Symbionts

The airlock sealed itself behind us and vanished. Its edges blended in with the knobbly, translucent walls of the alien spacecraft, and it was gone.
“Somebody paint that spot,” ordered Commander Liu, and a yellow circle appered in my vision to mark the place where there was no door.
“I do not like this,” I said.
“Noted,” said Liu. “Our first order of business is to reestablish–”
The wall blinked. A membrane slid down it, less like a Venetian blind than an eyelid. It covered the wall, smooth and gray, then withdrew into the ceiling. The eyelid left behind a picture: blackness speckled with multicolored dots, nibbled, stone-colored crescents, a patchwork cylinder, a globe-hung scaffold.
“Stars,” I realized. “Asteroids. Our ship and EVA transport. It’s showing us a window.”
“Can I touch it, sir?” asked Qian.
Commander Liu frowned at him. “Touch what?”
“The transport, sir. Maybe that will communicate to the alien that we want to go home?”
The alien, he called it. Not the alien spaceship.
“Do it,” Liu ordered.
Qian pressed his index finger against the picture of the transport, a frame of metal laden with thrusters and emergency supplies.
The eyelid slid down again and when it rose, the window had changed. Pseudopods of the ship’s amorphous mass reached toward the transport. Something thumped on the far side of the wall, followed by the unmistakable scream of tearing metal.
The wall blinked and now there was no transport outside.
“It ate the transport?” I said. “Why would it do that?”
“Maybe it took touching the image for permission,” said Qian.
“Don’t touch the wall again,” said Liu as a soft tone sounded.
A score or so of little holes opened in the ceiling above us. Out of the holes dropped hard little pellets about the size of my thumb.
I scanned the closest one, found it was inert, and zapped some vapor off it for our spectrometers to analyze.
“Sugar and fat?” Liu read off his HUD.”What is that stuff? Candy?”
“Its a reward,” said Qian. “A reward for…” he reached toward the wall.
“Wait,” said Liu. “We have to be careful. This thing is bigger than our ship. If you touch that…” he pointed toward the image of our ship.
The wall blinked again.
This time it took longer for the alien to reach out and devour our ship, but we guessed what would happen and used the time to figure out why.
“Let’s say you’re a gigantic space-faring creature that looks like a spaceship,” I said. “Let’s say you aren’t smart enough to distinguish between food and nonfood floating out in space. But you have a way to find out. You lure sapients into yourself and you show them a view of the outside. Of course they will touch or point at or otherwise indicate their ride home then their home, itself.
The alien learned faster than us. We stopped touching the wall, stopped pointing, but by then all we had to do was look too long at one spot and the alien followed our gazes to select its next target. It ate two other survey ships before, shrugging off lasers and kinetics, it tore Outpost Station apart. After each glut of destruction, it showered us with candy.
Now we’re trying not to look at the walls, but its hard. we keep glancing at the stars even though we know we shouldn’t. We can’t help it. We’re looking for Earth.

This one was inspired by the mutualistic but not entirely friendly relationships between bacteria and animals Ed Yong describes in I Contain Multitudes.

Also, happy birthday to meeee!

This entry was posted in Serialized Stories, Short Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.