Heuristic Rotating Header Image

Glowworm

It would be so much easier if we could breathe on this fucking planet. But no. The atmosphere wasn’t poisonous, exactly, but there wasn’t enough of it, and it would taste absolutely awful if any of the team did trying breathing it. Jorge got an accidental whiff due to a helmet malfunction, and described it as a mix of stale giraffe farts and rotting leather. This raises some questions that I really don’t want answers to.

Anyway, here we were. Me, Jorge, Alistrina, and our faithful dog Spot, who wasn’t a dog and was only faithful because it was made that way.  We had a little habitrail to work and sleep in, an inflated series of tubes that packed light but gave us each some private space. It was great after being crammed into that pocketship for so many weeks. There’s only so many recreational pills you can take to make the boredom and crowding. Come to think of it, pocketships probably smell like stale giraffe farts too, but nobody cares. Taking drugs while not in transit is strictly forbidden, so if something went wrong we’d have to smell it. 

Right now, all I smelled was steamed pork buns. It was Alistrina’s turn to cook, and she liked those far more than I thought they deserved: fake pork, soggy bun, real steam. But they were nourishing enough, and for my turn tomorrow I could pull something that actually tasted good out of the freezer. In transit, nobody was able to cook, and on planet nobody had time, so we packed a full complement of ready-to-heat meals. Fancier teams raised fresh vegetables and mealworms,  but none of us wanted to do anything but get in and get out. 

I grabbed a plateful of steaming buns and… what was that? kale? and hauled it back to the main workroom. Not that we were supposed to eat around alien artifacts, but we were in a hurry. The pocketship was tucked under a ledge, and the habitrail was undetectible by anything short of a direct visual examination, and even then the chromatophores made it difficult to spot, but the longer we hung around the more likely that the Patrol would catch us, or that another Jones squad would try to muscle in. 

I shoved half a bun in my mouth while I looked at the thing. It was kind of shaped like an an ancient Greek amphora, with the curves and all, but it didn’t have an opening at the top. Also, amphorae didn’t glow like that. That’s how we spotted it: a landslide had uncovered the edge of the lip, and a hot pink light should always be investigated, at least if you’re trying to get rich on looted alien artifacts. This freshly-discovered planet was a likely prospect, and we aimed to get in fast and get out with something good before the official survey teams showed up. They were slow, methodically, and boring, and I should know, because I worked for one for a while. Got kicked out for taking a couple of small doodads, figuring there were so many of the whatever-they-were that nobody would notice. I was wrong, but they didn’t actually know how many I had snagged, and the sales of the ones I’d hidden got me enough money and enough rep to get onto the team. 

I was still chewing when Jorge barged in, followed by Spot. “You gotta get that thing under wraps,” he yelled. “The whole hab is glowing pink.” It didn’t seem that bright in here, but maybe I’d gotten used to it. It did add some attractive highlights to Spot’s carapace, where scrabbling thru the rubble hadn’t left it scratched up. Spot’s main job was to dig and burrow in places that we didn’t think were safe enough for people, and it was rather enthusiastic. Jorge tended to get over-excited, at least I thought so, but it was his job to keep us safe on-planet. He did security and piloting, Alistrina managed mainenance, and I was the xenoarchaeologist. What more do you need to loot and run?

But we were not very far ahead of the survey team. They could even be in orbit already, in which case glowing would be very bad. I wanted to get out tomorrow morning and look for some more stuff around the landslide, or at least slide offplanet clean. Getting caught would spoil all my plans. And the thing was getting brighter. The sun would be setting outside, I figured, and the glow was intensifying as the light outside faded. If it was visible thru the insulated habitrail walls (and how was that possible? but Jorge was not the type to be making things up – he didn’t even like to watch anything but documentaries), that was a problem. I grabbed a can of spray foam and started coating it. I was going to pack the amphora-thing for transit tonight anyway. Might as well do it now. I could crate it and then have Spot stow it for good measure. 

Jorge leaned against the wall, arms crossed on his chest, the entire time I was coating and crating the object. Maybe it was a nightlight. Maybe it was a piece of art. It was hard to tell what an extinct alien species might have intended, and I really didn’t care anyway. I was already thinking about who I could sell it to, and how much we could make, and whether there might be anything else exposed in that cliff face. The pink glow was hidden by the foam long before I fastened the lid. Spot picked up the crate with two of its six legs and carried it off.

I hadn’t seen Alistrina come in, and jumped when they spoke. “I think we should jet. I don’t feel right.” They got hunches. You can laugh, like I used to, but Jorge always listened, and more often than not they saved us from something: collapsing ice cave, tsunami, and a couple of unexpected patrols. So now I listened too, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.

“We just got set up, and I think there’s more goodies out there.” 

They fidgeted, shifting weight back and forth. “We have to go. Now.”

I glanced at Jorge, who shrugged. “If you insist.” I was looking forward to sleeping in my own space. I called it the habitrail, but it was so much nicer than the ship. But I threw my stuff back in my bag, closed the workroom cabinet, and hit the deflate button for this segment on my way out the door. It poofed down to a cube — you did not want to be caught inside — and Spot trotted over to grab it. The kitchen popped down right after, and Jorge’s bit was already done and loaded. 

I wanted to scratch my nose, but of course my visor was sealed against stale giraffe farts. I followed the others into the pocketship, looking over my shoulder at the pile of rubble I wanted to dig in. Maybe this would be a false alarm, and I could come back down tomorrow. 

Nope. The ship’s scanner alarm started to beep even while I was still taking off my suit. A survey ship was just within sensor range. We could slip out undetected, but the window was rapidly closing. Jorge was already at the console, speaking quietly to the computer and double-checking the settings. Alistrina and I strapped ourselves in for a quick but quiet exit. 

Departure was as uneventful as we could hope for, and the survey team never even knew we were there. We were pretty good at this, after all. Lots of practice. I was ready for some fun drugs and a long, relaxing trip back, but I wanted to take a look at the crate first. I hadn’t gotten to check Spot’s placement and anchoring. It was usually fine, but I always confirmed. 

I slid open the door separating the hold from our cramped living space and froze. Pinpricks of light like a hot pink galaxy were projected all over the room like an alien planetarium.

I screamed. 

Jorge and Alistrina ran up behind me. Like me, they saw the pinpricks first, but then looked down, where I was pointing incoherently at the swarms of tiny hot pink glowworms moving purposefully across the floor. 

It wasn’t an alien artifact, it was an alien.


Apparently I haven’t done one of these since the Before Times. Thanks to @fictionlisbeth (ancient Greek amphora), @thekittymeister (steamed pork buns), @spacedlaw (dying light), and @scribofelidae (giraffe) for providing prompts on twitter.

The rules of the game: I solicit prompts, write for an hour or so, and post the result, usually completely unedited. It’s fun, and not just low stakes but NO stakes, so it stays fun. I hope you were entertained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *