by Than Pence
Bev, a resolute scientist, aims to solve a mystery. But not all puzzles should be solved.
Lying on her stomach with her arm stretched down, Bev’s limb was starting to cramp. Just… a little… farther… she thought as she reached for the water's surface. She lifted her head and stifled a curse: the clouds were beginning to swirl.
Before long, the electric tendrils of the khung’za would reach down to feed. Beverly Siver knew she had to collect her sample now if she didn’t want to risk electrocution.
“Bev,” rang her earpiece. “Pull out, pull out. The ‘za is nearing extension.”
“Negative, Trope. I’m not waitin’ another month for this sample!”
A deep sigh passed between them, but Trope quieted himself, letting Bev concentrate. Finally, her sampling wand broke the surface of the water. She let out a breath, but then her heart skipped a beat when she inched forward, the slippery rock betraying the scientist.
“Bev, you good?”
Deciding not to answer, she instead silently let the wand retract. She pushed her chin forward, attempting to press the switch she’d programmed to activate the tether. Sweating inside the suit, her chin slipped from the button. Bev sighed and took a deep breath.
“I’m… fine. I can’t… The tether, it won’t retract.”
Trope’s teeth ground in Bev’s ear. “You should stop using that chin button. It never works.”
“Not with a dainty chin like yours.”
She felt her pulse quicken when she heard it: the crackling of the sky as the kung’za overhead settled and started reaching down like lightning moving in slow motion. The energized tentacles of the benevolent beast would electrify the water in a matter of seconds.
“Trope, you there?”
The tether jerked her backwards with more force than ever before: it snatched her breathe away for a second, almost making her drop her sampling wand. Bev recovered quickly and gripped the instrument tightly as the khung’za tentacle broke the water’s surface.
The vision was momentarily blinding and, in the sky, the khung’za began to purr on a subsonic level.
Beverly stood up with a grunt, turned, and saw Trope holding her tether with both hands. His eyebrows high, his grin was minimal. Bev had seen and heard it all before: he was right, yet again. “Look,” she said, holding up the wand and the containment ball on the end. It reminded Bev of an old fashioned honey dipper, except this used a small field to keep the sample from sliding down the handle.
“You my fairy godmother with your wand there?”
Bev, knocking her head to the side, bugged her eyes out. “No. Now we can compare our water samples, from just before the khung’za feeds to just after it left last time.”
Trope said nothing.
“Look, I know you’re mad. And you’re right about this stupid chin switch.”
“It’d be easier if it was a switch.”
“Button, then! My hands are full sometimes and I like the switch in here.”
He went to the anchor and activated it manually, winding up Bev’s tether cord. “If your suit didn’t get so hot…”
“I get… sweaty, okay? I know it’s not ladylike or anything, but I don’t care. Thicker bodies sweat.”
“I didn’t say you were fat.”
“I didn’t either. The worthless engineers that designed this suit just need to have a better cooling system built in.”
Bev saw Trope smile again when the anchor made her turn around and slowly trudge backwards. She reached behind herself and unclasped the cord. Turning, she watched him look her up and down. “Well, those engineers are sure going to have a fit about you staining up another one of their suits with that green rock slime.”
Looking down at herself as best she could, Bev let out a sigh. He was right. She looked at him again. “Well, we have the sample. And with it, we might understand that.” She pointed behind herself awkwardly, to the kilometer-high khung’za tentacles. “We understand that, our mission is done, and we get to leave this rock.”
Nodding, Trope released the anchor’s bolts and helped pack up her field equipment. Luckily, when they returned to the skiff, nothing had gone awry. No wild indigens had tried eating the vehicle’s power drive when Trope left it to save Bev. Finally catching a break!
* * *
As predicted, the engineers were less than thrilled about the cleanliness of Bev’s suit. The scientists, though, were thrilled about the sample.
“I can’t wait to see what we’re dealing with!” squealed Harmon. The only other female on the team, she was shorter than Bev, and skinnier, with long blonde hair that still looked great a week after washing it.
Torrence was the only one not piqued by the water or the eating cycle of Corvo’s strangest and potentially largest living being. “We know what it is,” he said pointing to the water. “It’s a living version of whatever dead microbes were in the water sample from a month or so ago.”
“That’s our hypothesis. We don’t know if the animal zaps the microbes when it touches the lake or if they come from the khung’za during the feeding cycle. That’s why we test.”
Rolling his eyes, Torrence continued. “Whatever. I just hope it means we’re leaving this rock soon. I’ve had enough of this shit. And that sky zapper has its sights on us, mark my words. It’s just waiting for the time to strike.”
“I believe,” Bev started while pulling clean reaction plates from the sanitized drawer, “that there’s no reason to think it’ll eat us. We’ve been here one year and the only indigenous species that bothers us are the gnish’oxen.” They liked attacking the larger batteries that powered most vehicles. “We’ve tracked migration patterns and now we’re going to procure a proper chemical analysis.”
The four scientists turned to look at Torrence.
He stood staring for a moment before asking, “Why do we do that? Use those stupid names? It’s just a tiger-cow or something, with a trunk. And the big one in the sky is a cloud-swimming-zap-bitch.”
Bev looked to her other colleagues before answering. “We’re scientists, Tor. We respect the civilizations that came before us. The drawings of these native creatures are labeled in letters that look similar to English characters, even though it’s not. It’s the best we can do regarding classification.”
Bev’s resilience to the boorish scientist was unnerving, she saw. He left without another word. Bev issued orders to the others to settle in and start analyzing the data.
* * *
After moving from one prefabricated unit to the next, Dr. Beverly Siver finally had to ask the computer to ping Trope’s location. Her weeks of analysis had finally paid off.
He was in the fitness unit, exercising. She felt foolish for not thinking to look there: Trope was fit. Fit to be tied! She blushed at the private thought and pushed it away as she approached his sweating physique.
“Whatcha need, Bev?” he asked as he toweled off. Similar to the other military personnel, his hair was trimmed and neat. He didn’t grow any stubble, though. He told her he liked to maintain protocol, even when homebase wasn’t watching.
“We have results. With the khung’za.”
Smiling, he stood up and looked down at her. “That’s fantastic. Where’s the report?”
“Harm’s typing it up. She loves that stuff even more than I do. But here’s a sneak peek: the water sample from before the animal feeds is chemically different than after it’s done.”
Trope scrunched up his face as he started maneuvering her toward a connecting tube, into the laundry unit. “Really? How so?”
“Well, the flash when it breaks the surface – isn’t that just so beautiful? Well, it zaps the microorganisms in the lake and kills them. The khung’za then filters those out of the water while shedding atmospheric dust motes with each pulsation. Those motes then grow and evolve to become the very microbes that the khung’za will come and kill and eat in a matter of weeks.”
Trope said nothing. He didn’t look ecstatic. Bev thought he looked disappointed. “So, it looks like the ‘za eats one thing while planting another in a continuous cycle.”
Blinking, Bev said, ‘That’s a fantastic summation!” She shoved his shoulder gently: the sweat clung to her immediately. She wiped her hand on her backside. “But you don’t sound thrilled. Isn’t this exciting? We know more about it now!”
“Yeah, Bev. Yeah, that's great.” But he looked like she’d stabbed his kitten with a sharpened femur.
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. Military stuff.”
“What’s that mean?” She felt clueless in asking.
“It’s just… our mission here started out differently. Corvo was supposed to provide us with answers. And power.”
Bev stared at Trope, saying nothing.
“See, we saw those fantastic lightning shows from Earth, and then from Starbase III. We were hoping a new kind of… technology had been discovered.”
“Technology.” She made sure it didn’t sound like a question.
“Yeah, but we got here and found out it’s not a unique weather-controlling civilization, but a giant, magnificent… thing.”
“Yes, that. It turned out to be something too monstrous to control. And we were hoping that by inserting some scientists with experience in –”
“You thought we could tame it?” Bev was unable to keep her voice from rising in volume.
Trope looked her in the eyes, his eyebrows high. “Not tame, but… Okay, maybe tame.”
Speechless, Bev looked at the ground, at the world beneath the ground, a thousand-yard stare into a future where a mighty creature like a khung’za was used in military warfare.
Trope stood up, moving closer to Beverly, attempting to avert her gaze. She backed away with a quick step. “Just think, Bev. An ultimate weapon. To protect ourselves.”
Meeting his eyes, feeling water start to well up in her own, she spat, “That’s what they said about the Durbage bomb. Now Earth is in ruins.” Taking another step back and a steep breath, she continued. “We have to live on star bases and in prefabricated dumps like this because we don’t have a home anymore.”
“No, Trope. Colonel Pastrope.” He flinched. “No, no.” She paused, taking deep breathes. When her stomach was calm again, she looked at Trope, almost seeing another man. She finally saw the resemblance between him and Torrence, even though they were half-brothers. “No, sir. The… there’s no means of controlling the khung’za. We aren’t even certain of how it reproduces or how old it is. We still know… very little.”
Trope nodded, his face paling slightly. Dr. Beverly Siver felt awful.
“I… should go help Harm.” She left without waiting for his response.
* * *
“But this is huge,” protested Harmon. “We know that some of the microbes that are dropped are eggs and that the gnish’oxen are actually creatures that gestate baby khung’za. Why are we censoring our data?”
Bev decided to be honest with the junior scientist. Mainly because she trusted her, but also because she needed help erasing all of the results that contradicted what she’d told Trope already. She could too easily imagine a future where a herd of khung’za was dropped onto a new world in order to dominate it. Or where the creatures were enslaved as a boundless source of energy in a time when new reliable energy sources were hard to come by.
Analyzing the access records, she knew that Torrence had no notion about how much they truly knew regarding the khung’za. His stubbornness regarding working with his fellow scientists finally turned out to be a blessing, although Bev knew she had to be careful going forward with what she shared with the brooding colleague.
Dr. Beverly Siver contemplated turning in her resignation when she filed her final report regarding Corvo ecology, but thought better of it. I’m more useful with trying to stop them from the inside.
Word Count: 1,970