Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Ghost in the Machine

by Michele Dutcher

After the Nanoswarms overwhelmed the Martian surface defenses, a staggering madness enveloped the humans that survived. The skies grew cloudy for decades with crystalline sandstorms reaching as high as forty miles from the planet’s deserts...and the morals of men grew cloudier still. Those who were left alive on the surface, who possessed the means to lift off and beg their way onto ships already in orbit around Mars, were the most ruthless of all. They knew the secret: there would soon come a time when the gates of heaven would be closed -- and that day came quickly with fists banging against the outside of ships as they took off after leaving brothers, cousins, friends and servants behind to die of thirst.

These lucky ones told themselves they were safe: these arrogant children who, having lost everything, now sought to grab by force anything within their grasp and cling to it boldly. But life went by, and the tides of change washed over them, seeking to drown the spirit from even these rats. A new demon rose up to wipe them clean from the memory of the inner planets of Sol.

There, huddled within their floating tin boxes, death found them with a snicker. It snuck into their computer systems, providing a gateway for the nanoswarms that had destroyed the world from which they believe they had escaped. And the plague killed their ships, leaving all the humans aboard to freeze to death in the pitiless arms of the stars.


"That light shouldn't be doing that," whispered the man to himself as he flicked a light on the console in front of him. The blink disappeared and the man felt good about himself again. He sat back in his yellow-beige, efficient chair, and thought about lunch. And the light blinked again, more steadily, and brighter it seemed.

Gurney Shellsman would never be remembered by anyone, nor would he go down in history. I only tell you his name for the sake of brevity in this story - the story of the death of 6000 humans who lived briefly in an orbital around Mars, during those most desperate of times -- the decade after the nanoswarms had cleansed the inner planets of life. The orbital's name was the Tharsis Princess.

"What the heck," he whispered to himself again, drawing himself up towards the screen on the console in front of him. It was definitely blinking with a desire to be pushed, and Gurney pushed it, knowing that pushing it could not possibly hurt anything.

The screen came to life with a picture of red rocks, blowing red sand, and the face of a cliff perhaps five kilometers in the background. Of course nothing moved, Mars was dead as a doornail, everyone knew that. It had been almost two Martian years since all life on Mars had been exterminated by the nanoswarms.

"What's happening, console-man?" asked a husky, busy man in back of him, who happened to be walking past.

"Nothing really," he answered, glad in a way for the sudden attention. "This screen came up by itself. It seems to be of the surface."

"Really?" said the tall man, leaning in for a moment to see the distraction. "Well, it's definitely the surface. Totally dead. It's probably just a glitch down there, some camera that suddenly came on and started sending out a live stream. We just happened to pick it up. Did you get coordinates on where it's coming from?"

"Coordinates please, computer," ordered Gurney accepting the implied direction.

"45 degrees south and 60 degrees west," answered the mechanical audio.

"Should I let it run, sir?"

"Aren't you suppose to go to lunch in 15 minutes, console-man?"

"Yes I am, sir," Gurney answered back quickly, not wanting to miss his meal. It may not have been much of a meal, but the small man tended to get the shakes if he didn't eat on a regular basis.

"Well, it probably won't hurt to watch it until your break. Just turn it off before you leave."

"I'll do exactly that," answered the small man, puffing up a little with his official orders. The two other men in his cubicle cal-de-sac nodded at him with approval.

So Gurney sat there, arms folded, staring at a red screen of a very small piece of a dead world. And then something moved. He leaned in closer, but it didn't happen again.

Bold music played, very authoritarian, and Gurney knew it was time to get up from his seat and enter the halls. If all aboard had entered the halls at the same time, no one would be able to get anywhere. So music was used to tell groups of people when to work, when to sleep, when to go to meals. Gurney's group's music was authoritarian. Very loud, very proud. Other groups were programmed to move to waltz music, or an energetic a polka beat, or something jolly.

30 minutes later, Gurney sat in front of the screen, gobbling down a sandwich, with the security manager at his elbow.

"I know I saw something move," Gurney insisted.

"Okay. Well what did it look like?"

"Like the top of someone's head maybe."

His other cubicle-mates slowly moved away from him, knowing this was impossible. There simply was nothing left alive on Mars. "It was probably just a whiff of dust or something," said the manager.

"Do you want me to stop watching then?" asked Guerney.

"No, no. You can continue if you'd like. No use taking any chances, no matter how long the odds against anything being alive down there. I don't really know what we could do if there was something alive, anyways. We're definitely not sending down a shuttle or anything. It might pick up in the nanoswarms virus and bring it back here." The manager looked about nervously. "The rest of you get back to work. Gurney, just try to get a video if you see anything else unusual."

"Will do, sir," said the underling, basking once again in the commander's attention.

400 hours, day two

Gurney Shellsman exchanged pleasantries with his fellow security workers before settling in to watching the screen. His monitoring began with a satellite view from 50 km above 30 degrees north and 75 degrees east. From this height, it seemed he could see the entirety of the planet, though he knew it was just probably just a portion of the surface augmented by the roundness of the lens. He zoomed into the surface features, focusing onto 36 km above the same point. He could see the Marius Valles in all its glory from this height, all 3000 miles of it. He worked the controls to view the region from 18 km above -- and then 9 kilometers above the surface. This was the height at which the odd pictures had presented themselves yesterday. He waited for something to happen, but nothing moved, no light blinked. Gurney began to draw a deep breath and relax.

Suddenly the view shifted by itself. It was the surface of the planet at ground level. But the coordinates weren't the same as yesterday. They seemed to have changed somewhat. Instead of a cliff somewhere in the background, there seemed to be some kind of mountain perhaps, or a volcanic cone. "Coordinates of scene on screen, computer."

"30 degrees North by 27 degrees East."

"That makes absolutely no sense," he whispered, under his breath. "It's a completely different live cam, more that 450 kilometers from the other one."

"What was that, Gurney?" asked the console mate to his left.

"Nothing," said the small man. "Nothing at all." He was drawn in by now. It was a mystery, and it excited him. His life aboard the orbital was boring and drudgery. He neither needed nor wanted any help with solving this unusual glitch.

As if to reward his secrecy, he saw a figure run past. He gasped, hoping afterward that no one had heard him. And then, unexpectedly, the figure was back. It was blurry at first, because of the distance and the red dust obscuring the background. And then it seemed to notice the camera. It was inching closer now, one fearful footstep at a time. Closer, closer, until the thing was in front of the lens, almost putting its nose upon the crystal lens. And he knew why he had been chosen to view this scene: it was the Martian tweak he had left behind to die, a week before he had taken the shuttle to the Tharsis Princess.

It took its right hand and tapped the camera, obviously noting the blinking red light on top of the device. The tweak seemed to say something into the camera, but to hear the voice Guerney knew he would need to actually open the file. He knew he couldn't do that, for fear of nano infection. The swarms had carried rogue code that scrambled vital electronic systems even as the microscopic bots eroded metal and plastic. The bots couldn't reach orbit without a carrier -- but that code could.

Guerney's shock and shame teamed up against him, allowing him to tell no one about the visit. He watched silently as the figure stumbled away into the desert background.

645 hours, day three

“Did you have any more odd visits yesterday?” asked the manager with a chuckle. He was holding a handheld recording machine.

“No, nothing,” lied the small man, not wishing to admit his probable delusion.

“Good, good. Well, let’s stay the course for one more night, and then tomorrow we’ll put you on something else.”

Hours passed slowly now. Lunch came and went with no change.

Suddenly the view shifted. It was now a flat plain -- a place he recognized. It was where he had left the tweak behind, lying to it, telling it that a ship would be back in a couple of days to pick it up.

Two minutes later the figure appeared again, stumbling a bit as it approached the camera as though approaching a siren. Guerney could see its sunken cheeks now. Its frozen eyes were clearly full of tears. It seemed to be shocked to see the live cam’s light blinking. It began to talk now, silently pleading for whoever was watching to do something.

Guerney Shellsman could stand it no longer. He had to hear what the abandoned tweak had to say. He reached over to the screen before him and touched the upper corner to open the file.

The image immediately began to morph into a vision that he was well acquainted with: Chelsa Quentry - the leader of a right-wing cult who had supposedly settled into a rival orbiting habitat. "Join your tweak in hell," demanded the large, balding man on the screen before the computers around him began to crackle and steam.

There was a moment when Guerney wished with all his might that the computer protections their systems were encoded with would stave off the nanovirus. Each Mars orbital had used a combination of very strict quarantine and their own 'locally grown' blue goo, nanobots programmed to neutralize their destructive cousins. The small man would probably have hoped, albeit briefly, that theirs would hold, keeping away the nanoplague that had stolen its way aboard.

But almost before the wish could finish racing across his mind, it was obvious the Tharsis Princess was helpless against the nanovirus. Already the orbital's own nanofabrication facilities had been subverted, spewing out bots that would quickly eat through insulation and airtight seals. Death would come as surely as death always does, as life support went off line, never to return. The final insult was when the nanovirus ate a hole in the hull, a small one, but just large enough to explosively decompress one chamber, and the next, and the next, with no airtight hatches left. The temperature dropped to match the near vacuum outside the ship, 200 degrees below zero, quick freezing the dying, hemorrhaging crew. The hole was plugged within 90 seconds by a desk which would forever seal the tear, but the damage was done.

Some passengers must have waited a few minutes for the end to come, waiting in some corner of the ship to suffocate, waiting in the dark, not knowing that a small man named Guerney Shellsman was the cause of their ultimate demise.

You can see the Tharsis Princess now, as it floats past in the night, just before morning, the orbiting tin can turned meat freezer reflecting the light of distant Sol.


© 2012 Michele Dutcher

Bio: Michele Dutcher has been published in various online magazines including AlienSkin, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. She has a Bachelor of Science from Indiana University with minors in religion, art and social sciences. She lives in a carriage house in Old Louisville, Kentucky with two evil cats, a sweet-natured Border Collie named Miss Dukes, and one possibly depressed ghost. (Let us hope that Miss Dukes is prepared to fend off fiendish plots against her by the aforementioned evil cats.) Ms Dutcher's most recent Aphelion appearance was Of Two Minds, April 2012. As 'bottomdweller', Michele is a frequent contributor to the Aphelion Forum, commenting on other authors' work and entering Nate Kailhofer's monthly flash fiction challenges (with several wins to her credit).

E-mail: Michele Dutcher

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