Who’s Watching? Part 1

Inspired by the steam powered creatures I found the other day (please see Steampunk Moves On), I have penned a short story which I though I would share here. I’ll post it in a few stages, over the next few days. The sketches are drawn especially for this story.  Enjoy! 🙂

Who’s Watching?

Sarah sipped her protein drink as she watched the sun set through the thick blue clouds of Avenia. It was quite a beautiful evening; relatively clear, and with the densest clouds sitting in a low fog, so that you could almost pretend that they were a solid prairie stretching off into the distance. A couple of cephalids jetted across in the distance, and she tried to imagine that they were large birds, flying to their roosts.

In fact, there was little resemblance between Avenia and Earth. Sarah still had quite strong memories of Earth, although it been decades since she had seen it for herself. Avenia was just one of the many places she had helped to study on their tour of planets in the Goldilocks zone: just the right distance from their suns to have a reasonable temperature range; and just large enough to hold on to some sort of atmosphere. They were thought to be the planets most likely to harbour life, and Avenia certainly had that in abundance. At that moment there was a soft thunk on the plastic dome which enclosed the viewing area, and Sarah blandly noted that another cephalid was bumping gently against the glass. It was such a regular occurrence that although it had startled her at first, now it was just a part of life at the Research station which she took for granted.

Thousand of filament like tentacles seemed to be searching for purchase on the smooth surface, each apparently moving independently. The giant, jelly like eye in the centre stared sightlessly at the dome. The way they seemed to stare in was disturbing, but Aaron assured her that from the outside, the station would appear entirely mirrored, like a stainless steel ball bearing, floating in the thick atmosphere of the planet.

‘Don’t worry about the gluppies,’ he had said on her first day, a slight smile making the left side of his mouth turn up, ‘They can’t see us. And so far it looks like they don’t have much more intelligence than a jellyfish anyway.’ Sarah watched until the cephalid was caught in the current and slid off the smooth surface. Was it truly a current, she wondered, or more of a wind? On Avenia, the high pressure made it hard to tell the difference between liquid and gas. They weren’t even sure if there was a solid surface, as no probes had managed to dive that far without being crushed. The scientists had dubbed it ‘Soup-World’.

She opened the metal trap door, and padded down the stairs in her socks to the living quarters, where she dumped her now empty drink canister. Renni was tucked into a corner of the long bench seats, his game console on his lap. He raised a thick dark eyebrow to acknowledge her presence, without breaking his concentration on the game. She went on into her sleeping area, where she changed into uniform and went to relieve Aaron. There was no need for the formality of uniform: Renni always turned up for his shifts in shorts and a singlet, but it made Sarah feel like she was at work.

Aaron was fiddling intently with one of the gizmos when she came in, but he pushed it back in apparent annoyance, pushed a hand through his thick reddish hair and smiled at her entrance. He was by no means a handsome man: he was thick set, with almost no neck, and his freckles had joined up in various places to form oddly shaped blobs; but Sarah found him reassuring. Renni she found harder to fathom, perhaps as he was so much younger, and also as his first language was Italian.

‘Good shift?’ she asked, dropping down into one of the well padded armchairs.
‘Not too bad.’ He rubbed his hand more vigorously through his short hair, making it stand up in spikes. ‘One of the gizmos who we lost a week or two ago has come back, but its’ memory seems to have been malfunctioning.’ He indicated the machine he had been inspecting. ‘Maybe that’s why it took so long to make it back.’
‘Maybe. Odd though that it should have made it back at all.’
‘Hmmm.’ Aaron stared at the little machine on the benchtop intently, as if he would be able to see what its defect was if he looked hard enough. A roughly oval shaped body, smooth and a bright anodised aluminium blue was surrounded by six small silver wheels with prominent spokes, and only a groove or two indicated where its visual, audio and sampling technology lodged. When inside the Research station, the wheels propelled them around, taking messages between staff members, dealing with waste, and tilling the contained garden which kept the crew fed and breathing.
Outside the station, where the pressure and the dense atmosphere made it very difficult for the crew to venture, the gizmos were essential to the work. Their six wheels turned through ninety degrees to become propellers, effectively flying through the syrupy clouds. Filters on their propellers collected hydrocarbons from the atmosphere which they used to power themselves, thereby freeing up precious power, collected from what sunlight could be collected within the mirrored surface of the viewing dome.
Even better, the small machines were small enough: not much bigger than the bowl of a large spoon, that they seemed to be able to approach the cephalids without disturbing them.

‘Did we get any good footage today?’ asked Sarah, twiddling a discarded probe between her long thin fingers.
‘Yep – nice stuff. Look at this.’ Aaron turned to the screen beside him and found the area he was looking for, before turning the screen so she could see. The picture was a little grainy – perhaps due to being taken in an area of very thick cloud cover. Despite the picture quality, she could clearly see two cephalids approaching one another, their fine tentacles ruffling like fingers running regularly up and down a keyboard, propelling themselves through the mist. They paused, their huge eyes contemplating one another for a moment, before their tentacles started, hesitantly at first, and then with more gusto, to entwine right down one side of each creature. The free tentacles waved gently in the current.
‘What do you think they’re doing?’ she asked, her eyes locked on the screen. She was aware of the warmth of her colleagues arm next to hers.
Aaron made a noise in the back of his throat. ‘Having a conversation? Breeding? Just a friendly hug? I don’t know. Keep watching – it gets better.’
A third creature drifted into view, and again after a short time of apparently gazing at one another, it joined tentacles with the two already entwined, making a rounded triangle of soft bodies, all staring expressionlessly into the space in the centre. Suddenly, they all convulsed, and shot upwards out of the field of the gizmos view. There were blurry images which seemed to show it pursuing the three beasts, and then it cut out.
Sarah sat back, her hands resting on her stomach. ‘Wow! I’ve never seen them do that before. Surely that must be a sign of some intelligence?’
‘Maybe, maybe. Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched.’ The side of Aaron’s mouth twitched upwards. ‘Not that I’ve ever seen a real chicken. Have you?’
‘I don’t remember. I recall pictures, but a real one…’ Sarah trailed off. They had been taken for training as scientists so young, she found it hard to tell sometimes which were real memories, and what she had been told about her early life on Earth. Her passion for research had been evident at a young age, and it had never left her. Although sometimes she wondered if her insatiable curiosity had really served her well: after all, here she was, isolated in a metallic bubble with only two other geeks for company. She shook her head slightly in annoyance, her ponytail flicking the back of the armchair. ‘Chickens are beside the point. It looked to me as if there was some kind of collaboration going on there.’
‘Yeah, to me too. We’ll send it off in the next message to the Centre. They’ll get the gurus on to it.’ He pushed back his chair, picking up the defective gizmo as he rose. ‘I’m going to get some rest. I might just have one last look at this thing in my room. See if I can figure out what went wrong.’
‘OK. Sleep well.’ She smiled up sweetly at him, and then turned her grey uniformed back.

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