The Dissection of the Shmoo

“The bullet was stopped inside the shmoo’s body,” said Anne. “But it didn’t hit a bone. This thing doesn’t seem to have any. And this steaming discharge. Nothing alive could be that hot. Not while it was alive. But when it was pierced by the bullet… the way its body flopped when Daisuke moved it…press into its side again, Dice.”

She winked at Daisuke and his heart flopped over.

“Look at that,” said Anne, prodding the shmoo. “Look how it sloshes around? Several layers with blood and viscera between. Not a tube-within-a-tube like us but…bags-within-bags?”

Daisuke summarized for the camera: “So this creature is like several water-balloons, one inside the other.” He looked down at his steaming boot. “All filled with acid?”

“Can’t be,” said Anne. “There’s only acid in this outer-most layer, the one under the skin. The reservoir of sulfuric acid is sandwiched between what must be some very tough barriers.”

“So how does this thing hunt?” asked Daisuke.

“Probably with these.” Anne pointed at a transparent, centimeter-long spine, one of hundreds that dotted the creature’s tough skin like the quills of a porcupine. “Let me…Dice, you got a pair of pliers on you?”

As it happened, Daisuke did. He plucked his multi-tool from his utility belt and passed it to Anne. Her warm fingers brushed across his.

“Don’t want to touch this thing with bare skin,” she muttered, clamping the pliers to the tip of the spine and pulling. The spine slid a good five centimeters from the shmoo’s body before it stuck.

“Hm,” said Anne. “These spines go all the way to the core of animal. I bet they’re for sucking up the juice of the prey animal. The shmoo doesn’t even have to inject digestive enzymes like a spider. All it has to do is pierce the inner layer that protects a glasslands animal from its own acid.”

“As I did, when I shot it?” asked Hariyadi.

“But the bullet didn’t go all the way through,” said Anne. “It pierced the outer layer, the inner one, the gooey center of the animal, but got lodged here,” she prodded a black lump in the rapidly deflating mess. “Against the other side of the inner layer on its way out.”

“Damn, that thing must be tough on the inside,” said Pearson.

“It would have to be, to defend against exactly the sort of attack it uses on its prey.” Anne scooted around the shmoo. “Where are those eyes? I can’t seem to find them.”

“It seems a fragile existence,” said Hariyadi. “A walking chemical reaction.”

“You’ve just described yourself,” said Anne. “Ever see someone with a gut wound? Same problem.”

Daisuke heard a sharp intake of breath and realized that maybe Hariyadi had seen a gut wound digest a man from the inside out. Perhaps the dear colonel had caused one.

“Ah,” said Anne, “there the eyes are. Interesting.”

“Interesting?” Daisuke prompted.

“I can feel the lenses inside,” said Anne, prodding the sagging body with plier nose of the multi-tool. “They’re embedded in the tough, inner membrane. But how do they see out through the outer skin?” She brushed the tool around the glass spines at one end of the oblong body, smoothing them into a swirling circle like the petals of a chrysanthemum. “Shine your light here. At this angle.”

The chrysanthemum petals blazed suddenly with blue light. As Anne poked them, the light flicked to green, then red.

“Right,” she said. “These spines aren’t just transparent. They can conduct light all the way through the outer skin. The animal can even tune its visual system by slight adjustments to the angles of these…what…optical spines?”

“Like…” Daisuke’s brow furrowed as he worked on a way to dumb that down. “Uh…a periscope? Eye glasses?”

“Like a weird alien eyeball made of millions of tiny prisms floating in acid,” said Anne. “That’s what it’s like. She pushed off her knees and looked up at Hariyadi. “These things are going to be a problem.”

Junction by Daniel M. Bensen will be available in March 2019 from in print and ebook from FLAME TREE PRESS.

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