Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2014 by David Steffen.


Catastrophic Failure

By David Steffen

GABRIEL MADE HIS ROUNDS OF the mining crawler at a leisurely pace. The official reason for the walk was to perform one last visual inspection to mark the end of his month-long work cycle. He’d spent a busy month sending valuable metals to the sky in balloons and receiving supply crates from Earth after they dropped through the thick Venusian atmosphere. He was glad for a bit of idle time, and he was enjoying his conversation with Mack, despite the communication delays

A green dot glowed on the Heads Up Display of his goggles, indicating an incoming message. He stopped, nodded, and his display filled with the image of his communications officer back on Earth, Angel McCoy, “Mack” for short. She was beautiful as the day he’d met her, fifteen years older now but she had aged well. Her black hair and pale but healthy skin making a sharp contrast on his HUD screen.

“I’ve been looking at the marauder attacks on our outposts across the solar system, and I just can’t figure out the pattern.” She bit her lip in thought. “I know you say it’s random and it seems like you’re right, but that’s my point—they’re too random. Why attack a mining crawler on Mars, one in the asteroid belt, and one on Io within twenty-four hours and leave the rest of the crawlers alone?” Her image disappeared with the end of the transmission.

They’d had this conversation before, many times, usually just before he went into cryo for another five year cycle. He suppressed a sigh. He didn’t want to spend his last minutes awake having this same old argument, but he knew he couldn’t derail Mack when she got on this train of thought. The Consortium World Government was the only group on Earth that had enough resources for a space program. Any who resisted it were grounded. Yet someone had been attacking mining crawlers, a handful every few years, each one marked with a hull breach, some damaged equipment and a full crew of bloody Hiver corpses. No valuables or technology were ever taken. “Mack, if you could figure out a pattern to the attacks, what would you do? Unless someone’s started building space vessels for combat that you haven’t told me about, there’s nothing you can do. Besides, what if you learned that the Consortium itself is behind the attacks?”

Gabe’s working months were timed for when Venus was at its nearest point to Earth, but even then the communication delay was about five minutes round trip.

He continued on his rounds. He knew he’d find nothing wrong. The mining crawlers were designed with redundant layers of safety measures and even the most minor of problems would spawn notifications on the Heads Up Display on his goggles. His work was merely an extra level of redundancy.

He rounded a corner into the starboard work corridor. The walls were a drab gray, as they were in the rest of the ship. Hivers passed him in the four-hundred meter hallway, men and women alike with heads shaved and wearing the Hive’s sleek white uniform. When he was a boy, their tendency to avoid eye contact had unnerved him. It was nothing personal; that was just how Hivers always behaved. Genetically they were still human, but you couldn’t expect normal human behavior from them. They were what they were.

The exact origin of Hivers was speculative. The Hive had appeared from nowhere a hundred years ago while the fledgling Consortium was still struggling to establish a foothold in the Belt Race. The Hive’s exclusive collaboration with it was the factor that tipped the race in favor of the Consortium and had given the Consortium an uncontested monopoly over the solar system ever since.

Gabriel nodded at the green light that signaled a new message from Mack: “The Consortium can’t be behind the attacks. They’re far from innocent, but there’d be no profit in killing their own miners. Each of those stations is billions of dollars of investment. I couldn’t take it if you died. You’re special to me. You know that, right?”

“My crawler won’t be attacked,” he assured her. “I had worse odds of survival on the trip to Venus and I’ll have worse odds on my trip back. Don’t worry yourself into an ulcer, please?”

Fifty hatches lined one side of the corridor, each leading to the docking bay of a burrower, each little more than an armored bubble with a cramped cockpit and a cargo cavity. The crawler moved along the surface steadily and dropped the faster burrowers in its wake to do the fetching. The burrowers were running every hour of every day, manned by a rotating staff of Hivers.

The Hive was Gabe’s charge, his horde of silent and efficient workers. It never slept. It only ate its bodies’ caloric minimum. And it worked with a level of coordination unequaled by anything that Consortium workers were capable of. Not only could these Hivers act in unison with each other, they could act in perfect unison with any other portion of the Hive in the solar system.

It was common knowledge that quantum entanglement was the key to the Hive’s unity, effecting communication without delay and through any obstruction. The Consortium had yet to discover a reliable method of quantum entanglement and the Hive wasn’t forthcoming about it.

A dozen Hivers entered the corridor in single file, their steps and even their blinking in synch. The file of Hivers stopped in front of a row of burrowers. Just as they stopped, the hatches of the burrowers opened from the inside and twelve Hivers stepped out, their places immediately taken by the new shift. The relieved Hivers walked away in similar synchronized fashion and Gabe continued on his rounds.

A green light flashed, signaling an incoming message from Mack. He nodded acceptance. “I’ll miss you,” was all she said.

Well, he’d dawdled long enough. Time to head back to cryo.

“I feel a five year nap coming on, Mack. Do you mind giving me a wakeup call? I’ll be at the top of the vine-covered tower. You know how to wake me.”

He descended the stairs to his quarters deep within the nose of the crawler, one of only three such rooms. Three quarters, three engineers, working on a rotating shift, each working one month when Venus was closest to Earth. Most of the mining complex was taken up by equipment and the thousands of Hivers that operated it, and the minimum facilities required to sustain them.

The green light lit and he nodded to allow Mack’s message. “Good night, Sleeping Beauty. I’ll see you in five years. Don’t be expecting true love’s kiss to wake you up. I’m more of a boot to the teeth kind of girl.” She blew him a kiss. “Sweet dreams, Gabe. Sleep safe.”

He smiled. “G’night, Mack. Don’t ever change.”

Once in his cramped quarters, he washed and shaved. He liked to start the cryosleep out feeling fresh. He slipped off the HUD goggles and lay down in his cryopod, a smooth egg filled with a tech jelly. He sat in the room temperature goo and slipped on his respirator mask before lying back and allowing the jelly to close in over his whole body. The lid closed down and everything went black. He counted down from ten in his mind, and was asleep before he reached five.


When Gabe next opened his eyes, the lid to his cryopod was already open, and he had a deep feeling of wrongness about his waking. He felt more groggy than usual and his stomach felt sour. He suspected he’d been woken early, which would only happen if something had gone wrong that the Hivers couldn’t handle. He removed his IV nutrient feed and his catheter and stood carefully, wobbling a bit.

The power was still on in his quarters, but that didn’t indicate the state of the station. His quarters were run on an independent power supply from the rest of the crawler to ensure he wouldn’t rot in his cryopod from a short circuit in another sector.

He forewent his usual routine of washing up, and only toweled the gel off his head enough to pop on his goggles. The date in the corner of the display confirmed his feeling. Only three and a half years had passed since he’d gone into cryo. That would mean that Ramirez’s engineering shift had only ended a few months ago and Venus was headed away from Earth again.

An exclamation point indicated an urgent message, but before he could answer it he had to dash to the toilet. He voided his watery bowels, and sighed with relief as the sour feeling passed with them, leaving only a dull headache. Wakeups were usually just like waking from a long nap. This one must have been accelerated to be this rough.

At least the wireless network was still running if he could use his goggles. He nodded to open the message.

It was a text message sent by the crawler: Engineer Jones, you have been revived outside of your normal cycle to investigate an unexplained decline in efficiency of Miner Crawler 3X9A. Please investigate and report back to your comm officer with your findings.

In his twenty years on the crawler Gabe had never been woken early. The Hive thought of little else but efficiency. Something must be seriously wrong to prompt this. “Details,” he said, to bring up the statistics display.

A line chart of efficiency percentages filled his vision. From the beginning of the chart, six months prior, the efficiency began at ninety-three percent and hovered near that value for all of the intervening months until today, when it took a sharp decline. “Zoom in. Range: one day, ending with present time.”

The chart zoomed in. Efficiency looked normal until about ninety minutes prior, when the line plummeted from ninety-three percent to zero.

“Open comm line to Angel.” A green ball flashed, indicating success. “Mack, I’m up early. We dropped to zero efficiency. No need to get too worried just yet, probably just faulty sensors.” It didn’t feel like a faulty sensor.

He noticed that his message light was still blinking green, so there were other messages. He loaded up some diagnostic tests and set them running on the network.

Gabe began to dress, grabbing his uniform by feel. He started the oldest message as he zipped up his shirt. It was Angel, a bit heavier this time with a shorter haircut. A wide grin split her face.

“Hey Gabe. I know you won’t get this for another couple years, but I’ve been promoted! I’m middle management now. A corner office, a huge pay hike. I’ll have a couple dozen people working under me, so I’ll get to hone my evil overlord laugh. They wanted to pull me from all of my comm officer work but don’t worry; I convinced them to let me keep working with you because we’ve established a rapport, as I said in my memo. I’ll give you up when they pry my microphone from my cold dead fingers.” She winked. “Later!”

A yellow light flashed to signal the completion of the diagnostic tests he’d run. Text filled up his viewscreen: No problems found. This followed by numbers detailing each section of the crawler, but all within normal parameters.

With a word he sent the diagnostic results to Angel. “I’m headed up for manual inspection. Wish me luck, sweetheart. And congrats on the promotion.”

The walk up the stairway from his quarters seemed unending, heavy with imagining what might have gone wrong. He headed for the starboard work corridor.

Halfway there he came across a male Hiver curled into the fetal position in the middle of the hallway. Gabe rushed to his side, knelt beside him, and laid a hand on his shoulder. The Hiver twisted and grabbed Gabe by the front of his uniform, pulling him down with surprising strength. “Help me!” the man screamed, eyes bloodshot, and flecks of spittle flying when he talked.

“I’ll help you,” Gabe said, trying to stay calm. He tried to pry the man’s hands away, but he couldn’t break that white-knuckled grip. “Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll help you.”

“I’m blind!” the man said, his eyes intent on Gabe’s. “I’m blind and alone. I don’t know how to be alone anymore. I don’t know what to do!”

“I don’t think you’re blind,” Gabe said. “Your eyes are focused on mine.”

“Seeing you with my eyes, yes,” the Hiver said, brow furrowing. “But you are all I can see. All else is black.”

“Are you injured?”

“I don’t know how to tell!” the Hiver said. He released Gabe’s uniform, and began to sob.

“Are the others in the same state as you?”

The Hiver only continued to cry.

Gabe left the Hiver and continued on. The green light blinked and he nodded to let a new message through. The goggles, sensing his movement, switched to monocular mode to allow him to walk. Angel appeared on his screen, as beautiful as ever. Her hair was starting to show streaks of gray. Physically, she was old enough to be his mother now but that face still made his heartbeat quicken. “Good to see you’re alive and kicking ass, Gabe. I’ll be watching for your diagnostic results. Keep me posted. I’m gonna grab a cup of coffee so I’ll be awake enough to parse them.”

Gabe rounded a turn into the starboard work corridor. There were Hivers in the hall, as expected, but they were all idle, some lying curled on the floor, some leaning against the wall and staring with desperate intensity at nothing at all. Some of the Hivers watched him. A male Hiver grabbed Gabe by the shoulder. “I am broken.”

Gabe had grown so accustomed to the Hivers’ synchronized movements that their every individual move was a jarring dischord. They weren’t blinking or breathing in unison. They were broken.

Gabe gently removed the man’s hand, trying to keep his face calm. He was afraid he could trigger a violent outburst if he made the wrong move, and he couldn’t afford that. He needed to find out what had gone wrong. He brought up a diagram of the recent burrower activity. The burrowers hadn’t been operating at all for two hours. Only two of the two hundred were docked in the crawler at the moment. The rest were out there somewhere. The burrowers’ air supply only lasted for about four hours without replenishing at the crawler. Another two hours and those Hivers would suffocate.

This was bigger than he could handle by himself. It was time to call in one of the other engineers. “Wake Gina.” A green confirmation light glowed on his HUD. She’d be mobile in forty-five minutes. He considered waking the third engineer as well, but decided against it, for now. There were only two Behemoths to pilot anyway.

Standard operating procedure for a burrower breakdown was to pilot one of the two larger burrowers, the Behemoths, to retrieve it. They were slow, but large enough to carry a disabled burrower back to the crawler. But they were only meant for occasional isolated breakdowns, not for mass failures. There was no way to recall burrowers automatically once they were out. They weren’t equipped with wireless communication, of course, as wireless would be useless through meters of rock, but that was no barrier to the Hive’s communication. If the Hive weren’t broken.

What could have broken the Hive? An EMP might do it, but it would also have wreaked havoc with the crawler’s computer systems.

Gabe opened up a comm line to Angel. “Something weird’s going on. Something’s disrupted the Hive—they’re just individuals now, couldn’t have been an EMP. Can you dig for information on your side? Is the Hive on Earth still working? Has something like this ever happened before?”

He closed the comm line and issued a command to the crawler: “Ready both Behemoths.” They had never been used in Gabe’s twenty years aboard.

He opened a line to Gina, to leave her a message for when she woke. “Gina, something’s disrupted the Hive. They’ve been separated from each other and they’re not capable of much right now. No idea why, yet. Diagnostics all come up green. Most of the burrowers are out there, stranded. Come help me retrieve them when you’re up.”

An orange light appeared to signal the Behemoths were ready with fresh air and power. He stepped in through the heavily armored hull, into the cockpit. He pulled the hatch shut behind him, sealed it. Once he was strapped into the chair the holographic navigation display appeared in front of him, showing his surroundings in the stone in grainy three dimensions. The Behemoths and the burrowers navigated by means of shockwaves through the stone, like navigating by sonar. He could see dozens of bright points in the display: most would be burrowers.

With painful slowness the Behemoth burrowed toward the closest one. More than ten minutes passed before he reached it, and another several as he maneuvered the Behemoth into retrieval position. He was rather rusty at these controls, having never used them since training. There! He pressed the button to retrieve and he could hear the inner mechanics of the Behemoth as it opened its womb and sent out grasping arms to pull in the wayward burrower.

The Behemoth carried the burrower back to the docking station, and docked it. As if the work wasn’t slow enough he had to bring the Behemoth back to its own docking station, exit, go down a level to the burrowers, and open the burrower hatch. He hardened himself, but the Hiver’s wordless scream still made him wince. He left her strapped in the burrower to save time. With the hatch open, she wouldn’t run out of air, at least.

As he headed back to the Behemoth he received a new message from Mack. “Your Hiver trouble must be localized; the Hivers at the office are still working as usual. I’ve never heard of anything like this before, but if there’s anything to be found I’ll find it. Hang tight, Sleeping Beauty.”

He opened another burrower’s hatch to allow the Hiver to breathe but left her strapped in so he could run back up to the Behemoth and out into the planet again to save another. Time felt simultaneously rushed and frozen as he repeated his task.

As he exited the Behemoth for the third time, a message arrived from Gina. “I’m awake and headed up to help you retrieve. I started Ramirez thawing too, seems like we could use an extra set of hands.”

The status light on the other Behemoth’s docking station indicated that it was out, so Gina must already have begun her first retrieval. Gabe retrieved four more live Hivers before he found one not breathing.

As he was stepping back into the Behemoth’s hatch, his message light blinked green just before a deep boom reverberated through the crawler.

An exclamation point appeared. “Shit,” he muttered. “Report problems.”

The result appeared on one side of his goggles. “Hull breached, Sectors 6C and 2D. Source of damage undetermined. Extent of damage severe. Communications transmitters A and B inoperable. Sector 6C compartmentalized to prevent further atmospheric loss.”

“Open comm line to Angel.”

“Error. Communications transmitters A and B inoperable.”

“Play message.”

It was Angel, voice ragged and eyes red. “Something’s up. They’re pulling me off of comm duty. They’re acting like it’s a promotion, like I should be happy to be free of you. I wasn’t supposed to contact you again, but hell if I’ll just disappear. I’m not giving up, Gabe. I’m going to find out what’s going on and I’m going to find a way to tell you if I have to hitchhike to Venus. Signing off. They’ll throw me out on my ear if they catch me talking to you.”

He tried, with effort, to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat. That might be the last time he heard from Mack. He didn’t want to think about that. What was the Consortium trying to hide by pulling her off comm duty? Could they really be behind the attacks?

It could theoretically be just meteor impacts, but the odds were against it. Venus’s atmosphere was much thicker than Earth’s. All but the most gargantuan meteors burned up before impact—anything that big would’ve destroyed half the crawler, not just the two tiny sectors that contained the transmitter arrays. They’d still be able to receive communications, as the receiver arrays were separated from the transmitters. There were enough parts to set up a new transmitter array three times over. The bigger problem was still the broken Hive.

The hatch to the other Behemoth opened and Gina stepped out. For a brief moment he was speechless, disoriented by seeing her right in front of him, a regular human who wasn’t a member of the Hive. Her hair was cropped in a crew cut like his own.

“Gina, hello!”

She smiled a sincere smile and embraced him. “Good to see you, Gabe. I wasn’t expecting to see you in the flesh for another forty years.”

He grinned back, genuinely enjoying the moment despite their situation. “Now we just need Ramirez to complete the set.”

Her smile slipped. “We should’ve heard from him by now. Open comm line to Ramirez. Diagnostic, Cryopod Two. Damn. The crawler can’t find his pod.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. We’ll check on him later. We need to get back out there and save more Hivers while we still can.”

They saved five more Hivers, all unconscious by the time their burrowers were opened up. Gabe and Gina left them strapped in to save time. The four after that were already dead.

“You check on Ramirez,” Gina said, “and I’ll see what I can do about the transmitter.”

He nodded and jogged toward the distant sector of the ship. He passed through common areas with sleeping mats for the Hivers and food dispensaries, all clogged with passive Hivers. Hundreds of able-bodied men and women on the ship, but only three capable of acting for themselves. What a mess.

The doors to Ramirez’s quarters slid open at the press of a button. The hatch to Ramirez’s cryopod stood ajar, and Ramirez lay in the cryo gel, his eyes closed, so peaceful in sleep.

Something was wrong. The hatch should only open when awakening was imminent. Gabe reached in, pulled Ramirez up to a sitting position, his chest and head above the cryogenic gel. He checked Ramirez’s pulse. No pulse perceptible beneath the cool skin. The facemask wasn’t clouding with his breath.

“Comm line to Gina. Ramirez didn’t wake up. Attempting to revive.” He removed Ramirez’s IV and catheter, pulled off the facemask, and wrapped his arms around Ramirez’s torso to haul him out of the tank. Ramirez’s arms flopped out, bouncing off the ground and the fish-slippery body nearly slid out of Gabe’s arms.

Gina, over audio: “Need a hand?”

“No. Two sets of hands won’t help him any more than one. Work on the transmitters.” Gabe laid him out and used one of Ramirez’s towels to dry off the man’s chest and face. He pulled the defibrillator pack from the first aid kit and stuck it to Ramirez, backed off to allow it to work. Ramirez bounced from the shock, but the heart monitor didn’t start up. He pressed the button to run it again. Nothing. Again. Nothing.

Gina said “Gabe, where are the repair bots?”

Gabe cleared his throat. “They’re where they always are, in their compartments in Sectors 3A and 9A.”

“They’re not. At least, the compartment in 3A is empty, and the crawler reports the other’s empty too.”

“Where does it say the bots are?”

“When I ask it just spits out a string of gibberish, looks like random characters.”

His goggles flashed an exclamation point, and text scrolled across his facemask. Air processing systems damaged, running at diminished capacity, cause unknown.

Gabe cursed. He grabbed Ramirez’s atmosphere suit and pulled it on.

“Gabe,” Gina said over comms, “what the hell is going on?”

“No clue. Suit up and meet me at air processing.” They arrived at the same time, Gina in a suit of her own. The door opened for them and they stepped into the air processing maintenance area, little more than a narrow corridor lined with panels. One of the panels had been removed and he could see a bit of the repair bot’s bucket-like body sticking out of the hole. Its multitude of arms jockeyed for space, elbows akimbo. Each arm ended with a tool: a screwdriver, a hammer, a knife. The floor outside the opening was scattered with parts, bits of pipe, circuit boards, air filters.

They exchanged a glance.

“You didn’t send the bot here?” she asked.

Gabe shook his head.

“Deactivate repair bot,” she said. Nothing happened.

Gina stepped toward it slowly, step by step, to see if she could tell what it was doing. The repair bots were not intelligent. They could perform specific instructions, anything that their multitude of arms with graspers, cutters, multitools could perform. If the crawler diagnosed a specific problem, it could task a repair bot to follow a pre-written procedure to resolve that problem. But the crawler should have notified them of the dispatch.

Gina got close enough to peer into the hole. “It’s not fixing anything. It’s wrecking.”

One of the bot’s arms flashed into motion, toward Gina. She jumped back and the arm tore a gash at the neck of her atmosphere suit. Gabe stepped forward to grab her even as her back hit the opposite side of the narrow hallway and she stumbled forward again. Another of the repair bot’s arms swung and smashed into her leg, producing a loud crack and a shout of pain.

Her leg collapsed beneath her, but he caught her around the waist and pulled her out of the bot’s reach. The arms extending out of the hole flailed wildly at them, with blades and hammers and all other tools. It tried to back out of the hole but its treads caught on the debris of its work.

Gabe pulled her backward through the doorway, and back out into the main corridor. He set her down as gently as he could, but she still cried out in pain. Her injured leg bent at a slight sideways angle. Her face was too pale and beaded with sweat behind the suit’s clear helmet. Her eyes were unfocused, staring past him.

“Gina, can you hear me?”

A long pause, and then she nodded, tight-lipped.

“I need to go back in there, to stop it from doing any more damage.”

She nodded again.

He left her propped against the wall. Gabe picked up a three-foot length of pipe from the scattered debris on the floor, careful to stay outside of the bot’s reach. It was still working inside the maintenance hole, most of its arms maneuvered in the cramped space, leaving only four arms extended into the narrow hallway.

Its array of tool arms arched out from its bucket-shaped body like the legs of a spider. The nearest one was the bladed arm that had cut Gina’s suit. He inched forward, gauging carefully the repair bot’s reach, which looked to be shorter than his pipe by at least a foot. He swung hard and the pipe connected with an impact that reverberated up his arm. The bladed arm fell limply to the floor, leaking hydraulic fluid. He swung again at the hammer arm that had broken her knee, disabling it in turn.

The bot struggled to extricate its other arms from the hatch, but the space was too cramped for it to maneuver properly. Gabe disabled its two remaining free arms, leaving its squat body exposed over the tangle of limp limbs. He struck the bot’s body with his pipe, once, twice. The pipe threw sparks with each impact. Five blows, six, and the remaining arms finally went limp.

As he turned to leave, a blast knocked him to the ground. He caught himself roughly on his hands, his palms stinging from the impact. Shaking, he regained his feet and peered into the hatch through the black smoke rising from inside the cavity. Nothing remained of the repair bot but scraps. If it hadn’t been in a recessed hatch, Gabe would’ve met a quick end. As it was, he didn’t know if the crawler carried sufficient parts to fix the air control system from this extent of damage.

His goggles flashed an exclamation point. Repair robot A inoperable, cause unknown.

“Where is the other repair bot?”

Location and status of repair robot B unknown.

He cursed. He hadn’t heard any other damage reports, so perhaps the other bot hadn’t gone nuts like this one had. The crawler’s damage report system still seemed to be functioning, so he should still receive notification if the other one went to work. He needed to fix the air control system but first he needed to tend to Gina’s injury. He found her where he’d left her. She’d removed her helmet, useless anyway now that her suit had been breached.

“I need to move you to the medic bay,” he told her. “I’ll be as careful as I can, but it’s still going to hurt. Okay?”

She nodded, grunting when he picked her up, and her breathing came in quick gasps, but she was taking the pain very well. He carried her to one of the medic bays, trying to step lightly so he wouldn’t jar her. Instead of setting her on one of the beds he laid her carefully on the floor. The beds came equipped with needles that would lock into an engineer’s IV port to administer medication automatically. After the bot’s behavior, he didn’t trust the med system not to kill her with an overdose.

Unfortunately the controlled medications were all administered only by the med system. To avoid the danger of drug dependency, his training had said. This had made sense at the time. He propped her head up with a pillow and gave her a bit more than the recommended dose of ibuprofen with water.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and swallowed them down.

He turned to rummage through the drawers. “I need to make you a splint.”

“No,” she said quietly, but firmly.

“You need this.”

“No time. You need to find the other bot.”

He tapped his goggles. “The damage sensors are still operating. Wherever the bot is, it hasn’t gotten into any trouble. Unless ...” Every piece of equipment on the crawler, large or small, was wired into the damage sensors. All the equipment, but not the Hivers themselves. They were expected to inform an engineer if they needed help, but they were helpless in their current state. And the other bot’s storage compartment was adjacent to the starboard work corridor.

He cursed and left Gina, running as fast as he could toward that corridor. This was all seeming more and more like a coordinated attack. The attacker knew that he would see an alarm for the air control system and would probably be killed by the rogue repair bot. Meanwhile, another one could be slaughtering the Hivers wholesale.

The door to the work corridor slid open onto a scene of carnage. A dozen Hivers lay dead or bleeding on the floor, throats or bellies cut, heads caved in. The floor was stained red with their blood. Halfway down the hallway, the other repair bot was stuck, trying to run its treads over the legs of an outstretched corpse. Its treads were too small and the tiles too slippery with blood for it to get proper traction. There were living Hivers on the other side of the obstruction, but none were making an effort to flee. Some stared, seeming catatonic. Some screamed, gesturing at the bloody scene. One sat on the floor and rocked back and forth in quick jerking motions.

“Run!” he shouted at them. They didn’t move, and the repair bot was now using a rotating saw implement to cut its obstruction into smaller pieces.

Gabe carefully approached it with pipe upraised. The work corridor lacked the advantages he’d had in the ventilation hatch. Here the bot would have the full advantage, with room to maneuver its arms. He had to consider, too, the self-destruct that had occurred when he’d damaged the other. Maybe if he disabled all of the arms he could leave it crippled, rather than destroying the body.

He swung at a trailing arm, and connected, disabling its blade, but during the moment when he was overbalanced, one of the bot’s arms struck him on the left shoulder with a heavy blow. Gabe staggered and slipped on the slick tiles, landing hard on his right side, sending a bolt of pain down his arm. His momentum made him slide out of the repair bot’s reach, and he kicked his feet desperately to gain a bit more distance.

His left arm wouldn’t move. With great effort he pushed himself to his feet, careful to keep from slipping and injuring himself further. The repair bot was ignoring him again, rolling down the hallway toward the surviving Hivers.

To have any chance he had to find a way to gain the advantage. Perhaps he could disable its treads, trap it in place. He might be able to disable it with explosives. He might have been able to improvise an explosive if he’d had more time, but all the Hivers would be dead by then.

If he couldn’t disable its arms, couldn’t immobilize it, maybe he could blind it. Its optic array jutted out in a clear encasement on top of its bucketlike figure. He thought of throwing something, a wrench maybe, but the tangle of arms around it was too thick to have much chance of hitting it. If he knew the Consortium at all, the glass covering the optics would probably be bulletproof in any case.

It was almost finished sawing its way through the leg of the obstructing corpse. He had to act fast. He pulled the knife from its sheath at the waist of his atmosphere suit. With his good hand he cut the leg portion of a uniform from a dead Hiver. The knife cut into the flesh, welling up with sluggish blood, but that didn’t matter. He slid the loop of cloth down over the man’s ankle. Most of the cloth was soaked red already, but just to be sure Gabe wiped it in the blood pooling on the ground, soaking it thoroughly.

With the sopping length of cloth in hand, he approached the bot again. When he was just out of its reach, he arced the bloody cloth toward it, flicking his wrist at the last moment to snap it like a whip. The bot finished its gruesome cutting, heedless of the blood that Gabe’s maneuver spattered across it and began moving forward again, only twenty feet to the next living Hiver.

Gabe swung the cloth again, succeeding in getting a splash of red over the sensor. The repair bot stopped, and the world went white ...

When Gabe woke, his body was a mass of agony. He was slumped against a wall on the opposite end of the corridor from where he’d been fighting. He could still move his left arm but his toes wouldn’t move. Shards of metal jutted from his abdomen. They’d missed his heart, barely, but he was bleeding badly from a dozen wounds. He’d destroyed the repair bot, but he would not survive his own victory. Gina would be on her own to tend to her broken leg and would be left with no one to help her but a braindead workforce.

He wanted to help Gina, needed to help her. He looked around desperately for some unlikely path to survival. Nearby was the hatch of a burrower. A Hiver sat inside, looking out at him, reaching for him, seeming to offer him solace. The Hiver was one of those who had been retrieved with the Behemoth. He was still strapped in. Somehow the repair bot had not noticed the Hiver in its passage, and the recessed space had been shielded from the explosion.

Gabe felt compelled to go to him. He didn’t want to die alone, and the Hiver seemed almost normal, reaching to embrace him. He pulled himself toward the hatch with his only working limb, every movement sending sharp stabs of pain through him. He reached the hatch and pulled himself up using the Hiver’s restraints as handholds, adrenaline pumping through his system even for this simple act. He slumped across the man’s lap, gasping for air. He could feel hands on the back of his head, touching, stroking. What the hell was the Hiver doing? It didn’t matter, not any more. He was tired, oh so tired, and he could think of nothing but sleep. He closed his eyes and allowed oblivion to take him.


The pain was completely gone. He could move his fingers and his toes. He felt strong. The air smelled of charred metal, burnt meat, and blood. Gabe opened his eyes. The blood-splattered walls of the work corridor filled his vision. He tried to stand, but was restrained, pressure exerting against his waist and shoulders. He noticed a weight on his lap and looked down. A bloody ruin of a man was face down on his lap. Gabe reached for the man’s head to turn it to the side, to reveal his features. He distantly noticed that his hand wasn’t quite the right color or shape, but didn’t realize what that meant until he moved the head and saw his own face on the dead man’s body.

The hand he’d reached out looked wrong because it wasn’t his hand. The Hiver had saved Gabe, had transferred Gabe’s mind somehow, into his body. His heart pounded at the realization, a stranger’s heart pumping strange blood. Despite the transfer of bodies he was still decidedly Gabe. He still remembered his childhood, his training, his earlier months coming in and out of cryo on the crawler. Most importantly, he still remembered Mack. Besides his own memories, he had gained some knowledge from the Hiver, memories of how the Hive operated. He now knew that taking over other bodies was a matter of having them ingest his own nanite-infected blood, and it took less than a day to make another’s body an extension of his own. He was the nucleus of a new Hive with a membership of one. His mind would be the one shared by all.

There were more memories from the Hive, a hundred years of memories all jumbled together so that he didn’t know how to order them. He wondered, as he had a thousand times before, where the Hive had come from. The answer came to him. The nucleus mind of the Hive had been Anatoly Golubov, lead engineer for a top secret Russian research facility during the Belt Race which had discovered a cheap and reliable method of quantum entanglement and was investigating practical uses for it.

Anatoly had forged an alliance with the Consortium. In return for great power and great wealth, he gave the Consortium an efficient workforce and the edge in the Belt Race.

He pulled the HUD goggles from his former body and put them on. His message light glowed green. He nodded, and it displayed a last text from Mack: Message to a dead man. Our benefactors did not start this, but they covered it up. I don’t know who started it yet, but I’ll find out. They deserve to rot in hell for this. You were a good man. I always loved you, you know. I wish I’d had the guts to tell you that before.

Another remnant of the Hiver’s memory leaped to the forefront, and Gabe understood that the Hive itself had disabled his crawler’s extension of the Hive. Anatoly had always been efficiency-obsessed. The Hive periodically severed those clusters that were performing poorly compared to the rest, mainly to remind the Consortium of its power over them.

The Consortium’s sabotage made a horrible kind of sense now. The Consortium kept its control over the solar system in large part by an illusion of imperviousness. Most people thought that the Hive was just another part of the Consortium, but Anatoly had never held that belief. If it became common knowledge that the Hive could collapse all of the Consortium’s holdings in the solar system with just a few minutes work, the illusion would be shattered.

A salvage ship would arrive when Venus was approaching Earth again, but that would be more than a year. That ship would be his ticket off this crawler. They would expect to find everyone dead, but he would be here waiting. He would make it back to Earth. He would find a way to deal with the Consortium. Maybe he could even meet Mack in person. It would be an awkward meeting with this new body, but he hoped she’d be able to see him for who he was. He had a gargantuan task ahead of him to survive until he could come back to Earth, but many hands, and many bodies, made light work. END

David Steffen writes computer code by day and stories at night. His work has appeared In “Escape Pod,” “Drabblecast,” “Daily Science Fiction,” and more. His previous story for “Perihelion” was published in the 12-SEP-2013 update.




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