by Edward Ashton
You're peeling back your inner gloves, aching in every muscle after a twelve-hour shift, when you feel a faint pressure against the inside of your left wrist where the thick latex is doubled over. You barely have time to register the sensation before it disappears with a soft pop, and a cloud of tiny motes appears around your hand, sparkling in the harsh white lights of the decontamination room. Your heart lurches and you yank your hand back, but it's a spastic movement, directed by your terrified lizard-brain rather than the part of you that thinks, and those few centimeters of exposed skin at your wrist pass through the cloud before you stagger backward, cradling your arm to your chest. You look down to see a thin dusting of gray specks on your skin, then feel a brief, almost-painful tingling as they disappear, leaving behind an angry-looking scattering of tiny red bumps.
You stare at the pattern of spots, frozen, until they begin to form red constellations against your sweat-grimed skin. The burner is less than two meters away. Will charring up to the elbow be enough? You try to think back to your training, but your mind is a howling void. Has it been ten seconds yet? Twenty? How long does it take the nanos to worm their way into an artery? You should probably go all the way to the shoulder now, but you still haven't moved. You've seen what the burner does to an arm or a leg before, and a tiny voice inside your head is whispering that all you need to do is wait. Just a few more seconds now, and there won't be any point. You won't have to do it at all.
A voice speaks in your ear now, a loud voice, caught halfway between boredom and alarm. It's the duty officer, asking if there's something wrong. He can see you standing there staring at your wrist, of course, but he must have missed the spore pod bursting under the pressure of your folded-over glove, must have missed the spreading cloud of dust.
Not his fault, really. You missed it too. The pods are everywhere out there by now, encysted, clinging to the walls of buildings, to the interiors of abandoned cars, to the cans of food and bottles of water you were sent out to scavenge. You think back, try to remember when your outer glove might have gotten pulled back just a centimeter or two, when a gap might have opened up that let the pod sneak in between the protective layers, in where the bath of solvents that doused you before you were allowed in the first lock couldn't find it.
"Hey," the duty officer says. "Seriously, is there a problem? Do we need to run a second-pass decontamination?"
You look up at the camera mounted above the inner door. Second pass decontamination. A polite way of asking whether you'd like to be incinerated.