Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 30

“Room for a little’un,” Todd said, cheerfully, planting his back firmly against the rear bulkhead with the air of a man who would brook no argument on the matter.

The gunner gave up and sat down behind the harpoon. Allenson leaned over from the co-gunner’s seat to put his head close to Todd’s.

“What are you playing at, nephew?” he asked.

“Colonel Hawthorn gave me strict instructions to remain at your side at all times, uncle.”

“Colonel Hawthorn is an old woman with a paranoiac streak.”

Todd folded his arms indicating that he was immovable on the subject.

“Nevertheless, he was most insistent and I would not wish to disappoint him.”

Allenson gave up.

The frame lifted and phased almost immediately into the Continuum. After a short jump it semi-dephased low over a flat grey landscape of an ice sheet. Low rounded rocks thrust through the ice behind them, rising to jagged peaks inland.

“Can you hear me, general?”

The hunt captain’s voice sounded in Allenson’s helmet.

“Loud and clear,” Allenson replied in the time-honored response.

“The rocks mark the edge of the continent. We’ll move out to the edge of the ice sheet to look for plankton blooming in the mineral rich upwelling currents. That’s where we’ll find spirotrichs.”

The ice sheet started to crack and break up in the heavy swell a few hundred meters from the rocks. According to Allenson’s pad, the world ocean ran right around Icecube’s equator so there was nothing to stop the waves building into massive proportions. After a couple of hundred meters more the sea was ice free except for chopped up fragments.

Like most people, Allenson had noticed over the years that solid water, ice, was lighter than its liquid phase. Icecubes floated in a cocktail but he had never considered the ramifications of this peculiar property before. It occurred to him that if ice sank then Icecube’s ocean would soon be solid with a thin veneer of water on top. Life would never get past the bacterial phase. Presumably the same was true of Old Earth and many other worlds.

The craft turned parallel to the ice edge. It cruised slowly along snaking out to sea and back. The gunner undid his seatbelt and stood up to look over the side so Allenson did likewise. All he saw was heaving grey sea and fragments of ice. It occurred to him that he had no idea what a spirotrich looked like. He checked in his datapad for a picture without success. Recorded data were more concerned with the economics of spirotrich ambrein than the organisms themselves.

He ran a general search on spectacular plankton feeding organisms. The pad came up with an extinct air breathing fish on Old Earth called a whale. Apparently this was the largest animal ever to evolve on humanity’s home world. Intrigued he wondered how a species with such a large biomass and fast metabolism could feed on tiny one celled organisms.

The answer when he found it was blindingly obvious. The food chain was all about productivity rather than biomass. Plankton had staggeringly fast turnover rates with massive productivity compared to the population of the whales that fed on them.

He also discovered that evolution on Icecube had failed to produce anything resembling a mollusk or vertebrate so presumably spirotrichs couldn’t be all that large. He prepared himself for disappointment.

The gunner shifted suddenly bumping into Allenson in the crowded compartment. The man shaded his eyes and looked down at the ice sheet. The craft descended and moved shoreward. The blades in the turbines started up one by one, rotors whining as they came up to speed, causing the craft to vibrate. The craft fully phased into reality while in the air. Color bled into the landscape and Allenson noticed that the sea had an orange tinge.

The pilot handled the transition well from frame field to true flight with only a slight drop and wobble as he adjusted the rotors. These could swivel to provide horizontal thrust in any direction but tilted blades had to bite that bit harder to maintain lift. This required more power from the engines causing the noise to rise to a scream that made talking difficult.

Allenson had only ever been in an air car once before as a child. He’d been persuaded to ride in a modern copy of an antique vehicle giving rides at fairs. Todd whooped in pleasure but it was safe to say Allenson had not enjoyed the experience.

The car lurched into a tightly banked turn to the left. Allenson’s stomach made a counter rotation to the right.

He put his pad away and examined the bare ice but saw nothing of note. He looked quizzically at Todd who shrugged. Noticing the exchange the gunner pointed to where there was a moving darkness on the ice. Allenson thought it a cloud shadow but now he looked again something moved under the sheet.

The shadow passed the ice edge and a bulge of water formed under the waves causing the tops to break away in wind-blown spray speckled with orange. The harpooner noticed his puzzled expression.

“The plankton are orange,” the gunner said putting his head close to Allenson’s ear.

The spirotrich broke surface. Allenson found that he was not disappointed at all. The beast was massive, perhaps a hundred meters long, an orange-tinged, semi-transparent, cone-shaped worm with a long trailing tail. There were no fins that he could see and the open end of the cone was at the front. Waves of spirals descended into the mouth of the cone turning rapidly counter clockwise such that the spirotrich rotated slowly in the opposite direction. It was a surreal sight, almost hypnotic.

The car moved closer until the individual meter-long cilia that gave the illusion of waves could be seen beating. The cilia pushed water down the gullet and out through slits near the tail. The system served for both jet-propulsion and filter feeding. There was no sign of a brain or central nervous system, indeed, little evidence of organs within the vast body at all. It seemed to be mostly jelly. Spirotrichs were huge, dumb, simple beasts.

Plankton accumulated in dense orange sacks near the water exit slits before some process pushed the material through the jelly towards the head. The plankton lent the whole organism its orange-brown shade. Modified cilia around the mouth of the cone projected outwards. No doubt they carried sense organs like simple eyes and chemo-receptors.

The gunner pulled down a large red-handled lever at the base of the harpoon gun. He took hold of the double handed trigger grip and swung the gun left-right, up-down to check the gimbals moved freely. The spirotrich submerged and the car moved ahead to intercept at its next broach. The gunner pointed the weapon down over the starboard bow, clearly expecting the pilot to position the target on that flank. Allenson was intrigued to find out how the gun would work. It wasn’t going to kill the spirotrich with a single shot. How do you “harpoon” a mass of jelly?

The spirotrich broke through the surface of the water again and fell back in a great splash of foam. The gunner fired. The electrical flash around the muzzle burned green lines on Allenson’s retina. He leaned out over the side to watch. Cable spun out of a power reel with a loud whine that sounded even over the turbofans. It was the sort of nail down a blackboard noise that made your teeth curl. The harpoon struck true about a third of the way down the spirotrich’s body, slicing easily into the jelly.