Can of Worms
by Liam Hogan
It doesn't matter how well you get along in training—being cooped up together in a tin can no bigger than a campervan for years at a time would test anyone's nerves. Especially when things go wrong.
“Ilse, what does that look like to you?” Katya asked as I was picking at the last of my rations. We didn't eat together any more; there wasn't room for her leg.
I peered at the external display. There were no windows in Narnia; they would have weakened the integrity of the science module. Instead, high-definition cameras looked out over the frozen planet in every direction.
“Is that... snowmen?”
“Or snowwomen,” Katya suggested.
“But...” Her leg was still in the inflatable cast. She'd managed to break it on the very first sample-collecting mission, and I'd been the only one to venture outside since. I hadn't even done that for a week, not after setting up the experiments and taking the necessary publicity videos. The rest of the mission was being handled by drones, and they sure as hell hadn't been building snowmen—or snowwomen.
“Watch carefully,” Katya instructed, awkwardly shuffling her chair aside to allow me closer to the monitor.
There were three snowmen in shot, all near the fringes of the screen. This was from a fixed, panoramic camera, designed to give us an outside image to display on the walls of the lander we'd nicknamed Narnia. Always winter, never Christmas?
We mostly preferred video loops or stills from Earth. Tropical beaches, forests, even cityscapes—whatever we were missing most. Assuming we could agree.
It spent a lot of time blank.
I shot Katya a sideways glance, wondering if she'd come up with a new argument to end our mission prematurely, wondering how much morphine she was on. Something dragged my attention back to the icy scene. “Did one of them just move?”
She grinned. “Things tend to happen slower at cold temperatures.” Katya was the xenobiologist, the mission scientist. “Let me speed that up for you.”
Replayed at eight times the rate, the snowmen took a half-dozen lumbering teddy-bear steps to their current positions. I peered disbelieving at the screen. “Is that a PLS?”
In addition to their stout legs, the impossible snowmen carried a bulky box high on their shoulders, something no earthly snowman would need. A portable life support system.
“Mimicry... And whatever they are,” Katya mused, “they can tell the difference between you in a suit and a drone, because I haven't seen anything that looks like a snow-drone. Not yet.”
“Life? Intelligence?” I squawked.
“Something like that,” she agreed neutrally. “And our ticket home.”
I stared at her. If we'd discovered life on this icy planet—alien life! The first detected anywhere—then the last thing we should expect was a recall?
“Science protocol.” She shook her head at my unspoken thoughts. “If we find incontrovertible evidence of advanced lifeforms, then we terminate the mission early to preserve the site for a full science team.”
We'd considered aborting after Katya's accident. The only way her bones would knit properly was up on the orbiter, in the med-bay. She was all for that. Problem was, this was a single-shot mission. There were far too many exoplanets to explore to ever return to one that offered nothing but ice. As commander it'd been my unpopular call to see the mission through.
Before her accident, running through hypotheticals, I'd worried about aborting against the wishes of the mission specialist. That I'd had to argue to stay told me, as eloquently as Katya's pale face and clenched fists, how much pain she'd been in.
None of which had made the flaming row we'd had any easier to take. Nor the irrational fear that she would sabotage the mission. Every time I exited the Narnia's airlock, I half-wondered if it'd be there on my return.
“So what now?” I asked, wary.
“Now,” Katya said, grinning at me, “you go out and capture one.”
A few white blobs caught moving on video wasn't enough proof; we needed samples. As I grumbled and, with Katya's assistance, squeezed myself into the suit, she commented: “Ilse, there's another reason to go check. Those snowwomen might be slow, but it's clear where they're heading.”
“Let me guess...?”
“...straight for the Narnia.”
I sighed. Great. “Do we have any weapons on this bucket?”
She laughed. “You know the answer to that. And I think you'll be able to outrun them.”
“Not,” I said between gritted teeth, “if I'm taking a sample from one of them.”
“The collection pole is a metre long. Dart in, dart out?”
For all she was enjoying herself at my expense, she made it sound easy. But then, the first sample mission should have been easy too, and look what had happened there. It was one of the reasons I'd minimised my time outside: there would be no-one to rescue me. “Well,” I said with a shudder, clicking the helmet into place, “here goes nothing.”
Stood face to face with one of the things, the bulbous head was a blank canvas. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. None of which I had either while wearing a helmet. Was the alien mimicry friendly, or hostile?
I unscrewed the end of the sample tube. It was designed for taking snow from beneath the surface. I'd used it a dozen times already, hundreds in simulations back on Earth, knew that it was trickier than it looked. The snow was often capped by a hard crust of ice—ice that led to accidents.
Steadying my stance, I thrust and felt the pop! as the tube sealed. For a moment nothing changed, even as I wondered if I'd just hurt whatever it was. Then, there was an explosion of snow that whirled and blinded me, gritty ice clattering against my visor.
“Christ!” I muttered.
“Job done, Ilse. Back to the airlock now. I've recalled the drones.”
To my left and right, the remaining snowwomen's heads were turning glacially in my direction. In front, at my feet, there was nothing but a jumbled, writhing heap. “Worms?”
“Polyps, I think! Or their alien equivalent. C'mon Commander, time to head back through the magic wardrobe!”
I shook my head but followed her advice. The sample went into cold storage and I went through the full, tiresome cycle of suit sterilisation before I could shed it. No shortcuts, especially now.
When I emerged, Katya gave me an awkward hug, one arm still clasping her improvised crutch. “Blast off in five.”
“They're obviously a bit like coral,” she explained, as I strapped myself in and started the pre-launch sequence. “But using snow and ice instead of calcium carbonate to build their structures. Like the ones I was investigating when...”
“Coral isn't intelligent,” I pointed out, finally realising the snowwomen must have been snow-Katyas, not snow-Ilses. They'd been a head shorter than me, which should have been enough of a clue.
“Think of them as bees,” she suggested. “One bee, not so smart. But a hivemind? Able to explore and to mimic—out of curiosity, I think.”
“And the fact I rammed a sample tube into one of their stomachs?”
She shrugged. “They don't have stomachs, and removing a few dozen bees doesn't necessarily endanger the hive. It might trigger a defensive action—a structure collapse, a retreat to the safety of underground—but I think it'll be fine. It's probably rebuilding itself right now as a snow-Ilse. Which is why we have to lift off before they get any closer. Hitting them with a sample tube might be okay, but the Narnia's rockets? Less so.”
As the engines rumbled with a pre-burn that would shake them free from ice, I thought of the long trip home. Thought of how famous we were both going to be when that tube of alien life arrived back on Earth. Thought that maybe the journey could never be long enough to prepare for that.
But, as I confirmed the final countdown, committing us to the launch, I realised how busy we were going to be. There had been so little to do on our way here that it wasn't a surprise we'd become fractious. Even worse, that Katya had only managed one external mission, and I had cut the rest of them to the bone. I think we'd been both dreading our empty-handed return. But now, I bet Katya couldn't wait to start analysing the lifeforms. Coaxing them to give up their secrets. Doing her best to keep them alive.
Because it wasn't just single-celled organisms, which would have been incredible enough. It was intelligent life. Life that had recognised what we were, cloaking itself in our forms, long before we had recognised it.
“Well then,” I said, giving Katya a wry smile, “let's go deliver our can of worms.”
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk
Fiction by Liam Hogan:
"Can of Worms" June 2021