by Alex Mellen
If I had been on earth when news aired about the creatures, I don’t think I would have believed it. A lot of people thought it was a hoax. My wife believed me. Of course, I was her husband; we had a good bit of trust right there. But she had more than that to go on.
I could hardly believe my own eyes when I first saw them. We had been mapping the Proxima Centauri system for three months and were heading back to earth in a little less than a month. The previous trip had been the first, and those astronauts had only stayed long enough to confirm the existence of planetary masses orbiting the star. Now, we were actually taking a look around.
I was in the sleeping quarters with my memory cube, recording an audio message to my wife, Abby. Each of us had received a cube with a few terabytes of memory, more than enough for us to fill with messages to loved ones back home in case something happened to one of us. I wanted to give it to her as a kind of journal of the trip, and I didn’t intend to skimp on data.
As I was speaking, however, Caleb burst in, grabbing onto the doorway to keep from flying into me in the zero-G.
“Josh, you have got to see this!”
I sighed and pushed the pause button. “Caleb, I was recording for Abby.”
“That can wait. C’mon, hurry!” I peeled off my Velcro harness and launched myself toward Caleb.
While we ricocheted off the walls leading to the control room, I tried to imagine what they had found. I had read just enough science fiction novels in high school to let my imagination run away with me.
I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Outside the floor-to-ceiling clear steel panels, maybe a dozen kilometers away, was what at first looked like a small clump of asteroids, spinning this way and that. As I kept watching, I noticed they were moving in a bit of formation, almost like—a school of fish? No, it couldn’t be.
“Yep.” Caleb grinned.
“But we’re in space! Solid hard vacuum.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter to them.” I blinked, and they were still there. Floating around, at home in the void.
“Velcro, please, in the lab,” Keller reminded us. Taking my eyes off the—aliens—as little as possible, I peeled the fabric layer off my shoes that covered the Velcro underneath and nudged myself to the floor.
I approached the terminals. “What do we know?”
“Not much yet,” Keller said. “They’re surviving in vacuum, that’s for sure. It’s possible they have some kind of shielding exoskeleton. Their thermal signatures are tiny.”
I walked over to the window. Life, here! This was the last thing we had expected to run into on our mission. We were just doing some mapping, taking some samples. We assumed everything we saw on the last trip was all that was out here.
“It also looks like they absorb energy,” Keller said. “It’s how they move.”
“Propulsion. They expel energy. Like a squid pumping water. Somehow they can process the radiation.”
“They must ingest matter, too.”
“Obviously, but we don’t know where they’re getting it.”
The more I watched them, the more they reminded me of a school of fish. Keller described them as squids, swimming in space.
I felt a pressure on my chin. Caleb was pushing my jaw up. I closed my mouth and rolled my eyes at him. “So, are we going to get closer?”
“Is that a question?” His eyes glowed with excitement. I guess mine did, too.
Six hours later, I watched the bay doors slide open, releasing Caleb and me into space. It had taken almost that whole time to convince Keller, our mission commander, to let me see the aliens up close. Keller’s condition was that I go with a partner, and Caleb had agreed to join me.
Against Keller’s liking I brought a laser knife, Velcroed in a pocket on my forearm. A camera and a few other scanners were strapped to my chest, and as I propelled around the corner of the Prospector I calmed my nerves by listening to the hum of my air recycler and tasting the dry, sanitized oxygen mix entering my mouth.
“Ready for this?” Caleb asked.
“Let’s do it.” We rounded the corner of the ship and saw the space squids again. They looked a lot bigger now that we were right next to them. I guessed the largest ones were at least the size of a small house. Their gray bodies were bulky, and the tentacles were more like stubs than snakes. Their skin—if it could be called that—had the texture of a rock, too. We hadn’t figured out if they had eyes, or where they were, but we knew they could feel. At least, they didn’t like being caught in each other’s exhaust fumes.
And there were a lot of them. We took a census, and the total came to 387 heat signatures. If they decided to attack or stampede the Prospector, they could do some damage. So far, however, they seemed very gentle. What predators exist in space?
We approached the closest one. About ten meters away from it, we stopped. It didn’t seem to notice us. If it had been a car, I would have said it was idling there, shifting its weight every minute or so to avoid major drifting.
“Is it asleep?” I asked.
“Maybe, if they sleep,” Caleb said. “I’ve seen them go from this to all cylinders firing in seconds.”
“In other words, stay away from its rear end,” I said.
I fired my jets a little and drifted slowly toward it. Suddenly, it swung toward me.
“Josh!” Caleb called.
I froze, but I quickly realized my momentum was still taking me forward. I compensated with a burst from my forward thrust, but by the time I did this, I was an arm-length away from its massive front side. It was like staring at a giant boulder, except that boulder could send me flying with hardly a nudge.
But, I wasn’t scared. I was exhilarated.
We had observed earlier that its front side was dotted with some odd bubble-like projections. We guessed they were sensory inputs or outputs of some kind. A few of these were close to me now. As I watched them, something flashed inside one.
“Caleb, I think those bubbles are eyes. It’s looking at me.” I was afraid either to look back or to break eye contact. I had no idea what kind of gesture would look peaceful, so I just stayed still. Then I realized it couldn’t see my face. I had my mirroring up. Or could it see me? Maybe the “eyes” actually saw infrared, or something we didn’t even know about.
“Josh, something’s moving on the side of it.” I glanced at Caleb, who had come up a little closer on my left. He was pointing to a knobby section of skin, each knob about two meters square. The knobs were moving up and down with a rhythm to them but no easily discernible pattern.
“Are you recording?” I asked Caleb.
“You better believe it.”
But, while he was answering, the creature rotated again so I was near the knobby part. It sort of sidled up to me, and I somehow knew I was supposed to touch it. I put my hand over the area. Each bump was the size of my hand. I felt one expand and contract. The skin felt hard like plastic, but somehow it was moving smoothly, like a bubble that forms in pancake batter cooking and then reverses. Each one was moving almost independently, expanding, contracting, or lying flat.
“That’s it!” We had seen them sidle up like this before, each facing the other direction, but we’d had no idea what they were doing. “It’s…talking with these.” Well, talking might have made it sound more intelligent than it was. We had analyzed those bump patterns for months after the trip and couldn’t make any sense of them. But it had some sort of intelligence.
The creature shoved into me again. I think it was confused why I wasn’t responding. Impulsively, I fired my jets so I could push with some force against it. I pushed a few of the bumps as they rose, but I had no idea what I was communicating to it. I stopped trying and propelled to its front side again.
Caleb was still hanging back, taking measurements and pictures. I turned so I was facing away from the sun and lowered the mirroring on my visor. Maybe this made no difference, but I wanted it actually to see me.
I think I arrived at different “eyes” this time, because these were a bit bigger and I could see them moving a little more. Unable to think of anything else, I waved.
“And this picture is of Josh and Bessie, the giant space squid. Say cheese.” I turned to face Caleb and grinned.
“Come on over.”
“You’re doing great. I’ll just watch.”
“Yeah, just a little.” For some reason, I wasn’t. I turned back to “Bessie” and tried to think of what else I could do to communicate with it. I turned on my headlamp, careful not to shine it directly in an eye; though if it was facing the sun, I doubted my 200 watts would bother it.
It darted to the side a little, so I shined the beam across its front. It moved with the beam. I was playing with it. A life form existed that could survive the impossible environment of space vacuum, light years away from our solar system, and I was playing with it.
“Caleb, you have to try this.”
A few days later, I was floating in the galley, recording another message to Abby. I was telling her about the squids and my interactions with them. I had gone out three times total. Other astronauts came, too, and Molly was brave enough to join me in touching and playing with them, but it became clear I had the gift with them.
“Bessie” was everyone’s favorite. After that first spacewalk, she (or he, or…who knows) trailed the Prospector like a puppy, occasionally bumping or nudging against it. This set everybody on edge for a while, but she was always gentle, so we got used to it and even enjoyed the periodic earthquakes. It was space; everything was strapped down anyway.
We knew we were supposed to finish charting and probing, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the pod. This was by far the scientific discovery of the century; we figured NASA would forgive us. We tried sending out some probes, but we soon realized we had invented the first interstellar chew toy. The Prospector was their size and slow, so they generally left it alone. But probes were just the right size and speed to be chased and batted around—and chewed. The creatures’ mouths, like squids’, were the same end as their jets. They would come up backward on a probe and use their tentacles to grab it and try to shove it in their mouth hole. We, trying not to lose a $2 million probe, would fire the thing, and the squid would lose its grip. Then it would start all over again. So, no probe launching.
I was just telling Abby how we had suctioned a transceiver to Bessie’s side when Caleb came in. I told Abby I’d save the story for later and turned off the cube.
“You don’t have to stop,” Caleb said.
“It’s fine. I was beginning to ramble anyway.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“I didn’t know I could ever miss someone this much,” I said. “I feel like there’s a giant hole inside me.”
Caleb looked sympathetic. “Space is a harsh mistress.”
“Yeah. What about you? Weren’t you with Laura, or Lana, or….”
“Libby.” He sighed. “The distance was just too great—literally. I couldn’t be there for her often enough.” He gestured to the ship. “This is all I’ve got now.” He chuckled. “Maybe I should just marry her.”
“At least you wouldn’t have to worry about kids.”
Caleb raised his eyebrows. “And you might? Josh, you didn’t tell me.”
“I don’t know for sure,” I replied. “We—let’s just say we made very good use of our last night together.” Caleb wiggled his eyebrows. “Stop it. And she asked what she should do if she was pregnant. You know, what I would want its name to be and things like that. And I said maybe she consider…taking care of it. I mean, I wouldn’t be there for the first year and a half of its life. I just wish we had been more careful. Anyway, it’s just eating at me, not knowing.”
“It’ll be fine,” Caleb patted my back none too gently, sending me flying toward the wall. I landed on my feet and ricocheted back at him, but by then, he was gone.
The next day, I was heading to the control room for my shift. We were trying to circle the pod and study as many unique creatures as we could. Suddenly, something huge impacted the ship. The wall was slammed into my head, which began to pound as sirens went off everywhere. The Prospector was still moving in the direction of the shove, and I used that small amount of force to steady myself as I anchored my feet to the Velcro floor, which now felt sideways.
“Josh, get in here!” Keller called from the lab. I carefully walked the few steps into the lab as the ship “righted” itself, firing thrusts to compensate the momentum.
“What’s going on?” I asked. My head still throbbed, and everything was blurry.
“It’s coming around for another shot!” I heard a voice beside me say.
“Brace yourselves,” Keller said. I managed to grab the railing along the wall just before we were hit again, this time from above. The Velcro kept me from going head over heels, but now I was beginning to feel sick.
“We’ve got a rogue squid here,” Keller explained. “It was apart from the pod a bit. When we were about a few hundred meters away, it started charging. We’re not sure what’s going on. Maybe it’s an alpha male, maybe a hunter—we don’t know.”
“Well, let’s get out of its way,” I said. I didn’t have much in the way of brilliant plans just then.
“We’re trying, but it’s chasing us. We need to stop this now.” Another jolt from above punctuated his statement. “And we may have to kill it if it doesn’t let us go.”
“But, you said we don’t want to display hostile—”
“Forget what I said!” Keller shouted. “If that thing hits our engines, we’re the dead ones.”
My brain was clearing a little, and I was trying to figure out what could possibly damage the creatures, let alone kill them.
“A laser drill. We’ve already got one hooked up to a remote-controlled arm. But, you said you didn’t want—”
“We may have to,” Keller said. “Josh, go warm that thing up.”
Another hit came while I was doing the supposedly simple task of walking across the lab. My feet stayed stuck down, but I was pushed to my knees.
“That one almost hit the engines!” someone said.
“Josh!” Keller sounded on the brink of exploding.
“I’m trying!” I made it to the external controls and turned on the third robot arm. We usually used the drill for taking samples below the surface of a moon or asteroid. This time, we would be defending ourselves with it.
I positioned the arm so the drill was facing away from the ship. I didn’t want to risk clipping ourselves with it. “Can we move around so it’s on this side of us?” I asked.
“Working on it.” We rotated until I could see the squid in the laser sights. It was trying to position itself for another ram, but it looked a bit dizzy from the last hit and was close enough to reach with the drill.
My finger hovered over the “on” button. I didn’t want to do this. Couldn’t we just take the chance and run?
“Josh, do it!” Keller was giving me a flat-out order. I had to obey.
I pushed the button.
After being patted on the back by the entire crew, I left the lab and floated around the ship aimlessly. I took the memory cube out of my cargo pocket and fiddled with it, but I didn’t want to talk to Abby while I felt like this.
“Josh?” Caleb’s voice echoed toward me.
“Not now, Caleb.”
“No, really, I think you’ll want to see this.” The last thing I wanted was to be around people, but I slowly flipped around and pushed myself back into the lab.
“We were watching the squid’s heat signature,” Caleb explained. “We wanted to know how quickly the body heat would dissipate, or if it would. Well, it faded pretty fast. Except we noticed this little patch inside it that wasn’t losing heat.” He pointed to the screen. There it was, a little orange patch inside the blue of the squid’s body. The longer I stared at it, the more the shape of it looked like a smaller version of the squid….
I closed my eyes for a few seconds, then looked again. The orange still glowed there.
“It was pregnant.”
And its baby was still alive.
“Now, remember,” Keller said as I slid into my space suit and double-checked my gear, “if it’s dead or something happens to it, bring it back anyway. It’s a gold mine of knowledge for us.”
I looked at Keller before putting on my helmet. “You just don’t get it. Our knowledge is coming at the cost of its life.”
“You were acting in self-defense when you fired that drill.”
“That doesn’t mean I feel any better about it.” I shoved the helmet on and locked the seals. Air hissed in through vents on the sides of my face. I closed my eyes for a second, feeling its calming breeze. Then Caleb and I went into the airlock.
When we reached the dead squid, I examined what was left of it. The gray-white flesh had a clean gash in the middle of it, like a cake with a slice cut out of it. The squids nearby hovered a good distance from it, unsure how to treat the situation. I was even more unsure.
Floating there in the emptiness, I knew one thing: because of me, there was death. But, just maybe, because of me, there could still be life.
“Josh, are you okay?” Caleb asked me. I took several deep breaths before answering. My gloves couldn’t wick away the sweat from my hands as fast as it came. Even while sweating, I was shivering uncontrollably.
“No,” I found myself saying. “But I have to do this.” I gripped the laser knife and studied the heat signature readout in the top left corner of my helmet’s faceplate. I positioned the knife to the right of the signature inside the gray body and turned it on.
The flesh melted away easily, much faster than the rock or metal I was used to using it with. I traced a circle in the skin around the heat signature. It was toward the back and pretty far inside, so I was basically going to gut this thing.
I traced another circle around the baby from another angle. Finally, the chunk of flesh with the fetus floated free of the rest of the body. The signature’s bright orange signal began to fade even more quickly to yellow.
I put the knife away. I didn’t want to touch this thing, even when wearing gloves, but I finally got the courage to push it in the direction of the bay doors. The once-oozing gray flesh had already refrozen, so the surface was hard to the touch and not sticky.
Once inside the bay, I asked for the pressure to be dialed up to a few psi and the atmosphere a hydrogen/helium mix. I also asked for some heat; somehow, amazingly, these creatures kept their body temperatures only a bit below freezing. Caleb took a sample of the gel in the creature’s…womb…to be analyzed and hopefully give us some ideas.
I had no ideas. I knew next to nothing about its physical or chemical makeup, what nutrients or environment it needed. I just knew that I had to do my best to save it.
As far as I could tell, the squids’ bodily fluids were kind of a gel rather than a liquid so there would be no boiling in the low pressure. I took a deep breath.
I lowered the intensity of the laser knife so it wouldn’t accidentally cut through to the bay walls and slowly began to slice away around the fetus. Since I didn’t know what I was looking for, I had to watch my readout constantly. This was going to get messy.
After half an hour of careful work, I exposed it. It was less than meter long, gray like the rest of the creatures’ insides and outsides. It belonged in the category of things that are cuter in miniature. Its flesh was soft and slick, almost like a dolphin’s. Its eyes hadn’t grown hard shells around them, either, so I could see them clearly. I counted at least eight of them. Like the rest of it, they were gray, but with a blue tint. Its black pupils were dilated, making it look afraid. Did it have the cognition to feel fear? Could this premature newborn sense fear as well as his mother?
His tentacles were little nubs on the opposite end. I reached out my hand and gently stroked the creature. He trembled under my touch. I couldn’t feel much under the gloves, but he felt tender and vulnerable. Here I was, bonding with the offspring of some unknown alien species as if it were a newborn kitten. I hadn’t been all that good with animals on earth. Or babies. But, this little guy—I was all he had. And he seemed to know it.
But, as he failed to respond to my touch, I realized fully—he was dying. There was no source of energy here for him to feed from. “He needs radiation,” I said under my breath.
“What was that?” Keller asked. I had forgotten he could still hear me from the lab.
“It needs starlight—stellar radiation. But it probably can’t survive full vacuum yet.”
“Do what you think is best. I warned you not to get your hopes up, Joshua.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the plump, helpless thing. I moved my hand to the other side of his body, and his eyes followed. I should just end it now, put him out of his misery. Or would I just be causing him more pain?
Turns out, I didn’t even have that long. As I looked around the hangar, I glanced at the thermal display on my helmet. The baby squid’s heat signature was down to a dark yellow. His pupils were still dilated, and I noticed his tentacles were quivering slightly. Hypothermia. I knelt down in the gooey mass around him and put my arms on him. It was all I could do. The quivering continued for a few more minutes, and then he was still.
The team was going to examine it before we got back, but they decided to deep-freeze it instead and wait for a team of biologists to do a better job on earth.
We took a lot more readings from the squids, but I never went out again. We don’t think we ever saw Bessie again, either, but her playful nudges would have probably reminded me too much of that protective mother.
I kept thinking about that baby squid, and the words I had told Abby. “It would just be easier to wait to have a baby. This would be too hard on you now without me.” Worse, I had thought more things I hadn’t told Abby. I didn’t want to be tied down. I wasn’t good with kids.
All those thoughts kept playing in my mind. I wanted nothing more than to take them back, but it was more than a year too late.
Finally, I had to do something. I pulled out the video cube and turned it on. “Abby, I know when this reaches you, it’ll be too late for me to take back anything I said before I left. But I still want you to know, as soon as possible, that I changed my mind about us having children. And you’ll never believe why….”
After wrapping up our work at Proxima Centauri, we jumped back through the artificial wormhole a few dozen light hours outside Pluto, then spent the next few months approaching our solar system. Those were the longest months of my life and by far the most painful. I requested and was granted first access to the relay station on Pluto. It would take us a few more weeks to get home, going at slower speeds, but NASA had set up a light signals system from Pluto to send messages to earth. I knew a few weeks wouldn’t change much, but I wanted Abby to hear from me as soon as possible. I had to tell her what I had experienced.
Sending the whole cube would have been impractical, so I converted the special message into text and sent it. Then I looked at the Prospector’s inbox. Everyone had a few dozen messages—two years was plenty of time to send files—and there were thirty for me. One of them, the seventh, was marked high priority. No subject. I didn’t want to open it. I stared at it a few long moments, thinking of the worst possible thing Abby could say to me.
Finally, I stopped analyzing and opened it before I could change my mind. It contained three words.
“It’s a boy.”
“The Newborn” © 2012 Alex Mellen
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
(Image credit: 2MASS, Wikimedia Commons)