One Good Turn…
Alan K. Baker
Steinbach and Varin stared down at the fizzing nav panel.
Steinbach bit his nails. “So where are we?”
Varin shook her head. “Navigational data was corrupted when the system went down. We could be anywhere between Procyon and Beta Pictoris.”
Steinbach clambered across the tilted deck to the viewport. “Oh!”
“It’s gorgeous – beaches, bars, an advanced dry dock that could put cutting edge everything in this old bucket.”
Varin hurried over and looked out to a tortured landscape strewn with bizarrely wind-sculpted boulders and ugly, slump-shouldered hills, spattered and smeared with varying shades of grey. Rain sleeted past in near-horizontal sheets. Steinbach turned on the external comms and they heard thrumming like metal pellets as the rain hammered the ship’s hull, driven by roaring, howling winds. Above the twisted horizon, thick banks of gunmetal clouds seethed like smoke from unseen fires, sculpted into outrageous shapes by the relentless wind.
Varin swiveled her head slowly and looked at Steinbach through narrowed eyes.
He shrugged. “We don’t have the credits for cutting edge scissors even. Just trying to lighten the mood.”
“If we had an engineer who wasn’t constantly ‘lightening’ his mood, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten shat out of bulkspace into a nameless hellhole.”
The commlink crackled and a slurred voice roared. “I heard that! The nav computer failed! It’s older than my grandmother. Protocol dropped us into normal spacetime. It’s not my fault where. We just didn’t have the angular momentum for stable orbit. At least we landed in one piece.”
“No, Wayman, we buckled a landing strut. You and Steinbach will be going out to repair it. And looking at the atmosphere…” Varin bent over a console. Sensors tasted the outside air, detected various bacteria and other microscopic organisms, pondered the various chemical flavors, and reported that air within safe operating parameters. “Oh, look’s like the air and rain’ll corrode you the first minute out.”
Steinbach waved his hands. “Hey, that hill just moved!”
Varin snorted. “’Look, a diversion?’”
“Sure. Okay, so no corrosives in the air. Nothing to compromise hull integrity or airlock seals. Or suits. But winds about Beaufort scale 8, and temp about 4ºC – a picnic.”
“Funny, Varin. I’ll go check the cargo and prep the suits.”
“And don’t taste test any of Wayman’s ‘rocket fuel’.”
Steinbach slunk off.
Varin looked again through the viewport. She was just turning away when something caught her eye. She leaned forward, face almost touching the port. She could have sworn one of the hills did move… growing briefly and then diminishing again, like a grey, warped balloon inflating and deflating … or a lung breathing in and out.
She shook her head. Nah. A trick of the wind and rain..
Steinbach descended the narrow companionway to the cargo hold, thumbed the control stud and waited while the hatch creaked open in fits and starts. Like a multitude of other things on the ship, repairs awaited luck deciding to be on their side for a change.
Positive attitude, Ray, he told himself. She’ll get us out of this.
He didn’t like to admit it, but Freya Varin was the brains of the operation. It was Freya who had negotiated the fee for hauling the consignment of CO2 scrubbers to the private research station on Sidaris; she had filed their flight plan with Procyon Traffic Control, coding the entry to fool the AI into thinking their ship was carrying duty-free cargo. She had hustled them up and down the Orion Arm for the last ten years, keeping their small enterprise afloat.
Contrary to their usual luck, the cargo was in good shape: no slippage or breakage, the sturdy duralene containers still sealed and strapped down properly. He checked and prepped the EV suits, then headed aft to the engine room to smooth things over with Wayman: the drive probably was older than his grandmother. And maybe there was time for a taste of that ‘rocket fuel’ Wayman brewed.
Varin was at the viewport when Steinbach ambled back in. Stock still, staring out at the landscape.
“Come look at this.”
“Okay, I don’t… … oh… It’s moving! I told you it moved! Why the hell is it moving, Freya?”
“I thought it was a trick of the wind and rain, but it happened again, and now…”
And now the hill, perhaps a hundred meters distant, was pulsating in a way that made Steinbach’s skin crawl—rising, falling, expanding, contracting, quivering now and then,, as if it were…
“Alive,” Steinbach shouted. “It’s alive!”
“Indigenous life form,” Varin whispered.
As they watched in appalled fascination, the sides of the pulsating hill began changing color. Weirdly prismatic hues flashed, bleeding into each other, combining and exploding in bizarre flowerings that flowed like glowing liquid.
“It looks like…” Varin hesitated.
“Light-reflecting cells with colors that can be changed by the organism. Most planets with life have them.”
“So why has it started to change color? Has it noticed us.? Does it… want to eat us?”
A vision swam into his mind of the hill oozing across the boulder-strewn landscape and engulfing the ship, dissolving the metal, reaching the soft meat inside…
And then he thought of the ship’s only armament, an ageing plasma cannon. “Is the cannon online?”
Varin checked. “Yes. Why?”
“So we can blast it.”
“You want to attack it.”
“Hell yes, I want to attack it! Before it attacks us!”
“Without knowing if it’s hostile. Without knowing if it’s even capable of hurting us. Without knowing if there are more of them out there, and how they’d react to one of their buddies getting fried?”
Steinbach shrugged. “So you want to just wait for it to … to… do whatever it’s going to do? And with our luck you know it’s going to do something.”
“It may be trying to communicate,” said Varin. “Some animals use chromatophores to show anger, fear, contentment … the desire to mate.”
“I really wish you hadn’t mentioned that last one. We should blast it.”
Varin sighed. “We’re not going to kill something just because it looks weird. How about you just complete the diagnostics on the ship’s systems and see if there’s anything else we need to worry about.”
Steinbach nodded glumly and got to work, while Varin continued to repair the panels and observe the ‘hill’. The strange shapes and colors continued to chase each other across its surface. If it were trying to communicate, what might the message be?
Welcome to my world?
Stay the hell away from me?
What do you taste like?
She gave silent, ironic thanks to Steinbach for that last possibility; and grudgingly conceded, it was one they would be wise to keep in mind.
She looked at the hills farther off, obscured by wind and rain, and wondered if they were like this one.
How many of you are there? And what are you? A single, massive organism? A colony of smaller ones, like coral?
She glanced at Steinbach, who was bent over a large display screen, muttering to himself. Then she fired up the ship’s ground-penetrating radar, angling the transmitter towards the hill.
The big survey ships had elaborate and sophisticated sensor tech, but even after centuries, basic GPR was still a trusted method of subsurface imaging. And basic was all Varin and Steinbach could afford.
The GPR completed its cycle, and Varin stared at the results.
The hill had a massively complex internal structure. She enhanced the image as much as the software would allow, but the intricacy of the hill’s interior went beyond the GPR’s imaging capability. All the same, she could discern countless filaments, pipes, nodules and fractal-like shapes hidden within the object’s huge, mounded bulk.
She poured over the image, noting three roughly spherical structures, each nestled within a branching network of delicate filaments.
Brains? Does that thing have three brains? Or… stomachs?
The screen showed thick tendrils extending into the surface regolith from the object’s gently-curved underside. Drawing nutrients? A plant analog… or fungus… There might be thousands or millions of these things dotted across the planet’s surface.
Still pondering, Varin went back to the viewport. She gasped.
An opening had appeared in the side of the hill, long and thin and vertical, and fringed with delicate, quivering fronds of pink and purple. Varin gazed at it in fascination.
It reminded her of…
Unconsciously, her hand drifted slowly toward her crotch.
Something appeared in the hill’s opening, widening it, slowly squeezing its way through…
She hadn’t heard Steinbach come across the flight deck to stand beside her, and his voice in her ear made her start.
“It’s giving birth!” he said with a mixture of wonder and disgust.
“That’s what it looks like,” Varin said.
A multicolored glob flopped to the ground in front of the hill. The vertical orifice that had disgorged it closed and appeared to reseal itself.
But the glob wasn’t just a glob. There were flailing tentacles and clusters of slowly waving cilia, twitching frond-like antennae and black, glassy nodules that might be eyes. The thing appeared to be completely encased by a glistening, transparent membrane, like a birth caul. It was still connected to the parent entity by a thick, pulsating cord.
“What a nightmare,” Steinbach whispered.
“No,” Varin said. “Just very different, Did you complete the diagnostics?”
“Yeah. We’re in better shape than I thought. The spaceframe is slightly bent, but integrity’s 98.73 percent. When we hit the ground, the autonomous flight systems were knocked out by the energy of the impact. It’ll take maybe an hour for them to reboot and auto diagnose.”
“What about the nav system?”
“Wayman’s making headway. He’s actually a pretty decent engineer…”
“When he’s not drinking what he brews. How long before it’s up and running?”
“A couple of hours maybe.”
“Okay, so in two hours or so we’ll be spaceworthy. It may not be the best idea to go outside and repair that buckled strut…”
“Amen to that. You think the lifters can compensate?”
Varin looked down at the tilted deck. “We’re not too far off center.”
Steinbach looked out the viewport. “Um…”
“Your little friend’s coming toward us.”
Trailing its umbilical cord, the hideous glob had lifted itself up on several tentacles and was slowly approaching, its cilia and antennae twitching and whipping back and forth, the black, glassy nodules of its “eyes” apparently fixed on the ship. It wavered and paused frequently, lowering itself to the ground and then rising again on wobbling tentacles, moving unsteadily from side to side.
“It looks as if it’s weak,” Varin said.
“Well,” said Steinbach. “if it’s only just been born…Maybe we could give it a quick blast from the starboard lifter. Just to let it know not to come any closer.”
Varin stared at him. “It’s just been born and you want to incinerate it?”
“Just warn it.”
“It’s flesh. We don’t know what kind, but flesh all the same. Even a half-second burst would turn it to ash.”
The glob was now within ten meters of the ship. It appeared to hesitate for a few seconds, then continued.
“It’s going to try to get in,” Steinbach said. “It’s just been born, it’s hungry, and it knows we’re in here!”
“Shut up, Ray.”
“Shut up and let me think!”
The glob had now moved out of sight beneath the lower edge of the viewport.
“It’s under the ship,” said Varin. “External cams online.” They threw a few switches, and the main viewplate flared to life, showing the glob approaching the buckled landing strut.
“It’s going to try to get in through the strut well.” Steinbach turned to Varin. “You should have let me blast the son of a black hole.”
“It’s a newborn,” said Varin.
“It’s at least two meters across!”
Wayman’s voice came through on the commlink. “Guys… um… I’ve got some bad news.”
“Oh, that’s different!” said Varin. “What is it?”
“Looks like I was wrong about the nav computer. The AI just underwent a cascade collapse.”
Varin and Steinbach looked at each other.
“So it can’t be fixed; the entire matrix will have to be replaced?” asked Varin.
“It’s fried. The quantum pathways have completely de-cohered. It couldn’t even be repaired in a dry dock.” He paused. “So… um… how are things going up there?”
“Great,” Steinbach replied. “We’ve got a large and possibly hostile alien life form trying to get in through one of the landing strut wells.”
“But why doesn’t it use the hatch?”
Varin was thinking furiously. How to gently make it back off the hull…. One of the few things spacecraft had in common with ocean-going vessels was hulls needing periodic cleansing of magnetic field remnants. A maritime ship picked up magnetism from the planet itself, a spacecraft got it through plasma turbulence in the electrically charged soup of ions and electrons permeating space. A strong enough magnetic field could interfere with a spacecraft’s electrical systems, so…
She turned to Steinbach. “Are the degaussing coils still operational?”
He frowned at her. “You want to degauss the hull? Now?“
Varin waited for the penny to drop.
Steinbach let out a slow “Aaaah.” He checked. “Yes, for once we’re in luck.”
“Start with a short pulse and low current. A mild shock. Mild.”
Steinbach set the current to 0.01 amps.
“Ray! Something that wouldn’t be painful to a human.
He shrugged, reset the dial, and flipped the switch.
Varin looked at the main viewplate. The creature had twisted several tentacles around the landing strut, as if to start climbing. She saw it react as the degaussing field pulsed. It quivered, appeared to hesitate, and then resumed its efforts.
“Increase the amperage,” she told Steinbach. “Increments of point one. Another pulse.”
Steinbach complied. “Anything?”
She shook her head. “Again.”
Another pulse, stronger.
The creature released its grip on the landing strut. Varin smiled.
The smile faded as it threw even more tentacles around the strut.
“By the way, Freya, even if this works… we’re still down one nav computer. We can’t enter bulkspace without it; we’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Once we’re off planet, we’ll send a distress signal and wait to be picked up by Procyon Search/Rescue or Traffic Control.”
“What!?” said Steinbach. “They can search ships in distress. And we’ve got a hold full of CO2 scrubbers not on the manifest. That’s heavy fines; maybe license suspension.”
“Not if we dump the cargo and vaporize it.”
“So we’ll have to pay for the rescue team, and refund our haulage fee…”
“And we’ll have to reimburse them for the scrubbers,” added Varin.
“We’ll have to take out a loan on the ship,” said Steinbach.
“And, we haven’t paid off the last one.”
Wayman’s voice boomed directly in back of them. “Do I still get paid?”
Steinbach jumped. “Why aren’t you… fixing something?”
“Nothing fixable left, and if aliens are coming I don’t want to be the guy alone getting eaten.”
Varin eyed him as he wavered slightly and stared out the port. “You’re safe unless they like their food soaked in rocket fuel.”
Steinbach increased amperage by point five and gave the glob another jolt… “It’s clinging on even tighter!”
“Maybe it feeds on electrical current.”
“You mean we’re making it stronger?” Steinbach shouted.
“If it’s energy it wants,” said Wayman, “there’s a hell of a lot more in our batteries than in the degaussing coils. They could drink us dry, and we’ll never get off this rock.”
“Then let’s hope we’re giving them all they want,” said Varin. “Just keep increasing the amperage” She watched closely as pulses of current surged across the ship’s outer hull and undercarriage. And still the creature held on, quivering and pulsating in downright unspeakable ways. She noticed that the umbilical cord had also begun to pulsate, as if it were feeding electrical energy back to its parent.
There were extremophiles all across the Arm, metabolizing outrageous chemicals in environments lethal to most carbon-based life forms. Bacteria that consumed and excreted electrons. But Varin had never heard of anything this size doing that.
With each increase in amperage the thing threw more tentacles around the strut, and the umbilical cord pulsated more quickly.
“Come on,” Varin whispered. “Eat your fill and leave us alone!”
Something moved at the edge of the camera’s field of view. Varin angled it to the left, and watched in dismay as another entity joined the first. From the viewport, Wayman announced the hill had disgorged a third glob, which was also making its way toward the ship.
She ran another cycle on the GPR, and saw that the hill no longer contained the three spherical structures she had seen earlier.
They weren’t brains, and they weren’t stomachs. So they were offspring. Or maybe … occupants? Was the hill a creature that had just given birth, or was it a dwelling? But if the first creature was pumping energy back to it through the umbilical cord…
“It’s a ship,” she said.
“Are you crazy?” Steinbach laughed. “How could a glob covered in tentacles build a ship?”
“What’s so crazy about a life form nothing like us, using ships nothing like ours? We haven’t explored even a billionth of the galaxy, Ray. We have no idea what’s out there.”
The second entity clung to the landing strut with equal tenacity. The third disappeared from view. Varin searched the other external cameras.
“What?” demanded Steinbach.
“The third one’s up on the hull. It’s at the main airlock.” Varin peered at the viewplate.
“It’s messing with the controls!” said Wayman. ”it’s trying to open the hatch!”
“Yah, we’re breaking out the plasma pistols,” said Steinbach, “Or would you rather I just went and waved hello?”
Varin sighed. “Go ahead. But set the plasma at minimum — if those things eat energy, I’m not sure how much good they’ll do. And you’d better get going. It’s just opened the outer hatch.”
Steinbach and Wayman moved slowly along the corridor towards the main airlock.
The inner hatch opened with a quiet hiss. The glob slithered in.
Shouting at the top of their voices, they fired.
The creature absorbed the glowing red bolts as if they were a ray of gentle sunshine, and began to move toward them.
Wayman dropped his gun. Steinbach set force to maximum and shot again. The glob continued toward them. Wayman held his hip flask out to it, mouth open in a rictus of terror.
Steinbach ran, yanking Wayman along with him. They nearly fell as the deck lurched. Nebulas! he thought. They’re trying to topple the ship!
Varin’s voice came through on the commlink. “Ray! Wayman! Don’t shoot it. The two outside just repaired the landing strut.”
“Notice we’re level now?”
They stopped running and looked down at the deck.
“The globs… extruded things… tools, I guess. They realigned the pistons–“
“That’s not possible.”
“But it happened. Maybe they’re enhanced, biomechanical… Where’s the one that got in?”
Steinbach took a peek around the corner. He saw his own reflection in one of the glob’s black eye-nodules, about an inch away from his face.
“Not far,” he whimpered.
“Get out of Its way and let It do whatever It’s going to do.”
“What if It’s going to eat us?”
“They consume energy, not flesh. We gave them what they needed, Ray,” she said. “And now, maybe they’re giving us what we need.”
The creature moved slowly through the ship, tentacles slapping on the deck plates, antennae twitching and quivering, as if tasting the air…
Or maybe, thought Varin as she joined the others following the glob’s progress, looking for something?
“It’s heading for the stern,” whispered Steinbach.
“Toward the drive section,” Varin replied. “And the nav computer.”
“A nav computer isn’t fixed like a landing strut,” said Wayman.
“All the same,” said Varin, “let’s just leave It be.”
The glob continued through to the drive section, paused to suck dry the contents of an ill-hidden distiller, ignoring the strangled gurgles of protest from Wayman, then went straight for the squat cylinder at the center of the room. The cylinder’s screens and status lights were dark.
The creature settled its bulk onto the deck, its antennae and cilia waving back and forth slowly, gracefully, like ribbons of seaweed in a gentle ocean current. It extruded a small pseudopod, which split open to reveal a bewilderingly complex network of glittering filaments. As they watched in increasing amazement, the filaments extended and penetrated the side of the cylinder. The creature shifted a little, and its eye-nodules turned this way and that, as if pondering what it had found.
“It didn’t even open an inspection panel,” said Steinbach. “Those things went straight through the duralene casing.”
“Like some kind of molecular manipulators,” Varin mused.
After a few moments, the computer’s display panels and status lights winked on. The glob rose up on its tentacles and left the drive section.
Steinbach rushed to the computer and examined the displays. “Freya … the quantum pathways have re-cohered … the glob fixed it.”
“Re-plot a course for Sidaris,” Varin said. “We’re back in business!”
“No. Wait. It didn’t fix it. It made it better.”
“Better than cutting edge better. And… and not just the nav. All systems We’re better than… anything out there!”
They followed the glob back to the main airlock. As the inner door slid shut, they all called out, “Thank you!”
The glob ignored them.
The Palkamshett, the Maderaal and the Almugota watched from the planet’s surface as the freighter fired its lifters and began to rise into the stormy sky.
<A noble species,> said the Almugota over their subvocal link.
<But a strange one,> replied the Palkamshett. <Difficult to believe that such a limited physical form — with a primitive endoskeleton, if such a thing can be believed! — should be capable of constructing a star-walker.>
<Star-walker?> said the Maderaal. <That thing is barely a star crawler; but I concede your point. All the same, their level of intelligence is rather low, wouldn’t you say?>
<I would remind you that their level of intelligence saved us,> said the Almugota. <Although I am not certain how they knew we were stranded, that our energy reserves had become depleted, or how to replenish them for us. Their sensing technology would appear to be unequal to the task. How did they know what we needed, or that we could gather it from the outer skin of their star-walker?>
<A mystery,> declared the Palkamshett. <But they gave it freely, and liberally–that much is certain. Perhaps we shall meet their kind again, in the fullness of time, and a great and long-lasting friendship will develop between our species.>
<Perhaps,> said the Maderaal. <They did share a very refreshing chemical concoction whose formula I have stored for future use. But I suspect that their physical repulsiveness would be difficult to come to terms with.>
<I take it their artificial navigator was easy to repair,> said the Almugota.
<A trifling matter,> replied the Maderaal, <doubtless as easy as repairing the outer damage.>
<Indeed,> affirmed the other two.
<And what of this world? Our first acquaintance with it has been rather unfortunate, but there is no denying its beauty.>
<I believe we should report it as fit for colonization,> said the Palkamshett.
<Agreed,> said the Almugota. <I shall be sorry to leave, and I fully intend to return soon, for it is indeed an exquisite world.>
“One Good Turn…” © Alan K. Baker. First published here on Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, 4/24/21
Alan K. Baker is a British expat living on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He has published six novels with independent presses in the United Kingdom, including The Lighthouse Keeper, a supernatural thriller inspired by the Flannan Isles mystery; the Blackwood & Harrington Steampunk mysteries; and The Martian Falcon, a Dieselpunk noir adventure. His latest novel, the SF thriller Dyatlov Pass, was published by Lume Books last year. He also has a story forthcoming from Analog.
illustration by Fran Eisemann