Monday, December 24, 2012
Spores from space.
Roy Poirier and Selena Burridge were walking on the ice-cap, looking for meteorites.
“What have you got, babe?” called Roy, as Selena waved from fifty meters away.
Selena was getting tired, with the wind howling at about sixty kilometers an hour, and they had been leaning into it since they set out. Roy’s tall form was temporarily obscured by horizontally blowing powdered ice.
Selena yelled in a frustrated voice, partially drowned out by the Hercules transport plane, running all four engines up on the end of their two-thousand meter ice runway, preparatory to taking off after a supply delivery. From three kilometers away, normally it would have been less obtrusive, but they were directly behind it.
“I don’t know,” she yelled in an exasperated tone. “Get over here!”
Roy planted a fluorescent-orange painted stick into the snow, so he could find the exact spot again, and slowly trudged the short distance to her. It was their day off. Normally meteorite searches were much more widespread, but the truth is, the supply of meteorites was replenished daily, and motor transport was a commodity that was not lightly used on day’s off for recreation.
There wasn’t much to do around here on your day off, mused Roy, except drink, and smoke, and write letters, or watch TV. It was a little hobby of his, Roy had explained, the wind blows the top layer of snow off, and you look for little black pebbles. The actual bedrock was so far below, that it almost had to be a meteorite. The ice-pack under them was precipitated, it wasn’t glacial in origin. Anyway, she had seemed to buy it. It was necessary to get her alone, and not with a hundred ears eavesdropping in on every conversation, as in the mess hall or the community centre and recreation building.
Selena was a tall, violet-eyed honey-blonde, and Roy was a single man, although she was married. If you accepted what she said about her husband, very little of which was complimentary, Roy figured that he had a chance. In any case, she was attractive, and they were going to be stuck here for the winter, and what did he have to lose? She was twenty-five, and Roy was twenty-eight.
In some forlorn fashion, they had become friends. Ultimately, Roy was afraid to make the move, which might destroy their friendship. Selena was seemingly oblivious to his needs, hopes and desires, some of which had not been entirely convincing, even to Roy in his most private thoughts. The truth is, Roy had a conscience, which was a damned inconvenient thing sometimes, and he had found her to be a very lonely person, lost in some ways.
“Are you cold?” he asked solicitously, as he approached.
She shook her head negatively. She pointed at the ground.
“What?” he asked. “Have you got one?”
He said this with a tone, half-mocking, half-chiding, and half disbelief.
“I don’t believe it,” he challenged her.
“No, dummy, it’s not a meteorite,” she said, with a bright smile lighting up her face.
“Where?” he asked.
Still not seeing anything of interest; he was looking for a black spot, a stone, a rock, a pebble on the surface of the snow.
“Here,” she said, falling to her knees and then going down on all fours, closely examining some tiny little thing he couldn’t make out. His scratched-up old goggles were rimed with frost already, and they had only been out about ten minutes.
Roy didn’t see anything.
“What?” he asked again.
Selena ignored him, pulling out a tiny little digital camera. Still on her knees, she began to try to shoot some pictures, but the white stuff which appeared to be growing there didn’t have much contrast.
“Huh?” asked Roy again.
He dropped down beside her, and pushed his snow goggles up onto his forehead.
“What is it, Roy?” she asked breathlessly, as the flash unit momentarily dazzled him.
“If you would just stop your blasted amateur photography shoot for half a minute, I may be able to tell you,” he griped.
It looked like a simple white mould. Even all bundled-up in the snowsuit, her hair or something smelled fresh and flowery. He felt his pulse begin to pick up. Sure enough, as he touched it with the tip of a gloved hand, it certainly looked like mould. It closely resembled the stuff that grows on vegetables when they have been left too long in the fridge.
“Well, that’s strange, but it’s not a meteorite,” he told her. “It’s interesting, though.”
For a moment, their eyes met, and he had to force himself to look away and try to be objective about the situation. They were just friends, out killing time, looking for meteorites.
“I wish I had something to put it in,” she mumbled, searching in her capacious pockets for something, anything that would hold a sample.
She wasn’t worried about contaminating it, she was just curious at this point.
“Don’t bother with it,” he advised her, risking another quick look, almost grateful that she was busy rummaging through all the suit pockets.
“Do you get a lot of this around here?” she asked, as they unexpectedly locked eyes again.
As a seismologist, she wasn’t totally familiar with the flora and fauna of Antarctica, but she had never heard of anything like this before. This was her first time on the base.
Roy had been here five years in a row. She thought he was an expert. Roy was grateful that with frozen cheeks, she wouldn’t be able to see him blushing like a schoolboy. He rose to his feet, to stop moving for too long brought a sense of chill. As a weather specialist, studying the effects of global warming on the Ross Ice Shelf, this was not just out of his league, but beyond any interest of Roy’s.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Ask Moriarity.”
“I will,” she replied, and ripped up a little bit of snow, impregnated with strands of white filaments, which seemed stiff and hard, and not all floppy and soft like mould should, he observed. Still, it was awful damned cold today. Perhaps the stuff was just half-frozen.
“Yes,” said Roy. “Moriarity will know. But I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it, that’s for sure.”
Why then, did his heart pound so much? Perhaps it would be a good time to go in and warm up, and who knows what might happen, once in the privacy of his room? He already knew she liked scotch. The challenge was how to pour enough of it down her throat…
“Have you had enough for one day?” she asked, seemingly unable to tear her eyes off the snow, where the growth was all but invisible.
She was still holding the sample in her gloved fingers, studying it curiously. It didn’t seem all that impressive to Roy.
Roy’s heart sank. Were they going looking for Moriarity? That wasn’t what he had in mind at all.
“Sure, why not?” he said with a slightly rueful grin. “This is as cold as I’ve ever known it, this early in the season.”
They heard the roaring of the Hercules, as it thundered into the sky, circling once over the base to gain altitude, making sure all systems were go before its long trip over the frozen ocean.
He fished in his pocket, rewarded with the feel of a film canister. He pried off the cap, and stuck the film in his upper coat pocket, and gave the empty canister to her.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s see what Moriarity has to say about this…”
Doctor Moriarity had heard all the jokes, which were based upon Sherlock Holmes’ well-known arch-enemy. Normally a light-hearted person, capable of making fun of himself at the drop of a hat, he had never let it bother him.
As a young lad, he had read a book on put-downs, and being a small, slight boy, he had used them to good effect; taking a little of the stuffing out of the bullies that haunt every elementary school yard. The fact that his father, a Marine drill sergeant, had taught him a few moves, had made him not just confident, but perhaps a little too bold for his own good.
What happened to bullies, or what they thought of him, didn’t matter much to Thomas Moriarity. It was only when he realized the effect of those friendly insults on his friends, relatives and acquaintances. Then he realized that being a little too quick on the draw, plus the advantage he had in terms of sheer verbosity and his remarkably sharp wit. Then he had learned that every joke has to have a victim. Sticks and stones can break your bones…but words can hurt too.
Yet some of those lines were truly, unbelievably funny. That was when he had learned to use the lines on himself, to make himself the victim of his own jokes. It was only later, when someone had pointed out that putting oneself down all the time, might indicate a certain lack of self-esteem, that he had cured the problem altogether. The skills, while allowed to rust, had been exercised from time to time, but only when strictly necessary. Only when the situation truly called for it, and never to help himself, but only others who could not stand up to, or defend themselves against, something or someone bigger and more powerful than themselves.
Doctor Thomas Moriarity had built a lot of friendships with the kind of people he cared about, and the enemies he had inevitably made had learned to give him a wide berth when possible, and treat him with the utmost respect and courtesy when contact was necessary or unavoidable.
When Roy and Selena arrived at the door of the small building he shared with a team of botanists and biologists, pounding on his door and entering with a flurry of finely-crystallized shards of wind-driven ice, he sat up to take a quick break from his studies. Snapping off the power switch on the scanning electron microscope, he was ready for a break anyway. His eyes weren’t getting any younger, and neither was the rest of him.
“Hey, you old stick in the mud,” called Roy to the balding, round-faced man inside.
“Are calling me a queer, Roy?” he muttered mildly, rewarded with a quick gape of disbelief from Selena and a loud guffaw from Roy.
“Haw! I’ve never heard that one before,” admitted Roy. “For the record; no.”
Roy stood there grinning for a moment. Then he pushed Selena forward in the direction of the lab.
She stood there looking around the room for a moment, unsure of what to say to the mustachioed figure, with his white lab coat, twinkling grey eyes visible behind thick, wire-rimmed half-glasses.
“I don’t think he’s capable of molesting you, little girl,” Roy quipped unhelpfully.
As a newcomer to the base, Selena was still shy, and didn’t know her own place, let alone the names and status of all the individual people on base. While she had been introduced to all the staff on arrival, there were upwards of two hundred of them, and that sort of thing takes a while.
She found herself tongue-tied for a half a moment. But Roy wasn’t shy about anything, as she was quickly discovering.
“She found something weird out on the hill,” Roy explained. “Come on, babe, give it up.”
Selena pulled the black plastic film can out of her coat pocket, and proffered it up to Moriarity.
“It looks like some kind of mould,” she said shyly, wondering if she was going to be laughed at like some newcomer, who didn’t know anything, which was in fact exactly what she was. For some reason she wondered why she didn’t have more confidence.
Roy was tipping Thomas the wink, and indicating Selena with sideways jerks of the head and rapidly twitching eyebrows.
Thomas Moriarity understood the situation perhaps better than Roy himself, and grinning a little in a non-judgmental fashion, he took the canister from her and led them into the other room, where the stores were kept, and where some of the simpler tasks were performed.
“Mould, is it?” he murmured.
Inwardly he marveled at Roy’s sexual ambitions. Roy was anything but handsome, but he seemed to compensate for it with sociability and rough good humour that couldn’t be ignored, whether you approved or not. And Selena was almost too good to be true. But she was clearly a grown woman, and the doctor had a funny feeling that she had learned to look after herself.
Selena wouldn’t have been selected to come to Little America if she had been a fluffy-headed bimbo, that’s for sure. He wondered if Roy had figured that out yet. You couldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a woman’s mind by the size of her breasts. Selena wasn’t just another pretty face. He and Roy had been friends for a long time. The African-American scientist was a poker buddy, and they talked shop quite a bit. Over time, they had gotten to know a little bit about each other’s families back in the States. Tom wondered if Roy was biting off more than he could chew with this one. But that wasn’t any concern of his. In an isolated environment such as this, you got to know the people around you pretty well.
“Can you get us a cup of coffee?” Doctor Moriarity asked, and Selena looked wildly around as if trying to locate a coffee pot and percolator.
“He means me,” grumped Roy, his flashing dark eyes glaring mock-fiercely at the doctor.
The tall, gangly figure of Roy shuffled off while Doctor Moriarity showed Selena how slides were prepared for examination.
“Ah, yes,” he muttered, temporarily lost in his own little world.
She stood there attempting to be fascinated, or at least polite, but felt some inner regret at putting the aging scientist to all this trouble.
As if sensing her unease, he looked up from his task from time to time with a smile, but almost unbelievably, he found her slightly intimidating. Her violet eyes and slim, lithe figure weren’t disfigured by the heavy parka and fur-lined hood, in fact, he could see at a glance why Roy was in the process of falling in love with her.
Yes, there was a distinct chance his friend was going to get hurt, but there was nothing to be said or done about it. If he had been a little younger, the good doctor might have given it a go himself. Not that he would have stood the chance of the proverbial snowball in hell, he thought.
Love is blind, but lust has crystal-clear vision. When he got the chance, he would write that one down. You never know when you might need a good line.
Right about then; the two of them could hear Roy opening up fridge door after fridge door and cussing mildly in the outer room.
“Maybe I should go help him,” suggested Selena helpfully.
“No! Let him suffer,” said the doctor with a hint of mystery evident in his cultured voice, the product of years of education, as well as decades of social interaction with councils, committees, and boards of governors.
She giggled a little at that one, and Thomas Moriarity felt a little more comfortable, aware that if nothing else, she was a human being, and they could get along at some level.
“Try the other one, the far one,” Moriarity bellowed out through the open door, as Roy had obviously started in the wrong corner of the lab, and opened up the ones with all his samples in them. The whole place was crawling with samples, you had to admit.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they heard the peevish response from the other room.
“All righty, then,” said the doctor. “Let’s have a look-see.”
Then he led her back out to the lab, where all the really interesting machines and devices were located.
He snapped the switch on the optical microscope suite. His studies of fossilized microbial life encapsulated in samples of sedimentary rock taken from hundreds of meters below the surface of the snow-pack could wait.
“This system is much more suitable for this size of critter,” he began without preamble.
Placing the slide on the focus plane of the stereoscopic viewer, he rotated the heads until the magnification range was proper for the specimen. Taking a quick look, he changed heads again.
“What were you guys doing out there, anyway?” he asked curiously, studying the specimen.
“Looking for meteorites,” Roy told him, as he hesitantly sipped at the steaming mug.
Roy and Selena had taken off their coats. The heap of cast-off outerwear steamed on the coat-rack in the corner by the double door and vestibule. Most buildings used for professional purposes had a deep tray by the doors for boots, and they were wearing the courtesy slippers which were widespread in the community.
The plane was four hundred nautical miles out to sea. At this time of year, and at this time of day, the crew could look forward to a surreal twilight that might go on for six or ten hours. Even on arrival at the Rio Grande airbase on Tierra del Fuego, it would be dark, cold, wet and miserable according to the weather brief. Although it would be warmer there, relatively speaking. Major Steve ‘Slick’ Dayton turned to the right, taking a long, hard look over at the face of Captain Bret ‘Hairball’ Cheevers. Bathed in the dim green glow of the cockpit instruments, is partner seemed alert and well rested.
“I’m going for a whiz,” Steve informed him.
The copilot gave a little shake of the controls, making sure he had it. They weren’t running on autopilot just yet. This was never a routine flight.
“Roger,” said Bret from the far side, turning and giving him a quick nod.
It felt so good to un-strap for a few minutes.
Dayton could see his copilot doing small shoulder exercises, and sitting up straighter. These were long flights, and it was good to get out of the seat and move around from time to time.
Their loadmaster for the trip was Master Sergeant Phil Zatylny. The Major could see his dark form slumped down in the seat provided for him. That son of a gun could go to sleep at the drop of a hat. There were times Dayton envied him this ability. Making his way back through the aircraft to the small head, an essential item on this long-range transport, the chill of the cargo bay became apparent. The cold came as a real contrast after the snug feel of the Hercules’ cockpit, spacious as it was. While the walk was nice, he wasn’t planning on wasting a whole lot of time back here.
His bladder was full, all that coffee in the weather office before takeoff. He should have taken the time to fully relieve himself before climbing into the pilot’s seat, but he hadn’t really felt the need. It was a long trip home, and he just wanted to get going. While fully experienced in Antarctic flying, Steve was aware at all times, not so much of the dangers, as the price of a mistake. They all accepted the same dangers, no matter where they flew. But somehow this was different. The very nature of the cold, forbidding, world-encircling ocean below made it a kind of a lonely flight, where the small electronic voice of the tower, bidding you ‘farewell and good luck,’ was said in pure and humble sincerity. And sooner or later they all had to fly out of here.
In the tiny washroom, the buffeting and turbulence were a distinct inconvenience, and Steve was having trouble getting the flow of urine started. When one massive buffet came up and slammed him into the wall of the cubicle, he gasped out a curse in dismay, although as a professional, military airman, swearing was usually left out of his vocabulary. It’s not that he didn’t know the words, but all-weather, night-time instrument flights in poor conditions requires clarity above all else.
But he managed to get the pee flowing, and then all of a sudden, he felt a kind of lifting force pick him up off the floor and set him down with a bang again. He cursed again, zipping up hastily. Damn it all to hell! But he’d rather piss himself in his seat if conditions were worsening.
As he popped open the door, it suddenly occurred to him that someone was screaming up there in the cockpit. Steve pelted down the hall, with a blast of adrenalin rocking his guts and spurring him on. The ceiling kept coming down and hitting him on the head. Bret was hoarsely calling his name at the top of his lungs…Steve couldn’t get into his seat…he was bouncing around too much…all he could do is clutch onto the grab bars and try to force himself down…he could get himself down…voices screaming in fear, all around him…he could force himself into the seat but needed two hands to keep himself there…
“Ah! Jesus!” Steve could hear Bret and Phil, both men were screaming at once.
“I can’t strap in!” Steve yelled, trying to tell them something, but what good would it do?
“We’re stalling,” shouted Bret, sawing at the controls. Putting the nose down in these conditions, at this weight, would be touchy, especially in what had suddenly become zero visibility. Out the left window, there was nothing to be seen, all the engines were good…
“Put the nose down!” shouted Steve. “What’s killing all our lift?”
Unknown to Steve, there was a fast-growing shroud of white filaments covering the plane.
To the life-form covering it, it seemed unusually warm out. This spurred its reproduction.
The President of the United States sat at his desk in the situation room, relaxed, confident, with an ankle across his knee, and leaning slightly back in the chair. Surrounded by a semi-circle of grim faces, they all waited silently and impatiently as a small crew of assistants scurried about. One man rose, General of the United States Air Force Mark Taylor.
“The Hercules went down about four hundred and fifty nautical miles from the edge of the Antarctic landmass,” he began, clicking the thing in his hand and bringing up the first image.
“They were en route to an air base in southern Argentina,” he added. “There wasn’t time for radio transmissions, or else it happened very quickly. So far no tracking signals, but that isn’t surprising, due to the great depths of the ocean at that point, and the fact that the nearest, most recent satellite over-flight is, or was, rather, three hundred miles west of there. We’ll have another shot in a half-hour or so.”
Other satellites were being diverted to this task even as the briefing went on.
“Now please listen to this very carefully, ladies and gentlemen.”
The Air Force general sat down, but retained control of the button for the moment. The fourteen men and women in the room, all members of the Cabinet or senior advisers, the highest-ranking officers, and civilian advisers, sat in the swiveling chairs and listened intently.
“…seems to be some kind of extra-terrestrial life-form…clinging to a few tiny meteorite fragments…must have evolved at slightly colder temperatures…the process has speeded up…hope someone reads this soon…fruiting bodies…rapid growth rate…not carbon or silicon based…almost like arsenic and something else…”
A loud burst of talk drowned out the man’s voice, so distant, desperate and urgent, the fear and tension evident in every syllable.
“Shut up!” shouted the president.
“Yes, Mister President,” they all murmured humbly, nodding sagely.
“Tell me more, Mark,” he commanded.
The general rewound the machine and played it again up to that point at low volume, then turned it up again; noting, “He was texting and using the radio. Some of it’s quite technical.”
“…quickly forming mushroom-like colonies…divides into three equal parts about every fifty-seven minutes…rapidly taking over my lab and offices…”
The machine stopped for the moment.
“There’s more, but that’s enough. Anyway, it’s more for the technical people to analyze, Mister President,” stated the general firmly. “You’ve got the gist of the problem.”
“The next shot is the really compelling one,” noted the general. “We have one hell of a problem on our hands, ladies and gentlemen.”
He rose again with alacrity, seemingly unable to remain in his seat calmly.
The next picture popped up, and they all gasped in amazement. The room was dead silent, as the group all stared with open jaws and raised eyebrows. It was a satellite picture at high resolution, although the typical low Antarctic visibility meant the pictures were relatively poor.
“While they don’t exactly look like mushrooms, don’t forget mushrooms and funguses take many forms. They come in all colours and all shapes and sizes, Mister President,” a small, dark, bearded man, Doctor Rami Panagelow, who was barely known to the President; spoke up now.
“The oldest slime moulds are centuries, perhaps millennia old, and cover many square kilometers,” Doctor Panagelow told them. “There’s quite a large one in British Columbia, living under the forest floor.”
Rising, he strode over to the big screen, and pointed at various features while the general stood to one side, watching with a kind of barely-repressed tension. Clearly the general considered this an extreme threat to the security of the United States. The mysterious loss of the aircraft was serious, and any kind of a threat to the Little America base and the men and women stationed there was to be considered important indeed.
“What is the scale?” the President asked. “How big are these things?”
“We estimate these to be six or seven meters in height, Mister President,” the scientist told him. “There are the fruiting bodies, presumably, that he was talking about. These long strands are the mycelium. That more or less corresponds to the normal underground growth of a mushroom. It’s on the surface, perhaps due to being on snow and ice as opposed to topsoil. Or perhaps it just evolved that way…”
The man continued.
“This might be somewhat analogous to a bacterium,” he went on. “At the time of the avian flu in Asia, there was some speculation that it had arrived from space. But normal mutation accounts for Avian flu’s differentness, and in fact it had all the normal types of DNA stands…”
The general made a hand motion, and the gentleman quickly shut up. He stood there, patiently awaiting a barrage of questions.
“Just exactly how dangerous is this thing?” asked the President calmly.
“Unless we can figure out a way to kill it, or unless it runs up against something else that kills it,” sighed the scientist, “Or perhaps weather, maybe pollution…”
“What are you getting at?” gasped the President of the United States.
“If Doctor Moriarity was right in estimating its rate of reproduction and if nothing stops it, it could take over the world, covering every square inch of land, every square inch of the Arctic ice cap, in about three years, Mister President,” the scientist told the stunned, silent members of the briefing circle.
“Bearing in mind we will be taking countermeasures, we probably have a little longer,” he added into the starkly silent room. “Mister President, we require nuclear authorization. Immediately.”
General Taylor stood there nodding vigorously beside him.
“Immediately, Mister President,” said General Taylor. “I plan on having warheads-on-target in about six hours. I need authorization immediately, sir. Or I am prepared to act unilaterally, and to hell with the personal consequences.”
There was a moment of absolute dead silence. The President and his advisers just sat and stared at the screen, and the scientist, and the general. Then consternation broke loose and pandemonium reigned, as everyone was all shouting at once.
Roy Halling. Aircraft at Little America: Andrew Mandemaker.