The ever-present weight dragged on her arms. Every movement, every keystroke seemed to require ten times the effort that Ruth was willing to supply. Epsilon Eridani II simply wasn't meant for human habitation; even those humans genetically modified for high-gravity environments found three times Earth-mass a bit of a stretch.
Living on this planet was torture - not the torture of agonizing pain, but the torture of continuous slight discomfort during every moment, waking or sleeping.
Colonel Ruth Khazak knew that the gravity wouldn't hurt her, and that it wouldn't hurt any of the other genetically modified colonists, but the pressure to find a solution was mounting: even people who volunteered to move to the most inhospitable regions in the galaxy needed some comfort. And it was her job to find the way, which wasn't helping her sleep any easier at night.
"Damn," she said, and turned to her lab assistant, whose flat, broad features and squat high-gee build had grown on her to the point in which their relationship had gone well past what was proper. She couldn't care less - no one among the colonists would complain, and none of those fragile one-gravity idiots from Earth could stand on the surface of the planet without more discomfort than they'd care to endure. "Any luck?"
It was a rhetorical question. She knew what he was working on and, though it might be a promising avenue, they wouldn't know whether it was actually viable for a few days at least. But Kinney still thought about it before answering. "About the same as yesterday. We can graft heek legs to human nervous systems with no problems, but the arms are useless unless I can get human hands to work at the end of them - and the muscles just aren't there." The heeks were large, feathered primates, slow moving and strong, perfectly adapted to life on the surface - but which had never developed opposable thumbs.
Ruth was working on trying to make the second colony on the planet a viable one. Her specific assignment was to find a way to adapt the human body to the environment without having to use prohibitively expensive imported bionics.
The first set of colonists had, logically enough, been aquatic. It was much easier to modify a human to breathe through gills than it was to make them comfortable in high gravity, and life in the sea was an immediate solution to gravity - natural buoyancy helped offset part of the extra weight from Newton's law.
Unfortunately, humans, who tended to ignore any kind of carbon-based unintelligent life, had overlooked the enormous squid-like creatures which prowled the depths of the oceans that covered ninety percent of the surface. They'd paid for this oversight with their lives when a huge phalanx of the creatures had come out of the depths and, despite high-tech resistance from the colonists, destroyed every structure in the colony. The colonists themselves, deprived of their metal walls, had quickly been picked off and, as far as anyone could tell, eaten.
Of course, the first thing Ruth's wave of colonists had done was to capture one of the creatures and test it for intelligence. The only thing that even remotely resembled a brain, a structure in the central trunk of the squid-like being, was the size of an apple. No intelligence there. The attack had been written off as an instinctive reaction to the intrusion, not a coordinated action at all.
Namug felt the cool, caressing flow of the water on his surface. He could dimly sense the ripples that his neighbor was making nearby. Dwuugag could probably feel Namug's own happiness in the secretions he'd been leaving all this way. It was a good thing that his neighbor was a nice sort, or this open display of emotion would have been a cause for strife.
Even so, it would have been pointless for Namug to try to hide his emotion. He recognized this part of the sea by the temperature, the taste of the water. The colony was nearing the migration point where they always met Yunnin's colony. Sweet-scented Yunnin of the strong embrace. It would not be long until they were together again.
Namug was content.
Ruth's eyes opened suddenly. That's it, she thought. And then she agonized a little. She'd promised Kinney that, whenever a sudden inspiration struck at - she checked the glowing face of the status display - four fifteen in the morning, she would jot it down on a pad that he'd given her for precisely that purpose and go back to sleep. He argued that she was having these midnight flashes of brilliance often enough that her sleep cycles were shot to hell.
She smiled, glanced at the unused pad beside the display and got up carefully. It wasn't actually necessary to be silent, since Kinney was the type who could sleep through a meteor strike, but old habits died hard.
Five minutes later, she was in the lab, seated at one of the mainframe workstations. This wasn't the place where she preferred to work - the Stylus tablets were much more comfortable for lab work - but in this particular instance, she wanted to use the forty-inch screen on the workstation.
It took her less than a minute to find the recordings she needed, and she was soon watching the feed from one of the recorders salvaged from the wreckage of the original Epsilon Eridani settlement. The feed was 2-D and a bit cloudy, but that couldn't be helped: all they'd been able to recover were a pair of recordings from security cameras that had been hastily converted to underwater use.
The resolution, such as it was, should be more than enough to show her what she wanted to see. The creatures, after all, were huge.
She sat back, coffee mug in hand, and studied the attack on the old colony. Despite what she herself had concluded after dissecting a number of the things, the attack definitely did look coordinated by some kind of intelligent agency. She watched as they first demolished the power cables and then systematically went about removing all the remaining heavy weaponry. The people, dressed in body armor and armed with various harpoon and projectile weapons, they left for last. They represented the smallest threat. Long before she could see what had happened to them, the camera was pushed away, facing into the depths of the ocean.
The second recording showed the flooded interior of one of the habitation spheres. A single tentacle entered the camera's sight through an aperture in the wall, attempting to capture one of the colonists, armed with a harpoon gun, who was huddled next to a wall. The amazing thing was that the tentacle wrapped itself around the gun, tore it out of the helpless colonist's grasp and, with a mighty wrench, tore it in two. Then, it withdrew, leaving her alive.
After forcing herself to watch the destruction of the underwater habitat a few times, she watched more footage of the monsters, taken with better quality equipment, filmed after the arrival of the land colonists. For some reason, the creatures didn't see the submersible film cameras as a threat - probably too small - and never attacked one.
Although they referred to the animals as squids, there were some significant differences with their earthly analogues. In the first place, these creatures were organized radially, like giant starfish, and the central hub was just a small, flattish dome in the center, as opposed to an elongated cone. This layout precluded quick movement, but, when not attacking large stationary targets, these starfish seemed to enjoy lolling horizontally about on the currents, submerged at immense depths like gigantic floating plates. There were air bladders on the tentacles so that they could be maintained at the same altitude as the rest of the body.
The tentacles themselves were the second major difference. Long and slim, they held no suction cups, being instead covered in long, strong cilia. They seemed much too thin to have caused the damage she'd seen on the tapes, but one had to remember that on this high-gravity world, the pressure in the ocean depths was unbelievable. The tentacles had to be extremely strong, just to be able to move effectively.
Once she'd re-familiarized herself in how the starfish looked, she activated the final set of recordings. These were the ones she was most interested in.
Namug had changed states. Before, he'd been content, now he was ecstatic. Yunnin had agreed to disengage, to join his colony. That she'd agreed to undergo such pain to be with him was a dream come true. The fact that he'd have to wait until the next migratory round for her excision to be complete was torture. But the torture went well with the ecstasy - he'd have something to dream about as the colony drifted along the great circle it had established since times immemorial.
He could await the currents, could await the time. Fulfillment would be his, very, very soon.
Kinney entered the lab to find Ruth's head resting on one of the consoles. She was sound asleep, and, rolling his eyes, he almost left the lab in order to avoid disturbing her. Heaven knew she needed to rest.
But he'd left a correlation program running last night, and was anxious to see what results, if any, it had delivered. He was a scientist, too, after all. Maybe not as mad Ruth was, but mad enough to volunteer for the terraforming of an extremely uncomfortable place in the galaxy, a place which had killed off the first group of people to try it. He might be able to resist his nature better than she could, but ignoring it altogether was out of the question.
He initiated the active mode on his Stylus tablet, and heard the soft humming of the memory core as everything came back on line.
Ruth stirred, moved slightly, and finally displaced a light pen which rolled off the table and clacked onto the floor. She woke immediately and sat up with a start, looking around as if surprised to find herself in the lab. When her gaze settled on Kinney, she shrugged and gave him a sheepish smile. "I know, I know," she said. "I should get my sleep. But I think I've found a way to solve our little gravity problem."
Kinney tried to glare at her, but his heart just wasn't in it. Why bother? He knew that she'd never change, especially when dealing with a challenge. Anyhow, her hangdog expression was so completely inappropriate to such a forceful woman that it would have been impossible to stay mad at her. "Tell me," he said with a slight smile.
"We need to go aquatic again," she said, all business once more.
"What? That certainly wasn't what I expected. I assume you have a plan for dealing with the squid-things."
"I shouldn't even dignify that with an answer. Of course I have a plan. You should know me well enough by now not to ask such silly questions."
That was more like the Ruth he knew. He grinned. "Well, are you going to enlighten me or do I have to figure it out for myself?"
"No, I'll tell you. If we wait for you to figure it out by yourself, we'll be here until the end of time." Her smile belied the words. "Look here."
Ruth punched the replay command and the mainframe's screen lit up. It showed an underwater scene, which, though slightly murky, had to have been computer-enhanced; the light under the ocean was too slight to get the contrasts that they were seeing. And the scene must have been filmed at a considerable depth, since it showed not one, but two of the giant tentacled monsters. Kinney knew they never came together near the surface.
"The mating tape," he said. "I've seen it."
"Yes, you've seen it. But did you notice that the central section of the bodies never come together?" She pointed at the screen, in which the two creatures had fused into what looked like a bowl of spaghetti. How they managed to interact without becoming hopelessly tangled was a mystery.
Kinney immediately realized that she was right. Some of the tentacles wrapped around a tentacle from the other creature. They were perfectly paired up, always one from each creature in a group, and the distribution seemed to be random, as opposed to having adjacent tentacles pair off. Still other tentacles floated free, seemingly uninterested in the proceedings. But the central sections, where both the nervous system and the reproductive organs were presumed to be located, never came into contact with one another.
"I see it," he said. "But I still don't understand how it's going to solve our problems."
"Even with clues..." Ruth said in mock exasperation. She was in a great mood, which boded well for the success of the Colony. Colonel Ruth Khazak was very seldom wrong - if her gut told her she had the solution, Kinney would be willing to wager that she did. "Look at the evidence. We know the squids will attack anything large that invades their territory, but don't attack each other. The only contact between them is tentacle to tentacle, right?"
"And we haven't seen eyes, right?"
"Nothing we can identify, anyway."
"Oh come on!" she exclaimed, as if lecturing a particularly slow student. "You know as well as I do that there's absolutely no reason for a species living in that lightless water to have developed eyes."
He held up his hands, palms out. "All right, all right! No eyes."
"So if they can't see each other, they must identify each other either through sound - and we haven't found much on them that would indicate a vibratory membrane of the type you'd use to project sound underwater - or through some kind of chemical fingerprinting."
"They taste each other?"
"The tentacles taste each other. The hairs - cilia - must have specialized taste organs. They must be able to sense the presence of one of their kind in the water around them. And I'm also willing to bet that the tentacles themselves secrete the telltales."
"So how does this help us?"
She rolled her eyes. "If we graft one of the tentacles onto a gilled human, we should be able to fool the squids into thinking that one of us is one of them."
"That's ridiculous! Those tentacles must be fifty feet long. They weigh two tons each!"
"So? They'll be in the water, remember? Buoyancy will help, and they've got their bladders for flotation - all we really have to work out is how to graft them to a human nervous system, and how to keep them secreting the right kind of chemicals."
Kinney had his reservations, but held his peace. Ruth had done this kind of thing often enough that he preferred to keep his mouth shut. It wasn't fun to be proven wrong.
Namug writhed in agony in the lukewarm water - impure, bathed in chemicals he couldn't identify. He tried to break free of the pain. But to no avail - he was being held immobile by giant metallic structures clamped painfully to his body.
The nightmare had started on the day the colony had first been taken. A huge artificial structure had enclosed them, so strong that the combined efforts of the entire colony had been unable to make even the smallest of dents in flat, dull surface.
And the pain. It was unbearable, as if some unknown agency was attempting an excision. But didn't they know that separation was the work of many days, that it should be an act of love, never an act of violence? He felt another wave of agony as his body shredded before the onslaught of something sharp. And then he felt a severance, a loss.
As he drifted into unconsciousness, he wondered if sweet Yunin would ever learn what had become of him.
The water in the tank had just subsided following her victory lap when Kinney walked up the steps to the causeway that circled the enclosure.
Ruth looked up at him, nearly exhausted, but not unhappy. She could see all the lab equipment arrayed around her: scanners, readouts, and even film equipment. Everything seemed to agree that things were getting better and better, that the discomfort of the operations and the hard work of the bio-integration had been worth it after all. "Watch this," she said.
She dived under the surface and pushed herself along with the tentacle. It was the latest in a series of movements she'd mastered and it wasn't yet second nature. She could still feel the skin of her back, just above her buttocks - where the tentacle had been attached, grafted onto her spinal chord - stretch with the movement. She also noted that breathing no longer presented any problems - her body had finally accepted the gills.
On resurfacing, Ruth found Kinney watching her with a slightly amused expression.
"What?" she demanded.
"You look like a giant tadpole," he said, chuckling.
She swung the tentacle - it was so tempting to call it a tail - around and showered him with water. "I've just managed the first successful melding of alien and human bodies in which the extraterrestrial component outweighs the terrestrial by such a large factor and all you can say is that I look like a tadpole? I ought to have you expelled from the colony for contempt of science."
"At least I wasn't the one who decided that all this equipment would work better wet than dry," he replied, shaking the water out of his hair. "Anyhow, how's it coming?"
How could she possibly describe the feeling of relief that came with no longer being subjected to the eternal crushing of the planet's gravity? But he knew how it felt. He'd spent a few nights in the tank with her. But the tentacle, now that she was finally mastering it, gave her a speed of movement she hadn't known since coming to Epsilon Eridani. "Better now," she said. "At least I don't feel like the damned thing is fighting me anymore. I'm the one controlling the motion."
"Well, I suppose you weren't expecting it to be easy."
"No, but I wasn't expecting it to be this tiring. It isn't fun trying to get two tons of alien muscle to bow to your will, let me tell you."
"I still can't believe it worked."
"You realize that this might be useful on other worlds as well - a great bit of defensive biology for aquatic colonists on high gee planets?"
"And another promotion for the great Ruth Khazak?"
She swished her tail - tentacle - contemplatively, coquettishly, she thought. "Probably not. You need to have commanded combat troops for them to make you a general."
"Pity. I can just imagine the name of the army: 'Khazak's Tadpoles.'" This earned him another sluice of water from the tank.
"Stop clowning and listen. I think I've got enough control over this thing so that I won't get pulled to the bottom of the ocean. Now we've got to get out there and test it, to make sure that it works as a way of communicating with the squids."
"I've been thinking about that. You've shown that it can be done. Why don't you let someone else do the testing. We've got a full complement of colony marines that were specifically assigned to us to take the risky jobs. Why can't you graft a tentacle on to one of them and let them test it?"
She shuddered inwardly. There was no way she was going to return to the hellish gravity of the surface, and if someone else was testing the squid's reaction, she'd have no excuse to keep the tentacle. "It would take too long. Think about it, a marine would take the same amount of time to get used to it as I have - those are weeks we simple don't have to spare. And I just need a few more day's practice. No. I have to be the one to do it." She paused, making certain that he wouldn't voice any further protests. "Now get in this tank before I use this tentacle to pull you in. I feel like celebrating."
The next two weeks were a blur. Everything had to be coordinated. Her tank had to be transported to the ocean's edge, she had to undergo a period of acclimatization to the ocean's temperature and salinity. And there was another unexpected snag: as soon as the tentacle hit the ocean, it seemed to regain part of the independence that had characterized it in the days immediately following the graft. A frustrating few days were spent in the shallows getting her full command back.
But, soon enough, she was ready for the final test. Ready to go out into the open ocean to find one of these behemoths, to confront it and see whether her experiment would insure the continued survival of the colony.
Kinney made some noises about accompanying her with a squadron of helicopters - massive things that flew with difficulty in the high gravity. Knowing they would certainly frighten the squids into acting violently, she just smiled. Right after sunrise the following morning, set out without telling him. She'd make it up to him later.
She swam straight to the point where the continental shelf suddenly ended, and dived. She wanted to find one of the squids right now. And, somehow, she felt that her own eagerness was complemented by a sense of elation was actually coming from the tentacle itself.
This stopped her cold. If her tail acted up now, the weight would drag her to the bottom of the ocean. And she'd be crushed long before getting there.
But there didn't seem to be any problem, other than the feeling of well-being coming from the tail. She briefly wondered what it was: feedback from some instinctive reaction to temperature and salinity parameters? Something else? She quickly dismissed it and got back to the matter at hand, namely finding and ... befriending?... one of the giant aquatic monsters. Her tail pushed her on, further and further from the shore, deeper and deeper into the dark water until a shadow, large and tentacular, appeared in the distance.
She was nearly there.
Namug felt the cool water caressing his surface, something he thought was lost to him forever. He was back where he belonged, in the timeless expanse of the deep ocean. But this, he knew, was merely the illusion of freedom. He had no control over his own movements: no matter how hard he struggled against it, his body would not react to his commands. He was anchored to something unspeakably alien, sundered forever from the joyous interaction with his colony - were they even still alive? - and unable, even in the glorious deep water, to move freely.
He remembered the happiness that accompanied the endless wandering of the colony. He longed for just one more chance to meet one of his people, to feel once more the caress of another surface on his. He didn't even ask for Yunin; that would be too much. But he would give what remained of his life to be in the presence of any of his people once more.
And his wish, suddenly, unexpectedly, was granted. He sensed a that there was a colony in the water with them - he could taste it on the current. And the monstrosity he was attached to, instead of denying him this one last wish, swam straight towards the thickest concentration of colony-taste.
Soon, incredibly soon, his body was being ordered to extend towards the outstretched body of one of the colony's members. The approach, under alien control, was a clumsy thing, and it was a familiar approach inappropriate for greeting a stranger. But in the end, the stranger accepted it, and they intertwined in the accepted fashion.
"Greetings," the other said, by moving the hairs on her surface. "I am Guniod of the Carinaa colony."
"Greetings. I am Namug of the Woogen."
"You are alone. Are you the only member of the Woogen?"
"No. The Woogen are many."
"They are not here. Your hub has only one individual. How can this be?"
"My root is not a hub. It is a sentient creature, like one of us. But it is evil. It has taken my colony and excised me forcefully. It has damaged me beyond repair, and it controls my movements."
"But not your words."
"Not my words."
Guniod was still for a few moments. "Can you be transplanted to another colony?"
"No. I have been maimed."
"Do you wish to continue with your new hub?"
"What do you wish?"
"You are a strong colony. Destroy this atrocity."
"You will die."
"I am already gone. Do it quickly."
She signaled assent. "We will do it. Your name will echo in the ocean, Namug."
"May knowledge of this come to Yunin of the Raugee."
"It shall. Goodbye."
"Thank you. Please do it quickly."
The entire colony wrapped around the monstrous creature that had planted his base on its skin. Each individual applying his or her strength to the alien, crushing it and tearing it into tiny globules of flesh and droplets of blood.
And, as he sank to the bottom of the dark, murky ocean, Namug was at peace.