The ethereal shapes swirling in the waves of dust in the air were mesmerizing. Shapes like tongues of fire and billowing clouds, painted the burnt orange sky a hazy gray. I had replaced my tinted ultraviolet goggles with a clear lens model and the strange world of Terradorn took on a new dimension.
The mask beeped. I put it on after a warning erupted from the device. It was the second warning, indicating the ninety second window one had to seek shelter from the dust storm.
There were shelter-in-place pods, sprinkled around the city. Having explored most of the ten sections around building AE, I knew one was just a couple of blocks away and put some fire in my step.
A gun metal gray dust devil, the height of the nearest structure spun into being, ripping a banner off a nearby wall. The plastic sign flipped and danced spasmodically in the whirlwind. I reached the pod with the spinning maelstrom still a half block away. Pulling the third hand from my slash pocket, I swiped the entry code and the door popped open.
The low light in the pod was aggravated by a flickering LED strip that was in the throes of death. The cube shaped room was rimmed with benches on all four walls, like a waiting room to nowhere. It seemed odd for one to hit this early in the evening. They always roared in after sunset. The door clunked. Two more came into the pod for shelter. Having been designed to hold a dozen or more, I moved away from them for some comfort spacing.
“That was unexpected.” The mask had a voice emitter that colored the sounds like an effects box on an instrument. The pitch made me suspect a female.
“The forecast said we were in for scattered alerts all week.” Her male companion had a guttural quality to his speech. They sat down on a bench opposite me, clutching hands.
A nervous calm settled in the room. There wasn't much to discuss in the pods. We were sheltering from a deadly event. Not exactly the best time for casual talk.
* * *
“Diameter approximately 5 microns, it appears to be a multifaceted polyhedron.” A dark haired woman let out a breath and pulled back from the eye piece of a compact electron microscope, rubbing her eyes. The specimen had been fixated in a hard polymer resin to resist the temperature of the scope.
“Can it germinate in there?” A young man with messy blonde curls was leaning in to take a look through the microscope.
“No. We know it has to contact carbon in order to emerge and become infectious.” Placing her glasses back on her nose, she adjusted the pony tail of straight black hair on top of her head and scrolled through the most recent still images from the microscope.
They had spent two months examining pounds of the dust, before locating the specimen. Like a distant star in a remote galaxy the object was a contrast to the dust. The lifeless gray powder had mangled carbon structures that were foreign to the planet. The object in the microscope had perfect geometric symmetry.
“I think it's a spore.” Her many years spent at the university observing microbes led her to the conclusion.
“Has any one seen the germination process?” A nervous curiosity was leaking out of his voice.
“No one has seen it and lived to tell about it. We estimate the replication process is an order of magnitude 6 times faster than what a common black mold could sustain in an optimal reproductive environment.” An academic of her standing rarely registered the sort of astonishment she was feeling.
“Six times faster!” The man's boyish face lit up.
“Did you flunk calculus? Orders of magnitude are exponential. It's a million times faster.” Her serious tone was reinforced by the beginnings of wrinkles that added to her middle aged grace.
“Aren't most spores round or oval or at least organic looking.” His confusion was genuine.
“I've never seen anything like it in all my years of research. I'm certain that is why in our meeting the other day we discussed exoplanets. All those goofy people fantasizing about humanoid aliens; as if they had to look like us.” Her disgust was tempered by the wonder in her eyes as she twirled the 3D model on the screen with a flick of her polished nails.
“Panspermia!” A flash of understanding splashed across the younger scientist's face.
“The spreading of life from an exoplanet to ours. The mechanism were aren't sure of. The event was only six months ago. How often in cosmological history do we see a mass extinction event in the span of a few months?” She reached for her device and linked to the database to download the images and models. There was a meeting with the public on the following day at 0900 hours in the conference hall. She had only one night to prepare her final presentation.
* * *
I emerged from the safety of the pod. It began disinfecting itself, the powerful jets of chemicals blasting it clean for the next use. Having been caught in my first sizable dust storm, I checked my gamma coat. The seal was still in place on my mask. I had purchased some chemical gloves from the warehouse. I slid them on my hands to investigate the aftermath of the dust storm.
Shuffling my meta boots through it, a thin layer of the stuff spiraled up and into the air. I searched my memory for anything to compare its behavior. Like mist or pollen the dust floated almost in suspended animation, giving away the movements of the currents in the atmosphere. The machines that removed it also had to filter the air.
It caked in the corners of walls and on the panes of windows like some sort of gothic snow. I wanted to touch it, feel its deadly texture. I had on the gloves. They would resist any infection and protect from the sun. My imagination went dark. I envisioned children diving and sledding through it like fresh snowflakes. Touching it to their noses like mud from a puddle and laughing at each other.
BEEP BEEP BEEP
A cleaning robot was scouring the stuff from the walkway. I stepped aside as it passed. The path it left was barren concrete, dry and safe to touch. I wandered down the street and considering skipping the vend bot.
I imagined chewing on the dust, or snorting it like I had seen in sketchy movies about fallen angels. It had a tragic beauty. So simple. So deadly. I had to keep reminding myself that it could kill a person, or a whole colony of people. It had become a never-ending topic of conjecture. People argued about it like the weather.
The cleaning robots were efficient. Within an hour much of the powder had been redeposited in the wasteland. Their work would continue into the night as the relentless hot winds buffeted Terradorn.
Changing my mind I stopped at the vend bot a block from my studio. The thought of drinking unfiltered water after that storm was unpleasant. The bots now offered filtered water, having been retrofitted with an osmosis filtering unit; a small but welcome improvement.
“Filtered water please.” I placed the canteen under the chute and bumped the button with the back of my hand. I had keyed in the login avoiding the scan.
“15 bits.” Wow! You know the planet you live on has gone to hell when water costs as much as your food.
We didn't want to know where the water came from. All the lakes and streams that were left were contaminated. The official word from the government stated that a deep limestone aquifer supplied the water treatment plant. Everyone suspected our wastewater was being recycled and mixed in. Surface water was scarce.
I felt my third hand vibrate and stopped for the scan at my building. After disinfection I made my way up to my apartment. The chill in the air was unpleasant. It could still get cold at night. After a much needed shower, faint dark trails of tainted water dribbled into the drain. No matter what one did it managed to find it's way to your bare skin or hair somehow.
My heavy pajamas were washed and smelled like fresh flowers. A chemical engineer at the plant managed to lock down the molecule for hyacinth blossom scent, another small victory in a decaying world. They were putting it in every soap and sanitizer synthesized. It was nice at first, but after a few weeks, everyone smelled the same and you really didn't even notice it anymore.
I flipped into sub-reader format and searched the dust. A team of scientists had been analyzing it for weeks. The video suggested a big announcement was coming.
* * *
“After weeks of searching the dust for the cause of the infection, we found the genesis. Our final analysis with an electron microscope revealed a tiny organism, a seed if you will. This alien spore feasts on carbon bonds.” She paused to let the reality of what she was saying sink in.
“All living things on our planet are carbon based. As you well know the growth of this alien organism is not some normal process. It has the ability to replicate and devour any carbon based life form.... a million times faster than our common molds and fungus.” The seriousness of her tone hushed the hall.
“This organism makes the tardigrade look like a cosmic rookie. It somehow survived an interstellar trip to our world.” The scientist used her third hand to project the image of the alien spore onto the clean white wall behind her. Suddenly a hand was raised. She pointed and he stood.
“Since we know what caused it, where did all the heat come from. At last count we are running 20 degrees Fahrenheit over our average temperature.” The older man sat back down and folded his arms. A worried look crept across his bushy white eyebrows.
“When carbon bonds are exchanged in a biological process, heat can either be absorbed or released. Unfortunately when this alien consumes a carbon based life form, it is exothermic, a small amount of heat is released. When you multiply that by 90% of the carbon on the planet, you get catastrophic global warming. Next question.” The crowd was squirming. Harsh words were ricocheting around.
“What is the dust made of? Will we ever be able to coexist with it?” A young girl didn't bother to raise her hand.
“We aren't sure. The dust is carbon based, but the molecular structure is foreign to the natural chemistry on the planet. The carbon rings are twisted and mutated.” She reached out and toggled the projection on the wall to the bonds of the dust. The microscope's images revealed mangled organic structures. They were grotesque and twisted forms, like a cancer.
“Other substances are released when the alien feeds; Carbon Dioxide, Benzene, Methane other hydrocarbons. Not exactly the kinds of things you want floating around the atmosphere in excess.” The seriousness of it all was disrupting the calm in the seated auditorium.
“How does it kill? The spore, why is it lethal?” A man in uniform stood and asked what many feared.
“It is an accelerated decomposition process. We think that once the alien germinates it sets off a chain reaction consuming the host. In less than five seconds the only thing left of your body is dust.” The researcher sighed and turned off the projector on her device.
“Liar! Liar!” A middle aged man with a beard like a leaf rake jumped from his seat, stabbing his hat at the stage. “I'll tell you whose responsible. The government of Terradorn. Ask anyone!” Two brawny guards with muscle trimmed in tactical vests raced down the stairs and grabbed the man by the arms to lead him out of the conference hall. His protests were bouncing around the room as people hid their eyes and groped their heads in worry.
“We are collecting video data from cameras and recording devices in decimated areas devoid of life. The retrieval process is fraught with risk. It will be released, eventually.” The conference hall was still buzzing with unanswered questions.
“Is there any way to get rid of the spores and the dust? Repopulate the planet?” A young woman whose small frame was hidden by bulky ill-fitting clothes piped up in the din.
“Not now. As for the dust, we can't destroy it. Let me be clear. This alien spore is the single most dangerous thing alive. The dust, well we are just going to have to live with it for now.” Clutching her third hand, the scientist spun and walked from the lectern, even as the noise and questions grew louder. Slowly, one by one everyone stood, and headed for the exits.
Outside, the tragically beautiful gray dust was slowly settling into the cracks in the walls, the pores of the cement and drifting lazily through the air. It wasn't going anywhere.