Home from Home

Susan stepped into the laboratory with the day’s reports. Something was wrong. The hair on the back of her neck bristled. The laboratory was running as normal, power trickling into the base unit from the city’s grid, experiments running unattended on the benches. There was no sign of the alien.

“Cet?” she said quietly, knowing the Cull could detect the near whisper, but any potential hostiles in the area would not.

The Capsule was present, its door ajar and she could see at a glance it was empty. Cautiously she advanced, keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of a disturbance. There was none.

The entrance to the sewer stood partly open, but a quick look at the tracks in the hardened mud showed that nothing had come or gone since the last time she had been here. Something had apparoached the door, opened it, and returned to the lab. Either it had forgotten something or it had seen something outside that scared it into retreat. Carefully she pulled the door closed. They did not want rats in the lab.

“Cet?” she barely breathed, in case the Cull was hiding behind its camoflage field. There was no answer.

The mud tracks from the sewer door ended a little way into the lab, but she knew Cull always took the most efficient route. Susan walked a straightline down the tracks and onwards, ending at a wall covered with salvaged shelving and chemicals.

Her eyes narrowed. The shelves contained largely innocous inert chemicals while the rest of the lab was in a strict order. It was also the only shelving rack secured to the wall by floor to ceiling metal plates. It did not take her long to find the lock – a magnetic catch designed to be released from the inside, or by a Cull’s manipulator. Gathering a few pieces of wires and a battery she built a rough bypass. The lock came open with a click. Bracing herself, she eased the door open.

The flare of colours was strange and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The creature’s case stood vacant and open behind a sealed door in the glass partition that divided the room. On this side, bare concrete walls and floor stood empty. On the other, the room was utterly alien.

“A habitat.” she said out loud, staring entranced. What was in front of her looked liked nothing on the planet, thick dark liquid filling the room beyond the partition to the brim, too opaque to see the far wall. The floor was ablaze with light in many colours, objects like glasses and beads glowed brilliantly, and floating above it, moving gently within the liquid was what could only be Cet.

Along the line of extended tendrils, blue flame leapt and rippled. The creature moved unhindered, unnoticing, although the glow was bright enough to cast shadows that danced eeriely as the creature moved. Long cables trailed to the open case from insets in the creature’s back.

“What is intriguing?” To her surprise the voice emerged from a speaker by the airlock entry. There could be no doubt what had spoken.

“The Cherenkov radiation.” She said the first thing that came into her head.


“You’re radioactive. I had not realised how much until I saw it in water.”

“A side-effect of the fluid.” Susan nodded, trying not to think of how often she had been right next to the creature, surrounded by its deadly, invisible, halo. In water the speed of light was slower, and the radiation became visible as a blue glow. Just because she could not see it in air did not mean it was not still killing her.

“Is this working to your satisfaction?” She wanted desperately to ask how it had managed a construction this size without her noticing, but confirming it had slipped something by her would be very unwise.

It looked at her, empty eyes unblinking, and sank to the floor of its habitat. Many-coloured flames danced round it, the yellows and greens of potassium-impregnated paint, the blueish glow of radium bromide and the creature’s own fierce blue fire. The liquid around it churned and heated as it moved. Cet dug tendrils into the small mound of radioactive material it had accumulated for the habitat and huddled down.

Believing the conversation was over, Susan turned to leave. To her surprised the speaker chimed again.

“I am still cold.”

“Surely that is at higher radiation than your environmental suit?”

“Confirmed. The suits are designed for survival, not comfort.” Almost unnoticed in its fronds, the radium beads were clutched close.

“So they keep you cold. And discomfort, in most species, heightens aggression.”

“We do not need encouragement.” It hissed. Susan nodded to herself, changing the subject.

“And if the radiation level gets too high, do you get lethargic?”

“No. We get fat.” A tendril plucked a glowing yellow-green bead – a uranium isotope, Susan thought absently, wondering how much ultraviolet Cet gave off to make it glow like that – from the pile, presenting it to the maw where mandibles thrust it inside. “Then you get more of us.”

“Your people require a great deal of energy to survive.” Susan said, and Cet shut up, burying its tendrils in the small pile of beads.

“Replication would be unwise. This planet’s resources are scarcely sufficient for one of us.” Susan nodded warily, and left.

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