by John N. Crain
A warm mist descended over the crèche and K raised its head above the polished stone rim. Not much to see, but the moisture made odors stronger. K opened an olfactory port, analyzing the heady mix of scents, some sweet, some bitter, some so strong they could be tasted. Woven through the tapestry of redolence, K detected something new, a thread of effluvium never encountered. K’s primary pseudopod flowed over the side of the nest, following the strange aroma, seeking the source.
On bare knees, Miyoko knelt over a portable atmospheric sensor. She worked naked in the alien environment, pleasant beyond their expectations, warm, humid, pervaded by an unearthly fragrance she rather liked. She and her fellow crewmember, Winston, had decided to dispense with their cumbersome suits as soon as they’d landed.
Her sole margin of safety was the narrow strip of metallic plastic, her Guardian, clinging to her right forearm like a synthetic skin. Winston was always tinkering with it, improving it, and its versatility still astounded her though she’d almost ceased to notice it. Other implanted strings, less obvious, more a part of her, aided her thought processes, regulated her physical being down to her cellular structure.
She adjusted the sensor a slight degree. The glowing telltale changed from orange-brown to a pleasing green and she knew its results could be trusted. As she rose and turned to go back to the ship, something touched her ankle.
Stretched out in his berth, Winston allowed his thoughts to be lulled by the hum of eleven-dimensional strings working in unison, a subatomic symphony created by the Witten Device. The instruments producing that sound enabled instantaneous travel to any point in the universe; the underlying technology had superseded electronics more than a century ago when Winston was just a boy. Strings ruled human existence now.
He and Miyoko found the planet three days ago, after bouncing around this neighborhood of the galaxy in what might have appeared to be a random fashion for the better part of a week. But it wasn’t random. With each hop, subsequent surveys added more details about the sub-quadrant until a set of coordinates came up blue-green, indicating a planet capable of supporting human life. Their craft duly popped into existence a few hundred miles above the surface. Sensing and cataloguing began.
Such a benign planet. Life in abundance, none of it too threatening. Water too, of course – the atmosphere just seemed like an extension of the countless bodies of fresh water. No oceans or significant mountains – from orbit the planet most resembled a huge, spherical sponge.
Winston’s ruminations ended abruptly when he heard a scream, somewhat muted by the thick, moist atmosphere outside the ship’s open hatch. In his haste, he came close to slipping on the dewy metal threshold, but regained his balance and ran in the direction where he and Miyoko previously agreed to set up the sensor.
He rounded a boulder, almost stumbling over Miyoko where she lay on the ground, face contorted in pain. An electric blue aura encased her entire body. Her Guardian had automatically activated a shield the instant it sensed distress. Miyoko’s hand gripped her left calf above the ankle, fingers causing the adjacent skin to appear much whiter than usual. At first, Winston thought she’d sprained her ankle somehow, and wondered how such a minor injury could be so painful, but when he bent over it he understood. An oblong hole not much larger than a finger marred the flesh. With great care he rotated her leg to get a better look. Very little blood, yet the wound extended half an inch deep, revealing bone. The pain would be excruciating and he was amazed she hadn’t passed out. Bewildered, he raised his eyes to hers, questioning. “What happened?”
“Something attacked me. No warning– otherwise my Guardian would’ve kick in. I didn’t get a good look at it – it was too fast – behind those rocks.” She pointed beyond the sensor unit, ten feet away, toward a small rock formation covered with patches of the ubiquitous vegetative growth resembling lichen.
Winston edged around the formation and his own Guardian, sensing his wariness, put up a tentative shield that could be reinforced in an instant should the need arise. A prickling sensation emanated from the Guardian and traveled up his forearm indicating preparedness of becoming a weapon. A creature the size of an average dog lay on the ground. Winston froze, observing the thing. Though it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, it wasn’t motionless either. It possessed no definable shape, constantly shifting, flowing from one amorphous configuration to another. Winston’s fascination grew and he realized the creature’s movements were oddly calming. The prickling in his arm subsided and he stepped forward. A portion of the mutating mass formed what might have been described as a head, but featureless except for several round, flat spots Winston supposed fulfilled the function of eyes, for they arranged themselves on the changing surface as though they looked at him. And indeed, an immediate reaction ensued that Winston interpreted as fear. The creature backed away, quivering.
Winston squatted, studying the creature. The quivering ceased. Though the creature’s mass didn’t appear to be supported by any skeletal structure, it wasn’t as formless as he’d initially thought. The head-like portion expanded and contracted, as did other parts of the creature. An almost cylindrical, tapering appendage began to form on the surface of the creature closest to Winston, stretching outward, and Winston became vaguely alarmed again, causing his shield to brighten and a renewed prickling along his arm. But as he started to stand, the rubbery appendage curled like the trunk of an elephant, touching the ground. Though he couldn’t say why, Winston received the distinct impression that the gesture was non-threatening, perhaps even a gesture of peace.
Winston’s fascination with the creature broke, interrupted by a sudden concern for Miyoko, still in pain. He turned to retrace his steps, keeping an eye on the creature. As he moved away, it followed, maintaining a benign distance. As Winston reached Miyoko, the creature came into her view. Her eyes widened but she retained her composure, governed by her scientific training. In an even tone she said, “That’s what injured my leg. Don’t let it touch you.”
“I don’t think it meant to hurt you. How’s the pain?”
“My Guardian has it under control now. I think I could walk without much trouble.”
“Good. Let’s get you back to the ship.”
He helped her up – damp, flawless skin slipping against skin – and she kept her gaze on the creature, which had stopped moving toward them, as though waiting. She took one tentative step, verifying the absence of any significant pain, let go of Winston’s arm and continued in the direction of the ship. The creature resumed its undulating motion and followed.
Winston gazed out the ship’s hatch at the creature twenty paces beyond. It gazed back at him, or seemed to with its unreadable disk-like eyes, and he considered the old adage that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Winston didn’t believe in the concept of soul. He turned to find Miyoko already in the care unit. She winced for the brief moment her Guardian relinquished pain management and the more capable care unit took over. New flesh began filling the hole in her leg. In less than a minute the repair was complete and Miyoko stepped out of the unit, reached down and rubbed the spot where the injury had been. “Still just a tiny bit sore,” she commented.
“I’m sure it won’t be for long.”
“Thanks for coming to my rescue. I’m sorry I screamed, but the pain was so sharp and unexpected I couldn’t help it.”
Winston shrugged. “That creature – it’s not at all like the others we’ve seen on this planet, every one of them harmless – I thought we’d catalogued them all.”
“This one seems so different. Smaller, no apparent bone structure to support it. I wonder how such an organism could have evolved on this planet… It’s very interesting, don’t you think?”
He gathered her into his arms and marveled at her resilience. “Yes, extremely. It seems to have more advanced cognition than anything else we’ve found here.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Nothing specific – just a feeling… Even though it doesn’t have a definable shape, it seems to use a kind of body language…”
“Winston, I think we should start our rest period early. I’m sure the stress affected you too. We could use the common berth if you like…”
Minutes later, they lay with their bodies pressed together in the spoon position, and Miyoko closed her eyes and allowed her strings to take over. Her strings would guide her consciousness in the realms still referred to as dreams.
When she opened her eyes, Winston no longer lay beside her. She rose and found him sitting cross-legged on the ground outside the ship, the creature three feet in front of him. Mist had turned to a fine drizzle and they were both shiny with rain. Neither seemed to notice. Yet when Miyoko appeared, Winston turned his head to look at her and the flat, round spots on the creature slid over its surface to point in her direction.
Winston gestured and said, “Miyoko, come look.” He pointed at the ground in front of the creature. “We’ve communicated.”
Between Winston and the creature, in the wet sand that never seemed to cling, she saw the words, “I learn you teach”.
“How… you mean it wrote that? she asked.
“Yes. And it wants to be allowed to touch me.”
“Winston! You mustn’t – under no circumstances should you come into direct contact.”
As though he hadn’t heard her, Winston said, “The creature calls itself ‘K’.” His palm smoothed the sand, erasing the words, and using his index finger, he wrote ‘You touch I hurt.’
A pseudopod extended, erased Winston’s words, and replaced them with ‘I did not want to hurt’. Then it erased again and wrote ‘I not hurt you’. The pseudopod retracted and the creature became still, waiting in the drizzle.
Winston tilted his head back to speak directly to Miyoko, squinting his eyes against the falling moisture. “I have to allow it. This kind of situation is what we’ve been trained for. And I believe it can be trusted.”
He leaned forward again and carved one word in the unearthly soil, “Yes”.
The creature closed the short distance to Winston with a surprising rapidity. A new, more slender pseudopod reached out to touch the right side of Winston’s head with supreme gentleness. Somewhere in Winston’s mind he thought he heard, “You symmetrical…” Then another pseudopod protruded from the creature, making contact with the other side of Winston’s head, millimeters above his left ear, and he distinctly heard, “… so two contacts are required. Do they cause you discomfort?”
“No. None at all. And I hear you quite clearly. Can you hear me?”
Miyoko witnessed the contact of an alien mind with her partner’s with only a trace of anxiety. Within moments the two pseudopods retracted and Winston’s eyes acquired a slight glaze as the creature undulated over to the ship, touching the surface with its main pseudopod. Winston remained in his sitting position, silent. With renewed concern, Miyoko said, “Winston!” but he reassured her, saying, “That was… incredible. How long were we in contact?”
“About ten seconds, I think. What happened?”
“I would have guessed more like ten minutes… K told me a great deal about itself. It possesses a surprisingly good understanding of our language and symbolism. Apparently K is sexless, reproducing by splitting off part of its body, like cell division but with something analogous to horizontal gene transfer, and on a much larger scale than any other creature I know of. However, K is familiar with sexual reproduction since virtually every life form on this planet uses it. But the crucial fact is K’s species is unique. In fact nothing else on this planet reproduces in a way even remotely like it.”
“That’s unexpected. In any closed ecological system a spectrum of diversity generally evolves. Why would K’s species be the only one to reproduce in that manner – almost as if it originated in some other ecosystem? I find that concerning.”
“So did I. So I asked. K doesn’t have a clear answer either. It speculates that perhaps its species was originally from another planet. These organisms don’t keep records of any kind because their entire memories are passed from one generation to another when they reproduce. The trouble is, their origin on this planet was so long ago their memory may have changed, sort of like mutating genes. K’s mental capacity is staggering, by the way.”
“I suppose it must be the dominant organism on this planet. Is that true, do you think?”
“I think that’s a good assumption. Would you like to ask K yourself?” Winston started to get up but Miyoko stopped him and paused a moment before replying.
“No. I haven’t quite gotten over the chunk it took out of my leg. I’m not ready to give it another opportunity yet. By the way, what do you think it might have learned from you?”
Winston turned an impassive face toward the creature as it extended a tentative pseudopod over the threshold of the open hatch. “I don’t know. It didn’t ask many questions. But it did seem curious about the ship… It wanted to know how we got here, and asked me specifically about the Witten Device. I got the impression it was just asking to be polite.”
They lay in the common berth, Winston on his back. The ship’s hatch was closed. Miyoko wanted it that way. She pushed her fingertips through his brown hair, searching in vain for some sign of the alien’s contact. “You really didn’t feel anything?” she whispered.
“I felt the touch of K’s pseudopods, of course, but nothing unusual. It was the actual communication that was so extraordinary – like conversing with someone in your mind – not external.” He lowered his voice, traced the arch of her eyebrow, and added, “It was very intimate. I found myself wishing you could be part of it too.”
The second communication session began as the first, but with Miyoko sitting next to Winston on the ground outside the ship. The drizzle had stopped, leaving a fog of supersaturated air, sauna warm. The physical contact between K and Winston was reestablished, and Winston began, “K, Miyoko would like to join us. Would that be possible?”
“Yes. I would like that.” Two more thin pseudopods linked Miyoko to K, one on each temple. “Welcome, Miyoko. With your permission I will allow you to hear everything between Winston and myself and he will hear your thoughts as well. Is that acceptable?”
“Of course – thank you for asking. I think I will just listen for a while.”
Winston began. “In our first session, you told me a little about yourself and your species. What would you like to know about us?”
“I learn from simple contact. It is enough.”
“How do you mean? I ask questions and you answer. Don’t you have any questions?”
“Yes – many – but asking them isn’t necessary.”
“I still don’t know what you mean by that. Can you explain more fully?”
“Perhaps I must tell you more about my kind. We are hunters. As you know, there are numerous other species on this planet, none of which have intelligence beyond what is needed to survive. But each species possesses different requirements for survival, and consequently, different skills and behaviors. My species is adept at understanding those requirements, skills, and behaviors. That’s what makes us such effective hunters. However, we only harvest and consume what is needed to sustain us.” K paused. “You wonder why we are such skilled hunters. And that leads to the point about how we learn.” Another pause. “The flesh of every species has its own taste. The taste is determined by its genetic codes. Genetic codes also contain information about an individual organism, and each cell contains varying amounts of information, but the most complete knowledge about the individual resides in the conglomeration of cells used to reason, to think. When we consume a prey, we decode, aggregate, and integrate every bit of that information. When we consume a prey, we learn where it spent the last three hours, the last three days, the last three years. We learn everything there is to know about its mate, where its mate might be found. We learn everything. In that way, we gain such a complete understanding of our prey that hunting more of them is effortless.”
Winston struggled to understand and believe the full import of what he’d been told. He asked, “And what about what you did to Miyoko?”
“The sample of cells I took from her contained barely enough information to learn how to communicate with you, but that sample was enough to tell me you are highly advanced beings, far beyond what we normally consider prey.”
“How many of you are there?”
K paused again, longer than before. “Our numbers are in balance with the number of our prey. They will be here soon.”
The four slender pseudopods touching Winston and Miyoko became more slender, penetrating toward the tissue of their brains. They felt no pain – nothing that might activate a Guardian. Cells comprising muscle tissue were consumed first, the unsupported neurons and synapses of the peripheral and central nervous systems left intact; pale, lace-like gossamers. Guardians fell away, useless. Only then did K begin the consumption of neurons. In Winston’s last sentient moments, he saw the clearing before the ship fill with undulating, formless creatures. And as the totality of his neurons diminished, so carefully and methodically consumed, so did his ability to cogitate, until consciousness flickered out.
K was satisfied. Two jumbled piles of etched bone, mixed with some organic-shaped metallic plastic objects, objects now identified as string implants, lay on the ground. The other members of the tribe, having each been given a small portion of the prey’s flesh, explored the ship.
But most importantly, K understood the Witten Device, how it worked – and from where it came.
Winston’s memories were assembled in chronological order, rebuilding the totality of his existence. As his final thoughts took their place like the utmost components topping a house of cards, consciousness reasserted itself.
He stood on the surface of the planet, a fine drizzle, almost mist, filling the air. Miyoko, motionless next to him, moved her hand into his. What he knew to be the voice of K echoed in his mind, saying, “You and Miyoko are in me now. All you once were, with the exception of your physical manifestation, I’ve reconstructed in my being from the information contained in your flesh.”
A memory of what it felt like to experience panic tried to rise up in Winston’s thoughts, but he suppressed it. To his astonishment, Miyoko asked, “If I exist only in you, and am merely a construct of my past, how could I ever experience anything new?”
“Through me. I will add my sensory input of some of the things I see, taste, smell, hear, even touch. And, to Winston, you are more than just a memory. In my consciousness, I allow the two of you to interact. But I control the degree of interaction. All creatures I’ve consumed, all who my forebears consumed down the ages, exist in me. Through me and all my descendents, you are now virtually immortal.”
Winston said, “You say you will let us experience some of what you sense. Only some things?”
“Yes. It will be selective. You would not be able to correlate everything I am capable of sensing. But I will integrate things into your awareness as though they are your own. Behold.”
Winston’s reality transformed. With an undulating, melting fluidity, the planet morphed into the interior of the ship. It had been changed. In Winston’s memory, the interior had been barely large enough for himself and Miyoko – their sleeping quarters, galley, and instrumentation surrounding the central pillar housing the Witten Device. Now the interior was much larger. A new chamber curved off from the original circular room, much like the interior of a pseudopod, and Winston could see rows upon rows of what appeared to be large, bowl-shaped containers made of polished stone, each occupied by a creature exactly like K.
And K said, “This is what I see at this moment. We have modified your ship, and final preparations are being made.”
Winston dreaded the answer to his next question. “Preparations for what?”
“For traveling to your planet of origin. Our numbers will increase there.”
About the Author
John N. Crain can most often be found within a thirty mile radius of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Though he has had professional careers in the fine arts, astronomy, and computer science, in the moments between those fragments of time he considers real, he tends to write science fiction. He is currently working on numerous short stories, and two novels having to do with alternate universes.
His under-construction web site is: www.treesonthemoon.com