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Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy

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Sometimes They Get In

This much we know: that the Innensburg bloom began with a single spore; that Immune response was sluggish and ineffective; that the first witness on the scene, one Holger Sanchez Mach, broke the nearest emergency glass, dropped two magnums and a witch's tit, and died. Did he suffer? Did it hurt? Conversion must have taken at least four seconds, and we can probably assume it started with the feet. These things usually do.

By the time the Response teams began arriving, the bloom was some ten meters across, and two meters high at the center -- a fractal-jagged bubble of rainbow fog, class two threaded structure almost certainly visible to those unfortunate enough to be standing within fecund radius when the fruiting bodies swelled and popped. Twenty deaths followed almost immediately, and another hundred in the minutes that followed.

There were cameras and instruments on the scene by this time, windows on what can only seem to be separate events, each holograph showing a different fleeing mob or collapsing building, each soundtrack recording a different cacophony of wimpers and death screams and jarringly irrelevant conversation. I personally have collaged these scenes a dozen times or more, arranging the panic this way and that way, over and over again in the hope that some sense will emerge. But there is no sense in those first few minutes, just the pettiness and blind, stamping fear of the human animal stripped bare. And the heroism, yes; for me the central image is that of Enrico Giselle, Tech Two, pushing his smudged helmet and visor back on his forehead and shouting into a voice phone, while the walls behind him froth and shimmer and disintegrate.

"Class five! Class five! Drop two hundred and flush on my command!"

At this point, finally, the city began to awaken. The Immunity isolated samples of the invading mycorum, sequenced them, added them to the catalog of known pathogens. Better late than never, one supposes, but by this time the bloom outmassed the city's Immune system by a factor of several million, and though submicroscopic phages gathered at its sizzling interface, now ropy with tendrils that sputtered outward in Eschereque whorls, the growth was not visibly affected.

Fortunately, like all living things, technogenic organisms require energy to survive, and where the witch's tits had fallen or been hurled, pools of bitter cold had arrested the replication process. Not unusual, as any Response officer will tell you.  And like organic lebenforms, mycora are also vulnerable to excess energy. Backpack UV lasers were proving effective weapons against the bloom, and soon the streets clanged with discarded chem spritzers and paraphage guns as bloomfighters concentrated on the things that worked.

High above the city, the cavern roof came alive with UV turrets of its own. Machine-guided and wary of the soft humans below, the beams swept back and forth, charring trenches through the rainbow mist, the living dust, the bloom of submicroscopic mycora still eating everything in their reach and converting it to more of themselves. And to other things, as well, a trillion microscopic construction projects all running in parallel, following whatever meaningless program the mycogene codes called out. By now the fecund zone was half a kilometer across, riddled with gaps and voids in the outer regions but much denser at its core, a thickening haze which already blocked the view from one side to the other. Up to four stories tall in places, higher than most of the surrounding buildings, and it had begun to take on structure as well -- picks and urchins, mostly, standing out visibly in the haze, their prismatic spines lengthening more than fast enough for the human eye to see.

Some mycora eat lightly, sucking up building blocks like carbon and hydrogen while leaving the heavier elements alone, but this one was pulling the gold right off the streets, the steel right off the shingled walls, the zirconium right out of the window panes. You've seen the pictures: a giant bite out of Innensburg's south side, gingerbread houses dissolving like a dream.

The UV lasers, while no doubt satisfying for those employing them, were if anything adding to the problem by throwing waste heat into the bloom, giving it that much more energy to work with, to feed on.  Finally, Innensburg's central processor sought permission from the mayor and city council to move to Final Alert.

Permission was granted, the overhead lights and household power grid were shut off, the ladderdown reactors stopped, and the air system reconfigured to pipe through cooling radiators closer to the surface. The cold, the dark. How we humans hate these things, and how very much we need them!

Like all Jupiter's moons, like all the moons of the outer system, Ganymede's surface is cold enough to liquefy both oxygen and nitrogen, and while the spore-fouled air was not cooled quite that far, Innensburg's ground temperature quickly dropped below the freezing point of water, and then below that of carbon dioxide. A seconds-brief rain fell and froze. Mycoric replication slowed to a crawl. A sigh of mingled fear and relief went up all over the city, visible as columns of white steam in the flashlight beams of the Response. The emergency far from over, but now survivable, now something that could be dealt with in a reasoned, methodical manner.

Some thirty-one deaths were later attributed to the cold, to the darkness, to the lack of domestic power and computing, and while some of the families did attempt to bring suit against the authorities responsible, public and judicial outrage squashed the move before it had gotten very far. One hundred and eighty-seven deaths preceeded the chilldown, after all, and most of Innensburg's fifty thousand residents came out of it with only minor injuries.

Throughout the Immunity, our problems are the same: so far from the places of our birth, so far from the sun's warm rays, so far from the lives we once expected to lead. Eaten by the Mycosystem, those lives, and billions of others as well. And yet out here in the cold and dark we hang on, even thrive, because we're brave enough to believe we can. If the space around us is lousy with mycoric spores blown upward by solar wind, well, at least we can do what's necessary to keep them outside.

I think the Honorable Klaus Pensbruck, in closing the book on Glazer vs. Cholm, speaks for us all with his immortal words, "Shut up, lady. We don't want to end up like the Earth."

-- from Innensburg and the Fear of Failure
(c) 2101 by John Strasheim