Chuck’s challenge this week: Random Titles.
I found my title — Grey Search — and after banishing thoughts of Gandalf fan-fiction, the only thing left clanging around in my brain was Grey Goo. I ran a little long, but I’m cutting myself a break in favor of the interesting world this found me in.
Another day, another foray into the Grey.
I scrub up and haul on the lime green bodysuit, stuff my feet into triple-poly thermal boots, strap on the insulated mitts so thick and stiff they’re like big yeti paws. I don’t bother to check myself in the mirror: I already know I look perfectly indistinguishable from the others on my team, suiting up in their own clean rooms.
The redundancy is tedious, but chances are not worth taking.
I double check my seams and tromp down the hallway to the airlock. I breathe the canned air deep into my lungs; it’s been recycled so many times, it’s hard not to smell the stale farts and garbage in it, though the utility squad assures me that’s just my imagination. Still, it’s better than the bland, window-cleaner smelling brew they outfit the enviro-suits with. It resists contamination longer, they say. But it turns my stomach something awful.
Satch and Virge are already in the airlock, masks in place and suits pressurized. They look like a pair of Stay-Puft marshmallow men. Manx waits by the terminal, her fingers flying over the keyboard, probably reconfiguring the daily power allowances for the core. We used to have three people handling that job around the clock, until Manx got her hands on a computer and showed the council she could do the same job in a third of the time, by herself. That kind of usefulness in a place like this means you stay busy. It’s a big deal, her running Control for us.
“Bout time, Deel.” She doesn’t look up from her code. “You’ve got the Grade 3 suits today for maximum time in the field. Eight hours of pure air and another four if your purifiers hold.” She finally looks at me, arching an eyebrow under her mousy brown bangs. “Try not to push it, though.” She cut her hair. Looks almost normal again. Hasn’t looked so — happy isn’t the word — all right since Danny got caught out a few months back. I tell her it suits her. She tells me to get my mask on, then presses the button at my wrist to pressurize my suit.
The ambient world disappears with a hiss and a click. My ears pop, and I breathe in the window-cleaner-scented air.
“Big day today,” Virge’s voice crackles in my ear.
“Just come back safe,” Manx says, pressing the last few buttons on the terminal. She retreats through the airlock hatch and the door whooshes closed behind her. Red flashing lights. Klaxons. Then the far wall opens up and the sunlight spills in. We throw up our gloved hands to block out the sun, then glance at each other and trudge out into the Grey.
The suits are heavy, but the air feels light today. Clear skies. Endless azure stretching off into the distance, meeting a solid line of grey at the horizon, grey which continues all the way back to our feet. Can’t even see Installation 17 behind us any more. Been a long time since anybody ventured this far out.
Since Danny, we all think, but nobody says.
“Any sign yet?” Virge asks, her voice not particularly hopeful.
Not that he needs to, but Satch checks the scanner. “Not for a few miles yet.”
We plod on in silence.
It’s impossible to tell in the suit, but it almost looks like there’s a little breeze out here, blowing little wisps of grey dust around in swirling eddies.
“You guys see that?” I point as a fine, pale mist washes across our feet.
“Is that … wind?”
It’s too much to hope for, but there it is. There hasn’t been wind or weather since the world went Grey.
“If that’s wind…” Satch takes his time. He knows the danger of hope. “Then Danny might have been right.”
Virge knows better. “Right or not, he still died out here. Like we will if we get caught up chasing wind.”
“We should get a sample of that dust,” I say. Because if there’s still wind, then maybe the island is real, too. I’m an idiot for thinking it. The island is a myth, a fairy tale. Some land out there in the wastes, untouched by the Grey, unclaimed by it. Something in the air that keeps it pure. A place we could live like humans again.
“Stick to the mission,” Virge barks.
Satch stops walking. “Virge. You know what it could mean.”
“What I know,” Virge stops as well, pulling up right in Satch’s face, “is that Deel’s already picked up some bugs.”
She points. We look. There’s a faint steam rising from the toe of my boot.
“Shit. How long?”
“Just the last twenty minutes or so. Nothing to stress about.” She fixes Satch with a steely look. “But let’s not forget that time is a factor. Besides. Any sample would just be goo by the time we got it back.”
She’s right, of course.
The sonar pings are getting closer and closer. Danny’s tracker. The tiny transmitter encased in a shell of ultra-dense, non-reactive alloy. If we’re lucky, it’ll be all that’s left. I’ve seen my share of humans consumed by the Grey. Flesh goes quick, but the bones can resist for a while. They look like skeletons made of ash.
Danny’s just a bump in the goo. Wouldn’t even know he was there if not for the pinging of the sonar on Satch’s tracker. But here he is, at our feet. My boot is smoldering steadily now, up to the ankle. It’s lucky we found him — I’ve only got a few more hours to get back before the bugs got through.
Usually we’d draw straws before digging into the goo, but I’m already contaminated, so before anybody can argue, I plunge my mitts into the muck. It’s weird, the goo — solid as a rock underfoot, but dig into it or stand still for too long, it’s like riverbank mud. Goopy and sticky and awful, and I try not to think about whether I’m rooting around in Danny’s chest cavity or his skull. Then I feel it: a solid little walnut buried in the sludge. I pull it out, hold it aloft, grin through the fog in my mask.
“Let’s head back,” Virge says.
Our gear goes into the incinerator, and I get an extra-long hose-down. Two layers of my boot and most of the glove-arm of my suit was chewed up and crumbling away by the time we got back. Still, I get the all clear.
Manx sits in Control, staring off at something invisible about five feet in front of her. Her eyes are kissed with red and puffy. She looks like a marionette somebody threw into a chair. I sit down by the door and make a big deal of not looking at her.
Finally she speaks.
“You found him.”
“We found him.”
“He recorded a message in his tracker. If he was telling the truth, his feet had already gone Grey and he knew he wasn’t going to make it.”
Knowing Danny, he was probably a lot worse off than that, but there’s no sense saying that to Manx. “Did he find it? The island?”
Tears well in her eyes again, and I know I shouldn’t have asked. The island is too much to hope for.
“He found it.” And Manx looks at me with the wrong emotion in her eyes. There should be joy. We should be celebrating, calling the council, hell, sounding the all-call. But she looks dead inside. “He found it, but he was already contaminated, and he brought the Grey with him.” She bites back a sob. “We destroyed it, just like we destroyed everything else.”
I pat her shoulder a little aimlessly, but there’s nothing to say. I wonder if the council will spread the word that Danny found the island. Probably not. We’re all dead anyway, but at least we can pretend we have something to live for.