by Liz Heldmann
The disruptor net hit the ocean with an eruption of steam. Obscuring billows gouted up in columns of gray and white and the target was close enough that the aft hull immediately registered a thermic spike. The temperature shot from swampy greenhouse to hot-as-fucking-Hades. Technically speaking.
Around the quadrant, warships were deploying nets as weaponry. Best not to think about that. Science was the new war, according to Delia.
The weave generated out of the arse end of the ship was coarse, each node tuned two-dimensionally to its neighbors in a honeycomb lattice that formed a curved plane. A great big seine made of plasma, dragging a world ocean underneath a sun that filled the forward viewscreen as if trying to muscle out of the frame.
Both density and chemistry dials had been spun and today’s net split the surly bonds between hydrogen and oxygen wherever it encountered them in a medium of approximately one gram per cubic centimeter. Which meant that the net sliced through alien waters like gamma rays through goose shit and didn’t so much as muss the hair of any entities it scooped up in the process.
Forget ‘Take me to your leader’. We quit asking nicely a few planetary systems in.
Just about the day we got our first sentient ‘Thanks, but no thanks, and by the way, eat plasma’.
Hence the warships.
The thought of slammin’ and jammin’ in the spaces between worlds raised a bit of nostalgia in a girl.
“All right, Shar, bring her up!” Delia’s shout interrupted before I got all weepy.
The science vehicle, romantically named ScV-341, burped inertial brakes out of its titanium skin and gimbaled 45°. The net raveled in. A telltale with the image of a stepped-on snail floating above it went green, the deck vibrated and the ship pinged a saccharine little public service announcement. “Aft hold, secure.”
“Thank you, ship.” We’d been excessively polite to each other ever since Delia had told me it was beneath me to argue with a ship over operational procedure. What she’d told it, I don’t know.
Ping. “Inertial sink projecting.”
“Thank you, ship.”
Ping. “Would you like auto nav? It’s a difficult—”
“Shut up, ship.” I hit the switch, screwed the bitch and let the shuttle scratch my itch. To fly. An itch I shared with legions of mostly younger up-and-comers. One of whom had up and come right into my zero-g couch on Gossamer while I was in-system indulging a different itch.
The shuttle zipped. The Nav Hag at Pilot Bay had a quip for wannabe aether jocks. What’s the shortest line between two points? Folding them together. When you figure out how to do that, let me know. Until then, zip it.
The contrail we left behind showed on scope as a straight line connecting the surface to the darkly purpling curvature of sky. As the water planet fell away, the contrail began to feather out and bend, bowing to trajectory and King Coriolis.
Delia was elbow deep in her idea of fun when I got down there, up on a dissection table with knees to either side of the sample. The HUD above her said in big letters ‘HEMOCYANIN.’ Her lab coat showed a blue-green lapel where it had dragged in the critter. The glop of flesh was already putrefying, seeking the lowest level of the containment field. It oozed off the table like dripping purple wax and gathered in the tensor catch field below. Not a drop lost.
“Lucky squug,” I said. The air of the hold was lilacs and fairy farts thanks to the ionic air purifier chugging its pneumatic heart out.
“Juvenile.” Delia shoved her arm in deeper, groping. “The sac will be decaying. My submission to the U Gal ‘cast is based on a speedy, on site, field spectrum.”
“Go for your life, Dr. Frankenstein.”
“Frahn-ken-steen.” The grin she dropped down underneath her arm pit and backwards was pure gold. Xenoanatomists were required to take a humanities course once an Earth subjective year, so that they didn’t walk lopsided to the left side of the brain, I guess. She had crammed a whole semester of classics, late 20th flats, into a weekend binge: Wilder, Goldman, Cleese. Some of it made me laugh. I’m guessing the fact that most of it put her on the ground rolling around goes a long way to explaining why she lets me hang around after so long.
A spurt of puss erupted out of the top of the squug.
It geysered up, briefly revealing the containment field’s shape by the flattening of material against the inside. It also revealed the hole dilated out of the field, the hole through which Delia’s gloved arm thrust.
I yelled and jumped for the decon unit. Delia jerked away, iridescent droplets running up her arm and over her shoulders. She was off the table in an instant, shouting at the room to seal itself, beating at her shoulders.
The lights chunked over to ultraviolet, with a smell of ozone frazzling the air.
Shadowy purple tears dropped off her, splatting to the deck. They sizzled when they hit, each zap coming with an aura of ionized air.
They melted to oily puddles.
I hit her with the decon spray, thumbing the discharge longer than necessary, longer than she wanted. She protested the whole time. Laughed after about a minute. Got angry when I wouldn’t quit.
“For god’s sake, Shar!” She finally marched up and slapped a hand over mine on the switch. “I’m fine!” The aerosol glistened in her hair and lashes, drying rapidly.
“You know that, do you?”
“I’m a doctor, remember?” She slid my hand down the sensor track, shutting down the decon system gradually until the floor and ceiling vents quit blasting.
When she turned back to the table, which now supported a cube of turgid melted flesh and nothing more, she had that speculative look in her eyes. Her lips pursed. I caught her by the arm as she started back. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I’ve got work to do.”
“I need to get out of here.” I edged back towards the exit. “Ship, unlock aft hold.”
“Ship can fly itself, but it’ll make you feel better to order it around, so go.” Absence disguised by casual mischievousness. When the locking mechanism on the door went obediently green but I still held her arm, she frowned. “What is with you? You’ve been super-over-ultra protective since you started leave. If you don’t want to stick around for boring—“
Her first instinct, as always, was to laugh. Her face crinkled at the eyes, and then around the mouth, giving a glimpse into the lines it would settle into over decades. “Don’t be silly.” Her smile faded.
“I’m pregnant, Delia. I went to Gossamer’s clinic and picked a healthy ova and a healthy spermsicle and had them take each other to dinner and drinks in my uterus. I’m pregnant, and I’m grounded out of the service for the natural course of this nine month tour but they don’t have to know I’m flying science in the meantime and I’m going to be a mom. You’re going to be a mom.”
She had gone whiter than her lab coat. “And after?”
“After you…you whelp?”
My brow squeezed into a squint. It was my standard reaction to oncoming danger in unfamiliar territory. Her face was the surface of a dead moon evincing unexpected tectonic effects. I couldn’t read it and it wasn’t doing what all the experts had said it would do in all the training sessions. “I think I covered that. We’ll be moms.”
“We will? We?” The pale surface quivered, dust erupting from hidden cave systems, the rims of craters crumbling. “Is this the royal we? Or is this the we that pisses off to the outer system after dropping a load at my feet and leaves me to raise a human being….” The generation ship that had been hiding under the surface, built out of the dismantled material that had underlain a deceptively still skin, rose over the horizon, accompanied by the sound of valkyries. “…in an outlying quadrant of the spiral that is, oh by the way, at war with a sentient species of fucking cuttlefish, because I will not go back to Earth without finishing my doctorate—”
Ping. The ship might have been waiting for a breath, like me. “Mother ship hailing.”
“That is not funny,” I snapped.
The valkyries had landed. The fault line that had spewed out Delia’s happy reaction had snapped shut. It unsealed enough for two words. “Answer it.”
“Accept. Survey ship Photonic, this is SV-431 on approach. What—“
“Veer off, science vehicle! Veer off! We are under attack! Say again, we are under—” The transmission ended.
Ping. “Sep war cruiser at .001 AU,” the ship said pleasantly. “Taking evasive action to avoid expanding debris field at one hundred kilometers.”
It wasn’t a matter of fighting back. It was a matter of hiding until the monsters went back in the closet.
Except that we were kinda in their closet and it was filled with stuff we couldn’t breathe and at a pressure of an unfriendly level.
“They won’t look for us.” Delia sat on her hands on the second couch.
“Seps aren’t known for letting food escape. They were a little busy cleaning up resistance as we turned tail but they shot at us just for the form of it. They were a few thousand klicks behind us as we hit the water and we’ve been scanned twice while we bob down here playing neutrally buoyant possum fish.”
“They won’t look for us.”
“What the fuck is a sep cruiser doing here?”
“That’s the third time you’ve asked that.” Delia. Intolerant of others foibles.
“Nobody’s answered me.” The hull was not creaking. The viewscreen showed blackness and was not leaking around the edges. It didn’t have edges. It was a perfect projection onto the same material as the rest of the hull. No seams to be exploited by five kilometers of water on top of it. No creaking. The burst that had hit us had been chemical, not plasma. It hadn’t weakened the structural integrity of the ship; it might have even strengthened it, the ‘ink’ weapon leaving a rosin over much of the plating that had hardened on top of very delicate capillaries and very limited processes for making new stuff to breathe. The oxygen reserves, they were a’burnin’.
Ping. “Analysis of the enemy ship during our very rapid descent indicates the identity as code name Proteus with a likelihood of 89.37%. Trajectory indicates a course originating in the Sepii Expanse. If origination is assumed to be the area of dispute within the Expanse, starting with the last known appearance of Cruiser Proteus, speed calculations yield a steady .35C. Known compliment of Cruiser Proteus include 1100 spearfish, 80 molluscian lords and approximately 12,000 young out of the egg. Attendant remora craft number—”
“Shut the hell up, ship,” Delia said.
“Amen,” I muttered, flicking a finger at a control, checking the oxygen again. Very rapid descent, my Aunt Fanny.
“Why?” Delia asked.
“I don’t know. Because we dissected their crown prince before we knew the colors shifting across its hide meant anything?” Pressure stood at 500 atm. I had no idea what a science vessel was rated for, or for how long. Probably should. Didn’t.
“Why did you get pregnant?”
“You really think now’s the time?”
“You did,” she pointed out.
“Cuz you kept saying our time would come?”
“Oh, that makes perfect sense now.” Delia’s gaze flicked to the viewscreen behind me. I might have flipped out a little, rounding sharply, maybe expecting to see suckers on tentacles going back to a vaguely rectangular box of a body all rippling with rainbows that signaled the sep equivalent of ‘Yield and be probed, infidel Earthlings!’
“There was something that triggered this. What?”
“I failed my fast twitch. Well, not failed, but not aced.”
“Oh, horrors. Somebody beat you?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “A couple.”
“Wilhelmina Willemson, yes.” Stiff. “Kenny Narita. June Scrivener.”
“Anybody can have a bad day.”
I took a breath. “Teresa Kim. Rocki Fuentes. And Indira Whatshername.”
“You know they’re all dead.”
“I don’t think Gossamer let these fishy bastards get by her. If they got in-system, it wasn’t by blasting a Hercules class out of the aether.” I stared out the blackness of the screen. “Nope. They’ll show up shortly. Probably out there rackin’ balls and sackin’ heads—”
“Not your friends. My friends. And don’t.” A droplet trailed out of her eye, the same shape and size as the squug guts from earlier but clearer. Wetter. Saltier. Human. “You know I hate it when you get all warrior tough and pilot-y.”
Ping. “Shut up!” we chorused.
A stream of bubbles the size of my head drifted into the view provided by the single external camera that had escaped being encased in sep ink. They glowed with an internal light and at the center of each floated a squishy shape. The light they emitted was a lovely pale purple. I stared. “What the fuck was that?” Conversational. Warrior tough.
Another stream of bubbles went up, a conga line of spheres pressing glowing hips to the lens. “Ship?” Delia said.
Ping. “Analysis shows a lipid based barrier of fatty acids surrounding gas composed of a mix of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and argon. The segregate mass within each is comprised of phospholipids, showing statistically significant increases in minor classes such as phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylinositol and—”
“Shut—” I began, but Delia threw up a hand to stop me.
“—phosphatidic acid/cardiolipin. Saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids appear to be utilized as energy substrates. As well, there are salts and metallic inclusions incorporated into—”
“Shut up,” she said. “They’re egg sacs.” She stared in wonder at the increasing number of bubbles rising by.
“You weren’t that interested in my egg sac.”
“They’re egg sacs and the thing I popped this morning was an indigenous uterus, not an ink bladder. I killed dozens….” An expression of horror heretofore unindulged in this whole long ordeal dawned on her face. How long had it been? The ship’s chronometer showed six hours, Earth subjective.
“Ship,” I said when it seemed she was done. “Tilt camera down 90°.” Obligingly, the camera began to drop along the streams of bubbles. There were more. Many, many more.
We had come to a halt about a couple of kilometers off the sea floor.
About a couple of kilometers down, the world glowed lilac.
Delia insisted on descending. I was in a bit of a karmic hole and didn’t have much else going on, so I went along.
The entities were fondly known as squug, a cross between a slug and a squid. On the surface of 107 Pisces III, they formed mats many layers deep and many kilometers across. On the bottom, we discovered that was them thinking small, mere tourist enclaves in a foreign land.
A continent-sized herd plastered the sea floor around the sulfurous, nutrient-rich billows of a hydrothermal vent. They ate rock, dissolving it and absorbing it through their skin. They gulped the discharge the planet pissed out. They farted out offspring without ceasing their bucolic grazing. My girlfriend, otherwise known as Pig in Shit, told me all of this, figuring it out just by looking, it seemed. She had forgotten that she had threatened to kill me and that we were under threat of same by sep, even though we’d been scanned again during our powerless descent. The scan had come at a vector that said they were also in their element, only a kilometer or so above us.
“Look, look, look!” she squealed.
“Looking.” I kept an eye on the gauges, too. A flick of my fingers against one telltale failed to change its color. I would have preferred green. I got yellow, shading uncomfortably towards sunset orange.
“Where the rift ends. Over there.”
“Overing.” The sea floor was rising. We traced the zig-zagging vent, underlit by its hellish glow. I muttered at the ship when it politely waited for a command to increase buoyancy to maintain a one hundred meter buffer between us and the fantastically tortured outcroppings of solidified magma that were the sea floor. “Maintain one hundred meter buffer between us and sea floor,” I had to say a moment later.
Ping. “Maintaining.” Smug, as at an in-joke.
“No, you’re fucking not.” I gestured over a slide, adjusting it infinitesimally. The sea mount ahead of us continued to grow out of the gloom, fleshy with encrustations of squug. The slope increased towards a summit where the vent must break through, where comparatively slender pillars had been formed, columns that seemed to shift like giant seaweed in the varying lights of the volcanic rift, the shuttle’s forward lamp and the cool phosphorescence that glimmered across the herd.
“Sea floor steady at 7034 meters below sea level. Composition of reaction zone is hydrogen and sulfide, with sodium, calcium and alkali metals. Composition of sea floor is silicate magma with heavy metal extrusions. Would you like to hear the composition of the density anomaly at 5°, pilot? It is not the same as the sea floor. Composition of density anomaly at 5° degrees is phospholipids, showing statistically significant increases in minor classes such as—”
“Ship, shut up and do not speak unless spoken to.” The peak of the sea mount split on a glow that was too cool for geothermic processes. Purple globes each with a fifty meter diameter rose free one at a time. The dull headache in the back of my skull ruined the majesty of it for me, maybe.
“It’s the queen,” Delia said oddly. “The queen squug. That whole damn thing is a squug, straddling the rift.” The egg sacs were accompanied by a squirt of iridescent liquids roiling outward to rain down upon the slopes. Grazing squug grew pseudopods, lifting them up in supplication to take in the oily fluid while the floating globes vanished into the murk above.
“How much oxygen do you think is in one of those royal cradles?” I asked.
Humans. Slow learners.
I was ready to net our way in when it was pointed out to me that introducing plasma into a pressurized sphere of flammable gasses could go wrong. If it didn’t explode, any hole in it would mean immediate implosion. Loss of content in either case. If we could even pierce the skin. To withstand pressures at this depth, the strength of the lipid barrier must be beyond comprehension. Even Delia’s.
I rolled my neck on my shoulders. “Now open to better suggestions.”
“Look into the abyss.”
“Please don’t tell me it’s looking back,” I whispered. Oxygen conservation, not a sudden horrible vision of a kilometer wide eye opening in the depths beneath.
She turned my head with her sweaty hand. Stripped to an undershirt, hair plastered to the back of her neck, she pointed. “Look.”
The egg release went on in spurts. Lesser squugs dribbled their loads in curtains of bubbles with barely a pause between. The queen followed a more deliberate schedule, as befit her royal ponderousness.
A new stream was signaled by a dilation of the giant sphincter, musculature rippling clockwise in release until a cavern opened. From out of this slowly protruded a glistening dome of gas that held its shape as egg sacs broke its apex. Not sacs, actually. Not right then. Sheets, rather, were squirted out of spinners beneath the ledge of the sphincter, joining in shapes more like chutes, or the globes of jellyfish, open underneath with dangling flaps of material. As the unformed egg sac began to bulge upward in its center, another internal organ deposited a dollop of purple beneath it and the eight fronds whipped in gracefully to poke at the hanging corners of the sac, pressing the sticky material together. By the time the bottom of the sac broke free of the bulging dome of gas, it was a sphere bearing a squuggy bundle of joy upward towards, presumably, its hatching.
The gas dome did not pop, despite passing eggs sacs and poking fronds.
We went in, like mosquito larvae into an air bubble, like pond scum. The surface tension held. We slipped into the reproductive assembly line and a glance at the console showed that we were no longer surrounded by water. Airborne, again, in a fashion.
“Minimal…thrusters….” I suggested to my fingers, which were having difficulty reaching the console at the end of its long tunnel.
“Wait.” Delia gasped as a shadowy frond bent by. At the same time, the ship rocked as if from a blow. “We’re….” She lay on the second couch, gesturing at a HUD above her. “…attached. It attached us.” Her hand drooped, and came to rest. “Hanging.”
I found that leaning on the console stabilized it, and a moment later, that kneeling in front of it to prop it into place with my torso was even more secure. “Atmospheric…compo…sition…breathable?” Goddamn it. “Ship? A little help?”
Ping. “Nav standby. Life support on auto. Excess CO2 shunted to empty fuel blister. Disrupter node projected at .037 meters inside hull to weaken sep ink jamming aft hatch.” I would have thought of that. “Ventilation flow reconfigured. Opening aft hatch. Aft hatch open. Pressure maintained by containment field. Disrupter nodes generated to destroy sulfuric and cyanic acid in intake.” Insufferably patronizing machine. “O2 content sent to decon system. Hydrogen content diverted into fuel blister. Expelling CO2 via internal scrubbers. Recycling reclaimable O2 from that, also. Storing all deconned O2. Venting carbon with other waste.”
“Show…off…” I said, and passed out while the ship droned on.
A squug mat is outstandingly buoyant.
The egg had bobbed up into the underside of a raft of its big brothers and sisters. Bowing to their newborn prince…ss, they’d pulled inward to make a hole for it to reach the surface, then closed again beneath it. The egg and all who sailed in it had arrived.
Within minutes the apparently magnitudally super-sized sun started shriveling the outer casing. The intended occupant had flailed around a bit until the umbilical broke and now lolled on top of a wave-washed and gleaming heap of brethren. Chunks of its luggage studded the squugscape. Nuggets of metal and sea floor had been embedded in the now shredded egg sac. Individuals snacked on these offerings.
In all directions, more eggs were staking out more kingdoms for as far as the eye could see.
“How are you feeling?” Delia hovered.
“I’m fine. Get off.” I shook away her fingers, checking the pulse in my wrist again. “I’ve been out longer than that after high gee runs in dark-entry training.” Irritating that she’d stayed conscious. Smaller. Needed less oxygen. I suspected the ship had piped her a secret stash.
“Well, you won’t be doing any more of that for a while.” For the last few hours she had been taking a certain satisfaction in enumerating habits that would be changing.
“Ship, how’s the camouflage doing?”
Ping. A sullen ping. “Sep do not see color, only polarity. I fail to see how this serves any—”
“Is it hurting you? Is it weakening anything vital?”
Ping. “As if it could dissolve one atom of my hull.”
“Then quit your bitching and let it dream big. Maintain ambient polarity. You can calculate ambient polarity? It’s a pretty difficult—”
“Shut up, Shar,” Delia said. “Four hours on my mark.” Her mark was written with a middle finger.
“Really?” I grinned at the little bit of lavender dripping down the outside of the camera lens. “Time flies. So our inky friends have either lost us or run off to probe somebody else.” A school of sep spearfish had passed a kilometer underneath our magic carpet ride to the surface, about an hour before journey’s end. Not that we’d seen them. Ship said they’d dived abruptly. Maybe the queen mother had eaten them.
We could hope.
“I have Hercules class battle cruiser Gossamer Wings hailing on in-system approach.” The ship broke the tension with a non-sequitur. “Narrow frequency ping. Targeted transmission.”
“Now is not the time!” Delia whispered.
“Shut. Up. Shut them up. Shut down your emergency communications at the same time.” I hissed it. Both ridiculous. Our volume. Little spoken sound waves weren’t going to matter, given the batteries of sep sonar hitting us from below. Being painted as a blip in that unfriendly search pattern by automatically triggered transponder resonance, however, would be problematic.
They were coming. The war cruiser had gone into the drink in a torment of water. Its arcing descent had hit six klicks away at the edge of horizon. The amount of ocean instantly vaporized had saturated the atmosphere. A resultant storm pounded the hull, rocking us on a destabilizing raft of squugflesh. Cycling gray clouds blotted the sky. The edges of the raft were shredding, blobs falling off.
“We are not this important.” Delia’s pale face shone through the display of the Encyclopedia of Xenobiology with which she’d been whiling away her time.
“Speak for yourself.”
“Hemocyanin.” She fingered her stained lab coat. To my expression of complete comprehension, she said, “Hemocyanin. They have the same base blood, sep and squug.”
“Sign them up for a mutual donor program.”
“Sep bloodwork shows a saline concentration of thirty-seven parts per thousand.” She pointed at a graph as if to prove it.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“The ocean out there is thirty-eight parts per thousand.”
“Sep homeworld is a few parsecs from here. Been there. Blowed it up. Got the t-shirt.”
“Cousins, then,” she said. “They’re not here for us. It’s a family reunion.”
I folded my arms. Gave her the pilot-y squint. “Ship, is the sonar pulse source approaching or receding?”
Ping. “Accounting for pressure increases and refraction above the hydrothermal reaction zone, sep war cruiser is descending.”
“Ship, how much inertial energy do we have stored in M-space?”
Ping. “4140 terajoules. Had we not spent most of the inertial reserves on our descent—”
“We would have had zero terajoules stored, because all of it, and us, would have been diffusing into the background medium courtesy of a sep plasma spear.” I summoned a console, spun a few dials and yanked a lever with a knob carved into a snarling zombie head. Style is a matter of visualization templates transferred via implants. “Science vehicle, can you put aside childish jealousies and work with a tested battlecraft pilot?” Delia rolled her eyes. I toggled important looking switches and slides.
The ship had greeted my arrival with an ultrasound image projected into my visor in the little solo suit that I’d checked out to fly me down, and quickly poofed it before the aether jock I was replacing could squirm into the suit and Peter Pan away.
I found the commander’s couch. Still that new couch smell. Hardly dented. I wasn’t the only one the ship had bullied. I’d wondered at the endless succession of one tour rotations. “For Delia?”
Ping. Not even the courtesy of a spoken response.
“I will take that as a yes. While they’re handing out the hostess gifts down there, we’ve got seven kilometers of inertial drive space to keep between us and them, which is 2.35 seconds at escape velocity.” Take that, bitch. “Nothing but time. We are going ballistic all in one inertial burst.” I felt the disapproval coming on one front. Science vehicles are notoriously conservative of their resources, crew included. “Hey, I’d hate to not use all that hydrogen you stored after M-space is drained. At worst, we can set it on fire as a signal. Reconfigure the net for one micron near infrared weave in a 2D hexpat and prepare to project at spherical dispersal radius thirty meters. Those are called improvised shields.” Lookee there. Disapproval on two fronts. “ ‘Jam me in, ship.”
The rush poured through in adrenal waves. I heard myself grunt, and the world expanded in a diffuse cloud of data, one of which was shaped as an auditory and chemically constructed command.
About the Author
Liz Heldmann has previously been published in the Australian science fiction magazine Cosmos: The Science of Everything and the first Antipodean SF Anthology. Other credits include the comparative mythology fantasy “Realms of Gold” and Jupiter mining sci fi “Bright Cloud of Music,” both at Neverworlds The Unique Fiction Webzine. She was short-listed for the Random House/Transworld Australia George Turner Prize for her manuscript “Hashakana”.
About the Narrator
Pamela Quevillon is a reader who has been falling hard into books her entire life. She narrates her on Escape Pod, and hosts Story Time on Twitch every school night. As StarStryder, she reads classic fiction and hopes you’ll be as reluctant to put down your headphones as she is to put down the pages.