The Adventures of Shmendril Smith, Interstellar Plumber
#1: The Lumpen Gelatinous Creature of L-27251-C
Reading time: Approx. 15 minutes
The Interstellar Plumber's Code
1. Shit happens.
That’s the first rule for any plumber - interstellar or not. Kind of a prime directive, if you will. Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. People gotta crap (and for that matter, so do birds and fish).
2. You never get used to the smell. Ever.
3. Plumbers are a critical part of any society.
Example. An army marches on its stomach. The Tiberius is not a military ship but the rule still applies. Cram nearly a hundred people into a huge ship, fling them a few hundred light years across the galaxy and certain things become critical to their well-being. Like food. Say what you want about the inefficiencies of eating but its more than just basic survival.
Maybe someday we’ll get our nutrition from pills or slabs of pressed nutrient glump. But I think humans will always value the fine art of sitting down to a lovely repast and shoveling it in until our eyes glaze over and our stomachs strain. And the stomach is connected to the…you know. Which is where I come in. Because even a starship needs a plumber.
4. Never chew your fingernails.
Life on an interstellar survey ship ain't all it's cracked up to be. No one tells you that ahead of time. Or at least they didn't tell me. Not that I had high expectations, mind you. I'm a plumber. We're all about low expectations.
One thing they don't tell you about interstellar surveying is that it's oh so boring. Yes, you have a massive data bank that contains much of the knowledge, entertainment and whatnot that humans (and a few alien races) have accumulated. If you sign on to a decent ship you have access to facilities designed to keep you happy, healthy and to keep you from chewing your shipmates' ears off. Because during the year or two of your stretch - barring an occasional leave - you're cooped up on a giant ship with a bunch of other cooped up people.
The Tiberius might not have been decent but you could do worse. At least the plumbing was in good shape. I can vouch for that. Which only added to the boredom for my colleague and I because aside from routine maintenance there wasn't much to do.
One day I actually arm-wrestled Vanderbilt for the dubious honor of unblocking Captain Parenter's crapper. Just for a break in the routine. Lord knows what the big kahuna eats but this is not the first time this has happened. But given the somewhat dubious extracurricular activities we're involved in, though, it's best to stay on the captain's good side. Two plumbers might seem like a lot for a crew of just under a hundred. But when you're a month or so from a base or colony, a spare plumber is a very good thing to have.
But I digress.
We were about a half day from the next system on our roster - a gas giant with four other planets and a star somewhat like Earth's. Which mattered not squat to me. Plumbers aren't dispatched on surveying missions. Though I sometimes wrangled my way aboard for a change of scenery.
It might seem like another digression to discuss the doughnuts I was frying up one evening but bear with me. I was frying away, trying to keep from drooling into the pot as I contemplated the obscene gustatory joys to come when I heard a voice. I assumed it was Willow. But it seemed to be coming from behind me. My leg was right there where it always was it couldn’t have been her.
“Hooma Zimblecrake.” Or something like that. It was so muffled that I couldn't quite make it out.
Duffy Gheems was the ship's second assistant chef. He and Vanderbilt and I had rigged up a kitchen in an unused storeroom in a little-used corner of Black Zone. It was a cosy operation that flew up under the radar and did what we needed it to do.
“Sleeping,” She mumbled.
“You’re an AI. Try again."
"Umm...don't want to talk to you?"
"But you're such a sparkling conversationalist."
A pause, “Whatever.”
“Hiyamma Zimblecralee.” Or something like that.
I turned to see a smartly dressed young woman in a form-fitting black suit of some sort. Who was pointing what looked like a weapon in my general direction.
I gotta digress again and put in a word for donuts - my latest passion. I don't know how the mania for these little globs of joy died out but it's a sad tale indeed. They were popular in previous centuries and I can see why. I just don’t understand how they’ve lapsed into almost total obscurity in this otherwise advanced age.
But I’ve been doing my part to bring them back. Willow is a whiz with searching – she’s an AI, after all – and she’s turned up quite a few recipes. Some flopped miserably, but I’m starting to get the hang of it now.
But enough of that. The smartly dressed woman with the peculiar weapon had my full attention. She was young and I couldn’t help noticing that she was rather shapely. Which was hardly my primary concern while she had that odd weapon pointed at me.
“Willow, what is that thing?” I muttered under my breath.
“The deadly looking thing this woman is pointing at me.”
She paused for about a second and a half to process it.
“A hey what?”
“An archaic weapon.”
“Probably doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”
“Bingo. Quaint but deadly. If she fired it right now it would shred your torso.” She giggled.
Well, that was a comfort.
“Glad you find it so amusing.”
How I came to have an AI implanted in my prosthetic leg with the personality of a thirteen-year-old girl and a vocabulary that included several centuries worth of archaic slang is an interesting story. But I'll leave that for another time. To summarize, don't lose an ill-advised bet with a starship's technology officer after a long night of frolicking and merry making.
The woman's eyes seem to be looking in two divergent directions. Well now, that was unsettling. I was getting dizzy just looking at her. We stood there for what seemed like a long time, me looking at her and her looking at…well, who knows what?
She spoke again - something like “Hiyamma zimblecralee.” It was gibberish to me. What was more interesting is that she'd somehow been joined by a clown and an ape.
Which sounded the start of a bad joke (a clown, an ape and a smartly dressed young woman walk into a bar). But it was hardly a joking matter. Though it was amusing to note that the clown was wearing a coonskin cap. As for the ape, it was brandishing a shovel as though it meant to brain me with it.
None of them seemed to know how to act. It was like the linkages between their brain and body weren’t working. I didn’t know how to act either. I just stood there gawking.
The door slid open behind them - Duffy. Probably coming to check on my latest scientific research into the optimum configuration of a donut. Duffy had come from a backwater colony in the outer reaches of the quadrant. Living was hard there and luxuries few and so snack foods of any type were something he took a keen interest in. His increasingly doughy figure showed it. He stopped short when he saw the gruesome threesome.
Duffy was looking perplexed. Before he could say or do anything the smartly dressed woman had some sort of herky jerky twitching spell and dropped the blunderbuss. I noted that the barrel was pointing my way. Oh, great. I jumped back. Which saved me from a good torso shredding. It gave forth a deafening roar. And gave my makeshift donut fryer a good shredding.
I stepped lively as hot oil spilled out. Our visitors didn't seem to notice, not even with shockingly hot cooking oil licking at their feet. They chattered at random intervals and to no one in particular. Their strange conglomerations of sounds was like another language but then it veered close to Standard at times.
“What's with the freaks?” Duffy said, stepping back to avoid a creeping tendril of boiling oil. "They're gonna have a helluva hotfoot."
I was about to reply when they started to shimmer and jitter. It was like they were starting to melt. Sort of - like their exteriors had been painted onto ape, clown and woman-shaped frames and was sliding off. Revealing what looked like bipedal lumps of gelatin. At this point I could discourse on my experiments with Jell-O salad, another quaint (and nasty) treat from yesteryear, but I'd rather forget about that one.
They kept melting and their melted blobbiness was coalescing and forming into a big blodgy lump – with Duffy and I ensconced in the middle of it. I’d like to say we fought bravely to avoid this fate but in truth we didn't have time to react.
"Quick little buggers," Duffy observed.
Thus far it wasn't such a terrible fate. As for breathing, an open pocket in the gelatinous mass gave our upper bodies room to move and a small pocket of oxygen. As for the stuff itself, it wasn’t so bad. It was smooth to the touch and refreshingly cool.
“Gee, Smitty,” Duffy’s voice sounded in my ear. We were way too close for comfort. “This is inconvenient.”
Duffy was the master of understatement.
We heard a strange sound, like an electrical hum. Then we were moving. Duffy and I and the apparently sentient mass of goo somehow moved through the walls of our makeshift kitchen and then the bulkheads of the ship itself and into open space.
It was unnerving and yet kind of interesting. The goo had seemed opaque at first but now was nearly transparent. The stars surrounding us were like nothing I've ever seen before. There were so many more than we could ever see from a ship's porthole.
We moved quickly. The ship which had loomed over us soon dwindled to a dot and the planet grew large. It was hard to get a sense of how fast we were moving. It was a respectable pace, even though I didn’t feel any sense of forward motion.
“This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” Duffy said, too loudly, right into my ear.
I had been lost in my thoughts. He gave me a start.
“Jesus, Duffy. I’m right here. So how do you figure I got us into this mess?”
He shrugged his shoulders, as well as he could with his arms and part of his torso encased in goo.
There you have it. When it comes to intellect, well, Duffy makes a pretty good second assistant chef.
“Any thoughts, Willow?”
“About the weather, for God’s sake. About the price of tea in China. About the meaning of life.”
“Dude. Take a chill pill.”
I had no idea what that meant.
“Any thoughts about how a clown, an ape and a smartly dressed woman inexplicably turned up in the kitchen and turned into a blob that absorbed us and is now hurtling through space toward an unknown planet?
“Oh, that." A pause. "No.”
Well, some days are better than others.
“The planet isn't unknown. It’s L-27251-C. It was first scanned by an unmanned probe 23 standard years ago. It has an atmosphere of--”
It wasn't much longer to the planet. I thought of those old streams that showed the first astronauts re-entering Earth's atmosphere. With their ships heating to ungodly temperatures. Presumably the creature had a way to deal with that.
Amidst all of this Duffy had managed to doze off. No surprise there. He was drooling on my shoulder but I let it ride. We were close enough that we could see bodies of water and mountain ranges and clouds. Which was no coincidence, mind you. Most planets chosen for survey tended to approximate conditions on Earth.
The hum was still there but it was so constant that it had receded into the background. Then we hit the atmosphere. The pitch raised an octave or so and the volume increased.
Duffy deigned to rouse himself from his (much needed) beauty rest. Or so I thought. Instead he sneezed all over the side of my face and into my ear. A carefully applied elbow brought him around.
“Are we there yet?” He looked like he’d been bludgeoned. Some people are blessed with the ability to wake gracefully. Not Duffy.
“I guess so, you snot-spewing nincompoop. If we’re not incinerated.”
“Oh.” He replied, articulate as ever.
The humming intensified. We could make out more features now. A carpet of forest, broken by low, rolling mountains and a river or lake. We came in closer. The humming reached a crescendo. There was a distinct sensation of moving fast now and then that tapered off. We were hovering.
Because of how we were oriented it was hard to see directly below us. What looked like a clearing as we were approaching it revealed itself to be more than that. It was a big flat bowl about a hundred meters in diameter.
We hovered for a moment and then dropped precipitously, with a stomach-churning lurch. Duffy made a rude sound but neither of us spoke. We could see that the bottom third of the bowl was filled with a substance just like the one that encased us.
We hovered again, about ten meters from the surface. Then we dropped precipitously yet again. As the goo around us opened up – after a fashion – and released us. Kind of like it was excreting us. Which seemed fitting.
The landing would have been comfy if not for the fact that Duffy ended up on top of me. I should emphasize again that Duffy is a fairly sturdy chap. My nose got the worst of it, as I realized when we untangled ourselves.
"Sorry, Smitty," Duffy said.
"Just forget it. We've got bigger fish to fry."
"I could go for some haddock."
I think he understood that I wasn't being literal. Maybe he was joking. You could never be sure with Duffy.
I didn't dignify his remark with a response. I was more concerned with stopping my nose from bleeding and keeping my balance. The latter was quite a trick when you are standing on an enormous heap of goo. We weren't managing it very well. I noticed that as the drops of blood landed on it they were instantly absorbed. Which was odd. It was transparent, except for a dark area near the center, about fifty yards from where we stood - or wobbled.
"Duffy, this isn't the time."
"Hardly the time for a snack."
"What are you talking about?"
"You said something about eating."
"I didn't say anything."
"Willow? Was that you?"
It hadn't been any of us. It wasn't even spoken aloud. Nor was it the word itself, but more like an image of it. It was hard to explain.
"I could eat." Duffy said. He executed a forward flip, of sorts. It was totally accidental but surprisingly graceful.
"It's apparently a telepath." Willow said.
"Did you hear it too?"
"I'm an AI." Willow sighed heavily. "This thing seems to be a conglomeration of individual entities. Or maybe a big critter that spins off pieces of itself as needed. And it's telepathic. That's what you heard - or thought you heard. There's no precedent for a creature like this so I might be wrong. But I'm probably not."
"I could eat," Duffy observed again, more insistently. "Could you eat, Smitty?"
I ignored him.
"I don't think they'll be rolling out a banquet for you," Willow said. "You're probably going to be on the menu."
I hadn't considered that. It made my skin prickle. Just as the big oaf named Duffy plowed into me and we both went down. We managed to get back up but it wasn't easy. I had a nagging feeling that Willow was right.
“I move that we get the hell out of here.”
“Dig it,” Willow chimed in. Duffy nodded.
But how? We tried a few awkward steps. The goo was spongy and gave just enough to make the going tough. But it was sturdy enough that it didn't gave way under our weight.
You could say it was two steps forward and one step back – but it wasn’t. It was more like two steps forward, fall down, struggle to our feet and repeat. The heat of the day was waning and the yellowish-white sun was setting but we were soon sweating like hogs.
We muddled along with that same telepathic image ever present. I had imagined them/it/whatever with napkins tucked under their non-existent chins and us on giant serving trays but of course that was ridiculous. But it seemed that it wasn’t going to end well and we tried to increase our pace.
We plodded along and eventually found ourselves nearing the perimeter. I’m not exactly svelte but I try to stay in shape – in fits and starts and at random intervals. Duffy’s got quite a few pounds on me and he was having a harder time of it. We were almost to the edge of the thing when he doubled over gasping for breath.
"We're almost there."
Duffy just gasped and raised a hand.
I stepped off of the edge of the thing and onto the unnaturally smooth surface of the bowl. And fell flat on my ass.
"Fine kettle of fish."
"What?" Duffy gasped.
"We'll never get up the side of that thing."
We stared at it for a while as though it might change something.
"Any thoughts, Willow?" I said.
"Yeah," She sounded drowsy for some reason. "You're screwed."
"You're part of this blessed expedition."
"And I'm fully backed up. What about you?"
She had a point there.
I noticed a colored mass of something approaching. That's to say it was somehow making its way through the greater mass of transparent goo. Maybe it wasn't heading for us. Hope springs eternal.
"Do you see that?" Duffy asked.
"Yeah. Try to stand on the edge of it and lay against the bowl."
We did our best. Which was not very good. It was upon us now. It came right up to the edge and stopped. Like it was waiting. It was red. It was kind of like a bubble of red food coloring dropped in a glass of water - sort of.
"I think we're good." Duffy said.
Oh, so wrong. A tendril of red goo slowly extended and wrapped itself around our feet. This goo was not smooth and silky like the stuff that brought us here. My feet - well, my one real foot - grew warmer and started to tingle. The telepathic messages kept up.
"Okay. I don't think we're good," Duffy said. "Are your feet getting warm?"
I nodded. And warmer.
I wouldn't say that my life passed before my eyes. But I thought back over a few major life events and wondered if I might have done things differently. I wasn't ready to shuffle off just yet but we might not have a choice.
It was up to our lower calves now and it was starting to hurt. I leaned my head back against the cool material of the bowl. I tried to breathe and relax but to little avail.
We heard a familiar whining sound. I opened my eyes. The sun was almost down and the gloom was deepening. Which made a nice backdrop for the dazzling beam of the cutter ray.
We looked up. A flitter was hovering about ten meters above. Kerry, from security, was braced in the cargo doorway, manning the cutter. The beam worked its way around us - a little close for comfort, to be honest - cutting a neat slice into the reddish goo.
They lowered harnesses and we strapped in. The goo sizzled and smoked wherever the ray cut through it. The smell was kind of pleasant, strangely enough. They hauled us up and into the flitter. Cincera, the assistant security chief, was a beefy fellow and had no problem manhandling us both into the tiny cargo bay.
"I don't know what that shit is," He pointed at the goo. "But you'd better get your pants and shoes off."
The burning and tingling was abating but we didn’t need to be told twice. Our legs were red and the discomfort continued even after we'd treated them with a burn spray. But at least the thing wasn't relaxing now with an after dinner mint.
Cincera went to the cockpit. The flitter soon gave a lurch. We were heading back to the ship. Li Win, the third member of the rescue party - and a regular customer of ours - assisted with our ministrations and pulled a pair of coveralls out of the emergency supply cabinet.
"What the hell was that thing?" He asked.
I looked through the tiny porthole, watching as the bowl receded to a tiny speck.
"No frigging clue. But I hope you guys gave it a nasty case of indigestion."
Duffy and Van and I convened in the kitchen the next evening. Van had done a fair job of cleaning up the spilled oil. Fortunately for all of us, the right people had been summoned to investigate the discharge of the archaic firearm and our subsequent disappearance. Our tidy little operation had not been subjected to any undue scrutiny.
Van was starting a batch of homebrewed beer. Duffy was at the range working over a cooking pot.
"What the hell's that, Duffy?" I said. Judging from the smell I had a pretty good notion. I couldn't help feeling that he was horning in on my turf.
I opened my mouth to protest. He picked one up from the counter and shoved it in. I chewed. It was good. No, it was really good. I raised an eyebrow.
"Not so shabby, eh? Duffy beamed.
I grudgingly admitted that it was better than anything I'd managed.
"What is that filling?" I said.
Duffy's smile grew even wider. He eyeballed the battered pot that had been destroyed by the blunderbuss. I suddenly had a very strange feeling.
"You couldn't possibly...."
He nodded. I spit out the uneaten portion of the donut.
"Are you crazy? Do you wanna kill us?"
"Relax, Smitty. I grabbed big chunk of it when we left the flitter. Westerly in the lab checked it out for us. He said it was okay."
I just eyeballed him - hard.
"Really," He assured me.
"But what ever made you think to....oh, for God's sake. Never mind."
"Might as well have another one."
Might as well indeed. I hesitated and then grabbed one and took a big bite.
Didn't someone once say that eating well was the best revenge? Or something like that.
By William I. Lengeman III © 2015