Goats are very cool. And intelligent.
“Howard, have you eaten all my dinner?”
Course the goat couldn’t answer. It didn’t even have vocal cords. Or a mouth. But I had to speak to someone. The psychs had said back on Earth, “If you feel like talking, do so. The sounds won’t escape the asteroid, and it’ll make you feel better.”
I wish I’d had the courage to ask the psychs if they had spent three years on their own in a dark hole.
They’d recruited me after I’d survived a spelunking accident. Trapped in a tiny crevice for five days. Just the dripping of water to keep me company, and alive. Actually they’d recruited me after the second accident. The first was only a day. None of my friends had died in either accident, but poor Blakely had broken a leg and sworn never to enter a cave again. Being trapped hadn’t deterred me, and I was planning my next expedition when Mr Philips approached me.
“George, I hope you don’t mind if I call you George, I wonder if you’d do me a favour and come and see me after your trip. I have a job offer which might interest you.”
I didn’t want a job. However I realised that given the state of my finances it might be sensible for me to listen to his offer.
“You want me to live in a hole, on my own, for three years?”
“Yes, and we will pay you handsomely. Tax free, and you won’t be able to spend it. You’ll come back a very rich man.”
“Assuming I come back, and come back sane.”
“Your profile shows you can cope with the stresses.”
I didn’t realise how desperate they were. Of course I’d heard about the Istanbul attack. Some kind of ravening alien thing had flown out of the sky and strafed the ancient city, before landing and sending out creatures which collected everything they could get their hands on. Animals, trees, cars and people. Everything was taken to their ship. Which then flew off again.
Why did they let it get away? They didn’t let it, they just couldn’t touch it. The Turks launched missiles and fired rounds at it, nothing even scratched the paintwork. There was consternation. Not only were we not alone, but ET was a rapacious and apparently invincible rapscallion.
The great powers, for a brief period before they went back to their Great Game bickering, agreed on two measures. First, they set up a technology program which was to design better weapons, and secondly, they would create a detection mechanism to provide advance warning of any future attacks.
“So you see, we’d like you to be in the outer ring of the warning shell. In the Oort cloud.”
My astronomy was poor, but I was pretty sure that was a long way away.
“It will take five years for you to get there. But you’ll be asleep, in deep hibernation.”
Perhaps this is the point where I should have started to get a little suspicious. In a way I did as I demanded, and received, more money. But I missed the fundamental point, which was, after all the effort to get me out there, why would they bring me back after three years? I think the psychs had found that people would balk at being told it was longer.
I’d been in my new home for more than a year before I named the goat. Before then it had just been an organic machine to me. The first time I’d spoken to it was a few months later.
“Howard, you know you’re a goat don’t you.”
“A goat spider squid I guess.”
Still nothing. I decided to explain to him what he was.
“You see Howard, you are a genetically engineered life form, designed to spot the things in the darkness, which is why you have so many eyes, you see, all over this rock.”
I waved around our little hole, though I was indicating the outside. I also pointed at the fleshy trunks which snaked out of Howard’s holding box. The brain just sat there. Probably, hopefully, still staring out into interstellar darkness, to spot the monsters.
The memory of how I’d found out that I wasn’t the important member of the crew stopped my garrulous flow.
We, the chosen few, had been sitting down for lunch. Morris was mouthing off again.
“You know we’re just going to be glorified shepherds, don’t you?”
“Goat herds,” grunted Simmons, someone who I could relate to, even if I couldn’t pronounce his Croatian first name.
“Whatever. We’re just there to look after them. Feed them, protect them from wolves or whatever, and wipe their bums.”
I must have looked a little confused, as Simmons explained, “You haven’t had the lecture yet about your companion. They’ll tell you this afternoon, but, well, it’s basically a goat brain, hooked up to some extra sensitive eyes, which will stare into space and spot any intruders.”
“Yeah. They hope. We’re there to keep it fed, set up the eyes and, if it does see anything, double check and then report back.”
I’m glad Simmons explained it, as I didn’t get half of that from the lecture that afternoon.
To be honest it was Simmons who stopped me from being one of the seventy percent who failed. His brotherly attitude meant I could keep up with what was going on.
The first time I apologised to Howard was something which still made me wince. The problem was that the only thing either of us had to eat was a high calorie liquid, of which they had tons. There were also some flavourings, but after two years they were getting old in every sense. Some of the other recruits had talked about the other option. Goat.
Not all of Howard’s tendrils grew properly, or could be directed to an open area of the asteroid. I was supposed to try my best to find a use for them, otherwise I was to surgically remove them and put them into the waste hopper, which would, organically of course, try and recover as much food value as possible. Or, one could, well, eat it.
Problem number one with eating Howard, apart from the fact he was my best friend, was that I wasn’t really supposed to use any heat sources in the cave. Sure I was many feet under, but the theory was that if I didn’t make any additional heat, then there was no way it could leak out. Still, there were a few ways. If nothing else I could use the hot side of the waste recovery tank.
The second problem was the lack of any utensils apart from the surgical scalpel. Howard was pretty tough, and my teeth and jaws hadn’t been getting much of a work out. Still, I managed to cut the excess tendril into chunks. I felt so guilty. In fact, in the end, I just put them into the waste hopper, and I spent an hour apologising to Howard. It’s not that he’d have missed the tendril, I’d just been worried I might like it too much, and then I’d have been doing much more maintenance on Howard than was really appropriate.
“You men, will be the first warning of danger for the human race.”
I don’t know why there weren’t any women, perhaps they were being trained in a separate facility?
“The great sacrifice you are making will be valued by everyone on the planet.”
I hadn’t realised I was making a big sacrifice, and I really wasn’t sure that anyone else knew or gave a damn. The graduation, that’s what they called it, carried on in a similar vein, with me adding silent commentary. Simmons had disappeared so I didn’t have anyone to whisper to.
The last time I saw Simmons was during a practice run.
“This suit is disgusting.”
“It’s a living creature. It will form a symbiosis with you, keep you warm and safe. It will be your second skin for your sleep out and back, and the three years you are active. Trust me, you will get used to it.”
“Notice he isn’t wearing one,” I whispered to Simmons, who just cracked a small smile.
The instructor ignored us and went on.
“It will provide insulation, it will protect you from radiation and it will, if necessary, keep you alive for up to two weeks in hard vacuum without additional tanks. It is a miracle of modern gengineering.” He paused for effect. “Within a couple of days you won’t even notice it.”
We all stared at the giant jelly baby like blobs on the floor. They looked as if they’d been attacked by equally gigantic slugs. The thought of putting one of them on was revolting.
One of the cockier recruits stepped forward and started putting his on, to groans and commentary from everyone else. The instructor started chivvying the rest of us along and soon we all were wearing them, all except Simmons. He couldn’t touch it. Even with the instructor screaming at him. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t perhaps, explain why he felt such terror towards the suits. He was taken off the program and moved to a support role.
After that day we lived in the suits. They made us into clumsy marshmallow men, but we were assured that with practice we’d soon get used to them. To be fair, I haven’t been cold since that day. They recycled our urine into drinkable water, and our other waste was dried into pellets which we could easily put into the waste hoppers.
Howard couldn’t move. He was more of a plant than an animal in that sense. Occasionally, when I was bored, I’d taunt him.
“Not much of a goat are you Howard? Can’t see you leaping from boulder to boulder in that shape. You need to get some exercise mate.”
He just stared at me, with his single eye. I’d let one grow in our living cave. Strictly against orders, but after what might have been two years I didn’t really care.
I always felt guilty after I’d been mean, so I’d read to him. We hadn’t been allowed to bring any electronics. Nothing which might have any form of EM signature at all. But we did have quite a large weight allowance. I used mine on books. And a ‘Go’ set. Half the books were favourites I’d happily read again, and the other half were new to me. Five hundred books. I hoped I wouldn’t have to re-read them more than once each before I was recovered.
One morning Howard’s warning screen lit up. It wasn’t really a screen of course. Our instructors called it a luminescent biological dot matrix light communicator. Simmons, who’d still been with us, tried to explain it.
“Look, you know that it’s part goat, part squid and some other stuff right? Well you know squid can change their skin colours?” I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“What they’ve done is sort of wired up the brain bits of the squid which could do that, to an organ which will grow mostly flat, and be able to produce luminous dots. These will then be used to spell out messages.”
“Such as ‘Maaaaaaa’.”
Gallows humour had set in. We thought that we were the first soldiers in the war. In earlier times we might have been called cannon fodder.
“But really, things like, enemy detected and then the coordinates. Our job is to then double check the coordinates before sending the signal back to Earth. If possible we should gather data on size, quantity etc. But reading between the lines, the warning will be enough.”
I miss Simmons. At least I have Howard though.
The morning the screen lit up I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. Was he telling me there was a space invader nearby? I walked towards the screen with not a little trepidation. It said, “Go. Please. Black. 4, 4.”
It didn’t make any sense! Was it telling me there were 44 ships? Or 8? Where did it want me to go.
I looked around our tiny space in confusion, until I saw that Howard’s eye had moved a little, and now was hanging above my Go board. He must have been watching when I played myself. I often described my moves, and created characters. I tried not to be biased in who I let win. Now Howard wanted to play.
I didn’t recall anything about this from my long ago training. I wasn’t sure how long, because they wouldn’t let us bring any timekeeping devices, too much metal apparently. There were no days, and I had deliberately not marked the walls, I didn’t want it to feel like a prisoner.
Still, was this allowed? Howard repeated his message, and then said, “Howard beat you.”
That was it; I wasn’t going to allow this jumped up semi-goat squid taunt me. We set to.
He wasn’t very good. He’d watched a lot, but didn’t really know the rules. But I taught him, and eventually he was good enough to beat me. He would write, “Howard beat. Howard beat.”
The whole screen would go green and then pink as he celebrated. I didn’t like losing, but I did like the challenge.
He’d also ask me to read to him, so I did. My reading light was bioluminescent, and they’d done something to make my eyes more sensitive to light.
That’s how we lived. Howard and I. Our dark little hole was home. It was a natural crevice in the asteroid, we’d been careful to avoid anything artificial. It was long and narrow, with only a small bulge to form the main room. But it was ours. The supplies were in another cave further along the asteroid, with a small fissure connecting it to our cave and I’d put in a set of organic pumps so that I didn’t need to go out whenever I wanted dinner. We had lots of food supplies. Much more than I had expected. They’d explained it away as preparing supplies for the next man. Now I wasn’t sure.
The constant dark should have intimidated me, crushed my spirit maybe. Instead it felt like comfort. Whenever I wanted to see light I’d climb up to the surface, and watch the stars. They were so bright, and beautiful. They’d make me cry, partially in wonder, and partially due to my now super sensitive eyes.
Time rolled on. Howard started beating me consistently at Go, and then started letting me win occasionally. We made quite the odd couple. I kept time by my books, a complete cycle being when I’d read all those I was happy to re-read. Some 423 books.
Had Earth forgotten me? Was it still there, or had the invasion come from another angle? I stopped worrying about these unanswerables, and let myself get lost in my books, or playing Go.
This morning my vigil ended. Howard had a message.
“Multiple objects sighted. Angle 134.34 to 156.02. No Go.”
No Go indeed. I had to get to the surface to check the sighting, but I had to do it taking advantage of the asteroid’s spin, and then hiding in one of the prepared hides. I checked the rotation schedule, and got ready to go out.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out. Possibly one book cycle ago. I looked out, and shut my eyes from the brightness. I was facing the sun, and even though it was just a dot from here, it was still extremely bright. I felt my way out, and crawled to the hide. It was really just a hole with a stone grill above it, but it in theory would allow me to look out without being spotted.
The asteroid spun, and the region of space Howard had identified came into sight. Normally there were stars galore, instead it was black. There was nothing. I’d have thought I’d gone blind, except around the edges I could see the occasional star. Whatever was approaching it was large.
Why had Howard waited until they were upon us before telling me? I wondered if he’d been concentrating so much on our Go games that he’d forgotten his job. I didn’t think it would be fair to castigate him, he was, after all, just a goat.
I watched the edges of the blackness, and over time caught movement of entities leaving and re-joining. In the faint starlight I strained to make out their shapes. Eventually I was convinced they looked like the craft which had attacked Istanbul. This was it. This was the invading host we all feared, and if it reached Earth unchecked, then it would obliterate the planet.
I was supposed to signal Earth to tell them that something was coming, and give basic details. This was via a system of flares which I could set off on the Sun-facing side of one of the static asteroids. I just needed to get across to it and pull the appropriate cords. It was close enough that I could jump across, and back again. Hopefully unseen, though the aliens might investigate the source of the flares, and find me. It wouldn’t matter as the message would be flying towards Earth at lightspeed, and my mission would be complete.
I asked Howard where the asteroid was as I couldn’t see it where I thought it should be.
“Flare Asteroid is 400km distant now. Drift after collision. Many kms per book cycle.”
Disaster. How could I warn Earth? I sat in the bulge, staring at Howard’s screen in despair. Until I wondered to myself, perhaps he could help me? He was clearly intelligent.
“How do we tell Earth Howard?”
“That the invaders are coming.”
Silence. I tried asking the question in different ways. Eventually he answered.
“They know. Ships came from Earth. Go?”