Subsubsection: 28 January 2018 Up Subsection: HMS Javelin Subsubsection: 4 March 2018 (And the Gnat Won’t Even Notice) 

18 February 2018

The anti-piracy joint task force is being set up, initially as a data sharing operation, although there are proposals for liaison officers in the longer term. It actually seems to be working, with more stolen ships being sent back than was expected, although they’re assumed to be full of spyware. Several businesses in the Arbuthnot system have abruptly given up ship-breaking, and turned to other things, usually less profitable.
Meanwhile, Fletcher V, where the naval base is being built, is having a thaw as it approaches perihelion; a shore party (Lt Keene, Lt Gretton, Marine Jones, Marine Jansen) has been sent down to liaise with the base construction, which is currently setting up mining and resource extraction on the planet. While “exciting” discussions with the project management are underway, an alarm is sounded: the port is closed due to possible contagion, and residents of the city around the port are being asked to stay in their homes.
The party seals up immediately. Keene can’t contact the port authorities, but the news channels are showing video taken by bystanders. Patient zero was waiting in a ticket queue when she suddenly doubled up, collapsed, and started coughing up something black and unhealthy-looking. Keene notices that the chap who was standing behind her in the queue did a very efficient fade, immediately this happened, well before anyone else reacted. A clear-ish shot of his face is captured, and Keene gets in contact with the commander of the naval guard on the shuttles, suggesting that this fellow needs to be found, and that this could be deliberate biowarfare. The word is passed on to the civilian police, and copied to the medical officer on Javelin.
The shore party don’t have any orders from Javelin yet, and the expected course of action would be to assist the city authorities. Keene checks with Javelin’s XO “KK”, who confirms that. He and Gretton pick up the marines, tell them who is being sought, and show them the footage: Jansen has the impression that the suspect took something from patient zero as she collapsed, although it’s impossible to be sure. Gretton manages to get into contact with the chief of the port, whose people haven’t managed to identify the victim yet, although they do have footage showing that the two of them arrived in the port together and were talking to each other before they joined the queue. They should not be on-planet, as they haven’t come through immigration.
A little research reveals that two people looking a lot like them arrived on a civilian freighter about two weeks ago, and are ostensibly still on the orbiting station, paying rent on a room there. Lt Morrish, Marine Lt Winthrop-Chase and Marine Smith head there, and find an automated food-delivery service trolley just leaving. It has nothing on in it. Morish asks the Marines to download its memory, which leaves them nonplussed. “Well, get its serial number?” Lt Finlay is called in, and extracts the robot’s video of delivering food, charged to an account, to a robot that opened the door. Morrish gets the door-opening code from the station administrator, revealing a room with no signs of human occupation, except for a servitor robot with little memory of anything except receiving food, flushing it it away, and consuming some oxygen. It’s been doing this since the pair “arrived”.
This does yield names, Cyrus and Nam-sin Basinyi, British citizens, archaeologists, presumably cover IDs. She’s in the city hospital, and other people are coming down with whatever she has, which is apparently droplet-borne. Surgeon-Lt Blakeley of Javelin reckons that as well as people who were in the port when it all kicked off, some others are infected, possibly from a route to the port through the city. The disease is an unknown virus of some kind, and the obvious question is where the Basinyis have been for the past two weeks. What they’ve been up to, why, and if the biowarfare is deliberate or accidental, remains unclear. Research on rentals of accommodation on the ground doesn’t show anything interesting. Keene spots a theft of an aircar from an outlying prospecting site about two days ago. It was recovered near its home base, having apparently flown from there to the port city and back again, under autopilot both ways, according to the autopilot. It’s the only aircar at the outpost (population about 10, nobody but algae for a thousand miles in all directions) so it’s been used since then. The disease hasn’t broken out there, but a warning is sent that it may be contaminated. A search starts for footage of the aircar’s arrival, which shows two hooded figures with a large case, being quite sneaky, but the gait analysis matches the two at the port.
There’s quite a bit of time unaccounted for between the aircar’s departure from the outpost and its arrival at the city. Morrish starts plotting the area they could have been in and going over the air traffic control and metrological records while the shore party start going over the route from the aircar’s arrival point to the port. Morrish finds an odd ionisation trail in the upper atmosphere in the met. records, shortly after the suspects arrived at the station, looking like a controlled re-entry ending in an area which has recently melted. Finlay has a good look with Javelin’s sensors, and there’s something that looks suspicious, a bit too regular, by the shoreline.
The XO doesn’t want to send any more people down just at present, but is happy for the shore party to take a look. Keene wonders if they should stay with the current task, but Gretton points out that “the city police can do that better than us, but spacecraft are our business.”
At the site, there’s something buried in ice about half the size of the team’s shuttle, looking like a blunt bullet, at ambient temperature. In a week or so’s time, the ice would have melted, and the object would presumably be at the bottom of the sea. Careful examination and removal of snow reveals a compact low-observable re-entry vehicle, with no propulsion apart from small attitude jets. It is winched out of its hole in the ice and examined. It isn’t a known model, but the technology is familiar, if expensive. It was fitted out for two people plus luggage, and the main computer has been removed. It seems to have arrived in-system as “scientific equipment” with the “archaeologists,” who had freight large enough for it with them on the ship they arrived in, although the records about what happened to it are inconsistent. Words Will Be Had with Customs about this. Lt Tanahill is set to “reconstructing the attack” on the station’s data security, and the ground party haul the vehicle inland to where it can wait a week or two and return to the port.
The epidemic is spreading fast, and some of the hospital staff are coming down with it. The party stay suited and start planning for air supplies. The disease is not killing people, although it’s rendering them unconscious. Hydration, glucose and anti-virals are keeping them from getting worse. There’s a secondary cluster at the airfield where the aircar landed, and the outpost where the aircar was stolen from is getting cases: they’re moving all their people to the city.
Sequencing the virus, however, is giving inconsistent results, and what they are getting is unlike anything known. There’s discussion of it being possibly native to the planet, but it seems unlikely. However, the plan does not make much sense as biowarfare, since it implicates the spreaders, so maybe it’s unintentional, and Cyrus has not been spotted anywhere since he vanished at the spaceport. He was heading for the exit then, but does does not seem to have got there. Morrish suggests searching the port, and Keene and Gretton take it up. Port security have only searched for sick people, not for someone deliberately hiding.
“You call it an apocalypse. We call it Fat Tuesday.”
Marines Jones and Jansen take up the search. Meanwhile, the last communication from the hospital was something about “phase 2,” then it all went quiet. Morrish alerts Keene and Gretton, who head over there. Everyone is unconscious, including the staff. The first sign of infection to date has been coughing up of black phlegm, but there’s no sign of any around the hospital. There is, however, a lot of radio noise, coming from all around them in the hospital. Many sources – people – low power, a wide range of frequencies. They get out, tell Morrish on Javelin, and report their suspicion that it’s nanites. Looking at the hospital’s video, patient zero disintegrated into a black haze that dispersed.
Morrish consults the XO about ways of jamming nanite communications, and given the choice of high-altitude nuclear explosions or a jamming pod on a boat, goes for the jammer. While waiting for that (suits are not going to be messed up by it, appart from communications), Gretton relays some of the signals up to Javelin for analysis “but keep it off the main net.” Keene alerts the port authorities of developments; they are overjoyed.
Meanwhile, the marines are not surprised by something large approaching them down the corridor. Dark grey, moving at a fast walking pace, looks almost like a piston. Jansen fires a grenade which reveals that it is solid, rather than the dense cloud of nanites that they’d suspected, and Jones fires another which hits perfectly and stops it dead. Behind it is a dead non-humanoid creature, partly organic, with chitinous armour that obviously changes shape, given its lack of joints, which was holding a metal plate as a shield and moving that down the corridor. There are no more of these, but a fair amount of black dust. Jansen attempts to bag some but it eats through it, and he abandons that plan.
Things are not looking good. Gretton’s knowledge of nanotech hazards is telling him “don’t get into this situation in the first place.” The jammer is in place, blanketing the city, and the boat’s pilot is quite happy about not needing to land.
Surgeon-Lieutenant Blakeley on Javelin approaches the XO with “I’ve got a really stupid idea...” Shortly thereafter the XO calls the ground party asking for a beacon at a clear area, since he has a re-entry capsule for them. It’s a planetary survey probe, which makes a soft-ish landing. It contains about a third of Spot, the ship’s mould, which is extending tendrils in the manner of a multi-tongued frog, and feeding on the nanites.
Jansen: “What happens if Spot gets infected?”
Gretton: “That’s when Javelin sterilises the port area.”
Things start to calm down. The combination of the jammer and possibly Spot seems to be stopping infection spreading. Decontamination starts: antimatter is a great way to generate gamma rays, but nobody is even trying to decontaminate suits. The city is going to be Port Spot now, after its saviour, and deploying Spots to all British colonies looks like a good idea. The MO will be being recommended for a medal, plus psychological examination, and bought lots of drinks.
There are about ten deaths, including both the “archaeologists”, but the rest recover with time in hospital. The archaeologists’ case is found in the port, near where the thing with the shield was, mostly empty except for logs, which refer to a specific location on the planet, underwater, in a recently thawed area. In the air race a few months ago, one of the teams went off-course and flew over that area. Not the Novaya Europans, but the party of (British) tourists, who’d had their legs removed to save weight. Hostile-environment suits for the diving turn up in an unused building.
The question is whether the “archaeologists” were very dedicated, or just unaware of how deadly the nano was going to be. It looks as if someone has a long-term plan to abort this base project, and is happy to sacrifice agents. Maybe the “tourists” knew how deadly it was and needed a sucker to release it once they were a long way away? Maybe its release on-planet was an accident? The inside of the re-entry vehicle is contaminated, but that could have happened after the tourists’ drop-off was collected. They had tickets for travel back towards more central areas of British space, so they might have planned to release it or deliver it elsewhere. But so many things have happened here that it seems likely it was intended for here.
There isn’t anything that’s happened in the building of the base since the presumed drop-off during the air race that’s an obvious trigger. The structure of the orbiting base has started to be assembled, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done before it’s operational.
And why didn’t a second shoe drop? Did they expect this to take out the port and city? That’s fairly plausible: we only kept it through quick action and inspired lunacy. This kind of nanotech transformation is beyond the common state of the art, although it’s theoretically plausible.
 Subsubsection: 28 January 2018 Up Subsection: HMS Javelin Subsubsection: 4 March 2018 (And the Gnat Won’t Even Notice)