Friday, December 23, 2016
The Goo - A novel in progress.
“Our own intelligence killed us. We were doomed from the moment our hairy ancestors scratched their dirt-caked chins and wondered what was over the next hill. The same restless curiosity that conquered mountains, cured disease, and pried opened the vast expanses of space threw us under the bus exactly when we thought we were moving in the right direction. All those centuries of effort just to put a gun to our own heads. I guess I should not be too hard on us. After all, it was a good trap and we were not the first to fall for it.”
Last journal entry of Milo Harrison
Captain of The King’s Distraction 2482 C.E.
“That was a big pile of nothing.”
I couldn’t help myself. Pomp and circumstance always turns my stomach and the display I had just witnessed was a textbook example. Fourteen massive Deep Star battle cruisers and seventeen diplomatic ships meticulously coordinated to wish safe travel and Godspeed to a forty-gallon tube of goo. Grey Goo, yes, but still, battle cruisers? Why? We are the only life we know of. What are they going to fight off? Boredom? The politicians I get. If someone scribbles c-a-m-e-r-a on a cocktail napkin, they show up. Image is everything. That’s what bugs me about these things. They’re a waste. What’s the point of showing off when you’re all alone in the universe.
“No, don’t hold back. I want to know what you really think.”
I turn to Bea, my companion on the observation deck. She’s a chef, I think, petit with straight shortish black hair left longer on the sides to cover her ears. Some sort of culinary expert flying out for a lucrative contract on the same rock I’m heading to. We met in pre-flight medical screening and decided to keep each other company for lack of choice. The ring on her finger tells me the trip will be spent only in conversation. Too bad.
“Sorry if I killed it for you. Shipping Grey Goo to earth is a first, granted, but this…” I point to the armada of ships seven hundred yards outside the transparent ten by ten viewing portal we laid claim to. “This is overkill.” The portal is one of many in a long line on our ship’s, The King’s Distraction’s, observation deck. I must be talking loud as I’m getting raised eyebrows from a few of the nearby passengers and crew members.
She scratches her left ear and smiles. “No mysteries left for you, are there?” Her teeth are perfect rows of white. And those lips…
“Until we find more than Grey Goo, I will preserve my healthy cynicism for future generations,” I reply in a consciously lower volume.
She looks at me and I already know what is coming. I’ve heard it enough times from the brother I’m crossing the galaxy to visit. I’ve got nothing else to do at the moment so I let her launch into it.
“So finding the Goo on six planets doesn’t peak your curiosity?” She folds her arms and leans comfortably against the portal. “Planets with ruins and signs of advanced tech? Colonizing tech?”
I mimic her posture and also lean against the portal. I’ve never leaned on one before and it startles me for a moment. My shoulder and arm know something is there, but my peripheral vision keeps telling me I’m about to tip into space and die. I try my best to hide the sensation.
“And…um…you believe the whole de-evolution thing, then?” Very smooth.
“Isn’t that what the tests show?” she asks.
The light from a departing cruiser’s engines fills our compartment. Instantly, the viewing portals dim to keep us all from going blind. It takes a moment before our eyes adjust and we get back to the topic at hand.
“Some organic trace elements and a proximity to ruins don’t translate to a breakdown in the laws of nature or a long lost architectural degree. I don’t care how many computer simulations they shove down our throats.”
“You have a lot of bottled up anger, mister; why is that?”
She goes to say something else, but a telltale flash of blue/green catches her attention and she turns towards the dimmed portal. I look as well not wanting to miss the cruiser activate its Inseparability Drive. The dimmers can’t lessen the display we’re all gawking at. Nothing can. When a ship jumps into Inseparability, the quantum stream connecting all matter to each other, it isn’t real light we perceive, it’s information. Overspill from the chatter of nature’s building blocks confessing the location of everything in the universe. Our ships jump on board the information exchange and instantly travel anywhere. Or almost instantly. Space is so damn big even instant travel takes a while. The warships will make several jumps over the next two days to travel the one hundred and fifty light years to earth, taking into account re-fueling and navigation tweaks. Not instant, no, but it beats the alternative. The flashes get brighter and brighter. If they were actual light, the photons would blind every set of eyes, living or artificial, within a light year. Instead, it’s like having a two-color rainbow politely pass through you. That’s how I think of it, not that I share that wording with many people. Since it’s raw information everyone has their own perception of the experience. I’ve heard of people who can feel it. Can’t imagine what that must be like.
A mist of bright silver glitter surrounds the battle cruiser’s cylindrical hull and reflects off its big omni-directional cannons. Slowly the drive-coils unwind from around the ship’s hull, which now looks like a lit Fourth of July sparkler peppered with dull tipped needles, and lock into place. I glance at Bea and she’s got this big grin on her face and she…keeps sniffing the air. Okay. The mist is now a shower pouring out from all surfaces of the ship and the flashes are going crazy.
Then it’s gone.
No sound and fury, yet signifying everything of the human intellect. We like to crack nuts, as my grandfather used to say. Humans wanted space in a bad way and here we are. Another round of flashes snaps me back into the moment. The next cruiser is in position and readying for its jump.
“So about your anger issues.”
“Not now, lady, I’m busy.” I do want to enjoy this. It’s rare to be around this many ships in one place making the jump. The human family is spread out pretty thin these days. That and I don’t feel like being analyzed by a cook.
She leans her forehead against the portal. “Sorry. Forgot this was a friendly conversation.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
Flashes. Sparkles. Crazy flashes. The next ship is gone.
“What is it you do again, Dennis?” It’s the standard offer to change subjects. I accept it.
“I’m a trader.”
“No a…” She smiles at me. “Cute.”
“What do you trade? You didn’t bring much luggage.” Her voice carries not a small degree of satisfaction from her little trap.
Flashes. Sparkles. Crazy flashes. Another ship is gone.
“Non-synthesized mineral rights. The stuff we still have to dig big holes to get at.”
She nods and looks genuinely impressed. She shouldn’t be, but I’m not going to be the one to tell her otherwise.
We turn to see what the noise was. One crew member, a short stocky guy that looks like he could lift a bulkhead, is helping a tall, wispy crew member off the deck. The bean pole is laughing and looking around at the rest of us. He brushes off his uniform and checks his vest pockets. I can’t see the insignia of the tank, but the bean pole is from engineering.
“Sorry,” he says to the collective. “Tripped.”
The shorter guy chuckles and asks him if he’s okay and the bean pole says he’ll live. The taller shakes his hand, thanks him for the assist, and casually walks away. The moment passes and we all retreat back into our own lives. Bea and I watch the remaining ships depart and agree to meet for dinner in a few hours. I walk back to my cabin and plan my next week’s schedule for after our arrival in two days. Between legal meetings and contract signings, I pencil-in four hours to see my brother. I switch things around eight different ways and the time frame is always the same. Four hours it is, then. Maybe things will go smoothly and I’ll get more time. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and be a unicorn. I check my watch again. Only seventeen more hours before our ship’s jump. The other ships will be gone within one, but we’re waiting for clearance down the pipe. Signals can travel as well as ships through the stream and we got wind of a gamma burst directly in our path. It will take the sixteen hours to re-plot our route, but it beats arriving dead. It hits me I’m nervous and I can’t figure out why. Could be because I haven’t seen my brother in five years. Could be because after these trade talks, I’m out of the business. Nah, I’ve hated my work long enough not to go soft on it now. So what the hell is nagging me?
Dinner is good. Surprisingly good, in fact. I give Bea a knowing glance. She shrugs and shakes her head no.
“Mrs. Parker is not the only culinary expert on board, Mr. Vallee.” I look to my left, down the long wooden table and past the twenty other passengers seated between me and our host, Captain Milo Harrison. He wipes a corner of his mouth and places the napkin back on his lap. In my profession, active listening is vital. Nothing is more important than knowing what the person across from me at a negotiation table is really saying. I have been listening to every stray bit of conversation around me since I arrived and I have a good picture of the Captain. He is well-liked, respected, and above all, trusted. There are over forty of us eating and talking at the Captain’s table and I hear his voice as if he is sitting next to me. He is the Captain and people listen when he speaks. He has a damn sharp eye, too. I make a mental note of that with a big star next to it.
“I believe a fat crew is a happy crew,” says the Captain completing his thought. The officers scattered at our table raise their glass in unison and cheer in agreement
“Whatever the cause or reason, I can’t argue with the results. You have the finest food and crew of any transport I’ve been on. And I’ve been on lots.” Another round of self-congratulations goes round the table.
Harrison raises his wineglass to me and then to his other dinner guests. “Here is to good company in cold space. Here is to the cause of our congregation, Grey Goo, and the answers it holds. May they save humanity from a similar fate.” A hearty “Hear, Hear” rises from all seats, including mine. The guy is so damn likable I can’t help myself. Then she goes and ruins it.
“Captain, did you know someone at your table doesn’t agree with you?” Bea smiles and looks at me as she speaks. It’s a smile that makes me think of slipping that wedding ring right off her finger. It is a damn thing to want a woman you could kill.
“I am quite sure we all have our own views on the topic, Mrs. Parker. But perhaps Mr. Vallee would care to get this budding discussion off the floor by sharing with us.”
All eyes shift to me. I don’t like this position one….
The ship lurches beneath us sending the table, the food, us, and everything else a foot off the deck. There’s a moment where it feels like the artificial gravity is gone and I’m floating just like in the history pics of ancient NASA astronauts. Then I’m falling and crashing into the deck and out of my chair. Claxons wail from above and the red emergency lights switch on in the ceiling and along the walls. I scramble to my feet and look for Bea in the midst of the confusion and yelling. I see her clutching the table and trying to get to her footing. She looks okay. I search for the Captain, but can’t find him. All the officers are gone too. Their reactions times are both comforting and disturbing. If they moved that fast, this must be bad.
I make my ways towards Bea, helping anyone who might a hand. There are enough bumps and bruises to go around, but thankfully, no one is seriously hurt. It takes me about a minute to reach her, just as the claxons silence and the normal lighting reasserts itself.
“You okay?” I look her up and down for signs of injury.
“Yeah. You?” She rubs her right elbow.
I tell her I’m fine but my roast beef isn’t going to make it. She laughs and says she’s glad I’ve kept things in perspective.
“The experts are working on it,” I point out. Whatever “it” is. “We’re safe, don’t worry. You can’t turn off a hull breech alarm and if the Inseparability Drive exploded, we wouldn’t have time to notice before we were scattered across space-time.”
She punches me in the arm. “You’re a real comfort.”
I feel a tap on my shoulder and a fellow passenger identifying himself as a doctor asks if we are okay. We nod, and he moves on to the others.
“May I have your attention, please.”
It is the Captain and the room instantly goes silent.
“I apologize to our passengers. We scheduled the emergency for after dessert, but it appears someone did not get the memo. I hope double helpings tomorrow will make up for it.” Anxious laughter flutters around the room followed by more than a few sighs of relief. “The situation is well in hand, but our timetable for departure has been impacted. I will keep you informed. My apologies, again, and I will talk with you shortly.”
“That’s a relief,” says Bea while tipping a chair right side up to sit down. She reaches for an unopened bottle of wine and scans the floor for her glass. Not finding it she tucks the bottle under her arm. “What?” she asks.
“Hmm? Oh, just thinking about my timetable and some important meetings I have. I’ll have to make a few calls when I get back to my cabin.” I am lying.
“Me too,” she says.
I know what she’s talking about, or more precisely who, but that’s of no concern right now. The Captain’s message has me very worried. He tried hard to hide it, but something is very wrong.
I tell Bea I’ll talk to her later with my best life-is-okay smile and leave the dining hall. She doesn’t get up to follow so I assume it worked. I turn right and try to remember the way to the bridge. What the hell am I doing? The Captain could be anywhere. Not knowing what I am doing has never stopped me before and I see no reason why I should let it stop me now. I am relieved to find the lifts moving. You never know what is considered vital on a ship during emergencies until you get there. I make it to the bridge in about ten minutes. Along the way I pass two repair crews heading down to the lower engineering sections. Their faces read a healthy mixture of fear of the unknown, yet confidence in their abilities. That is a good combo to have in times like these. I near the hall to the bridge, turn down it, and walk straight into a security officer posted around the corner. She’s like a granite statue and I am knocked to the floor for the second time in fifteen minutes. I don’t think I moved her hair. She looks me up and down, mostly down, and then whispers something. She tilts her head slightly and nods in agreement to some invisible instruction.
“The Captain will see you.”
She steps to the side and re-holsters the weapon I didn’t even notice was out. She reaches for my arm and politely pulls me up before I am ready. I’m not a small guy, about 180 lbs in a six-foot frame, but she places me back on my feet with no problem. I thank her and try to collect myself before entering the bridge. I don’t get the chance. The blast door at the end of the short hall opens and another security officer beckons me to enter. No time like the present.
The bridge is a standard circular design, well lit, and built for efficiency. The walls are lined with different stations, each corresponding to a particular function of the ship. Most are manned, but the communications and engineering stations are the hubs of activity. Captain Harrison is talking to a communications officer and glances towards me as I enter. He gives me the same life-is-okay smile I gave Bea and excuses himself to the officer.
“Everything is under control Mr. Vallee, I assure you. Unless this is something important…”
“Was the ship sabotaged?”
My question catches him off guard. His eyes shift back and forth over mine and all activity around us stops. I get the same uncomfortable feeling I had at dinner. The thing is, no one looks surprised at the question.
“What makes you think that, Mr. Vallee? “
“Armed guards, for one. You don’t shoot a technical glitch.”
He looks at me for a moment.
“Did you have something you want to tell me?” He crosses his arms and waits. He’s all business now.
“This may be a coincidence, but I saw a fight earlier, well, the end of something earlier today between two crewmen on the observation deck. I didn’t think anything of it at first, but it’s been bugging me.”
“Why?” he cuts in before I finish.
“Because they tried to hide it. The tall guy was jumpy, on edge. He pretended to trip, but I think the stocky guy pushed…”
“Would you recognize these men?” Again he cuts me off.
“Yes, I think so. I wouldn’t mention it, but the tall guy was from engineering.”
He looks at me for a moment and then the smile is back like nothing ever happened and I am carrying drinks back from the bar.
“Let us find your pair, Mr. Vallee. My officers have the situation well in hand and you have my curiosity. Would you mind if one of the “armed guards” joins us?”
I look over at the officer that waved me in. “Not at all.”
“Excellent. Ms. Stolly?”
“Yes, Captain?” The statue’s voice falls out of an overhead speaker.
“Would you mind accompanying Mr. Vallee and I on a walk?”
“Not at all, sir.”
The granite statue is coming. Good.
I learn most of engineering is off limits to anyone without a hazard suit. The Captain is being guarded with details, but lets out that the Inseparability Drive is inoperable. Temporarily, he adds. When I ask about radioing for help, all he says is, “They are working on it.” That means communications was hit too. We’re crippled, deaf, and mute. Search parties would come looking for us eventually, that’s not an issue, but why would someone keep us here in the meantime. Who profits from that? We make our way through the habitable sections and past various repair and emergency response teams. Harrison greets them all with that same winning smile, a perfect projection of no fear and no doubt. I realize he is also subtlety pumping the crew for information. He asks how they are and about the health and whereabouts of their friends and co-workers. He knows most by name so I think that means the bean pole is new. The granite statue is always within an arms reach of the Captain, but she never seems close. She’s good.
“So, Ms. Stolly, what’s your first name?”
“Henrietta,” she replies. Her eyes never leave Harrison.
“You don’t look like a Henrietta.”
She smiles and I have to admit it is a very nice smile. Suddenly the smile fades. I look to see what she sees. Harrison is waving us to follow. His smile is gone, too.
“One of the crew, a new man, did not report to his shift. His name is Parsons and by all accounts he is tall and thin.” The Captain calls the bridge and learns which quarters Parsons kept and who he bunked with. He orders a security detail to meet us there.
The armed detail is already there when we arrive. I feel like a fifth wheel, because I am one, but there is no way I’m leaving this party until I get thrown out. The head officer greets the Captain and informs him the internal sensors are malfunctioning. They can’t read who is inside.
“Another coincidence, Mr. Vallee?” The Captain looks at me and then at the detail. “Carry on, Mr. Struck.” The lead officer punches commands into the door’s locking mechanism while we scatter to the sides of the doorway. I make sure I’m the farthest away. Struck pivots to the side as the door opens a few inches and tosses something inside before the door slams closed again. He examines a small display box in his left hand.
“There’s a body on the floor against the far wall.” He presses a few buttons. “It’s Parsons.”
“Is he alive?” Harrison asks.
“No. There are no vitals and no brain activity. I’m also reading traces of a substance near his face I can’t identify. Patching it through to the mainframe…Oh my God! It’s Grey Goo!”
Impossible is not a strong enough word for it. The most heavily quarantined substance in history is next to a dead man not fifteen feet beyond the wall at my back. Ships have been destroyed for wandering too close to a Grey Goo world. How the hell did it get here? Moreover, what do we do about it now?
The Captain orders a general lockdown for all non-essential crew and passengers. The chief medical officer informs him there have been no indications it carries illness, but if it did, the ship’s filters would slow down an airborne pathogen. In other words, if he’s wrong we’re screwed, but there’d be survivors to tell the tale. I hope Bea is enjoying her wine. I can’t make out what else they are saying, but after a moment Harrison looks behind him and down the hall. Harrison is on the opposite side of the doorway so I poke my head out for a look. Three bio-hazmat technicians in full isolation suits are running down the hall sweeping the area for any signs of contamination. Harrison greets them with a smile. The area appears clean, they tell him, but the corridor has been cut off. We are now breathing localized air. He nods in agreement. One of the techs, I can’t tell if it is a male or female through the suit, removes a sample collector from his or her belt. Harrison asks for it.
“We are either safe or already doomed. Either way I am not going to pass on this opportunity.”
I give the tech credit, he/she tries to talk their Captain out of it, but it is a lost cause. He turns to the rest of us.
“Would anyone care to join me?” That optimistic smile of his beams. No one jumps at the invitation. But…well…oh damn it all…
The other officers and staff stare in disbelief. Can’t say I blame them. But if I’m going to die, which I will one day anyway, then I’ll do it with the knowledge I got physically closer to something that could be extraterrestrial life than any other human in history. Present company excluded, of course. Oh well, my brother always said I had a big ego.
Most of the remaining officers and staff follow suit and volunteer to join us. Ironically, now there’s not enough room for all of us to go in. The Captain picks the ones to stay behind and gives each a reason why they are too important to go in case he is wrong. Only one person, our granite guardian angel, points out as Captain, he is the most important of the lot and therefore she would be well within her duties to haul his ass out of there. She ends with, “Sir.” He laughs and says if he is wrong, then she will have a long life to tell everyone how right she was. She shakes her head and walks down the corridor. The formalities completed, Harrison orders the stragglers down the hall. He checks the sample kit and turns to his small troupe.
He opens the door, looks around, and motions towards the body.
“Is that the man you saw?” he asks.
“Yes.” He’s not getting up this time, poor guy.
Except for Parsons’ body, and the small pool of Grey Goo next to his face, everything is neat and in its place. Harrison steps through the doorway. He looks around the room he walks slowly towards Parsons’ body. Struck goes next. He has a device, a scanner or sensor, I think, and he’s pointing it towards Parsons and the Goo. He keeps pressing buttons on it. I try not to look at Parsons. I’ve never been this close to a dead body before and it is more disturbing to me than the Goo. His eyes are open, their pupils large and black, as if he’s trying to see something in a dark room. Maybe that’s exactly what he is doing. I look at the Goo and try to block out Parsons. It doesn’t look like I thought it would. There’s no otherworldly or alien look to it. It’s a four inch wide pool of motionless greyish-blue liquid. It reminds me of paint. Was he killed over this?
Harrison kneels next to Parsons. He folds his hands and prays over the man before gently closing his eyes. He looks at the Goo and I can tell the bloom is off the rose for him, too. He readies the sample collector.
The Goo is gone.
“What just happened?!” Harrison yells to Struck.
“I…” He presses buttons at a furious speed trying to answer his Captain. There’s nothing on the floor but we all back away anyway. The Goo is officially frightening and alien again. I can’t help thinking the flash was a greenish blue just like…
“What?! Where?” Harrison springs to his feet. Behind us I hear the remaining crew rush to the door. They all start asking questions at once, but Harrison silences them a raised hand. I’m too freaked to speak.
“Where, Mr. Struck? Is it still on my ship?”
“Yes!” More frantic pushing. “Environmental controls. Epsilon deck.”
Behind me I hear radio chatter. I recognize the statue’s voice replying.
“Sir! A crewman in Environmental controls just collapsed at his station.” She pauses to listen to more chatter. He’s dead, I know it. He’s dead.
“He’s dead, sir.”
“Clear everyone out of there!” He yells his command as if they can hear him four decks away. She yells the command into the radio louder still.
“I need to know how that happened, Mr. Struck, and who is dead.” Struck nods and rushes to a ship computer terminal built into the far wall, knocking over a small table in his way. Harrison points at the medical team. “I need to know what killed this man and if it was the Goo.” The medical technicians scramble around Parsons like ants.
The Goo can move? And kill? It’s never twitched under the closet scrutiny and now it starts killing on the ship I’m on. I…I…can’t process this…
“What do we do, Captain?” I don’t know who asked it but that’s what I want to know.
Harrison sighs and then turns on that smile full force. No doubt. No fear.
“We continue doing exactly what we were doing before this: fix the Drive and restore communications. Nothing has changed. Those are still our top priorities, if not a little higher now. We will determine what went wrong later. That is what we are going to do.”
He herds us out of the room so the medical team can work. Other quarters are nearby and we set up camp in one of them. The next four hours are a blur. The Captain coordinates the ship from a terminal and takes reports from his officers. He reads one report and walks it over to me.
“I thought you should know Bea is safe.”
“Thanks. Not sure what to do with that information, but thanks anyway.”
He nods his head. “I understand.”
“Who was the second crewman? Do you know what happened?”
Harrison sits next to me on the couch I can’t seem to get off.
“His name was James Phildins. He lived in the quarters next to Parsons and was on board for over a year. We think he was the man you saw push Parsons.”
“That can’t be a coincidence.”
“Any idea where the Goo came from?”
“We found a one ounce Hercules-class containment jar in Parsons’ bedroom. It was shattered.” He looks at me to see if I understand what he said.
“That is what Grey Goo is carried in behind all the containment fields. They’re supposed to be unbreakable.”
“They are. That is no hype. Yet, this one was broken into four pieces.”
Harrison pauses, but only for a moment. “We do not know and we do not have the scientific resources to find out. We do know it was carrying Grey Goo.”
“It broke out?”
“I cannot imagine a worse scenario, so I am assuming that is what happened.”
I realize I’m rocking in place, self-soothing. I don’t stop. Suddenly a commotion erupts with the staff manning the computer terminal. Harrison jumps to his feet to meet the officer rushing towards him.
“The Goo jumped again, sir.”
“We don’t know yet, but based on…”
“Sir!” The yell is from a young security officer left manning the terminal. ”We have two reports coming in from the internal sensors of crewmen collapsing dead in their quarters. Grey Goo is confirmed at both sites.”
“Evacuate those sections and find out who they were.”
Panic rises its head again and nervous murmuring breaks out.
“Engineering? Status.” The Captain listens to the report on his personal communicator. “I understand. Contact me when you have a timetable.”
We’re still crippled; communications is hours away from repaired, at best, and everyone knows it. So does the Captain.
“Everyone, please listen. We have restored the navigation controls and mapping systems. We are making progress…” He keeps talking, keeps shoring up their morale. These aren’t words for me so I don’t listen. Two dead? Two? I get that nagging feeling again. Parsons knew Phildins, lived next to him. Parsons dies and then Phildins.
“Did Phildins know them?”
The Captain stops his speech and looks at me. “What do you mean?”
“Did Phildins know these two people?”
“Why?” asks Struck.
“I’m looking for a connection I hope isn’t there.”
Struck performs a few key-strokes on the terminal has his eyes widen. Damn.
“They bunked with Phildins before Parsons came on board.”
This is a quick bunch, they see where I’m heading. Struck is requesting the crew’s personal information before the Captain asks him to retrieve it. There are one hundred and fifty crew and passengers on our transport and the annual psych-evals can plot known and probable social ties. Some are more obvious than others.
“One of the men’s wife and child are on board,” says Struck shaking his head. “I hope you’re wrong.”
Harrison orders the ten people on our list to the medical bay into the ship’s quarantine area. It has a biohazard containment field, standard unit at best, but it’s better then nothing. God, I hope I’m wrong, too.
The Captain checks his watch. “We’ll know in four hours.”
Harrison is wrong. We know I’m right in three. Four dead bodies and six terrified individuals are on ice in the medical bay’s quarantine. Harrison paces the room awaiting the chief medical officer’s finding. Mr. Struck is running a program to map the next probable wave of deaths. He looks pale. Everyone in the room looks pale, except for Harrison. He is the most well-known person on the ship and his name is in almost every combination, but you’d never know it.
“What made you think of exponentials?” he asks sipping from a hot mug of cocoa. I still haven’t moved from the couch despite his lifting of the lockdown. There’s no point keeping people tied down when death can come to them.
“The deals I make all involve percentages, compounded interest rates, moving numbers around, that sort of stuff.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is. I’m quitting my position next month.”
“Good for you.” He sips some more cocoa and when he does, I notice his hands are shaking. He sees me looking, but makes no effort to conceal it.
We spend the next thirty minutes speculating why Parsons had Grey Goo. The popular idea is he and Phildins were smuggling it. We’ll never know for sure, but I think it’s a nice simple theory and therefore probably true. The discussion is halted by a call from the chief medical. He launches into a detailed description of the autopsies and sensor readings until Harrison reigns him in.
“We are pressed for time, doctor. The short version, please.”
“The Goo somehow drains, absorbs, eats, I don’t know what to call it, but is takes the electrical impulses in the brain, specifically the areas responsible for thought and memory, and uses them to create more Goo within the brain, which then absorbs more energy until the brain is dead.”
“It eats brains?” Struck asks in disbelief.
“No. It it’s something so sophisticated, so specialized, I don’t know what to call it. And, the neural paths are wiped clean in the process like they never existed. I can’t guess how something like this could ever have evolved.”
“Any way to block it or counteract the effects?”
“I don’t know, Captain. I just don’t know.”
He thanks the doctor and asks the room for thoughts. Not much is said, but then granite statue speaks.
“What did he mean it couldn’t have evolved?”
“I think he meant it doesn’t match our understanding of evolution,” answers Struck.
“What if this didn’t evolve?” I ask. I’ve been thinking about the original question I asked myself when the ship was disabled. Who Profits? “What if this was made? Maybe it was an experiment or new science gone wrong? Hell, this could have been a new brand of alien dish soap that got out of hand.”
“What if it is a weapon?” The Captain glances over the faces around him. “What if this is not a life form, but a weapon? A self-replicating weapon that works like our Inseparability Drive…”
“…and targets intelligent life,” finishes Mr. Struck.
“Exactly,” replies Harrison. “That would explain why we found it on multiple planets in different solar systems.”
No, there’s something else to this. “A weapon implies an enemy and a delivery system. The latter is easy, but what about the first one? You said it yourself we’ve found Goo on different worlds in different places. But, we haven’t found evidence of conflict. I think it’s a trap.”
“For who?” the granite statue asks me.
“Anything social, intelligent, and curious enough to venture into space and start poking their noses around. Sprinkle some shiny stuff around the galaxy and sit back and watch as they bring it home. Poof! One less competitor in the grand scheme of things.” OhGodI’mgoingtobesick…I run into the bathroom and throw up dinner.
“How does he know?” she asks watching me run.
“Because that is exactly what we are doing,” Harrison replies.
Over my retching I hear a muffled cry. Then the yelling starts. If one ounce can break the unbreakable and start killing an entire crew, what will forty gallons of it do to the earth? Extinction by six degrees of separation. I retch again. There’s no way to calm the room down, but Harrison still tries. There’s another hour, given the shortened time of the last deaths before to figure something out. Half the officers want to tell the rest of the ship, the other half thinks it will start a panic. It goes back and forth until my stomach is empty. I clean up and splash some cold water on my face. When I enter the room it is a mix of resigned doom, shock, and desperation. Struck is gone, where I don’t know. Harrison is writing in a small book. He sees me and hurriedly jots something down before tucking it back into a shirt pocket. The door opens and Struck walks back in the room.
“Still happy with your trip?” He tries the smile, but it’s not the same. How could it be?
“Well, are we keeping this a secret?” I don’t know what else to say.
“No.” He checks his pocket again to make sure the book is there. Then he walks to a com-panel and sets it for a ship-wide broadcast.
‘This is Captain Harrison. I have bad news to tell you and I have no intention of presenting it otherwise.” He recaps the threat to earth, what was happened so far, and what is likely to happen: the continued deaths along social ties. This means the passengers will die last, except for me. I’m now interacting with the most well known members of the crew. Great. “This is not the time for panic and despair. The same traits that have made us a target can be our savior. We have ten hours to prove we are more clever than the bastards who made the Goo and save our home. I will keep this com-channel open for ideas and suggestions. That is all.”
Harrison turns towards me. “Get your thinking cap on, Mr. Vallee. We have heavy thinking to do.”
Forty minutes pass and we haven’t dreamed up a single good solution. The closest one so far is to jettison a warning about the Goo, blow ourselves up, and hope someone comes looking before it’s too late. That gets voted down. More minutes pass. It’s getting close. Harrison looks nervous, but is keeping his cool better than anyone, especially me. That probably explains why he’s a Captain.
“Mr. Vallee!” he blurts out. “Moving the numbers! That’s….”
He falls dead without another word.
The granite statue screams and it takes a moment before I notice I am, too. I’m screaming from the Grey Goo that pores out his nose before he hits the floor. His head bounces and the Goo splatters across his face. But it doesn’t stay there. Slowly, methodically, it streams down his face and pools under his open mouth. The statue draws her weapon, and fires. She hits her target and the Goo glows white hot from the energy weapon. I keep waiting for it to melt, but nothing happens. Slowly the glow fades and there is the Goo, intact and stationary. She fires point blank at it again and again. The floor and her Captain’s body should be melting, but the Goo keeps on taking the blasts. Two officers grab her and pull her back. Her last shot goes stray and hits the floor next to my left foot.
The heat burns my skin through my pants and I hobble back to take my shoe off before it melts onto my foot. I kick it off with my other shoe and fall flat on my back. A medical tech tears at my pant legs and sprays something on my leg. The pain goes away and I look down to see the five inch wide hole burned into the floor and the small pool of unperturbed Goo beyond it.
The Captain was a greater linchpin than I thought. The room falls into disarray and nearly everyone walks or runs out. Struck tries to settle the officers-turned-rabble down. No one is listening. My leg is covered with blisters from the ankle to the knee. I’m in agony; I just don’t feel it. Something must be getting through, though, because I’m focused in the way only pain can. I walk over to the Captain’s body. The Goo is still there. I ignore it. Let it rest or countdown or whatever it does. I reach into Harrison’s pocket and pull out the small book. It is a journal. I read the last entry trying to find a clue to the meaning of his last words, to divine what solution died with him. The following two pages, his last efforts in this world, are nonsense. I don’t understand these questions. Why did…Okay, I get it. He was brainstorming. He wrote dozens of random questions about the Goo that, on the surface, make no sense, but he was tying to think about the Goo in different ways and from different angles. Clever. His final written words were: Can it be used against itself? What does that have to do with moving numbers around?
“I think the Captain figured out how to beat it.” I look up to see who is left. The granite statue and Struck are all that’s left. She looks like hell and he’s not far behind her.
“How?” It is the best he can muster.
“I don’t know. His last words were about moving numbers and…,” I hold up the small journal, “…using it against itself.”
Struck walks like he’s being pulled by a rope. He takes the journal and reads the final two pages. “He was brainstorming,”
“I know,” says Struck. “He always did that when a problem fell in his lap. He would always start by questioning the very obvious characteristics of a problem. He used to tell me if you don’t find the solution in the first five minutes, give up, it’s already got you beat. So what do we know about the Goo?”
The three of us write what we know on a clean sheet of paper. It isn’t much. It kills by “eating” our thoughts; it isn’t from earth; it can move like our ships, and it kills along social ties.
“What does moving numbers have to do with any of those?” I ask.
“Number of social ties? The amount of energy in the brain? The distance of the people killed from each other?” (The question reminds us of the dwindling number of minutes before the next and larger group of people is killed. The Goo sits unmoving, its potential for death hidden.) “The amount of energy it needs to jump?”
That last question strikes a cord. If we can keep it from jumping then we disable its ability to kill. Assuming, of course, we know what we are talking about.
“Can we absorb its energy?” I ask Struck.
“How would we do that? We’re a transport, Mr. Vallee. This isn’t a science ship.” He isn’t cross, just stating the obvious.
“I don’t know. I only ride these things. I’m just throwing out an idea.”
“Moving numbers…moving numbers.” The granite statue repeats it like a mantra. “If it moves like our ships, and we use high-end math to plot our course and control our movement, could we use the ship’s navigation controls to grab it mid-jump and put it where we want it?” She looks at us expecting to have the idea shot down. Her eyes return to the paper. “Too easy,” she murmurs.
Struck jumps out of his seat of his seat and runs to the com-panel.
“Nav Control!” Nothing.
“Navigation Control, answer, damn it!”
Nothing. They probably abandoned their station.
“Nav Control, here. Sorry, I was in the can.”
Struck laughs. “Okay, Nav, that’s fine. We’ve got an idea.”
Struck and the Nav officer go back and forth. Turns out the engineering and navigation officers never stopped working after the bad news was broadcast. Several of the Inseparability techs join the conversation. I’m lost on the details. The granite statue is crossing her fingers and praying. Struck comes back over.
“Don’t stop praying on my account. No one knows if it will work, but we’re going to try.” He leans over the statue without warning and kisses her on the lips. To my surprise she doesn’t look surprised in the least. She stands, she’s a good two inches taller than he, and hugs him, rocking ever so slightly.
“Um…Sorry to interrupt, but when exactly will we know?”
They part holding hands. Never saw that coming.
“We’ll know when the next jump happens. The techs are trying to reconfigure the navigation controls to register the Goo’s jump and re-direct it.”
“Where to?” I ask.
“Into an O-class star not far off. Burn the bastards in the hottest type of star in the galaxy.”
Sound good to me.
The time is growing near. Or is it short? I was never into books, but after this trip, if there is an end to this trip, I’ll be reconsidering a whole bunch of things. Henrietta and I are standing over the Goo, waiting for it. Struck is at the terminal talking to eight different techs. Any second now…Any…
The techs and Struck are yelling back and forth. Did they get it? No one knows. Each tech is yelling to the other asking what they have in their systems. No one knows where it is.
“WE GOT IT! WE GOT IT!”
There’s second of confusion about who said it. Then another voice pipes in.
“Navigation shows the jump was shunted into the O-class! We did it!”
Struck tells them to wait until the internal sensor sweeps are complete. He reads the findings out loud.
“Alpha clear. Beta clear. Gamma clear. Delta clear…” Henrietta and I hold our breath as he goes down the list.“…Kappa clear. LAMDA CLEAR!”
Cheers erupt over all com-channels. Struck holds his head and let’s out a big sigh. Henrietta hugs him and they hold onto each other tight. I feel like I’m intruding so I turn away. I think about finding Bea and giving her that kiss I wanted to give her when I first met her. Instead, I walk over to Captain Harrison.
“Good job, Captain. You saved them.” Wherever he is, I hope he hears me.
Communications is restored seven hours later. We send a high-priority S.O.S. and try contacting the military ships on unsecured general channels. Our hails carry a compressed message detailing how we beat the Goo so any ships within transmission range can pass along what happened and what to do. We simultaneously send the same message to earth, but stopping the ships before they reach Earth is the goal. Our little trick won’t work if the Goo achieves landfall. Our hails are returned a few minutes later by a sub-commander on one of the remaining ships. The Goo broke free only two hours ago and eight of the fourteen ships are graveyards. Over two thousand men and women are dead and heavy causalities have been sustained on the remaining ships. It jumped ships? Could it jump from world to world? Is that what happened to all those planets? The techs send the instructions for controlling the jump. And for the first time in human history, in the most dramatic example of life imitating art, we can say the earth is saved.
I eventually made it to see my brother; he calls me “the celebrity” now. Yeah, right. Bea had downed the wine in her cabin and was passed out for the entire event. Really. Not a friggin clue any of it happened. She didn’t take the news too well. Anyway, she went her way and I went mine without the kiss. Life is too short for pining over another’s love. As for the Goo, it wasn’t the life we hoped to find, but it proves that life is out there somewhere. More than that, actually. I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but since I was there when it all happened, I’ve been given some very secret information. The military techs were able to analyze the jump they controlled, and backtrack where in the galaxy the Goo came from. The question now is what to do with this information. Do we investigate or not? It might be worth the trip to see the look on an alien’s face when their trap leads someone to their doorstep. I guess it depends on how curious we get.