From the author: A mission to bring back water from a comet to a space settlement goes horrible wrong. Originally Published in Alien Artifacts in August 2016.
Miranda eased back from the screen, rubbing her forehead with both hands. Her feet, stuck in the straps bolted to the bulkhead, kept her from floating free in the cabin. She’d been at it so long that the numbers and lines in front of her were a jumble.
The legitimate geniuses they had crunching numbers back at the Hub had screwed something up, and now she was out here, communication cut off and under a time crunch, and she had to figure it out. Only she wasn’t an astrophysicist or a rocket scientist, or any damn thing like that. She just drove the tanker.
Bruno’s head floated into the doorway next to her, upside down. “Any luck?”
She grimaced. “Zero. I told you I wasn’t any good at this.”
“None of us are. They don’t send the brains on these kinds of missions.”
“Yeah, we’re just the ones they send to do the actual work,” Miranda grumbled and went back to the screen, scanning the lines again. “I’m the closest thing we have to an expert. I can do the math, I just don’t usually do it with numbers.”
“Don’t you have some welding to do?”
Bruno laughed and pulled himself into the doorway. He let himself spin to end up facing her right-side up, one hand reaching for the grip next to her screen to steady himself. “Weren’t they supposed to triple check all those calculations before we went dark?”
“Yup. I got the confirmation that they had just before we passed out of line of sight, but when I entered the course into the navigation computer it just about coughed up a hairball on me.”
“What would cause that?”
“My best guess is the comet is no longer where they thought it was when they ran the numbers. Though why it’s off course I have no idea.”
“Does it matter?”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, hoping she kept the disbelief from showing on her face. “If it continues altering course, even if I recalculate the trajectory correctly, we’ll still end up in the wrong place and possibly out of fuel, unable to make another correction.”
A somber expression overtook Bruno’s generally jovial face. “Folks back home need this water.”
“I know. That’s why I’m busting my ass trying to figure this out. And I could use a little quiet.”
“Sorry. I thought you could use a break. If you need anything let me know.” He pushed off and floated up the companionway, his slipper-socked feet disappearing last.
What Miranda could actually use was an answer to the problem floating in front of her. She could take the chance that she’d be able to work out the angles on approach, and normally she would, but thousands of people were relying on the water they were supposed to be hauling back with them. Water rations were so tight now that a single missed shipment would be disastrous.
She glared at the arcs on the screen. No matter what she tried she couldn’t get them to line up. She’d altered their speed and course a hundred different ways and still the model showed them missing the comet completely. She futzed with the numbers for a while longer, until she felt the pressure of a headache starting behind her eyes. She did need a break.
Miranda pulled her feet free of the anchor-straps and pushed off to propel herself across the cabin to one of the portholes. She held herself in place with one hand. Outside, nothing seemed to move. Though the ship was moving fast, all the objects were far enough away that they appeared stationary.
The sun was out of the frame, but she could see the glare of it off to their right. As difficult as it was to imagine, they were actually in the shadow of the sun compared to their home base. That’s why communications had been cut off.
That was also why no one at the Hub had noticed the comet's shift. The last time they had a clear view it had been behaving normally, following its usual orbit. Something had made it kick out. A collision with another rock? Possible, though there was no evidence of the debris such an impact would create.
More likely was that something had pulled it off course. Pulling meant gravity. And gravity meant acceleration. And that was why her course adjustments had been almost-but-not-quite-right—it was still picking up speed. Damn. She pushed off with her feet and shot across the cabin, reaching with her feet for the stirrups instinctively. She used the comet’s movement since they’d gone out of communication to calculate the acceleration and plotted that change forward in time.
The arcs finally overlapped. She was pleased with herself for the ten seconds it took her to realize the acceleration of the comet was huge, given its mass. Too huge. That’s why the navigation computer had thrown up all over the calculations. Whatever had deflected the comet was immense, and yet nothing had shown up on any of their scans.
She pulled herself into the companionway and up through the center of the ship toward the bunkroom. The voices of her crewmates drifted to her before her head came through the round doorway. Petra sat on her bed, tethered down by the belt of her coveralls. Bruno floated nearby, toes locked into a foothold against the bulkhead. Seon-mi was in her sleeping net, though she was just coming off shift and still awake.
They all stared at her, as though they knew by the way she’d come in that she was about to say something important.
“I think there’s a black hole out there.” Miranda held up her hand as all of them asked questions at once. When they quieted she continued, "The navigational computer was having trouble plotting our course because the comet was deflected. It's nowhere near where the Hub said it would be."
Bruno spoke up first, “There’s no way a black hole has been this close to us and we haven’t picked up something on instruments.”
Seon-mi had unwound herself from the sleeping net following Miranda’s entrance and now sat up, her knees still caught in the webbing to keep herself from floating off. “That’s not necessarily true. If it was small enough we might not see anything except bodies it acted on. That said, black holes don’t just appear and disappear out of nowhere. The likelihood there’s been one so close to the Hub that they haven’t noticed is pretty remote.”
Miranda grabbed a foothold and pulled herself further into the bunkroom. “What if it’s always been on the other side of the sun?”
“Assuming there was a black hole capable of deflecting our comet, it would have been pulling everything else in the system out of alignment too. Is there a reason you don’t think it was a collision?”
“It’s still accelerating.”
Seon-mi ruffled her short hair so it stuck up at every possible angle. Miranda had a feeling it did that even in gravity. “I can’t explain that, but it’s not a black hole. It can’t be, not this close.”
“All of this speculation is irrelevant,” Petra said into the lull, taking on her we-all-know-who-the-boss-is-here tone. “Can you get us to the new location or not?”
No matter what Petra thought, she wasn't in charge. They were an equal share crew, all with equal votes. That's what it said on paperwork anyway. Practically speaking, Bruno always voted with Petra, so she almost always got her way.
Miranda kept her frustration over the voting situation to herself. “Yes, but I’m not sure we should.”
Petra scoffed. “We don’t come back with water, none of us get paid our bonus. Worse, we get docked for the fuel wastage. Worst? Stricter water rations and all the chaos and death that brings. You want that on your head? Because I sure don’t.”
Miranda chewed on her lip. If they didn’t deliver the water on time there would likely be riots. She looked from one of her crewmates to the next, settling on Seon-mi last. “What do you think?”
Seon-mi shrugged, a potentially awkward movement in zero-g that she managed without budging from her cot. “I think it’s not a black hole, but could potentially be something dangerous.”
“Do you think we should go after it?”
“Sure, I need that bonus. I don't want my parents to have to move. It’s too dangerous at the outer stations, but they can't afford to pay for living space at the Hub anymore."
“Yeah . . .” The truth was, they all needed that bonus or none of them would be out here. Hauling was much easier closer to the Hub. Outside the ring, ships disappeared all the time, and that was the best of the bad scenarios. She’d heard of ships that returned on auto-pilot with no crew and no indication of what had happened to them. That's why the paychecks were better the further out you were willing to go. “Guess that means we’re going, no matter what my vote is. I’ll go finish the plot.”
Miranda pulled herself into the companionway and back toward navigation without waiting for a response. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a mistake. Something had moved that chunk of ice, and without knowing what it was they were flying blind into what could be a trap.
* * *
Miranda kept her eyes pinned to the instruments as they approached the comet. They hadn’t read anything unusual—yet. The ship was matching speed with the comet in preparation to latch on and begin the slow processing of ice. All of that was handled by the navigation computer now that she’d provided the vectors and she had nothing to do but worry about whatever had knocked the comet off course.
“Velocity match in ten seconds,” Bruno said from the other side of the instrument bay.
Seon-mi hovered over Miranda’s shoulder, a slight frown on her face as she regarded the screens with characteristic intensity. They’d all been space haulers long enough that they weren’t bothered by close confines despite four people being crammed in a space designed for two.
Miranda glanced up from the sensor outputs, realizing what had been bothering her since they’d started their approach. “Why isn’t it tumbling anymore?”
“How do you mean?” Seon-mi asked.
“Its rotation has stabilized. Completely. Usually that’s what we do first when we land, right?”
“Who cares? That just makes our lives easier.” Petra, hanging on to the bulkhead beside Bruno, responded without turning her head.
“Ready for deployment,” Bruno added when the countdown finished.
Miranda paused. This was all wrong. Why did no one else care that the comet wasn’t where it was supposed to be and had somehow changed its rotation? Whatever force had managed that was significant. Who knew what it could do to their ship?
Seon-mi reached past her and keyed in the authorization code while she was still frozen with indecision. Miranda reached to knock her hand away but it was too late. The ship shook as the main bay opened to deploy the factory platform.
She glared up at Seon-mi. “I was getting to it.”
“Really? You looked like you were having second thoughts.”
“I was. I still am. This seems fool-hardy. Once we’re attached to the surface whatever acts on the comet acts on us.”
“We need this water,” Petra said as she floated toward them. “We can start the processing and if we find out there’s something dangerous out there we’ll unhook, take what we have, and head home.”
Miranda had to admit that some water was better than none. “Someone should keep an eye on the instruments.”
Petra pulled her way into the companionway. “You can take the first watch.”
“Fine.” Miranda started her first of many sweeps through the sensors, grumbling under her breath as her crewmates departed.
* * *
They made it through four shift changes before all hell broke loose. The wailing siren woke Miranda from a deep sleep. She banged her elbow on the bulkhead twice while trying to get herself out of her sleep net. When she arrived in the instrument bay she almost hit her head on the edge of the portal. “What’s going on?” Bruno glared at the screen while Seon-mi pointed at something. Between the two of them they managed to get the alarm quieted.
Seon-mi’s gaze flickered over the screen once more. “One of the pumps stopped. No big deal. Petra went out to check on it.”
Miranda drifted to the screen on the other side of the bay. She paged through the systems as fast as she could scan them, starting with environmental. Nothing showed outside parameters. “This doesn’t make any sense.” She brought up the visual of the factory platform and zoomed in on the stooped form of Petra examining one of the pumps. Miranda opened the shipboard comm line. “Did you find anything out there?”
Petra turned to the camera. “Yeah, but you’re not going to believe it.”
Miranda zoomed in more. “Explain.”
“There’s what looks like an organic residue gumming up the pumps.”
“That’s impossible.” Seon-mi said from over Miranda’s shoulder.
Petra held up a hand to the camera. “So tell me what this is?”
“Holy shit.” Seon-mi reached over Miranda’s shoulder to zoom the camera again. A dark film webbed the space between the fingers of Petra’s suit.
Bruno crowded in behind them. “It’s contamination from the outside of the ship. Has to be. Algae or something.”
Petra’s helmet shook. “I’ve never seen algae adhere like this. It’s as sticky as molecular glue.”
Seon-mi tilted the screen her way to get a better angle, then sighed. “Bring a sample inside and I’ll check it out.”
“No fucking way we’re bringing that on the ship,” Miranda countered. “We have no idea what that is. It could be toxic. Hell it could be infectious.”
“Which is exactly why we have to figure out what it is. If it’s toxic the water is contaminated, but maybe we can purify it somehow.”
Bruno had been looking between the two of them as they argued. “Why didn’t the scrubbers catch it?”
Miranda stared at him for a few beats. “Damn, he’s right. It can’t be organic. The scanners would have picked it up.”
Seon-mi stared at the screen once more, her fingers tapping the console. “We definitely need to figure out what it is.”
Miranda shook her head, but unfortunately she had no better plan. “This is a terrible fucking idea.”
“Agreed, but I don’t see that we have much choice,” Petra said while scraping some of the goo from her glove into a sample container. “We can’t bring it back to the Hub if we have no idea what it is and I don’t relish the idea of floating around until we get back into line-of-sight to ask for guidance.”
Miranda hated everything about this. Everything. She scooped up her hair to wind it into a bun to keep it out of her way. “I’ll set up the quarantine bay.”
“Thanks,” Petra said. “I’ll be inside as soon as I can get most of this off.”
Miranda navigated her way out of the instrument bay and floated up the companionway with Bruno right behind her.
“What do you think it is?” he asked when they reached the hatch.
She entered the access code and waited for the heavy door to open. “It’s trouble.”
“It might not be.” Bruno’s earnest expression was too much for her.
“First the comet isn’t where it should be and now it’s covered in some kind of unidentified adhesive slime. You’re right, it must be nothing. I don’t know why I’m worried.” She pulled herself through the hatch.
When they reached the airlock he caught up with her again. “We don’t know the two are related.”
Miranda punched in the quarantine code at the access panel. A divider slid to close off an area inside the airlock from the rest of the ship. “I hope you’re right. Honestly. I haven’t felt good about any of this since we passed out of communications. I would be thrilled if this was a series of coincidences that aren’t at all ominous.”
Bruno smiled. “I think you’re just a worrier. I’ve been on a dozen of these missions. Nothing bad has ever happened.”
“But has anything like this happened?”
“Well, no. Usually we just pick up our water and go.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“They expect the occasional unpredictable problem though, or else they would just send these unmanned.”
“Maybe they should, Bruno. An unmanned ship would have just turned back when it didn’t find the comet in the right place. But we decided we should chase it down. Maybe we weren’t meant to find this thing.”
Bruno whistled. “Getting a little paranoid there.”
Miranda laughed uneasily. “Maybe.”
* * *
Miranda watched the image on the screen as Seon-mi adjusted the focus. It looked like sand to her.
Seon-mi straightened and squinted at the screen. “That’s max magnification. No cellular structure that I can see, so it’s definitely not an algae—holy shit did that just move?”
Miranda had seen it too. An entire section of the particles had shifted, almost flowed. “Heat from the light, maybe?”
“No.” Seon-mi bent to look through the eyepieces again. “That was organized movement.”
Petra, still on the other side of the quarantine divider, paced back and forth. From her angle she couldn’t see the screen and she still had on her mag-boots so she was taking full advantage. “If it’s not biological and it’s moving, it has to be mechanical.”
Miranda narrowed her eyes. “But they’re so tiny.”
“Nanobots,” Seon-mi said after a few seconds.
Petra turned toward them. “Nobody has anything that small, or that good.”
Seon-mi shrugged. “That we know of.”
Miranda pulled herself closer to the screen. “What are they doing out here?”
“And how did they get here?” Petra added. “Any way we can figure out who manufactured them?”
Seon-mi looked up. “Not that I know of. If there’s any kind of marking on them what we have on-hand isn’t powerful enough to pick it up.”
“Maybe they emit some kind of signal?” Miranda floated to the terminal and initiated a sweep of commonly used frequencies. “They have to communicate with each other somehow, right?”
Seon-mi nodded. “Good idea.”
Petra moved close to the divider and stared at them. “Since we know it’s not biological when can I get out of here?”
Miranda glanced toward the container Petra had put her glove into. “When we break that seal whatever it is has full access to the ship. I’d prefer it stays out there until we know for sure it’s not dangerous.”
Petra frowned. “I’ll seal up the box.”
“The moment we open the hatch whatever contamination you’ve come in contact with is in here.”
“So what’s your plan? Keep me out here all the way home?”
Miranda pointed to the screen. “We have no idea what that is or what it’s doing here. Until we do, it stays on the other side of the wall.”
“Should we put it to a vote?” Petra asked.
“I agree with Miranda,” Seon-mi said after a moment. “We can’t let you into the cabin.”
Miranda sighed. Finally someone was seeing sense. “Tied then, you stay out there until we figure this out.”
* * *
Two shift changes later, Miranda glared through the divider at the contamination sack that enclosed the sample box and the weird goo they’d found in the comet’s ice. The dark, viscous substance now coated the inside of the clear bag. The word ‘QUARANTINE’ emblazoned in red across it seemed comical. There was no way the bag could contain it; the box certainly hadn’t. They had no idea how it continued to grow, or if there was an upper limit to how big it could get. Even the airlock might not contain it.
Miranda leaned back, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “We need to get it off the ship before the bag gives way.”
“I’m not sure that will make any difference. It’s everywhere.” Bruno pointed to the screen in front of him that showed the image from the factory platform. The strangely adhesive goo covered every visible surface.
“We can detach the platform,” Miranda offered.
“It’s not just on the platform.” He brought up an exterior view. The dull gray material covered the underside of the ship completely. He pointed to the bulbous shapes of the water tanks. “It came in with the water before the pumps shut down. By now it's probably already in our own backup water tanks.”
From the other side of the divider, Petra held up her right hand. “It's already outside the bag anyway.” Dark material enclosed her fingers and crept up over her wrist like a strange glove.
Miranda instinctively tried to move away, but gathered her wits after a moment. She was faring better than Bruno, who looked like he was either going to pass out or be sick. The former was vastly preferred in a tight room with only recycled air to breathe. “Go to the head if you’re going to vomit.”
Bruno shook his head slowly and wedged his way into a corner as far away from the divider as he could manage.
Miranda returned her attention to Petra. “Are you okay?”
Petra curled, then straightened her fingers. “I think so. I actually can’t feel anything.”
“No sensation at all?”
“It’s not numb, it just feels normal. I didn’t even notice there was anything wrong until I looked at it.”
Miranda moved slightly closer, bringing herself close to the transparent divider. “It’s definitely not normal.” There were no seams, or any features that she could tell. The substance just grew over Petra’s hand like a second skin.
A loud bang jolted Miranda out of her examination. She turned to see that the bag containing the sample box had burst, spreading the dark goo on every surface. They were fucked. It was not only on the ship, but already inside. Bruno was beyond useless, gibbering to himself in the furthest corner of the room. It was up to her to get them out of the mess they were in.
Miranda pushed off and headed for the terminal again. There had to be a signal the nanobots were using to communicate with each other, and if she could find it maybe she could disrupt it. She’d given up searching when she reached the end of the frequencies commonly used by haulers, but what if they operated outside that band? What if the nanobots weren't manmade at all? There was no telling where the comet had originated or what it had encountered.
She started keying commands for an automated search in a broader range, but then paused, her eyes unfocusing. The bots were tiny, miniscule, it wouldn’t make sense that they would use a frequency with a long wavelength. There was no guarantee that their neighbors would pick up the communication. Wouldn’t they use a higher frequency? Beyond the visible range wasn’t practical for long-range communications, but the nanobots wouldn’t have to worry about that. She decided to start at the highest end of the visible range and work up.
When the scan was running Miranda glanced up at Petra. She held her hand away from her body as if uncertain she wanted anything to do with it. “I should go wake Seon-mi up to check out your hand.”
“I’m a little afraid of what she’ll say.”
“The truth is the truth regardless of if you’re aware of it.”
“That’s easy for you to say, this shit isn’t all over your hand. What if it keeps going?”
Miranda looked over the dark, almost glossy material again. What was it doing to her skin under there? “There’s no reason to think it will stop.”
“Well that’s just fucking brilliant. How long before it’s all over me?”
“That’s impossible to guess. It depends if there are any limitations on its growth or if we could slow it down somehow.”
“Not really. Seon-mi is the medic.” The truth was the bots, whatever they were, had already survived on a comet in the harsh environment of space for who knew how long. It was unlikely anything they could do would slow them down in the slightest.
Petra looked over her hand and frowned. She curled her fingers slowly into a fist. “I’m not going to let her cut if off.”
Miranda barely restrained a sigh. They’d already tried every solvent and corrosive they had on the sample with no change at all in the adhesion of the material. Amputation was the only plan that had any hope of success, but she knew better than to suggest it. “Bruno, go get Seon-mi.”
She had to repeat herself twice before he actually moved. After several false starts, Bruno pulled himself into the companionway and disappeared.
“Seon-mi won’t change my mind about this,” Petra said, when enough time had gone by for Bruno to be out of hearing range.
“I don’t really think that matters unless I can find a way to stop them.” She gestured at the terminal angrily.
Petra had pulled herself closer to the divider with her left hand. “We should blow the comet to bits, along with the platform.”
Miranda took a calming breath. “Assuming we had the firepower to accomplish that, which I’m not sure we do, how do we know that would disable them? For all we know, blowing the comet up would just send them out in every direction. Right now, at least they’re contained here with not much chance of escaping.”
“Who cares if they escape? We’re already dead.” She was too unhinged to see sense at the moment. Hopefully once she calmed down a bit Miranda could talk her out of blowing them all up.
The terminal in front of Miranda chimed. She pulled up the report of what her scan had found. “Maybe not.”
There was a spike in the near ultraviolet range that couldn’t be explained by any nearby natural feature. Miranda dialed in the frequency and instructed the computer to translate it into something audible. The computer adjusted the output slowly, producing only static at first. After a few moments there seemed to be a pattern under the noise, a cadence that shouldn’t have been there if the radiation was being generated randomly. As she listened it became more pronounced—a sub-aural thrumming that set her teeth on edge. “Hot damn. I found it.”
* * *
All four members of the crew were in the instrument bay. They'd confirmed that the nanobots had already infiltrated the ship's water supply, so there was no longer a reason to keep Petra quarantined. Miranda had been listening to the three others argue since she’d shared the news that she’d found the frequency the nanobots used to communicate. Each had a different plan for how to deal with the issue, and none of them wanted to back down.
Bruno wanted to try to talk to the things. As if they had some kind of motivation and could be convinced to try something else. He didn’t have an idea for how to establish that communication, of course. He wasn’t a linguist; none of them were. That also assumed their signals were a language at all, which Miranda thought was probably a mistake. She was pretty sure whatever had made the things hadn't been human. They had no reason to believe the bots were doing anything beyond what they were programed to do, whatever that was.
Seon-mi wanted to blast the nanobots with all the ultraviolet radiation they could muster, which was actually quite a lot. The ship had banks of UV lights used for water purification that they could turn on the bots.
Petra still wanted to blow up the comet. The rest of them had taken turns explaining to her what a terrible idea it was to spread a self-propagating adhesive material with an explosion that wouldn’t necessarily destroy it, but she didn’t care.
Miranda wanted to try jamming the bots. It would take time and subtlety, but she felt like it had the best chance of working. Predictably, none of her crewmates supported her idea. They’d made no progress in the discussion so far and four opposing plans wouldn’t get them anywhere.
She could stubbornly hold her course and hope that one of the others changed their mind, but she didn’t think that would happen. Unfortunately it was far more likely that one of the others would support Petra’s mad plan than hers. So that left Miranda with choosing one of the other options and swinging the vote that way.
In truth, there was no choice at all. Seon-mi’s was the only plan that had a prayer of working, though Miranda believed overloading the bots with UV had just as much chance of making them do something unexpected as deactivating them.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Miranda said as loudly as she could. Her voice echoed in the small bay and managed to quiet the others. “Let’s blast them with UV.”
Seon-mi raised a triumphant fist. “All right!”
Petra glared at Bruno, as if that could make him change his vote to her side, but for once, he wasn’t budging. The presence of the bots inside the ship had finally turned him against her, it seemed. Her hand was heavily wrapped now, and tucked into a sling tight against her stomach to prevent her from contaminating anything else. Miranda wondered how far up her arm the sticky substance had climbed and what was happening to her arm under there.
Seon-mi had taken the silence for confirmation that her plan was now officially their plan. “We should start adjusting the lights so we get the best coverage.”
They spent the next two hours setting up the lights and rerouting power for maximum output. Seon-mi checked the preparations one last time while Petra positioned the portable UV light in the quarantine bay. They’d decided they should hit as much of the substance as they could all at once, including the sample box and Petra’s hand.
Seon-mi glanced toward Miranda. “Set the timer.”
Miranda set a sixty second countdown and nodded.
“Close the hatch,” Seon-mi said to Bruno.
He complied and then nodded to her.
Seon-mi brought up the channel to the quarantine bay. “You ready?”
Petra slowly removed her arm from the sling. She opened the top of her coveralls and slid her arm out. She put on eye protection and stood in front of the light. “Ready.” Miranda couldn’t take her eyes off the gray substance that covered Petra’s arm to just past her elbow.
“Start it up,” Seon-mi said.
Miranda snapped to attention and glanced over the subroutine once more before starting the timer. She watched the numbers count back from sixty with a knot of anxiety building in her chest. This was probably their only chance.
Thirty seconds. A distant hum vibrated through the hull as the lights powered up.
Ten seconds. Miranda looked at Petra. She was holding together, barely. The fingers of her right hand shook where she held them under the light.
Five seconds. Doubt plagued Miranda. She battled the urge to cancel the countdown in the final seconds.
Zero. For what seemed like a long time, but could only have been moments, nothing happened. In the odd silence, Miranda thought everything had worked as planned. Bombarded with UV, the bots had stopped doing whatever it is that they were programmed to do.
Petra’s scream broke the trance.
The dark gray line surged upward to consume her biceps, then her shoulder, then her chest. Miranda stared in horror as the nanobots climbed over Petra’s face.
Miranda had to do something. Fast. Or they were all dead. “Kill the lights!”
For what felt like an eternity, no one moved. Finally, Seon-mi pushed off toward another terminal. “On it.” The lights powered down a few seconds later, but the damage was already done.
Miranda typed as fast as she could, rerouting the power to vent the airlock. When the cabin suddenly went quiet, Miranda glanced up. Petra still stood in the airlock screaming, but no sound came out amid a flood of gray pouring from her mouth and engulfing the floor. Miranda hurried to finish the commands, fingers flying over the terminal.
Airlock management was generally a delicate procedure, but after removing the safeguards she could force a full pressure evacuation that she hoped would send most of the nanobots out the hatch and back toward the surface of the comet before they could fill the quarantine area.
By the time she finished, Petra was an unrecognizable lump under a writhing mass of gray. She started the override sequence and watched. There was no change for a few seconds, and then when the outer hatch popped everything not attached to the bulkhead blew outward. Miranda was glad she couldn’t see Petra’s face under the gray sheet.
“You killed her,” Bruno whispered.
“Shut your mouth.” Seon-mi glared at him. “She was already dead and Miranda’s quick thinking just saved our lives.”
Miranda didn’t feel much like a hero. She thought she was about to be sick, but managed to keep her lunch down by distracting herself with the routine of securing the airlock.
Seon-mi stared into the quarantine bay. “There’s still some in there, but it seems to have stopped spreading for the moment.” She looked back at Miranda. “What do we do now?”
“We can’t risk that any of this survives and spreads.” She paused and locked eyes with Seon-mi. She didn’t know if the other woman would back her play, but something had changed between them when Petra had been overrun. The stakes had gone up. Left unchecked, the nanobots could consume an entire planet. Hell, they could devastate the entire system. “We put the whole thing into the sun.”
Bruno exploded into profanity-laced, almost-incoherent protest.
Seon-mi only nodded slowly.
* * *
ULTRA LOW FREQUENCY COMMUNICATIONS MONITORING REPORT
Location: HUB DEEP SPACE ANTENNA DELTA
Source: WATER MINER CORDERA, Transponder code WMC938254
Status: Approaching outer system markers
Message: HAZARD. Do not approach our position under any circumstances. Comet C/2099 D12 is to be considered highly infectious and any debris found should be handled accordingly. An infestation of self-replicating nanobots on the surface of the comet has overrun our ship. Growth of the colony is unchecked by conventional means. We are directing the comet on a course into the sun. Stay well clear. HAZARD.
This story originally appeared in Zombies Need Brains.