Neptune loomed, sixty times bigger than Earth beneath the SS Eureka. Its deep blue a sharp contrast to the haze of its small irregular rings. The Eureka had just arrived for its week-long stop in high orbit before making its slow way back to Luna. The passengers were busy guiding their remotes in and around the Portens Crater ruins from the safety and luxury of their cabins, collecting pictures to "analyze" at their leisure. Most of them wouldn't know an artifact from a rock, but they could at least prove they'd been to Neptune.
"So, Captain, what do you make of the latest reports of alien sightings out here?" asked the pilot, a gangly young buck of twenty-something with a hook nose and big ears.
"We’ve only found a few planets that could support life . . . ."
"But the evidence . . . ."
She shot him an impatient look. "Is not conclusive. And as I was about to say, just because it could support life, doesn’t mean it will or has."
"But why not? What a waste," he said, shaking his head.
"All that matters is that the tourists believe. Rumors of aliens are good for business. Who do you think starts them?" she asked.
"You’re kidding, sir."
Karla gave him the are-you-really-that-naïve look.
He turned all kinds of red.
"I’m going for some java," she said. "Want any?"
"No. Thank you, sir."
Why do I always get stuck with the new jockeys, she thought, even though she knew the answer. After spending ten years running shuttles to Luna and another five piloting and playing guide for scientific missions, this pleasure cruise held no challenge. She had run this ten-month sightseeing voyage to Neptune and back four times now. Her experience earned her the highest space captain pay and the "privilege" of breaking in new pilots.
She stood up, pressed her hands against the small of her back and stretched backwards. Karla didn’t really need any coffee. She just needed a break from Weaver's constant chatter. After pouring a cup of coffee from the urn at the buffet near one of the observation windows, she gazed at the heavy concentration of matter in one of the three prominent arcs in Neptune’s Adams ring. As she did with abstract paintings and cumulus clouds on Earth, she imagined shapes in its rag tag group of meteorites.
The ship shuddered, spilling her coffee all over her captain's blues. She tossed the cup and ran back to the nose. "Report," she barked at Weaver as she stepped through the hatch.
"The port thruster kicked in on its own and is not responding. I can’t override it or shut it down," said the pilot, his voice raising an octave, "and engineering reports an aggressive organic substance breaching the hull."
Karla looked over his head at the controls, tapped his shoulder for him to get up and tried herself. The manual override refused to respond. She couldn’t get the thruster to disengage. "The cooling system is overloaded. I’m shutting down the main engine and diverting all cooling systems to that thruster," she said as her fingers flew over the controls. "Damn! Now the engines won’t respond. What the hell is going on?"
The com sounded. Chief Sanders' voice had an edge. "Captain, the hull’s nanoweb just read a biotechnic virus and it's already breached the hull. It’s spreading like a plasma fire and damaging every system it touches. This thing is fast. We’ve sealed the hull, but I’m getting frozen out of all controls. I’ve never seen anything like it." The chief engineer’s tone scared her more than his news. Nothing ever rattles that guy.
"Is Natter down there?" The biologists they sent on these cruises were primarily to make the passengers feel that they might be needed - to hint at the possibility of finding life in the outer system. They usually weren’t the best in their field and few had seen any action.
"Yes. He’s analyzing it. Might be a while, though. Anything that has been infected changes color and looks melted. People should stay sharp. We don’t know what it will do to human tissue but it can’t be good."
"Okay. Keep me posted." Karla then turned to the pilot. "Get that message to the crew. Have them tell the passengers cabin by cabin, room by room. I’m not putting that over ship-wide."
"Yes, sir." Weaver looked relieved to be actively involved.
Karla dove under the pilot console and pulled the cover off. She turned onto her back and tried bypassing the control. A wave of nausea hit her, and she bit her lip until it eased. The gravity was erratically fluctuating between 1G and 0G. She braced her knee on the underside of the console just in case the artificial gravity failed altogether.
"We’ve got the main engines shut down," said the chief over the com, "but the thruster is still firing. We’re going to have to jettison it from outside. Hathaway’s suited up and going EVA."
"Understood," Karla answered from under the console.
Karla wiped her brow and unzipped her vest. The temperature had already increased by ten degrees. Nothing she did made any difference. She got up, leaving the panel on the deck.
"Put that panel back. We don’t want it hitting us in the head if the AG goes," she said to the pilot.
"This virus is fast," said Chief Sanders over the com, "Natter says that it changes the molecular structure of everything it touches. You might want to consider the lifeboats before they’re infected, too."
Karla hoped she’d never have to put those metal coffins to the test. They had no maneuvering capabilities and limited rations. The Eureka was too far out. She doubted the lifeboats would last long enough for them to be rescued. They should have named her the Titanic. "Let’s not be hasty, Sanders. Let me know if Natter turns up anything useful, and keep in close contact with Hathaway."
"Hathaway’s just approaching the thruster panel. The hull temperature may breach his suit’s integrity before he even gets the panel off."
"Hathaway, no heroics," Karla radioed directly to Hathaway’s suit, "Get out of there before your suit breaches."
"Captain, I’ve almost got it." Then he grunted. "I’ve got the panel partially loosened. I can’t get…Damn!"
"What’s happening, Hathaway? Talk to me."
"It’s fused. My suit’s getting hotter by the second. I could torch it or blast it off but the containment necessary to…No! No! No! Ahhhhh…"
"Hathaway! Come in. What’s your status?" said Sanders. "Hathaway. Come in."
His radio only transmitted background noise. Karla’s gut wrenched as she pictured Hathaway’s flesh cooking in his suit as he hurtled off into space.
"Captain. I’m sorry. We’ve lost Hathaway. We need to evacuate to the lifeboats."
"I’ll give the order."