Leviathan

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Kraken

Asteroid miners discover the frozen corpse of an alien creature over two kilometres in length on the outskirts of our solar system. The first proof humanity is not alone in the universe. But where did it come from, and how did it reach us after four billion years adrift in the depths of space?

======

“Mystery object is six thousand clicks out and closing.”

“If long range scanners hadn’t picked this one up, it could have passed right through our solar system without us ever knowing.”

“We don’t know if it’s anything yet, it could just be a rogue comet. An asteroid.”

“Chemical analysis picked up organic compounds.”

“We’ll know more soon.”

“Whatever it is, the trajectory shows it came from deep, deep space. Nothing out there for millions of light years. It could have been floating out there longer than human beings have existed. Longer than earth has existed.”

Starr floated at the front of the situation room, chewing her lower lip. Their ship, Mieville I, had been mapping and taking samples in the Kuiper Belt with an aim toward future mining when they’d been redirected to intercept the mystery object. Starr didn’t look excited to be in command for this potentially historic moment, she looked nervous as hell. Feldman and Gideon drifted around the outskirts of the room with the rest of the crew, chattering excitedly and grabbing for handholds so they didn’t float into one another in the zero gravity. Holograms and screen readouts at the head of the room gave updates on their progress and showed perceived images of the object itself.

Around 2.2 kilometres in length, their target was roughly oblong in shape. Frozen, it reflected light like a comet but something other than dirt and rock lay beneath the surface. If the organic readings were correct then this could be humanity’s first proof of alien life, real alien life, larger than bacteria. Much, much larger.

“Once we arrive, we’ll be taking much more detailed scans and measurements. If possible, a team will be going down to the object itself to take samples,” Starr continued. “Same as with any other asteroid, we need absolute professionalism on this job. Then we’ll be awaiting further company orders.”

As they approached the object and matched trajectories, the crew crowded the observation deck. A dozen of them jostled elbow to elbow in defiance of company regulations. Even Starr, usually as by-the-book as they came, wasn’t going to deny anyone this monumental opportunity. Across the outside of the window, itself several inches of glassteel, an armoured curtain protected the interior from solar radiation and micrometeoroids. They manoeuvred into position and the shield peeled back. Feldman and Gideon bobbed next to one another.

“Mother of God,” Gideon murmured.

Religious awe seemed like an appropriate reaction. An astonished hush settled over the deck. Beyond the mystery object was nothing was a distant starfield, nothing to give it scale. Feldman struggled to make sense of the size of the object, disorientated. If they hadn’t been floating in zero gravity he would have had to sit down. What they were looking at was clearly a lifeform, or the corpse of one, but over two kilometres in length.

Its basic body type was fishlike. Or like a squid, with a cylindrical body and tentacles on one end but with a number of other appendages as well. The cluster of tentacles to the trailing end of the creature made up only about a third of its total length, frozen in a series of coils and snarls. A series of other appendages, flippers and crablike legs, appeared to be tucked against what Feldman thought of as the alien’s underbelly. Its flesh was reddish-brown beneath a coating of ice, and they could see scales and ripples and all the imperfections of a once-living thing. Some other bits of matter, they almost looked like vegetable growth, were stuck in that ice. A haze of ice crystals and other chunks of darker matter travelled in a cloud surrounding the dead creature during its journey through space.

“Look at that eye,” Feldman said.

“Look at that mouth, those teeth,” Gideon said.

At the other end of the creature’s body from its mass of tentacles was obviously a head. Feldman immediately felt drawn to its staring eye. There was only one eye on the side facing them. Feldman was astonished how, not human, but how earthlike it looked. Like a normal, earth-based fish’s eye, bright gold and with a perfectly round, black pupil. But if Feldman had the scale right, said eye was as wide as a city block. Somewhere in the region of 250 to 300 metres across. Just below it was a canyon of a mouth, revealing teeth that must have been at least as ten stories long.

“This is incredible,” one of the other crew said.

“Impossible.”

“It’s real, it’s really, really real, this is the first proof of actual alien life.”

“We don’t know that, yet,” Starr said.

“Come on, now, commander! That’s an alien, a living creature! Or it was.”

“We’ll need to take samples,” Starr said.

“Are those some kind of wounds in its side?” Feldman said, pointing.

The creature and ice surrounding it were pitted by dozens of craters, big and small. No doubt souvenirs of collisions with other random bodies during its unimaginably long journey through space. Roughly around the middle of the creature’s body were four roughly square holes, arranged diagonally in a strangely even row. They appeared to be under the ice, as if they’d been afflicted on the beast before it was frozen, maybe when it was still alive.

“They could be some kind of missile strikes, or harpoon marks,” one of the science techs, Simpson, said. “Although they’re curiously straight.”

“What could do that, to that?” Gideon said.

xXx

Once the crew were over their initial awe, they got to work according to the orders they’d been given. Mieville I observed the creature from all angles. Lasers mapped every inch of its gargantuan surface. Sonics probed beneath the ice and deep as they could into the creature’s flesh. Chemical analysis was made remotely and samples taken from the cloud surrounding it.

“The company needs you to go down to the surface, to collect samples,” Starr said.

“Really?” Feldman felt a mix of exhilaration and terror.

“What if it isn’t really dead? What if it’s sleeping, in hibernation this whole time, and we wake it up?” Gideon asked.

“Our dating methods put the object at something like four billion years old,” Starr said. “It’s shown no reaction to our presence and our scans have shown no signs of life.”

“No sign of life as we know it,” Gideon said. “But maybe these things live in space. Maybe this is how they survive, by going into some kind of deathlike state until they come across something to eat, and then they wake up!”

“If you’re refusing to follow orders that’s fine, I can find somebody else who’ll do it. I was giving you first crack because you’re our primary spacewalk team.”

“Oh no, no no, no way!” Gideon shook his head vehemently. “I wouldn’t miss this for a year’s pay!”

Spacesuits had come a long way from the early days of space travel. Feldman and Gideon clipped into theirs easily while in the launch bay. The baggy legs and sleeves around their limbs, and loose folds around their torsos, sealed themselves tighter. Both fit helmets over their heads and attached them to their collars. As was regulation though, Feldman and Gideon double and triple-checked all of one another’s seals and joins. They clipped jetpacks over their shoulders.

“If you’re ready, we’ll open the hatch,” Starr’s voice came clear through their helmet comms.

“Ready to go, Mieville,” Feldman said.

“Hatch opening in three, two, one.”

The launch bay’s hatch yawned open to the void. Several kilometres off the side of the Mieville drifted the enormous creature. The frozen alien was actually travelling at an extraordinary speed through the great nothingness. But given the Mieville I was matching its speed and trajectory, and given the lack of surroundings to give it context, it almost appeared to be standing still. Feldman and Gideon detached from the Mieville and used their jetpacks to guide them across the gap. Foaming trails of white propellant dissipated behind them. Between the two, they carried a sled loaded with equipment they needed for the mission. Apart from the Mieville and the creature, and its surrounding cloud, all around them was an unimaginable nothing. A nothing the human mind could not contain. Even after dozens of spacewalks, Feldman had to concentrate on the task at hand to avoid being overwhelmed by it.

But then, the task at hand was itself overwhelming. As they got closer, the creature loomed, and loomed. Again, too big for the mind to contain. Not as a once-living thing. With nothing between them, it was astonishing. If it had been alive, moving, Feldman wasn’t sure his mind could have handled it. He could only take it in piece by piece as it was, the frozen tentacles, the appendages, the ripples of its flesh and scales the size of buildings. That tremendous eye. They were less than ants against it as they closed in.

“Report in, away team,” Starr said.

“Away team, everything in the green out here, Mieville,” Feldman said.

“This is a historic moment, you think about what you’re going to say?” Gideon said over the comms.

“What? What I’m going to say?” Feldman said.

“It’s like the first men on the moon. The first man to set foot on proof of an alien lifeform.”

“Why me, why have I got to say it?”

“You’re the ranking officer.”

They negotiated their way through the creature’s surrounding ice cloud, avoiding any larger chunks of ice or other matter. Tiny ice crystals clung to their suits. They couldn’t feel them of course. Outside the suit was the absolute zero of the void, the suits were shielded and heated. The surface of the creature rushed toward them. They used propellant to slow their approach.

Feldman felt his boots hit the surface with a noiseless crunch. His knees accepted the landing. Behind him, Gideon slowed to a landing as well.

“There are certain occasions,” Feldman started. “When a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, the wit of which he only dimly discerns. And he more than suspects the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

“Pats rule!” Gideon said. “Wait, what was yours?”

“It’s from Moby Dick,” Feldman said, and when he sensed Gideon’s cluelessness he jerked his helmet back at their ship. “The Mieville? It seemed appropriate. I’m pretty sure I butchered it though.”

The ice covering the creature formed a relatively thin skin only a few metres thick. While the creature technically had its own gravity, like any mass in space, it wasn’t enough to be noticeable to Feldman or Gideon. Their boots clung to the ice instead as they set up to take a sample. The equipment on their sled looked similar to the equipment used to take ice core samples on earth. A towering cylinder attached to a large tripod, winches, and boxy motor, which they all quickly and easily assembled.

In the vacuum of space, Feldman of course couldn’t hear the drill as it did its work but if he placed his gloved hand on the cylinder he could feel the vibrations. The drill sank easily through the ice coating. As it met the creature’s flesh, and bit into it, Feldman and Gideon waited with nervous anticipation. In spite of assurances and Feldman’s own conviction that the space beast was long dead, if anything was going to happen then he felt strongly it would happen now. The creature’s vast flesh, rippling reddish-brown scales, spread all around them like an island in space. The drill would be less than a pinprick, less than a mosquito bite, but both of them still held their breath. Nothing happened. The fantastic corpse remained as unresponsive as ever.

Eventually, the equipment returned with a cylinder of tightly compacted and ancient flesh, frozen solid aeons ago. Feldman handled it for a moment with appropriate reverence then loaded it onto the sled. Orders were to take samples from several regions if possible. Collecting the equipment, they set off across the creature. Unwieldy as the equipment looked, It was easy to move in zero gravity and Feldman and Gideon had done this same routine many times under more difficult circumstances. Their boots gripped the ice with each step.

“Advancing toward the head, Mieville.”

They took two more samples, each time without incident. The creature’s antediluvian flesh was extremely dense and frozen to rock but their drill was equipped with both lasers and diamond teeth. They continued until they could see the creature’s blunt nose, its monstrous maw with teeth like skyscrapers, up ahead against the backdrop of space.

Looking down, Feldman realised he and Gideon were trekking across the creature’s massive eye. Gold, with a pupil like a bottomless pit, staring eternally through the ice. Feldman had settled into the job like it was a normal task but almost became overcome with an emotion he couldn’t name, a mixture of terror and awe. Not terror of some physical threat but an almost religious terror. Like being in the presence of God, and realising just how tiny and unworthy one single human being was. He’d earlier remembered a video he’d seen once of a diver coming across a whale in one of earth’s oceans, before they went extinct. This enormous mouth suddenly rushing out of the stygian depths as if to consume the diver. Looking big enough to consume the whole world, the diver miniscule in comparison. Said whale would have been a thousandth the size of the creature they stood on. It would have gotten lost in the yawning black of the creature’s pupil. Feldman couldn’t help but think what he would do if the eye, staring up through the ice field, was to suddenly blink. And whatever he told himself, the answer was probably that he would go insane.

“Feldman, are you alright? We’re getting increased readings from your suit, heart rate and respiration,” Starr’s voice came through Feldman’s comm.

“Yeah, yes, alright thank you, Mieville.” Feldman felt very aware that every word he said might be recorded for historical posterity. “Just struck again, for a moment, by the immensity of it all.”

Braver now, Feldman and Gideon set the core sampler over the creature’s enormous eye. They drilled down into the golden iris. If anything was likely to get a reaction it would have been that. But of course, nothing happened and the jelly of the tremendous eye was frozen just as solid as the rest of the creature’s flesh. Feldman and Gideon retrieved their sample and then disassembled the equipment, packing it back onto the sled. Firing streams of propellant, the two astronauts left the surface of the frozen creature and returned to the Mieville I.

xXx

Feldman and Gideon met with Starr and the head science tech, Simpson, in the situation room. A glowing hologram of the space creature revolved above the central console. Everything was captured in perfect detail, the long oval of a body, tangle of limbs, and its staring eyes. Even the sparkling cloud of ice and debris that hung around it. Starr had to deliver a report back to the company heads. Feldman and Gideon didn’t need to be there for Simpson’s update but Starr figured they had earned it.

“What have we got?” Starr said.

“The samples confirm that the object is organic. Carbon based, like you or I, or any life from earth, but there are chemical structures like we’re never seen. Of course it’s alien,” Simpson said. “Besides the samples from the animal itself we’ve studied the bits of darker matter floating around the creature. They appear to be vegetable in structure.”

“What do we know about the creature?”

“You’ve got to remember, my expertise is in chemistry and geology, not xenobiology. People are going to be studying this thing for years, decades-,”

“Yeah, yeah, this is just to go in my initial report, doc. You’re not being graded.”

“Well, based on the scans we have no reason to believe the creature naturally evolved to live in space. It appears to be some kind of aquatic creature, launched into space somehow. The limbs and body are designed for moving through water. There’s nothing that suggests adaptation for space travel.”

“Any theories as to how it ended up floating in deep space then?”

“Based on our analysis of the samples, its flesh was exposed to some kind of high heat that basically cooked its entire structure, sometime before it was frozen solid. Maybe some kind of explosion or contact with an atmosphere?”

“What about those holes in its side?” Feldman pointed at the hologram. “Four, deep, squarish holes arranged in an almost perfect row? Any idea what could have caused that?”

Simpson shrugged. “We analysed them, there’s no blast scorching and no signs of cauterisation that would suggest missiles or lasers. Maybe wherever the animal comes from they’re hunted by some kind of giant harpoons.”

“What could do that?”

“I have no idea, wherever this thing comes from it could be just as big and threatening to any intelligent race there as it is to us, they just developed the weapons necessary to deal with them.”

“What are we going to do now?” Gideon asked.

“Orders are to attach ourselves to it and move the object ourselves. We’ll establish it in orbit around Earth, where more scientists can study it,” Starr said.

“We’ll be studying it for decades trying to figure out its mysteries,” Simpson said. “It’s solved at least one great mystery though, we are not alone in the universe.”

“But, how? If it’s from a planet like ours or whatever, how did it get into deep space in the first place?” Feldman said. “How did it find its way to us?”

“That mystery we might never know.”

xXx

Four billion years earlier…

Another spacecraft, shaped like a box saucer, spun slowly through the endless void. A long range research vessel, home to four Zorblaxion scientists and their families. While in some ways the ship would have perfectly matched human expectations of what an alien spacecraft should look like it was built to a scale almost inconceivable to human imagination. Astronomically more colossal than anything human hands could or would ever create.

“Finish your dinner, please.”

A Zorblaxion child sat at a table in the craft’s residential wing. With a fork wrapped in the finger-tentacles of their primary manipulator, they poked listlessly at the food left on their plate.

“I don’t want any more,” the child whined.

“Just two more bites,” the child’s primary parent said.

Stabbing at the last sllavgov on his plate with his fork’s four prongs, the Zorblaxion child steered it around the plate. The fishlike creature, with its tangle of tentacles, gold eyes, and pin-like teeth, would be less than a mouthful to the child. It picked up flecks of leftover vegetables stewing on the plate. Several of the Zorblaxion parent’s eyestalks swivelled toward the child. Its primary and secondary manipulators remained occupied at the sink with their dishes.

“Don’t play with it, eat it!”

“I don’t want it! I’m full!”

“Then there’ll be no dessert if you’re so full. Just finish your vegetables, and you’re done.”

Half a dozen nostrils flaring, the Zorblaxion child finished the last of the vegetables. Their parent took the plate and utensils and turned back to the sink. They noticed the single remaining sllagov on the plate, four tiny holes stabbed across its midsection, but ignored it. Pick your battles. Instead the Zorblaxion parent fed it into the garbage disposal, washing it down with the scraps of vegetable matter.

The spacecraft’s disposal system filtered the water from solid waste. The water syphoned away for recycling. Solid biological waste was ejected into space. As the craft travelled the void, a tiny hatch opened in its side. The waste from the child’s dinner fired into space. Freezing instantly, a coating of ice formed over its surface. Its tentacles and appendages solidified into twisting patterns. Already forgotten, the frozen creature began its journey into the emptiness of deep, deep space.

======

Sean: I really enjoy this story, although I worry the ending might make it seem more like the setup for a punchline that’s not really what I intended. I like stories with that kind of mystery, full of ultimately unanswerable questions either for the reader or for the characters. It wouldn’t surprise me if our first undeniable proof of alien life didn’t come to us in a similar way, not as an invading force or a benevolent meeting of minds but as a slightly frustrating, intriguing, fascinating mystery that only serves as a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle.

Keep your eyes on my website for more in this series, and for more updates you can find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Next Week’s Inspiration: Cockatrice

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