The Splon Is a Lonely Hunter
by Roger Pitcher
Jopat squatted in the tall weeds behind the single-story structure. Experience told him that this would be where his quarry could be found in significant numbers. It was dirty work, but it paid well. His eyestalks swayed to match the rhythm of the wind-blown weeds, his tentacles poised to grab any maaum that might cross his path.
He’d brought along his molecular transformer. It required real skill and a steady tentacle to capture a maaum in the transformer’s beam. Maaums were notoriously skittish. They’d sidle up to one in a friendly fashion only to dart away at the least provocation.
Jopat’s vocal tubes chuckled quietly as he recalled his comic first efforts to corral some maaum. He’d tried stuffing them in a specimen bag, but they’d all escaped. A maaum’s talons made short work of the sheer fabrics that were the basic materials of Jopat’s homeworld.
The weeds quietly rustled, and Jopat stood ready to make his first capture. But it was only a small rodent, which Jopat scooped up and slid into his mouth tube. He’d forgotten his lunch and made a sad meal of the small creature. Once upon a time, he’d have been aghast at this casual taking of a life. But now he barely gave it a second thought as a minor burp escaped his digestive pouch.
How he’d come down in the world! Jopat wasn’t one to reminisce about past failures; he had no more tears to shed. But on lonely nights like this, on a planet far from the Splon homeworld, it was natural to reflect about what might have been.
Jopat had once been a respected exo-biologist. He’d held an important academic post, had made many discoveries in the field and contributed to the literature. He remembered with bruised pride how the University had chosen him to lead his fellow Splon on that life-changing expedition so long ago.
* * *
It was a scouting expedition to an insignificant, one-mooned planet over two hundred cycles ago. Jopat and his team of graduate students were to gather life form specimens. Challenging work, not without its dangers. But to Jopat, that’s what made it exciting. It was a game to him, to remain undiscovered by the native inhabitants as he observed and collected.
Conditions that night on the small world were humid and hot. The collection site he had selected was an isolated settlement on one of the larger continents. A small, primitive agricultural collective. These outposts were widely spaced from one another. Best of all, it was far from the major population centers. Secret, safe and secure.
The students, working in teams of two, were to gather plants or animals. Animal collection was a prestige assignment. Any first-year clod could pull up weeds, but only a Splon with experience and more than a little courage was permitted to face down living beings on another world.
As Jopat’s team materialized on the planet’s surface, they were detected by a sentinel creature that raised an alarm. Not a good beginning to the night’s work. The beast was medium-sized and powerfully built. It emitted an aggressive howl.
One of the graduate students captured the Howler within the sweeping arc of his molecular transformer. The Howler disappeared in a shimmer of atoms, safely transported to a capture cell in the belly of the University research vessel orbiting above. A first success!
That fateful night, Jopat had appointed his prize pupil Kloodgen to collect some of the larger specimens. Young Kloodgen was popular among the other students. They looked up to him as a leader. Even in a field with intense competition for academic advancement, Kloodgen was acknowledged as a Splon to be reckoned with.
He had nerves of steel and a stiff backbone. Actually, two stiff backbones that he’d developed earlier than others his age. He stood tall, while those around him dipped and swayed on their underdeveloped feelers.
The air that night was rich with agricultural smells. Kloodgen extended a tangle of olfactory tentacles and wiggled them rapidly at twenty large creatures in an enclosure, extracting a full measure of data on the animals’ aroma. Kloodgen, noted Jopat, delighted in the most disgusting things.
Kloodgen fluttered over the enclosure’s railings. He sized up the beasts and selected one for molecular transfer. A wide swath of particles spread out from his device, enveloping the subject animal. The young Splon monitored the screen and made rapid, minute adjustments to the containment field. Kloodgen and Jopat were unprepared for what followed.
A massive explosion knocked Jopat off his tentacles. Kloodgen was blown backward into the slats of the enclosure. His gelatinous body slowly oozed back through the rails of the fence to be reabsorbed into his main mass.
Jopat intertwined tentacles with the fallen Kloodgen. They mingled consciousness.
“Are you all right?” queried Jopat.
“I don’t understand what occurred,” responded Kloodgen. “The containment field was within normal parameters.”
Lights abruptly illuminated the enclosure. One of the planet’s bipeds emerged from a two-story building and ran towards the corral. The two Splon were overtaken by the agitated biped. It stood with its head orifice widely agape. It jumped up and down and made loud noises. It presented an overall menacing appearance as it advanced on Jopat and Kloodgen.
Kloodgen swung around wildly, aimed his molecular transfer device at the angry biped and squeezed the activator. The creature disappeared in a thrilling shiver of atoms.
Jopat swatted the device from Kloodgen’s wavering tentacles. “Are you out of your minds?” thought Jopat with a decisive energy that caused the younger Splon to lose confidence and settle into a puddle of his own mass. “Why did you do that? You’ve violated the basic protocol!” Jopat was livid, and his outer form pulsated with a changing pattern of lights and colors.
Kloodgen sank further into his own puddle, his eyestalks drooping. “I panicked. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.”
The remains of the exploded beast, Kloodgen’s failed capture, littered the ground around them. The destruction of life, especially extra-Splon life, was a serious breach of the basic protocol. It could even be viewed as a crime. At the very least it was professional negligence, and Jopat, as leader of the expedition, would have to answer to both the civil and University officials.
They needed to get out of there, and fast. Jopat signaled for the other students to return to the rendezvous coordinates. He adjusted his molecular transfer device to Kloodgen’s molecule map and sent the disgraced student back to the ship to await his displeasure.
He’d invent some excuse to the rest of the team to explain this unscheduled departure. He performed some adjustments on his transfer device, creating a bubble of normal time around his team while, outside the bubble, planet-time slowed to a crawl.
More bipeds started to pour from the building in slow motion. Lights on the buildings came on, the filaments of the bulbs slowly ignited, photons leaking forth in a plodding march as Jopat transported his students, one-by-one, back to their orbiting ship.
The last of the team being safely off-planet, Jopat prepared to turn his device on himself when he became aware of a sensation pushing and stroking against his lower tentacles. He craned half his eyestalks around to collect better data.
The creature was small, covered with a furry outer coat. It possessed a long prehensile rear appendage that moved in response to the flickers of Jopat’s own tentacles. The creature arched its back and rubbed comfortably against Jopat. He lowered a few tentacles and lifted the small creature to eyes’ level.
The creature calmly emitted a noise. Jopat’s ear stalks interpreted the data as a sound like “ma-a-u-m.” The creature rubbed its head into Jopat’s braincase. It was a pleasurable sensation and Jopat found it strangely comforting. He made a minute adjustment to the molecular transfer device to account for the creature’s mass and returned with it to the ship.
Back on board, the other students surrounded Kloodgen. They offered him consoling swipes of their tentacles, but as soon as Jopat materialized they withdrew, leaving the young grad student alone to face his mentor’s music.
The transport bay was adjacent to the stasis area where specimens were stored for the trip back to Homeworld. The illegally-captured biped was being held with the aggressive sentinel creature, the Howler they had taken first. The two huddled in fear in the far corner of a capture cell. They would have to undergo memory-wipe via an anal probe before they could be returned to the planet’s surface.
The walls of the capture cell were perforated with thousands of tiny ports. Tentacles grew from these to grasp the biped and its beast, securing, anally probing and sedating them both before demolecularizing them for the trip back to the surface. The maaum, for that is now how Jopat referred to it, had made a friend in Kloodgen and was lying on its back below the young Splon’s dangling tentacles playfully swatting at them.
* * *
The University Tribunal had been swift, the decision unanimous. Jopat was stripped of his academic credentials and position, his specimens were confiscated, including the maaum. He was subsequently called before the civilian review board to answer for the incident of the captured biped and the exploding beast. But without a word of explanation, the judge dismissed Jopat’s advocate and invited the disgraced academic to an interview in his private chambers.
Jopat entered. The judge sat behind his flimsy desk that was being shredded by the talons of Jopat’s maaum.
“What a delightful creature,” cooed the Judge, mesmerized by the antics of the maaum. “And this was your discovery?” he queried.
Jopat nervously cleared his throats, “Ahem, yes, Your Honor. It was the only positive thing to emerge from my disgrace.”
Jopat watched as the maaum curled itself around the judge’s braincase and emitted a gentle humming noise. The judge instantly relaxed, his eyestalks drooped as if in a pleasant reverie. Jopat had forgotten how delightful had been the touch of the maaum.
“Do you think you could get any more?” asked the judge without turning a single eyestalk towards Jopat.
“More maaums?” asked Jopat, momentarily unaware that he was being given a second chance. “I doubt the University would sponsor a return trip.”
“Oh, your academic career is finished. I was considering another arrangement.”
“But,” stuttered Jopat, “off-world species are forbidden to private owners.”
“It would be our little secret, Jopat. You see, I have friends who have been introduced to the delights of this creature and have been simply won over by Mister Tizzy Wizzles. They’ll pay any price to possess one of their own.”
Mister Tizzy Wizzles
and the judge
“Mister Tizzy Wizzles, Your Honor?” Jopat was confused.
“I beg your pardon,” replied the judge, his tentacles dangling a legal brief just above the outstretched talons of the maaum who tore at it to the judge’s delight, “Mister Tizzy Wizzles is the name I’ve given the... what do you call it again?”
“Maaum. It’s called a maaum, Your Honor.”
“Maaum. Well I suppose that will do for a species designation, though I prefer Mister Tizzy Wizzles. So, what do you say Jopat? Will you be going into the maaum trade or will you be out on the streets, rummaging through garbage cans for your next meal?”
* * *
Jopat had returned to the small planet with the single moon many times throughout the ensuing cycles. Through careful observation he’d come to learn much about the biped inhabitants. He could distinguish between the genders — there were only two! — and he discovered the most promising hunting grounds for maaum.
Some of the bipeds kept many maaum whether as food or for some other unfathomable reason. But a pattern had emerged. Older, single females living in relative isolation, somehow had the ability to attract and retain hoards of maaum.
The demand on Homeworld was outpacing Jopat’s ability to deliver maaums in the numbers requested. This particular trip had been a goldmine of maaum. The older, single, isolated female biped had attracted scores of the creatures and Jopat’s molecular transformer was in danger of depleting its energy reserves.
In his imagination Jopat was already spending his profits. His haul this trip had been enormous and he might even be able to sock away a few kekkles for retirement. He dreamed of a cycle when every Splon on Homeworld would have a maaum in the pod.
His ship leapt from the warptunnel, was caught by the steering beacon and directed to a private strip away from the central spaceport. It was here that Jopat clandestinely traded maaums for kekkles with his eager clients.
But this time, something was wrong. No one was there to meet his ship. He checked the console’s chronofeed; he wasn’t early or late, so where were the Splons? He had always, after previous trips, had customers lined up and waiting for him to touch down. He waited nearly half a rev, his frustration growing with each passing minim.
After many failed attempts to reach his patron, the judge finally answered Jopat’s call.
“Yes? What is it?” said the image of the judge. He seemed to be tired out from some exertion.
“Your Honor, it is Jopat. I’m surprised that you were not here to meet me. I’ve a fresh load of maaums. I even managed to find something new and very rare just for you. A maaum without hair.”
“You’re welcome to it,” said the judge. Jopat was thrown off his bearings.
“But, I don’t understand...” stammered the disgraced exobiologist turned maaum-smuggler. “Are you saying you don’t want the maaum?”
“Nobody does. You’ve been away too long this time, Jopat. The cycles have moved on. Sure, maaums are delightful, but they’re destructive. My furniture is ruined. Besides, ever since Professor Kloodgen’s discovery—”
“Kloodgen!?” sputtered Jopat.
“That’s right, from the University,” continued the judge. “On his last trip to Kloodgen’s World — it was named in honor of his discovery — he brought back the most lovable creature you can imagine. Bigger than a maaum, and talk about loyal, why they never leave your side. More needy than a maaum but then, I always found maaums a little too independent for my taste.
“Well, best of luck, Jopat. Oh, we won’t be financing any more expeditions. You might want to get one of Kloodgen’s creatures. Howlers he calls them. I’ve got to get back to my game of fetch the grassnad. Great exercise, and Barnaby, my Howler, loves it.”
The screen went blank. “Kloodgen’s World?” Jopat downloaded an update to the Galactic Atlas and ran a search for Kloodgen’s World. His heart sank, and this started to pull on his other hearts which followed the first one down into his gelatinous nether regions. Kloodgen’s World was the same small blue planet with one moon he had pioneered those long cycles ago.
Jopat ran a search on Kloodgen on the Splon-lopedia. There was no mention of that long-ago visit to the blue planet where Kloodgen had violated the basic protocol. Nothing about the captured biped, the exploding beast. And nothing about himself. He was a forgotten, once-promising university professor who’d had a bright future. Now he was a broken-down has-been with a spaceship full of maaum.
* * *
The dilapidated old house stood far back from the main transportway. No one ever visited the occupant. Occasionally, young Splon from town would venture out on a dare to break a window or throw some stones at the maaum that seemed to infest the place. The Splon who lived there was a crazy old maaum hoarder.
The local health department had been called out more than once to try and round up the maaum. But Jopat raised such a stink that it was more trouble than it was worth. The old fool was deeply attached to those maaum even though Howlers were so much more popular and easier to train.
Copyright © 2016 by Roger Pitcher