Moving through the water this deep down takes an effort, every step means I’m pushing my body forward under tonnes of pressure. Yet still, I walk. It’s undeniably beautiful down here. I didn’t expect that the water would be so clear, even half a mile down. The advantage of this sea is that it’s on a moon, and we’re close enough to the massive gas giant it orbits that I can still just about see the fiery glow above which survives as a blue glow, as well as the natural pink emanations down here. The whole sea floor is crusted with a kind of coral which moves faintly in the current and constantly sprinkles pink light into the waves. A walk across this seabed wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for having nowhere to walk back to. It’s something I’m trying quite hard not to think about, but now that I’ve thought about it I can’t quite push it out of mind. Alright, the basic details at least: the lunar sea station; we’re new. Oddly no one had thought about combining the two most lethal environments for humans until now, or at least no one had said yes before: underwater, in space. There’s plenty to study, since our main experience of the sea is at Earth gravity, moderated a little by the Moon. Up here the gravity is way lower, but we’ve got a huge gas giant right next door throwing its weight into the mix. And there’s life here, so it’s all kinds of special. It was exciting, and interesting, and deadly dull – all the things you would expect at a research base. I didn’t mind that, anything was better than the fractious geopolitical landscape we’d been permitted to escape from for a few years. It was hard, knowing that we were millions of miles away from home, but that our standard of living was probably higher than most of those we’d left behind. So that was all fine. The early encounters with the shreds of life in the lunar sea were as you’d expect – we’d grab a bucketful of sea water and sieve through it to see what was inside. There was plenty of microscopic life, plus the corals that are around me now, and a few species of slightly larger worms and what might one day grow up to be molluscs, or something like that anyway. It was weeks before anything went wrong, and given that the disaster recovery plans had begun with an assumption that catastrophic failure was most likely in the first three days, we felt things were going well. It was when we started drinking the water – filtered, irradiated, basically turned back into its component atoms and reorganised into straight H20 that everything started sliding sideways. The first thing I noticed was that everything felt like velvet – either all textures from skin to plastic had become soft, or there was something wrong with my hands. I was the first to mention it, but everyone else got it too. There was nothing obviously wrong with our skin, but increasingly even the breeze of the air conditioner felt like a fold of velvet being brushed across my arms. Some kind of nerve damage, but the fact that we were all suffering it made it hard to do much about. There was the sense that like velvet, I could squeeze, press and stroke all these definitely not-soft objects. Weird, compelling. We had to tape up Andersson’s hands after she couldn’t help stroking the sharp edges of knives in the kitchen. Like I said, strangely alluring. We made do as best we could, redoubled the brutality of the water processing, but it was already too late. The velvet feel got inside us too. Eating and drinking were both nauseating and ecstatic – the sickening feel of wet velvet in your mouth combined with the sheer delight of its soft brushing delving deeper inside you. Breathing is like being between two sheets of velvet, each being dragged slowly in the opposite direction. It became hard to focus on anything, as even blinking became another textured experience. We had to set reminders to moisturise, shower, use eye drops because the compulsion to touch, to stroke and press was too strong. Red raw skin that still demanded to be stroked, sore dry eyes, chafed skin all over. We’d been virtually immobilised, simply by the warping of our sense of touch. Jens, the lead botanical researcher, discovered that he could use local anaesthetic to stop the velvet sensation, but then he also couldn’t feel whatever he’d anaesthetised either… The warning sirens jerked me out of my haze, cocooned in blankets pulled as tightly as I could manage to limit the damage I’d do to myself. The panic and urgency distracted me from the feel of the floor under my feet as I ran. Jens had somehow ended up in the deep sea airlock. He wasn’t wearing a suit, but he was avidly stroking the thick glass door that led into the ocean. He didn’t respond to our entreaties to come back inside, and even though we hit the automatic overrides, there’s always a manual override of that, just in case you know something the computer doesn’t. The pressure squeezed him flat as soon as the outer door opened, and he was whisked off into the ocean. Jens was the first, but he missed the next stage of infection. Tiny nodules formed under my skin. They still felt like velvet to my fingers, but inside they felt hard, like dull needles rubbing against my muscles and bones. There seemed to be nothing we could do to stop their progress, and when Andersson painstakingly cut some out of my arm they looked like nothing so much as tiny teeth. Before long they were growing in all of us. Decisions needed to be made. We were far too far away from rescue. We’d long since notified home of what we were experiencing, and they were none to keen to have us back. It seemed likely we’d live or die here on our own. Exposing others to this infection made no sense, but it redoubled the feeling of being alone, of failure, of hopelessness. We could kill ourselves, en masse, if we wished. There was no shortage of drugs and chemical combinations that would do for us, but we couldn’t come to any agreement on what we’d do or that we all wanted to. Some took their own lives, cleanly, bloodily, with whatever made sense to them in the moment. I couldn’t blame them, though it grew lonely. Before long it was just me and Andersson sitting in the kitchen, bandaged and taped up where we’d been unable to resist touching, worn and bloody-looking. I could see the growing teeth pressing up all around her face between her skull and skin. She told me she had a plan. She was going to open all the airlock doors and flood the base, make the whole thing as unrecoverable and unappealing as possible. When I asked what she was going to do with herself, she said she was staying. Or would be for about ten seconds anyway, once the pressure equalised. I still wasn’t ready for that, but I said that was fine, just give me time to suit up. Andersson helped me into the deep sea suit, the teeth in my forearms and shoulders grating on the heavy suit, sending waves of goosebumps up and down my back. There wasn’t anything else to do but leave. Andersson didn’t even watch me go, just headed back inside to start on her plan. I walked. Heavy, and soft. I’ve been picking up the pink colour that the coral gives off, and looking at my hands and legs I’m as pink as they are now. When I look closer it’s obvious that the pink colouring is just more coral – I’m being colonised – and the pink grit crunches between my fingers. There’s nowhere for me to go but forward, deeper into the depths. Eventually, there’s so much coral on my legs and hips that I can’t walk anymore and I fall, slowly and finally onto the sea floor. The glass front of my helmet feels like velvet against my forehead, even as the hard lumps inside grate. I think I’ll stay here, I think I’ve become something’s new home.
“Just keep running,” Michael panted, casting his words over his shaking shoulders at the gaggle of children following close behind. Mostly close, some were falling back further and further, just