The spore had been traveling for a long time through the void of space, hitched on a speck of rock, tumbling at random, one of many, many such travelers sent in the hopes of growth. It did not mind. There was no hurry. The spore survived the cold and airless space in a dormant sleep, with no awareness of its journey.
Until it hit the metal skin of a ship with a plink that would only have been audible to someone inside with their ear to the hull within a few feet of impact. No one heard.
The difference in temperature was slight, but it was enough to wake the spore from dormancy. Feeding on the rock, it began to explore its new surroundings. There was heat nearby, and moisture, and the spore yearned to find them and grow.
“I can’t believe you didn’t go see Tommy Galaxy- he really had tickets for the live show?” Makayla asked.
“And VIP passes,” replied Alex as they ambled down a utility corridor on the way to the Undine’s galley.
“What? Are you insane?” Makayla ducked under a protruding air vent and grabbed Alex’s arm.
“The guy was a creep, no way I want to be in debt to a guy like that. He’d want to collect, you know?”
“Who cares? Tommy Galaxy… you could have touched him…” Makayla sighed.
“Ms. Torrence, acknowledge?” Makayla giggled. Alex shoved her.
“Shut up, I have to answer that.” She flicked her comm line to respond. “Alex here, what’s up Gregor?”
“Up? There is no up on the Undine, Ms. Torrence, as while it is engaged in an artificial gravity-”
“Sorry, G, I know about the gravity, I’m the one who fixes it, remember? Just tell me what you called about, okay?”
“Right. Sections 409-13a through f of the hull sensors have gone dark in the aft cargo hold. No alarms, no indications of pressure loss or breach, just dark. Could you please conduct a visual inspection as soon as possible?”
Alex rolled her eyes for Makayla’s benefit. Sensors died all the time on this heap, she thought, I don’t have to inspect every little thing.
“Right away, thanks Gregor,” she said, and flicked her comm back to receive only.
“What a dink. D’you think he’ll ever get that he’s not in the military anymore?”
Alex shook her head and waved. “Catch you later. And don’t you dare drink my coffee ration this time, I’ll be back for it soon.”
The aft cargo hold was mostly empty. A few brace containers were still locked to the floor, casting shadows in the sparse unoccupied status lighting, but nothing was on the manifest. Alex had less trouble navigating its spaces than the tight confines of the utility corridors that no one seemed to have planned for people to actually walk through in gravity. She grabbed a multi-tool from her belt and flicked a beam that both illuminated and scanned the 409-13 section of the hull.
The light reflected off metal until she hit the affected section. She stepped closer. White fuzz patches littered the wall. She flicked her comm to contact Makayla, who, as the ships supercargo, would have a faster answer than if Alex tried to access the data banks herself.
“Hey, Mak, when’s the last time we had organics in the aft?”
“Organics? Two weeks, give or take. But it’s been vacuum scrubbed three times since the last time we transported anything live. What’s going on Alex?”
Alex stowed switched the beam off. The scan had revealed no lack of hull integrity, but nothing else. She pulled out a screwdriver and scraped at the white stuff.
It puffed, whooshing particles into the air that Alex helplessly inhaled as she gasped.
“Alex?” Makayla didn’t bother waiting for a reply before switching to general broadcast. “Alex is in the aft cargo bay and out of contact, stand by for updates, I’m going to check it out.”
“This better not be a joke, or you’re both fired,” replied Brin, owner and captain of the Undine, in a sleep-roughed alto.
Makayla left her comm on and made her way to the aft hold as quickly as she could without bruising or impaling herself - a lot slower than she wanted. She knew it wasn’t a joke, that Alex wouldn’t just cut off like that. Alex was reliable, always. This has to be something simple, she thought, otherwise Gregor would be setting off alerts like the good little sailor he isn’t anymore.
She burst into the hold and saw Alex sprawled on the floor. Was she breathing?
“Tani, get down here, Alex needs medical attention like five minutes ago!” Makayla stepped over to her friend, and leaned down, putting her hand in front of Alex’s mouth, hoping to feel a breath.
A blizzard of white specks erupted from Alex in a cough, enveloping Makayla.
Tani found the door to the aft hold locked.
“What’s going on? They’re both down, I need to help them.”
“Do a remote scan. You’re not going in there until you can tell me why they’re both down,” said Brin, walking up behind Tani. “Gregor, has the sensor deadening spread?”
“Yes, Ma’am, sections 409-13 through 18 are now unresponsive-” the lights flickered in the corridor “and I’m starting to lose some other systems as well.”
“Other systems? It isn’t like you to be so imprecise.”
He cleared his throat noisily. “Is this the sort of thing that should be announced over general comm?”
“Damnit Gregor, how many people do you think are on this damn ship? You’ve got enough fingers to count them on one hand so just tell me what other systems, now.”
“Electronics, propulsion and primary life support. Secondary life support is full green,” he added quickly.
Brin turned to Tani, “Well?”
Tani holstered her scanner. Her eyes glistened. “No life signs.”
“Captain, the engines have failed. We’re drifting.”
“Tani, why didn’t I pick up more crew at Alabaster Station?”
“Because you never saw such a sorry scum-sack of freeloader wannabes in your life, or at least that’s what I remember hearing. I might have missed a few choice descriptors.”
“Gregor, isolate the aft hold as best you can. Tani and I are coming to the bridge.”
“Tani, what do you know about engines?” Brin asked, spinning back and forth in her captain’s chair on the bridge. Tani barked a laugh.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I navigate, ma’am. All I know about engines is how to direct them.”
“Seriously? I should have picked up some of those lazy scumbags at Alabaster. I could at least throw them out of the airlock to influence our drift.” Brin put a hand to her forehead. “I’m going to assume that both of you know how to read. Read the goddamn troubleshooting instructions for the engines and follow them Gregor. Tani, evaluate the life support situation and report. I’m going to verify the seal on the hold.”
The spore enjoyed the intense warmth inside the metal box, because it allowed the spore to multiply and grow. The organic heat sources approached it with appropriate diplomacy at first, but when they attacked, it had no choice but to defend itself.
The organic medium was an ideal location for growth.
“The secondary life support systems are still green, Brin. I’ve run the diagnostics, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing wrong with them. Primary has blank spots. There’s no indication why or whether that means they’ll drop.”
“Thank you, Tani. Gregor?”
He threw up his hands. “This is impossible, ma’am. The instructions for troubleshooting are predicated on the idea that the sensors are responding, a few of them at least, and I’ve got nothing!”
“Then you’re gong to have to do it the old-fashioned way. To the engine room with you.”
“Oh, now you feel you can disobey orders, sailor boy?” Tani said.
“Go with him, Tani.”
They both grumbled as they left the bridge. The lights flickered again. Brin swore under her breath and continued to swivel in her chair.
The door clunked open and then shut behind her.
“Damn it, I know you haven’t had time to get down there and back. Did you forget your blankie, Gregor?”
There was no response.
Brin turned to see Alex standing in the doorway. Her eyes were shut, white fuzz hazing her eyelashes, nostrils and ears. Brin swallowed and went still in her chair. A hand drifted to the holstered electro gun on her chair.
“Stop.” Brin’s hand froze. Alex’s voice had thickened, grown echoes within itself, but it was still her voice. “We wish to talk.”
“Who is ‘we’?” Brin was afraid she knew the answer; Alex’s body was not breathing, not reacting as if a person was still in there.
“We. Us. This host.”
“Is your host alive?”
“What the host was is held in memory.”
“And the other?”
“Both are cherished.
“We require transportation. You will cooperate.”
“Your host knows better than I do how to fly this ship. Make her do it.” Brin leaned back in her chair.
“This host no longer has the fine motor skills to operate machinery.” It raised Alex’s arm, and Brin could see that the hand was stiff with the white fuzz. “You must cooperate.”
Gregor and Tani opened the door.
“You tell her.”
“No, you tell her, I’ve got seniority.”
Tani screamed when she saw Alex standing. Alex turned jerkily. Gregor saw the white fuzz on her face and, acting on instinct honed from years of bar fights, swung a fist and struck Alex in the face.
A cloud of spores flew into the air.
The ship drifted for a long time through the void of space…