ZERO: Sometimes They Get In
This much we know: that the Innensburg bloom began with a single spore; that Immune response was sluggish and ineffective; that the first witness on the scene, one Holger Sanchez Mach, broke the nearest emergency glass, dropped two magnums and a witch's tit, and died. Did he suffer? Did it hurt? Conversion must have taken at least four seconds, and we can probably assume it started with the feet. These things usually do.
By the time the Response teams began arriving, the bloom was some ten meters across, and two meters high at the center--a fractal-jagged bubble of rainbow fog, class two threaded structure almost certainly visible to those unfortunate enough to be standing within fecund radius when the fruiting bodies swelled and popped. Twenty deaths followed almost immediately, and another hundred in the minutes that followed.
There were cameras and instruments on the scene by this time, windows on what can only seem to be separate events, each holograph showing a different fleeing mob or collapsing building, each soundtrack recording a different cacophony of whimpers and death screams and jarringly irrelevant conversation. I personally have collaged these scenes a dozen times or more, arranging the panic this way and that way, over and over again in the hope that some sense will emerge. But there is no sense in those first few minutes, just the pettiness and blind, stamping fear of the human animal stripped bare. And the heroism, yes; for me the central image is that of Enrico Giselle, Tech Two, pushing his smudged helmet and visor back on his forehead and shouting into a voice phone while the walls behind him froth and shimmer and disintegrate.
"Class five! Class five! Drop two hundred and flush on my command!" At this point, finally, the city began to awaken. The Immunity isolated samples of the invading mycorum, sequenced them, added them to the catalog of known pathogens. Better late than never, one supposes, but by this time the bloom outmassed the city's Immune system by a factor of several million, and though submicroscopic phages gathered at its sizzling interface, now ropy with tendrils that sputtered outward in Escheresque whorls, the growth was not visibly affected.
Fortunately, like all living things, technogenic organisms require energy to survive, and where the witch's tits had fallen or been hurled, pools of bitter cold had arrested the replication process. Not unusual, as any Response officer will tell you. And like organic lebenforms, mycora are also vulnerable to excess energy. Backpack UV lasers were proving effective weapons against the bloom, and soon the streets clanged with discarded chem spritzers and paraphage guns as bloomfighters concentrated on the things that worked.
High above the city, the cavern roof came alive with UV turrets of its own. Machine-guided and wary of the soft humans below, the beams swept back and forth, charring trenches through the rainbow mist, the living dust, the bloom of submicroscopic mycora still eating everything in their reach and converting it to more of themselves. And to other things, as well, a trillion microscopic construction projects all running in parallel, following whatever meaningless program the mycogene codes called out. By now the fecund zone was half a kilometer across, riddled with gaps and voids in the outer regions but much denser at its core, a thickening haze that already blocked the view from one side to the other. Up to four stories tall in places, higher than most of the surrounding buildings, and it had begun to take on structure as well--picks and urchins, mostly, standing out visibly in the haze, their prismatic spines lengthening more than fast enough for the human eye to see.
Some mycora eat lightly, sucking up building blocks like carbon and hydrogen while leaving the heavier elements alone, but this one was pulling the gold right off the streets, the steel right off the shingled walls, the zirconium right out of the windowpanes. You've seen the pictures: a giant bite out of Innensburg's south side, gingerbread houses dissolving like a dream.
The UV lasers, while no doubt satisfying for those employing them, were if anything adding to the problem by throwing waste heat into the bloom, giving it that much more energy to work with, to feed on.
Finally, Innensburg's central processor sought permission from the mayor and city council to move to Final Alert. Permission was granted, the overhead lights and household power grid were shut off, the ladderdown reactors stopped, and the air system reconfigured to pipe through cooling radiators closer to the surface. The cold, the dark. How we humans hate these things, and how very much we need them!
Like all Jupiter's moons, like all the moons of the outer system, Ganymede's surface is cold enough to liquefy both oxygen and nitrogen, and while the spore-fouled air was not cooled quite that far, Innensburg's ground temperature quickly dropped below the freezing point of water, and then below that of carbon dioxide. A seconds-brief rain fell and froze. Mycoric replication slowed to a crawl. A sigh of mingled fear and relief went up all over the city, visible as columns of white steam in the flashlight beams of the Response. The emergency far from over, but now survivable, now something that could be dealt with in a reasoned, methodical manner.
Some thirty-one deaths were later attributed to the cold, to the darkness, to the lack of domestic power and computing, and while some of the families did attempt to bring suit against the authorities responsible, public and judicial outrage squashed the move before it had gotten very far. One hundred and eighty-seven deaths preceded the chilldown, after all, and most of Innensburg's fifty thousand residents came out of it with only minor injuries.
Throughout the Immunity, our problems are the same: so far from the places of our birth, so far from the sun's warm rays, so far from the lives we once expected to lead. Eaten by the Mycosystem, those lives, and billions of others as well. And yet out here in the cold and dark we hang on, even thrive, because we're brave enough to believe we can. If the space around us is lousy with mycoric spores blown upward by solar wind, well, at least we can do what's necessary to keep them outside.
I think the Honorable Klaus Pensbruck, in closing the book on Glazer v. Cholm, speaks for us all with his immortal words, "Shut up, lady. We don't want to end up like the Earth."
--from Innensburg and the Fear of Failure
, copyright 2101 by John StrasheimONE
That my first meeting with Vaclav Lottick went poorly goes without saying. The most powerful man in the solar system, yes, you can believe he had better things to do than exchange small talk with me. And yet, certain business can be conducted in no other way.
He looked up and smiled when his secretary, a quiet, efficient man, ushered me inside the office. Everything beige and cream and shiny, not quite sterile in appearance but compact, and clean. Very clean. The windows' light was from behind Lottick, highlighting every stray hair, and the desk lamp seemed designed to show off the lines in his face. A pale man, nearly bald, his rumpled smock no longer white. Even his zee-spec was an older model, blocky, folding his ears back, weighing on the bridge of his nose, leaving his features to sag that much more.
"John Strasheim, hi," he said, rising from his chair and extending a hand. "Thanks for coming on such short notice."
Shaking his hand, I shrugged. "Happy to help, I guess. What can I--"
"Take a seat, then. Set to receive a flash?"
His thick fingers danced in the space between us. My receiving light went on, and the air before me came alive with information, image windows and text windows and schematic windows rastering in and then shrinking to icons as my spec compressed them in working memory. It was too quick to see much in the way of detail. Pictures of blooms, I thought. Pictures of mycora. Well, what else would one expect from the Immunity's head of research?
"I've seen your work," he said to me, his voice vaguely approving. "And read it. Funny, how nobody seems to be doing that sort of thing anymore."
"You're talking about Innensburg?"
He nodded. Behind the zee-spec, his eyes were bright green. "Yes, Innensburg. I survey your net channels from time to time, but it was that piece that really caught my eye. About as close as we have to a regional history, and plaintext was a...curiously appropriate choice of medium. Very astute. I stayed up all night reading it."
"Thank you," I said, nodding once to accept the compliment. Then I smiled politely, waiting. Whatever he'd invited me here to discuss, this wasn't it.
He studied me for a moment, then relaxed, turning off the charm like a lamp he no longer needed. "All right, then."
His fingers stroked the air, manipulating symbols and menus I couldn't see. One of my image icons began to flicker. I touched and expanded it, moved the resulting window to the lower right corner of my vision. It was a video loop, false-color, depicting a complex mycorum which replicated itself in slow motion, over and over again. Not quite crablike, not quite urchinlike, not quite organic in appearance. A tiny machine, like a digger/constructor but smaller than the smallest bacterium, putting copies of itself together with cool precision, building them up out of nothing, out of pieces too small for the micrograph to capture. In short, a pretty typical piece of technogenic life. At the bottom of the window scrolled a horizontal code ribbon showing, in a series of brightly colored blocks, what was presumably the data gene sequence which dictated both the mycorum's structure and behavior.
"This," Lottick said, "is Io Sengen 3a, a sulphurated mycorum with unknown environmental tolerance. Gave us a scare a while back when we thought it could replicate in the volcanic flows on Io, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Now we're concerned again, for different reasons."
"Okay." I nodded, waiting for more, not yet sure why he was telling me this.
"You know that mycora mutate quickly, right? Everyone knows that. A key strength, a key factor. The whole Mycosystem probably depends on this, or it would have died out long ago."
"So I've heard."
"Yes, well, what you probably haven't heard is that they're stealing data gene sequences from our own phages. Nothing major, nothing all that important, but the mechanism and its potential limitations are not known at this time."
"Stealing gene sequences?" I repeated stupidly. My skin had gone cold and crawly. Mycora were not intelligent, not even alive, really. How could they steal?
"It's probably nothing," Lottick said. "Statistically, the chance that they'll steal something important and actually be able to use it to their advantage is...well, it's zero, basically. But we don't understand the mechanism, and that has a lot of people upset. Including me. What if the Mycosystem gets hold of some of our environmental adaptations? What happens if they stumble on nuclear fission, or cascade fusion, or, God help us all, they manage to copy some of our ladderdown designs?"
"I don't know," I said, still cold. "What?"
He shrugged. "They eat the solar system, I guess. They eat the universe. It's not going to happen, Strasheim, but that's the worst-case scenario we've got to work to. Hence the mission."
"The starship?" I asked, puzzled but optimistic. Whatever the problem was, these people seemed to be on top of it. Sort of.
"The starship, yeah, right." He chuckled, sounding tired. "We get it built, we fuel it up, we go on our merry way, every single person who wants to. That's not going to happen either. I know it's the party line, and maybe that's best for the time being, but the real goal of the program is to get our spores out to the neighboring stars before the Mycosystem beats us to it. Immune system fully established, deny the mycora a toehold even in the warm, bright spaces. But we've probably got a thousand years to worry about it, and a lot to keep us busy until then."
"So what are we talking about?"
"The Louis Pasteur,"
he said. "You may have heard about it here and there; the program is being accelerated in a big way. Ship is designed for inner-system operation--high-temperature, high-radiation, also the t-balance hull--theoretically bloom-proof. But of course, ha ha, we're not going to test that here on Ganymede. The only way to test it is to fly it down there, into the Mycosystem, and see if anything eats it. We hope to do that soon, and if the testing goes well, we'll fly it all the way down to Earth and Mars and Luna. The thinking goes: even in the inner system, there are places too cold, dark, barren for mycora to bloom. If any serious cold-weather adaptations start appearing, the first signs of it will probably be there. So we drop a few detectors on some polar caps, and suddenly we don't have to worry about this problem anymore. Not unless the detectors start screaming at us, which I don't think is going to happen."
"Are these state secrets?" I asked, turning to look at his face. "Can I talk about this stuff?"
His look was disapproving. "There are no secrets, Mr. Strasheim. There's barely any state, and I didn't invite you up here to waste your time. If we didn't want you to talk about this, what would we want you for? You have skills which nobody else in the Immunity seems to possess. You're a commentator, an historian; you record simple facts in a way that's accessible to the public, even entertaining. That ability could be very useful for this project, if you're willing to lend it to us for a while."
"It sounds fascinating," I said sincerely. "I take it you want me to write an article?"
Lottick looked at me as if I were somewhat stupider than he'd been expecting. "No, son. I thought we understood each other. I want you to go on the mission."From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Bloom by Wil McCarthy. Copyright © 1999 by Wil McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.