A spaceship's mission to a distant world threaten's the crew's survival
|The four human astronauts were strapped into the tiny windowless box, squeezed elbow to elbow and knee to knee. The walls glowed a deep metallic blue in the dim light. The paint still looked fresh, unlike the rest of the battered old spaceship.
The air was thick with frustration. They had barely moved during the hour they had been in the cramped space. It was the only time they needed to use the room. That shielded unit was the only place they could survive.
"Nearly finished," said Ray, checking the computer's clock. He was the captain and the eldest of the crew. "Radiation levels are normal out there. One more minute," he announced cheerfully.
They shared glances and watched the door in anticipation, except for quiet Ned. He squeezed his eyes shut. He had barely opened them in the whole hour.
The last minute went achingly slowly, until at last Ray spoke. "Three...two...one." He turned the heavy handle on the door and it opened silently. With loud sighs, one by one they swiftly unbuckled and floated up the tube towards the bright control room. It felt spacious in comparison.
"Finally," said Bal, strapping himself into the seat next to the captain's chair and stretching his bony legs.
"You know what to do," said Ray. "Ob, scan for any remaining life forms on the moon, and launch a probe. Ned, check the ship's systems."
Ray stared out the window at the rocky grey sphere far below them. It was small enough to cover up with a couple of fingers. 'How many alien creatures have just died on that world?' he wondered to himself.
Screens lit up brightly around the room as the crew worked. The captain opened one in front of him and flicked through a few status pages.
Ob turned to him. He wore optical enhancers on his face, which made him look like a cyborg. "The colony is still functioning as normal," said Ob. "The beam would only kill off the roaches, not destroy their equipment. Also, it looks like they sent out a powerful radio message at about the same time as we fired the weapon."
"A distress call?" Ray suggested. He addressed Bal, "Are there any other roach colonies nearby?"
"Not that we know of," the stone faced man replied. Bal had never smiled in the four months Ray had known him.
"It's a shame," said Ob. "They're an intelligent species, we've never been able to study them."
"Our orders are to wipe them out," growled Bal. He shot a fierce glance at the scientist.
"Bal is right, I'm afraid," Ray gave Ob a half-hearted smile. "Orders are orders. From what I heard, all attempts at communication failed."
"Yes," said Bal. "They are vermin."
"Well, you're in luck," Ob said with a hint of sarcasm. "The scan shows there are none left on this world. The weapon worked. Although we should wait for the results of the probe to be sure."
"Good," said Ray. "Ned, how is the ship?"
Ned looked up from his post. "All systems are operational. The power cell will take a while to fully recharge, but then we can be on our way."
"Good. I want us out of this system as soon as possible. Any sign of other vessels?"
"None," said Ned.
They continued working while the ship drifted along its lazy orbit. It was flying at a great speed, but it appeared to stand still in the blackness over the distant dead world below. As the craft slowly rotated, a ringed gas giant of swirling orange and purple appeared at the edge of the main window. It was a pleasant view, thought Ray, and if they were on a more peaceful assignment he might have enjoyed it.
It had been a long mission, far longer and more difficult than planned. First their escort ship had inexplicably blown up. Then they had found that the megaweapon bolted atop their craft was slowing them down more than expected.
Soon they would be on the return leg. Ray knew that the journey back could often be the worst part, after the excitement had worn off. Many astronauts had gone crazy from waiting too long to get home. He thought himself fortunate that he knew his crew well - at least, two of them.
Bal was not a usual member of his crew, he had been added for this mission. Although he had no evidence, Ray suspected that Bal's main purpose was to prevent the giant weapon from falling into the hands of the strange roach creatures. How he was meant to achieve that, Ray didn't know.
An hour later, Ned approached him with a message. Ray listened carefully. Ned only spoke when he had something important to say.
"Captain," he said. "It looks like the radiation may have affected our ship after all."
Ray examined the scruffy engineer. Ned appeared unable to brush his own hair, but he knew the ship better than anyone. "How so?" he asked.
"The protein vats have stopped producing food," Ned had trouble getting the words out.
"That's not good," said the captain calmly. "How did it happen?"
"The shield protecting them had a leak."
"So the bacteria got wiped out?"
"Not exactly. One of the vats still contains small amounts. I need to investigate, I'd like to ask Ob to help since he is the biologist here."
"Do it. Ob is free, aren't you?" Ob nodded. Ray asked Ned, "How are the emergency food supplies?"
"Enough for one month. Also we have a few plant seeds but they don't always sprout. And it takes a while for them to grow, and.. well, you know how messy it can be."
"Unfortunately I do," Ray winced. "Let's try to fix those vats. It'll take us three months to get home."
Bal waited until Ob and Ned were out of earshot, then said to the captain, "I've heard some crews turn to cannibalism when they run out of food. The lower ranks are usually eaten first."
Ray looked at him calmly and said, "Bal, I don't know how you do things in the military, but another comment like that and I will report you. I know we've been out in space for a long time, but pull yourself together. There are space sickness tablets in the clean room if you're feeling ill."
Bal seemed shaken by the reprimand. "Sorry, Captain. I'll take one now." He slunk off.
Two hours passed, and Bal was sleeping off the effects of the strong medicine. Ob and Ned were studying microscopes in the small chamber that served as a lab, an entertainment room and a kitchen.
Ray floated in. "You said you found something," he said excitedly.
"The organisms have mutated," said Ob. "Not just once, lots of times. Most of the mutations are harmful and leave them useless. Nevertheless, those strains can still spread and they've overrun three of the vats. But the bacteria in vat B have mutated in a different way which is not harmful, in fact it gives them an evolutionary advantage."
"As you know, these life forms have been genetically engineered to spend their whole life eating and producing waste, except that their waste is a perfect healthy diet for humans.
"This particular mutation has caused them to spend a lot less time eating and more time breeding. They spread like microscopic rabbits. They've taken over the whole vat. The good news is that they still make a small amount of food which it's safe to eat. If we fill the other vats with this strain, then they should take them over and we'll be able to get enough to live on. It'll be short rations, but combined with the remaining emergency supplies, we can make it home."
"Good work! I'm glad to hear it," smiled Ray. "There will be routine quarantine procedures when we get back, so I expect a full report about what has gone on here. And Ob, as soon as you're free, I need to ask you about the probe results. We might have a couple of roaches left."
"Oh," said Ob. "What did the probe find?"
"Possible survivors, but it's not clear from the scan. That's why I need your help."
"Just give me a minute to finish off here, then Ned can respawn the other vats." Ob frowned, then asked, "What happens if we do find more roaches?"
"There's not a lot we can do, to be honest. I won't risk firing the weapon again, no matter what Bal says."
"It's true," Ob said mysteriously. "Something always survives."