June, 21, 21819
Sinon Station, Designation Delta – 5
Curt Van Pennington nosed the shuttle into the docking claw of the station and waited. Not a thing happened. The claw should have guided the shuttle into a landing socket. It did not.
When he’d first seen it, the station had looked sick. He couldn’t really describe why he thought that. It was only a hunk of carbon alloys, but somehow it made him think of a kid with the flu. It was just the nature of the science aboard, he told himself. Stations did not get sick.
Curt clenched his jaw and performed the dicey maneuver to dock the shuttle himself. Things had gone wrong on Delta 5. Not a problem; Curt Van Pennington specialized in resolving deep space emergencies. He had a boatload of stasis tanks for the injured, a phalanx of search and rescue droids, and about fifteen years of experience. But this was different. This was Reyna’s station.
Chief Scientist Dr. Reyna Franks. Responsible for overseeing the collection and study of a thousand space-born organisms. How long had it been since they’d talked?
With a schematic of the station downloaded and two SandR bots along for the ride, Curt began his tour of Sinon Station. Three hours later he had completed his tour. Not a soul aboard. No sign of Captain Marquita Daniels, Domingo Ayers the second in command, or Grover Timothy Cline who used to be military and would have been the last one to go down in a fight.
But there was no sign of a fight. No sign of anything.
Where had the crew gone? Curt’s jaw tightened inside his helmet. He could feel his mission focus dialing in, his resolve hardening until it was dense as metamorphous rock.
Protocol first thing was download a copy of station logs to an isolated computer aboard his shuttle. This he had done, only to find that resultant logs corrupted. Absolute gibberish, didn’t even scan as an encryption. The shuttle’s computer was working on repairing it. He had hopes but in the mean time…
He found himself back in Reyna’s quarters. They had never been a thing, not really, he and Reyna, just a wishful idea.
He scanned her personal affects. Not snooping, not invading her privacy. Hunting clues. Besides, the dead had no privacy.
He halted. There was no indication anyone was dead. The crew had obviously left the station. If they were dead, then he would have found their bodies. He hadn’t.
No jumping to conclusions, he told himself. No letting your subjectivity get clouded.
His heart lurched. He’d found it.
Dr. Reyna Franks had a thing for antique data storage devices, gramophones, record players, a thing that played something called a compact disk. He’d seen her wearing a necklace that had an old form of memory called flash dangling from it. But the device Curt found was a rectangular plastic disk with two spools wound with magnetic tape. A reader head scanned the tape and rendered the magnetic markings on the tape as sound or images. It took him a moment to locate the reader device, but he eventually found it and slotted in the tape. Now to figure out how to operate the thing.
He was aware of his rapid breaths, his elevated pulse. It would be good to hear her voice again.
There. She appeared on the screen, delicate features, radiant smile. She twirled in the low gravity environment in front of the camera and as she spun she began to talk, dictating her personal log.
The microphone on his helmet made her voice sound clear and resonant, as if she was in the room. He closed his eyes and basked in the sound.
But no. He had to figure out where she was. She could be in danger. The whole crew could be.
He found the fast-forward and soon Reyna twirled faster and faster. Her image zipped by and he felt his pulse increase. His knee jiggled. Quicker, he mouthed to the machine.
When her image disappeared he pressed the rewind, jumping back, then slowing it to real-time. He listened.
"Nothing good to report today," she said, frowning. "In fact things have gone to hell in a bathtub, as my auntie used to say…"
Her voice cut out. She seemed to be listening.
"I don’t know if the microphone picked that up," she said. "The station computer just said there has been a leak in the biological containment. Self-destruct activated. That isn’t usually a good thing." She tried a half smile. "That means…guess this is goodbye. Time to get to the shuttle." Then her face brightened, "Maybe it’s a drill."
The tape ended.
Curt hummed unconsciously to himself on the way back to his shuttle. This was good news. Reyna had said that a self-destruct had been activated. There had been a failure of the bio-containment, and the crew was to take the shuttle off the station. That all fit perfectly with an empty station, confirming the idea that they were all alive somewhere, waiting to be found.
He watched idly as one of the station maintenance bots hosed the passage in front of him with a black foam. Biological killing agents. The bots had probably activated as part of the emergency containment system.
Back in his shuttle he took off and and performed a visual check of the exterior of the Senon station. He was hoping not to see the Station’s crew shuttle pocketed in its docking port. But he did see it. No mistake. His heart felt like it touched his toes.
He also saw that all the smaller emergency life boats were still in place. No crew had abandoned this station.
Next Curt redocked with the station and went through it until he got into the station’s shuttle. Here, too, the computer’ was unresponsive. It’d been a long shot.
But wait. He felt the flutter in his gut. Wait a second. Yes, Dr. Reyna came through again.
Wedged down next to one of the passenger g-seats, A handheld recorder that used the same magnetic tape technology. Audio only. Her voice came through and he smiled.
"Recovered eight core samples from the asteroid. Each of them appears to have colonies. Lots of busy work to harvest these little guys."
Another voice. The captain’s? "You and your old tech make me laugh. Is that thing on?"
"Sure is. Say hi."
"Hello, 20th century tech."
Curt paused the tape. He’d seen another maintenance robot spraying outside the shuttle viewport. Deadly efficiency, he thought. In his mind’s eye he saw the bot jet black foam over the bodies of the Senon station crew. The chemical solvents eroded the remains like a flash fire. Not even the sniffers on his SandR bots would detect the residue.
This one’s in the bag, Curt Van Pennington thought. He chuckled to himself. Rushing through him came the fizzy-sensation of glee for a job done well.
Don’t be that way he told himself. People died. Reyna died. You and her almost had a thing. He sobered at the thought.
Back in his shuttle eating a snack, Curt couldn’t relax. Something nagged at him, itched his brain like an ant marching around the inside of his skull. He couldn’t put his finger on it, though. Everything led him to believe that the clean-up bots in their mindless efficiency had sprayed the dead crew members.
The crew had likely succumbed to whatever deadly space bacteria they’d harvested. That was the risk of these operations.
But there was something. What was it? He chewed, swallowed, choked. He had it.
Coughing up the lump of ration, he spat it into his helmet and the recycler gobbled it up.
The self-destruct. The corrupted station computers. The bacteria did not explain that. He’d have to figure out why the station computer was corrupted for his report.
He supposed that the chain of events went like this: station computers get a bug. The bug causes the leak in the bio-containments. The bacteria escape and infect the crew, killing them. The clean-up bots get rid of the bacteria but also remove any traces of the crew’s corpses.
So just figure out what screwed up the computer and then you can get out of here, he told himself. Just do that. The longer he hung around, the more depressed he was getting. This wasn’t the first sight he’d visited where he’d known one of the victims. He should have signed this mission over to someone else.
How was he going to figure out what was wrong with the station computer? The isolated computer on his shuttle was still busy trying to rebuild the corrupted data. He’d been checking in with it off and on. It wasn’t making any progress.
He tasted sour fruit in his mouth. It was the bitter taste of defeat. Except he wasn’t defeated. Not yet.
He took another of his SandR bots and connected it to one of the clean-up bots. Depending on whether they had stand-alone computers, or seeded their computing power to the station’s mainframe…he might have a chance.
Yes. The bot’s camera data was downloading to the SandR. He pumped his fist in the air.
He returned to Reyna’s cabin to have his SandR play out the clean-up bot’s first-person recording on the screen there. The same screen he’d watched Reyna on. He’d already put her tape in his shuttle. Against regulations, but he didn’t care.
There was a lot of black foam to see. Hours of the bot puffing along the corridors of Senon station, disinfecting everything. Curt visited his shuttle and loaded his suit with more snacks. Then he returned to Reyna’s quarters to watch the rest of the footage.
Finally He reached the end of the footage, having seen the bots foam one another, foam controls on the bridge, foam the labs where they studied the bacteria, foam the bacteria containment facilities themselves. He saw the bots foam the samples they must have harvested, the samples that contained the deadly bacteria. The bacteria was dead. Had to be. One of his SandR bots had tested the foam and Curt knew it was as potent as ever.
But according to the bot, no humans had been sprayed. Curt’s chain of events was wrong.
Curt woke up in Reyna’s quarters. He felt a crushing weight atop his chest. Strange in space where there was no weight at all. He knew it was despair, a black fog that sometimes overtook him on the most difficult missions, on the missions where he’d let things become too personal, where he’d surrendered some of his objectivity to a personal yearning to find answers. Because the truth was that sometimes there were no answers.
Humans are hard-wired not to accept a no answer. Humans need answers, even if they have to make them up. Nature abhors a vacuum just as humans hate an unsolved puzzle.
He felt buried under an avalanche as he loaded all his SandR bots back into his shuttle. He would have to tell his supervisors that this was one of the black files. The unsolved ones. The ones that kept him up at night on Earth before he drank himself to sleep.
It had been one of those nights, one of those mysteries, that had made the thing with Reyna be not a thing at all. Even though they’d connected. Even though the sparks had been there.
He was supposed to call her that night. Tell her he was free to accompany her on the cruse. He’d like nothing better than to spend his vacation time with her on a floating tropical beach. But it had been one of those nights.
He’d done the dumb thing and said he hadn’t called because his computer had been on the frits. Hackers got at it with a new virus and his computer was on quarantine until they could clean it. So no calls out.
"Could have used another computer," she said. "Lots of them around."
"But your number was on that one," he would have argued back. Except it was pointless, and it was a lie anyways, and she was leaving without him.
Now Curt was leaving. He watched Senon Station Designation – Delta 5 recede into the background blur of stars. He tried to find calm. Could not. Could not get Reyna out of his head now that he remembered what her voice sounded like. "A virus, Mr. Van Pennington? Such a shame."
He felt a sudden surge of realization lift him like a wave and crash him down onto the beach of understanding. That’s why only Reyna’s pre-computer tech worked. That must be it!
But the cleaning bots worked.
Hmm. But some viruses could leave certain systems functioning. To maintain just enough of the host organism’s health so that the virus could replicate and spread.
What if the virus wanted to remove all traces of its existence? To hide?
The virus corrupted all the computers aboard the station and then instructed the clean-up bots to spray the humans, telling them that the humans were the result of a containment leak.
To disguise its presence. So it could infiltrate whoever came to investigate and thus spread its infection off the station.
It fit, didn’t it?
Was he a carrier? No. He’d taken every precaution
What about the isolated computer on his shuttle? NO, the firewalls were impervious to everything. He was safe. He could eject the computer, just to be sure. Give it a blast of his engines to fry it.
The hatch to Curt Van Pennington’s quarters aboard the shuttle slid open, sending an icy jolt through him. He looked up. Maybe a SandR bot?
His bowels clenched as he saw what it was. Standing in the hatchway, one of the clean-up bots raised its hose. Black foam poured out and engulfed him.
I should have called, he thought. We could have relaxed on beaches.