The Last Key (4/10)


Calum disembarked his aircraft almost before it had even grounded. Jerome was right behind him, carrying the medical pack on his back and toting a collapsed stretcher under his right arm. Tami, who had piloted the craft down to about a hundred meters away from where Alma lay motionless, followed behind them. All three were dressed in their heavy suits, which was like wearing a layer of radiation-resistant gel. Counter to their name, they actually felt quite light on the body, because they were fitted with fine motion assisters that sensed any force applied by the wearer and amplified the corresponding motion within the suit.

They ran to Alma, who lay limp in her own heavy suit. Though shielded by her protective, transparent mask, Alma’s face pointed up toward the old Shanghai entrance gate, while her eyes were closed.

Jerome and Calum knelt hurriedly beside Alma. Calum laid a gloved hand on her shoulder, lightly shaking her. “Alma,” he said. “Alma, what happened?”

Jerome whipped out the medical pack in front of him. He said to Calum, “Vital signs from her suit were not accessible from base. If it’s the transmission that’s the problem, I can plug in to her helmet and get some information that way, at least. We’re going to have to lift her facemask, though. I’ll have to use the emergency release valve.” He indicated a little red dial underneath Alma’s facemask.

“I’d prefer to get her back to the ship before we try any emergency suit release.” Calum’s forehead wrinkled. “Can we check her wrist-panel? That would tell us pretty quickly whether her suit’s completely dead or not—”

He rounded Alma’s body toward her right arm, splayed beneath her, and lurched backward—her wrist-panel had been completely enveloped by the dark moss, which had grown in a thin but telltale line across the meter or so of ground from the city wall.

“Should we get her back to the ship?” asked Jerome, horrified.

“No,” said Calum, “not if we’re contaminated by that stuff, the way it grows. Have you seen anything like it, Tami?”

Tami shook her head. “It must be far more advanced than we thought. It happened so fast it’s like a time-lapse of normal chemotaxis… except instead of growing toward chemicals, it looks like it’s growing toward our technology. Look how it’s concentrated on the wrist-panel. I have no idea how this type of life might work—it could be there’s a whole host of microorganisms around us doing things that make sense together, but which are invisible to us.”

“Alright, Jerome, we should get her away from the moss. Do the emergency release—radiation levels are low enough for a short exposure. Tami, get the ship ready for a quick boarding and bio-decontamination if possible!” Tami turned and hastened back toward the resting aircraft. Calum reached for the stretcher, which had extended to its full length and was hovering half a meter above the ground.

Jerome put a hand to Alma’s helmet and set it on the metal ring that lined her facemask. In an instant, he shouted in surprise and recoiled. “It’s hot!” he exclaimed.

Calum was rapidly growing more distressed. He had to get Alma back to the aircraft. “Jerome, let’s get her onto the cot, but be careful what you touch,” he said. In the back of his mind, he thought, isn’t this the kind of dangerous, physical work we have drones for? Didn’t Alma have a drone, linked directly to her suit controls?

Jerome had set the stretcher on the ground next to Alma. “You get her legs,” he told Calum. Calum stamped on the trail of moss leading to her arm, and it crumbled without resistance. Alma’s arm twitched, but then lay still again.

Calum reached for her feet while Jerome hooked his hands beneath her armpits. It was hot, the visible metallic connections especially. Had Alma suffered serious burns inside the suit?

The two of them lifted Alma just off the ground, and shuffled sideways above the stretcher. All of a sudden, Calum noticed that his arms were tingling, and he felt a mystifying warmth pulse through his suit. “Jerome, do you feel that tingling?” he asked through their helmet communications system.

“Yes, it’s hot too—here we go—I’m raising the stretcher—”

And as Jerome reached for the small control panel of the stretcher, he collapsed.

Calum, too, had barely enough time to register Jerome falling when he felt every one of his muscles seize and then fall limp in barely an instant. The world closed in, black, as the fire that was the powerful electric surge receded from his body back through his heavy suit.

Tami was, by all means, also too young to be on the most important scientific expedition of the millennium. Yet she was ambitious, confident, energetic, intelligent—all qualities that Calum had picked out right away when creating his research team—and she was five years Alma’s elder, so she avoided much of the public scrutiny on the team for perceived inexperience. Tami had first joined forces with Calum during the ecoconstruction of Maltiste II, a surprisingly Earthlike planet (human destruction aside, of course) with a curious absence of life. Calum had been impressed by her ability and had worked with her in several research settings after that, eventually offering her a place aboard the expedition—with reluctant approval of the Galactic Commission, who had recommended an ecoconstructionist with more years of experience but (in Calum’s eyes) less propensity for innovation.

Tami’s style of innovation, however, was at a desk-monitor brooding over different habitat pathways, and not at the helm of an aircraft overlooking her friends falling victim to some unknown menace. Her “quick thinking on her feet” usually meant satisfying the complaints of some old tenured ecology hag who’d noticed a flaw in her constructions in a public lecture. Now, she watched in horror from aboard the aircraft as her two colleagues fell, stricken by the same force that had conquered Alma. She felt her own veins freeze and desperately willed herself not to panic. Think, she told herself.

The thing—whatever it was—that caused this collapsing obviously spread through touch. It also had to do with the moss, which was perhaps some sort of infectious agent, though the most virulent and rapid one she had ever encountered. She shuddered as she contemplated the implications, desperately willing her mind to focus. Was this why she’d been recommended to the team for her “quick thinking on her feet”—for situations like this? To think it was all based on her satisfying some tenured old ecologist with an impromptu lecture-hall answer on the delayed introduction of protozoan parasites!

Focus, Tami! As long as she was out of the moss’s reach, she was safe. But she couldn’t leave her trio of colleagues—but would she fare any better if she tried to help?

The ship’s comm-panel crackled faintly and Kira’s voice materialized. “Tami,” she said, “are you on board? Please affirm. I see Jerome and Calum have fallen, and I’ve lost any signal from their suits.”

Tami scrambled to the comm-panel. “Kira!” she said. “I’m here inside the ship, I was supposed to get ready for a quick takeoff, but Calum and Jerome just collapsed—what do I do?”

“Breathe, Tami,” said Kira. “Thank Earth, I thought you might be gone too.” Almost to herself. “Just stay in the ship. Let’s see—by the inventory listings, your aircraft should have on board two personal drones. Do you know where they are?”

“Yes,” said Tami, thankful for instructions she could follow.

“Good,” continued Kira, “we should be able to use those to get the three of them back without putting you in harm. Alma’s already on a hover-stretcher, which is good. The two p-drones should have no problem carrying one person each. If you control the drones from the ship, are you in range?”

“I should be,” said Tami.

“Okay, good—go then!”

Tami hurried down to the boarding bay of the aircraft, where a portion of the floor had lowered in a ramp to the ground. The boarding bay harbored racks of equipment along its walls, much of which was emptier than it had been designed for (bureaucracy and funding cuts had affected even the most exceptional of research missions).

She scanned the walls and found the two human-sized niches containing personal drones. Like most of their kind, these p-drones were crudely anthropomorphic, but lacked legs and instead floated above the floor in most atmospheres, using a lighter version of the same technology that flew the aircraft. Tami ran to them and removed the control chips from the slots in their heads, causing the “READY” indicator on both to light up with a dark red. She deposited the control chips into her wrist-panel’s receptacle, which was designed to allow control of up to eight drones or machines at once, from her own arm. At this, the “READY” indicator on each drone turned to green.

She hurriedly punched in a few commands into her wrist-panel and motioned down the boarding ramp. The drones, which had slid from their wall niches, turned quickly and sped down toward Tami’s unresponsive teammates at a speed impossible for human legs. Tami turned and ran back to the control room.

“Okay, I’m back,” she said, checking into the comm-panel. “I told the p-drones to get to them but wait for further instruction—now what? I’m afraid that if they touch them, the p-drones will be infected, too.”

“Yes,” agreed Kira. “Let’s try to get Alma back first, since she’s on a stretcher already.”

“I think Jerome has the controls for the stretcher—but it can also be pushed manually.” Through her wrist-panel, Tami had one of the p-drones, P-72, move to the stretcher and begin pushing it toward the ship. She watched with bated breath, praying for just a hundred meters without mishap.

They had barely traveled ten, however, when Tami was convinced something was amiss. P-72 appeared to be slowing down instead of speeding up; indeed, the drone seemed largely unresponsive to her wrist-panel commands.

“Kira, it’s slowing down! I think I’ve lost control of the p-drone. Something—someone else is controlling it!”

“Is it in range?”

“It was working fine seconds ago, I think it’s the stretcher… it’s like it’s been taken over by a virus, it’s become infected, it’s like it’s turning our technology against us, somehow—”

“Mother Earth! Okay, okay. Is it possible to get the ship closer—”

And Tami heard no more, for a tremendous screeching sound rent the air. It was the sound of metal on metal, twenty thousand years of neglected lubrication, and to Tami it sounded like twenty thousand souls screaming for justice. The old, sealed gate into Shanghai, greatest and most doomed city of the Ancients, was opening.

Moments earlier, Calum’s head and body had ached in the most complete way it ever had. He had struggled to open his eyes and had thought little about anything except feeling that all his limbs and internals still existed.

At length, his eyes had fluttered open and he had seen a steel torso floating motionlessly above him. A p-drone? Attending to him, he had guessed. Not doing a very good job. And he had realized, as his sense of feeling had returned, that he was in a suit, a heavy suit, because he was—of course!—on Earth—he lay on Earthly ground and that was why he was in a heavy suit, and he had fallen to the ground after he had been—invaded?—

At this point, a sense of crushing urgency had lodged in Calum’s delirious mind. He needed to get up, and so he had tried to move his arm, that was a logical first step, but his heavy suit had resisted, or rather, it hadn’t conformed to his every motion, hadn’t supported his movements like any good heavy suit should do… And so he had been left with an arm deliriously pushing against a heavy suit with no intention of moving, and for anyone who has not lifted a dead heavy suit before, they are indeed quite heavy. And why was he resisting the stiffness of the heavy suit’s arm, that just wanted to lie there…?

And thus did the scream of twenty thousand souls split the Earthly air and Calum’s full consciousness return in a spectacular instant.

Ignoring his pain, he hauled himself up against the stiffness of his lifeless heavy suit. He saw very little above the scream, but he saw Jerome first, who was also feebly stirring. Like the rest of his suit, Calum’s comm was dead, and so he turned his face to the left inside his helmet, where a small red control protruded out. He had never had occasion to use this feature before, despite its presence in all extravehicular suits, but now he extended his neck forward and bit down hard on the small cylinder. The emergency release functioned via an entirely mechanical apparatus, and Calum could hear the mechanical clicking as his facemask and helmet disconnected, and the rest of his suit split completely down both sides in one continuous seam. In a second, the front and back of his heavy suit had fallen apart, and Calum scrambled to his feet, free of it.

Jerome was indeed moving, and when Calum leapt over to him, his eyes were wide open. He made as if to speak, but even if his helmet were off or his comm working, the terrible screeching would have drowned his words out. Calum knelt and pressed his bare finger to the red knob beneath Jerome’s chin; it was hot to the touch. Twisting the depressed dial, he activated the external emergency release on Jerome’s suit. It split the same way Calum’s had just moments ago.

Jerome struggled to his feet with Calum’s help. He was evidently still in pain but managed to stand on his own and, at Calum’s motioned directive, began hobbling toward the aircraft.

The terrible screeching came to a halt, allowing Calum’s brain a rest from the sensory overload. He turned his attention to Alma, whom they had left on the stretcher, which was now—gone… no, which was now disappearing into the blackness behind the open gate of Shanghai, pushed by a p-drone! A p-drone directed by whose wrist-panel? “Alma!” cried Calum, and yet she had vanished.

“Calum! It’s taking over our drones!” Tami’s voice rang out to him. She stood at the base of the aircraft’s boarding ramp. “Come, we need to go!” Jerome was halfway to the aircraft already, and in a few seconds would join her.

Calum froze. He did not know whether to pursue Alma through the open gate, or dash back to the waiting vessel. He couldn’t leave one of his researchers, unconscious at best, out on the open Earth, and yet he was clearly dealing with some sort of sentience, a pervasive, deliberate, malevolent force that he did not understand.

“Calum!” cried Tami. “Now!”

The unearthly screeching began again, and this time the moss-covered gate was closing. The devilish wailing flooded Calum’s senses and he made a mad dash for the city. Perhaps it was only a notion from the big action holos he’d seen, but he knew he would make it before the gate closed. He had to reach Alma. His legs, so adverse to movement just moments before, carried him more swiftly than they had in years—

He felt a blow from behind as his legs gave out, and he fell into the well-timed sweep of the personal droid’s arms. P-99 flashed toward the aircraft and up the ramp while Jerome and Tami both sprinted up it. The droid dumped Calum onto the floor, then—according to Tami’s wrist-panel commands—turned and flew down back to the Earth, where it crashed into a stocky tree and fell to the ground, smoking. With a single shake of Tami’s arm, the two droid control chips popped out. As the ramp rose, sealing them in from the strange Earth, she chucked the two tiny chips as hard as she could. They fluttered from the aircraft down to the dry earth below.

She returned to her wrist-panel and, with the last control chip remaining in it—the one connected to the ship’s control room—she initiated takeoff. Rising smoothly from the ground, the aircraft propelled up and away from the Earth, leaving behind it a crumpled droid, two spent heavy suits, and a friend swallowed by the untouchable Ancient city.