Six days later, the probe arrived. All preparations had been made. The base was manned with a large contingent of robots and Omni’s partially completed backup, Somni. All the humans were back on the ship, orbiting at the L5 point between Alerzion and the moon.
In the ship’s rec room we rebuilt the command center. There were dozens of screens showing the views of various monitors at the repair site.
The remote repair center was ready. The sun was shining on the repair site as the probe came breaking gently onto the landing pad. As soon as it settled, the repair unit and a surveillance unit came out from a small shack on the site. Gary was briefing us on what he, Jones, and the base computers headed by Somni had worked up.
“Somni is controlling these units on the ground and sending us data from the various monitors. The surveillance unit is now actively scanning from hard X-rays through 20 hertz. We’re looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything we can use in the electromagnetic spectrum to readily identify creatures.”
Jones added, “There’s an NMR and a CAT scanner in the repair shack. And if we can ever get some air around that thing, we’ll start using ultrasound as well.”
“Sounds like you’ve covered all the bases,” the captain replied quietly, as she watched the units move across the flat, glassed landing pad. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
The units moved in slowly; they made a funny team to watch. The repair unit was squat, compact, and zipped about from place-to-place like a sowbug. The surveillance unit was a throw-together—tall, with cameras on stalks sprouting out at every angle—and because of its high center of gravity, it lumbered along slowly, rocking precariously every time it hit a bump.
They closed with the probe, and circled it twice, first at three meters, then one meter. The scenes and displays on the banks of monitors changed rapidly as the probe was scanned at various frequencies and with various magnifications.
Soon there was a shout of “Eureka” from Gary.
“What?” I asked.
“That’s Greek for ‘I’ve got it!’ Look, on visual, near the edge of the main hatch door. Somni, give me a close up of the hatch. Look, the seals are mangled.”
That was just the start. Further scanning revealed most of the seals on the probe were missing all together.
“Still no sign of creatures, Somni?” asked the captain.
“Well then, let’s open it up.”
“Open it outside, or take it in first?” asked Gary.
“Outside,” she decided. “If there are any more critters holed up in there, I want them dead.”
The repair unit moved in while the surveillance unit watched. It started manipulating the main hatch controls, nothing happened.
“The hatch door is jammed,” Gary observed. “The repair unit can’t get it open.”
“What? Those doors are standard. They don’t jam. Harry, arm the nukes!”
Harry started sending the arming commands.
Just then, the hatch handle suddenly loosened up and twisted open rapidly. “Look, it’s freed up now,” said Gary.
The hatch popped open, there was a sudden flash on all the repair and surveillance unit visual screens, then nothing.
Gary announced, “Sir, we’ve lost the surveillance droid and the repair droid. We still have the shack. … Wait, we’ve lost that, too.”
“What happened?” The captain started yelling. “Harry, hurry up that arming sequence! Let me know when we’re ready!”
Somni spoke. “I have a replay from the base cameras. I and the base remain functional. There was some sort of outgassing or explosion. Perhaps the seals weren’t as bad off as they looked.”
“Or maybe these creatures just like spreading themselves around quickly, so they can contaminate everything in sight,” suggested Adrienne. “Look. They’re scattered all over, and silvery.”
The replay screen showed a brilliant, delicately-sparkling plume spreading out from the probe in all directions.
“There was still gas in the probe,” she went on. “When the main hatch let loose, it came blowing out, carrying thousands of little particles with it.”
“Those particles are likely to be creatures,” I said.
They were no longer black and ant-like; they were now flat and silvery, like ultra-shiny snowflakes. And anything they touched, they stuck to, and it was instantly converted to a silver-coated replica of itself.
The display switched back to real time. As the swirling cloud thinned, we could see the probe and the two units, standing motionlessly in the center of a silver snow storm. They looked like three Tin Woodmen from the Land of Oz, waiting for Dorothy to save them.
“How far have they spread, Somni?” inquired the captain.
“About three hundred meters at the furthest.”
Jones said, “They’ll all land on the glass pad. Those that aren’t dead already, will lie there and roast.”
“It was a good try by them, but they’re dead meat,” said Gary. “Earl, how long do you want to wait, before we go after a sample?”
“… Wait! Look! The repair unit’s moving!” cried Jones. Slowly, hesitantly, like some invisible Dorothy was oiling its joints one-by-one, the now-silvery repair unit started moving again.
“Did you order it to do so?” the captain asked him.
It started moving in circles—the invisible oiler had unstuck one of the treads. Seconds later, the second set of treads came to life. The unit spun around once more, and then started moving off with a purpose.
“No, but it’s coming for the base!”
About this time the surveillance unit also started showing signs of life.
“I’ve reestablished contact with the shack,” Somni reported, “but the two droids are staying out of touch.”
“Those critters may not be able to survive for long out there in the vacuum of space, but they can for a while,” Adrienne remarked. “Long enough to get blown around and then burrow into our droids and buildings.”
“Gary, have we got the surveillance unit’s readouts stored on board?” the captain asked.
“Then I think we have all the valid data we’re going to get.
“Jones, engage the main drives. Let’s get out of here.
“Harry. Nuke the repair pad. We still have the base, don’t we?”
“Yes, we still have the base,” Gary told her, “but both the units are headed there full tilt. The first’ll be there in 30 seconds.”
“Good; let’s watch the probe go up from there. … Harry, what’s holding you up?”
The captain looked up. Harry’s face was white.
“I’ve issued the order twice, no effect. Those critters are so silvery they must be cutting out the signal.”
“Then we must blow the base. NOW! Somni, do you understand?”
There was a short pause. “Yes, I hear you. But I don’t agree. I can defend myself—”
Harry flipped the switch. There was a blinding glow on the ship’s visuals. All other screens went blank. The captain looked down from the screens and sighed.
Finally, she looked up. “Omni?”
“It was a logical choice, captain. I support your decision. Somni was not fully aware of what it faced. It couldn’t make a meaningful choice.”
The captain relaxed visibly. “Harry, you set up that charge. Is there anything else we can do?”
“You’ve done it, chief.” There was a Cheshire Cat grin on his face. “Just watch.”
About ten seconds later, there was another brilliant blast.
“The second one would be the repair station device, sir. Besides the radio detonator, I put in a seismic backup … just in case, you might say.” Harry winked at the captain.
When the ship’s visuals completed adjusting, we all watched quietly as shock waves and dust clouds marched silently across the moon’s surface. All the surface sensors were gone now, and it was certain no creature coming from the probe would survive that holocaust. The ship and moon were safe from critters, and no human lives had been lost … but barely.
“How long before the robots on the planet pick that mess up?” I asked.
“If they’re sensing Van Allen belt disturbances, ten minutes. If they need to see the dust cloud, twelve hours,” answered Bradshaw matter-of-factly. The tension was lifting palpably.
Our ship headed steadily out, on a gracefully curving course that would take it to Dark Body Catalog 95—a short-period black-and-white-dwarf binary. DBC 95 was nowhere near Earth, but it could be used for a gravity sling to the solar system. This would throw off any possible pursuers.
The crew started to settle down for the long trip home. Most were in hibernation already; all but ten of the rest were set to go under in the next ten hours. Those ten, including me, would work a while on their results, then go in. Once the waking crew was under ten, so the life support systems were not being overtaxed, there was no rush.