If you want to find a plausible alien, go turn over the nearest rock and see what wriggles out, but to that I’ll add the proviso that you need to have some idea as to what put that squirmy thing there in the first place. Create an alien and you must have some conception of the ecology it arose from. It’s no good imagining some flesh-eating monster on some barren planet with nothing for it to eat but the human explorers who have just arrived (the get-out in the film that comes to mind is that the monsters were brought to the barren planet in a spaceship). However, that’s easily said and not so easily done.
“Gerrit off! Gerrit off!”
A four-foot long leech had attached itself to his hip. He fell in the sand and grabbed hold of the horrible thing in both hands to try and prevent it boring in even further. Jane grabbed up the line and began hauling in the rhinoworm while Ambel tended to Peck. He did the only thing that was possible in the circumstances: he grabbed hold of the leech in both hands, put his foot against Peck’s leg, and hauled with all his might. Peck let out a scream as the leech pulled away with a fist-sized plug of his flesh in its circular mouth. Ambel bashed the creature against a rock until the lump came free, then after trampling the creature to slurry he handed the piece of flesh back to Peck. Peck screwed it back into his leg, then wrapped a bandage from his pack round it to hold it in place.
Two of my favourite subjects are combined by the ecology of Spatterjay: immortality and flesh-eating monsters. The idea for this life-system was conceived in the short story (excerpt above and below) of the same name in my collection The Engineer (Tanjen) and there was fairly simplistic, but complete – skeletal. The story, along with another from the same collection (Snairls) formed the basis of what became The Skinner.
What’s in a name?
Names given to life forms can be misleading, and equivalent characteristics identified by untrained observers have led many to be misapplied. In America a hemlock is a tree whilst here in Britain it is a poisonous herb, so how the hell did that come about? How much more might be people’s misapprehension of alien life? Take leeches. These creatures are pretty horrible here on Earth, and when seeing something of similar habit and appearance oozing along a stream bed on an alien world it would be easy to reapply the name. Unfortunate then to discover their feeding habit is to take out lumps of flesh, that they can grow to the size of a hippopotamus on land and that of a whale in the sea, and that they can make you immortal.
“How old are you, Ambel?”
“Oh, a bit.”
Ambel rolled down his shirt sleeve and looked shifty.
“Come on. This is really important.”
“Don’t rightly know. Been on the ships for a while.”
Erlin wasn’t having that. “You do know. Don’t fob me off!”
Ambel looked uncomfortable.
“No one believes me,” he complained.
Ambel got up and headed for the door, as he opened it he mumbled, “Spatterjay Hoop was a crazy git.” He went out onto the deck.
Erlin sat down on the chair and shook her head. They were all crazy gits, and Ambel was no better. If he thought she was going to believe he knew Spatterjay Hoop, the man after whom this strange little world had been named a thousand solstan years ago, then he was probably worse. Ridiculous idea. Wasn’t it?
Erlin’s discovery that the bite of a Spatterjay leech transmitted a form of viral immortality, made that world a definite place to head for once the Zimmer frame was imminent. However, those seekers after eternal life became less enthusiastic upon discovering a world not cosseted by the Human Polity, where the incredibly tough and ancient hoopers might inadvertently tear off your arm, and where the leeches would continue to feed upon the hosts of the viral fibres – who were to them a reusable food resource.
Not really: why kill the whole animal when you can regularly harvest its flesh?
Oh come on…
Here on Earth, under that rock, you’ll find similar strategies. Pick up a veterinary book on helminthology (the study of parasitic worms) if you want to find some real horrors. One parasite’s cycle includes both sheep and ants. Inside the ant it alters the function of that insect’s brain so it climbs to the top of a grass stalk and there clings with its pincers, waiting for a sheep to come along and eat it. There’s another that gets inside a snail and so adjusts that creature’s physiology that it grows a thicker shell, thus protecting both parasite and snail. The downside being that the snail no longer has the resources to breed, whilst the parasite breeds inside it. There’s always a downside:
She had nothing left to throw up when she followed them into the basin in the top of the hill. She just retched a little. The rest of Peck was jammed, writhing about and making horrible noises, between two rocks. Erlin followed them down and watched in horror as they dragged him out and dropped him on the ground. All his muscles she could see, all his veins. His lidless eye-balls glared up at the sky. She advanced with her laser switched on. It was the only merciful thing to do.
“No!” Ambel knocked the laser from her hand. “Don’t you think he’s got enough problems? Find his clothes.”
Erlin dropped to her knees, not sure if she wanted to cry or laugh. No, this was not happening … but it was. When she looked up, Ambel and Boris were putting Peck’s skin back on him, tugging the wrinkles up his legs and pressing the air bubbles out … and Peck was helping them.
Do you wanna live forever?
Of course you do, but not if it hurts.
And what do you reckon is the most valuable thing on a world where money is worth buggerall, and life might be eternal?
The small leeches hang in the peartrunk trees and drop on any who might brush against the those fat trunks. Larger leeches squelch along the ground and sometimes take to the water where they wait with thread-cutting mouths agape for an unwary foot. On land they can grow as large as a hippo and taking a chunk, with a mouth the size of a bucket, from a hooper human can have some untoward effects unless that individual gets plenty of dome-grown food. It wouldn’t be much fun to have another skinner running about…
Reaching the size at which they can no longer support the weight of their slimy bodies the leeches take to the sea and grow ever larger. There the hoopers must hunt them for the treasure their bodies contain because, out of necessity, it is there that the oceanic leeches change in a very particular way. It’s the mouth, you see, when it finally becomes so large that harvesting flesh is no longer an option, the leech has to eat its prey whole, and obviously there are dangers in swallowing something in no particular hurry to die. Oceanic leeches begin to produce in themselves, in their bile, a poison that kills the immortality-imparting virus, and thus their prey. From this bile, by centrifuge and crystallisation, is refined a pure poison called sprine, which is worth more to hoopers than gold or gems.
All treasures are difficult to obtain – that’s the nature of the beast.
Ambel turned toward the rail just as the spout-like head of the leech lifted into sight. This head was just a long tube with a metre-wide mouth at the end. Inside the mouth was a red hell of revolving rings of teeth and reels of bone cutting-disks.
“Oh bugger,” said Ambel as the top half of the leech oozed over the rail and went after Anne. Anne leapt back and the leech cornered her against the wall of the fore cabin. There was real fear on her face. This was something no hooper could survive. With her automatic held out in both hands, she emptied the weapon’s magazine into the leech’s mouth, shell cases clattering to the deck around her feet. Shortly after the empty magazine hit the deck and she was groping at her belt for another one, sure she would have no chance to reload.
The thing about death is that you want it when you want it, and not before. The thing about sprine is that it is nice for a hooper to have that option. The thing about having such an option is that you always use it too late, and that on a world like Spatterjay the need for such is frequent. The leeches are bad enough, of course, but then there are the rider prill with their sickle legs, the glisters, the frog and hammer whelks, and did I neglect to mention the mercenaries and their psychotic leader, or the homicidal aliens and war drones?
Come pay a visit…