From the author: A retired woman finds herself stranded on an unknown planet where she makes some interesting friends.
Naomi really liked hotels.
She liked sleeping in a clean, well-furnished room which was straightened each day by invisible machines that waited until she left. She liked going down to the restaurant and choosing her breakfast from a selection of fresh foods on a well-decorated side table, and eating it on a small table with a white cloth and fresh napkins, with a gentle piano melody in the background. But especially, she liked sitting in cozy lobby bars in the evening with a glass of white wine and an old mystery, listening to low-key music under the buzz of what was no doubt interesting and intelligent conversation.
Naomi had a chance to indulge herself in that manner twice a year, at the two annual conventions. She represented a series of fashion designers whose specialty were making hard vacuum suits palatable to civilians. She was good at her job. She knew the exact combination of practicality, aesthetics, and psychology that would allow colonists to feel comfortable and even status conscious in the bulky outfits necessarily for their survival. She had started with the easier uniform suits for the military and ship’s crews (officers had their own special needs), had, in time, graduated to everyday users, and finally was been promoted to the difficult but rewarding children’s division, with its need for extra protections and need for bright colors....
Unfortunately, since Naomi's clients were solely human, she never got to travel off-planet. She didn't mind much. She had never been of a very adventurous frame of mind -- her imagination was all she needed for her designs -- and didn’t mind missing the discomforts of a business trip off-planet. She was curious about the types of hotels that she might find in alien cultures, but she was quite satisfied with the holos that she collected with a carefully set-aside portion of her wages. Meanwhile, she made a deal with her supervisors to work extra hours in exchange for a choice of more exclusive hotels.
And then, she reached retirement age. They gave her a party, she cleaned out her desk, and that was that.
At the age of 85, Naomi was well off, if not rich. She had invested her savings well, and had enough to keep her more comfortably than if she was going to live simply on her ElderAllotment. She could even take short, inexpensive tours if she was careful.
So she pulled up some brochures, choose one that looked both reasonable and interesting -- a theater tour to London -- and made reservations.
It was a disaster. According to the brochure, the tour was supposed to include "Five nights in one of London's historic old hotels." But the hotel turned out to be an old, rambling, Dickensian structure badly in need of repair, and staffed by a crew of badly serviced mechs supervised by underage German refugees who spent their time playing hologames and ignoring their guests. Naomi was deeply offended. Finally, on the third day, when she returned to her room to find the bed unmade and a small cockroach investigating her water glass, she had had enough. She bade good-bye to the tour guide, and took the next shuttle home.
She unpacked, sat, and realized that she didn’t have a clue of what to do with the rest of her life. Naomi could look forward to at least 20 more years of reasonable health (assuming no fatal diseases or accidents occurred). She would not subject herself to any more cut-rate vacations. Her choices of employment were few -- her skills were useless to anyone but her former employers. And she refused to sit in front of the holodramas all day.
Finally, one evening, she was sitting at her window staring at the security screens glowing software in the night when something snapped. “Fuck this,” she said out loud, a bit taken aback at her own choice of language. But it seemed appropriate.
She called up her funds, pulled up a couple of travel brochures, and did some comparisons. With some care, she decided, she had just enough extra savings for a modest interplanetary vacation, about a year's worth. After that, of course, it would be a small, shared apartment in an elderhome, along with the required amount of unpaid "volunteer" work necessary to justify herself as a healthy and useful individual. But, she thought, what the hell -- at least she would die with at least one really fine memory.
She went to a travel agent recommended by an old colleague. He was very young, wore a pale pink shirt and matching bells in his ears, and listened to her plans with what he no doubt imagined was a sincere smile. "I’m afraid that it would be difficult to find something that won’t take too much of your savings,” he said. “You understand..”
“I’m ready to spent every cent I have,” she told him. “I want this to be something that I can remember for the rest of my life. Surely, there must be something in my price range.”
The smile broadened. Amazing that in this age of advanced dental work, he still looked as through he had a mouthful of plastic. “Very well,” he said. “And I’m sure we will find something. You would be surprised what can be done with a few economical adjustments."
He poked a finger at the display in his desk. "If you don't mind sharing a cabin and making a couple of stops along the way... Do you have any preferences as to what planets you'd like to visit?"
"Oh..." Naomi felt somewhat flustered. "I hadn't really thought that far ahead. I suppose I should have done some research, but quite frankly, I thought that my available funds would limit my choices."
The young man smiled again. "Well, that isn't necessarily so. There are actually several very interesting destinations open to somebody who must travel on a...limited...budget. Now, let's see..."
He touched his display again. "A lot can depend on how alien a culture you visit,” he said, while his eyes scanned the screen. “One would think that the more alien the culture, the more expensive the trip, but actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A species that is so alien that there are no referent points can make for an excruciatingly boring visit. After hours of waiting for a reaction from the sentient trees of Centra 657, for example, 90 percent of human tourists are screaming for a refund.”
He shook his head while Naomi nodded sympathetically.
"On the other hand, those few species close enough to us to have a high number of common referents are also the most expensive. So we need to find a balance." He suddenly stopped. "Hmmm. That's interesting."
Naomi waited while made some adjustments to his screen. She finally couldn’t stand it. "What is it?"
His face brightened. "Ms. Shapiro, you may have walked into my office at exactly the right moment. Tricentennial Cruises has just had several last minute cancellations, and are offering those places at a considerable discount in order to fill the ship." He looked up at her. "This is an extraordinary opportunity. Usually, there's a long waiting list for this cruise -- it's a three-month tour of all the most popular alien attractions, along with a couple of stops to offer a taste of the more exotically incomprehensible. Full dining room, all meals and gear provided... It's a little above your budget, but not so much that you couldn't stretch to meet it. And it's an opportunity that you really shouldn't miss."
He looked at her. "Of course, it is very last minute -- the ship leaves tomorrow afternoon -- which is why they have offered the places at such a discount. If you don't feel you can quite make that..."
Naomi bit her lip and considered. She hadn’t expected to make a decision at such short notice. She knew that many travel agents tried to take advantage of older clients, and she had always prided herself on her ability to "read" people. But the young man looked absolutely sincere, and she doubted that he would go through such an elaborate scheme simply to get her small travel allowance. Still...
"Can I let you know this afternoon?" she asked.
The young man looked at her seriously and shook his head. The pink bells jingled faintly. "Ms Shapiro, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. These places are going to go within the hour, if not within minutes. You've got to decide right now, and I'll tell you, if you don't say yes, you are letting a chance go by which you'll regret to the end of your days."
Naomi pressed her lips together. "I don't have my passport, or any of my travel papers ready. I understand that can take up to a month; even if I said yes, how would I be able to go?"
"Oh," and the young man waved her objections away as if they were so many bothersome gnats. "You just leave that to me. You think you're the first person who needed to catch a last minute flight? Part of my job is to be able to cut through the red tape in just such a happenstance." He glanced down as his screen blinked. "Hmm. Two of the places have already been taken. Luckily, they are the more expensive ones, but unless I put you in right now, all the places will be gone. What do you say?"
Naomi thought. Her life, she thought, had always been deliberate, careful; each trip she took for her company was planned out in exact detail, to the times of meals and the amount of leeway for free time. She had assumed that an interplanetary voyage would be equally, if not more, planned; a list of which planets to be visited when, long lists of rules to be observed on each...
Without even thinking, she suddenly said, "Yes. All right."
"Great!" He immediately palmed his mike and began murmuring into it; a minute later, the screen blinked. He looked up. "There," he said. "You're booked onto the Elizabeth Browning for their grand tour, commencing tomorrow evening. I've already entered your credit number in; your account won't be debited, of course, until the ship actually takes off."
He opened a drawer and pulled out a small brochure. "I've transferred all the information concerning the itinerary, clothing needs, emergency drills, etc. to your mailbox. I think you'll find that, except for a few items, you won't need anything special. All environment suits will be provided by the ship. And your passport and papers will be waiting for you when you get there -- it is strongly suggested you sign on at least three hours before take off, to allow yourself to familiarize yourself with shipboard procedures."
He smiled and extended his hand. "Have a wonderful time, Ms. Shapiro. I know you will."
The trip was everything Naomi had hoped. Her cabin was small, but neat and well-cared for; the food was better than any she had had on her earlier travels, and their first stop, the jungles of Mloti, had her updating her journal until well past her bedtime.
It wasn't until they had returned from their second planetary outing, on the water world of Zabro, that Naomi found out why so many places had been suddenly available. As she sat in the small lounge, murmuring her impressions into her small pocket diary, she noticed that the usually calm staff seemed a bit edgy. She could see them whispering to each other out of the hearing of the passengers, and her waiter's hand trembled visibly as she placed Naomi's tea on the table.
"Lisa," Naomi asked quietly, "is there something wrong?"
"No, not at all, Ms. Shapiro," the young woman said loudly, her dark eyes passing around the lounge. Then, bending down to wipe at an invisible spot on the table, she whispered quickly, "Just be sure not to be too far from any emergency pods this evening."
"What?" But the young woman, with a quick warning shake of her head, stood and walked away.
Over the next few hours, Naomi tried to pay a bit more attention to what was going on around her. She tried accessing the news back in her cabin, but it all seemed relegated to various human interest items. She did find one mention of a small political outbreak on some of the colonized worlds in the current sector, but their itinerary didn’t seem to have changed, so it couldn’t have been that serious.
There didn’t seem to be much else to do but wait and see. Dinner seemed to go smoothly, but Naomi still felt a bit nervous. So she decided to do something useful: she’d review the emergency procedures that had been posted in each room, and figure out where the closest emergency pods were to her room, the dining room, and the recreation center. After that, she told herself firmly, she wouldn’t worry about it again.
Of course, she became hopelessly lost. About two hours later, she had finally found herself facing a row of small doors, each labeled Emergency Pod and a number, along with a set of instructions. She was examining the instructions with interest, when the corridor lighting suddenly changed to a warm shade of pink. Attention, said a voice somewhere in the corridor, the same voice that announced dinner and planet-side expeditions. Please proceed to the pod bays immediately in an orderly manner. This is not a drill. The staff will assist you in any way possible. Please proceed... And it started to repeat the message.
Naomi looked around. While she was distracted by the loudspeaker, the row of small doors had opened. the loudspeaker in a polite, but firm tone, Naomi was about to pursue her questions further, when she happened to glance at the small waiters' station near the doorway and saw a small, almost unnoticeable light flashing. She leaned forward slightly.
The lighting in the corridor suddenly changed again, this time to a bright wash of red. A low moan, like that of a lion beginning to stir, seemed to run through the metal beneath her feet, followed immediately by the chirp of the ship's alarm system.
Naomi, panicked, peered one of the doors. Nobody seemed to be coming to her part of the ship -- maybe it was a mistake? Maybe she should wait? Another low moan decided her; almost without thinking, she stepped quickly over the rather high periphery of the door and entered the capsule.
It was, to say the least, spare. There were five safety chairs arranged in a circle, facing each other (for the passengers' comfort, no doubt), and another two chairs before a small console. Several small doors lined the gray, padded interior, labeled "Food," "Water," "LifeSuits," "Tools," and "Oxygen." Nothing about reading materials, she thought disapprovingly. What on earth were people supposed to do if they were stranded somewhere for several hours?.
There was a sudden smooth sound behind her. The door of the small capsule had slid shut. A calm, female voice said, "This capsule is about to launch. Please be seated."
"Wait!" A quick rush of fear. She ran to the door, her eyes flickering quickly around for some kind of button, something that would open it again. "There's been a mistake -- nobody else is here yet!"
"The capsule will launch in three minutes. Please be seated immediately, or you could be injured."
No apparent way to open the door. She ran next to the console, and hit a couple of buttons at random.
"This console will be locked until flight is underway. Please be seated immediately. The capsule..." It kept repeating itself, until Naomi, in a sudden wash of fear that something terrible would happen if she didn't do what it said, sat back in one of the couches. Immediately, a small belt of some kind of rigid material slid several inches over her waist and clicked shut; it then descended slightly until it hugged her firmly, but not uncomfortably.
"This belt can be adjusted by using the yellow lever on your left," the voice told her politely. "It can be released by pressing the red button next to the yellow lever. Please do not release the belt until notified by this craft. This capsule will launch in one minute."
She sat, and tried to ignore the churning of her stomach. She had the awful feeling that this was all a mistake; that she had somehow touched something that should not have been touched, and was now going to be hurled into space, alone and unmissed. Why had she got into the capsule without a member of the crew? What was really happening?
There was a sudden lurch, and for a second she felt very, very heavy. "The capsule has launched," said the voice calmly. "Please remain in your seat." An unnecessary admonition; at that moment, Naomi couldn’t move. Panic had frozen her to the seat as effectively as the restraints. Her stomach felt as if it was turning inside out; she desperately needed to use the toilet. Her blood pressure must have soared; she could feel her hands and feet prickling with tension. “What’s happened?” she called out, her voice breaking.
“Attempts are being made to contact the Elizabeth Browning,” said the calm voice of the computer. Naomi started; she hadn’t really expect a reply. The feeling of pressure suddenly subsided, and she could feel herself push up against the restraining belt. The capsule was apparently not equipped with any kind of artificial gravity. There is no answer on that frequency,." the computer reported.
"What do you mean, no answer? Try again," Naomi ordered, trying to ignore the sick feeling in her stomach.
A pause, then, "There is still no answer on that frequency. Would you like me to continue broadcasting?"
"Of course!" Naomi suddenly, frantically had to get off the couch. She starting tearing at the belt. There must be something wrong. The computer was lying to her, had been programmed to lie to her, for some reason that she couldn't fathom. The man in the ship had been trying to get her away. Even now, the staff were probably looking for her, wondering why one of their passengers was missing, and she was out here, trapped in this tiny little bubble, listening to this stupid repetitive voice.
"Please do not release the restraints," the voice said. "We are still in a null-gravity situation. Passengers are requested to remain in their seats until landing.."
"I need to get out of here," Naomi said, not caring what the voice said to her. It was part of what was trapping her after all; she needed to find out what was going on. "I need to contact somebody."
"Please do not release the restraints," the voice said again. "It is not safe. Only authorized personnel are permitted free access to the cabin under these circumstances."
"I'm authorized," Naomi yelled, still pulling at the belt. It wouldn't let go; her fingers weren't working properly. "Let me go."
"Please recite your authorization code immediately," the voice said. "I don't know the damned code," Naomi yelled, losing (for perhaps the first and last time in her life) her temper. "Let me go!"
There was a pause. "No authorization code has been given," the ship said. "Seat sensors report that your pulse and blood pressure have risen to undesirable levels. Please remain calm. This ship is programmed to prevent you from harming yourself while in transit.."
"Oh, shut up," Naomi yelled. And continued to work on the belt until the tranquilizers that had been added to the air supply took effect.
She wasn't aware of time passing. One moment she was trying to pull at her belt; the next, the light in the cabin had suddenly changed, and she was staring up at the ceiling. "My," she said woozily. For a moment, she was quite content to stay as she was, not terribly curious about her circumstances. Then she took a breath, and her mind cleared.
"Oh," she breathed, and sat up, only realizing a moment later that the restraining belt had apparently been loosened.
More than that. The screen, which had been dark before was now reflecting a bright, nearly blinding landscape of dark purple ground and pink-tinged sky.
She stood, slowly. "Computer?" she asked hesitantly. It might have been her jailer before, but right now it was the only place she knew to get information. "Computer? Where are we?"
There was a crackle of something resembling a voice over a very bad loudspeaker. A pause, and then it resumed, still rough but more recognizable."This craft has landed," the computer said, "on the fourth planet of Star Y342.5 in the Rigellan system. The planet is inhabited by one known sentient species rated 4DB on the contact scale. The <inaudible> rated acceptable for human use, with <inaudible> be careful about engaging in extreme aerobic activity. The plant life is partially edible, with warnings that visitors should consult this unit before eating any unfamiliar..."
"What is 4DB?" Naomi asked.
"That is the contact scale designation. <Crackle> non threatening, although due precautions should be taken not to offend any sentient..” and it relapsed into an electronic crackle. ...
"Hello?." But there was no longer an answer. Naomi walked slowly over the viewscreen, and stared out at the scene. Alien, absolutely, although not much more alien than two of the planets she had already visited on her tour. But there it was in the company of other tourists, and a guide who had told them exactly what the planet was made of, and how to approach the aliens, and where to go, and what to eat. And now?
"What happens now?" Naomi whispered.
She sat down at the seat in front of the console and stared at the touchcontrols that glowed faintly on the panel. They were clearly labeled, and after a few moments she actually found one labeled “HELP.” Did it mean help with the console? Or help, I’m lost or dying? “Idiot woman,” Naomi said aloud. “Does it matter?” She pressed her finger lightly against the label.
A menu floated in front of her. Three bars shone at her: “Verbal only. Text only. Verbal and Text. Emergency Instructions.” This last blinked in bright red, with a white emergency symbol next to it. “Well, this is an emergency, I guess, if anything is,” she said, and pointed at the holographic bar. As soon as her finger “touched” the projection, the screen changed.
A sentence. “Are you injured? Yes. No.” She took a breath. At least that wasn’t anything she had to contend with. She touched “No.”
“Is anyone else in your party injured?” No.
“Do you feel that you are in any immediate danger?”
Naomi thought about that. She was breathing all right (although she had no idea how much oxygen these things came with) and, according to the viewscreen, there didn’t seem to be any obvious external hazards. She touched “No.”
“Are you or anyone in your party familiar with ship operation?” No.
The color of the projection changed to a more muted blue. “Thank you. Please wait while a ship diagnostic is run. This will take approximately 6 minutes.”
Naomi waited patiently. After six minutes, the sign changed. “Records report that an emergency beacon has been launched. Ship’s propulsion is beyond repair. Environmental services have been partially restored and will be available for another 5.3 hours. External communications are beyond repair. Internal communications, including research and controls, are being repaired and will be available in approximately 32 minutes. External sensors are being repaired and will be available in approximately 212 minutes.
The scroll stopped, but didn’t change. There didn’t seem to be much else to do but wait until the 32 minutes was up, so Naomi spent the time investigating the door labeled "Food," "Water," "LifeSuits," "Tools," and "Oxygen." The first two opened easily, and offers what looked like a huge number of small gray packages with dry labels. The third had several lifesuits (Naomi was a little annoyed to note that they were the cheaper, knockoff sort that her company had never promoted), while the fifth had the expected tanks and nozzles. The fourth was the most interesting; it reveals a neatly packed workshop of various instruments, many of which Naomi couldn’t even begin to imagine the use for. “Well, if this gets too boring, I could always take up a hobby,” she said out loud. She giggled a little and wondered whether she was being at all hysterical.
"Please restate the question," the computer said calmly. Naomi jumped.
“Um... What do I do now?”
There was a pause. “Please be more specific,” the computer said.
She thought for a moment. "Computer," she asked tentatively. "Can I go out?"
There was a short pause. "The atmosphere is rated acceptable for human use."
"Um...Are there any dangerous animals out there?"
In answer, the sign flickered for a moment, then showed a series of symbols, each with its own label: Environment, Atmosphere, Flora, Fauna... She pushed a few tentatively. It turned out that the small continent she had landed on had a reasonably good atmosphere, a little higher in oxygen than she was used to; a rather dry and warm but acceptable climate, reasonable gravity, and dry but not totally arid landscapes dotted by small areas of wild growth. With a little practice, she was able to get her exact location, which was about a half-mile’s walk from the nearest water source -- a little inconvenient but manageable. A though occurred to her, and she checked again: the water was drinkable with some processing by the (thankfully working) ship’s processor.
“How will I know?” she finally asked out loud, “if somebody finds me?”
“This ship will activate an audible alarm if a signal is sent to the emergency beacon.”
Naomi thought for a moment. “Well,” she finally said. “I supposed it’s time to take a stroll.”
Another pause. "You wish to exit the craft?"
"Yes. Yes. I wish to exit."
A small green light blinked on and off above the small entryway that Naomi had come through. There was a quiet, almost imperceptible grinding noise and the door slipped open.
The small craft was suddenly flooded by a different type of light . It was not quite sunlight; not the sunlight that Naomi was used to. It was tinged with a sort of purplish pink; not enough to actually see, but enough to tinge the corners of her sight. She bent and looked tentatively out.
The landscape gently rose and fell like a lake stirred by a slight breeze, covered by what looked like a spongy sort of lavender moss, and dotted with small groves of bushes that shone pale pink in the weird light.
She carefully pulled herself out of the door and stood awkwardly up on the alien world. The moss, or what she thought of as a moss, was actually tougher than it looked; when she bent down and touched it, it took considerable effort to push it down; it was rough and dry to her touch. She took a few short steps, feeling reluctant, almost scared to walk away from the small craft.
She turned, and started to walk back in. Then turned, and stared at the pink landscape. And suddenly sat down in the rough, spongy moss and began to cry.
During the first week -- days measured by the rising and setting of the slightly strange sun, and that were about two hours shorter than a "real" day -- Naomi hardly left the ship at all, terrified of what might lay beyond the door, in spite of the computer’s assurance. Finally, driven by simple boredom and curiosity -- and a sudden panic that her copious supplies of water would eventually disappear -- she took a walk, following the ship’s directions carefully, to the water source. It was a rather lovely site, with bright blue moss and tall, shimmering trees, but she simply filled the two bags she had brought with her and hurried back; hastily shutting the door of the capsule behind her. She stood there, the two bags in her hands, breathing heavily. She had heard nothing more than the slight breeze that never stopped and her own footsteps. Nothing had attacked her. Nothing had even noticed her. “Fool,” she told herself.
Around the end of the second week she started to talk to herself, to the ship, to the surrounding plants. It was, she told herself, harmless. She had almost forgotten the sound of her own voice; and if a bit of eccentricity helped her to retain her feeling of humanity, then who was to know?
It wasn't until the fourth week that the first creatures showed up. Naomi had called up the description of the local flora in an effort to familiarize herself with anything edible in the immediate area -- she felt that, although she had enough to last her for several months, she should begin to get used to augmenting her diet as best she could. There wasn’t much. The computer told her that the flowers from a small local bush, which she had noticed near the water source, might be converted into edible carbohydrates. So she took two bags again, one for water, and one for samples, and made the trip again, this time with a little more confidence.
She was just returning when she saw something moving next to the ship.
Her first impression was of color: of a rich, golden yellow, astounding in this pale pink atmosphere. There was, at first, no sense of a real shape; just a fuzzy, vaguely round something rubbing up against the hull of the craft. The creature extended itself so that a narrow extension reached a few inches up the door. Naomi stared, now a bit alarmed. What if it could get inside? Was it poisonous? No, she told herself sternly, of course not. The computer would have known if it was. She stepped forward, tentatively. The extension paused, and swiveled around so it was facing -- if facing was the right word -- in her direction.
Up close, she saw that the color of the creature was not uniform, but was made up of subtle shades of yellow blending imperceptibly into each other. There didn't seem to be any discernible pattern to it; it almost flickered in its variety. It was beautiful.
It? She? He?
The creature seemed equally curious about her. It slowly slithered forward, until it was a few inches from her. Naomi stepped back and it stopped. The extension flowed upward until it was level with her head. Silently, they examined each other.
"Hello?" she said softly. The creature didn't respond at all, but continued to wave its extension back and forth in a small arc. So Naomi tried shaking her head, slowly, back and forth, matching the creature's movements.
With limited success. The creature stopped as soon as she had successfully mirrored its movements and lowered its extension slightly, while its shimmering skin dulled to a pale lemon. Okay, she thought. Now what?
She carefully stepped to the side. The creature didn’t move, but continued to regard her -- if that was what it was doing -- as she moved around it and toward her ship. It stayed there while she opened the door, went inside, and closed it again.
And spent the next few minutes in the sanitary unit, throwing up.
Naomi went about her business for the next couple of days collecting samples, eating judiciously from her stores, checking (not very optimistically) to see if the emergency buoy had gotten any response, occasionally asking the ship questions just to hear another voice.
The creature (she checked: the creatures had not been given anything other than an unpronounceable scientific designation) seemed to have taken up residence -- to a point. It wandered around the area near the ship, but never again tried to get inside. It seemed to watch her when she was outside, occasionally extruding small tentacles to, possibly, aid in its observations. On the third day, Naomi decided that a more proactive approach was needed. She first tried to offer the creature food, ranging from the plants she had harvested around the ship, to a variety of samples from her stores. But if the creature had any intention of eating, or even the capacity, it wasn't attracted by any of the foods she offered. Water didn’t attract it either. She talked to it, sang to it, and made absurd hand motions at it -- no reaction.
It wasn't until about a week after its first appearance that she made some progress. She had been taking soil samples near the ship, wondering whether she could actually grow any type of crop should it be necessary, and had worked up a considerable sweat. So, in spite of her caution about the alien sun (she had always burned easily, and didn't believe the module's assurances that her skin wouldn't be affected), she pulled off her light jacket and draped it over a nearby rock.
And got an instant reaction from the creature, which immediately dropped its "head" into its body and scrabbled to where the jacket lay, ignoring Naomi, who took a few hurried steps back.
It quivered next to the jacket for a few seconds, and then extruded a few short tentacles and touched the jacket. As soon as contact was made, the tentacles began, at their tips, turned first a faint pink and then darkened to match the jacket's brick red hue.
Naomi stared. Had she just somehow infected the creature? Was it enjoying itself? Was it "fighting" the bright color of the jacket, which was now revealed as something separate from her? Or enjoying it?
Whatever it was doing, it seemed to want to keep on doing it. After another minute or so, it withdrew the tentacles and, while the pink and then red slowly spread over the yellow hide, it settled itself -- comfortably? -- against the jacket.
Two hours later, it was still there. Naomi found herself torn. Was she somehow poisoning the creature, and if so, should she take the jacket away? Or was it too late? She was near tears -- the computer hadn't said anything about this, but the information it had about this world’s native species was limited..
Finally, she edged slowly forward and tentatively touched the creature. The skin was cool and a bit stiff; it refused to yield under her fingers. It seemed to quivery slightly but otherwise didn’t react..
Three days later, the creature shook itself, scrabbled a few feet away, suddenly blazed yellow again, and left.
"Well," Naomi said, relieved, "it doesn’t seem the worse for wear." She walked over and stared in the direction the creature had gone. “I'll miss you," she told the now absent creature. "You were company, even if you were singularly uncommunicative."
Almost as a talisman, she decided not to remove her jacket. Maybe the creature would return, and this was the way to lure it. She was lonely enough that even the company of a small, uncommunicative blob with less personality than a sea horse was preferable to herself and the computer. "And after all," she told herself defensively, "it didn't seem any worse for its experience."
And it did show up, a few hours later. With a second creature, whose coat was a dull, pale green, and which moved, with its companion, immediately to the coat, where the two nestled in varying shades of pink and red. They stayed another three days, when they once again pulled away, blazed bright gold, and scurried away.
Naomi was charmed. Struck by a thought, she scrounged through the stores in the ship until she found a bright blue towel; she ran out and draped it across another rock.
When the creatures showed up -- three this time -- they paused between the two pieces of cloth. Undecided? Afraid? Curious?
The two duller yellow -- newcomers? -- opted for the red jacket, but the bright yellow creature separated from them, and nestled readily against the towel, where it turned a bright, shining blue.
Naomi looked at the three, throbbing slightly against the strange pink grass, and slowly smiled.
The next day, before began turning over a small patch of the ground for a garden, she set out all the most colorful pieces of cloth she could find in various different parts of the area around the ship. As she began carefully turning over the soil, she paused, and looked happily at the small forms that had begun to settle around the ship.
Six weeks later, the small rescue ship landed about half a mile from the small pod. Three careful soldiers approached, guns at ready.
And paused. The capsule was surrounded by a rainbow of cloth scraps, each of which was occupied by one or more similarly colored, pulsing blobs. An elderly woman stood near the doorway of the craft, pulling what looked to be standard-issue blankets out of a bowl of red dye and hanging them carefully on a line strung between two bushes.
“Ma’am?” one of the soldiers called, while the others trained their weapons nervously at the blobs. “Are you all right?”
The elderly woman smiled. "Welcome," she said, "to my hotel."
Read about this story's background here.
This story originally appeared in Escape Velocity #1.