Of all the species that our wondrous, varied galaxy holds, perhaps the strangest toxicological specimen encountered by the Commonwealth of Worlds is H. Nosferatum. It is unique among carnivores in that it is not so much an apex predator as an adjunct one. Its particular musk affects all biological sapients. The miasma penetrates barrier suits, outfoxes metabolic enhancements and caduceus nanite colonies, and ultimately settles into the central nervous system for a long, comfortable stay. Puzzlingly, its effect is not to stun or disorient sufferers. Instead, it simply creates a blindspot. Where the victim would see the Nosferatum, it does not. Nor does the mind accept any signs of this remarkable animal's presence. This, more than anything else, explains the disappearance of the colony on New Novogorod, which depopulated peacefully over several months while orbital scans reported a bloom in the numbers of warm-blooded bodies in its streets. - H.G. Waldron, "Curiosities of the Living Cosmos."
Lydia flicked the side of the terrarium in distaste. Its sole occupant, a Lycroma spider, remained crouched on its log. Not even a feeler twitched.
It might as well have been dead.
The terrarium was a loaner from the ship's biological specimens library, not an actual project, but Lydia found its presence helped to pass the hours. If central command was not going to assign her anything to do, she could at least keep a pet.
Perhaps some good would even come of this. The spider ignored her with the totality of a grudge-holding cat, but it would occasionally fly into a blind, un-documented panic, running around the confines of its little world. Lydia would watch it with bemusement, counting away the minutes until it finally settled into an exhausted stupor or buried itself under the terrarium's sand.
She had put in requests for a legitimate assignment several times now, but each one had been met with a polite reminder in her inbox that she should return to what she was doing. Which was nothing, of course, but she found herself checking her computer several times an hour, just in case that directive had changed.
The Commonwealth could not afford to have its researchers idling away credit-hours in the lab.
They should have at least issued her with a partner. A proper human connection to another working party was mandatory for technicals on most civilized worlds. It helped pull them back from the Moroe Threshold, keeping them from wondering What If They Had Their Own Robot Army or indulging in similarly antisocial theories.
Different laws for international waters, Lydia thought sourly. The compensation for signing on with a deeper-black exploratory vessle had been too tempting to pass up on, but she should have been more careful with the fine print on that promise. Even the excitement of charting a fresh three-dimensional wedge of the unknown had worn thin by now. Their last port of call had been a docking with a derelict three months ago, and that had been boring, not mysterious.
Contaminant scans had pronounced the ghost-ship free of bio or meta-biological oddities. Three tactical EM pulses had cooked its native nanite clusters to smoking dust, and the away team had spent twelve hours wandering its barren corridors in increasingly anxious shifts before declaring there was nothing to see and returning home.
Lydia supposed she ought to feel grateful for this. Their vessel was, after all, running with only a skeleton crew. But it was so hard to feel anything but distaste for her current working conditions.
Her eyes felt raw and sticky. The back of her throat had a cardboard taste and her tongue stuck to it when she pressed it there. She rubbed her cheeks and checked her email again.
Across the sterile, white laboratory room, the door to the corridor hissed open.
In its terrarium, the spider went berserk.
The door did this several times on each working shift despite the fact that there was no one out in the hall. Trouble-tickets sent to the maintenance synthai returned with a diagnostic blurt about the pressure and intention scanners working as designed. Which was nonsense, of course, and just another reason to celebrate when this tour of duty was finally over.
Hissing out a sigh through stained white teeth, Lydia called up her digital overlay. It informed her with blinking letters that her work was not done. And yet, she suddenly could not stand being in this room any longer. Fingers dashing holes in the display, she keyed in her override code.
The synthai would call her back if she was needed. Until then, she could take an early lunch.
Leaving the Lycroma to its panicked circuit of the cage, she left through the malfunctioning door.
It hissed open again behind her.
The cafeteria was vast. Cathedralesque. Far larger than the ship's crew could ever have required. Row after row of silent tables sat in the comfortable semi-dark. Lydia picked a spot by herself, thumbed an icon on her tray, and waited for her meal to materialize before her. When it arrived, it came as a salad and a set of caffeine tablets and a hard-copy reprimand.
She thumbed through the worn pages of the document, skimming a few stock lines about how the crew was counting on her research – how her role here was vital. She set it aside and took a bite of the salad, then two of the caffeine tabs. Kale and wakefulness crunched between her teeth.
At the other end of the room, a table lurched sideways and fell over.
Lydia finished her meal in peace, heaving the memo into a decomp-bin along with her salad bowl and tray. As she did so, her overlay chimed.
Medical center, it told her. Priority: immediate.
That was at least better than another hour in the lab. Changing direction, Lydia let her overlay draw a path across the floor. She followed it down corridors and through empty atria, winding a circumspect course that inevitably dead-ended at a set of stark white doors.
They whipped open and she stepped aside for a moment, then slid inside.
There was no doctor on duty in the medical center, but most of the Commonwealth's standardized diagnostics were automated anyway. Rolling up one sleeve, Lydia affixed a medical cuff to her bare upper arm.
That was when she heard the banging coming from quarantine. At first glance, there seemed to be nothing inside the little plexiglass enclosure, but Lydia squinted as the noise continued. A haggard, malnourished man slowly came into view.
"Notice me," he was shouting. "Just look right here. I know you can see me!" He had on a maintenance jumpsuit, which was plainly impossible.
Lydia blinked and the man vanished. The noise, however, continued.
There should not have been anyone in quarantine. The chamber was used to study crew-members who had been out in foreign atmosphere exposure, and that had not happened this trip. Waving a hand, Lydia called up a list of recent medical bay visits. None of them were for quarantine.
She found her own name sixteen times, however.
On her upper arm, the cuff chimed twice and signaled a neurochemical anomaly.
Pleased that everything was alright, Lydia disconnected it and set it back in its sanitized receptacle.
The knocking on the inside of the quarantine booth was growing louder again. Desperate. Insistent.
She turned to leave. Felt her shoulders slump.
"Admitting one to quarantine," she heard her voice say. Then plexiglass parted and she stepped backwards into the booth.
Immediately, the walls slammed closed behind her. A man, who had been standing next to her, shrank back, his overlay fanned in a defensive spread in the air before his face. Console commands rose in hectic strings from his fingers.
"Purge atmo!" he was shouting. "Purge! Purge!"
With a tinny whumph, the air evacuated from the chamber. It returned a moment later, leaving Lydia stunned and wheezing on the floor.
"We can't keep doing this," the man was saying, standing over her. "It's been days and you've gotten nothing. Just like all the other times. A few automated processes and we could have a chemical neutralizer, but every time I send you out, you wander away. At this rate, I might as well have myself flushed out of a hatch. That's just about the only thing I can control from here, anyway."
Lydia climbed shakily to her feet. "Who are you?" she demanded.
As she did so, a name surfaced in her head.
"We've been over this," said Hamzah. "Give it a second. Have you remembered yet?"
"But we don't have any technicians aboard." Lydia's head ached. "How are you here?"
"Don't worry about that," said Hamzah. "Listen, I'm mailing you the recalibrations I need performed again. Just get back to your lab and implement them, and we'll both get out of this."
"What do you mean?" asked Lydia, her eyes widening.
"There's no time to explain," said Hamzah, taking her by her shoulders and steering her back towards the walls of the quarantine pen. "And even if there was, if you stay in here much longer it'll be another few days before I can convince you to go back out. Before the reality sets in that we are trapped, unless you do something."
Outside in the medical center, something moved.
"One to exit quarantine," snapped Hamzah. "We're going to try something new this time. I've added a set of instructions to your overlay. They mention nothing about what's outside. Keep your overlay up. Look and and follow only them. Understand?"
"I really don't," began Lydia, but the technician's arms were at her back, pushing her out as the pen opened up again.
Lydia stumbled out. Her overlay went up. And abruptly her headache cleared.
She was standing alone in the medical bay, reading an email from a person she had never met.
Do not look up, it told her. Do not close this window. Just relax and follow the instructions. I am mapping you a route to your laboratory. Follow it.
In a corner of the center, a tray of instruments fell off of a counter.
Lydia glanced up. Her eyes felt thick and heavy. She must have been staring at her overlay for too long.
With a swipe, she minimized it.
It was time to get back to work.
Stepping around something in the middle of the floor, she left the medical center, the door hissing open again behind her.
The hallway at her back was empty. And behind her, nothing moved on quiet feet.