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Rocky Keele

The Monster in the Basement (A Ride on the Meat Wagon)

I watched with concern as the flames licked the high pressure oxygen tanks. I thumbed the intercom button next to my view monitor.

“Davis, hose down the oxygen tanks or you're going to have serious troubles.” I watched my monitor again, and saw the emergency response team change their focus, from protecting the frozen passengers themselves to the oxygen tanks that supported them.

This was not good, I thought. Of course, fire aboard an interstellar meat wagon was never a good thing, but this situation had potential for disaster. If the emergency team didn't keep the flames away from the passenger crèches, the occupants would stew in their own juices. If they didn't get the tanks out of the flames and cooled down, not only would there be a large explosion, but the passengers would be brain dead before any temporary oxygen could be connected.

I watched as the silent scene played out before my eyes. I moved the remote cameras in passenger area 7 to follow Davis and his team of three other men and three support robots. They were well trained and efficient. The robots were able to withstand the immense heat of the flames as they darted into the inferno, sprayed their fire suppressant, and then shot back out into relative safety. Not only were the men able to direct the robots, but they were able to get their own bodies into the small walkways between the stacked crèches, spaces the larger bots could not navigate.

Passenger area 7 held five hundred crèches; one hundred crèches per layer, five layers high. Each layer was made up of a 4 x 25 matrix of crèches. In order to save space, the ship's designers arranged the four rows of crèches in a 1, 2, 1 pattern, with two narrow walkways running the length of the twenty five sleeper units so that technicians could verify the functioning of each individual crèche. A small window looked in on each passenger, showing the head and shoulders. A metal catwalk and ladder at each level made it possible to check each of the five hundred crèches in this area of the basement. Ten passenger areas with five hundred crèches each, gave the Gallant Dawn a total of five thousands individuals, give or take a few dozen. I was sure there were empty crèches – last minute cancellations, changes in plans, deaths, etc., but for the most part, the ship contained a full complement of nearly frozen bodies. This led to the standing joke of referring to the Gallant Dawn as a meat wagon – never in the presence of paying customers, however.

The team was making progress when I saw the entity emerge from the flames, like a ghost from Hades. I had caught glimpses of this ethereal being several times over the last couple of days from my post at the cameras. Movement would catch my eye, I would look to the monitor and just see the fluttering image of the entity passing off camera. Of course, I recalled the camera's digital images that are saved on long term storage. They all showed a semi-translucent being somewhat in the shape of a human. It definitely had some type of head, two arm like appendages, and perhaps legs of some type, I could never be certain. I tried digital image enhancement routines, but they never helped clear the blurry images caught on camera.

This same being now burst out of the inferno raging around the tanks, shot towards the opening of the passenger bay, and was gone. It was at that moment that one of the tanks let loose.

The sudden influx of rich oxygen fueled the flames into an orange-red fireball. All three of the robots and two of the men were swallowed by the roiling flames. In the safety of my control room, I couldn't hear the roar of the explosion or feel the concussion of the blast, but the white fuzz on two of my screens was enough evidence to know that being in that area was literally, like being in hell. I swore, then realizing my bad choice of words, prayed that the fire-retardant suits that Davis and his team wore did their duty this day. Even with the divine intervention I had requested, I didn't have hope for the two that were caught in the explosion. I repositioned my two remaining remote cameras, just in time to see a pair of robots leave the flames. Their outer surfaces were blackened and scorched. I panned the cameras back and forth for another thirty seconds before, like Dante, I abandoned all hope that the two men would emerge from the inferno.

I watched the remaining men and robots pull back, apparently to regroup. Thoughts of burning to death in space momentarily crossed my mind, but I pushed the thoughts aside and focused a camera back on the tanks. The exploded oxygen tank was nothing more than a few twisted shreds of metal bolted to the deck.

I zoomed in on the tank of liquid nitrogen, the super coolant used to keep all the passengers in cryogenic sleep. There were dozens of jagged dents, rips and impact pits from the oxygen tank's remains. I could see several white spouts of steam like substance escaping from the damaged tank.

I pressed the intercom button. “Team Davis, evacuate area 7. Explosion imminent. Repeat, evacuate passenger area 7.”

The two men were well drilled and ran almost the instant I called out the evacuate order. I'm sure it saved their lives. The robots on the other hand, took longer to get their larger masses moving. When the liquid nitrogen tank exploded, pieces of frozen metal ripped into them like angry bees driving off marauding bears. One went down from the blast, but the other managed to avoid being knocked over, picked up speed and made it into area 8 before I lost visual. I swiveled the camera back to the tanks.

I noticed two things right away: the explosion had managed to snuff out the flames, and it had done serious structural damage to the area around the tanks. Sections of the inner hull were shredded, support beams were bent at odd angles and an entire section of cryogenic crèches were scattered across passenger area 7.

My speakers crackled to life.

“Control, you there? This is Davis.”

“Control here Davis. You OK?”

He didn't answer right away. I didn't know if he was trying to catch his breath or if he was in shock from the violent deaths of his team mates.

“Did Barnes and O'Brian make it out? Please tell me they did.”

Deep down in my guts, I wanted to tell Davis that the two had made it out, and I would have lied to him and told him that they had, but he deserved the truth.

“Negative,” I said.

* * * * *

Ten minutes later I was traveling through the kilometer long access tube Alpha, the one that leads from the forward command center to the passenger areas. It then continues on, allowing entry into all ten passenger areas before changing to access tube Beta. Beta traverses the remaining seven hundred fifty meters of the Gallant Dawn's heavy cargo holds. All the equipment for establishing a new colony resides in the five holds – everything from farming machinery to basic civil defense weapons; small automated factory modules to giant mining bots; human medical supplies to robotic nanotechnology repair kits.

It was towards the robotic repair kits that I rushed. All three of Davis' robots had suffered damage in the fire, and they needed to be repaired before he could put them to use in shoring up the sagging structural elements in passenger area 7. Each repair kit contained specialized tools for working on damaged robots, common replacement parts, and most importantly, several injector vials of nano repair bots. Each vial contained billions and billions of the tiny miracle workers. Once injected into a robot's system, the nanobots would go to work patching leaking fluid lines, rewiring damaged circuits, rebuilding broken gears or motors, and just generally fixing wear and tear.

While these nanobots are amazing, they do have limits. First off, they are designed specifically for robots, and will not work on, say, plasma coils or cryogenic crèches. The nanobots have been programmed to recognize specific parts of a robot's anatomy and would not be able to identify broken or damage parts in non-robotic equipment. Second, major damage can not be repaired, at least in a useful time frame. So, if a robot is cut in half, and one half is ejected into space, the nanobots could not rebuild the other half in less time than it would take to just order a new robot.

Before leaving my cameras and monitors to go in search of the repair kits, I searched once more for the ghostly entity, found nothing, then punched in the codes to awaken emergency response team 2. With Barnes and O'Brian dead, we needed extra help. The structural damage in area 7 had to be repaired as quickly as possible. A hull breach in deep space will ruin your day.

I was sure that team 2 would not have kind words for me. Coming out of cryogenic sleep is a painful process - muscles thaw, organs come back online, lungs painfully fill with warm air. It's several hours before one can move around and then several more hours before the chill finally leaves your bones and you shake the feeling of being a steak just coming out of the freezer. Team 2 was not due to be woken for nearly two months, and they wouldn't be happy about being brought out of the deep freeze early.

As my tube capsule approached the entrance to passenger area 7, I could see smoke billowing into the access tube, obscuring sight beyond. I should have checked that the line was clear of debris before heading off. Too late now, I thought. My capsule punched through the black wall like a ray of sunlight breaking through an overcast sky, and the familiar red emergency lighting of the tubes was restored.

Directly in my path, floated the ghostly being. I now needed no image enhancement software to make out its features, though they were still blurred and ill defined. It did have a face of sorts, with empty sockets where the eyes should have been and a black mouth that might have led straight to the abyss. Its empty eye holes stared wide with anger, or perhaps surprise, at my sudden appearance. My capsule slammed into it, the clear windscreen showing its blurry face slide over the top of the capsule, then disintegrate into wisps of smoke like substance. A coldness swept through me as the capsule tore the being to shreds, but then faded as I rocketed along the rail towards the lower storage basement. I decided that it was definitely surprise on its face, and hoped that it was the last time I got such an up close and personal view of the thing.

Just as my pulse was returning to normal, a scream from hell tore through me and the coldness from a moment before shot back into my veins. I looked back at the smoke gushing from area 7, and saw the blurry entity reforming, somehow pulling its dissipated substance from the tube's volume. It was like watching a slow motion explosion caught on film and then run backwards. In my mind, I urged the capsule on to greater speeds, but it gave no heed.

I swore again as I watched the now reconstituted being give chase to my capsule and its inhabitant. It appeared to be running, yet I could still make out no legs. It was not touching the capsule rail for I could see smoke between it and the rail. At first, I thought it was gaining on me, but after several more seconds, I saw that I was pulling ahead. I watched it pursue me until, less than a minute later, my capsule transferred into access tube Beta.

The online storage database indicated that the repair kits were in cargo bay 3, and as the capsule braked to a stop, I jumped out and began my search in the cavernous cargo hold. I didn't know if the entity was still behind me or not. I didn't want to find out, actually. I knew the general whereabouts of the kits, and quickly went to find them.

I wore my helmet with its headlamp, for even though the red emergency lighting would do in a pinch, enough darkness filled these giant chambers to make me want a powerful beam in case I encountered trouble. I wished that I had some weapon that would be useful against the entity – maybe a flamethrower or an electric dissipater. Put enough amps into something, and eventually it dies, whether its actually alive or not to begin with. I wondered if we had any dissipaters aboard.

I kept looking behind me as I traversed the dark corridors. I felt like a nine year old boy, on his way home from the late movie, having to pass near the cemetery. I briefly thought of whistling as I walked, but knew that would draw more attention than keeping my mouth shut. I had never noticed before how robotic equipment caught out of the corner of your eye can appear so lifelike and stalking.

On the fifth time of jerking my head around, trying to catch a glimpse of perceived motion, I saw the wavering form of the entity. My heart rate doubled, and I began a slow jog towards the repair kits. I inhaled deeply, and counted corridors as I ran past them. Corridor 3A, 3B, 3C. The kits were in 3H. I looked back and saw the entity following in the shadows. I don't know how I knew, but I knew that I could not allow that thing to touch me. Maybe it was the coldness I had felt earlier as it passed over my capsule.

I pushed thoughts of the entity sucking the life out of me from my mind and I ran onward. 3F, 3G and finally, out of breath, I arrived at 3H. I ducked into the narrow corridor that contained equipment stacked three levels high. I needed to hurry, for I did not want the being to trap me in this dead-end corridor, with nowhere to flee. I saw that the kits were on the third level and that I would need to ascend a metal ladder up to the narrow catwalk above my head. I hurriedly climbed the ladder up two levels, found the container with the repair kits and unlatched it. The storage bin that I opened was two meters wide, two meters deep, and a meter high. Packed snuggly into packing foam, were many dozens of the kits. I pulled out three, one for each of Davis's robots, then closed and re-latched the large container.

As my boots clanked across the metal catwalk, a shadow passed in front of the corridor entrance. I froze in place, hoping that the entity wouldn't notice me. Then I realized my headlamp was still on, shining like a lighthouse for all passing ships to see. I flicked it off, but the damage was done. Unfortunately, the bright light had left me blind in the near darkness. I willed my pupils to dilate – I needed to see whether the thing was approaching me, or whether it had gone on and would allow me to descend the ladder in peace.

I finally saw the floating entity as it passed in front of a dim emergency light, and its form momentarily darkened the red glow of the corridor lighting. It was coming for me. I watched it approach the ladder and begin its ascent before I realized I wasn't breathing. I tried not to gulp air and my mind was spinning. I was trapped on the catwalk. I couldn't jump down – it was nearly ten meters to the floor below. The thing was now on the second level, moving its head side to side. It knew I was here somewhere, and it was searching for me. It began to come up the ladder to the third level. I had to do something, or I would have an unfortunate encounter with this monster in the basement.

An idea came. I set the kits down, opened one of them and withdrew a nanobot injector. As the entity poked its head and upper body through the opening leading to the third level, I turned on my headlamp, directly into the creature's face. I hoped that this trick would buy me enough time to somehow get by it. Instead, it charged through the beam of light, like a dark raincloud eager to smother a solitary beam of sunlight. I retreated from its rush, but at the same time squeezed out the injector's entire contents onto the ethereal form. It shrieked as the nanobot solution splashed on and through it. Fumes, like those from a smoldering fire, poured off the entity everywhere it came in contact with the nanobot solution. It flung itself violently, attempting to scrub the solution from itself. It rubbed itself on the nearby containers, then threw itself to the catwalk and rolled like a man on fire.

I grabbed the two closed repair kits in one hand, jumped over the sprawling creature, and descended the two levels to the corridor. I could still hear the shrieking from above. I didn't know why, but the solution clearly hurt the being – apparently, the nanobots interacted negatively with it. I ran as fast as the two repair kits allowed until I was back at the rail capsule. I tossed the kits inside, jumped in and coaxed the capsule into motion.

I returned to the smoke filled entrance of passenger area 7. The capsule stopped and I pulled on my breather gear before disembarking. I flipped on the headlamp, and took a repair kit in each hand. I'd have to go back to the equipment bay for a third later.

Even with the powerful headlamp beam, it was difficult to see where I was going. The black smoke of burning conduits and cryogenic crèches completely filled this section of the passenger area. As I made my way nearer to the detonation area, I could see the effects of the fire and resulting explosion. Structural beams and cross beams were melted and warped, like some surreal painting. The insulating panels that covered all interior walls of the passenger area were pocked and shredded from the flying debris of the explosion.

Most disturbing were the dozens of cryogenic crèches, each the size of coffin, that were flung about like a naughty child's play things. The coffin image fit well for the crèches that I beheld. Their occupants were surely dead by now, or at the very least, brains so starved for oxygen that it amounted to the same. They had not received oxygen for nearly an hour.

Near a pair of melted beams that were supporting several layers of stacked crèches, I saw a blackened body. As I moved closer and saw tendrils of smoke rising from the dark and cracked remains, I was thankful for the breather unit over my face. I couldn't tell if the body was Barnes or O'Brian – all the exposed skin and hair had been burnt away in the earlier inferno. I was going to move closer to see if I could read any identifying marks on the fire suit, but scrambled away from the stacked crèches when a drawn out screech of metal escaped from the melted beams. The layered crèches settled and creaked. We would have to get a temporary support beam in here quickly to avoid a cave-in of the stacked sleeping chambers.

I hurried on to where Davis and Taylor were beginning repairs on two of the robots. They must have dragged one of the incapacitated robots here while I was getting the repair kits.

I studied the robot that had received the barrage of shrapnel and hoped that the nanotechnology contained in the repair kits was as good as advertised. I set the kits down and moved closer to Davis to get a better look at what he was doing.

“Any chance of saving this one,” I asked. I didn't look hopeful – the robot had been shot through with hundreds of pieces of metal; Fluids dripped from dozens of ruptured lines and formed pools of transparent reddish fluid on the metal floor of the passenger area.

“Once we give him a shot of our little helpers, he'll be good as new,” said Davis, motioning towards the repair kits. He turned his attention back to the damaged robot. “I hope we can find the third bot back in that mess. We could use all the help we can get.”

“I woke team 2,” I said. “They should be down here in a couple of hours.” This reminded me of the burnt corpse I had discovered on the way in. I wasn't keen on bringing up this topic of conversation, but I knew Davis would want to know.

I decided to put it off for the moment and said, “I had a little run it with our friendly neighborhood ghost.”

Davis looked up. “Oh? It wasn't trying to tamper with any more crèches was it?”

I shook my head. “No, it wanted me. Guess it's tired of frozen dinners.” I recounted the chilling experience. After the tale, I told him about the body.

“I saw the body of either O'Brian or Barnes on the way in. He was under a group of stacked crèches.”

Davis stiffened at the news. “We should get his body out,” he said. “He'd do the same for any one of us.”

I nodded in agreement. “We'd better hurry. A couple of the support beams holding up the crèches didn't appear to be in very good shape.”

“OK,” said Davis. “Let's get this bot injected and then we can use it to help get him out. We should also find the other body while we're there.”

I unlatched the repair kit, and handed Davis the large injector vial of nano repair bots. Davis found an intact hydraulic line that supplied the robots legs, inserted the needle, and injected the entire contents of the vial into the robot's innards.

Having never seen this process in action before, I watched in fascination. Davis and Taylor went to have a look at the other robot, but I was curious if I could see damage being repaired by the microscopic nanobots. Nothing appeared to be happening. I was about to join the other two men, when I noticed the hole from the injector close up and then disappear, leaving no trace of the puncture mark. I turned back and began to scrutinize the metallic construct more closely. I focused on the group of shrapnel wounds in its back. Slowly, but noticeably, the jagged holes began to seal themselves. I knew the theory behind the nanobots, but to actually see the results of the billions of tiny robots as they performed their work was incredible. The robot's dripping fluid slowed and finally stopped. The wounds in its metal body slowly vanished, as if they were never truly there. Even the burn marks from the explosion were being erased when Davis finally motioned me to head to the area of the body. I followed the two men, amazed at what I had just seen, but quickly turning dour at the thought of what I must see next.

We arrived at the body to be greeted by a chorus of groaning beams and support structures. We needed to hurry. The sagging stack of crèches was noticeably worse than the first time I had passed through this area. We went to work clearing a path for the robot, as we needed it to help support the collapsing structure. After twenty minutes of heavy exertion, we had cleared a path for the robot to position itself under the stack of crèches. Once the robot was in place, the three of us approached the body to see if we could pull it free. Davis insisted on going first. I think he wanted to see if the blackened entity before us was Barnes or O'Brian. I stepped back to let him and Taylor through the narrow opening to the body.

In the movement of my backwards step, I believe I saved my life. Davis and Taylor were bending down to look at the corpse, the robot was standing like a capital letter I, arms stretched high and straight. A tortured scream of metal escaped the weakened beams, and then a loud snap as they gave way. The layers of crèches came down upon us in the artificial gravity of the Gallant Dawn. I saw the robot's arms and legs flex from the sudden increase in weight, and then snap like twigs under the weight of a boulder. The dozens of crèches, now without support, came tumbling down in an avalanche of metal, cryogenic hoses, and beams. Davis and Taylor didn't even had a chance to scream. They looked up and were crushed under kilotons of cryogenic crèches. I threw myself back in a desperate attempt to escape the carnage, but tripped on a pile of debris we had just cleared. I scrambled on hands and knees, feeling sharp metal biting into my flesh, but not caring. The only thing that mattered was that I not be under the crushing wave of crèches. I almost made it but then something large and heavy struck me.

I awoke face down a short time later – it couldn't have been more than minute, as the pool of blood forming around me was not that large. It was strange, as the only pain I could feel was in my hands. They had many lacerations, but obviously were not the source of the blood pool. I tried to stand, but something must have pinned me to the floor, for I couldn't get up. I twisted my head around to see what was holding me down and was appalled to realize that there was nothing on me. My legs were free. There were several nearby crèches, one of which must have struck me and thrown me clear of the remainder of the chaos.

I turned my head the other way and scanned my body, attempting to see what the problem was. I saw it immediately - I had been impaled.

From my left side protruded the sharp remains of a splintered support beam. I started to pull it free, but then realized this wound was the source of the blood. More of my warm, red fluid was still pumping out onto the floor with each beat of my now racing heart. My fingers explored my side and back and could feel the metallic splinter well into my back. I frantically tried to move my legs again, without success. My panicked mind was coming to the conclusion that my lower body was paralyzed. I was bleeding to death and I couldn't get to medical supplies. Team 2 wouldn't be on the scene for at least an hour still. Everyone on team 1, except me, was now dead.

I nearly gave myself up to the coldness then, but in my despair, a small hope entered my mind. I remembered that I had placed the second nano repair kit nearby. Yes, I had brought two of the repair kits from the capsule with me, and we had only used one. I was going to die shortly unless something stopped the flow of blood from my side, and if the only chance I had was to inject nanobots, then I would attempt it. I had just seen, with my own eyes, how the nanobots could seal punctured fluid lines. And what were arteries and veins if not fluid lines.

With slim, but renewed hope, I began dragging myself towards the repair kit. It was fifty or sixty meters away, and most of that distance was clear of wreckage. I wormed along the floor, my useless legs painting a gruesome picture in red. I was growing weaker, and still twenty meters from the now visible kit, I didn't think I was going to make it. I needed to rest for a moment, but fear of never starting again drove me on. I reached the kit on the verge of collapse, opened it and found the nanobot injector. I hesitated for a moment – did I truly want to attempt this? These nanobots were specifically designed to work on robots, not humans. Was dying so bad, after all? Eventually, we would all die, I told myself. Perhaps the nanobots would kill me anyway, and in a much more painful manner than was going to happen shortly if I did nothing.

I jabbed the injector into the large vein near my inner elbow, and pushed the entire contents into my dying body. I wanted to live.

After several moments, I could feel a warmness spreading through me, almost like the feeling when drinking a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter day. I turned my hands palms up, and watched as the cuts, scrapes and punctures began to close up. As I watched in grateful amazement, thinking that I would yet come through this ordeal, an overwhelming sleepiness settled upon me. I closed my eyes, still feeling the tingling throughout my body, and slept.

* * * * *

I again awoke face down, this time without blood pooling about me. I sat up, pulled off my breather unit, then remembering the metal stake in my side, felt for it, wanting to pull it free now that the nanobots were sealing my wounds. The splintered beam was not there. I felt for wounds in my side. I fingered the tear in my jump suit, but could find no similar tear in my flesh. The nanobots had done their work, even though I had no synthetic veins in my flesh, no carbon fiber hide covering my bones and organs, no electronic circuitry in my head. Apparently, human anatomy was similar enough to robotic anatomy, at least in the structural sense, that the nanobots understood what to repair.

In my excitement of being alive, I had failed to realize that I was sitting up, the paralysis of my lower limbs miraculously gone. I wiggled my toes. I moved my legs. I slowly stood, testing the strength of my legs and back. If it hadn't been for the obvious blood trail left by my earlier crawl, I'd have questioned my memory. I once again looked around for the sharp beam that had pierced my side, and could not see it anywhere.

I wondered if members of team 2 had found me, removed the beam while I lay sleeping, and gone on to work somewhere else, intending to return later. No, that couldn't be – unless they thought me dead. But surely if they pulled the beam from my side, they would have noticed I was alive, wouldn't they? Stop, I told myself. Speculation would get me nowhere. I decided to head back to Alpha tube, and if I saw no one, then I would return to the control room.

I first noticed the cravings as I walked back to my tube capsule. I can't call them hunger pains, because the longing sensations were not coming from my stomach as with the normal desire for food, but from my mouth. I had the strangest compulsion to place something in my mouth – I didn't know what, but the desire was growing stronger as I walked toward Alpha tube.

I entered the collapsed passenger area where I had narrowly escaped death. Instead of feeling anxiety or fear upon seeing the fragmented and twisted beams, I felt excitement. As I climbed over the fallen crèches and collapsed beams, a vision of placing a twisted shard of support beam in my mouth forced its way into my imagination. I pushed the thought from my mind and concentrated on carefully climbing through the wreckage. After some minutes of struggle, both mental and physical, I made my way to the tube entrance.

By the time I opened the capsule door, the desire to consume something was overwhelming. I flung myself into the capsule cockpit, my thoughts torn between devouring material and making it to the infirmary to find out what was happening to me. That's when I saw the other robot repair kit that I had left behind. Without thinking, I opened the container and frantically sorted through the contents until I held the nano injector, filled with the billions of tiny miracle workers. These miracle workers, I hoped, would sate my need to devour. I placed the needle in my mouth and slowly pushed the contents of the injector over my tongue. I swallowed greedily at first, but then a thought occurred to me that caused me to stop.

I climbed out of the capsule, half full injector in hand, and returned to the wreckage in passenger area 7. I picked up the first piece of metal that I could heft; I believe it was a piece of the exploded oxygen tank, for most of it was covered in scorched blue paint – the color indicating oxygen. I placed a sharp corner of the metal in my mouth, then squirted some of the remaining nanobots onto it. I held the metal there for perhaps thirty seconds, tasting burnt paint and rust. Curious as to what I was doing, I removed the metal shard from my mouth, and saw a semicircular area eaten away, almost like I had taken a bite from a sandwich.

It took the better part of ten minutes and the rest of the nanobots before I had consumed the entire piece of metal. My pseudo hunger was, for the time being, satisfied. I began to question why I had just eaten a jagged piece of metal for lunch, when I heard the rumble and screech of another tube capsule pulling into passenger area 7. That would be emergency team 2. I couldn't reveal myself to them until I found out more of what was happening to me. I picked up two more pieces of metal, each the size of a baseball bat, and scrambled into passenger area 8, away from the oncoming members of rescue team 2. I wondered if I would ever be able to go to them again, or if the nanobots in my system would ostracize me from their company forever.

* * * * *

Over the next several days, I feasted on titanium beams, steel tank scraps and silicon chips pulled from destroyed crèches. I discovered with my next bout of cravings that I merely had to put the metal in my mouth and the nanobots would disassemble it, molecule by molecule. I began to think of these snacks as metalpops, and chuckled in some half mad way each time I placed one in my mouth. Each night, I would sneak back into passenger area 7 after the rescue team had finished its work shift, and consume metal beams until I was gorged, wait for an hour or so, then begin again.

I could tell that my mass was increasing with each passing day, as I was having a difficult time moving about for any significant amount of time, especially if I had to climb or perform physical exertion. My arms and legs were loosing strength and I worried that the nanobots would let me starve, even though I had eaten a large quantity of metal and silicon. I knew my organic self also needed nourishment, or I would die.

Early the next morning, before rescue team 2 began work, I entered passenger area 7 with the intention of traveling along the tube to the aft cargo holds. I knew I could scrounge up something edible in those vast treasure holds.

During the previous days, while hiding among the crèches, I had seen the members of team 2 working to clear and repair area 7. Walking through it now, I was impressed by how much they had accomplished in the short time since the explosion and collapse. The broken beams had been replaced, the crèches had been cleared , and work had begun on new oxygen and liquid nitrogen tanks. I questioned the need for the tanks, since the occupants of the fallen crèches were surely dead, but then thought that they had to store the dead bodies somewhere, and what better place than their own coffins. The liquid nitrogen would keep the bodies frozen, just like before. The only difference being that, this time, the frozen steaks wouldn't be coming out of the freezer.

I was just about to enter the tube and begin my way to the cargo holds, when two men jumped out from behind floor level crèches, leveling handguns at me. I stopped and slowly raised my hands, palms out, showing them I was unarmed. As their eyes went from my empty hands to my face, a look of confusion, then disgust passed over each of their faces.

“What the hell happened to you, Stevens?” asked the first man.

I glanced at his jumpsuit name tag – Whitiker, Blake. I could see the sweat standing out on his brow, could smell his flesh. I thought this must be how a cougar perceives its prey. I felt the stirring of one of my hungers coming on, but this time, it wasn't hunger for metal. My organic body had been wasting away for days, probably with the help of the nanobots, and now I realized I was starving for protein, carbohydrates and sugars.

“I asked you what happened, you freak,” said Whitiker. “What happened to your face?”

I moved my hand to my face, trying to feel what this man was talking about. Whitiker rushed forward, his gun still pointed at my head, and grabbed me around the neck with his free hand.

“Why have you been sneaking around these last few days?” he asked. “We've seen you on the cameras, you know. Why not help out with the cleanup?” He looked at me for a moment, and then a look of understanding came over his face. “You caused this mess, didn't you? That's why you hid – it was your fault.”

“No.” I gurgled through his gripped hand. “I didn't - ”

He cut me off. “Shut up. I think you did cause it.” He looked at the other man, who also had his gun pointed at me. “What kinda reward you think we'd get for bringing in this fugitive?” Whitiker asked his grinning companion. The second man was too far away for me to read his name tag but his mouth hung open a bit and his eyes shifted back and forth between me and Whitiker. I was confused and wondered what Whitiker was up to. His hand was making it difficult to breathe and I started to say so.

“I told you to shut up,” he said. “You act up like that again and I'm gonna have to smack you one.” He tightened his grip, closing off my windpipe almost completely. I started seeing white lights in my vision.

I reached up, took his hand, and tried to bend it back. I needed air. Whitiker pushed the muzzle of his pistol into my chest.

“Let go now,” he said slowly, “or I put a bullet into you.” I held no doubt that he would do it.

I was going to let go of him, but I must have delayed a bit too long, for he pulled the trigger and shot me in the chest. A blinding pain shot through my body and I was thrown back several steps. Still in shock at being shot, I looked down to my chest and the bullet wound. The blood was already slowing, and I could see the bullet had been stopped by a layer of metal under my skin. In moments, the bullet worked its way out of my flesh, and dropped with a clank onto the floor. I felt the flesh closing under my clothing. I looked up at Whitiker and his companion and saw the uncomprehending terror in their eyes.

Before I knew what was happening, both Whitiker and his now non-grinning friend raised their guns and opened fire on me. One bullet struck me in the forehead, another in the abdomen. I screamed and fell. The bullets continued to strike me – one in the upper leg, another in the small of my back, yet another in my neck. The pain was excruciating and I thought I would pass out from the pressure of it. Unfortunately I did not. Another bullet in the head – I was sure my ear was gone – another in the side, another in the back.

Finally the firing stopped. I lay still, the wounds burning like fiery acid pits. I could hear footsteps approaching me. Still I did not move.

“I think he's dead now,” said the unknown man.

“He damn well better be,” said Whitiker and he kicked me viciously in the ribs.

I swallowed the pain, afraid that Whitiker would shoot me again if he realized I was still alive. I mentally braced for another kick but it never came. Instead, a coldness spread through me and I thought I was going to die. I heard one of my assailants let out a short cry, and then I heard a body fall to the floor. I opened my eyes, too afraid to keep them closed any longer, and looked in the direction of the two men.

I saw Whitiker backing away from his companion, who had fallen to the floor. What was going on? Whitiker's grimy face was white as a ghost...Oh no. I now realized that the entity was nearby, but where? I glanced in all directions, but saw nothing. Whitiker continued backing slowly away from the unmoving form of his friend. Then I saw why. Like fog coming off the ocean on a cool morning, I saw the ghostly being lift itself out of the fallen man's body. It floated towards Whitiker, who seemed confused and passive, unlike a moment ago when he attempted to kill me for failing to release his hand. I instinctively moved backwards on my hands and knees – I wanted away from these two beings.

My movement must have caught Whitiker's attention, for he called out to me in the whispered voice of a frightened child. “Stevens, can you hear me?” He licked his lips. “Don't let this thing touch me. We can work something out. I won't turn you in if you get this thing away from me.”

Screw you Whitiker, I thought. The gunshot wounds in my body still burned and bled, and this jerk had the nerve to ask me for help. I continued pulling myself along the floor, hoping that the ghostly being would get its fill on Whitiker's damned soul and leave me alone.

Whitiker screamed, and I looked back in time to see the ghost creature rush into his body. Whitiker convulsed for a moment, then went pale, then crumpled to the floor like a shed piece of clothing. I could feel the cold radiate off of the newly made corpse, and I began crawling away faster.

Only seconds later it seemed, with my head down and me knees aching, I felt the coldness grow nearer. I looked around to see the being hovering near me, its eyeless sockets hungering for me. I knew I couldn't escape it this time, as I had done before in the equipment bay. I rolled off my knees and sat facing the thing. At least death would be quick, if Whitiker and his pal were examples of how this creature killed. The entity shot forward and I felt my blood, organs and bones freeze. For an instant, I could feel my very life force being drawn out of my bleeding body, like the air being sucked from and airlock. I imagined my body, a drained husk, left to rot on the cold floor of passenger bay 7.

Then I felt the nanobots attack. Suddenly, my veins were on fire - my muscles clenched and a groan of agony escaped my lips. I could feel the entity inside me recoil at the nanobot attack. The draining of my spirit halted and the thing invading me attempted to flee. I held it inside. I remembered what the nanobot solution had done to it during our first meeting, and I wanted them to kill it now; now that I had it trapped inside me. I held on, but my flesh could not contain it. It shrieked inside my skull until my teeth rattled. My eyes felt like they would burst, my heart like it would explode, if I didn't release it. Finally, when my strength failed, I let go. The creature bolted from me and howled off into the darkness.

The days and weeks following the attack of the ghostly being were filled with chores of survival. Apparently the crew thought I was the murderer of Whitiker and his sidekick, for whenever they happened to see me, bullets would follow. I was forced to sleep in random hideouts, fearful that the crew would find me during my rest, crush me in a hydraulic press and eject my remains into space.

My physical form was changing radically. My organic parts were being replaced, day by day, with substitutes that were more appealing to the nanobots. Whenever the nanobots needed new material from which to shape their creations, a mad hunger would overtake me, and I would be compelled to eat metal, synthetics and silicon – but never organics of any kind. The tiny robots must have removed my original stomach and replaced it with a nonliving look-a-like, for after the first hours of my transformation, I never felt hunger as before.

I saw the ghostly entity several times during this period, but it would never approach me as before. I'm certain it was afraid of my nanobot enhanced body, but I also wondered if it thought my nutritional value was lacking. I myself wondered if my soul, or life force, was diminishing as was my organic self. At times, I asked myself who was more monster, me or the ghostly being.

That question was fully answered the next time I saw the entity. It had somehow broken into a cryogenic crèche, and was in the process of draining its nearly frozen occupant of all life. I chased it off, and only afterwards, realized that it had consumed twenty seven souls from twenty seven crèches. I could tell the occupants were all dead because the sensors monitoring their vital signs were all flashing fatality alerts. I didn't know if the semi frozen bodies didn't provide as much substance as warm bodies, or if I had just caught the entity in the middle of a feeding binge.

After the mass feeding, the crew must have panicked, for I noticed three or four times the normal crew members moving about the ship. They always traveled in groups of at least three and all had various weapons. I think they may have thought I was responsible for the deaths, but I didn't dare approach any of them – my memory of Whitiker was still to close to the surface.

During one crew down period, I snuck into the darkened infirmary, wanting to give myself a once over with some of the sophisticated medical equipment there. As I powered up several machines, their glow reflected off the infirmary's windows and I caught my reflection. I was stunned. I knew I wasn't really human anymore, but seeing me with my own eyes, or rather, with my own optics, I realized that the machines could tell me nothing. I turned them off and left the infirmary as quietly as I could.

I no longer had hair. I really had no skin, although some type of synthetic covering wrapped most of my vital machine and electronic parts. What used to be eyes were now metallic balls, cameras of some type, stuck in an emotionless face plate. Where teeth had resided, now grew metal sheers, useful for biting and grinding beams and sheet metal. I could not see a nose, although I could still detect odors. I had ran across more dead bodies left to smolder and had smelled their decay. My figure had improved, I thought sarcastically; my waist line was now perhaps half of what it used to be. My fleshy limbs had given way to robotic like appendages, wires and tubes tucked in here and there under the outer layer of metal and synthetic.

The more I thought about the drastic changes, the more I realized they weren't that drastic after all. They had been slowly occurring over the past month, or had it been two, and I guess I was more used to them than I thought.

As the days passed on, I began to perceive other, non physical changes in me. I could detect the subtle changes in magnetic and electric fields throughout the ship. My synthetic coverings could pick up small changes in temperature and pressure – changes that my old self would never had taken notice of. My optics could magnify small objects by several orders of magnitude as well as make out details from hundreds of meters away. I could detect the sounds of crew members throughout the ship. This was a handy feature; I was never caught by surprise by them again.

The ghostly entity, unfortunately, was much too quiet for my enhanced sense of hearing. However, it appeared that its own sense of hearing was not so good either. My wanderings in the massive Gallant Dawn would occasionally interrupt the ghostly figure during one of its feedings.

It was during one such feeding that my new optics discovered a truth about the ghostly being. I was searching for more silicon during one of my raging pseudo hungers. I would visit the crèches that I knew had been ravaged by the being and consume all the silicon I could obtain. This way, I wouldn't endanger still living passengers, but I could obtain the materials for which the nanobots were craving. As I approached one area of useless crèches, I saw the being hovering over a still working crèche. I knew it was killing the helpless victim in its frozen coffin, but instead of rushing the being and chasing it off, as I normally did, this time my new eyes saw the substance of the entity. Since first meeting the thing, I had always assumed that it was constituted of spirit, that ethereal nothingness made famous by ghosts and shadows of the past. What my eyes saw, however, was that the entity was formed by billions upon billions of tiny technological components. They appeared to be entities similar to biological viruses, but they were definitely microscopic machines.

The clichéd light bulb turned on in my new silicon based brain, and it suddenly made sense why the nanobots had successfully attacked the being before. The tiny technological organisms of the being were raw material for the nanobots to use. I don't know why I hadn't figured this out before now.

The being finally took notice of me, and floated off to wherever it hung out. I stayed around, gathering my afternoon snack of silicon chips.

I wondered how the ghostly being had formed. Why did it take the shape it did? Maybe it was able to coax more nutrition out of the souls of the frightened, and by appearing as a haunting spirit, it was able to induce more fear in its victims. Except that, most of its victims were frozen nearly solid and couldn't appreciate its spooky form. Perhaps the being had formed before it came aboard the Gallant Dawn; had formed someplace where the ghostly form had been useful. If the microscopic components were indeed some type of technological virus, and assuming they behaved similar to their biological counterparts, then I could understand how they might mutate and take the form they found to be most useful in a given environment.

Days later, questions still floated through my mind. How did it come aboard the ship, I wondered. Why did it come aboard the ship? How could the souls of its victims possible feed a technological based entity? Maybe it wasn't just feeding on its victims. Maybe it was infecting them.

That's when I went directly to a bank of crèches where I knew the creature had killed the occupants. After several minutes of shutting down the crèche's cryogenics, I opened it and scanned the frozen corpse with my optics. I could detect nothing out of the ordinary. I closed the container, disappointed, yet relieved that my theory was wrong, and went to search for more metal. The nanobots were in the process of restructuring my spine, making it more flexible and strong, and I needed quantities of titanium.

The next day I could hear no one moving about the Gallant Dawn. I had noticed the decrease in crew members over the last several weeks. I figured that the entity had been slowly killing them off. I had tried several times – unsuccessfully - to help the crew members. They wouldn't let me get anywhere close to them, and I couldn't really blame them. By now, I had become as much of a monster as the entity itself. I could hardly speak, and I was certain the crew thought I was responsible for the deaths of their comrades and the passengers. I tried to communicate the error of their belief, but in the end, gave up the attempt when they started shooting at me with hight velocity gauss rifles.

I decided that I would search the ship and dispose of any stray bodies, since it didn't appear that a new emergency crew was going to come on line any time soon. Perhaps the last crew thought it better if no new emergency crew were brought out of cryogenic sleep, in hope that the entity would leave them alone.

Most of the crews had stayed in or near the command module, so that's where I commenced my search. It took me less than an hour to find a body. I approached it, intending to carry it to an airlock and eject it into space. I was certain that the crews had been doing this as their members were slowly whittled down. I bent my redesigned spine to pick up the dead man, crewman Jewkes according to the name tag, and stopped cold. His dead flesh and organs were alive – not with flowing blood and nutrients, but with microscopic viruses.

I would have shivered with fear if I had still had skin and a back capable of transmitting shivers. I was worried nonetheless. I was not afraid of the viruses for my own sake – my nanobots had shown they were more than capable of defeating the entity's viral components. I feared for the remainder of the passengers and for the success of the colonization mission itself. The Gallant Dawn was still seventy three years away from its destination, the star Tropenheim II. If the entity killed only one passenger per day, and I was sure that was on the low side, then it would take only a little more than thirteen years to kill and infect the entire load of passengers. No one would reach the new world. No one but me. Well, I thought, I didn't really care. I would be outcast, if not outright killed, as soon as we landed on the colony planet. Still, the thought of nearly fifty thousand people being killed without a chance to fight back rubbed me wrong.

I hefted Jewkes and hauled him to the infirmary where I put him in an air tight body container, the type useful for short term storage. It wasn't much more than a large, sealed plastic bag, much like what I formerly use for my lunch sandwiches. The viruses piqued my curiosity for some reason, and I wanted to see what they would do if left unmolested in their new host. Once I had satisfied that curiosity, I would eject the bag and body into space.

I made my way back to my nanobot altered sleeping crèche. I don't know that I truly slept any longer, but rather went into some type of low power mode. I still dreamed, and often saw the nanobots building large, spectacular edifices in my head. Perhaps they restructured my brain during the low power periods. Whatever they were doing, I didn't think it would be long before I could plug into the utility robot's recharge stations.

During my next waking period, I decided that I would check on the bodies in the crèches from which I had removed the silicon chips. I was certain that the viruses would be raging in these thawed bodies, but since the crèches were completely sealed, I had no worries about the virus escaping and infecting anyone else.

I arrived at a group of crèches that contained the dead and thawed corpses. I look in, and saw something that I both did and did not expect. The body was indeed alive with the virus – but more alive than I thought possible. The woman that I observed was struggling in the tight confines of the crèche, eyes open and staring, yet certainly not seeing. The pupils were so small, that I doubted any light at all was entering the cloudy orbs. The mouth was open wide, as if in a terrible scream. The fierceness of the white face was disturbing, even though I knew this woman could not possible harm me.

I checked a dozen crèches, with the same horrible results found in each. I was upset about having caused this state of affairs. If I had not scavenged the silicon chips of these crèches, the occupants would still be solidly frozen and restrained. I decided that I must rectify the situation, at least to the best of my ability. I calculated that I had gathered forty or fifty of the chips, mostly in groups of crèches near each other. I would retrace my route, gather the damaged crèches and stack them in the loading dock, where I could then eject them all en mass.

I spent the next several hours hauling the crèches to the loading dock. The nanobots had gifted me, or cursed me, depending how one looked at it, with arms and legs that were more pistons than joints. I still required the help of a motorized cart, but I could maneuver the crèches well enough by myself. I had built up a pile of the virus filled crèches, when I remembered the body of Jewkes in the infirmary. I stopped, listened carefully, and satisfied that I could hear nothing, began my trip to the infirmary to collect the bagged corpse.

I arrived in the infirmary some time later to find the bag and body gone. I listened again, and this time did hear movement. Movement of more than one creature. I raced back to the loading dock, vowing to eject the entire pile heaped there into the coldness of space. Hopefully nothing would ever come across the infected bodies. Unlikely, I thought.

Afraid of the damage the thrashing viral zombies could inflict on the ship, I guess I wasn't as careful as I should have been. As I ran through passenger area 9, I saw the body of Jewkes; strangely it was walking towards me instead of towards the loading dock. I stopped and tried to understand what was happening. Then I saw the ghostly entity slip out from behind Jewkes, and I could have sworn that its evil mouth grinned at me. I decided this was my chance to cut off the proverbial serpent's head, and I rushed at the entity, intending to hold it until my nanobots could rend it to pieces. Perhaps I would have more luck now that my weak flesh was all but gone.

I charged forward, sensing the end of the viral ghost, when a movement above me caught my attention. I glanced up as I raced forward, and saw a crèche tumbling off the third row, headed straight for me. I jumped to the side, but the heavy crèche struck me a glancing blow and sent me sprawling to the floor. A thundering bang and shattered pieces of the crèche ricocheted from surfaces of the enclosed room. Recalling the utility robot from the earlier cave in, signals of relief passed along my synthetic nerve endings - I had narrowly escaped being crushed. I stood, found my target, and was about to continue the attack when I was struck again by a falling crèche – this one better aimed. My lower body was crushed. I felt no pain as I would have had I still been human, but I sensed that I was severely damaged. I attempted to push the thing from me when another crèche landed, barely missing my head, and spraying me with broken and jagged pieces. More crèches fell around me, but luckily none found their mark; eventually I was buried under a pile of them.

When the crèche attack finished, I lay still and tried to hear what was happening. I could only make out shuffling sounds that I thought were leading back to the loading dock.

I was disgusted with myself for, literally, running into the ghostly creature’s ambush. Apparently, it knew that I was planning on killing its offspring, and like a mother bear, it fought to protect its cubs.

My legs were crumpled titanium shards and useless to aid in my desire for revenge. The nanobots could repair them eventually, I had no doubt, but it would take time. I needed to act now, while the creatures thought me dead or incapacitated. I reached to my waist, and with the strength of robotic claws, ripped my upper body free of the trapped lower half. I didn't even scream.

While no longer pinned, I was still entombed in a shrine of broken crèches. I squirmed through small spaces, nudged crèches a few millimeters this way, a few centimeters that way, and eventually won my freedom.

Once again, I was forced to drag my upper body along the walkways of the Gallant Dawn. I pulled myself along for what seemed like hours, although in reality, it was probably more like minutes. My optics zoomed in on anything that might conceal a viral zombie, or be grounds for another ambush. The creatures must have thought they had finished me off, for I crawled all the way to the loading dock without being spotted.

I looked into the loading dock area, and saw several dozen of the zombies opening up more of the crèches that I had brought here earlier. Unfortunately, the ghostly entity was nowhere in sight. The freed zombies were obviously brain dead, for instead of pushing the release latch to open the crèches, they battered the sealed lid with hammers, broken pipes, and bare hands, until it finally gave way and they pulled a new, thrashing zombie free.

I climbed the large electrical wires leading to the loading dock control panel. Dangling by one arm, I punched the large red button to seal the docking area from the rest of the ship. Caution alarms blared as the inner door lowered and then sealed. I could only imagine the zombies shuffling to the door, trying to free themselves of their coming doom. I smiled as much as my reconfigured face allowed, and then opened the outer loading bay door. Even through the heavy inner door, I could hear the swoosh and grind of air and crèches being ejected into space.

I waited several minutes before sealing the outer door. I hoped that I had dealt with all the zombies that had escaped their coffins. I opened the inner door, dropped to the floor and dragged myself to view the cleaning effort. Every crèche and zombie had been swept clear, as if by a good broom.

An idea occurred to me as I was returning to my trapped lower half. I detoured and made my way to the robot docking stations. I knew there was at least one of the mechanical beings left, and I intended to make use of it.

I found the robot in its station, recharged and ready to go. I climbed aboard, one arm holding tight around the robot's neck, the other clutching its control pad.

It took me several days to find and remove all the crèches that had been damaged by my feeding frenzies. With the robot's help, I took them all to the loading dock and gave a repeat performance of the broom sweeping act.

There were still the frozen bodies that were infected, but I wouldn't worry about these until we arrived at our destination, seventy three years in the future. I did, however, need to insure that no new infected bodies were created. The robot could help me with this one last task as well.

I made an entry in the computer log, explaining what had happened. I told of the fire, the collapse of the crèches, the entity and its infection of the passengers, and of my own bizarre transformation. I also explained what I was going to attempt to do, but urged caution in case I was not successful. Then I realized there would be no one to read my log unless I was successful.

I made a trip to the cargo bay atop the robot, this time not afraid of being trapped by the ghostly entity. In fact, an encounter with the being was exactly what I desired. I took two of the robot repair kits with me back to the docking station. I wanted to have enough of the miracle workers to help me through the upcoming transformation.

I started by detaching the robot's upper body from its lower half. I injected an entire syringe of the nanobots into my mouth, waited for them to infuse me, and then connected myself to the robot's leg assembly. After some time, and more squirts of the nanobots, I was securely attached. Then, I removed the arms one at a time, and after removing my own, attached them to myself.

By this time, I could feel the nanobots get the message. I wanted to become a robot - not that I wasn't nearly one already - and the tiny repair bots were more than happy to assist. I could feel the reconfiguration of my back and chest. Internal organs were now mechanical pumps and motors, nerves and vessels now sensors and tubing. I only began to worry when I could feel the nanobots making their way into my head. Circuits were modified and reconfigured, emotions were drained, yet I retained the outline of my plan.

I waited - how long I don't know. The passage of time was not something that concerned me any longer. I wandered the ship, the completion of my mission always in the back of my mind. I repaired damage, maintained equipment, checked on passengers. This continued for uncountable cycles of my processors. I would sometimes encounter the ghostly being, and approach. It would take no notice of me, but would always wander away before I could give it the embrace of death that I had saved for it.

* * * * *

Another cryogenic pump had gone bad, and I was in the middle of replacing it with a new one, when I noticed a form pass me. Don't bother me, I thought, I have work to do. My manipulators removed ten of the bolts, I dropped the bulky piece of equipment down to the floor, and noticed the presence again. I rotated my upper body, and motored to where I had placed the new pump. Something was hovering over one of the nearby passenger crèches. I needed to do something to this being, but I was busy now. I picked up the new pump, returned to the work area and began bolting it on. When I had tightened five of the bolts back in place, I remembered that I had once hated this hovering entity. I looked up, and saw it moving to another crèche. Still carrying the other five bolts in one manipulator, I motored to the being - the ghostly being. It stared at me with hollow eye sockets and a gaping black mouth, then concentrated on its own task.

I stood for a moment, then dropped the bolts when I knew what I must do. I reached out, enfolded the entity in my arms, and drew it into my metallic body. Screams of rage and hate echoed in my titanium head, and I could feel my nanobots raging war upon the strange being. It thrashed about inside of me, attempting to flee, but I held it inside. The nanobots feasted until the screams died out. I picked up the bolts, returned to the pump housing, and finished my task.

The End

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