By Evan Dicken
Heavy green clouds clutched at the skip-lander as it tore through the atmosphere of Pashtun. Lina Prasad clung to her crash harness, teeth bared, wincing at each jolt and shudder.
“Have a care. Your lack of faith may offend our pilot.” Captain Tuvad ran a tentacle through Lina’s hair to mark the statement as humor. She shot him a warning glare, and the arm retreated into the mass of waving cilia that covered the Captain’s body.
Lina looked back to the cabin, where Blue-Green-Green-Red wrestled with the lander’s sluggish controls. The Fostern pilot curled over the drive panel like a starfish prying open a particularly stubborn clam, its hundreds of tiny tube feet keying in minute course corrections. Colors played across Blue-Green-Green-Red’s ridged back, chromatophores signaling the ship’s translator. The small box buzzed as it decoded the pilot’s prismatic speech, then spat forth a streamer of paper. Lina tore the message off and read it aloud.
“Brace for impact.”
Tuvad’s cilia twisted in the N’ktheed equivalent of wringing his hands. Lina squeezed her eyes shut and wondered again why she’d felt the need to come here.
The lander plowed into the red rock of Pashtun, and bits of hot metal ricocheted through the cabin as the ship bent in on itself. Lina slapped one of the smoking fragments from her selfsuit. Tuvad screeched, his tentacles raised as wires cascaded from a shattered overhead panel. Lina’s head thumped against the back of her seat hard enough to make her legs tingle. Bright comets burned across her vision, leaving only blackness in their wake. Lina frowned as consciousness slipped from her.
She’d always known her father would get her killed.
Metal groaned. Lina opened her swollen eyes to bright orange sunlight. There was a form silhouetted against the glare. She squinted at the mass of sense cilia surrounding the beaked torso. Captain Tuvad waved a manipulator tentacle and the smoking metal overhead peeled back. Lina felt strong claws grab her around the middle. Odd. Neither Tuvad nor Blue-Green-Green-Red had claws.
Pashtun’s air was thin, and smelled faintly of rotten vegetation.
“You are the next Gobind Prasad?” Staccato drumming accompanied a hollow voice.
“I’m his daughter.” Lina craned her head to regard her rescuer. Four elephantine legs supported a lumpy armored body. Two enormous arms, ending in heavy crablike claws, sprouted from either side of the creature’s shell above a ring of plates. As Lina watched, one of the plates drew aside to emit a thin muscular tentacle, like the foot of a clam, but with eyes.
Although she’d read about them, Lina had never met a Thrumm before. The reclusive aliens were nominal members of the Sapient Coalition, trading minerals and ores gathered from their rocky ocean world, but seldom participating in cultural or diplomatic exchange.
The creature was ungendered, which meant that it was unnamed as well. Among the Thrumm, individuality was earned through meritorious action, permission to take an identity awarded by a council of elders. It wasn’t strange for her father to have a Thrumm assistant. He had been on the team that originally brought the Thrumm into the Coalition. She remembered, because he’d left for the mission two days before her eighth birthday and returned a week after her ninth.
Tuvad sat next to her and held out a canteen. “We thought your expiration a certainty, but did not consider the ruggedness of your species.”
Blue-Green-Green-Red sprawled on her other side, two of five radial arms severed where they joined its central body. The mottled pigments on its dorsal surface cycled through several shades of purple. Lina knew only a little Fostern, but she got the substance of Blue’s message.
“Thanks, Blue. I’m glad you’re alive, too.” She took the canteen from Tuvad and drank. The water tasted metallic, but clean.
“You are the next Gobind Prasad?” The basso rumble inside the Thrumm’s shell was translated into clipped Hindi by the small metal box lashed to the creature’s side. The translator was top-shelf, a far cry from the basic linotype module Blue used.
“I’m here to assist him in his research.” Lina stood on wobbly legs, a slight flush creeping into her cheeks.
Lina set hands on hips and glared up at the Thrumm. “I was dispatched by the Coalition Advisory Board to assist the Doctor. I hold degrees in Xenoliguistics and Exobiology, and—”
“Irrelevant. You cannot assist Doctor Prasad.”
“He is dead.”
The air suddenly seemed too thin. Lina sagged against a nearby boulder.
“The worms ate him.”
“A strong argument against their sentience, eh Blue?” Tuvad finally found the fleshwelder in his bag, and shifted to spray the star-shaped Fostern’s wounds with cauterizing foam. Blue-Green-Green-Red’s dorsal surface mottled in agreement.
Lina raised a trembling hand to brush back her sweat-slicked hair. Her father’s death should’ve made her sad, or angry, but somehow it only left her feeling cheated. How many times had she rehearsed what she would say? The man was practically a stranger to her; he should’ve meant nothing. And yet, she’d walked away from her life to carry a case of alien DNA halfway across the galaxy just to see him.
“You are the next Gobind Prasad?”
Lina wilted under the Thrumm’s inquiry.
“The ship is irreparable.” Tuvad glanced at the wreckage. “We have no way off planet.”
“And the samples?” she asked.
“The aft section is completely destroyed.” Tuvad’s cilia flowed in arcs of sadness, although Lina couldn’t tell whether it was for the ship or the tissue samples.
Her vision blurred as she blinked back tears. She took a deep breath, the chill air tickling her lungs. She needed to see his body.
“Can you lead us back to Prasad’s lab?” Lina asked the Thrumm.
“You are incapable of matching my overland speed.”
“Can you move more slowly?”
Lina’s legs trembled, a hollow growing in the pit of her stomach. Her father would’ve known what to do. The great Gobind Prasad — scientist, diplomat, and adventurer — the man who had been involved in more first-contact situations than any member of any race. He was a legend. His daughter though, she couldn’t even beg help from an alien who had just saved her life.
Lina took a few calming breaths, she was just coming at this the wrong way. “Could you carry us?”
“Yes.” The Thrumm dropped to the ground, almost crushing Captain Tuvad. Lina helped drag Blue-Green-Green-Red onto the crablike alien’s rough dorsal shell. The Fostern’s limbs would grow back in a few weeks, but for now Blue could only manage a slow crawl.
The Thrumm scuttled sideways, moving fast enough to blow Lina’s hair back from her face. The rocky plain sped by, a floor of dark red pumice dotted by patches of purple scrub. Here and there, like pools of liquid silver, worm colonies flowed across the landscape, devouring all in their path. Lina squinted at one of the shining masses. Could they really be sentient?
Her father’s laboratory came into view — a ramshackle collection of pre-fab drop pods, their skeletal ferro-plastic walls warped and blackened by flames. It could’ve been any one of a million modular research units, but Lina knew it well. Although the scenery had changed from world to world, the lab was still the closest thing she had to a home, at least until she was old enough for boarding school,
“What happened?” Lina rubbed stinging eyes as the wind shifted to blow the caustic smoke in their direction.
“There was a fire.” The Thrumm’s mechanical voice held no hint of sarcasm.
“I know, but why?”
“Doctor Prasad ignited flammable chemicals in an attempt to forestall being devoured. He was unsuccessful.”
“Is it safe?” she asked.
“The flames and worms are gone.”
Lina jumped down from the Thrumm’s back and started for the lab. She shouldn’t have been surprised it would end like this. It was always her father’s way — too little, too late, even in death.
“TAGCAT?” Tuvad played his handbeam across the scorched minivid display. They’d spent almost an hour picking over the laboratory and found nothing but this single phrase.
“That’s definitely his handwriting,” Lina said.
“Truly? I thought perhaps the worms might have written it,” Tuvad said. The N’ktheed had been peevish since Lina informed him that the Sapient Coalition would almost certainly not replace his ship.
“There’s nothing salvageable here.” Tuvad turned away, tentacles crunching over broken glass.
“There’s no body.” She looked up at the Thrumm, who peered in through one of the many holes in the laboratory.
“The worms ate all of him.”
“How do you know?”
“You didn’t help?”
“There was nothing I could do.”
Lina bit back an angry response, turning back to the lab rather than let the Thrumm see her flustered. She prodded a broken specimen jar with her foot, and it rolled to reveal the body of a tiny silver worm. She tightened the ray of her handbeam and squatted for a better look.
The worm was about six centimeters long, its seamless quicksilver body oozing digestive acid from the anterior opening. Other specimens lay about the cluttered lab in various stages of dissection.
Lina frowned. Why was her father cutting them open if he thought they were intelligent? Apart from the cryptic words on the display, nothing remained to hint at his research.
Tuvad ducked back in the room. “There are sealed crates in one of the storerooms.”
Lina nodded, curiosity taking a back seat to survival. The hardened crates were blackened, but otherwise unharmed. With the Thrumm’s help, they extracted them from the ruined dome and cracked open the pressure seals.
One of the crates contained survival and medical gear, no doubt intended for field research. The others held a jumble of strange equipment.
“I don’t suppose you know what all this is for?” Lina glanced at the Thrumm.
“Doctor Prasad did not explain the purpose of these particular components.”
Something tugged at Lina’s pant leg. She looked down to see Blue-Green-Green-Red. The Fostern’s skin rippled in patterns of ochre and taupe.
“Slow down, I can’t understand you.” Lina squinted at the shifting colors, but although she caught the Fostern’s general tone of excitement, Blue’s words were too fast to follow. She turned back to the Thrumm, and pointed at the metal box on its side. “Can I borrow that?”
“I will not prevent you.”
Lina reached up to activate the translator’s visual sensors.
“…on Fortean 248. Over a million units decanted before Conclave investigators shut down the operation, but he was practically a nation in his own right by then. So there really wasn’t much they could do but recognize him as Prime Minister.” The words flowed from the translator in a quick stream.
Tuvad writhed with surprise. “I always considered my companion a creature of few words.”
Lina sniffed. “It was probably the translator. Those cheaper models only transmit the gist of the message. Blue, could you start over, slower?” The translator’s video transmitter flashed in a kaleidoscope of winking lights and colors.
“Of course. What you see here is a disassembled cloning facility, although the birthing crèches appear too small to create members of any known race. Perhaps the Doctor intended it for organ replacement. Black market parts are worth—”
Lina held up a hand. “I doubt my father was setting up a clone farm.”
Tuvad touched her shoulder. “Why? Pashtun is far from normal shipping lanes — the perfect place to set up an operation. It would explain the request for genetic samples from Coalition member races. After all, does his research not require funding?”
“After the Thrumm breakthrough, he had to practically turn grants away.” Lina drew back from the Captain’s tentacle. In his letter to the Advisory Committee, her father had called the worms the discovery of the century. She’d told herself that was why she’d volunteered to carry the samples, not because she wanted to show him how much she’d accomplished without his help.
“Perhaps he wished to clone the worms?” Blue asked.
“What would that accomplish?” Lina looked at each of the aliens in turn.
“It doesn’t matter what he was doing.” Tuvad interlaced his manipulator tentacles. “We should focus on getting rescued.”
Lina turned to the N’ktheed. “When I don’t contact the council, they’ll send a ship to investigate. We’ll be rescued in a few days, a week at most.”
“If we’re not eaten.” The Captain went back to rifling through the scattered parts.
Lina swallowed, hands at her sides. All her life she’d been trapped in the shadow of a man she hardly knew. Even the other Council members whispered that she’d earned her position by virtue of her father, when in reality, his exploits had dogged her every step of the way.
“We should continue his research.” Lina’s declaration surprised even her.
“What research?” Tuvad gestured at the lab. “All I see are ruins.”
“You and Blue can get the lab working again, I can collect what data remains, and the Thrumm, well, I’m sure it can help, somehow.”
“Gobind Prasad couldn’t prove the worms’ sentience. What do you think we’ll be able to do?”
There it was. No matter how high she climbed, he was always waiting.
“He’s not a real doctor,” Lina said.
“The title is honorary — my father never finished his degree. I, on the other hand, have two.”
“Congratulations.” Tuvad went back to rooting through the debris.
Lina swallowed the urge to scream. Tuvad and Blue were the only trained engineers on the planet, and she wouldn’t get their help by throwing a fit.
“The Coalition will pay for information on the worms,” she said after a few calming breaths.
A few of the Captain’s sense cilia swiveled in her direction. “Are you speaking as a representative of the Scientific Advisory Council?”
Lina paused. The lab was compromised and the subject of study extremely dangerous. Protocols were clear: They should remain at the crash site and await rescue, not risk their lives pursuing a line of inquiry that had already left one researcher dead. She was overstepping her authority, risking her position, perhaps even her credentials, and for what — to prove her worth to a man who hadn’t cared about her even when he was alive? Why did she want this so much?
Lina spread her hands wide, fingers straight and rigid, mimicking the N’ktheed position of honorable intent. “Yes, I speak on behalf of the Council.”
“We have little to lose, Captain.” The translator spoke for Blue-Green-Green-Red.
“Except our lives,” Tuvad said.
“If the worms want us dead, there’s not much we can do to stop them,” Lina said.
Tuvad drooped. “So be it. Blue and I will assist you in continuing Prasad’s research, for an equal share of the profits.”
“Done.” Lina intertwined her fingers with Tuvad’s cilia. “You can assemble the cloning apparatus while I see what I can learn from our new friend.” She hooked a thumb at the silent Thrumm.
“Do you think it’ll want a share?” Tuvad leaned close. Lina tried not to pull away as his manipulator tentacles caressed her hands and face. Physical contact was important for the N’ktheed.
“Its own race doesn’t even consider it a person. I don’t think we have to worry about it wanting a cut.”
“You are the next Gobind Prasad?”
Lina was getting tired of that question. The Thrumm seemed unable to recognize her as a discrete individual. She recalled that Thrumm religion only acknowledged a fixed number of identities. Reincarnation was a concept Lina knew well, but the Thrumm claimed to be able to transfer memories and personalities from individual to individual. While the idea fascinated her in theory, it was proving quite frustrating in practice.
Lina had spent hours grilling the hulking alien for information about Prasad and his research, but every time she seemed to be making progress, her line of inquiry ended in the same monotone response.
“You are the next Gobind Prasad?” The Thrumm’s mantra overwhelmed Lina’s thoughts like vedic chant.
She threw up her hands. “Yes, I’m the next Gobind Prasad!”
“Welcome back, Doctor Prasad. I see you are now gendered female.” The Thrumm rocked back and forth in approximation of a nod, a gesture it must have learned from Lina’s father.
“That’s me. Female.” She bobbed her head back at the Thrumm. “Now, tell me about my research.”
“You already know about your research. You are Gobind Prasad.”
Lina slapped the ground in frustration. She was tempted to give the interrogation up for a lost cause, but there had to be something. She just needed to ask different questions.
“Okay, what are your thoughts on my research?”
“Your hypothesis is correct.”
“And what made you think that?”
“The field of statues.”
“The field of statues?” Lina blinked. “Of course. How could I forget? We should go there … again.”
The Thrumm dropped to the ground. After a moment’s surprise, Lina clambered onto its back, and they were off.
“We’re going to investigate something!” Lina called as she sped past Tuvad and Blue. The Captain shouted back, but his words were lost in the wind of the Thrumm’s passing.
The worms were everywhere. Colonies of varying sizes surged across the landscape, pausing only to attack one another. Lina halted the Thrumm so she could observe one of the battles from a safe distance.
The first colony disgorged twenty wriggling worms, which crawled over to the second colony, where they were promptly devoured. Then, the second colony launched a similar assault. This continued for almost an hour. Sometimes sorties would occur at the same time, but the two small parties of worms never attacked each other, always crawling for the central mass.
It seemed a strange way to wage war. The worms didn’t appear to be struggling over resources, and had no apparent territory. Was it some form of ritualized combat?
The sun dipped below the horizon as the Thrumm continued over the increasingly treacherous terrain. It scaled almost vertical cliffs with ease, skittering up and over boulders that Lina would have needed a grav-belt to navigate. She was grateful for the darkness, as it saved her from seeing just how high they were. Without the fear and adrenaline, Lina was lulled by the Thrumm’s gently rocking gate. She looped her harness around one of the alien’s spiky protrusions and dozed.
The sun was low in the sky when Lina woke. They were dangling below a sweeping overhang, one of the Thrumm’s massive claws wedged into a fissure in the rock. She crawled to the edge of its shell and peered down.
The valley swarmed with worms. Colonies flowed in and around vast columns of perforated stone hundreds of meters tall like termites in a monolithic hive. On the plains Lina had witnessed combats between two and even three colonies, but the battles below contained hundreds. She swallowed, suddenly not sure if she wanted to communicate with the worms.
It was clear they’d created the stone pillars, dissolving the mountain away to produce a work of monumental architecture that dwarfed any on old Earth.
Lina’s first thought was that the columns were part of a massive dwelling, but the worms did not appear to actually live in the pillars, and there was no indication that they were bringing anything in or out of the valley. Why create giant structures if not as homes or storehouses? The Thrumm had called this place the Field of Statues.
Then it made sense. Those weren’t buildings, they were art.
Lina grinned. The worms had culture, which meant they were intelligent. Now she just needed to find a way to talk to them without getting eaten.
“Thrumm, would you please take me back to camp?”
“Yes, Doctor Prasad.”
In the daylight Lina could see every crevasse, every boulder, every sheer drop. She tried looking up at the sky, but found herself searching for the contrails of descending skip-landers.
Lina screwed her eyes shut and tried to concentrate, but try as she might, her thoughts kept returning to her father. Was she doing this to prove herself better than him, to show she could succeed where he’d failed? That wasn’t it — she’d surpassed him in other ways, was recognized by her peers for discoveries just as important. The fame? Docudramas and serialized action vids had never interested her. Again, it just didn’t feel right.
If the worms were intelligent, she couldn’t just let someone else pick up where her father left off. The Council would assign some other field agent to the research, that and censure Lina for numerous breaches of protocol. And yet, she didn’t want to back away.
This was hers — he owed her that much, at least.
She thought back to the specimens in her father’s lab. The worms had no obvious eyes or ears, and only a very limited neural network. From what Lina remembered, their insides were mostly digestive tract. Perhaps they communicated by touch? Other races like the N’ktheed used tactile exchanges as communication. She ran through the information in her head, trying to fit the disparate pieces together: the miniature cloning machine, the statues, the words on the minivid display.
“Tag cat.” It was nonsense, just like everything else on Pashtun. The worms made no sense. The colonies themselves seemed to act with one mind, but she hadn’t seen any interaction between separate swarms outside of them attacking and devouring one another.
She was coming at this the wrong way. Her father was dissecting the worms. Maybe he did want to clone them. She’d need to gather new specimens.
Lina sighed. Tuvad wasn’t going to like this.
“Get if off me! Get it kreeeeee!” The Captain slipped into his native tongue, panicked screeches almost deafening as Lina’s tongs closed around the writhing worm.
“Hold still!” She dropped the worm into the specimen tube, narrowly avoiding its squirt of digestive bile. “Okay, we’ve got enough. Blue, hit the flamer!”
Lina crossed her fingers as the cannibalized maneuvering thruster cycled up to a low burn. Blue had assured her it would work, but, then again, Blue had also assured her that landing on Pashtun would be easy. The colony was less than ten meters away, boiling toward them like a spring flood. The Thrumm hefted the engine’s heavy exhaust port and pointed it in the direction of the worms. The thruster coughed and spat a puff of smoke.
“Don’t hit them!”
The engine jerked, red-orange wash spewing from the exhaust port. The wave of heat snatched the air from Lina’s lungs. She stumbled backwards as the Thrumm played the flames across the swarm’s path. The colony rolled back into itself, worms flashing with reflected firelight. It was almost beautiful.
“We must leave!” Tuvad plucked at her arm, and the two of them staggered away. Specimen jars tinkled on Lina’s web-belt as the worms inside twisted and thrashed. They climbed a low rise to look back at the conflagration. There was a loud pop as the engine stuttered and died. The Thrumm flung the smoking wreckage aside and retreated across the blackened foliage, heavy legs pumping to keep ahead of the roiling carpet of worms. It crested the ridge, and stopped.
Lina reached up, feeling the soft suction of Blue’s tube feet as she was pulled onto the Thrumm’s back.
“Let us hope we learn much from these specimens, because our actions could not have left a very good impression.” Tuvad pulled himself up after her. His waving cilia were smudged with ash and soot. Lina doubted her face was any cleaner. She hoped the Captain was right — it would be devastating if the worms’ first message was a declaration of war.
“Unbelievable.” Lina stared up at the display. “They’re more complex than I imagined.”
“What do you mean?” Tuvad crowded close. Lina suppressed a shudder as one of his manipulation tentacles snaked around her neck, reminding herself that personal space was a cultural construct.
“Look here.” She pointed at a spinning helix. “That’s its DNA. There are over ten discrete base pairs in this strand alone, and some of them are completely different from the other worms we’ve sequenced.”
“Isn’t some genetic drift normal?”
“Not like this.” Lina tapped a few keys, unzipping the strand into its component parts. “The DNA of every race in the Coalition is composed of a set sequence of base pairs. For humans, it’s Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine. Other races have a few more or less, or use different bases — Methylguanine and Xanthine for instance. They combine differently in individuals and species, but are pretty much the same throughout a biosphere. This worm here has base pairs that don’t even appear in the others. It’s mostly junk DNA, not really meant to be translated into characteristics, but technically this worm isn’t even the same species as the last one we examined.”
“The genes are far too complex. We won’t be able to reproduce a worm, not with this machine.” Blue’s word’s echoed from the translator, which was sitting on a camp table nearby.
“Wait, go back.” Lina squinted at the screen. “That’s human DNA.”
“Are you sure?” Tuvad’s tentacle tightened uncomfortably around Lina’s neck and shoulders. She shrugged it off, trying to appear nonchalant.
“Up until now it’s been mostly gibberish … but these sequences are definitely human.”
Blue crawled around the corner and lifted itself up to view the screen. “How could a worm have human DNA?”
“It’s my father’s.” Lina stood, rubbing her forehead. The answer had been staring her in the face this whole time. “TAG CAT. It’s part of a gene sequence. The worms aren’t fighting, they’re communicating.”
“I don’t follow.” Captain Tuvad’s tendrils withdrew in confusion.
“This isn’t junk DNA, it’s language. Think of each worm as a packet of information. They breed their sentences.”
Blue curled one arm to point at the specimen jars, its skin showing the red and yellow striations of distaste. “Their medium of communication is digestion?”
Lina shrugged. “These are collective entities we’re dealing with — individual worms are like skin cells to them.”
“Excellent.” Tuvad moved closer, tentacles curling around Lina’s waist in a show of trust. “We know how they speak, but do we know how to speak with them?”
Lina did her best not to wince as Tuvad’s cilia tickled her chin. Her father had always said intergalactic diplomacy required nerves of steel. “Well, we could have used the genome from every race in the Coalition to construct a mathematical primer on our language, but the samples went up with the ship. If they hadn’t … eaten my father, we’d have nothing.”
“How does that help us?”
“Genes always form distinct pairs, adenine with thymine, guanine with cytosine. My father’s DNA bonded with theirs, providing us with recognizeable gene markers.”
“Again, how does that help us?”
“Think of it this way. We’ve just been handed thousands of pages of alien text. We don’t know their alphabet, syntax, morphology, anything. But, we can see how certain portions of the text are written in a way we understand. My father’s sacrifice gave us the key to unlocking the worm’s language — like a human Rosetta Stone.”
The Captain’s communicator beeped.
Tuvad drew it from his web belt. “A ship just skipped in-sector. I’ll let them know where we are.”
“Don’t answer it.” Lina’s mouth went dry.
“Why not?” The Captain’s voice was right next to her ear.
“W-we don’t have conclusive proof. We’ve got to talk with the worms.”
“Surely they will accept our work. What else can we accomplish before the ship arrives?”
“A lot, like…” Lina swallowed. She was out of time.
“I’ve pinged them back. The ship is still a few light years out. It’ll arrive in a day, maybe less. Don’t worry, we can keep working.” Tuvad drew her closer.
This time Lina’s grimace was not a result of the Captain’s touch.
She had less than a day.
The colony was even bigger up close. It hadn’t looked so threatening across the plain, but now that Lina stood directly in its path she regretted her snap decision. Captain Tuvad wanted to approach more carefully, but he didn’t know they were working against a deadline. The Council frowned on rogue researchers initiating first contact with previously unknown races, not to mention promising unspecified bounties to freighter captains.
Even with her father’s DNA markers it had taken hours for the cloning apparatus to create, grow, and decant the most basic message–a series of mathematical patterns, shapes, and positional information linked to alphanumeric symbols. The meaning was simple: “If you understand this, move toward the sunset, then stop.”
She shifted one of the wet balls of flesh from hand to hand, hoping this colony was the one that ate her father. Lina had asked the Thrumm to take her to it, but wasn’t exceptionally confident of the alien’s perception, seeing how it couldn’t even distinguish her from a seventy-year old man.
She set the ball down, backing off a couple of paces. The worms had no sense other than touch, so she had to make sure it was right in the colony’s path. It churned forward, bodies hissing against one another as they washed over the lump of flesh in a rising tide of quicksilver. Lina held her breath.
The colony paused to digest her message, then shifted roughly three meters in the direction of the sunset, and paused. Lina clenched one hand in a gesture of victory. She pulled out the second ball and rolled it towards the colony. It contained basic directions to the lab. She hoped she wasn’t making a mistake.
The worms ate the second ball, then moved off. Lina frowned as she watched them go — the colony was heading the wrong way. Had she confused the directions?
“That was promising.” Tuvad reached a tentacle down to help her up onto the Thrumm. “Another few meetings like this and we may be able to open a dialogue.”
“We need to get back to camp.” Lina clung to the Thrumm’s carapace with grim resignation. She should be excited — the worms understood her — but there wasn’t time for a few more meetings.
Back at camp she recorded her observations — perhaps they might serve as a mitigating factor in her censure hearing — then spent the rest of the night helping Tuvad and Blue sequence the worm DNA and feed it into the translation matrix.
Lina worked until her eyelids grew heavy, the stress and excitement of the last few days bleeding away in the face of sheer exhaustion. She propped her head on one hand and watched the translator search for patterns in another line of DNA. Soon, the lines of scrolling code filled her dreams.
Lina awoke to the soft chime of Tuvad’s communicator. There was a message inbound. She wiped a thin line of drool from the corner of her mouth. Someone had draped a blanket over her. The communicator chimed again. Lina wondered why the Captain didn’t respond. She opened one sleep-crusted eye and lifted her head.
Tuvad had his back to her. He was motionless, his cilia straight and rigid. There were worms everywhere.
The camp was a single island in a slowly undulating sea of silver. Lina walked up to join Tuvad, noticing Blue-Green-Green-Red had propped itself up against one of the shelters, a handbeam held in a tangle of tube feet.
A squirming cluster detached from the great mass, crawling towards the stunned group. As they drew closer, Lina saw that they weren’t worms, but tiny humanoid figures, each an almost perfect replica of Gobind Prasad. Although she’d imagined thousands of conversations with her father, none of them prepared her for this.
“Who are you?” They chorused, silvery bodies glinting as they climbed over and around one another.
Lina gaped. She’d given the worms a primer, but even with human DNA markers, it was an enormous leap from basic math to simple sentences. She’d underestimated the worms’ resourcefulness.
They couldn’t communicate, so they’d made someone who could.
The Thrumm’s voice shattered her shocked silence. “We have succeeded, Doctor Prasad. You will speak for me in front of the elders?”
Lina nodded, unable to find words. Seeing her father reflected in a million tiny faces seemed to unwind something in her chest, a tightness she a hadn’t even known was there. There was sadness, but joy as well. The tears came then, hot on her cheeks. She wiped them away and straightened, realizing why she’d been willing to risk everything to continue her father’s research.
Lina hadn’t risked everything to surpass Gobind Prasad, but to understand him. She might not agree with his decisions, might not forgive him for abandoning her, but now, at least, she knew why.
“Who are you?” The milling crowd called again.
Tuvad’s communicator crackled to life. It would be only minutes before the Coalition lander made planetfall.
Lina approached the worms. Blue slipped aside, handbeam pointed at the ground. Captain Tuvad moved to join her, questing limbs already snaking around her torso. Lina didn’t even flinch.
It was good to have friends.
“Who are you?”
Lina drew in a deep breath. It didn’t matter what happened now. She’d done it. No, they’d done it. She looked at her companions and grinned. N’ktheed, Fostern, Thrumm, and Human — not a poor diplomatic party by any means.
“Who are you?”
“Us?” Lina smiled down at the swarm of tiny anthropomorphic translators, feeling her chest swell with pride. “We’re the next Gobind Prasad.”
By day, Evan Dicken fights economic entropy for the US Department of Commerce, and studies old Japanese maps at the Ohio University. By night, he does neither of these things. His work has most recently appeared in: Daily Science Fiction and Escape Pod, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, and Stupefying Stories. Feel free to drop by at: evandicken.com.