A few nights ago I had a fever and I had one of those dreams that goes all night, no matter how many times I wake up, every time I go back to sleep, it continues. This allows me to think about and shape the dream, and it’s actually a large part of my writing process, as 99% of all of my stories happen this way. The conundrum, always, is in the morning to decide if the story is worth recording. Just because I know the beginning, middle, and end of it doesn’t always mean it’s worth my time to write it or your time to read it. Not all stories need to be told. However, as I pondered this, I realized that the story was actually based on kind of a con, so while the milieu and format it came to me (the dream had a very strong Andre Norton vibe to it) are not necessarily my strong suit, I felt it might still be a valuable exercise, even if once written I took the same basic story and eventually ended up telling it in a completely different way. The separation from story and delivery is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Because of all of this, I kept if very short, and yet it would still have to be cut 1/3 for most submissions. What do you think? Oh, and yes, it’s an allegory, too.
“Something is up with the boars.”
Allonde rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was watching telemetry across all of his screens: atmospheric composition, radioactivity, pilot mine extractions. All data to be crunched. What was here, what was it worth, what to extract, what to study. He consulted the menu and pulled up the data on the wild boars.
“What am I looking for, Mr. Jessup?”
“Two dead so far, asphyxiation.”
“That’s odd, they’ve been breathing fine, atmosphere is fine.”
“Well, more like strangulation. Very sudden onset.”
“No known intelligent species, sir. No fauna period”
“They have traversed into some kind of swamp sir, we haven’t had good satellite imagery on them for a week or so.”
“That’s just it. Health-wise, everything else is off the charts. Endocrine function, metabolism, toxicity – they are healthier than when we sent them down.”
Allonde turned to face his co-worker. “So, it’s a mystery. One pig, could be anything, two pigs we need to get eyes on them.”
“Yes sir, that’s what I thought sir.”
Allonde took one more look at the screens. “Well, good, I could use a little mystery. This has got to be the most boring little planet in the solar system. When we are done here, they should make it a retirement community. Schedule the landing party.” He looked at his watch, “Say in 90?”
“Will do,” said Jessup getting up to start the arrangements.
Allonde checked the rest of the planetary data once more, then went over everything on the boars. Jessup was right. Up ’til now the data was good, so good he had been ignoring it, but now he wondered if that shouldn’t have been an indication in itself. He pondered this for a while and then headed off to suit up and pre-flight. As always he had a million thoughts on his mind and when he came around the corner he nearly bumped into Commander Valdez who was standing in the hallway looking at the group and their collected pile of scientific, veterinary, and survival gear.
“Seems like a lot of fuss for a few pigs,” he intoned as if Allonde had been standing there all along.
“Boar,” said Allonde with the the flat affectation of a person who has made the correction many times.
“What’s the point? We come here, we do our surveys, we set up our nano-factories, we move on.”
“The point is data.” Allonde was scanning the crew and not really engaged with the commander. He finally looked at Valdez. “While we are here, we want as much data as we can get.”
“To mine or not to mine, that is the question,” countered Valdez, completely unconscious of any literary allusions.
“That is your question. Others of us,” Allonde waved his hand expansively, “have a different perspective.”
“What can a pig tell you that the sensors cannot?”
Allonde ignored the bait this time. “All of the computing power on earth could not categorize all of the lifeforms in a single gram of dirt, and even if they could list them, their is no way to know what effects these would have on humans. On earth-neutral environments such as Minot, the boar are a simple expedient to determine species survive-ability. They are durable, can protect themselves, eat virtually anything, travel extensively, and have the most human-like physiology of any non-primate. It’s a simple litmus test. No program could possibly give us this much information.”
“Waste of resources.”
“Respectfully, Commander, you run the Dominion, the company runs the mission.” Valdez shot him a glance, to let Allonde know the discussion wasn’t over, then turned brusquely and walked away.
Jessup sidled up to Allonde. “You forgot the best part, sir.”
Allonde was still watching the Commander’s receding back. “What’s that?”
“Those boar are pretty damn tasty, too.”
Allonde looked over and laughed. “That is something Valdez could probably understand. Let’s suit up.”
The party stood for a minute in the mist. The swamp reminded Allonde of the bayou where he had grown up, with the one eerie exception that it was absolutely, completely quiet. No animal lifeforms of any sort had been detected on the planet. Mikail, one of the techs, consulted his handheld and they set out. In less than fifty meters they came to the dead boar, lying on a small hummock nearly surrounded by stagnant water.
“Holy….” said Jessup over the helmet mic. The boar was huge, almost the size of a horse at the withers. Lying on it’s side, it was still too large to see over. The head was almost as big as a man, and its tusks were wicked 18″ scimitars. It was instantly apparent what had happened, the telemetry pack had simply been too small to contain the animal’s supra-natural growth, and too indestructible to break, and had strangled it to death.
“One mystery solved and another one is born,” said Allonde. The group looked around at each other in mute disbelief. “Okay, start the necropsy. Make sure to get everything out of the digestive tract. I want to know what the key ingredient is here.”
He got a bunch of chatter on the line, that pretty much confirmed that the second pig had suffered the same fate. “We’re going to need to find the rest of that herd, Jessup.”
“A group of boar is called a ‘sounder.’ Like a flock of crows is a ‘murder.'”
“Damn geek,” said Allonde affectionately. “Find the sounder.” He looked about at his crew and thought how lucky he was to be surrounded by such dedicated, intelligent personnel. Valdez was a very small thorn compared to the opportunities they had been given. He realized he was actually enjoying this little mystery.
He watched the disciplined disassembly of the beast and then wandered back to the ship where they had set up a small command post in a temporary dome structure where they could take off their gear and work unencumbered.
Before he could even get his gear off, Jessup came up to him. “This is odd. The rest of the telemetry packs, they are all stationary, scattered in a small radius around us.”
“How long stationary?”
“Almost since the moment the second boar died.”
Allonde’s eyes widened. “This has become a most excellent adventure. Shall we go a-hunting?”
They quickly found the first telemetry pack a few hundred meters away. Jessup held it up. “Sliced clean off.” And so were the next six. As they walked back to camp, Allonde was quiet. On the last rise as they stood looking at the dome he turned to Jessup.
“No other animal lifeforms.”
“Not as we know of, and we would know.”
“So, if they are sliced off, the boars sliced them off.”
“It’s not entirely improbable. Boars have tusks, and have you seen how huge they have grown?”
Allonde waved his hand. “That’s not what I’m struggling with. What I’m struggling with is how quickly they learned this behavior, and how effectively they implemented it.” They shared a look. “Is is possible that along with everything else their intellect has also grown?”
“Well, pigs – boars – are smart to begin with. I’m not sure we have to assume that they got smarter somehow.”
“It’s true. I’m no expert on boars. It’s just eerie somehow that this mundane world somehow inspired both the insane growth and the advanced behavior.” He shrugged and they continued to camp.
The packs where stacked on the table as the other crews straggled in. Mikhail picked one up and looked it over and they discussed the hypothesis. He whistled. “On the one hand, I kind of want to get them re-instrumented, on the other hand, I don’t want to tangle with a 1600-pound boar.”
“Also,” supplied Franklin, one of the true vet techs, “you don’t know how big they will get.” He grimaced as he turned to join the conversation. It was clear his Rheumatoid Arthritis was acting up. He was a young man, but the disease had taken his toll on him. Yet, thought Allonde, not for the first time, he had the readiest smile of the bunch.
Allonde was looking over the vials and other necropsy samples. “Probably irrelevant as as soon as you put one on, they would just cut it off.” He held up a vial of neon green “What’s this?”
“Stomach contents,” said Franklin. “We’ll know more once we analyze it and compare it to the local flora.
Allonde shook it, “Something in here is magical. Let’s figure this out.”
“But that’s not the big news,” said Franklin. Allonde an Jessup looked over at him.”You have bigger news?”
“The big news is that the female was pregnant.”
“Pregnant? But all of these animals have been sterilized as a matter of course.”
“I did it myself, in fact, and have the records to prove it.”
Allonde waved his hand. “Of course you did. There is something going on here that is way out of our current understanding of this planet. Lock this place down, let people know we are going to be here for a while.”
As the Minot night fell, the biotechs took to their stations and set up samples for processing. Allonde and Jessup broke out the rations, and helped where they could, but the life sciences weren’t really their domain. After dinner they wandered down to the nearest shore where the swamp touched the hillock.
“It’s quiet,” said Jessup.
“I can’t get used to it.” Allonde was idly playing his light across the surface. “I grew up in a swamp like this. It never stopped making noise or moving.”
Allonde switched off his light and turned away from the swamp as if he would head back to camp. Jessup held up his hand. “Hang on, do that again.”
“Do what again?”
Jessup reached out his hand and took the light. He swept it across the water and then switched it off. The water then flashed with a pulse of light along the exact same path he had illuminated.
Allonde took the light back. “Some kind of bio luminescence?”
Jessup scrunched up his brow. “I’m not sure. There is some kind of delay, like there is a capacitance and then a discharge. That doesn’t sound like any bio luminescence I’m familiar with. Allonde switched the light off and on: long, short, long, and the water flashed the sequence back to him.
They looked at each other. Allonde grabbed the light again and flashed once, twice, three times. The water flashed back one, two, three, four. He made five quick flashes. The water flashed six times.
“Okay, I don’t want to unscientifically jump to conclusions here, but are we communicating with pond scum?” Allonde flashed one, three, five. The swamp reciprocated with seven, then nine. Allonde flashed eleven. The pond flashed thirteen.
Jessup grabbed the light. One, one, two, three, five, eight. Allonde started to say “Seriously, the Fibonacci?” but before he could finish, the swamp flashed thirteen again. Jessup flashed twenty one and they counted laboriously while the pond returned thirty-four.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“At the least baffled. Are you recording all of this?” Jessup nodded. Allonde took the light one more time. Three, one, four. Almost immediately the pond returned: one, five, nine.
“Pond scum that knows Fibonacci and Pi?” said Jessup. “What is going on here?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect we could do this all night and not get to the root of it. Let’s take this back to the team and see if there is any connection between this and the boars.”
As they came into the dome, Mikhail looked up from his console. “You gotta hear this, started about ten minutes ago.” He reached over and turned a dial and they were treated with a complex and steady series of chirps, bursts, whistles, and beeps.
“What are we listening to?” asked Allonde.
“It’s the ultrasonic spectrum. We thought this place was quiet, but if you are in the right range, it’s quite chatty.”
“Where is this coming from?”
Allonde and Jessup exchanged a glance. “Everywhere there is water, maybe?”
Mikhail looked at him, then spent some minutes comparing various screens. “It’s not exhaustive, but it seems that the sounds are indeed coming from the water.”
At that point Allonde and Jessup filled in the rest of the team on their impromptu experiments. “Which coincided with the bursts of chatter we heard on the ultrasonic,” said Franklin.
“Is there anyway we can align the time stamps on the recording and the chirps, to see if we can decode the language?” asked Allonde.
Franklin looked at him for a moment, then back to the machine. “Well, first, we can’t assume it’s a language. If all the other assumptions are correct about this being sentient pond scum, and just saying that makes me feel a little silly, then perhaps what we have here is not so much a language as thoughts or brainwaves, and since we couldn’t even get one word of English from a human brain wave, I wouldn’t hold out hope. That said, no reason not to try,” and with that he turned his full attention to his equipment like Allonde and Jessup weren’t even in the dome.
The team was up early, the light coming through the fog seemed non-directional. Jessup came up to Allonde, “Bad news.”
Allonde cocked his head to the sky, “Let me guess, that whistling is Valdez come to put me under his iron thumb.”
Jessup smiled. “Yup.”
A few minutes later Valdez came trudging up the hill, materializing slowly out of the persistent fog. Before he could speak Allonde raised his hand to stop him and said, “What part of ‘locked down’ did you not understand?” Valdez sputtered. “As commander of the ship, did you even think that putting yourself at risk might risk the entire mission? No, you clearly did not.”
“You cannot talk to me like that! The Dominion is my ship.”
“While Extron may dispute that claim, as I’ve already clarified it’s my mission. How, what, and why we do it on the planet is up to me and my team.”
Valdez’s swarthy skin darkened further. “And I remind you that this is not a pure science mission, but that science is only in support of the end goal of viable colonization or resource gathering.”
“This never leaves my mind. But I would also counter that some science is so important that it in itself may become more profitable than any other resource on the planet.”
“And what ‘science’ is this?”
“I thought there were no fauna on this planet.”
“Which is why this discovery may just be the most important one we’ve ever made.” Allonde wasn’t being so much purposefully evasive, as he was being impatient. He wasn’t sure laying out the entire chain so far was either something Valdez would listen to or care about, and if not, Allonde had more important things to do.
“Uh, boss,” ventured Jessup from a few meters away. Both Allonde and Valdez turned to the interruption.
“Yes?” said Allonde with clear relief.
“I wouldn’t interrupt, but this is important – Franklin cracked communication with the slime.”
“Slime?” Valdez interjected incredulously. But Allonde and Jessup had already started towards the dome.
As they came in the crew was hovering around a speaker and they all looked up. “Good job Franklin, I knew you could do it.”
Franklin smiled, his white teeth lighting up his dark features. “Actually, I ran a bunch of algorithms against it, but then I started thinking about the light thing, it seemed like maybe I should be letting them solve the problem.”
“And so, I played them every kind of media in the library and went to sleep. This morning, when I got up, I got this.” He reached over and turned on a speaker which started with a few chirps and then came out as “Good Morning, crew of Dominion.”
Allonde looked around and sat down. “So this is what history feels like.”
“It’s straight up radio,” said Franklin. “We can talk to them just like we talk to the ship.”
“Are they monitoring our communications?” asked Valdez, “that could be a serious security issue.”
Jessup rolled his eyes, “Because as soon as we get away from you we take out all encryption protocols.” Valdez shot him a dark look.
“No, no,” said Franklin, “they just figured it out and started talking to us. They. It. Not really sure, some kind of community mind, I’m guessing, a single-cell–based neural net. Fascinating, really.
Allonde stood up and held out his hand for a communicator. “My name is Allonde.”
A few moments later the response came back, “The light-player.” Allonde smiled. For some reason, he stood up and walked outside to head towards the water. The group congregated at the water’s edge.
“I like that. What do you call yourselves?”
Another pause. The group had followed Allonde and Franklin whispered an aside, “I think they are processing the answer.”
“We have never needed a name. We will use your name, Intelligent Green Slime.” Everybody smiled and laughed.
“What have you done with our boars?”
A long pause. “We have never seen…fauna…before. We thought we were alone. We thought they were…gods. We healed them.”
A look went around the group. “Gods?” said Allonde. “No they were livestock.”
“Livestock?” a long pause, “You owned them, you used them.”
“Yes, yes in a way we do.”
“Then you are gods.”
Allonde laughed again. Valdez’s eyes were bulging out, going from member to member of the group, then to the swamp. Suddenly, without warning a boar came flying over the hummock bearing directly down on the group. Franklin was directly in it’s path, and as he turned painfully to face it, the boar hit him with his head lowered and then lifted him straight into the air, eviscerating him with one long tusk and tossing him into the swamp. Valdez, whirled to swing his rifle up, but before he could complete the action a green wave rose up from the swamp and engulfed him from foot to shoulder, then froze in place, immobilizing him. The boar continued right through the group and disappeared into the mist.
Team members immediately dove into the swamp to bring Franklin back to shore, even while his ruptured aorta spouted dark blood into the water. But before they could reach him, the same green wave swallowed him up and froze him into place.
Alonde shouted into the radio, “What is going on? What are you doing?” but only static answered him. The team ignored Valdez who was hollering and straining to break free as they tried to get to Franklin. Buriss, the med tech, was looking at her telemetry device. “Oh, god. It tore everything. His liver, his intestines, his aorta.” She looked around the group, trying to determine what to do.
“Release our men, now!” Allonde was still working the radio.
“Call in a strike, for god’s sake,” said Valdez.
Alonde looked at him. “On what, Captain?” then turned back to Franklin. Just then, Franklin coughed out a huge green flume and sat up in the swamp shallows. His eyes bugging out, he started patting down his chest while looking around at the rest of the team as if he had just awoken from a dream. He was quickly lifted onto the shore where Buriss began going over him. Everybody waited while she did her scan. She looked up, sat on her haunches, looked around, then did it all over again. Finally, she stood up. “He’s, he’s perfect. Not a scratch. Not even missing any blood.”
“Perfect-perfect?” asked Franklin?
“Oh,” she said and looked at her device. “Perfect-perfect,” she almost whispered, “not a sign of the RA.” She offered a hand to help him up, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He leapt to his feet.
“I don’t know if I’d recommend getting ripped in half, but it sure worked for me.” His ever-ready smile beamed from his face.
They heard a huge groan, and the slime around Valez melted back into the swamp. He looked as if he had a mind to shoot it, but then turned his anger on Allonde.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Science. A bit messy, perhaps, but I remind you that you were not invited, specifically in case it did get messy.”
“That, that slime attacked me!”
Allonde shrugged as if there were no point in continuing the conversation.
The radio cackled. “We nullified your aggression.”
Valdez grabbed the radio, “What about the pig’s aggression?”
After a pause, “The boar has been nullified as well, per your command, our Lord.”
Looks all around except Valdez who was staring straight at the radio like it was a video com.
“That’s more like it.” He looked at Allonde for a long time. He seemed a changed man. “In light of recent events, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment. We could use that slime to terraform worlds.”
“‘Using’ a sentient species is not a concept which bears discussion, Captain.”
“We use the pigs, what is the difference?”
Allonde looked at him for a long time. “And perhaps that was wrong, too.”
“Ha!” barked Valdez. “Well, fortunately, this isn’t going to be your decision. Bottle that stuff up and let’s wrap up here.” He flexed his muscles. “You know, this is the best I’ve felt in years. We are going to be rich men. Very rich men.” Deep in his eyes, beyond where anybody could see it, there was a little purple-green gleam.
“An expedition goes remarkably quicker when your subject can answer your questions in English,” said Jessup as they were packing up a few days later. “I’m a little surprised at Valdez’s turn of opinion on the subject. You would think sentients would be seen as profit-eaters.”
“It’s not that nobody cares if there is sentient life here or not, it’s that they try not to ask,” said Burgiss.
Franklin was looking out the door, musing when Allonde came in. “Penny for your thoughts?”
“I don’t know. The whole thing with the boars. Tuning them, perfecting them, weaponizing them…”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know. First, they ‘healed’ the boars into a weapon, then we come down, then they commit god-like acts, and somehow convince Valdez he is the deity. Suddenly we are giving them a free ride out of here. If we hadn’t dropped the boars, we may never have discovered them. I feel like we got steered into something. Valdez talks about terraforming worlds, but what if they are ‘healing’ us to their own ends?”
“Conned by a slime mold to be an infection vector?”
Franklin looked at him and laughed. “Yeah, when you say it like that, it does seem kind of silly.” Just then he sat bolt upright and his mouth opened in a silent scream. His eyes shown a deep green. Suddenly he slumped over, dead.
Packed away in cargo was a significant supply of the mold, chittering happily away to itself. Fifteen billion years of patience was beginning to pay off. Dominion, we like the ring of that, we do, we do.