by James Victor
I picked the creature up with my tongs and it wriggled like a little girl being tickled. I held it close to my visor and willed the HUD out of the way. Convergent evolution had made the mustard slink look extremely similar to the smaller side-blotched lizard of Earth, but they were unrelated. The mustard slinks had a uniform colour, that of yellow, for camouflage, and apparently produced live young. This one’s bulging belly told me that it was female and expecting, but a true scientist never trusts his own judgement. One of my metallic mosquitos buzzed in and settled on the writhing lizard. It took a sample.
Less than a second later my HUD confirmed it, I had found the first pregnant mustard slink known to science. I dropped it carefully into the vivisector and watched as the trap door clicked shut. Words and numbers and diagrams danced across my HUD and red juices and tiny lizard claws marred the trap door’s transparent surface. Organs, bones and babies were sorted and ejected into three separate vacuum sealed bags. I would bear them back to my pod with pride.
A pregnant lizard, an example of convergent evolution and as such similar yet dissimilar to a species of Earth the Dead or some other planet, would get me a definite Footnote in The Journal. The relief I initially felt was soon replaced by the sort of melancholy that comes only when one has just achieved the same goal that one has achieved many times before, and expects to achieve many more times in the future. And never expects to achieve anything greater. For finding something more, something worth a Bracket or, Dead God willing, a Paragraph, was not a matter of skill but a matter of luck. A lottery on which many had staked their career as a Galactic Surveyor.
Feeling a sudden despondency, I turned the artificial colour and HUD off and was greeted by the bleak and limited view that human eyes were able to see of JJ4571, the ‘Mustardworld’. Weak, sour sunlight. Rocks the colour of spilt, milkless coffee. Clouds of yellow that drifted lazily like corrosive silk wafted by a sadistic geisha. It was a world where the air itself could melt your lungs out in a red mess but I was safe in my Omnisuit. At least I would be for another hour.
I picked a direction. East. And I walked. For a few minutes I wanted to be a real human, not a suit driven by one. I’ve never felt that way since. I never knew that being lost could be so liberating. The bags of lizard innards sloshed against my leg and the closest of my mosquitoes buzzed around my suit, checking for chlorine damage. It found moderate signs, but nothing too alarming. My suit chirped an intrusive update from the vivisector. It had strained the lizards innards and found a previously unknown enzyme. Two Footnotes in one specimen. I was double average.
The Mustardworld was treacherous without visual enhancement. I couldn’t see clearly beyond around three metres and everything else was a ghostly yellow shadow. It was unsettling, but then the unknown usually is. Beyond that poison cloud or that dip in the landscape could be a pregnant lizard worth two Footnotes or there could be a fissure in the planet’s dead surface worth a couple of broken legs. I walked like this for perhaps twenty minutes before I became curious at how far I had come and turned my HUD back on.
My mosquitoes had discovered a structure in the chlorine mists and, as I wandered on in a daze trying to decipher the numbers and words racing before my eyes, I saw it.
It emerged from the yellow clouds like a lost temple from a steaming Amazonian jungle but in reality it was a squat, unimpressive structure, black and pockmarked with strange white-green spots of alien rust. I drew closer to it and saw words stencilled on the side, ‘Settlement DY1181, John Philpot and family.’ Although the settlement probe looked ancient, the recent scorch marks showed me that it had probably just fallen from the sky some six months to a year previously. After a brief search I found the launch registration number carved into its side. My HUD told me it had only landed seven months ago. I fantasized briefly that I had stumbled across a first or second generation settler probe, a thousand years old and full of the skeletons of some brave pioneers, lost to an oxygen leak or a malfunctioning thruster. It was a useless, already contradicted dream. I then fantasized that the rust on its side would be some new strain of metal devouring bacteria, unknown to man. Such a discovery would have great practical value but when I scraped it I found that one of my comrades had scraped another settlement the week before and his name was already Bracketed.
I walked around the settlement twice before knocking on the door, such was the practice when approaching such isolated pioneers. A security orb blinked dully from its pole as I passed. I saw no signs of irrigation (obviously, but then you always expect to see the great clichés), but I did see a vast transparent cone of light plastic that seemed to drift up into the sky of its own accord, like someone had made a life-size model of a benign tornado. I looked closely and saw moisture trickle down it like a great funnel, distilled from the air.
When I knocked on the door it took almost a minute for it to open. Pirates and rumours of pirates were all one heard of in this arm of space, which proved the pioneers to be at least as fanciful as I. What would pirates want with simple settlers on the Mustardworld when there were mega cargoes of precious metals and polymers not six months away?
‘Enter, friend,’ a man’s voice rasped through the intercom and I was surprised to hear something communicate with me that I was not wearing. Why hadn’t I heard the voice from my suit? Was my Omnisuit incompatible with their settlement? I stepped into the airlock and it closed behind with a clunk. I felt like I had stepped into a giant vivisector. I dreaded to think what people such as these would do for protein. I imagined my organs in a vacuum sealed bag, swinging from a giant’s belt.
‘I’m Kalam,’ I said, ‘I’m with the Galactic Survey.’ I looked at the plexiglass, but I couldn’t see anything beyond it. I could see that it was not opaque, but in the portion of the room beyond which my LED illuminated, admittedly not much, there was nothing. No furniture, no people. ‘May I trouble you for a battery pack and perhaps some food?’
Perhaps it seems unusual that I would ask that of a stranger on a world far from civilization, but it is a time-honoured tradition on frontier worlds, that of providing food and shelter for strangers with credentials. Especially if that stranger was from the Galactic Survey, whom always repaid debts many times over to ensure good treatment of its personnel. The Omnisuit buzzed and blinked lights as the settlement’s AI finally connected with it. The HUD told me that my identification had been confirmed as a member of the Survey and seemed pleased to tell me so, although I was no doubt projecting my own emotions onto it. It is more common than you may think for a Surveyor to make friends of his equipment. It is one of our danger signs.
The lights came on behind the plexiglass and I saw them then, a man, a woman and a boy of perhaps eight sol years. The man stood in the middle, the others on either side. Their skin had turned an angry pink, irritated by air imperfectly reclaimed from the planet’s atmosphere. They didn’t appear to have breathing problems, however. Perhaps they had used portable rebreathers during an equipment malfunction. They wore the one piece jumpsuit of the settler caste, grey to hide the grime that comes with a life of toil. They didn’t smile. ‘Welcome, Kalam,’ the man said, and the boy absently put a hand on his fathers leg.
There was a ping as the airlock pressurised. My suit told me that the air was within breathable variables and, in spite of the look of the settlers, would not do me any damage. I removed my headgear whilst still in the airlock as a show of faith and a second later I was allowed into the settlement proper by the man’s spoken command to the AI.
The woman took my head gear without a word and didn’t return my smile. The boy stared at me from his father’s side. ‘You must be Mr Philpot,’ I said, reaching for the man’s hand.
‘Yeah,’ he said, and took it with some reluctance. ‘I’m John. This one’s John Junior and my wife’s called Mary. Pleased to have you.’ He gestured toward the door that his wife had walked through and I followed, finding myself in a kitchen unit. It was bare and functional, like everything in the settlement. The only ornament was a picture on the wall, an ancient picture of Earth the Dead from orbit. As a man who had made his life’s work travelling to inhospitable worlds and cataloguing the strange life forms he finds there, the life forms I have found strangest have always been the men and women who chose to live on such a planet. At least after my stationing I get to return to a relatively comfortable world with vegetation and wild protein and at least basic pleasure facilities; such things are a dream to these people. They will eat their meat out of packets dropped on their heads, supplement it with an algae they grow in tanks and consider it good fare. They will never run through fields or swim in a lake, or even a swimming pool. They will never feel wind on their bare skin and when their son reaches twenty-five he could be taken away and given a wife and dropped on another world. Unless, of course, the world the boy was born on proved to be profitable, in which case they would ship a wife in.
No, it was the Surveyors’ life for me.
‘It’s a striking world, isn’t it?’
My opening gambit at conversation was met with blank stares. John glanced up at the picture of Mother Earth on the wall and guessed that I was talking about that. ‘Wouldn’t know,’ he said, pulling up a chair and gesturing that I do the same. ‘Never been.’
‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘I mean this one. The Mustardworld.’
The table was a bland, cold steel, mined from the veins of a world fifty years away, as the spacecrow flies, yet it perfectly replicated the expressions of my hosts. ‘Aye. Striking.’ The man said.
‘There’s a certain beauty that comes only with danger. I’ve been here for three weeks and I must say I’ve never seen anything so… Yes, striking is exactly the word.’ Striking was the only word I could think of that could describe the planet yet didn’t have any obvious negative connotations. ‘The chlorine is deadly, of course, but it floats with such grace. And it is only deadly if you do not have the technology that we have, of course. It is like silk wafted by a geisha. It has a certain aesthetic value, is all I’m saying.’
None of the family knew what silk or geishas were and the man was looking at me as if I was a machine having a minor malfunction. His son stared at me openly and it was a moment before I noticed that not only was his wife, Mary, cooking the meal herself but she was doing it quite badly. I understood the etiquette, that it was politer in settler circles to cook for guests yourself rather than use a servitor, besides it gave them something to do with their time, but this was an unusual way of cooking. She was cooking not just to cook, but to try and block out the conversation. Of course, I didn’t realise that at the time, as I had not yet been found a wife.
‘Don’t know about geishas and silk and all that,’ John said, ‘all I know is that chlorine ain’t the best thing to raise a kid on.’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ I said. ‘But I’m sure that it’s a perfectly… Stimulating environment once you get used to it.’ I thought of the featureless, sterile surface of the planet outside and wondered if I’d crossed the line into patronisation.
‘There’s no getting used to it. You get used to it and it’ll kill you.’ There was a hardness to his voice now yet his shoulders were stooped. His eyes were on his wife’s back, who had stopped stirring to sniff to herself. ‘On old Earth, the planet that was, they used to use this stuff in weapons, you know? Chlorine. Used to drop cans of the stuff on each other to blind and kill each other. And they called it mustard gas. Isn’t that a laugh? And this here is the Mustardworld. And we gotta live in it. Stimulating’s not the word.’
I’d clearly made a faux-pas but I couldn’t say what it was. Usually a settler’s opinion of the world he or she inhabits is entirely positive, at least to outsiders. They are a hardy sort. No matter how grim and dangerous it is, the slightest criticism is taken as a jibe at their lifestyle, at their caste and company and is a grave insult. These comments of John’s hit my ears like a sort of blasphemy. It was strangely gratifying though, like hearing a Catholic praise contraception. It makes you think that there may be some sense in there after all.
All the same there was an awkward silence as I tried to figure out if it was safe for me to complain about the damage the atmosphere had done to my suit. Mary finished cooking abruptly and put a bowl of food under my nose. There was a lump of bread and a sort of green paste in it and it was perhaps the most unhappy looking meal I have ever seen. It had all the necessities however, so I grunted gratefully.
Mary had sat down for hardly a second when there was strange sound on the intercom. She had already disappeared into the next room before I was able to place the sound: a crying baby. The noise was odd, not just because of the surroundings which seemed so dead that new life didn’t belong, but because it didn’t sound quite like a true baby. Perhaps the intercom had distorted it or, more likely, the baby was sick, which was very possible given the harsh life its family led. I didn’t know the infant mortality rate in the settler community but I imagined it would be a sad number.
‘Oh, I had no idea there were four of you. Congratulations.’ I offered John, and received nothing in return.
‘There’s three of us.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. The little boy had said it with such directness, so dead-pan, so matter of fact, that I felt that I couldn’t contradict him. I groped for some words, settled on my fourth or fifth idea. ‘Really?’ I said lamely.
‘What about your little brother or sister?’
He looked sullenly at the floor before walking off the way we’d come in, his father’s eyes boring into his back. I’ve always marvelled at parents who can scold their children without saying a word.
I expected John to offer some explanation but he didn’t and we sat there in silence as I ate. After perhaps a minute, and it was a long minute, I noticed the silence had somehow changed. It is strange how something as absolute as silence can change in timbre but it is a known fact that it can, and that is not the scientist in me speaking. I glanced up and saw that John was looking at the door his wife had taken, his face straining for neutrality. I saw Mary enter then, pushing a rudimentary pram. ‘My daughter,’ she said. But now that the baby was in the room I could hear that, yes, the noises it was making were definitely not normal. I was ashamed to find that I felt a strange revulsion when I should have felt pity. ‘May I see her?’ I asked.
‘If you like,’ she said. John sighed and made a noise that a man makes when he wants to interrupt the proceedings but does not know how. I stood and looked over the lip of the pram.
At first it didn’t register in my mind that anything was wrong. I thought that the baby merely had the same skin condition as the rest of her family. Then, halfway through making my first cooing noise, it hit me that the thing swaddled in that plain blanket was not a human child.
There are many breeds of dog and many creatures that have, through miracles of convergent evolution, come to resemble various breeds of dog and this was one of them. It looked like an oversized Chihuahua with mange, its colouring an angry, mottled pink. I felt as though I was being made a fool of but when I glanced at Mary’s face I knew that that was not her intention. ‘Her name is Helen and she’s a little bit under the weather at the moment,’ she said.
‘Hello Helen,’ I said. When you walk into a stranger’s house you take a risk. They may be pirates, and want kill you and take what you have. They may be cannibals, and want to kill you for your precious protein and calories. Or they may be insane, and just want to kill you. I felt that I had walked into the last scenario and that I desperately needed to pacify this woman, who may be insane, with small talk. ‘Is she the first birth on the planet?’
Mary smiled fondly, pleased with my reaction. ‘No, no. We haven’t been here that long. She’s one and a half. We’re very proud.’
‘I’m sure you are.’ I smiled a rictus grin and looked at John, who would not meet my eyes. ‘Now John, I was wondering if I could trouble you for a battery pack…’
‘We lost her but she came back.’ Mary said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘Is that right?’
‘That’s right. We thought she’d gone. But she came back.’
I wanted to get out. I wanted to get out very quickly, but I was afraid to provoke her. ‘Where did she go?’
‘Outside. But she came back. She missed me.’
As if to spite me, one of my mosquitoes landed on the dog-thing’s face. I willed it to fly away, knowing what would happen next, but without my headset it was out of my control. It bit the thing to take a sample and the creature immediately started crying again. The mosquito disappeared again so quickly that I don’t think Mary noticed it, much to my relief. I watched in horror as she picked the thing up and began rocking it against her shoulder, trying to placate it.
I have seen many vile creatures in my time as a Surveyor. Creatures that look like lampreys but float on hot jets of air, looking for anything meaty to drain of life. Spiders with a million tiny legs and fat, loathsome bodies. Bacteria that can reduce a man to dust in a day. But somehow this thing, this doglike, scalded looking creature with four beady eyes and a muzzle like a hot cross bun, is the thing that sets my skin crawling even now as I think about it. To see such a thing being held and treasured by a human woman dismayed me in ways I cannot describe. The Surveyor in me wondered at its power. Was it psychic? Did it give off a pheromone that human women were sympathetic to? Was it a member of some breed of alien cuckoo, which left its young in the care of other species? Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to have a hold over John, who sat at the table with his head in his hands.
I went for broke. ‘Perhaps seeing a new face is too much for the little lady.’
Mary took the bait. ‘Yes, she’s not used to so much excitement.’
I watched with held breath as she put the creature back in its pram and pushed it out of the room. The thing hadn’t resisted as she’d held it and hadn’t protested as it was placed back in the pram. It had just mewled like the sick infant Mary thought it was.
When she was gone I yawned, a ridiculous ploy, and said that I was tired. Perhaps I should go. Forget the battery pack, I said. John led me out without a word.
As I was about to put my helmet back on I heard a little voice.
‘Take it with you.’
It was Junior.
I looked at John, but he just stood there with folded arms staring at the floor. ‘What happened to your sister, Junior?’ I asked.
‘Yes. I thought so. How?’
He showed me his hands. ‘Look. You see the redness?’ I nodded that I did. ‘I woke up and I couldn’t breath, everything burned. Inside me and outside me. Then my rebreather fell down from the ceiling and I put it on all by myself even though I really really hurt. It stopped my insides hurting but not my outsides. Everything was a little bit yellow, you know? Not too much but a little bit. And my eyes burned so much, sir. I thought I was going to die. And then the pain stopped but my skin was still really sore and it’s still red now. Dad says it was the ventilation. It malfunctioned and let in lots of bad air. It wasn’t enough to kill us, ‘cos we’re too big. But Helen wasn’t so strong. And she didn’t know about rebreathers yet.’
I was sure he’d never said so many words at one time in his entire life. Before myself he may have only ever had his parents to talk to.
John cleared his throat. ‘We didn’t burn her, like they tell you to. We burnt one we had in the last place but… That one hadn’t gotten so big, you know? We’d hardly known him. Helen we’d had for almost two years. We couldn’t burn her like she was waste. I made a hole with some of the charges they gave us and piled the rocks on her. I made a cross out of a couple of pipes but they might’ve crumbled away by now. With the air, you know?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I know.’
‘We only lost her five days ago. Five sol days. And then that thing showed up two days later crying just like her, like Helen, and it was scratching at the door. It said, “Mummy, mummy, mummy.” We watched it for about an hour, wondering what it wanted, hoping it would go away and stop torturing us. But Mary thought it was her. Thought she’d come back to us. God’s sent her back, she says. So she made me let it in. It ran straight for her, for Mary. Wailing. And she’s had it in that pram ever since.’ He looked at me for a long time, wanting me to say something. But I didn’t know what to say.
‘You’re a Surveyor. What is that thing?’ John asked, eventually. I could tell from his voice that he didn’t know what he wanted it to be. He knew it was just some animal. He wanted me to take it away, but what he really wanted was for me to scan it and tell him that it was his daughter back from the grave.
‘Please take it with you.’ Junior said. ‘It’s not Helen.’
I put my headset on. ‘I’ll have a look at what my suit says.’
I had assumed that given the thing’s size and its proximity to a human settlement that it would have been discovered already, but it had not. It was a totally new animal to the Journal and Galactic Survey. The mosquitoes report came up with the usual reports about the new proteins, acids and enzymes it had found in its bite and the suit was able to give a preliminary model of the creature’s internal functions to within a 99.997% degree of accuracy.
It is said that at this point in history, with mankind all across the galaxy, there is nothing truly new to discover. Everything, due to convergent evolution, is gradually working its way towards similar solutions to life’s problems. This was the case here as well. This creature was in fact very similar to one that had been discovered on another planet, long ago.
This other creature, whilst only being marginally intelligent itself, used to gain a portion of the intelligence of anything it ate. If it ate a fox it would be as clever as one for a while, for example. And it would remember where the fox had lived, and grown up and where its family was, for example.
Food on the Mustardworld was scarce and something of that thing in the pram’s size would require a certain amount of protein to keep itself going. There could be nothing more useful than catching an adult mustard slink and knowing where it had last seen a member of its kind or where it had left its babies.
But then a mustard slink isn’t very clever, and neither is a fox for that matter. They have an intelligence that is easy to digest. Human emotions and memories are so powerful and so complex that a simple creature could become confused when trying to digest them.
John took the news fairly well. ‘Should’ve burned her,’ he said after a while. His voice was carefully purged of all emotion, but I saw the regret in his eyes.
Junior looked at me, uncomprehending. ‘So does this mean you’ll take her?’
In the end we sedated Mary and I put the thing, which I named the memnophage, in my vivisector. As I was putting it in it called out in a child’s voice and John tried to hold Junior but Junior wouldn’t be held. They looked strangely at the vacuum bags dangling from my belt as I left.
I got a Paragraph.
James Victor is a man who has gone to live in a tropical paradise on the far side of the world. He did this for adventure and romance. He still spends all of his time thinking about aliens and swords and stuff. This is his first published story. Another of his short stories, Names, will soon appear in the Idolators of Cthulhu anthology.