In the green glow of Nemurian midnight, the food stain on the geosurvey graph blazed electric orange. Sean Kozlov dragged his hand across his face in a vain hope some of his fatigue would stick to it and groped the surface of the desk for a pen.
The pen felt moist and cold. Suspiciously like a nose.
He looked up just in time to avoid a long pink tongue aimed to lick him right between the eyes. The trogomet scooted onto the graph, sniffed the food stain, and flopped on top of it, a two-foot wide ball of rust fur, equipped with four hands-feet and a shrew muzzle studded with tiny black eyes.
Sean yawned. Gods, he was tired. He reached to scratch the furry trogomet stomach. Two surveys left. Half an hour of work, then he would enter the last of the data into Snow White, and then he would finally sleep.
His hand froze. He was petting a trogomet. Twenty meters from Snow White. Sweet Olympus.
How did it even get inside past shutters and double doors? Never mind that, how was he going to get it out?
The trogomet let out a disappointed “Mook!” It rocked upright and sat on its haunches, its forehands held limp on its chest.
Cookie. As long as it had a cookie, it might not venture down the hallway, break through the vault door, and devour the only computer on the entire planet. Sean rummaged through the pockets of his pants, coming up with a half-crumbled disk of oatmeal.
Sean jerked the window shutter open and tossed the treat into the bluish grass outside. Fuzzy black lightning shot past him, snatching the cookie in mid-air. Sean slammed the plestiglass shutters closed, locked them, and sprinted down the hallway to check on Snow White.
A thick plastic door barred entrance to the vault. Grasping the lever, he jerked it to the side, and the door slid into the recess in the wall. The trogomets had gotten pretty good at opening the standard issue doors, but the heavy side-slider left them stumped. A cluster of phoros spheres spilled lemony light on the small space between two doors. Sean stepped through, slid the first door closed behind him, and scrutinized the tiny space.
Nothing. No two-foot tall fuzz balls hiding in the corners. No “mook!”
Reassured, he slid the second door open, jumped through, and slammed it back with muscle-tearing force just in case. A rectangular room lay before him, empty, save for the transparent cube of plestiglass. Six feet high and two inches thick, the cube enclosed Snow White, a Fourth Order Workstation, the totality of the expedition computer arsenal. If you didn’t count the Dwarf, a small remote unit, which was little more than a glorified backup drive.
Snow White’s terminal glowed weakly. The motion sensors stayed silent. The workstation and the FER, the Final Evaluation Report, within it remained safe. The two dozen scientists whose two-year efforts and careers rode on that report wouldn’t have to lynch him.
No answer. Just silence.
It finally sunk in. Relief flooded him and Sean sagged against the wall, resting his head against the plastic. Enough sensors to deter a gaggle of ninjas and here he was yelling “Cookie!” like an idiot. Great Zeus, he was paranoid. Not my fault, he assured himself. Nobody can blame me. Living on a planet where a pocket computer unit served as a tantalizing appetizer would drive anyone into paranoia. Before coming to Nemuria, all personnel had to be stripped of their augmentation and implants. They’d surrendered their direct uplinks, their personal computer units, even their watches. He would’ve given his right arm for a piece-of-shit uplink. Anything to keep from typing. And writing. Gods, what a tedious chore that was. Just the hand cramps alone…
He squinted at Snow White one more time, before closing his eyes. She was still in one piece.
It wasn’t like the trogomets could help it. They weren’t bad natured, really, and pretty bright for a non-sentient species. Unfortunately, to an organism whose primary stomach housed a distant cousin of Geobacter metallireducens, most metals looked pretty tasty. Particularly iron. Manganese. Gold. Platinum. The Geobacter metallidevastor microbe gained energy from the dissimilatory reduction of just about any metal, and thus to a fuzzy, the innards of any computer presented a heavenly smorgasbord. If it was metal, it was food. How the hell did something like that even evolve? Nemuria was rich in metal deposits, but not that rich. Luckily, trogomets’s secondary stomachs liked carbohydrates well enough, or the fuzz balls would’ve starved to death eons ago.
Sean yawned. When did he last sleep? Was it twenty hours ago? Thirty? Did it matter? Fatigue flooded him, anchoring him, and he wanted nothing more than to curl on the plastic floor and pass out in the blissful glow of the electric lamp.
The human body is an amazing organism. It can go from dead tired to completely alert in a terrified blink.
The Chief of Security raised his dark eyebrows. “I didn’t know you could jump that high.”
Sean mumbled and gave Santos a bleary-eyed stare of doom. It bounced off Santos like a trogomet from plestiglass.
“Do you remember when I told you that we have to run every transmission past the Great Wall, because we live less than a solar hour away from the third largest producer of AI synths and because their hackers think it highly amusing to screw with us every chance they get?”
Sean nodded. “I do. Every transmission’s ran through Great Wall. It comes through scrubbed to the bone.”
Santos looked grim. That in itself meant nothing. Dark-haired, with eyes so dark, they looked almost black, the Security Chief usually alternated between grim, phlegmatic, and stoic expressions.
“You logged on last night. Around one. There was a transmission from the satellite.”
“Yes,” Sean said. “And I ran it through the Great Wall. Like I always do. Check the protocol, Santos.”
“We no longer have the protocol.”
Sean opened his mouth, but suddenly the words refused to come out.
“Take your time.”
“A centipede virus,” Sean managed finally.
“Worse. A millipede, complete with respawn and AI subsets. It rode in on that last transmission and lay dormant for a couple of hours. Long enough for you to log off.”
Oh, Gods. A millipede virus that broke into segments, which would hide in the system, disguising themselves, each spawning dozens of new tiny millipedes… “The FER?”
Sean felt like screaming. The Joint Commission would be here in four days and he had no report to give them. Nothing but a four-foot stack of paper notes from the section chiefs. It had taken a month of intense, brain-numbing labor to integrate loose notes from people who’d never handled paper before into a comprehensive scientific document.
“What about the back-up?”
Santos sighed. “As I said, the millipede lay dormant…”
“And when Julia brought the Dwarf to back up the FER, the millipede transferred into it?”
“Both back-up drives?”
Santos nodded again.
“What about the back-up disks?”
Santos’ stoic face gained a troublesome hint of emotion. “I’m worried about you.”
That’s right, the fuzzies had stolen the hard disks two weeks ago. He hadn’t worried too much at the time. After all, they still had Snow White and the Dwarf.
“So we’re screwed.”
Santos nodded. “Indeed.”
It occurred to Sean that he was dead and that Santos, with his somber impenetrable face, was his Thanatos come to take him to Hades to be judged for his earthly transgressions. He rocked back. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. Perhaps he was merely sleeping. Soon he would wake up and everything would be fine.
“I’m not dreaming?”
There was no possible way to recreate the report in four days, not with the amount of research material he had. The two standard years worth of data accumulation, analysis, hard work, frayed nerves… The section chiefs still had their paper notes, but the totality of their labor amounted to nothing unless it was presented to the committee. It would have catastrophic consequences on their careers.
He could always take the easy way out of this situation. He could bash his head against the wall and save himself the pain. He could…