DR MAROLINE'S MEDUSA
Maroline Jax felt bloated with satisfaction after incinerating those invading pests and writing their epitaphs in scrolls of smoke across her untidy sky.
The guardian of the most valuable collection of antique space vehicles in the star cluster had once again proved her worth and could only wonder that all these unwelcome intruders were so persistent. Only one had ever been spared her fatal web. For some inexplicable reason, Maroline Jax had been unable to destroy the Stellar Superb and its solitary pilot. The star liner had encroached into her territory when returning to its port to collect more tourists after dropping its previous passengers to wonder at a white dwarf going nova. The vessel may have been fitted with every comfort, but its shielding was not strong enough to withstand a nova. Designed for speed, tourists holidaying on the Stellar Superb expected to find themselves in a different solar system every time they woke, orbiting gaseous giants with corrosive soup for atmospheres, or mingling with icy asteroids.
Perhaps Maroline Jax had seen no point in destroying this multi-decked wonder of the tourist industry, so sophisticated it required only a single pilot who satisfied her curiosity by staying on view by living in the control room with its large viewing port. This monstrous guardian had no idea why, but every time she looked at him there was the faint flicker of familiarity deep in her subconscious, a turbulent place where not even she dare delve too deeply. He bore no resemblance to the other hairy creatures persistently trying to infiltrate her defences. His face was round and golden like the moon of her solar system's sixth planet and his head, apart from a thin layer of hair around the back and sides, was quite bald.
The pilot of the Stellar Superb had tried to communicate with Maroline Jax at first and then, realising that she did not understand him, gave up trying, almost like a spurned lover. As he had not been sent by that other species forever trying to undermine her defences, they were probably unaware that he was trapped in one of the many space vessels held fast in her vast web.
The fearsome protector of the space vehicle museum watched and wondered in fascination as the pilot treated his captivity with such relaxed indifference, ignoring her presence, the sight of which drove others mad. Before they perished in deranged panic, they sent missiles hurtling in her direction. These never reached their target. Maroline Jax believed it was because she overlapped dimensions, bleeding through the cracks of the reality others creatures could not escape, and not merely her raging photosphere that vaporised them.
The portly pilot of the Stellar Superb always strolled about the space liner after waking, his footsteps easily detectable on the thick pile carpet of the corridors and wooden decking of the viewing terraces. Perhaps he thought that walking in total darkness would make her oblivious to his presence, yet all he did was blunder into lounge chairs and any other obstacles careless passengers had left askew for the port stewards to straighten. After his exercise, the pilot returned to his control room quarters and sampled the liner's store of exotic delicacies, listened to music, or gazed blankly out at the collection of antique spacecraft hanging motionless in the sky and paying no heed to the massive, louring presence of Maroline Jax pulsating at the centre of her multi dimensional web. When he did speak, usually to his control panel or himself, he was always calm. He was so unlike the others who lost their reason at the sight of her fearful aspect, which is only what they deserved for attempting to penetrate her vulnerable centre, the very core of the substance which tied her to that dimension.
'You're loud and clear,' came back Carcaco Central Control.
Silvas held her breath and counted, then lowered her muzzle and gritted her teeth as the craft was snapped onto the directional beam with a jolt.
'No changing your mind about this now,' she was warned as though this hadn't already occurred to her.
'I wasn't intending to.'
Silvas set in the co-ordinates to her destination. This was a cold, dark moon with no atmosphere. The only volunteer to accept the posting there was from the same bald species as the third member of their team. Silvas had not met either of them; they had been deployed long before her training started. Now fluent in their dialect, the agent still wondered what to expect; anyone volunteering for a mission that no one else had survived had to be either eccentric or in desperate need of remuneration. Silvas had a foot in both categories. The organisers of this suicidal venture had become so frantic for volunteers, they had considered criminals seeking redemption, species with hard carapaces though little intellect, and devotees of dangerous activities. In their overconfidence, all these agents had gone the same way - raving mad, and then incinerated. Silvas was their last resort to neutralise the monster once and for all. If she failed, no further attempts would be made and the region the creature inhabited would be declared out of bounds.
The Carcaco's final hope had departed with good wishes and silent misgivings. As she was the last in an increasingly desperate line of candidates, Silvas was regarded as the least likely to succeed. During a long career as a freelance troubleshooter, her sight had been damaged whilst collecting a specimen from a solar flare, her spine fused in several places and no longer as flexible as it should be, and she was covered with bald patches from bacteria resistant to any known antidote in the star cluster. Silvas was quite a mess. Fortunately, keen eyesight, turning somersaults and a full coat of fur were not prerequisites for this mission, just enough self control to avoid looking at the target.
So, upon arriving at her destination, there the agent sat in her craft, waiting for the woman in the moon to answer her signal and send her into blazing hell.
A faint voice was barely discernible through the static created by the target anomaly blazing at the centre of the solar system, 'Too much background.'
Silvas retuned to a different frequency. 'How's this?'
'Much better, Captain. We listen through a couple of inconveniences called ears, not antenna I like you hairy things.'
Silvas wrinkled her wide, flat nose at the thought of having this human guide her into the jaws of fiery death, but had to admit that her tone was engaging in a manner only an alien could get away with.
'Are you female?' she asked, never having managed to distinguish the different pitches of this species' voices.
'Who knows? I've been stuck out here by myself for so long it's getting difficult to tell.'
'Same here,' Silvas admitted. 'After all that indoctrination, I'm not so sure either.'
'They made you do the training? I thought you were freelance?'
'I understand they made our 'rabbit', or whatever you call him, do it as well.'
'Bait probably covers it better.'
'That makes him crazier than either of us,' said Silvas. 'What's your name?'
'Dorabella Innesbroke. But you can call me Daisy Bell for short.'
Silvas yawned. 'I need to take a nap. Wake me when our "bait" signals.'
'All right, Captain Silvas.'
'Silvas will do. The title's only honorary and I am getting paid.' She loosened her boots and tool belt to flop out as best she could in the narrow space of the bomb's cockpit.
The pilot must have felt Maroline Jax's flaming gaze through the control room's observation port as she watched him wake and slowly rise. This time he did not go for his regular stroll about the liner's darkened decks and corridors. He adjusted a few controls and then, satisfied, stepped into his quarter's cleansing beam. Refreshed, like an ornate, winged insect breaking from its cocoon of steam, the pilot dressed in black velvet trousers and an embroidered satin jacket, combed what little hair he had, poured himself brandy and lit a cigar.
Maroline Jax was so fascinated at seeing a human smoke she did not wonder at the controls he went to adjust. She had no need to: the engines of the star liner could not operate while it was held fast in her powerful web ensnaring much larger space vessels from every corner of the star region. When this pilot eventually terminated, Maroline Jax would add the Stellar Superb to her collection, as she had done with all the others she had not incinerated along with their occupants.
The museum was now so vast it was a pity no one ever came to see it.
The long neck of the gastropa snaked its huge, evil head towards Silvas, several rows of teeth grinding together as its lidless eyes fixed her with carnivorous premeditation. Silvas had to move, but old injuries refused to obey her body. With one part of her brain fixated on the long extinct beast about to pounce, the other became aware of a light on the panel above her flickering.
Silvas woke and toppled from the narrow couch.
'Time to enter Hell's furnace,' Daisy Bell's cheerful voice announced. 'The old girl's getting restless.'
The agent became aware of the intense heat.
'I can feel it!' snapped Silvas.
'Then activate the shields if you don't want to be incinerated.'
Silvas did not obey immediately. This would be the only opportunity she had to glimpse the blazing quarry from a secure distance. Even from relative safety she could see enough of Maroline Jax's terrible aspect to understand why the sight of it drove people mad. The huge, fiery body pulsated in the middle of her web, engulfing a barren planet and its circling moon, which had been caught up like the derelict carcasses of her other victims.
Daisy Bell did not share her curiosity. 'Getting too close!' she warned.
The monstrous head twitched as it sensed an intruder.
Silvas snapped the shields on.
'What did you think of her collection then?' asked Daisy Bell.
The agent had hardly noticed the museum of space vessels Maroline Jax was initially commissioned to protect from plunderers. Her inventor, so pleased with his creation, had given it his name. Humans had quirky egos. Dr Maroline's original conception had been beautiful; slender, shapely - not necessarily a human shape - but she had sparkled like a fountain of cut gems which reflected every colour from x-ray to infrared depending on her mood. The scientist had probably thought of her more as a lover than an invention and, because Maroline Jax was so beautiful, made the fatal mistake of allowing her some pleasure centres. But his creation was not mortal; it was a sophisticated tangle of sensors and circuits generating plasma instead of flesh, which did not comprehend "pleasure". The guardian's solution to those undecipherable impulses was to generate even more mass until she started to blaze into the monstrous entity that no longer recognized her creator, only the purpose she had been created for.
'Tell me more about Dr Maroline?' asked Silvas.
'Strange, cold fish he was...' Daisy Bell began.
The crash course in human language hadn't included knowledge of her planet's life forms. 'You mean amphibious?'
'No. Icy cool.'
'Ice usually it is.'
'This genius created a guardian of pure energy with the quantum capacity to be in more than one place at once.'
This was something not mentioned when the agent had volunteered. 'Now you're worrying me.'
'No need. When Maroline Jax broke free she lost that ability, though probably thinks she can still do it. Her source of power is now the fusion of this system's star with which she spun her plasma web.'
'How did the entity get so out of control?'
'Dr Maroline was so infatuated with his creation he couldn't see the consequences. His assistant did and designed a self-destruct programme as a safety measure. But he disabled it.'
Silvas now understood why Daisy Bell had been reluctant to discuss the hubris of the human scientist who had caused so much havoc. 'What went wrong?'
'Her pleasure centres and core programme came into conflict. Before that, Maroline Jax was no larger than two of you hairy things standing on each other's shoulders.'
'You humans may stand on each others shoulders,' Silvas told her, 'but the Carcaro have more dignity.'
'Before she started to malfunction she was good. Passed every test thrown at her. Able to stop a pirate cruiser at one light year.'
'I know,' admitted Silvas. 'The Carcaco are just as much to blame for installing her in the first place. Go on.'
'There was only one inevitability she could not handle.'
'What was that?'
'Being parted from Dr Maroline. Not only had he grown attached to her, she apparently couldn't do without him.'
'This is not the time to confirm every doubt I ever had about the sanity of the human species,' warned Silvas.
'It was probably what triggered the chain reaction.'
'So she was lonely and started to put on weight by eating everything that came within a solar orbit of her.'
'Something like that,' Daisy Bell conceded. 'It must have been traumatic to find herself in the middle of nowhere, guarding a collection of obsolete spaceships, with only the occasional visit of her creator to keep her sane.'
'So why did Dr Maroline desert her?'
'His partner believed that he was becoming too obsessed with this creature.'
Silvas laughed. 'Jealousy?'
'No. She realised how dangerous Maroline Jax could become.'
'He didn't believe her?'
'Ever tried telling a parent that its child is going to be a dangerous psychopath when it grows up? Instead of agreeing to decommission her, he attempted to do the right thing by both females in his life and made the mistake of trying to explain to Maroline Jax that she would never see him again.'
'And that's when she went nova?'
'He barely survived her reaction. Lost his sight. Despite that he continued working to find a way of stopping her, but she no longer recognised him and started to destroy any ship that entered her region of protection, unless it was a collectable vessel. Just the occasional tourist to begin with. Now she's totally out of control, you are our last chance we have to get it right. '
As the portly pilot sipped his brandy and dreamed with half closed eyes, Maroline Jax was so obsessed by his indifference to her that she at first ignored that small speck at the edge of her domain. The mighty guardian did not waste energy on space junk that would burn up as soon as it touched her photosphere. But then it suddenly took a ninety degree turn and disappeared. When she detected it again, the anomaly's zigzagging trajectory made no sense. It was going nowhere yet everywhere too erratically to be a spacecraft or meteor.
Silvas felt nauseous. 'Where am I now?'
'Still off target and twenty turns to go.' Daisy Bell's signal was intermittent. 'Hold in there. She's still confused and hasn't managed to pick you off yet.'
'Just remind me I'm getting paid to let you do this to me,' Silvas complained. 'I didn't realise how fused my back was before now.'
'Try to think of it as therapy. Once you've activated the bomb it'll take your mind off everything else. She still hasn't latched onto your position so doesn't know what you are. Fifteen more turns to go. Hold your hairy nose and bite something - just hang on.'
'My nose isn't shaped like yours and I've already bitten through my collar.'
'Just stay conscious enough to programme the bomb - it's the one thing I can't do from here.'
'Isn't this the point where all the others passed out?'
'And keep your tool kit handy - just in case you have to break out of the safety capsule during the countdown.'
'Is this where I stop the bomb and ask to get out?'
Daisy Bell's voice became so distorted Silvas left the bomb's chamber and sealed herself in the safety capsule to start priming it from there. Before she could complete the task, a blast of blistering heat told her that Maroline Jax had at last started to pay attention and sealing herself in the capsule when she did had saved her from incineration. Silvas brushed the fur from her eyes and carried on.
As soon as she had started the countdown, her blistered fingers fumbled with the catch of the eye shield that would plunge her into pitch darkness. Now it was up to the pilot of the Stellar Superb to guide the bomb in and conceal it in his ship's landing bay.
Maroline Jax hurled several plasma bolts in the direction of the quirky piece of debris, unaware that it had docked on the far side of the star liner. Satisfied it had been incinerated, she returned her attention to its pilot who was still puffing at the remains of a cigar and listening to some of that strange music which filled most of his captive life. Then he nonchalantly rose and went to the control panel. Despite the full horror of her dreadful features filling the observation port, he threw a couple of switches as though merely adjusting the temperature or checking what rations were left, before strolling about the control room as though missing his regular walk around the liner's decks.
Then the pilot started to speak.
'You are inside the Stellar Superb,' he said. 'I am now convinced that her language centres were burnt out by the reaction that accelerated her growth and she cannot understand me. You need to get out of the docking bay so I can seal it off and into the safety of the control room's shielding with me. I've activated a signal for you to follow. Whatever happens, don't remove the eye shield. One glimpse out of a deck window and you'll become too crazy to remember your own name. If you aren't up here during the countdown, I'll assume you are dead and will dispatch the bomb.'
Somewhere in the depths of the Stella Superb, Silvas was discovering that the safety capsule was heatproof in more places than others and Maroline Jax's plasma blast had fused the bolts of its escape hatch in the hull. The agent now had no choice but to remove the eye shield to free it and hope Maroline Jax wasn't gazing through a docking bay window when she broke out. After fumbling through the tool kit with painfully burned hands, she blasted the damaged hatch bolt off from the inside. Silvas immediately replaced her eye shield as the door fell away.
The countdown signal was rising in pitch.
The agent clawed her way out of the bomb, able to feel the blazing presence of the monster through the hull of the star liner. Knowing that she had been selected for the ability to stay focussed in extreme situations did not help as she desperately tried to detect the faint signal guiding her out of the alien docking bay.
Somehow Silvas managed to blunder through the atmosphere lock before the heat became intolerable. Once clear, its shutters opened to the furnace outside.
She did not have time to wonder at the pilot's split second timing, more concerned about reaching the control room before the rest of the Stellar Superb became a plasma oven. She half ran, half staggered along its endless corridors, blindly following the pitch of the audio signal.
The pilot poured another brandy. He turned to face Maroline Jax, blazing outside the control room window.
A regretful smile crossed his moon shaped face as he raised his glass, 'Sorry, dear monster.'
He released the bomb from the docking bay just as the control room door slid open. Scorched and exhausted, Silvas blundered in, desperate to remove the helmet that felt as though it had been welded to her head.
The pilot immediately brought down the internal shutters. 'Don't remove your eye shield!' he warned with his back her as she reached up to release its catch.
Maroline Jax was at first puzzled by the arrival. How had this creature managed to infiltrate the ferocity of her web undetected?
At last the dreadful guardian realised. It had all been a trick: the long sojourn of the star liner's pilot was to lower her defences, and the small piece of space junk zigzagging its way towards her, the instrument of destruction.
Maroline Jax parted her blazing gape to incinerate the Stella Superb, its pilot, and intruder.
'Good-bye, beloved friend.' The pilot flicked a switch as though pinching out the flame of the last candle on a birthday cake.
Before her final, lethal breath could engulf the star liner, Maroline Jax felt an implosion in her bowels. Something was consuming her from the inside. Her hold on the Stella Superb relaxed and the ship roared into life, blasting away from her rapidly expanding photosphere.
The cosmic furnace that had been Maroline Jax dissipated, diffused into glittering, gemlike particles which scattered about the sky in a cruel parody of the guardian's original, beautiful appearance. Her web and all the valuable space craft it contained were also reduced to interstellar dust, leaving the battered planet and its moon free to resume the orbits they had been deviated from for long.
'She's gone,' Silvas could hear the pilot tell her, 'You can remove your eye shield now.'
'The helmet feels as though it's fused on. You'll have to unfasten it. I've lost all sensation in my fingers.'
The pilot gently released her from the headgear: his touch was light and reassuring. 'You were badly scorched, weren't you. All that hair couldn't have helped. You'll have to be patched up before an infection sets in.'
'I've survived hundreds of those. It can wait until I see a doctor who has some idea of where everything should go. You humans probably know as much about different anatomies as you do other languages.'
'We are tedious and provincial, aren't we. You must be wondering why we became involved in the first place?'
'That was going to be my next question - assuming we all survived.' Silvas rubbed her eyelids to unfasten them from their singed eyelashes.
'My Daisy Bell didn't tell you then?'
At last the third member of the team came into focus. He wore no spacesuit or helmet, instead immaculate in black velvet trousers and brightly embroidered jacket. His figure was far from athletic and his manner so amiable and relaxed she wondered if he had any reflexes at all.
Silvas was puzzled. 'Your Daisy Bell?'
'Such a treasure to the most wrong-headed and misguided member of the human species. It was unkind to expect her to sit on that wretched moon for so long on account of my mistake, especially at her age. But no one else could have set the trajectory of the bomb she had designed to fool the monster with such accuracy. It's a pity she wasn't allowed to use it before matters got out of hand. Poor Maroline Jax. At least it was quick.'
The strange sentimentality of the human puzzled Silvas as she struggled painfully out of her protective suit.
'Do you need any help?' the pilot asked.
'No thanks. Self-inflicted pain doesn't hurt so much. You don't object to the sight of a naked alien, do you?'
The pilot smiled at some private joke. 'Not at all. You must excuse my eccentric dress as well but, if I was going to die, I preferred it not to be in a clumsy spacesuit.'
'Was it your style which persuaded Daisy Bell that you were worth all the discomfort? Not being the same species I can only conjecture, but she seems like a difficult woman to please.'
'Always has been, the dear thing. Unfortunately she has an even more disturbing trait than that.'
'She is always right.'
As Silvas relaxed and the pain subsided a little, curiosity took over. 'Where is your eye shield?'
The pilot just shrugged in reply.
'You couldn't have stayed sane this long without one,' she persisted.
'It wouldn't have been possible to wear one for that length of time, even if the temptation of removing it could be resisted. Maroline Jax would have realised the deception. The only person she would have allowed to survive was one she vaguely recognised.'
'You knew her?'
'Oh yes. I knew her well.'
'I see,' murmured Silvas as the truth dawned.
'I had no choice. Daisy Bell probably told you that I used to be a cold fish. It's strange how my view of the Cosmos has mellowed now I can no longer see it. And would you have trusted your life to me if you had known that I was totally blind?' asked Dr Maroline.