From my Notebook >

Pine Needles, A Short Story - Part 1 of 2

It was lunchtime in Earth orbit, and Ian was considering his cheeseburger.

This was gourmet space food perfection, he thought, even though it was shaped like a strange little elongated cube. The colors of a normal Earth-style cheeseburger formed a perfectly linear color gradient from end to end. From bun to sauce to burger to cheese to tomato to lettuce and then to sauce and to bun again.

The bun was beautifully done. The sides were lightly toasted except the very ends, which had been puffed out somehow during the robotic preparation process.

“Class, what does each layer of this cheeseburger tell you about the thing itself?” Ian wondered aloud in a professorial voice. Working in an orbiting sample-collection station was Ian’s first post-university job.

“Let me answer that, professor. The perfect lettuce, the crisp tomato—these tell us that the thing itself is a culinary-freakin’-miracle,” he responded to himself, with a pause for more examination before continuing.

“It really shouldn’t be this easy to acquire gourmet. The basic food elements and processing hardware have been provided by the non-profit for which I work. I mean, it’s a large organization, for sure. But I live in…in space. Things are more expensive up here. Am I supposed to assume that a generous grant has paid for this?” Ian looked down the length of one of the cheeseburger’s sides, examining its perfectly linear shape. He slowly teased out a piece of lettuce, and sampled it.

“So where does the money come from? All I do all day is analyze samples from dusty mining colonies. It’s not as if we’re mining for pure gold, either. Just common elemental materials, whatever we can pick up. And for that, as a newly graduated…well, as a completely naive idiot, essentially, I am wined and dined like a visiting prince.”

Two bites later, Ian washed down his meal with a kinetic soda drink that had been developed a few years earlier at MIT. He had instructed it to circuit his mouth twice. While Ian understood nothing about the sugary mechanisms in play among his softer tissues, he loved the way he felt when the jets of carbonation tickled his left upper gum. Ah! And today it carried some kind of exceedingly natural grape flavor, Ian’s favorite. Now this was a lunch break.

Ian’s relaxation was interrupted by a message on his headset. It was one of his colleagues on the station, a female university graduate named Chany. She was extremely beautiful by any standard, and she definitely far exceeded Ian’s own standards, the knowledge of which actually helped him affect an attitude of indifference toward her radiant smile and long, dark hair.

Speaking of lunch breaks—what must her lips taste like? Ian felt a pleasant smile spreading across his face.

“Ian. I really hope you’re enjoying your break in there, but can you meet me in the stockroom please?”

“The stockroom again?” Ian replied to himself, brushing nonexistent crumbs off of his shirt. He made a mental note to explore the origin of these crumb-free foods further.

The stockroom had become an informal meeting place for the four station staff. It was the only place on board that was relatively dark inside, and as a result it became a safe place to talk about things.

Inside, Chany was waiting for him. But unlike every other time she had requested help in her professional tone of voice, this time the stockroom was completely empty except for some boxes of food supplies in the corner.

“Uh, Chany, there’s not much in here for my muscular back to lift for you.”

“I don’t need you to help me lift anything, Ian. I need to tell you something, and I think I need you to keep it a secret.”

Ian felt his skin tingle. He was surprised at, but definitely excited by, the sudden awkward transition to personal conversation. He had only known Chany for a few weeks, and as work colleagues in separate living quarters, they hadn’t talked about anything really private yet.

“OK, I’m ready to keep a secret then. I mean, I guess.” Ian offered. He wondered if his flushing face and diverted eyes were giving anything away.

“Well, it’s really weird. I found a pine needle in my last sample. I reported it and they asked me to shut down my lab and prepare for a debriefing.”

Ian tilted his head.

“A pine needle? Are you sure it’s really—”

“Yeah. And I told them I only found one, but I could tell that…well, the whole sample was strange. There were other materials that I could swear came from earth, like…like asphalt.”

Ian’s mouth hung open in shock.

“Uh…wow. What did they say to do with the sample?”

“That’s the weird thing. They told me to leave it there, stop working on it and just leave it on my lab table.”

“That’s certainly a different approach to sample containment than I’m familiar with,” Ian said.

Chany began to pace around the small, poorly-lit room.

“Where would miners find pine needles and asphalt, if not on earth? I wonder if they discovered something.”

Chany suddenly stopped, her eyes pinned to Ian’s. She paused as if she was processing new information.

“Ian, are you hearing this? Labs C and D are asking why they have been told to evacuate. Are you getting any messages?”

“Crap. My hardware key must have flaked out again,” Ian said. He tapped the area behind his ear a few times, and a simple tone announced that the device was starting up. After a brief pause, message traffic began to flood into Ian’s head.

Lab Alpha, emergency evacuation. Do not enter Beta Lab, proceed to auxiliary support unit.

Whoever managed that little communication must have been nervous, Ian thought. Lab Alpha is me. And I guess I am contaminating myself just by standing here in the stockroom with Lab Beta’s only humanoid, a.k.a. Chany.

“I’m getting evacced, too,” Ian said. “Uh…is there any reason to think you might be, uh…”

“Contaminated? I must be.” Chany looked frustrated and confused.

Ian paused as another burst of message traffic came through.

Lab Alpha, evacuate now. Do not attempt to enter or assist Beta Lab.

The question hit the two of them at the same time. Was Earth trying to do something to Chany? Were they trying to get rid of her? Could she really be that contaminated?

Ian stared at Chany, his mouth open and yet quiet for a brief moment. “Your sample analysis returned negative for all other life forms, right?”

“The pine needle and some smaller organisms fitting within Earth parameters were considered life forms, but I mean…that’s well within our containment capabilities here.”

“So I’m pretty sure there’s no reason we would need to evacuate. I mean, Earth can seal you off easily enough from any danger that your sample presents. They’d just have you follow rescue protocol and get you scrubbed clean.”

So what were they thinking down on Earth? Ian ran over the facts in his head: They were isolating Chany. Trying to get her alone in the ship. She wasn’t being evacuated. But everyone else was supposed to leave. The sample was still on the table.

All the evidence, and Chany, in the same place.

In a flash, realization struck Ian.

“Chany, I’m going to evac a pile of food boxes. Help me.”

“But you need to get back to your quarters, Ian, they want you to leave!”

“Look, stop. Something isn’t right. I mean, we’ve got to help…help you.” Chany watched him, silently, as he started to gather food supply boxes.

They ran, each carrying about thirty pounds of food, from the stockroom to Ian’s lab. The weight of the food and its organic composition was enough to trigger the simple latch mechanism in Lab Alpha’s extremely basic escape pod, the ASU.

In less than a minute after ejection, the pod had traveled a few hundred yards away from the lab, stuffed with raw food materials. Now that Lab Alpha was effectively useless as a place of rescue, and Earth could see that Ian’s pod left the station, Ian ran with Chany back to Beta Lab.

Chany paused at the doorway to her quarters.

“That’s weird. I closed the door when I left.” She walked into the lab, looking around curiously, with Ian trailing her.

“Hello?”

Seconds later Chany and Ian spun around just as the door closed itself, its mechanical locking seal clicking solidly into place.

“Chany, this is freaking unreal.”

Chany typed a numeric code into the keypad next to the door. Then the same code, again.

“I can’t override it.”

Suddenly a long, shrill alarm sound began to build. It changed pitch slowly as it passed through the ship.

An alarm. The alarm.

“Chany, I think they might be trying to blow us up.”

Continue to Part 2…