A Girl and her Tentacle Monster
We were about fifteen minutes out when Ollie woke up, and I don't mind telling you I had been getting a little nervous. Not that there was anything terribly unusual about it - it always takes him some time to wake up when we drop into hyperspace, and the psychic feelers from the monsters weren't anything I couldn't handle. An itch on the inside of my elbow, a sudden headache like an explosion behind my left eye, the same three notes repeating themselves over and over; that sort of thing. I flicked them away without hardly thinking about it and got on with my systems check. Still, it never feels quite safe to be alone in your mind in hyperspace, and that's because it isn't. It was a real relief to feel his weight in the back of my brain, and to hear his voice like the whisper of a guillotine in my head: Human female.
"Good to have you back, big fellow," I replied cheerfully. They say that tentacle monsters can't hear, but I think Ollie might surprise them in a lot of ways. In any case, it's what's inside of your head that counts, and he understood that, all right.
I got on with checking our heading while Ollie stretched himself across the cockpit. In realspace, he lives - well, lives is the wrong word to talk about what a hyperspace monster does in realspace, but whatever - in a pot on a shelf across from the main computer screen, and looks a bit like a cross between a squid and an overgrown spider plant. But now that he was awake, he was growing limbs at an alarming rate, and losing them too, just as often, until he took up half the cockpit with a mass of swarming tentacles - some of them with suckers, and some of them with wicked-looking thorns, and some of them oozing liquids of various colors and consistencies. The one that he stretched across my shoulders had nothing more objectionable on it than several rows of tiny thorns like prickly hairs, but I uncoiled it firmly when he started to wrap my arm to the armrest of my chair. We may only have been on a routine colony run, but it was hardly time to relax yet.
Sure enough, less than half an hour later, the light in the cockpit took on a red cast. It came on gradually, and it's hard to notice when everything gets red, because everything gets red. But this wasn't my first hyperspace run, or my second, and I haven't come back a mangled corpse yet - my hindbrain said gremlin, and I tensed my muscles and began to reach. That's when the laughter started.
It wasn't repetitive enough to tune out, though it had a rhythm of a sort: a chuckle, then high-pitched giggles ending in a shriek, more giggles, then silence for a second or thirty before starting over again. I wanted badly to brush it off my mind, but that's a mistake with a red gremlin; once you do that, you're caught. Instead I listened carefully, visualizing each variation in pitch as one more step down a long tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was my enemy. Anchoring me at the back of my brain, so I couldn't get lost down the tunnel forever, was Ollie. Behind me, I could see him losing sticking tentacles and gripping tentacles, and growing more long thin thorny ones. The ends of his tentacles sprouted buds. The buds had teeth. A long, shallow cut appeared spontaneously underneath my right elbow, and then another across my shoulder. And then I had it.
Dragging the gremlin back through the tunnel I had built was just as hard as getting to it in the first place. Both my arms were bleeding freely by the time I was done. But I gave one last pull and there it was, the gremlin standing corporeal as life in the middle of the cockpit floor, looking just like a red rat, if rats had eight legs and stingers at the ends of their tails. My work was done; it was Ollie's turn now.
The thorns on his tentacles flashed, and bits of gremlin landed across the computer screen in an arc. The gremlin lashed out with its tail, and stung one of Ollie's tentacles, then another. The tentacles withered and died, and Ollie hissed with his remaining bud-mouths, then struck, each set of teeth clamped and pulling in a different direction. Then he started to eat. In short order, there was nothing left of the red gremlin at all, not even the bits that had stuck to the screens or the walls.
I washed up and bandaged my cuts. They weren't as bad as they had looked. They never are, but they're real, all the same. Then I checked on the colonists in the hold. The monitors reported that they had suffered no ill effects from the attack. The gremlin probably hadn't noticed they were there. Well, that's why we freeze them, after all - to minimize the psychic signal. Still, they would have been noticed if I hadn't been up front, broadcasting loud and clear across hyperspace. It doesn't matter how cold you freeze them; you can't send living cargo through hyperspace without a pilot, and that's a fact.
Non-living cargo, now, that's a different story. Hyperspace monsters take no more notice of it than realspace creatures do to the psychic signals which are flying around them all the time, so it's easier and cheaper to send it through with autopilots. The external monitors showed a flotilla of them headed in the opposite direction, ferrying trade goods to some unknown region of space. I gave them a wave. It's silly, I know, but seeing material things in hyperspace always seems like running into an old friend. Meanwhile, Ollie was shedding his thorny limbs and growing thicker, ropy ones, with suckers. I could feel his lust and impatience at the back of my brain. As far as he was concerned, the danger was over - all the nearby monsters were distracted by the psychic detritus of the red gremlin. Ollie never pays attention to material things either. But I didn't like the erratic way that one of those autopilots was acting.
I sent it a "You're in my flight path" signal, but it kept coming on. Stumbling and weaving like its navigation logic was broken, but heading towards me, all the same. I changed my course to avoid it. Nothing doing. It was following me.
An autopirate, then. But why was it ignoring a fleet of autopilots packed with material goods and going after me? As long as I was in control of the ship, it was going to Meacham's Star 2, as scheduled. And if I wasn't in control of the ship, the autopirate wasn't going to be able to deliver anything more to its owners than a pile of mutilated corpses, useless even for spare parts.
Possibilities ran through my head. Had someone invented an autopirate that could control a ship's course without disabling its pilot, while remaining unsophisticated enough to have no psychic signal? Or was its mission to kill me and all my cargo, and if so, why? On my last tune-up, the mechanic had offered to install weapons in my ship, and I'd laughed. None of the things in hyperspace that could hurt me would care one way or another about material weapons - or so I thought. Now I was worried.
But the scanners finished scanning and the library disgorged its data about the strange ship, and it wasn't a new style of autopirate. It was old; as old as anything that had ever been flown into hyperspace. Back from the days that pilots would come back broken, empty bodies, and no one knew why. There had been some modifications made to it since then, whose function the computer had been unable to determine. But they were cobbled-together of old parts and seemed, if anything, more antiquated than the craft itself.
However, it was small, and I was carrying a crate full of frozen colonists behind me. There was no way I could avoid it for long if it was determined, as it seemed to be, on a collision course. I made one final desperate dodge, and then the impact came.
And something else happened at the same time, something far more frightening - the bottom of my brain dropped out. I glanced over at Ollie, although I needed no confirmation, and he had shrunk back into his pot just as if we were in realspace. But we weren't. I was in hyperspace, alone in my head. The monsters were gathering, and I could no longer see them.
I swallowed and forced myself to ignore it. It would take a while for the monsters to realize what was happening and converge, but I had a situation in my cockpit now. The strange craft had torn a hole in the side of my ship - it hadn't harmed any of my main computer systems, thank goodness, and it sealed the hole quite neatly with its own substance - and something stepped out of a hatch in the side. It was human. And what's more, it was a man.
"What have you done to Ollie?" I said. "You scan as real - what are you?"
"I'm Elkoubi Bend," he said.
Now that was ridiculous. I wanted to reply and I'm Elkoubi Bend, but Elkoubi Bend was exactly who he was claiming to be. And he didn't look at all like he was joking.
"No, you're not," I said. "I can tell, on account of you're about five feet eleven inches tall, and not three foot two and compressed into a sort of oblong ball with splinters of shinbone sticking out where your liver ought to be. I've seen Elkoubi Bend's body in the Phobos Institute, you know. They've got it on display there, along with -" I paused to glance at his ship, or the part of it that was sticking through my hull. I couldn't help it; it was similar. " - with the Strange Fire," I finished.
He grinned, hitching up one corner of his mouth a bit above the other as if to say, there, you see? "Another version of myself, no doubt," he said.
I shook my head. "We've learned more since your - since his time. The hyperspace paradox doesn't work that way. What happens, stays happened."
He shrugged with one shoulder. "I know who I am. I see no sense in belaboring the point."
"You're right," I said. "It's not getting us anywhere. What do you want?"
"Ah," he said. A few short strides took him to the other end of the cockpit - well, it wasn't built to be a palace, after all. He touched one of Ollie's leaves, lightly, and I bridled. "I want your monster," he said.
I laughed. I'm afraid I sounded as hysterical as the red gremlin, earlier. "Maybe," I said, "but what would he want with you? Whatever else you are, you're a man. And I've never heard of a tentacle monster whose tastes ran that way yet."
"You let me worry about that," he said, grinning. I wanted to break every white tooth in that grinning mouth. There were three reasons I didn't try.
First of all, he was bigger than me, and probably stronger than me as well - he looked well-built, anyway. I know how to defend myself, but it seemed unlikely that I would be the gainer by escalating the situation to violence. Secondly, he was holding all the cards. Even if I managed to beat him bloody, I didn't know if that would bring Ollie back, and if it didn't, I and all my cargo would be dead within the hour. I might have to try it anyway, but that was a last resort. Finally, I was afraid that my fist would go right through without connecting to anything - or would be caught there, and I'd be unable to get it back out - or would sink elbow-deep into a mass of crawling things that stung. Whatever he looked like, whatever he scanned as, I wasn't convinced that he was human.
"I've learned a lot about the monsters in my time here," he was saying. "More than you girl-pilots ever learn, flitting in, flitting out. Years. Decades, it must be. Centuries? Does time have any meaning in this place?"
I couldn't stand the sound of his voice. I needed to make it stop, now. And yet I couldn't bring myself to so much as get out of my chair. I clawed at the walls of my mind like a panicked mongoose for several long seconds before I realized what was happening - the blind fury, the paralysis - they were coming from outside. "You son-of-a-bitch," I said thickly, "you've been distracting me."
That grin again. "Well, I couldn't very well take your monster without giving mine something else to occupy itself with first."
It was like no monster I had ever encountered before, but monsters are monsters, in the end. I knew it was death without Ollie on the other end to bring me back out, but it was all I knew how to do: I started down the tunnel to where the heart of the monster lived. In this case the path lay through the twisted thoughts of whatever it was that called itself Elkoubi Bend.
"You were a hyperspace pilot," I began. "Back in the days when nobody knew much about hyperspace except that it was dangerous. But you got into your ship and you dropped into hyperspace and everything seemed to be going fine until you met up with a monster."
I knew I was right when he reluctantly drew his attention away from Ollie and began to listen to me. And I got the feeling he didn't know it at all. I also hated him so much that I wanted to vomit, and was so frustrated by my inability to attack him that I wanted to claw my own eyes out just to be attacking something. Also I felt a sickening pressure in my bones, and thought of the shards sticking out of the belly of the corpse back at the Institute. But I was beginning to see a way that I just might survive this.
"The monster attacked. But it didn't kill you. Instead, you came to an accommodation with it." I knew what that was like. Of course, I had gone to hyperspace on purpose to look for my monster. I had studied, I had trained, I had known what to expect. On the other hand, I had known what would happen if I failed.
"It rides in the back of your brain. It protects you from the other monsters; helps you fight them when they attack. Just like Ollie does for me. So why would you want to swap?"
"Because yours," he gritted, as if the words had to be pulled from him by force. Which they did. Neither the churning in my gut, nor the pain shooting up from my right foot, telling me something was probably broken, or about to be, made any difference: I had the power now, for as long as I could keep it.
"Because yours lets you leave," he said.
"Oh yes," I said. "And you wanted out of hyperspace. So you came up with a plan. You fixed up your ship, probably scavenging from autopilots; you learned all you could about how hyperspace monsters work; and the next pilot you found, you immobilized her monster and invaded her ship. So that when your monster was occupied with her, it would loose its hold on your mind and you could make off with her monster, to realspace."
"Yes," he said.
I had come to the center. It would work, or I would die. The way my body felt, I'm kind of surprised I wasn't rooting for "die," but do you know, the thought never crossed my mind? I took the last step. "And," I said, "is it working?"
The grin was entirely gone now. He looked hunted. "You're doing something. You're dragging me with you."
"Not I," I said.
"Elkoubi Bend died," I said. "The monster killed him, and the Strange Fire's autopilot brought his corpse back to realspace, the way it was programmed to. But the monster remembered, and it built itself a new Elkoubi Bend, piece by piece. You may fool my scanners, and you may fool yourself, but you can't fool me - you're not real. You'll never be loose from your monster; you are your monster. And you can't exist in realspace any more than any other monster can."
He believed me. Well, I was standing in the center of his mind; I could hardly have lied to him. But he didn't do anything. I kept talking, though it was more of a rasping whisper at this point.
"You thought you'd double-cross your monster, but the shoe's on the other foot, isn't it? You're a useful tool, that's all. You built a new Strange Fire. You figured out how to render a pilot and her cargo vulnerable to your monster's attack - don't tell me your monster did that; a monster's very good at tearing up a person's psyche, but useless at figuring things out - and what do you get, after all? You've been resurrected, but you're still in Hell. There's no out for you. But you don't have to be a lure on the end of your murderer's line. Let him go, Elkoubi Bend."
And he did; Ollie came back into my mind with a jolt that was nearly physical. I would never have done it if I were him. What happened next wasn't pretty. I still hated that damned monster-construct, but if I could have looked away, I would have.
I had never seen Ollie grow so fast, or so big. A single bud-mouth arced high above the rest of his flailing limbs and hissed in triumph. Blood and other human substances sprayed across everything in the cockpit: the computers, the nose of the other ship, Ollie, me. Within seconds, there wasn't an orifice of the ersatz Elkoubi Bend's body that didn't have a tentacle shoved into it, and come out again through somewhere that didn't used to be an orifice at all. The one tipped with a mouth that was contentedly chewing through his stomach I believe had gone in through the right nostril.
Then the massive bud-mouth on its central stalk lowered, until it was level with my face. I found myself, once more, unable to move. Human female, said the falling guillotine in my head, now you.
"Oh, Ollie," I said, "not now."
Tentacles twined up my chair, and around my arms and legs - the one around my right leg in particular hurt like the dickens; I needed to look at that urgently. Well, a monster is a monster, after all. I tensed. "Later," I said.
A few seconds went by. Then Ollie's tentacles slowly uncoiled and I limped over to the medical scanner.
There wasn't anything terribly wrong with me; a couple of painkillers and a cast on my foot set me right. The damage to the ship took a little longer to fix, but once I got the self-repair systems started properly, they didn't need much babysitting. The cargo, bless them, had slept through the whole thing without a blip. And the monsters in local hyperspace were not inclined to give us trouble. So later came a bit earlier than I'd expected.
When I tell people I'm a hyperspace pilot, they often say, "That must be so lonely." And it's true, you have to do without a lot of things - family, a circle of friends, keeping up with news or gossip or politics. But one thing you never have to do without is sex. It's not a bad trade-off, after all. The rest of the trip passed mostly without incident, but I can't really say that I was bored.
I made it to Meacham's Star 2 on schedule, and a shipping agent came over from the station to take charge of my cargo and authorize my payment. The cockpit didn't look like it had been the scene of a bloody battle anymore, but her eyes still widened a bit when they alighted on Ollie. "Is that your . . . thing?" she said.
"Yep, that's Ollie," I said. I had to stifle a laugh, really - he doesn't look like all that much in realspace. I wondered how she'd react if she saw him in full bloom. Panic and scream, probably, which is the worst thing you can do with a tentacle monster. He'll just think you're playing.
She gave a delicate shudder. "I wouldn't take your job for galaxies on a plate," she said.
"You probably wouldn't," I agreed. "It's not for everyone. But I tell you what, when you're in a tight spot, a tentacle monster is a girl's best friend."