by Chesney Parker
The crushing impact on the hull of the ship caused Andy and Glinnis to duck their heads. They stayed low for a several seconds, looking at each other across the control room. Then the high pitched whine of escaping air galvanised them into action; they both dived headlong for the emergency locker.
They were well trained to meet such an eventuality, of course, but no amount of training could prepare them for the horrifying reality of their life giving air actually disappearing around them.
Glinnis was first to don her suit and then she quickly helped Andy with his. Andy immediately launched himself back across the weightless cabin to the control panel. He quickly scanned the board for a status reading of the ship’s condition.
“What was it?” said Glinnis, joining her husband at the controls.
“Don’t know yet, but whatever it was, it punctured the hull. The control room and the living quarters have both lost pressure. The engine room’s still ok and the main computer and air tanks seem to be intact. But I’m not so sure about communications. We’ve lost the main tracer to Earth and the outside scanners on the starboard side have both gone blank. Looks like something hit us pretty hard.”
“OK,” said Glinnis. “I’ll go see what it looks like outside.”
She started to move away, but Andy restrained her for a moment. He knew she was right, of course. Glinnis was a fully qualified astro engineer, with thousands of hours of space walking experience, whereas he had been trained as a pilot and computer specialist and had spent most of his time inside the various ships he’d been assigned to. But he still felt uncomfortable about the division of duties on this occasion. It just didn’t seem right to expect his wife to venture out into a potentially dangerous environment, while he stayed behind and watched the monitors.
“All right,” he finally said. “But you’d better use the emergency exit on the port side. It’s still ok there.” Glinnis looked at the monitor he was indicating. “And take a wide sweep well away from the ship before you come around to starboard.”
She turned and was about to head for the other side of the cabin when Andy suddenly stopped her again. “Hey. Wait up. You haven’t locked the seal on your face mask.” He reached over and snapped the locking mechanism into place under her chin. “You really should be more careful.” he said, then added with a wry grin, “I mean, leaving the cap off the toothpaste dispenser is one thing, but…”
“Oh you!” she cut him off. “You’re too fussy, that’s your trouble. You know these things seal perfectly without locking them down. Anyway, you just go look at all your pretty little lights over there and let me get on with the real job.” She blew him a kiss from inside the face mask and kicked off across the room.
This last gibe of hers stung him a little, but he smiled bravely and returned the kiss.
Glinnis strapped a portable camera and a tool kit to her belt as she passed through the airlock and then she pushed away from the hull with a gentle, measured kick. She was very confident about what she had to do, but despite this (and regardless of the bravado she had just displayed), her heart was pounding in her chest and there were beads of perspiration on her brow.
As she drifted away from the ship, Andy saw an expanding view from her camera of the port side on his monitor. Everything looked normal. The sleek hull glistened in the light of the nearby star they were approaching and the black void backdrop seemed the perfect setting for one of those holograms they sell to tourists on the Mars.
As she approached the full extent of her safety line, Glinnis expertly aimed her guidance jets so as to brake her outward movement. Then she set herself on a slow circumnavigation of the rest of the ship. “Well, it looks ok so far,” she said.
“Nothing else has changed at this end,” said Andy. “So I guess the damage is contained to whatever we have now. But just be prepared to get back inside quickly if you spot anything that might be threatening.”
“Oh?” said Glinnis. “I didn’t realise you had an alien complex. Do you expect we’ll find little green men swarming all over the starboard side? They didn’t find any on Mars, you know.” She liked to tease him, especially when he could not retaliate.
“Well, Lord knows we’ve been searching for them for long enough. Maybe we just got lucky today.” There was a forced smile in Andy’s voice as he returned the sarcasm.
The view in the monitor now began to show the dark side of the ship, and Glinnis turned up her powerful suit lights to illuminate the area. As she slowly circled at the end of her hundred metre safety line, the view below revealed a large scar down the front half of the hull and Andy immediately spotted the shattered communications node.
“Well, there’s your problem,” said Glinnis, waving the camera slowly along the length of the damage.
“OK. Hold it steady a moment while I zoom in.”
“Wait till I’m down. You’ll be able to see it clearer then.”
“No!” said Andy. “Let me look around a bit first.”
“Scaredy cat! Boy, I didn’t know I married a whimp.”
Andy ignored her taunting. He knew it was just Glinnis’ way of staying brave in a frightening situation. He took over control of her camera, scanning the full length of the damage. “Is that colour for real, or is your camera playing tricks on me?”
“You mean the green?”
“Yeah. From in here it looks bright iridescent.” He was referring to a coloured smear which spread out for about a metre on each side of the damage.
“Well, it looks green to me too,” said Glinnis. “But it may be different up close. These lights can do funny things at times. Now, if you’re quite certain there are no aliens waiting to attack me, I’ll get down and see what has to be done to patch the old girl up.”
“OK, but be careful. And don’t go too near that green patch till we know what it is.”
Glinnis tugged gently on the safety line to start her decent to the hull, saving the energy in her guidance jets for more important, perhaps life saving, manoeuvres. As she approached, Andy could see that the gash in the side of their ship was quite deep and he was relieved that it had not continued down to the engine compartment.
Just before landing, Glinnis fired her jets for about half a second to avoid the damaged area, then she switched on her boot magnets so as not to bounce. Having done this type of thing a thousand times before, her squat landing was perfect.
“Let’s have a look at the communications node first,” said Andy. “It looked like a write-off to me.”
Glinnis turned down the magnetic force on her boots so she could walk. She then headed for the damaged bulge midway down the length of the hull, her fluid gait accentuating the trim curves of her body under the skintight suit. She kept the camera pointed at the long scar in the hull as she walked. “Well, it still looks just as green from here,” she said.
“Move in as close as you can so I can get a micro of it.”
Glinnis stopped and squatted down next to the green powdery film that spread out from the edge of the gash, holding the camera against the hull to give a steady picture.
Andy adjusted the camera’s focus and zoomed in for a microscopic view. A few seconds later he yelled, “Get out of there Glin. It’s alive!”
Glinnis jumped back in fright, lost her footing and went spinning off into space like some cadet on her first training mission. A few expert squirts from her jets, however, stopped the spinning, but she did not reduce her outward velocity until she reached the full length of her safety line.
“Sorry honey,” said Andy. “Didn’t mean to put you off balance like that.”
“What do you mean ‘it’s alive’?”
“Just that. I did a micro shot of the stuff and I could see individual organisms running around. There are millions of them. They’re piled hundreds deep.” He was replaying the micro scene on one of his monitors as he spoke. “They’re almost like little spiders, except they’ve got about twenty legs and no apparent head.”
“You sure you didn’t get your wires crossed in there and start playing one of your weirdo movies?”
“Nope. I’m afraid this is for real. Better get back inside so we can work out what to do next.”
“Not on your life, pal. Get the big sealant gun out of the locker and send it out to me. Fast! If you’re right, those little critters are already getting inside. The air seal was broken, remember.” She began manoeuvring herself back to the port side airlock to receive the equipment.
Andy looked up from his control panel for the first time in several minutes, quickly scanning the walls for telltale signs of green. There were none yet, but that did not mean the spiders had not already penetrated the hull. He kicked across the room and swung open the maintenance locker to remove the sealant gun. It had a metre long canister of sealing agent attached and a skilful operator could direct it quite accurately from a distance.
“Did you have time to assess the structural damage to the ship itself?” said Andy, swinging the gun into the airlock.
“As near as I can tell, there’s no major problem. None of the main supports have been cut, just the air seal. Of course, we won’t know for sure till we kick the engines up.”
“That’s comforting… I think.”
Glinnis pulled the sealant gun from the airlock and kicked off from the surface of the ship again. Her passage to the other side was much faster this time, because she used her propulsion jets with almost reckless abandon. When she was positioned 100 metres above the long gash, she attached magnetic grapples to the ends of two auxiliary lines, then fired them down to different points on the hull to secure her position while she operated the sealant gun.
Taking careful aim, she then proceeded to fill the entire length of the damage with a silicone paste that rapidly spread to all corners of the opening. Within a couple of minutes of application, it was solidifying to a hardness only matched by the hull itself. She then widened her aim to cover all visible green patches. Within just a few minutes, the entire scar and surrounding areas had been sealed.
“Atta girl,” said Andy from inside the cabin. “According to my pretty little coloured lights in here, we now have complete seals in both damaged compartments. I’m pumping her up again.”
“Good,” said Glinnis, detaching the auxiliary lines and heading back to the port side airlock. “I’ll be glad to get out of this gear; I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Well, you’ll have to use your suit facilities for the moment. Neither of us is breaking the seal on our suits until we assess the damage from inside and see if we have any uninvited guests.”
“Yes, good point. But make it quick. You know how I hate these suit toilets. You’d think after all these years someone could have come up with a better arrangement.”
When Glinnis came through the inner airlock door, Andy was hovering near the opposite wall. He had already removed two of the soft yielding internal panels, and was working on a third.
“Nothing yet,” he said. “But I haven’t found the right spot yet.” He removed the panel he was working on and said, “Oh shit! Now I have. They’re inside!”
Glinnis flew across the room and swung herself to a sudden stop with the aid of a nearby handrail. “So how do we kill ’em? Insecticide?”
“We can try, but I doubt it’ll work. Anything that can live in vacuum and in air, has to have a slightly different metabolism to the average spider back home.” They both stared at the the green patch for several seconds. It was slowly expanding as they watched. “Get the small sealant gun. That stuff seemed to work on the outside.”
Glinnis darted across the cabin and retrieved the gun from the locker, returning to her husband’s side a few seconds later.
“They’re spreading out faster now, said Andy, moving out of the way so Glinnis could spray the area. “We may have to rip the whole ship apart to get ’em all,”
“What do you think happened?” she said as she worked.
“We must have been side swiped by a small meteoroid that was encrusted with the stuff.” He looked over his wife’s shoulder for a few seconds at the green menace, fear building as he imagined how difficult it would be to contain them if they really got loose. “Well, the sealant seems to be working.” He tried to scratch an itchy part of his neck, but the face mask prevented him. “I wish I knew what they ate, though. Look, you carry on pulling these panels off and spraying ’em and I’ll take a sample and put it through the analyser.”
Andy shot across to the lab desk and picked up a small specimen tube. Glinnis continued the extermination job.
Ten minutes later Glinnis said, “That’s it in here, I think. I’ll go check out the living quarters.” She disappeared through the connecting doorway, leaving Andy staring at the monitors that were analysing the alien creatures. As she passed through the connecting door, however, she gave a gasp which caused Andy to dive after her.
“What is it?” he asked, but then he immediately saw what had caused her reaction. The whole room was full of floating green blobs. They were all over the bed, the kitchen area and lounge chairs. The ‘living quarters’ were just one room, of course. With typical scout ship compactness, every surface was used as a ‘floor’, which was perfectly functional in zero gravity, but hell on the ground.
“Maybe something else got in with the spiders,” said Glinnis, rubbing a piece of the sticky stuff between her fingers. “It’s sort of gritty.”
“Careful, it might be corrosive,” said Andy, as he used a plate from the kitchen to wave the floating pieces out of the way. Then he headed for the bathroom alcove, where the largest concentration of the weird stuff seemed to be. A few seconds later his voice boomed out in her headset, “Oh Glinnis! Honestly! You left the cap off the tooth paste container again! The damn thing emptied it’s entire load as soon as the pressure dropped.”
“Is that what this is? Toothpaste?” Glinnis started laughing and was soon almost hysterical.
Andy, on the other hand, was not amused at all. “Damn it Glin! That’s not funny! We’ve got enough trouble without you adding to it.” His cheeks were flushed behind his face mask, and he was pouting.
Glinnis tried desperately to control her laughter. “Sorry hon. It won’t take long to clean it up when we’ve finished with the spiders.”
“It’s your mess. You clean it up,” said Andy, as he returned to his lab desk with a scowl on his face.
A short while later, Andy stuck his head through the doorway into the living area. “Better make damn sure you get ’em all. I know what they eat now. Iron!”
“Hell!” she said. “But it makes sense I suppose; living on a meteoroid, there’s not much else to eat. I hope they’re allergic to the alloy steel, though, otherwise the whole ship’s structure is in jeopardy. But I thought you said they had no heads. How do they eat?.”
“They seem to ingest by secreting something from their underbellies, then squatting down on top of it. I watched one little guy do just that a couple of minutes ago and when he moved away, there was a small indentation in the stainless steel plate he was on.”
Glinnis looked around the room. “Well, I think I’ve got them all in here, so that about does it.”
As if in reply, a loud alarm sounded. Andy dived back through the door and headed straight for the control panel. “Shit! The stabilisers just failed.” He snapped off the alarm and scanned the board with a practiced eye for more data. “And the navigation gear is playing up too. There must be more of ’em on the loose. Come on! Let’s rip this place apart.”
He reached over and started unsnapping the control panel. Glinnis attacked the lab desk. “You sure you’ve got the specimens secure?” she said over her shoulder.
“Yeah, they’re in glass. I already checked that out. They can’t eat it.” He hung the panel on the side of his chair and started removing modules from the inner console.
For the next ten hours they did, in fact, tear the whole place apart, removing every piece of equipment and stripping the entire ship back to it’s biological shield. In the process, they found several more clusters of spiders and dealt with them, but they also witnessed the shutdown of more vital systems within the ship, including the toilet facilities, much to Glinnis’ disgust.
When they were finished, they floated exhausted in the midst of a confusion of wall panels, control modules and furniture. Although worn out from the seemingly endless search, they were also quite jubilant, however.
“Well, we did it!” said Glinnis. “There’s not a tiny millimetre of this whole ship we haven’t searched. We must have them all.”
“Yep, I reckon so. Let’s get out of these smelly suits and I’ll see if I can fix the shower.”
“And the toilet!” said Glinnis with a look of relief on her face.
“Yeah, sure. And Glin…”
“Sorry I yelled at you about the toothpaste.”
“That’s ok hon. But I still think it was funny.” And this time they both laughed.
Thirty minutes later, they were showering together in the luxury of warm water and perfumed soap. As they sponged each other down, Glinnis said, “You know, I think we should celebrate our victory.” Then she gave him a prolonged and loving kiss.
So, before they got dressed, Andy shoved most of the loose floating items from the living quarters into the control room and they made long and passionate love, suspended in the centre of their dismantled bedroom. They didn’t need the bed, of course, for even the youngest space cadet knows that lovemaking in zero gravity is much more erotic when you’re not touching anything at all; except your partner.
Unfortunately, the specimens in the next room had been doing the same thing for the last ten hours. And, as is their custom, their offspring were mutations designed to take advantage of any new surroundings. So, as the little green parents stood by and waited, the first few thousand of their new children proceeded to eat their way out of the glass container.