible
Welcome to the United States of the not-so-distant future. Our Republic has given way to a new form of government, Freemocracy. The President rules virtually unopposed. Congress is a rubber-stamp institution, and society has fractured into the permanently privileged and the permanently working. The Supreme Court is the only alternate center of power, and the tension between the President, Samuel Judas Epstein, and the Chief Justice, Xiling, is set to boil over into open conflict.
The Earth, too, has changed. The nation has become a patchwork of restricted areas, security screens, and military checkpoints. Water is tightly rationed. The world powers vie with each other for territory on the lunar surface. Although the mines there are incredibly expensive to operate, the moon has become the only source for most of the natural resources consumed by an ever more ravenous industrial complex.
It is in this setting that a group of ordinary hooligans led by Marcellus Gyges storm the halls of empire. Possessed of a magic ring that confers the power of command, spurred on by his friends, Marcellus is in a unique position to depose the President.
At the same time, Marcellus is being tutored by his Guardian Angel. For it is the choices that we make in this life that determine what becomes of us in the next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Wasserman took to writing at a young age and has never given it up. He has authored a number of short stories and plays but prefers the longer format and deeper potential of the novel.
Mr. Wasserman spends part of the year in Europe where he does most of his writing. During the spring and summer months, he can usually be found in Rhode Island. There, he attends numerous festivals and open markets – such as Providence ComiCon – where he enjoys engaging with readers. An avid swimmer, he also spends considerable time at the beach.
Topics that interest him include ancient history, power, and the nature of being human.
The twenty-third century is a golden age for humanity. A period known as the Troubles - two hundred years of war, famine, and destructive climate change - are behind us. With enough food, energy, and medicine for everyone and robots performing most of the hard labor, individuals are free to pursue their own interests. Technology has advanced. Human beings, using a technique that allows us to fold space, have embarked on an exploration of the nearest star systems. It is an exciting and dangerous proposition, one that attracts the bravest and most curious minds. Two astronauts traveling at nearly the speed of light sent from Earth during the Troubles to scout out Proxima Centauri suddenly arrive to find that everyone had forgotten about them. After a period of mental recovery, they, too, join in this remarkable endeavor. Contamination Event is the first in a series of hard science fiction short stories detailing the wonders and perils of the cosmos.