“Woop, woop,” the alarm said. “Woop, woop.”
The Faster than Imagination freighter Calamity Jane was three months out of Cape Calamari, en route to New Jihadistan, hauling forty million tons of Trollite ore. This was a routine run – Calamity Jane did it once every five years on average – and nothing had ever triggered the alarm before.
Oddly enough, that was the thought that first came to Captain Burhanuddin Talibani, in his cabin on the mid-upper deck of the Calamity Jane. “Nothing has ever triggered the alarm before,” he said.
This, of course, was a problem. Captain Talibani scratched his turban as he tried to recall the correct procedure to follow. The gulfs of space between New Jihadistan and Cape Calamari were known to be perfectly safe. Why, even the Somalistani pirates left this part of the galaxy strictly alone.
“Woop, woop,” went the alarm.
“To hell with it,” Captain Talibani said at last, and hit the red emergency button on his turban.
“Wah wah,” went the warbling emergency call. Throughout the passages and cabins, the engine rooms and the FTI Drive core, the galleys and the bathrooms, the call warbled. “Wah wah,” it said. “Wah wah.” And the alarm said “Woop woop,” so the two blended together in a crescendo of noise, each trying to outshout the other: “Woop wah, woop wah, woop woop wah wah.”
From all over the ship, the crew stumbled to their emergency sessions, cursing. Some of them had been sleeping. Some of them had been in bed but not sleeping. One of these, Deputy Captain Anna Lovitskaya, rushed out of her cabin, pausing just long enough to pull on pants and shoes.
“What’s going on?” she demanded, grabbing the first crewman she saw by the arm. “What’s the emergency?”
The crewman goggled at her, his jaw dropping. “Gwah?” he inquired.
“Oh, sorry,” said Deputy Captain Anna, and rushed back to her cabin to pull on a bra and a shirt.
Deep in the heart of the Calamity Jane, the armoured control centre had already filled up with officers by the time the Captain and the Deputy Captain arrived simultaneously, from opposite directions. Captain Talibani was still adjusting his turban and Deputy Captain Anna was still buttoning her shirt, so they dispensed with salutes, keeping in mind the gravity of the situation.
“What is the emergency, sir?” Anna asked, while they waited for the door to open. It was an old and temperamental door, and usually reacted with all the alacrity of a lift descending from the 35th floor. “Do you have any information?”
“All I know is that the alarm went off,” Captain Talibani replied, his beard waggling in agitation. “It is not supposed to go off.”
“No,” his deputy agreed. “Shouldn’t you shut that alarm off now?”
“Yes, maybe it would be a good idea,” the captain assented. He fiddled with a button set into his turban. The Woop Wah faded. Also, the door opened at last and they entered the control room.
“What’s going on?” Captain Talibani demanded to the officers bent over keyboards and scopes. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s this, Captain,” First Mate Jagathrakshakan said, and pressed a button. A viewscreen lit up. “This thing here is blocking our way.”
Everyone stared at the screen. “It appears to be an insect,” Deputy Captain Anna said at last.
“A very large insect,” Jagathrakshakan added.
“A very large, reddish insect with no wings,” Captain Talibani, who had a keen eye for these details, said. “What’s more, it’s coming closer.”
There was no doubt about that. The distance readout at the bottom of the screen showed that the huge reddish creature was closing the distance with great rapidity.
“Change course fast!” Talibani ordered.
“Can’t,” Deputy Captain Anna informed him. “The forty million tons of Trollite give us too much momentum.”
They all watched the creature come closer. It had beady little eyes which were fixed on them, and the armour plates encasing its body flexed like a bodybuilder warming up before competition.
“What do you suppose it is?” First Mate Jagathrakshakan asked.
“I can’t guess,” Talibani snapped. “For exactly the same reason that I can’t think of anything to do. We’re moving faster than imagination, or did you forget that?”
“Maybe we should shut down the Faster than Imagination drive,” Deputy Captain Anna suggested. Without waiting for Captain Talibani’s assent, she began pushing the sequence of levers and buttons which initiated the shutdown sequence. The mumble of the Drive began to taper off to a low moan. But it would take a long time to shut down completely.
“Reminds me of the Space Squid we met off Betelgeuse ten years ago,” the ship’s engineer, a wrinkled old dotard named McDonald, said chattily. “Did I ever tell you about that time?”
“No,” Captain Anna, who was relatively new to the ship and hadn’t heard the story seventeen times already, said. “What happened?”
“Och, I was on the auld Lovecraft then. We were coming off the run tae R’lyeh when this great big squid-thing came along. Ye never did see such a thing, like a mountain floating in space. It got hold of us, and then –“
“Impact,” the voice of the ship’s main computer warned, and an instant later the insect struck.
It struck quite softly, the impact taken up by its spiny legs, the immense mass of it hardly touching the hull of the Calamity Jane at all. But an instant later the ship lurched sharply, as the legs bent and pushed the body of the creature against the ship.
“What’s it doing?” Anna yelled.
“I can’t imagine,” Captain Talibani replied. “I...”
The Faster than Imagination Drive cut out.
Suddenly, everyone could imagine again.
“Yon beastie’s trying tae eat us!” McDonald exclaimed.
“It’s trying to kidnap us,” Jagathrakshakan corrected.
“It’s trying to communicate with us,” Deputy Captain Anna said.
“This is the strangest manner of attempting communication I have ever encountered,” the Second Mate, Zhang, who had remained silent so far, said. “It seems to be rubbing itself on the hull.”
“Yeah, what kind of communication do you call that?” Captain Talibani asked.
“Maybe it’s leaving scent trails,” Anna countered. “Perhaps it communicates with smell.”
“In space?” Zhang grinned. “Scent trails in space?”
“Do you have a better idea?” Anna shot back. “Perhaps you could start by explaining how it exists in space.”
“As a matter of fact, I can imagine several,” Zhang began. He began ticking off points on his fingers, a habit which had always infuriated Anna. “First, perhaps it is not an insect at all, but a spacecraft which resembles an insect. Secondly, maybe it is an insect. If so, perhaps sucks in air from the upper layer of a planet’s atmosphere and...”
“Forget what the hell it is,” Captain Talibani said. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Kill it,” McDonald said.
“How? We don’t have weapons.”
“Talk to it,” Anna replied.
“How? Are we supposed to smell back at it?”
“Let’s move away at top speed to stop it from abducting us,” Jagathrakshakan suggested.
“Starting up the Faster than Imagination drive will take hours,” McDonald pointed out. “And in that time –“
There came a sharp tapping noise, like a canned sardine might hear if someone took a can opener to the container. The ship jumped a little, like a startled grasshopper.
“What’s it doing, d’ye ken?” McDonald shouted.
“It’s trying to puncture the hull,” Jagathrakshakan said, reading from a screen. “It’s punctured the hull,” he corrected.
“Seal it instantly,” Deputy Captain Anna ordered.
“We’re trying, but it’s inserted something into the ship. It –”
There was a terrible, acrid odour, which instantly penetrated to every corner of the ship except the sealed Trollite ore. Everyone started coughing and tearing up before the ship’s life support system could filter the noxious smell away. Even so, the taint of it lingered in the air, like a bad memory.
“I told you that it was talking to us by smell,” Deputy Captain Anna said, wiping her streaming eyes.
“In that case it was nae a good message it was sending,” McDonald snapped back. He coughed. “Proper stinker of a message, I’d say.”
“It’s withdrawn the object it inserted,” the First Mate reported. “We’re sealing the hull breach.”
“It’s letting us go,” Captain Talibani added, pointing at the screen. Everyone watched the form of the insect as it slowly drifted away from the ship.
“It put something into the ship,” Zhang said. “That’s what it wanted to do, to puncture the hull and put something inside. And now it’s done, so it’s leaving.”
There was a long pause while they all imagined as hard as they could.
“Start the Faster than Imagination Drive,” Captain Talibani ordered at last. ”We might as well get going.”
“Negative,” the computer responded. “Command invalid.”
“Because I am on maternity leave as of this instant,” the computer said.
“It was mating with us,” Deputy Captain Anna said. “It was having sex with the ship.”
Nobody said anything. Nobody had anything to say.
With the slightest of flickers, the lights began to go out one by one.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014