Nackl of Gilmed - Fascination Clinton sat in his quarters and watched the thing slither. He knew it was feeding on him; knew it owed its existence to his flesh and blood and warmth. He didn’t mind. A quick trip to the medical lab and all would be right again. In the meantime... it was fascinating. Clinton knew the history; biology wasn’t his field, but the germs were the reason everybody was here. And the stories of the microscopic life-forms that had chased humanity off this otherwise pointless rock two hundred years ago were now a matter of public record. The thing writhed constantly, yearning for the moment it would be strong enough to break free of his body and make its own way. Already eyes were becoming visible, the scaly skin more defined from the fleshy pulp it had been. Clinton poked it again. He couldn’t help it. It snapped at his finger, and he quickly withdrew. He wondered if it knew that a bite would spread the infection to his other arm, wondered if it would avoid creating a competitor if it could. The thing was actually composed of billions of independent virus particles. When they came into contact with a food source – human cells, to name one example – they fed, reproduced, and formed together into a multi-cellular organism. It was the only species in recorded history that began life as a virus, grew into a parasite, and finally ended up as a predator. It had taken over as the dominant life form on this distant planet, spreading across the continents and over the mountains. Even the human colonists had fled from its aggression, containment suits and antiseptic washes considered insufficient protection against this intruder. “Whoa… what is that?” Clinton shot a look upward. Damn; his roommate, Josh, returned from the geological survey. “I found it after the daily topside session,” he lied, forcing a grimace. “Guess my suit wasn’t tight.” “Damn right it wasn’t. You’d better get that burned out.” Josh’s genius reply. “Yeah, I was heading there now.” Clinton slipped into a containment suit – protocol in case of exposure – and headed out into the hallways of the massive city-ship. He didn’t have to go far, as there was one medical lab and one technician per fifty crew quarters. Time to get you burned out, little buddy, he thought with a smile. In the old days, the saying would have been “checked out.” Because in the old days, only a doctor would have been qualified to deal with something so serious. Today, of course, that was all different. With the development of the Omni-Screener, virtually every harmful foreign invader could be identified and burned out of the body by any minimally-trained tech head. There were only about twenty medical doctors on the whole ship, among a population of about ten thousand. Technician Zeke would flash-fry the little bastard out of his arm with no problem. “What the hell is this?” Technician Zeke was not impressed. “Must’ve been a rip in my suit for this morning’s topside session,” Clinton mumbled, trying to shrug off the assault. Zeke’s gaze didn’t drop. “This is at least a three-day growth. Are you trying to tell me you didn’t notice this till now?” “Look, I don’t know, Doc,” Clinton said, putting a little more emphasis on the title than he needed to. “How about you just fry the sucker before it eats us both?” “Fine. Get in the cube.” The Omni-Screener was within a cube of tinted glass in the middle of the lab. Rays of light from the emitter in the center of the roof of the cube bathed the entire inside of the cube in radiation. Any organic cell that was not Clinton, barring the probiotic bacteria nestling in his gut, would be instantly vapourised. It was the ultimate cure-all. It had waylaid the endless arms race between constantly-evolving viruses and the scientists who created better and better immunizations. Clinton stood directly under the emitter and looked out at Technician Zeke. Through the protective tinting in the glass walls, it was like he was in a submarine, looking out at a yellow-and-black sea. Zeke did some fiddling with the controls, and without turning around, asked if Clinton was ready. Clinton raised his arm for one last look. A fleshy pod of a head, gnashing lipless jaws that were capped with single jagged plates rather than true teeth. A thin stalk for a body, merging messily with the volcanic eruption that had been his flesh. Tiny, beady, little yellow eyes stared into Clinton’s own. The great plagues of old Earth history, Clinton thought. Smallpox, HIV, the Black Death. If someone had to visualize that ravenous hunger, put a face on the hateful murderous nature of the virus, and they came up with this, no one would say they’d done a bad job. Clinton kept looking into those eyes as they filled with light and turned to dust before him. Clinton knew he would have to be careful. If it appeared that he had been infected too regularly, if it appeared he wasn’t following safety protocol, he could be put under probation, even kicked off the research team altogether and confined to quarters. Three months, he had decided after leaving the lab. That’s got to be long enough. He shouldn’t have let it grow so much – Zeke was already suspicious. All the same, he had needed to let it grow. Clinton wasn’t quite sure what was so attractive about it. All he knew was that letting the thing grow, watching it, touching it, gave him a vicarious little thrill that was equal parts exciting and repellant. He thought anyone who had ever relished the experience of ripping off a chunk of blistered dead skin might understand what he felt. And like those people, he couldn’t wait for the next batch to grow. It was only his fear of probation that kept him from exposing himself every time he went topside. Three months, he repeated to himself over and over within his space suit as he and the other research students scrambled about on the blasted rock of the semi-arid planet. Three months, he thought as the hole in his arm left by the virus gradually healed. Three months. And then came the day. Three endless months of waiting. Four days looking for the right moment. And then, with Clinton’s group spread out across the landscape cataloguing plant life, a snake wandered into view. It wasn’t really a snake. Most of the forms the virus had been known to grow into were basically serpentine in shape, but this one, common to the cliff sides the research group was traipsing all over, was particularly low-slung, gliding along the ground on short stubby clawed legs. Clinton wondered about the best way to infect himself as the snake, rock-still, stared at him from the ground. A bite would be too obvious, they’d make sure he went to the lab for a burn. Maybe if he could collect a sample and smuggle it in… “Oh, jeez! Professor, Clinton’s got a live one!” A shout from behind. Clinton jerked in shock, and the snake reacted in kind. Rearing up on its hind legs, it growled and bared its teeth. Clinton quite suddenly remembered how dangerous the adult form of the virus could be. It struck at him, lightning quick. At the same moment came the deep bass thump of a sonic round being fired past Clinton’s head. Dark red blood splattered across his visor and the snake crumpled to the ground, its face shattered by the blast. “Any penetration of your suit?” The crisp, economical tones of Clinton’s research professor. “No sir,” he replied, turning around. “I think I’m tight.” The professor allowed a momentary glance at his suit before losing interest. “Yes, you seem fine. Don’t check in for a burn unless symptoms present themselves, no need to waste our limited resources.” He wasn’t overly concerned. Why should he be? Why should anyone? The institutional germaphobia of the past was more or less extinct now. As long as an Omni-Screener was handy, no one need fear infection. If there was no risk, there was no harm in ignoring it. Or, Clinton thought with barely-concealed glee, cultivating it. He returned to his work, the appearance of the model student. Taking a twig from an utterly uninteresting scrub of a bush, he dipped a leaf in the blood that still streaked his helmet and stored it in his specimen canister. The canisters weren’t submitted to the Screener; if a student had actually succeeded in finding a new species, it wouldn’t be in the database of permitted life forms and would be burned along with anything else. Clinton’s sample would be safe – in a manner of speaking. Clinton sat in his quarters, alone with a drop of cold blood sitting on a leaf. The snake had been killed, but the virus should be alive in the blood, and all it took was a tiny infection to grow into a new organism. In a brief moment of insanity, Clinton wondered what would happen if he ate it. He imagined a million tiny living particles spreading throughout his entire body. He imagined them all growing, all consuming, all destroying him at once, and was a little disturbed to discover that he found the idea somehow erotic. Pushing the thought away, Clinton moved to dab the blood on his arm. Wait, wait. He thought. Can’t give Zeke any more reason to be suspicious. If he looks up the encounter he’ll know it shouldn’t be on my arm. An infection would have to have hit my face, maybe my neck. He elected his chest instead, about halfway between the collarbone and his left nipple. His neck seemed a little too vital. He lay on his bunk. His skin seemed to already be tingling, but it was probably just the dampness of the blood. It didn’t coagulate like human blood; it stayed runny for days, improving the chance of infecting new hosts. Such a clever thing you are, he thought with approval. You won the arms race on your planet. I guess ours just went on a little longer, pushed us just that little bit ahead of you. He tried to sleep, and found that he could not. Twenty four hours later Clinton reported to the medical lab. Technician Zeke was once again on duty, and Technician Zeke was once again unimpressed. “Well, you managed to catch this one a little earlier, it seems,” he commented, disdain clear on his face. “But I must wonder once again how you managed to go an entire day without noticing what should have been as plain as the nose on your face.” Clinton, one hand pulling down the collar of his shirt, shrugged. “Like my professor said, the Screener uses up resources. At first it was just a bump. I didn’t want to report for a burn till he sprouted, to make sure.” Zeke stared at him skeptically for a moment, then shrugged. “All right. Get in the cube.” Clinton stood once again in the centre of the cube. He took his shirt off and held it beside him; he wanted a clear view. The thing looked up at him, like the last one had. This one was younger, however; the eyes were milky white, not yet developed. Zeke raised his hand, indicating he was about to turn on the Screener. “So long, buddy," Clinton said. Light flooded the chamber. The thing on his chest did not react. It took Clinton a few seconds to register what had just happened. The thing looked up sightlessly, alive and unmarred by the radiation. “Uh…” Clinton could not think of anything to say, but Zeke must have caught the alarm in his voice. He wheeled around, looked into the cube, incredulous. “Did the emitter go off?” he asked. Clinton nodded, noticing for the first time how the black and yellow filter made Zeke look a little unwell. A little sick. “Don’t worry, I’ll dial up the power. This must be a glitch,” he said, turning back to the controls. Clinton did not say anything. Again the flash went off, brighter this time. Clinton shut his eyes against the sudden glare. When he opened them again the thing was still there. And as Zeke ran to the emergency phone to summon the doctors, the milky white sheen left the thing’s eyes, and they stared into Clinton’s with their horrid yellow intensity. Clinton once again imagined the millions upon millions of virus particles that were now travelling through his blood. Imagined a million million tiny little parasites eating him alive all at once. And Clinton felt a twinge of fear.