Metallum 42: A Short Story

Metallum 42

A Short Story

Blake Arthur Peel

Ship Log 001 – EST 2:25 am | Aug 26, 2038

<start transmission>

I’ve heard it said that space is the “final frontier”. Well, after countless days living up here and dealing with one disaster after another, I can confidently tell you one thing.

The frontier sucks.

My name is Scott Evans, and this is my story.

I am the Foreman in Chief of the Venture Mining Company’s operation here on Metallum 42. Or at least I used to be. You see, the crew on Metallum 42 ran into a bit of a catastrophe recently, one that has turned the majority of the roughnecks into vicious man-eating space zombies. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d better start from the beginning.

Since the first successful asteroid mining operation in 2034, there has been a sort of mass exodus of private companies going into space seeking precious metals. Think of it as the California gold rush on steroids. Several companies, like the Venture Mining Company, were created out of nothing by enterprising venture capitalists seeking to get their hands on some of the infinite resources of space, and were offering insanely high wages for anyone brave enough (or foolish enough) to take a ship out to the far reaches of our star system to essentially pan for gold.

That’s where I came in.

I had some experience working on an oil rig in the Bering Sea, and that was enough experience to land me a job as the manager of a crew of over one hundred miners. It seemed like a pretty cushy gig. Not only was I jumping rank to foreman and given the opportunity to take a ship into space, but my salary virtually tripled overnight. Not a bad job for a roughneck from Anchorage without a college degree. After a grueling eight weeks of training, my home for the next thirteen months became Metallum 42.

Metallum 42 is a type-M asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. For those of you who aren’t up on your space-jargon, a type-M rock is a really big deal. There are three types of asteroids that we know about: type-C, type-S, and type-M. Type-C asteroids are known to carry water and organic elements like carbon and phosphorus, while type-S asteroids have less water and more metal than type-C. These are both pretty common in our solar system. A type-M asteroid, however, is what we call the big kahuna. It is the rarest of the three types, and contains more than ten times the metal than a type-S carries. We’re talking gold, platinum, iron, cobalt, silver, palladium, you name it. With the resources on Earth rapidly vanishing, an 200 km-wide asteroid like Metallum 42 sounded like a dream come true.

After a vicious bidding war, Venture eventually won the exclusive rights to settle and mine the coveted asteroid. It was shaping up to be one of the most lucrative business excursions of the century.

So my crew and I trained for the journey into space, knowing full well that we were about to embark on the craziest adventure of our lives. We trained for zero gravity and were put through tests that pushed us to our very limits. But the promise of riches in the frontier of space was enough for us to overcome any obstacle we faced.

Eventually, we all suited up and were launched out of the atmosphere by one of the most sophisticated rockets the free market could produce, then were put to sleep for the long voyage out to the Asteroid Belt.

To be honest, the trip felt short to me. It was like I took a long nap and before I knew it we were awakened by the computers on our ship as we approached Metallum 42.

The next few days flew by in a blur.

We landed on the big rock and began setting up camp, building a central mining facility and unloading the machinery that would allow us to bore into the rock beneath our feet. Before we knew it we were blasting holes and carving a path deep into 42’s jagged surface.

We were met with wild success.

It seemed like no matter where we drilled, we found a vein of minerals worth more than some of the countries on Earth. Copper and silver, platinum and titanium, we felt like we had the touch of Midas, turning everything into gold. Our success made us greedy, and we plunged deeper and deeper into 42’s depths, working long hours and then partying hard after work. Then we made a discovery that would change the nature of our mission.

This is where the story gets good.

Four months after landing on the surface of Metallum 42, we carved our way into a network of caves deep underground near the asteroid’s core. These tunnels had been protected from the vacuum of space, and were filled with a gas cocktail of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. Our boys did not find any minerals down there, but what they did find was worth more than any of the rocks found on 42.

Alien life.

Growing on the walls of these tunnels was an organic substance that resembled lichen, a grey spongy material that had developed in the strange ecosystem deep in the belly of the asteroid. We called it moss, but the scientific types eventually named it Extraterrestrial Ascomycota. Just a fancy name for space moss.

When we bored into those tunnels we were amazed. Luckily the way we mined kept the tunnels sealed from outer space, so we did not disturb the environment too much when we discovered it. I was in the control room when our miners first saw the underground moss. Of course they wore oxygen masks that protected them from whatever gases  were trapped within 42. I remember all of us being silent for a time, staring at the images of the alien lichen on our computer monitors. I remember numbly picking up the phone and radioing in to our headquarters back on Earth to notify them on what we found.

Immediately we were told to quarantine off the tunnels and to halt all further mining efforts on Metallum 42. The folks at Venture HQ told us to ship back the minerals we had already found and hang tight, and that they would be sending someone out to investigate the situation. The weird grey-green lichen was more important than any amount of gold or platinum on that rock.

The waiting was boring, but eventually the scientists began to arrive from Earth, landing on ships stamped with the seal of the U.S. government. They came with their beakers and their hazmat suits, with an air of superiority that made us all feel like a bunch of school children. They came and set up shop right in the middle of our mining facility and used our roughnecks as manual labor. But with the discomfort came a slew of much-needed answers.

The scientists were a coalition made up of both private and government agencies. They took samples and ran tests and eventually figured out exactly what we were dealing with. Extraterrestrial Ascomycota was what is known as an extremophile. Extremophiles are organisms that thrive in extreme environments, usually with high pressure or heat. On Earth, extremophiles are often bacteria that live near hydrothermal vents in places like Yellowstone. The grey moss we found was a freak of nature. It grew in low gravity, in an ecosystem that was little more than a scientific anomaly, and it seemed to be self-sustaining in the high temperatures near the asteroid’s core.

Needless to say, the science nerds were completely baffled by its existence.

For a while, everything was done by the books, everyone adhering strictly to protocol. Everyone entering and exiting the underground tunnels had to wear airtight hermetically sealed hazmat suits, and be thoroughly cleaned before and after they left the caves. Not only that, but any samples procured by the scientists had to be kept in special containers and locked away under 24/7 surveillance in a lab above ground. Not even the media knew what was going on. The suits at Venture and the U.S. government apparently wanted to keep the whole thing under wraps until we knew everything there was to know about the extremophiles. After all, we did just uncover one of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of the world. Man is not alone in the universe.

We went on like this for a couple of months. The miners provided manual labor and the scientists ran their tests. The excitement of our discovery quickly wore off, and the days seemed to drag on as the mundane nature of our chores caught up with us.

That is, until the first people started getting sick.

It started slowly at first, but as the weeks wore on we started noticing that some kind of bug was going around the camp. It began with the scientists, a handful of them being admitted to the medbay with reports of chills, vomiting, diarrhea, and delirium. Then, it spread to my roughnecks, who came down with similar symptoms that did not seem to get any better.

At first we thought that it was some kind of flu, but that was quickly disproved when we realized that there had not been any new arrivals from Earth in weeks. After that, we thought that there must be something wrong with our water or food stores, that perhaps our sewer system was contaminating our supplies. But a quick inspection of our facilities proved that everything was still working properly.

It was then that somebody made a connection between the grey moss and the mysterious epidemic that was spreading throughout Metallum 42. By this time several people had already died and many were on their way out as well. Their bodies were stored in airtight bags and prepared for shipment back to Earth for burial. A team of investigators including myself, my second in command Walter Giles, and Head Researcher Natalie Howells and several of her cronies scoured the security feeds and realized that one of the scientists, who was now dead, did not properly seal one of the storage containers that held samples from down below.

The storage facility, which dozens of people on both sides had access to, had been exposed to something that was killing off our people.

Immediately we went on high alert, quarantining the area and the people who came in contact with those who were sick. The lower levels, which contained the strange alien ecosystem, were locked down until further notice.

In order to keep the folks on Earth from panicking, Natalie ordered that all correspondence to the outside be stopped, and imposed radio silence on our facility.

As you can imagine, around this time things started to get really intense.

“What the hell is going on, Scott?” My roughnecks would ask me when the new rules were established. “Why can’t we send emails to our families?”

“We don’t want to cause a panic back at headquarters,” I would tell them, doing my best to act confident. “You know how those suits can be. One whiff of trouble and all of a sudden we are sent home without the pay we were promised. Everything will be okay in a couple of days.” I remember laughing to set them at ease.

“Alright,” they would say, their expressions worried. “We trust you.”

Trust. That is a million dollar word.

The worst is having people trust you when you know in your gut that everything is going to hell.

And I mean it literally when I say hell.

It was July 10, 2038 when the first corpse began to stir in its ziploc tomb. Initially, we thought that the poor guy had not been dead after all, that perhaps the disease had put him in some sort of a coma. We couldn’t have been more wrong. As soon as we tried to open the bag to give the man some air, the “dead” man attacked us and bit one of my miners, a man named Bill. Let me make one thing clear: when I say bite, I don’t mean it like when somebody takes a bite of a sandwich. I mean it like when a rabid animal tries to rip the flesh off of a bone. The damn thing nearly tore off Bill’s hand.

Panicked, sickened, we locked the rabid man in isolation and rushed a wounded Bill to the medbay to be patched up and to receive antibiotics. Over the course of the next several days, more of the corpses began to rise, tearing their way from their flimsy prisons.

I’m sad to say that Bill did not make it, and neither did a great many of my friends living on 42. Out of sheer terror I broke our self-imposed radio silence and told the suits back on Earth about our situation. More on that later.

While all of this was going on, Natalie’s researchers tested the blood of those affected by the disease and examined the moss contained in the unsealed container. At first glance there was nothing out of the ordinary, I mean, as ordinary as one-of-a-kind space moss can be. Then, when they looked closer, they noticed something amazing and terrifying about the samples they collected.

Extraterrestrial Ascomycota, like lichen, had been living a symbiotic relationship with another organism deep in the caves. Under the microscope, they found a microscopic fungus that they referred to as microfungi. This microfungi had been living among the moss like ticks on a deer, feeding on its organic matter and releasing carbon dioxide for the moss to breathe in. Within their contained ecosystem the two formed the perfect relationship, providing each other with the necessary ingredients for life. The moss, when taken from its subterranean home was harmless, a simple form of life that had no defense mechanisms because it never had needed them. The fungi, however, was a different story. When removed from its habitat in the tunnels, it recognized that its host was slowly dying. Without a living organism for it to attach to, it released spores into the air to try and find another host.

It was in that moment, when the fungus was releasing its spores, that the careless scientist left a breach in the container. At the time we had no idea, but in retrospect we learned that the spores not only infected that lone scientist in the lab, but that they also infiltrated the air ducts and spread throughout the whole research wing of the mining facility.

In order to be dangerous, the spores had to be inhaled. The microscopic fungus spores would attach themselves to the walls of the trachea and lungs, and from there reproduce and spread through the bloodstream to other areas of the body, finally making it to the brain. The human body, of course, would recognize the foreign invasion and react to try and eradicate it, giving rise to the flu-like symptoms the victims presented. Eventually, the microfungus would kill its newfound host. But then something strange, stranger than anything else, transpired. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the death of the victim, the fungus would reanimate the corpse, taking control of their brain, and turn them into mindless animals capable of feeling only one emotion: hunger.

Look, I know that we have all seen our fair share of zombie movies. But what happened on Metallum 42 was a different beast entirely. Imagine the horror of being trapped in a building with virtually no escape to the outside world, locked with a growing horde of reanimated corpses and watching the people you have grown to love over the last several months die one by one. There is no coming back from something like that. I doubt I will ever get a full night’s sleep for the rest of my life.

Over the course of the next several weeks more and more people began to fall ill. Those who died and rose again were locked away (with much difficulty and more than a few casualties) in their rooms, but eventually we had to quarantine off whole sections of the facility.

Our ships, which were not equipped for any kind of mass exodus, had to be repurposed so that we could get the healthy people out of there, and the process took a lot longer than any of us anticipated.

The bodies kept piling up and it was beginning to look like all hope was lost when the cavalry arrived. A dozen state-of-the-art para military ships entered our sector of the asteroid belt like the Riders of Rohan from The Lord of the Rings, carrying with them a small army of gas-masked soldiers. As you can imagine, those of us who were left felt pretty relieved at this point. The soldiers would take out the zombies and we would all have a first class ticket out of this nightmare.

We sent out a small group of people to go out and greet them, but then, the unthinkable happened. Instead of meeting our welcome committee and asking for a debriefing on the situation, they pointed their weapons and opened fire.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but let me just tell you that if things were not desperate before the military arrived, they were now. Inside the base complete pandemonium erupted. Scientists and miners shoved and scrambled as the soldiers descended with their machine guns, trying desperately to get out of the way and avoid their bullets. These men had no doubt been given strict orders to eliminate everything on Metallum 42, to leave nothing alive so that the contagion would be contained.

In the chaos, myself, Natalie Howells, Walter Giles, and a few of my most trusted roughnecks managed to escape into the service tunnels beneath the main mining facility. As we ran, hoping that the soldiers were not following, we devised a desperate plan to commandeer one of the smaller military vessels and to leave the asteroid behind us for good.

There was only one problem: the tunnels we were in part of the quarantined area of the facility. They were crawling with the risen corpses. We didn’t care. When you are facing a firing squad for crimes you did not commit, you are willing to take almost any chance to escape.

It was tough going at first, crawling through maintenance shafts and closing and barring every door we could behind us, but eventually we felt that we had lost our pursuers and gave ourselves a little time to breathe and discuss.

From what we could see before the soldiers began shooting at our people, the ships they had arrived on were largely unguarded in the above-ground hangar. The other roughnecks and I racked our brains to try and remember a way we could make it to the hangar from our current position. If we could make it to the main air purifier, then maybe we would be able to find a ventilation duct that would bring us up to where the ships were docked.

It was the best plan we could come up with.

Natalie and I led the way through the darkened tunnels beneath Metallum 42. Our mobiles provided adequate lightening but we were afraid that the batteries would quickly be drained. Above our heads, through the asteroid’s rock, we could hear the faint thudding sounds of gunfire as the soldiers no doubt made their way through the facility, killing everything in their path.

“It’s a shame,” Natalie would whisper as we walked. “It’s such a shame. So much research and discovery lost because of fear mongering.”

I tried hard to keep my mouth shut. She wasn’t bad to look at, this science lady, but she may as well have been a robot for all the emotion she showed.

It was quiet for a time as we walked, with the exception of the dull explosions above our heads from the soldiers. Eventually, however, things got a little more dicy.

If I had to guess, I would say that we were over halfway to the chamber that housed our air purifier when we encountered our first zombie.

To this day I am not sure how those monsters found their way down into those tunnels from above. The first one jumped out of a hiding place behind some metal crates and latched itself onto one of my miners, biting into his neck and spraying blood everywhere. The poor guy, named Chip I think, didn’t even get a chance to scream before his throat was opened.

Armed with whatever mining tools we could find, we beat the thing off of him and caved in its head. It’s body had been twisted and deformed by the fungus multiplying inside of it, and we couldn’t even tell if the thing was male or female.

Suddenly terrified and wary, we continued our trek onward, leaving Chip’s body behind.

I’ll admit that walking through those tunnels was probably the most scared I’d ever been in my entire life. One by one our people were picked off by zombies, including my right-hand man Walter, until eventually only Natalie and myself remained. Yet somehow, a miracle perhaps, we made it to the air purification center and found a ventilation duct leading upward to where I guessed was the spaceship hangar.

I let Natalie crawl up the shaft first, then I quickly followed, not wanting to be left alone in the undead maze below.

The duct was narrow and dusty, but we shimmied our way up and finally arrived at our destination. From what we could see through the vent, the hangar appeared to be empty, so we kicked opened the vent and crawled out into the main bay.

The ships themselves were empty, and it didn’t take us long to identify a small vessel that looked like it could be piloted by one or two people. But just as we felt a glimmer of hope, we heard something explode off to the right of us.

Fire erupted from the double doors leading into the main facility, and we saw several soldiers backing into the hangar, firing their weapons at a horde of corpses that shuffled toward them.

“Get to the ships!” One of the soldiers yelled, before getting jumped on by three different zombies.

“There are too many of them!” Another shouted, trying desperately to reload his assault rifle.

We watched in horror as the small band of soldiers was overwhelmed and devoured by two or three dozen of the monsters.

Before we could even comprehend what was happening, a group of zombies, maybe seven or eight, noticed us standing there and began making their way toward us.

Natalie whimpered in fear, the first emotion I’d ever seen on her. “I don’t think we are going to make it,” she said, her voice quivering. The ship was on the other side of the hangar, too far for us to go without being overtaken by the zombies.

“There is still a chance,” I said, looking at Natalie, then back at the approaching zombies.

Before she could reply, I grabber her by the shoulders and shoved her toward them. Then, I turned and ran as fast as I could for the ship and closed the hatch behind me.

I can still hear her screams as the corpses ripped her apart, the confusion and the horror in her voice will forever haunt my dreams. But that didn’t stop me from firing up the engines and getting the hell off 42 on a course set for Earth.

I’m not proud of what I did, but I also never claimed to be the hero of this story. If I had not left Natalie to die, then neither of us would have made it off that rock to warn the rest of humanity of the space moss or the evil fungus. Another greedy corporation would send an army of miners to pick up where we left off, and they would find the same fate we did. If that fungus ever made it back to Earth, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it.

As my ship flies through space I tell you this story so that my knowledge and my crimes will survive. The tragedy of Metallum 42 must be remembered, and that damn asteroid has to be nuked to protect humanity.

I only hope that God forgives me for what I did. He knows that I would do it again in heartbeat.

It’s time for me to go into cryo… my stomach is killing me and my head aches from the stress of it all. By the time I wake up, I should be about to enter Earth’s atmosphere.

Evans out.

<end transmission>

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