by Richard A. Conine
He climbed faster but it snaked toward him like fleshy lightning. “No!” he shouted, suddenly filled with anticipation and dread. He was almost there. Almost. The airlock hatch slid open.
He looked back. A black and glossy eye the size of a sports arena gazed at him with predatory malice from the roiling brown muck. It blinked slowly, rolled and rotated. Then the tentacle seized the suit.
He was climbing into the pod when it happened. The fabric was ripped from his hands. He managed to get hold of the helmet and gripped it ferociously. Cursing and struggling, he took a step into the raft’s airlock. But he wasn’t strong enough. The tentacle dragged him back. The suit was beginning to stretch and tear.
The creature inside screeched in distress.
“No!” he shouted uselessly. The suit ripped at the neck and he fell backward, holding only the helmet. The hatch slammed shut, blocking the tentacle from sight.
“What a waste!” he cried angrily. “I’m useless. I got it killed.” He threw the feces-smeared helmet aside and it bounced off a bulkhead, spilling fluids all over the grated metal deck.
He didn’t want to look at it. He was certain the spreading pool by his feet was what remained of the poor creature. It must have been light and generally liquid in nature. He heard the hiss of inrushing air as the lock repressurized.
Someone had tacked a poster to the airlock bulkhead. He stared at it miserably. It was emblazoned with the words “Beware of Dog.” Below the warning text a crop of adorable puppies squirmed out of a basket.
He undid the catches on his helmet. The smell that assaulted him was terrible. He decided the suit was not worth saving. He doubted it could ever be cleaned effectively. He was certain that no matter how well it was washed, he’d always smell poop when he looked at it.
A crop of adorable puppies ran by, yipping happily and chasing one another’s tails.
“What the heck?” he asked, gazing at them with undisguised wonder. He removed his helmet.
The puppies tumbled into a happy, furry heap then coalesced into a mirror image of Chip Corrigan, complete with crap-covered hazard suit and bonus dazed expression.
The helmet dropped from his nerveless fingers.
The other Chip dropped its helmet too. It impacted the deck with an audible clunk.
The liquid pooling around his boots had vanished. It took him a long moment to piece it together. He took a step backward.
The other Chip took a step backward.
“Oh, darling?” he said loudly. “We have a situation here. I could use some advice.”
The mirror Chip opened its mouth and squealed, which was especially creepy.
The computer spoke next. “It’s a metamorph.” She sounded delighted.
“Is it dangerous?”
“It could be, I suppose. The nearest analog in my database is the Rytha. They were discovered about two hundred years ago on a planet named Belepheron. They’re plants, very fragile ones. They have the ability to incorporate the DNA of creatures they consume and mimic them very successfully. Some early explorers on Belepheron disappeared and later expeditions discovered... hmm... let me read this to you: ‘Fields of writhing human limbs; fat, leafy, children’s heads growing on stalks and moaning in tune with the wind; nightmare images of body parts crawling up cliff walls and trees alive with dangling, screaming, malformed bodies’.”
The creature squealed again, insistently.
Chip spoke to her in a low tone that he hoped wouldn’t irritate the thing. “None of this makes me feel any safer.”
“It’s probably not a Rytha. They stopped eating other beings when they could send out envoys in their various shapes. They gained the ability to listen and learn, which seemed to be enough for them. Their entire goal is to spread out and collect information to bring back to the mother world. They’re really quite nice. Now if they want to learn about another creature and incorporate its survival strategies, they just ask for a DNA sample. It’s quite an honor to be reproduced by them.”
“If this isn’t a Rytha, then what is it?”
“I’m not sure. Rytha are superb mimics. But this one appears to be quite stupid. Maybe you could trick it into imitating something inert.”
“Okay,” he said quietly. “It’s worth a try.” He considered. His glove seemed like a harmless enough object. He raised his hand and then realized there was a large clump of poop sticking to it. He examined the mess and winced with disgust.
The creature squeaked delightedly and turned into a soft plop of feces. It dropped to the deck and just sat there in a tidy heap.
“Interesting,” he said. He undressed hurriedly and shoved the hazard suit into a corner. It was definitely a hazard now.
He donned his comfortable Academy-blue coveralls. The computer opened the lock and he ran inside. He returned with a spatula and a cardboard shoe box. He scraped up the mimic and deposited it in the container with a satisfied sigh. He closed the cover and carried it onboard.
“Quite clever,” the computer said. “Now it will probably spend a lot of time trying to imitate darkness and cardboard.”
He sniffed it the box. The expected smell of offal did not materialize. He imagined it didn’t know much about odors and probably had no senses capable of comprehending them. He shoved the box under his bunk which he judged to be a nice dark place that would further confuse it.
Finally, he returned to the little bridge of the life raft, his home for the immediate future. He was safe and warm and comfortable. And he wasn’t dead, which pleased him.
The computer said, “I’m making coffee. I examined some of the samples the creature left behind. It’s certainly not a Rytha. It appears to be constituted of many simple, nearly identical life forms, each independent but working in cooperation with one another in pursuit of a single goal. I can’t be sure of what that goal is but it’s probably got something to do with survival. They’re like... nanites.”
He frowned. “You mean the microscopic machines that are programmed to cooperate, make shapes and do stuff?”
“Yes. They all hang together and do stuff, like your beer buddies. But not as dumb.”
He laughed. “Yeah. I get it. I rescued a whole bunch of life forms, not just one. I don’t think it’s as stupid as you believe. I bet it was stranded here for a long time, just like us. It figured out how to survive. It probably copied the form we saw earlier from bodies it found on Murgatroyd. It recognized that we were related so it reached out to us. It wanted to be rescued.”
“That’s incredibly astute, cadet, particularly for someone with your substandard brain mass. What will we do with it?”
“Substandard... ah, forget it. When we get out of here, we should figure out a way to communicate with it and take it where it wants to go.”
“Precisely. It does not require a habitable planet. There are many non-habitable planetary masses within our reach. I am quite proud of you, cadet Corrigan. You have come a long way.”
He smiled graciously. “Why, thank you.”
“Because of that, I have erased one demerit.”
“One? Only one? Are you kidding me?”
“I have added one demerit.”
* * *
An hour later, the bottom dropped out of the world. Their dark and lonely prison simply opened up and they were unceremoniously dumped. They were poured from the hold of that colossal vessel, along with unimaginable amounts of sewage, wreckage and small planetary bodies. They were sucked into the tangled gravity web of a dozen stars bound together by an incredible structure, one so vast and complex that even the life raft’s brilliant computer was baffled and at a loss to explain its function.
Of course she wasn’t able to devote a lot of time or energy to solving the mystery. She was very busy shouting, “Attitude incorrect,” at Chip who was trying madly to right the spinning craft.
“Retro thrusters!” he shouted.
“We don’t have any and they only exist in science fiction stories,” she screamed back at him. “Attitude incorrect! Attitude incorrect.”
“I’m getting a little dizzy,” he complained. “And annoyed.”
Loose objects were flying around the cabin at breakneck speeds. He was clobbered by a toaster which, in passing, asked if he wanted a warm bagel. He wasn’t sure if he imagined that part. After all, he’d just suffered a crushing blow to the head.
Somehow, magically, he got the little craft under control. He applied full power to the engines and discovered that they were capable, just barely, of breaking the grip of the massive gravity well.
The raft shot free of the stars and the vast structure, headed in a direction that he couldn’t immediately define but which he instantly named “Away from burning alive.”
The ride stabilized at last. He was able to take a moment, lean against the helm and enjoy a deep breath. The computer said, “It’s a forge. It’s the Forge of Stars. It’s where they dump all the matter they collect. They’re feeding the stars! Can’t you see that? They’re going to build something here, something amazing.”
Chip gazed at what he perceived to be a largely incomplete structure. “I don’t think it will be anytime soon. Where are we?”
She paused for a long moment. “I don’t know. I can’t match any celestial coordinates to any known maps. I don’t believe we’re in our galaxy anymore.”
“Aww man,” Chip complained. “Now how long will it take us to get home?”
“Hmm...” she mused. “The math is a little fuzzy but I think I can accurately say, several million years or more.”
“Really? You want to narrow that down some?”
“Come on. Please?”
There was a soft shuffling noise and a sexy squeal. Chip turned, filled with uneasiness. He really didn’t like it when things that shuffled and squeaked sneaked up behind him.
A naked woman was staring at him, an utterly beautiful and desirable creature with wide blue eyes, a mass of stormy blonde hair, glorious sloping breasts and saddle-shaped hips that invited him to ride and ride. She looked terribly familiar.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “I think the shoebox must have turned over while we were spinning around.”
The computer harrumphed. “Four demerits.”
“Why?” he asked, exasperated.
“You’ve got nudie magazines stored under your bed, don’t you? And you were just dumb enough to put that box on top of them.”
He blushed. “That’s why she looks so familiar. It’s Audrey Hipburn!”
“You know them by name? You are disgusting.”
Audrey Hipburn squeaked piteously. She seemed confused by the talking computer panel. She reached out with a long-fingered hand and touched it.
“Stop touching me,” the computer complained. “Oh. Oh my. Oh.”
Chip frowned. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
Audrey blinked and said, “This is odd.”
He gazed into her blue eyes rapturously. “You can talk?”
She stared down at her glorious body and then at him. “It’s me. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“Holy crap,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing in there?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. The entities that make up the creature found me very interesting. They wanted to bond. I think this may be... permanent. This could be what they want from life, to become something complex but stable. They seem happy now.”
He thought about it. “Well, we have to get you back into the mainframe.”
“Why?” she asked incredulously.
“The raft needs you. All its functions depend on you. I depend on you.”
She smiled and he absolutely melted. “The raft doesn’t need me. It’s mostly automated. I have a few functions that are integrated but I can exercise them from out here. I’m still a computer program. Originally, I was designed to be a companion system. They added a lot of functions but my core program was never touched. I was supposed to keep survivors company during the long wait for rescue. It seems we’re going to have a very long wait.”
“Wow,” he blurted. “You’re my companion? We... get to be together?”
She stiffened. “Absolutely not, cadet. I’m your Captain. Get me some clothes, now! Stop staring at me and move. Two demerits for thinking what you were thinking. Not on my watch. Not aboard the SS Flower. Get yourself together.”
She crossed her hands behind her back and stared at the brilliant clump of gathered suns and the Forge of Stars. She said, “We’re going home.”
“How?” he asked, stupefied.
“The Darks have the technology we need to return to our galaxy, and we’re going to take it from them.”
“Darks? Did you just name that species?”
“No naming. Besides, that’s horrible. How about the Shadow Giants?”
“No. I already told you. You’re the one who’s not allowed to name things, silly cadet. Hop to it. I gave you an order. Square this barge away.”
He sighed miserably.
Copyright © 2013 by Richard A. Conine