The runabout Ursus’ interior lights powered up and the onboard computer bootstrapped into service.
“Operational Database Interfaced Network, O.D.I.N online.”
“ODIN, recognize Lieutenant Regulus Bondman in command of the galley and cafeteria. I need a list of included teams and the specific dietary needs. Please, list the names by herbivore and carnivore classes.”
“Please, stand by. Accessing database of assigned crews.” The bass-voiced speaker rumbled in the ceiling.
“List and print onboard inventory of protein base to my display. Display designator Alpha07.” Reg tapped on the tablet he held in his hand.
Lieutenant Regulus Bondman continued his pre-mission inventory of the kitchen alongside Lt. Callisto “Calli of the Galley” Angustifolius. They were close friends and lovers when the chance arose.
Regulus, as a human, found that the Lupus Sapiens hybrid to be enthusiastic when spending time with him. Although some of her DNA was non-sapien, she was part wolf, her mind was brilliant and as she could walk like a human, her abdominal fur was luxuriant to the touch, more so than a fluffy puppies tummy.
And her tongue? Well, Reg, as his friends called him, found out that a Lupus hybrid doesn’t kiss like a human, instead she would use her long tongue to lick his neck and face when she walked by. This was her version of a kiss, that in his opinion was both a shock but a thrill at the same time — If a bit of an embarrassment if she’d pick the most inopportune moments to do it when he wasn’t expecting and he was on his headset trying to hold a conversation with someone or he was carrying a large object.
She’d laugh at him in good humor if he had his hands full and her saliva in his ear while he stood there immobilized in shock.
“We need more loading packets for the protein resequencer. We have…” Reg paused his comment as he read through the ship’s manifest cross referencing the passenger list. They checked off the required nutritional requirements of each species of the crew.
“Lieutenant Commander Benjamin A. Gyas.” Reg sighed as he read the name from the list and shook his head. “Damn.”
“Ben Gyas, the bear? Yeah, I know him. He’s sweet and more than a little cute. And wow, yeah, he can eat more than an entire wolf pack if you let him. I’ll order more protein base now.” She smiled and the bright blue eyes from the human side of her genome along with her pointed ears enhanced the look of joy about working with her favorite human when buzz sounded from her inventory screen with a note “Message Timeout, Try Again Later”.
“Reg, I have to go back to the kitchen to get more protein packs. The messages I sent aren’t getting through for some reason.” She was less formal now that they were not among other cooks and crew.
“Okay, but hurry back. The survey teams will start embarking in about a half hour. I already have pasta cooking for a double baked meat lasagna after we depart, and I still haven’t started anything for the herbivores.”
“And we’re bunking together?” She winked. “I have plans for you after we get off shift.”
This lupus is a horn-dog when she’s in a mood. Reg laughed and shook his head. It’s obvious she never read the memo that mating season for wolf hybrids was only once a year.
The “galley” of the medium-range runabout Ursus was spacious. A full complement of cooks could feed the crew of the Longbow in the galley of this size. The runabout was built with very stout specifications. A well-constructed bear of a ship, designed to leave and extend the reach of the Longbow’s teams, explore new planets in extreme hostile environments and keep the teams safe. The Ursus was built for exploration with potent shields to protect against radiation and collisions with the stray rock, its powerful engines allowed it to land in any gravity well tolerable to crew. And this was his first time in charge of the well-appointed galley, it made Reg smile.
It would be a good change after the tragedy on the planet below.
“ODIN,” Reg addressed the computer. “I need a check on the deliveries of water and protein base. We’re running short of time.”
“The delivery transport is located at the pantry behind the kitchen.”
“Send a message: ‘Hurry up, please. We’re scheduled to depart in three hours.’ Post it as urgent.”
“Verbal message sent and pending receipt, Lieutenant Bondman.” ODIN responded with a formal tone.
The exploration ship, Longbow, a massive science vessel, a three-kilometer from stem to stern long, two-kilometers at the widest and a thousand meters from keel to superstructure in a rough lozenge shape. A swift and capable ship for deep space exploration around the, so far unnamed, K-type star, discovered by the Galactic Remote Observatory, Kuiper- with the acronym of GROK.
The first planet explored in the ten-planet system had evidence of an advanced civilization, but it appeared to be long dead. The find was exciting to everyone on the ship. Teams of geologists and xenoarcheologists took shuttles down to the planet.
The dig sites were as exciting as the visual survey from space. There was one thing curiously missing.
Life. Simply, there was none.
No bacterial reservoir underground or a buried endolithic lichen could be found.
Xenobiologists mapped for DNA in the air and found nothing. All carbon based material was tied
Something had killed the planet. Nothing grew. No plant, no fungus, not even a slime mold.
And another curious observation. Bodies were missing. No fossils, no decayed remains of plants or tree stumps.There were fossils in a collapsed ruin of a museum, a rich history. But nothing with an organic structure.
It was all bare mineral soil.
A mystery, considering the amount of synthetic material that was dated by molecular decay scan put the ruins of the planet at more than two hundred-thousand years old.
The geologist team who surveyed what appeared to be, at one time, a reservoir for water to the desiccated community downstream.
Fifteen kilometers up a canyon, above the well-designed water distribution system the survey team’s shuttle landed on a flat spot, the pressure of the displaced atmosphere caused a small handful of soil to be displaced in an unnoticeable move over the edge and out of sight. The handful of gravel caused a fist sized rock to roll down a hill that knocked a couple more stones loose as a dozen stones continued on their path, determined by gravity and unchecked by any obstruction.
The slide gathered more stones, rocks, and soil not held in check by roots of plants or even moss. It happened quickly and the weather survey team at the top of a desiccated peak had no clue what they had started.
The landslide traveled over small hills, its speed topped seven hundred kilometers per hour and only the alert eyes of Qwantay Paris kept more people from dying as she yelled for everyone to return to the shuttle.
But Captain Katherine Scrivener wanted to know all the details after the dead and wounded were brought back.
The kitchen crews were under request of the First Officer Kurrg, a Panthera Tigris Sapiens hybrid who had served under the command of Captain Scrivener for the last five years.
Although the captain and the first officer trusted each other implicitly, the arguments could get loud, even through the closed doors of the Captain’s office. Like any roaring match between lion and tiger could be.
Still, the missions were scheduled for other survey teams to take the runabout Papillion to the other three planets and assess them for any relics of a civilization.
Careful examination of the planet below, revealed no radiation or products of a nuclear war, nor any biological contaminants that might indicate biological warfare. Not even toxins.
Power generating plants were in good working order. Nuclear plants had long ago gone into a shutdown mode and were totally dead.
The Captain Scrivener brought the full capacity of the Longbow to bear on the investigation of the accident and to further examine the planet to find out what happened. The other survey teams would take forty people on a seven day traverse through the asteroid belt and explore the two remaining planets for evidence of war or something more cosmic.
One theory was a supernova may have sent a gamma ray burst into the K-star’s system and sterilized it. But no evidence had yet been found.
So, the investigation was multifold: Survey the other planets, find the causes for the avalanche, and what caused the civilized planet to be abandoned in what appeared to be an instant.
Dr. Honie Pers was directing the movement of equipment on board of the Ursus and stopped in for a cup of coffee.
“You’re the doc, Doc.” He smiled. Dr. Pers was addicted to earth’s native black brew of stimulants. She was an intensely funny woman who was known to have little use for politicians and policies at the cost of people’s lives.
“Thank you for clearing the freezer for the bodies, Reg.” She nodded. Stuck with the catalogue of the dead. Her drinking partner, Dr. Eta, was killed in the avalanche and Dr. Pers asked to be reassigned to the Ursus for exploration. She was unable to perform the autopsy after the incident. “I appreciate the speed and the care you gave them.”
“No worries, Doc. I was following orders from the chef, besides, I like Professor Eta.” Reg looked down and corrected himself. “Liked. Sorry. He taught at the University of Sapphire where the United Planets have their central headquarters. I attended there for a few years.”
“That’s a good school.” She took a sip of her coffee and looked at Reg with a smile. “You brew a good cup.”
“The protein sequencers do a passable job at reproducing the coffee. But I keep a five kilo-bag of raw beans in my room. I roast them in the kitchen in between food preparations, about two pot fulls worth a night.” He tapped his pad and a crystal-clear cylinder of a gel that looked like the transparent albumen of eggs loaded into a dispenser, the clear proteins were synthetic and machines could resequence them into any food item. “A single kilogram can replace two-metric tons of food when it recombined proteins with air and water to create food-grade hydrocarbons and fats that mimicked the texture and flavors of what the different species’ nutritional requirements — And the flavors that they liked to eat.”
“That’s creative! I’ve never thought about the back of the kitchen, how you all created the food. I figured I didn’t want to really know where you got the proteins to resequence.” She said just as her handset buzzed. She looked down, tapped on the screen and nodded. “The exciting part of the survey, we found that the wounded people on the geological survey team are healing at a rate about a thousand times faster. There are nanobots in the soil that are healing the wounded.”
“Nanobots?” Reg stopped installing the protein base into dispenser and looked at the Doctor.
“Yes, we discovered them on the cadavers that were put in body bags then put in your freezer.” She smiled. “Doctor Ferso discovered them in the beginning. They are slow moving and tiny. Ten-thousand can fit inside of a red blood cell with room left over.”
“I want to call them Eta’s discovery, but the message on my handheld was that Doctor Ferso wants first rights to name them.”
“I’m surprised they work at all.” Reg said as he programmed at the kitchen’s master computer, syncing his pad with the different needs of the crewmembers. “All the images coming up from the surface looks like it’s been dead a long time. The way it looks, like a huge fire. It looks almost burned out.”
“Yes, that’s the consensus. Something had a very destructive effect on organic material. So far, we haven’t found any trace of organic material.” she drained her cup of coffee and looked at the time. “Where are my people? They’re supposed to be bringing equipment.”
Reg’s handset toned. The screen illuminated when he looked at it, it made him smile. It was Calli.
“Reg, listen. Something’s going on. There is movement in the freezer where they put the bodies. They have a security team here with weapons.”
All non-security personnel evacuate the kitchen. Report to your emergency stations.
Then the ship address system came online.
All personnel, intruder alert. Lock doors and shelter in place. All non-security personnel clear the passageway. Repeat, security personnel only in passageways.
“Calli, come to the Ursus if you can.” Reg looked around and the Doctor was tapping controls on the loading ramp, closing it and airlock. “Shelter here, safest place there is.”
“No, I can’t make it. I’m going to try and go to my room, it’s just down the hall. They’re pushing people into rooms together.” Calli sounded worried as she was jostled while she spoke into the screen of the tablet. “I’m not even going to get to my room.”
“What’s going on?” Reg demanded.
“I don’t know.” She answered with a little fear in her voice, and for a lupus, that was as close to hysteria that she would get. “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
“Well, I know.” The doctor turned around, her handheld computer was lit up. “They’re transmitting to me a whole database.”
Doctor Pers went pale.
“The critically wounded have changed. Chief Medical Officer Cyprus has sent me that the nanobots have affected the geologist. He bit…” She tapped the screen. “Oh. Dear God. They’ve animated! The cadavers. Doctor Eta is attacking people. “
A scream sounded from out in the hangar, Reg ran up the stairs to look from the bridge of the runabout.
People were being attacked by silver skinned creatures in service department uniforms. Hangar control office was a scene of a pitched battle. Reg watched the humans with fist sized holes of flesh bitten out of them do a rapid, physical change into a walking nightmare of silver skin horror, and death lean. While he watched the carnage, someone hit the console emergency override and opened the hangar doors to open space.
Bodies, pallets of equipment, anything that was loose flew out the door. Shuttles and runabouts were anchored in their positions with mag-locks and didn’t move.
Captain Scrivener’s voice could be heard in a broadcast over his handset and tablet.
Security team-blue to engineering. All other security personnel report to the bridge.
Two minutes later, the lights went out. Emergency com-systems illuminated and speakers that were never meant to be used, boomed out the Captain’s voice.
Abandon ship! All hands! Abandon ship! This is not a drill.
The inner airlock burst open as if someone set an explosive, but Reg couldn’t hear it in the vacuum of the hangar.
Until the tsunami of air, bodies and hardware crashed into the side of the Ursus, and now loose of the de-energized maglocks, was blown towards the open doors.
Tumbling bow over stern towards the hangar doors, the Ursus became tangled up with other ships that formed a logjam at the partially opened doors, the sounds of impact on the galley service door. The exterior airlock door was still open, Reg realized, something big few into the airlock.
Until the shuttle Prydwen, tumbled, bounced and hit the logjam of vessels and bodies with the force of an artillery shell and broke the tangled pile of ships, hardware and bodies.
Reg and Dr. Pers bounced around inside of the out of control Ursus like dice in a cup, the artificial gravity of the Ursus wasn’t online yet, they were under the influence of the Longbow’s systems.
“ODIN! Emergency stabilize!” Dr. Pers yelled. “All available power to the stabilizers!”
The big runabout stopped tumbling in space and loud sounds of crashes echoed up and down the hallways as the artificial gravity booted up.
“ODIN! System report.” Reg said but he was rewarded only with a high pitched sound was emitted by what was once ODIN.
“Well, that’s not helpful.” Reg groaned. “If it’s not able to respond, we can’t verify orders.“
“You okay, Reg?” The doctor lay in a fetal position on the floor and moaned with her hand over her stomach. “I’m hurt.”
“I’m okay, I thin…” Reg screamed as he tried to take her hand. “My back!”
“Let’s get to sick bay. We’ve stabilized the ship at the moment.”
“Ugh.” He struggled to his feet. “My shoulder hurts like I have a bad bruise, and it pops like something’s broken.”
Another alarm sounded.
“Of course!” Reg said. “We have more.”
“ODIN! Define alarm!”
A buzzing sounded, ODIN’s voice was thready but could be understood.
“H-hu-hull,” ODIN paused. “B-br-bre-brea-breach.”
“We’re venting atmosphere.” Reg groaned at the doctor. “Crap, we don’t have anything.”
“I see it! Galley delivery door, where the water vapor is condensing, something hit the door and punched a hole.” She pointed. “About the size of my thumb.”
“I have an idea! He staggered into the kitchen in muttering about glue and starch. Then his voice echoed in the empty kitchen. “Yeah! Ow! Ow-ow! My shoulder! Ow! Hot, son of a mother…!”
With a storm of profanity and comments about pain and the object’s heritage, Reg came out of the kitchen with dripping towels and over his left arm and with both hands, he carried a large plate of what looked like pasta.
“Here! Stuff the towels into the hole.” The erosion of the air had expanded the size of the hole to a ping-pong ball and the atmosphere was venting now in a stiff breeze just a foot from the wall.
Dr. Pers wadded up a wet towel and pushed it into the hole. The cloth was sucked into the growing hole and stuck. Water boiled and froze at the same time to became a weak dam against the stream of the atmosphere. The stream of atmosphere oscillated through the cloth as the water froze and broke away. With a smile, Reg flipped the plate of hot, cooked pasta against the frozen towels that partly plugged the hole.
Drawn into the smaller holes of the wet towel, the cold water chilled and hardened the pasta. The water-saturated food swelled when it froze and plugged the leak. The pressure of the inside of the Ursus pushed the metal serving plate against the wall, making an effective seal with the cooked noodles.
The loss of the atmosphere was stopped.
“Well, that was exciting.” Doctor Pers said.
“We’re safe now.” Reg said, as he took a third towel and smoothed around the edge of the seal.
“Where did you learn that?” The Doctor asked.
“Academy training in the event of a meteor strike. Anything wet and flexible can be a sealant and it will fill a hole. And a thick enough paste will plug some pretty large holes. I just wasn’t sure that the hole might be too large. So, I used a wet towel to plug the biggest part of the hole, then use the pasta to seal it.” He smiled, then groaned in pain. “Now, can you fix me? I fixed the ship and burned my hands and my back is killing. Now, it’s my turn?”
“Let’s get some images of your shoulder.” She smiled, but she appeared more pale than before.
“Okay, Reg, see here?” The doctor pointed at the image on a handheld display screen and used a clinical tone.“You have a fractured scapula.”
“Not much can be done. It’s not displaced. You have some internal bleeding and the bruise will spread. I have something to prevent much more bleeding. But for now, we can sling the arm and some pain control, but you’ll just have to heal. We don’t have the facilities on board to do any surgery anyway.”
“Okay, then,” Reg pondered. “Let’s get to cleaning up the kitchen and pour some coffee and figure out what we are going to do. The Longbow will need our assistance.”
She shook her head and read the report that her previous college had sent them with a video.
“To any station receiving this: I am the Chief Medical Officer of the Longbow. We have lost power and are falling into the gravity well of an uncharted planet. Do not land on the planet. It’s contaminated with an alien technology beyond our understanding. I am transmitting on all frequencies the data we have uncovered. Anyone who came in contact with the planet has mutated and have become aggressive. There is a battle in the corridors, security has been overwhelmed.” Sounds of weapons fire got louder and the look of of the Chief Medical Officer was one of resignation. “Do not rescue us. The ship is on a self-destruct course. All data we are transmitting on all channels. Any station receiving this, this is the Longbow…” The video abruptly ended.
The Longbow was lost.
“Callie.” Reg whispered at the display the pain of her loss not registering yet. “Callie.”
The data that the chief medical officer sent in an emergency broadcast had been downloaded to her data management device and she scrolled through the information and began to swear.
“Lieutenant,” for the first time, he heard her groan in pain. “We have some serious problems. And now, I need your help.”
“Doc, what is it?”
“When we were thrown around a pushcart landed on me with supplies. I don’t remember what. All kinds of crap was flying around.” Regulus noted she had a definite pallor while she spoke. “My right side is tender. I can’t move much to that side. I’m beginning to see a bruise like you have on your back.”
“I have a bruise?” He tried to look around his shoulder but squawked when the pain stopped him. “I’ll believe you.”
Regulus pulled his data pad out of his vest pocket and began to type.
“Um, Doc, how long will we be on this tub until we get rescued?”
“Okay, here’s the deal.” She read the detailed report. “The planet is covered in nanobots. To the ratio of one part per trillion. It’s in the dust, it’s airborn. At first, it was overlooked because they aren’t organic and don’t appear to be active.”
She traced her finger over the screen and changed the page.
“These are so small. They can fit ten thousand in a red blood cell and still leave room for the cell to do it’s job.”
“That’s nice, but what can they do?” Reg asked.
“Getting there.” She read on. Took a deep breath. “Okay, each nanobot is also a bit of information. A zero or one. On or off. Individually, they can’t do anything but mainly replicate. Doctor Gray noted that the nanobots began to help heal wounds. They were using adipose tissue from other parts of the body to rebuild broken bones, repair lacerations.” She flipped the screen and changed the page. “Individuals can do little, but the more they replicate and add to the group, they become a collective program. We just don’t know what the program is.”
The doctor shook her head and looked at Reg.
“Was.” She corrected him. “This was written in real time during the exam.”
She read on. “The nanobots are repairing broken bones at an incredible rate. We may have a discovery that would reduce surgical and injury downtime. Including, old injuries that seem to be repaired.”
“That doesn’t seem bad at all.” Reg said. “Like a good discovery.”
“It reads that way for a few pages. Known chronic illnesses undetectable. Arthritic joints healed in our older crewmembers.” She flipped through the screens. “Until this entry. The dead are reanimating, but are mindless. The nanobots are out of control and resequencing the most grievously injured wounds to another DNA pattern we aren’t familiar with. The corpse’s of team members awoke hungry and are getting aggressive. It seems that the nanobots are using all available proteins to repair the dead tissues. We can’t feed them enough and Nurse Jameson Curtis was bitten by one. The nurse lost a finger to the bite, but it grew back in less than an hour.”
“Okay, some downsides.” Reg said as they walked to the bridge of the Ursus.
“The nurse changed over the following hour and Jameson became violent. From appearances, he lost weight as his normal endomorphic body type has become more ectomorphic. His appearance has taken on a pallor, a color of gray similar to brushed aluminum with reptilian scales.” The doctor read on. “People with minor injuries of broken bones are healed in minutes, depending on level of contamination. Those with more grave injuries don’t just heal, they change. The nanobots program themselves to alter the whole body. Then, it’s as if the program becomes corrupted and then it reverts to changing the DNA to the non-terran DNA that they were originally programmed with.”
“Holy crap. So a little wound is good, but if you have a bad wound? Like a bullet hole. You change?” Reg asked.
“It sounds that way. And not just bullet holes, Reg. I’m in trouble.” She looked at him with panic in her eyes. “I’m bleeding inside, something is torn. I can feel my heart beating in my abdomen and it’s swelling. Oh god. I was having such a good day, too. I thought we might get a trauma nurse to help me with the abdominal repair. I would normally have a few hours before I bled out too much. I could teach you how to use the equipment, but…” She looked at the door of the kitchen.
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“The equipment wasn’t delivered yet. I’m going to change on you.”
“No!” Reg yelled at the doctor for the first time. “We aren’t contaminated.”
“The entire ship has been contaminated, the nanobots are airborne. They weren’t organic. They were too small and too few at first to be detected. We can’t assume that we are free of them. Any place we go, we will contaminate, even with just one.” She whispered. “A single nanobot would sterilize a world by replication. I’d bet that’s what happened to the planet.” She pointed out the window of the mess hall at the receding world the Longbow teams had so recently surveyed.
“The nanobots were inactive because they had stripped every protein possible to build their version of people. Eventually, they ran out of organic proteins and consumed the plants. Hydrocarbons were made out of water and soil. That turned it into a desert planet. They consumed everything and left dust. The last living things were consumed by the nanobots who needed the energy to continue.” She looked at him. “We’re a plague ship. Any place we stop, we’ll destroy. And I will change first. I can feel the changes now. I have lost weight, and I don’t think I’m bleeding. So, the nanobots aren’t fully activated yet, but the effect is ominous. It’s like a cascade effect, one starts all the rest.”
Reg sat with his mouth open. The meaning of what she said was too big for his mind to wrap around. But, she was correct. When she walked on board the Ursus just an hour ago with her properly tailored uniform, it had perfectly fitted to her.
“What about the gray goo effect? They should disassemble like everything? Rocks, metal- everything?”
“I don’t know that, I’m a Doctor, not a nanotech engineer.” She shook her head weakly.
The Doc’s smock now hung on her like it was at least one size too large and her cheeks appeared to be sunken.
“Well, maybe we can transmit the data from here and get to a robot medical lab for help.” She tried to look for a bright side.
“No, doc.” Reg said. “I’m trained as crew, not engineering or command. I’m a cook, but I do have a working knowledge to do basic navigation and stuff. The Ursus has a type-A drive. We’re limited to just over twice of lightspeed. Longbow had a type-D. It could do a magnitude greater speed than that, maybe more. And our transmit range for data is a lot less than the Longbow. We’d have to be in a system for them to hear us.”
“Hear you, is more likely.” She said cryptically while she stood and walked around the kitchen. “I’m hungry. Do we have anything? I’d like some eggs.”
“Eggs?” Reg was suddenly alarmed. “With your belly? Doc, is that wise?”
“Sunnyside up. Just lightly cooked. Bread, if you have it.” Her eyes had a noticeable glint. Like she was on the verge of tears. “I”m healed, in a twisted sense.”
She’s been crying.
“Doc, how many eggs?”
“Three.” She paused. “No, four.”
“Four eggs? Doctor?”
“I’m fine. I’m the Chief Medical Officer on board.” She gave him an odd look. “Reg, oh.”
She put her hands to her face.
“I’m changing now. I want to eat raw eggs and I’m looking at you.” She tore her eyes away. “I just thought of you as food.”
Reg panicked, her skin was definitely a metallic-gray hue. He hadn’t noticed the subtle change until she moved.
She was also even more slim, easily ten-kilos less. The change was accelerating and he could see metallic scales forming on her skin.
“I…” Doctor Pers made a sobbing sound. “I’m sorry. I need to go to the airlock. You need to lock me in.”
She walked quickly, almost at a run while she motioned Reg to keep up.
Doctor Pers staggered as she stepped into the opening of the cargo airlock. She grabbed at a large, red handle to steady herself as the interior door slid shut.
The handle, Reg noticed, had block lettering on it in white.
“Exterior airlock override”
“You cannot let anyone make physical contact with the ship, but you need to transmit everything on my medical pad. It should be uploaded to ODIN for safety, back it up. You will be okay with the broken shoulder. Don’t get badly hurt or you will change.” Reg wasn’t certain that her voice was attenuated from the intercom or if her voice was changing.
Her face had become shiny with faceted crystal teeth.
The crazy thought hit him. Crystallized?
“Doc! What do I do?”
“Go to the outer stellar observatories. They’re the closest and have good data bandwidth. Reg, can you do that? Can you make it there?” She closed her eyes and looked as if she might weep. “You have to get in range and warn people to stay away from this system. It may already be too late.”
Before Reg could answer, she pulled the emergency latch and opened the hangar door.
Reg screamed as her body shrank from sight out into space and left him on the Ursus.
Then he realized.
The Ursus was his first command.
Reg shook his head and wept, in another time and place? He would’ve partied.
It was supposed to be seven days with forty people and Calli. He and Calli would have spent all their off hours in each other’s arms while the survey teams were trudging around in the muck of the planets.
He would have loved to have spent time in bed with that long-tongued Homo Canis Lupus Sapiens for a week of nights.
Regulus Bondman turned and walked back to the bridge, while his fingers tapped on the information pad.
“ODIN, display damage report.”
A squeal that was ODIN’s voice informed Reg that no conversation would be taking place anytime soon.
Reg sighed. He had no skills to repair the system, let alone the voice interface. He just didn’t know how that worked or even where it was located.
Flashing red pixels indicated the damage to the stout-built ship. Two stories tall, fifty paces wide and twice that long, it was a limited-range transport and personnel carrier with limited resources compared to the massive three-kilometer-long Longbow.
Once on the bridge, ODIN displayed a fire warning in the holds that contained all-terrain vehicles for moving around a planet’s surface.
“ODIN, extract air from the hold and flood with halide gas.” A high pitched burst of static answered him. The pixel indicating a fire went dark.
“ODIN, cease all voice responses until repairs are completed.” Reg had no idea how to do that, but at least he wasn’t going to go deaf by listening to the shriek of a broken speaker.
“ODIN, display ETA to nearest deep space stations with data connection.” A long moment passed while Reg hung his head after he read the display. Two weeks at normal cruising speed for the Longbow. Not what he was looking for, but he knew the next answer.
“ODIN, display for maximum cruising speed for Ursus to the same location.”
Eight weeks, three days, twenty hours.
Damn, that’s a long time.
Reg knew how many crates of protein base had been brought on board. With a quick calculation on the pad, if he had seven days of food for forty people, for one person, he had more than enough food.
“ODIN, how much atmosphere have we lost when the ship was damaged?”
This took about a heartbeat longer.
Atmospheric oxygen: 20.95 percent.
Pressure zero point 98 bar.
“ODIN how convert that to my level of training?”
Fourteen point two one three seven PSI and falling.
“Ack,” Reg boggled. “Falling? Not good!”
Reserves ten percent.
Crap on a cracker!
“ODIN, locate and identify leaks.”
A dozen pixels illuminated. Another yellow pixel lit up and flashed a warning of an overheated circuit.
“ODIN, reroute power away from that circuit and mark for repairs.”
The yellow alert went out.
That left the venting problems.
But not all of the leaks venting were atmosphere, but all were venting out.
Coolant leaks contaminated the air in some sections.
The list went on. With the agony in his right shoulder, he used his left hand to drag and carry tools to repair or close valves that moved toxic, but needed gasses and fluids through the ship for its operation. He went to work. He hadn’t given up the fight to live. Lieutenant Regulus “Reg” Bondman would fight the universe for every breath, every blink of an eye. He wouldn’t just give up, so he set to work to repair all that he could.
After Reg made his way to the two hull leaks that vented atmosphere to space, he sealed them with simple and easy patches. Pre-constructed patches that were little more than metal plates with peel and stick pads that adhered to the bulkheads and sealed the holes. Then, he worked on into the night until the last coolant leak was sealed. Hours passed and finally, he was finished with emergency repairs.
Reg sat on the command seat once all the repairs were complete. His shoulder was a symphony of pain. He could see the dark blue of the bruise on his shoulder. It had spread while he worked the muscles, instead of giving the body a rest and ice.
“ODIN, reduce oxygen levels to sixteen percent.”
Then, he thought about it and tapped on his pad. Altitude of about twelve thousand feet would be liveable.
“ODIN, reduce atmospheric pressure to nine psi.” Reg tapped on the command console. “ODIN, set course for the Copernicus Deep Space Observatory platform. Engage at maximum cruising speed.”
“What is our ETA? Round to nearest day.”
Eight weeks. Four days.
“ODIN, how long will oxygen last until I lose consciousness?”
Three weeks. Six days.
“ODIN, adjust the atmospheric scrubbers up to maximum. Recalculate how long if carbon dioxide is scrubbed out of the air.”
Four weeks. Two days.
“ODIN, if I broke down all water sources for the component oxygen, recalculate oxygen levels until I suffocate.”
Five weeks. Four days.
I’m going to take a shower. He’d have said it out loud but he felt out of breath.
He groaned in pain while the shower sprayed many thousands of tiny drops of water on his skin, to clean his skin of everything he could. Except for what he wanted.
Each drop that slammed into his skin had it’s own pain message. Each impact redefined the word “pain,” but every moment the level of pain was reduced.
The bruise had become large enough that he could even see the edges of yellow, green and blue that had spread from his shoulder to his ribs under his right arm. There was really no need for a mirror to see the glory of the injury he sustained when he bounced around the inside the Ursus.
His tender flesh rebelled as he turned his back away from the stream that jetted against him. He put his head against the simulated stone tile designed to make crews to feel like it was an organic experience on this interplanetary ship.
Reg couldn’t give two craps right now. He was out of ideas, he was a chef, not a member of any damage repair crew, except for patching holes, putting out fires.
He wept while the water washed away his tears along with the filth of smoke, dried pasta, and sweat.
And he wished, nanobots.
“I should be more stiff than earlier.” His self-conversation kept him from hearing things. “A few edges are now pale yellow-green instead of that red-purple that new bruises have. So, the internal bleeding’s stopped.”
It had only been six hours since he landed badly when the Ursus did it’s the tumbling, out of control exit from the hangar of the Longbow through the broken airlock doors the size of a football field each.
Six hours ago, Doctor Pers diagnosed him with a fractured scapula. There was little to do, she said, other than to sling it.
Six hours? He shook his head in the stinging spray of water. Only six?
It seemed like a lifetime ago.
His estimated time of arrival to the nearest deep space platforms in the Gliese system was still two months away.
If my oxygen would only hold out that long. He sighed. A futile wish, but no one ever wants to suffocate.
His mind spun with the catastrophe and pain.
I just need to get this hunk of junk close enough to transmit the information from the medical computer’s database.
He turned to let the hot spray beat on his chest for a few minutes.
It was all the enjoyment he would get.
He let the near-scalding water wash away his tears, his mind raced with the situation. He never volunteered for this mission from hell, he wanted experience. An entry on his work history, the experience and spend time with the cutest fur covered female in the fleet.
“I did want my own ship one day. An interstellar catering setup.” Reg banged his forehead against the ceramic tile. He could feel in his mind the impacts resound through the conduits, hallways, and offices. No one to hear them anywhere.
Reg knew it was just a fantasy. He couldn’t hear the echos, but he could imagine the noise echoing down conduits and access tubes.
Alone on this ship, the whole galaxy seems unpopulated. He turned the hot water up another notch, just above the pain threshold.
Doesn’t matter. It’ll heal. Maybe even better than before maybe.
Roxana Pilot, an engineer he dated, once told him that eighty percent of the energy an engine produces is wasted in the top twenty percent of the ship’s maximum velocity.
“In other words,” she smiled at him as they slowly piloted between planets in that wonderful weekend of kisses and coupling. “It’s more efficient to go a little slower than top speed.”
Yeah, Roxana. He spoke to the pleasant ghost of a memory. But I’ve no plans to land anywhere.
His mind snapped back to the present with a gasp for air, and he was back in the shower. His mind drifted easily in the rarified air.
It’s all I can do is make more speed. But he knew the outcome would be the same. I can’t breathe any less. The way the power units keep overheating, the one thing I have in abundance is smoke. Power generation is no problem, but I can’t do more speed. At least with the oxygen dialed down so low, short circuits done become big fires.
I’m just running out of compressed air cylinders to wear while I spray the fires with the… he couldn’t remember. The fire – putter-outer stuff.
He shook his head, turned on the cold water, letting the stinging water pummel his face to focus his mind.
Just outside of the shower room. Reg pushed open the steam-fogged door.
Just his towels. Stolen from the kitchen to dry off with.
Reg stepped out of the shower and dried himself off and walked naked to the galley.
“Damn, this thing is big with no one in it.” He said to himself as he walked along the cluttered hallway. “We need a food fight.”
He laughed. He would have enjoyed it more, but the laugh took his breath away.
The walk felt a lot more difficult as if he was on a hike in the high mountains. Laughing was not supposed to be a luxury. He had to make oxygen choices. Laughing was no longer one of the givens that this human could make.
Lack of oxygen or carbon dioxide poisoning. Either one was lethal. The products of burning from the fires had polluted the air. The atmosphere scrubbers worked overtime to remove toxins and carbon dioxide as it was.
I wish I knew how to reduce the gravity. It would make it so much easier.
Reg shook his head. He had done as much as he could. He needed another brain and ODIN, the computer, was badly damaged.
There was no one to talk to other than himself or ODIN, who tracked his movements with small sensors placed everywhere in the ship.
“ODIN, please stop being obvious when tracking me with the cameras, please? It bothers me.”
The cameras all became still and were a simple background.
Still, there was the feeling of movement that was just beyond his sensory range.
“ODIN, scan entire ship. Log anyone that has moved in the last ten minutes and print the results to my pad.”
The response was swift.
One. Listed as Lieutenant Regulus Bondman, sous chef, temporarily in command of the Ursus.
Funny, the computer has developed a sense of humor.
Weird, it seems that I’m missing something.
Reg walked down the hallway. The sounds of his footsteps attenuated by the thin air in the ship. His feet sounded far away.
Or, is it because I’m hypoxic?
“Ugh! I’m dying and no one is here to help me!” He punched the wall next to the kitchen door as he went in. “I’ll be dead in a month, choking on my own waste.”
“ODIN, play something rock hard. Something from the group, Twisted Fate.”
The music sounded tinny, as if all of ODIN’s speakers were blown out.
“ODIN, cancel music.” The sounds were terrible. It reminded him of when he was a teenager. His dad said it sounded like rending metal.
Right now, his dad was correct.
He wished he was with his old man now, so he could ask him for advice. For help.
Henry Kristopher “Hawk” Bondman, Ph.D. The senior astrophysicist at University of Nova Aquila. His wisdom and wit for raising the children along with the matriarch of the family, Penelope Bondman, Ph.D. and professor of studies at the same school.
Reg loved them both. He would have loved to be at his parent’s house now, drinking mom’s version of coffee. Deep, dark, and would cause your heart to do palpitations for hours after you drank a cup.
“What!” Reg yelled to the room. “Where are you?”
Then, an ear-splitting scream. He looked down the table.
Forks, knives, spoons for eyes made a face on the flat surface.
And it screamed his name.
It was Calli’s voice.
The circle of spoons looked like Calli’s beautiful eyes.
Okay, I’m officially freaked out.
He ran out the door into the hallway. Calli’s image was visible on a wall and then faded as he stared at it.
Wake up! Come back to the hear and now. Mom and dad would expect you to think your way out. C’mon Reg, how would you leave a legacy? What would you say if you could send them a message?
“That’s it!” Reg snapped his fingers and headed to the bridge.
He climbed the steps to the command level, and there he saw her.
Most of her, anyway.
Her face was fully formed, but the rest of her body appeared skeletal, like a real life stick figure drawn by a child in an art class. Bones took shape over the basic construction, but the eyes were Calli’s.
“Reg.” Her mouth articulated his name. “You left me.”
“No!” Regulus’ mind almost unhinged. “We were ordered to shelter in place. The doctor even locked the ramp.”
The ghost took a hesitant step towards him. She was fully formed, naked, but with the fine, downy fur that was her species that made it heaven to touch her.
Reg shook his head.
“Calli? You can’t be Calli.” His voice was high and tight.
“No, we are a recreation of the one that you last spoke to over the communication systems. The details of her appearance are in the medical files.” The Calli-Clone said. “We felt it imperative that you are not alone. No one needs to die here.”
“Her medical file? Ugh, never mind. You know everything. I’m already dead. The Longbow crashed into the planet that you’re from, we had a hull breach and we vented three-quarters of the atmosphere in the runabout. So, I’m dead in a few days, long before rescue is possible.” Then he got angry. “And you, all of your kind, turn us into some kind of alien that eats everything.”
“No, Reg.” She took a hesitant step. “We’re not changing anyone. There was a simple mismatch of our technology and your alien biology. We didn’t understand the senescence of your kind.”
She smiled in a way that was so much like Calli. It took Reg’s breath away.
“We meant no harm, only to heal. We didn’t understand what death is to you and the reanimated needed protein. It was an error. But, we learned. The more there are of us, the more we understand.” She reached towards him. “Come, take my hand. Let’s sit down and talk.”
Reg recoiled in horror.
“Really, Reg.” She smiled gently. “Nanobots are in you now. A touch by my hand won’t change anything.”
“Still, you’re just a pile of nanobots holding hands.” He tried to sound braver than he was.
“I feel cold.” Calli-Clone folded her arms over her breasts. “I need to find some clothes. I’m not just ‘a pile of nanobots holding hands, Reg. Down to the very molecule, I am physically a perfect Callisto. Her medical profile is in our memory. Even down to the scars.”
“So, you have her memories?”
“No.” She looked at him with sad eyes. “We have her emotions, but we are not Calli.
“Teach us.” Her face brightened with a smile again. “We can learn about the species of your society and be a huge benefit to everyone. Yes, there were errors made in first contact. Don’t let it devolve into something that it’s not. Let me be Calli.”
She held out her hand, again, and he refused to hold it. She was as intelligent as Calli and just as well spoken.
And she looked so very much like her. Down to the scar on the shoulder she sported from a surgery after a climbing accident when she was young.
Except for tattoos. They were conspicuously absent. A skull with a brace of pistols as crossbones from her favorite novel was missing from her left breast.
And his name. Regulus Bondman, tattooed to the inside of her thigh, was also missing. Neither tattoo was ever recorded in any medical file.
So, they don’t know everything. Reg pulled at his chin. That’s useful.
“Reg, where is my room?” He led her to their room a few doors down.
When she entered the room, she made a slow circuit around until she came to a picture on a low table and picked it up. It was the image of them at a party.
“You and Calli were mated?” She looked at Reg.
“We were intimate.” He answered and she put the portrait of them down.
She went towards the bed of the small quarters and pulled on the knob of a drawer to lifted out sheer negligee.
“Should I wear this?” She gave him a sideways glance. “This is not in the database.”
“I thought you wanted a uniform?” Reg infuriated by this intruder pawing through Calli’s stuff. “You’ll need her uniform is in the closet.”
“Reg, Relax. We have a long time to learn.” Her smile faltered a little and she opened the closet. “You should teach me the nuances of what I will need to know to be an ambassador to the other worlds.”
“Ah, no. You aren’t even organic. You’re a…” He paused. “I don’t know what the hell you are.”
“If you were to take a skin sample, you’ll find that I have cells, albumin, DNA, mitochondrial function.” She looked at him, a tear formed in the corner of her blue-husky dog eye. “I’m as real as Calli. I’m also more than her.”
He watched her dress, this artificial construct of his dead Calli. Then was revolted at himself for thinking of her body. He knew what kind of message he should send to the nanobots.
“What’s wrong, Reg?” She stroked his shoulder. “We can make it to the shipping lanes. You have a ten metric tons of gelled protein. We can convert them into oxygen. It won’t be a problem to create enough oxygen for your survival. We can survive without oxygen, so only enough for you is needed.”
He stood at the docking port and looked out the porthole for a moment. This clear, armored ceramic that sealed between the interior of the ship to the vacuum of space was where the doctor made her final goodbye.
“What if a planet won’t accept your presence in their environment?”
“We will convince them. We will change them for the better, they will see we are good for people.” She smiled. “They won’t be sick, they won’t age, if they fight, we will change them.”
“Right.” He yanked on the airlock manual override lever and grabbed the passageway handrail.
The Calli-Clone didn’t have time to scream before she was swept up in the roar of hurricane force winds and out the black hole into space. Reg pushed the lever back to the “close” position and locked it.
He had to send a message. In a month, he would suffocate to death. Then, the nightmare would begin.
He would be modified by the nanobots that were in him. They would fix the dead cells of his body and he wouldn’t remember anything.
With a sigh, he sat down and started the video journal of the last days of his life that was to be transmitted to the Medical Network automatically.
First order of business.
“ODIN, navigation change. Plot a course for the surface of Gliese 687.” Reg paused for a moment after the confirm screen popped up on his screen.
He tapped in his password.
Are you sure? (Y/n)
Am I sure? That’s twisted humor for sure.
He gave a bitter laugh and pressed the green pixel.
Reg didn’t notice any change, but at twice the speed of light, the red dwarf star would appear to be small and blueish as he approached.
“I’ll be dead anyway.”
He tapped a command on the pad and turned on the captain’s communications screen, took a breath and began.
“ODIN, lock navigation controls.” Reg thought a few minutes, then made his way to the engineering section of the ship.
With a sigh, he pulled the panels off the core navigational controls, pulled the circuit interface cards from the slot and snapped them in half.
“It’s done.” Reg whispered to no one in particular.
“ODIN,” Lt. Regulus Bondman, sous chef, in his first command, gritted his teeth. “I’m sorry, bud.”
He had killed the ship. Their next stop was in the radiant arms of a red dwarf star.
Reg trudged back towards the bridge and sat heavily in the captain’s seat and began recording video.
“I am Regulus Bondman, the sous chef in the kitchen onboard of the Exploration Ship Longbow. I am, so far as I know, the sole survivor of the catastrophe that has killed everyone on board of the Longbow.” He took a deep breath. It was more of a gasp, really. “Do not attempt to rescue me. The Ursus is a quarantined ship. Repeat: The Ursus is a plague ship. This will be my death journal and I will leave the video cameras on to record every moment until the Ursus enters the photosphere of Gliese 687. I will be dead at least two weeks before the Ursus gets close enough for anyone to receive the signal. I have the computer set to transmit all data when it is in range. Do not approach. This is a plague ship.“
While he sat there with his face in his hands and wept, a soft, feminine hand touched his shoulder.
“Reg, why did you do that to my other self?” The husky-blue eyes of the husky-hybrid sparkled with anger.
“Can you show me where I can get clothes?” The nude Calli-Clone asked as if she didn’t know.