Hal and Penny shouldn’t have gotten involved with each other. They were co-workers, with spouses, and in Hal’s case, a couple of cute, green-eyed kids. But on a different planet, a dead, sterile one at that, deprived of the company of those that should be closest, how long can two adults be cooped up, before the biological imperative takes over?
Hal said: “Do you think it’s Karma?”
Penny ignored the question, so he repeated it. She pulled her head out of the electrical cabinet, rubbed her lower back as she straightened, and said: “Do I think what’s Karma?”
He felt a twinge of exasperation. He knew they would soon die together, most likely, but didn’t want to say it out loud. “You know… all this?”
“No,” she said, fatigue and the strain of the previous hours turning her voice ragged. “I don’t know all this.” She emphasized the last two words with a shoulder-rolling mockery of his gesture.
He could read it in her face: you’re worthless to me. As she huffed out in her indignation and stooped back over to solder more wires, acidic hate welled up in his gut. Hal certainly didn’t break his wedding vows with such frequency and vigor, because Penny was all that compatible with him. She might have gone for him if they were back on Earth, but he most definitely would not have gone for Penny. He wasn’t that into ginger-redheads, and she had narrow, unfeminine hips. Now, in this too-small space, he could smell her stale body odor mingle with his own and it sickened him. He stood, beginning to pace as an outlet for his barely-restrained panic.
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
From inside the confined space of the electrical cabinet, Penny said: “No.”
Hal continued pacing, as he strained to hear anything out of the ordinary. He thought the nanobots would announce themselves with a whirring susurration, or a slither of grit-liquid metal. Every few minutes, a perceived noise from outside their sealed lab would freeze Hal in his tracks and force him to cock his head and listen.
Finally, Penny extracted herself from the cabinet. She dumped a spool of wire and a soldering gun onto a nearby countertop, and collapsed into a rolling work chair.
“That’s it.” She rubbed her face with her palms. “Now we just have to wait for the right moment.”
“We can’t just try it now?”
“No, we can’t. We most likely only have enough juice for one attempt. If we pop it without assurance that someone’s on the way to try an extract, we’re only delaying our deaths.”
It had to be an error in the Nanobots’ programming. They were supposed to self-replicate, by converting organic matter to carbon and cannibalizing metal, until their population hit a preset limit.
They freakin’ blew past that limit and kept going.
“How many do you think there are?” asked Hal, still pacing, still stopping every few seconds to listen.
“I’m not familiar with that unit of measure. Is that somewhere between a grundle and a bazillion?”
He saw Penny throw him a glare, but she looked too tired to hold it. She tipped her head back and straightened her legs, so her heels rested on the floor. “They’re programmed to keep about six micrometers from each other, so a cubic centimeter holds 4.6 trillion of them. For the alarms to trip, they’d have had to burst out of the hundred cubic meter test cell. And they just keep replicating, doubling their population every fifteen minutes. That’s the scientific definition of ‘shitload’.”
The intercom beeped, and Hal jumped at the console to hammer on the button to respond. “Who is this?”
In the console was a monitor, which flickered to life, and soon they were looking at a bevy of familiar faces. “We’re in the jump-car,” came the voice of Dr. Polter, the Project Director. “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t reach you and didn’t dare wait.”
Hal and Penny, in the later stages of foreplay in Penny’s lab, had missed the chance to join them. A carelessly tossed undershirt had covered the flashing alarm light.
Hal felt a wave of revulsion when he realized his libido had probably killed him.
Penny said: “We’re okay for now. I just finished rerouting power, so we can trigger a weak EMP from here.”
“Good,” said Dr. Polter. “From what we’re reading up here, they’ve already dispersed to a half-klick radius. Would you be able to knock them out?”
Hal stepped back, so Penny could get a better look at the monitor, as she said: “No. I doubt my kill radius is more than a hundred meters. So I need to wait until the last minute, and then hope the fresh ones don’t spread back through the deactivated units.”
Polter nodded. “Okay. We’ll come back to pick you up as soon as we activate the EMP grid from the remote station. He glanced behind him to a crop-haired, sloe-eyed scientist, wedged uncomfortably between two colleagues. “Cleggins: How long do you think they’ll have?”
Cleggins didn’t respond with words. He screamed.
Dr. Polter turned to shout at his panicked rider, but must have seen whatever had caused the man to lose it. “Oh, my...!”
“What is it?” asked Hal.
With fear-widened eyes, Polter shook his head at the vidcam, as others in the car began losing their composure. “We have to turn back.” He was strangely calm, while all around him chaos reigned. Scientists clawed at windows, jammed door releases, and each other.
Through the panic, Cleggins’ voice, far too high-pitched for a man’s, could be heard: “Get ‘em off… get ‘em AWWWF!”
In Polter’s eyes, Hal saw sad realization. Through the windows of the Jump-car, the landscape rotated.
Jencks, the tech sitting next to him, screamed: “What are you doing?” and reached for the steering yoke. Polter, showing as much emotion as a librarian, swung his elbow into his colleague’s face, and the scientist grabbed his nose in shock and pain.
“What did he do?” asked Hal, before pointing at a flashing icon of concentric circles in the corner of the screen. “What’s that mean?”
Penny said: “Auto-home. He turned the jump-car back around to land here.”
“Why the hell would he do that?”
“This may be a planet set aside for dangerous experiments, but there are still a half-million other people here.”
On the monitor, Polter calmly reached under the pilot’s chair, retrieved a thermos bottle, and smashed the controls repeatedly with it.
“No,” said Hal, unable to tear his eyes away from the video, as Polter turned to look out the side window, like a bored father picking his kid up from baseball practice. “NO!”
Penny elbowed past him and cut the signal. “If nanobots got on board, wherever they landed, would be a fresh epicenter.”
“But… they were our only hope!”
“If the alarms went off here, the Marine unit on the far side has been alerted. We still might have a chance, but it’ll be hours before they can get to us. Now it’s totally dependent on our EMP.”
Hal stuck a finger in his mouth and began gnawing at the nail. “How will you know when you’ve waited long enough?”
She let out a harsh breath. “I won’t. It’s a total guess. I’m just waiting to see the first of them inside the lab. And, quite frankly, it would help me a hell of a lot more, if you were looking for them too, instead of trying to distract me with stupid questions.”
Hal opened his mouth to protest, but the last thing they needed to do was fight. So he resumed his pacing.
Several times, he thought he perceived movement, and he fought the urge to tear the trigger box out of Penny’s hand.
Don’t get jumpy. They’re busy chewing on the other wing of the base.
“Y’know,” he blurted, “I don’t want to be a pain, but...”
“Then don’t! Just shut the hell up ‘til I can fry ‘em!”
Hal recoiled as if struck. Penny never yelled. He’d never even seen her annoyed. Just a few short minutes ago, it seemed, he was on top of her and she was giggling. All he’d wanted to ask was...
“There! On that gasket, tell me you see it too!”
Hal whirled around. There was a small window set into the wall of the lab, to let in some natural light. The gasket around the perimeter of the window was black, rubbery polymer, except for one corner, which had turned silvery-gray. “Yeah… I see it. Hit the button!”
Penny’s fist spasmed around the trigger box.
She tried again, mashing on it, grinding onto it with her thumb, even though it was a simple switch, not pressure-sensitive, not waiting for her to hit it another dozen times.
“What the Hell?” shrieked Hal.
Penny’s face was a grim mask of concentration as she re-checked equipment, jiggled cables, shook housings. Even in this crisis, she appeared as clinical and systematic as Polter had been, when he smashed the console of the jump-car.
“It’s all hooked up! I don’t know what’s wrong!”
The window gasket had completely changed color, as had the corners of the windows, as had portions of the window frame.
“They’re coming in!” Hal backed away from the window, into Penny’s rump.
She whirled on him and slapped him in the face. “Shut up!”
Hal put a hand to his wounded cheek. He turned back toward the window, right as it burst inward. A cloud of microscopic dust rolled into the controlled environment of Penny’s lab.
Hal tried holding his breath, as if that mattered. Imperceptibly tiny motes of metal landed on his skin, converting the carbon in his epidermal cells, into efficient, clean nanofiber, appropriating mitochondrial phosphorous for fuel, producing more little nanobots to bore further into his flesh to continue the conversion and reproduction.
It didn’t matter to the little mechanisms if the skin was on the arms, or the inside of the nose, or the eyes. Everything could be scavenged and converted.
Hal didn’t cry out, because he was still trying to hold his breath. Instead, a muffled hooting pushed against his closed lips. His vision began to gray out, but not before he saw the skin on his arm turning silvery, dust falling away from it as he twitched.
It didn’t hurt, like Hal though it was going to. A sweeping wave of skin and flesh simply … stopped feeling.
The last thought through his mind was the question he had meant to ask Penny before she had shut him up.
Aren’t the power cables you rerouted, fed from outside the lab?