by Richard A. Conine
“Really? You wouldn’t make good dental floss for them. Maybe if you scraped up everybody on Earth they could be spread over the aliens’ sandwich bread like a nice orangey marmalade. They’re really big.”
“I get that and you are way too snarky for your own good.”
“Whatever they’re interested in, it isn’t having you for lunch.”
The windows went dark. They had entered the great ship’s shadow. The vessel seemed to be made entirely of gloom and blackness. After an interminable wait there was a noise like a vast winch being cranked, a gentle bump and then a splash.
Chip rubbed one of the windows with his palm. “I don’t see anything.”
“Stop that,” the computer cried. “I’m switching on external lamps. We should be able to get a good look at our new environment. The atmosphere contains toxic levels of methane and other chemical gases usually found in objects undergoing advanced stages of decomposition.”
“Decay. Whatever is out there is rotten and the atmosphere is poisonous. Simple enough for you?”
“Sure, but I could do without the attitude, Captain Computer.”
The exterior lights blinked once and activated, flooding the immediate area and pushing the darkness away. The SS Flower was encased in a fragile bubble of light, a radiant energy clearly considered anathema to the hulking creatures of darkness who inhabited the HMS Pansy. Chip could see for about thirty feet. After that the light seemed to be absorbed and rendered inert.
“Wow,” he said, amazed.
“I agree,” the computer replied.
“It’s garbage, isn’t it?
“I suppose so.”
“They thought we were garbage. They picked us up and dumped us in the trash. Is this a garbage truck? Is that what this is?”
“It’s a ship. It isn’t a truck. But if you’re asking whether it might serve the purpose of roaming around space and picking up random objects it finds floating in the vacuum, then I suppose the answer is yes. It might well be a salvage ship. But most of these objects look long abandoned. There appears to be a small moon to the right. I can make out many artificial satellites and lots of vegetable matter. It appears to grow here in vast quantities and is part of the erosive cycle. There is also, unfortunately, a great deal of raw sewage in this place.”
“How much sewage?”
“Well, do you know how much water is in Earth’s oceans?”
“I have an idea.”
“Okay. All that water would be a drop in this nasty bucket. I did say these creatures were big.”
“And we’re floating in it.”
“They are not going to be happy with us when we return to the Academy.”
He made a face. “I don’t want to scrub the pod. Do you think they’ll make me scrub the pod?”
“Exactly. One demerit.”
“Noted. But it was kind of worth it.”
He could have sworn that she almost giggled. She said, “I see something else. I can make out some sections of ship fuselage on the left. Do they look at all familiar?”
He stared at the wreck of pylons, steel bulkheads and hull plates slowly sinking into a stew of festering, disgusting digestive liquids. There was a clearly discernible Academy logo on a nearby bouncy, bobbing propulsion pod. Eventually he said, “It’s the Murgatroyd, or what’s left of her.”
“Indeed. Clearly she was recognized as trash and swept up. Perhaps we were judged to be a free-floating piece of the same hulk and so were gathered up in kind.”
“What? They don’t check for life signs?”
“I doubt think they care about things as small as us. They’re just sweeping up.”
“Don’t care? But we’re alive. We’re intelligent.”
“When you carry out the trash do you worry that an ant might be attached to the bag or even notice that the fly buzzing around your head is hungry?”
“No. But that’s different.”
“It isn’t. You’re a humanist; that’s what you are.”
“Oh spare me. I’m sure you’re going to tell me you have lots of alien friends and some of them are even insectoid.”
“No. I wasn’t going to say that at all. I’ve never met an alien. Anyway, we’re getting way off topic. What do we do now? The Academy will never find us in here.”
“Humanist! You probably think computers are inferior too. I’m not talking to you.”
“Really? Thank God.”
“I’ll take ’em. I thought you were going to shut up and pout.”
“I don’t pout and I’m not talking to you.”
“Do you know you’re still talking? Can you even hear yourself?”
“There’s something moving out there.”
“Don’t try to change the subject. Did you say something is moving?”
“Why must you ask if I said what I said and then repeat it back to me verbatim?”
He stared out the window at the swampy, stinking morass. “Because you say some über-weird stuff and I have to repeat it just to be sure I didn’t imagine it. You really need to run a self-diagnostic. I don’t see anything moving. But I feel real sorry for anything that might be.”
“At your 4 o’clock.”
“That? That’s a ripple in the water. There’s noth... Aw, you’re right! I see it now. It sees the light. It’s coming this way. It’s bipedal, two legs and two arms.”
“Well done, cadet. That is definitely what bipedal means.”
“My gosh it’s got a big head!”
“That’s a helmet, Einsteen.”
“You mean Einstein.”
“No. I mean Einsteen. Ask yourself: why on Earth would I call you Einstein?”
“Seriously, sister, you have got to pull it back a little. Oh, look. It’s collapsed. It’s just lying there. Is it dead?”
“I have no way to answer your question. You will address me properly. I am not your sister.”
“How about ‘sweet-knees’? Can I call you sweet-knees?”
“No. Is it crawling?”
“It’s trying to crawl. I’m going out there. It could be in trouble. Are the hazard suits operational?”
“Cadet, egress from a life raft is not permitted until optimal conditions are ascertained and/or the boat commander authorizes extra vehicular activity.”
“Then grant me permission.”
“Because it’s really disgusting out there and... because... what if you don’t come back?”
He was incredulous. “Are you worried about me?”
“No. Keeping you alive is my primary mission, my raison d’être, the only reason for my existence. I won’t permit egress under any circumstances. It’s simply too dangerous.”
He lifted his chin and stared at her panel. The lights flashed at him defiantly. “What law supersedes all naval regulations?”
She spoke, but only reluctantly. “The Law of the Sea.”
“What is the primary and first article of the Law of the Sea?”
She recited the passage in a firm voice. “There is placed an obligation on the master of a ship to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, so long as the master can do so without serious danger to the responding ship and passengers (if any).”
“Whew,” he said. “Score one for the old Chipper. That was a good guess, huh? I couldn’t remember which article said that. I wasn’t really paying attention in the class but I guess something rubbed off. Anyway, let’s run a diagnostic on the hazard suit.”
“Aargh. I hate it when you’re right, though most of the time it’s completely accidental.”
“Get used to it,” he said with a little swagger. “Does it check out for egress?”
“The suit checks out. 98% operational. The comm unit is down so we won’t be able to talk. However, I can still monitor your life signs and render first aid if required. The air purifier has a valve that sticks. Try to avoid flatulating. You’ll find it hanging in the airlock.”
“Great,” he grumbled. “I’m wearing a fart suit in a filthy toilet. What’s next?”
He looked up. “Did you just hee hee?”
“I didn’t think so. Captains don’t hee hee. Ever.”
“You’re very brave to go out there, cadet Corrigan. Stupid, but brave. I don’t care really. I’m just saying. You’re more stupid than brave. Really stupid.”
He touched her panel with fondness. “That’s very kind of you, Captain. Back in a jiffy.”
“Stop touching me,” she warned.
* * *
He exited the airlock and descended a ladder, down to the bubbling ocean of sewage. There were things floating in it, unspeakable things. He noted that the gravity was lighter than Earth-normal, which was a useful thing to know.
He tested the depth with one foot. His bright orange boot came up sticky and brown. There seemed to be no bottom. “Oh my,” he groaned. He tried it again. This time he overbalanced and pitched into the muck head first, arms flailing, screaming into his suit mike.
There was a bottom after all. Unfortunately, it was just about neck deep. His helmet broke the surface amid an island of sputtering, popping methane bubbles. He wiped his face shield frantically with a dripping glove. “Oh my God!” he shouted. “Does it smell in here? It smells! If you can hear me, it stinks really bad in here. Is there anything you can... ah.” He breathed deeply. “Thank you, my Captain. That’s air freshener, isn’t it? Is that new-car scent? Yep. It sure is.”
He took another deep breath and slogged in the general direction of the fallen creature. It was hard to maintain his bearings. He kept the orange life raft in sight and continually reminded himself of the angle and distance to his target. He tried not to think about what he was doing. He grumbled, “Largest toilet in the universe and I have to be the first human to discover it and fall in. What a history-making moment. That’s one small step for Chip, one giant wipe for mankind.”
The speakers in his suit activated with an audible pop and a tune began to play. It was familiar. He heard William Shatner’s voice rising above a swelling orchestral movement: “...to boldy go where no man has gone before.”
He laughed. “Ha ha. You’re really mean to me. But I appreciate your cleverness.”
At last he reached the shelf-like, shallow area where the helmeted creature was stretched out. It was supine, face-down in the muck and unmoving. He squatted and touched its silvery suit. At least he thought it was silver. It was hard to judge the actual color due to the thick and unspeakable coating it had acquired during its bold dash for the life raft.
The creature was man-sized but long and lean. He rapped gently on its helmet with gloved knuckles. It stirred and struggled to crawl forward. It stretched out a long arm, toward the light. Then it collapsed again.
He said, “Well, brother. I don’t think you can make the hike. Let’s see if we can carry you.” It was surprisingly easy to bundle the creature into his arms. The minimal gravity helped. But it wasn’t very heavy to begin with. In fact there was hardly any weight to it at all. Something squirmed restlessly in the suit but he ignored it.
The return trip to the raft took much longer than he expected. The body slowed him considerably. It floated quite nicely on the surface but it was exhausting to pull it along behind him. He began to sweat.
There was definitely something in the suit and it was moving. It undulated and squirmed, raising random bumps and bulges in the fabric. “Take it easy in there,” he said. “We’re almost home.”
At last he reached the ladder and climbed, freeing himself from the sucking, ghastly sludge. He gripped the fabric of the creature’s suit and hauled it upward as he ascended. He was surprised. If anything, it seemed lighter than before.
At that moment a long and muscular tentacle broke the surface nearby and reached for the pair of them.
Copyright © 2013 by Richard A. Conine