Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Who's Watching?

by Kasia James



"Don't worry about the gluppies," Aaron had said on her first day, a slight smile making the left side of his mouth turn up. "They can't see us. And so far it looks like they don't have much more intelligence than a jellyfish anyway."

Seven months later, the 'gluppies' still made her uneasy. The soft body of a cephalid moulded itself to the plastic above Sarah. Thousands of filament-like tentacles searched for purchase on the smooth dome, each apparently moving independently. Its giant jellied eye seemed to stare intently, but without expression, at the woman within. Feigning lack of concern, she sipped her protein drink, and tried to ignore the gaze of the alien clinging to the station. Aaron had assured her that from the outside, the station would appear entirely mirrored, like a stainless steel ball bearing, floating in the thick atmosphere of the planet.

Sarah watched until the cephalid was caught in the current and slid off the smooth surface. Was it truly a current, she wondered, or more of a wind? On Avenia, the high pressure made it hard to tell the difference between liquid and gas. They weren't even sure if there was a solid surface, as no probes had managed to dive that far without being crushed. The scientists had dubbed it "Soup-World".

Opening the metal trap door from the viewing dome, Sarah padded down the stairs in her socks to the living quarters, where she dumped her now empty drink canister. Renni was tucked into a corner of the long bench seats, his game console on his lap. He raised a thick dark eyebrow to acknowledge her presence, without breaking his concentration on the game. She went on into her sleeping area, where she changed into uniform and went to relieve Aaron. With only three staff members on board, each rostered on eight Earth hour shifts, there was no need for the formality of uniform. Renni always turned up for his shifts in shorts and a singlet, but the change helped Sarah to define the turning of her days, and feel like she was at work.

Aaron was fiddling intently with one of the gizmos when she came in, but he pushed it back in apparent annoyance, pushed a hand through his thick reddish hair and smiled at her entrance. He was by no means a handsome man: thick set, with almost no neck, and freckles which had joined up in various places to form oddly shaped blobs; but Sarah found him reassuring. Renni she found harder to fathom, perhaps as he was so much younger, and also as his first language was Italian.

"Good shift?" she asked, dropping down into one of the well padded armchairs.

"Not too bad." He rubbed his hand more vigorously through his short hair, making it stand up in spikes. "One of the gizmos who we lost a week or two ago has come back, but its memory seems to have been malfunctioning." He indicated the machine he had been inspecting. "Maybe that's why it took so long to make it back."

"Maybe. Odd though that it should have made it back at all."

"Hmmm." Aaron scowled at the little machine on the benchtop, as if he would be able to see what its defect was if he looked hard enough. A roughly oval shaped body, smooth and a bright anodised aluminium blue was surrounded by six small silver wheels with prominent spokes. Only a groove or two indicated where its visual, audio and sampling technology lodged. When inside the Research station, the wheels propelled them around, taking messages between staff members, dealing with waste, and tilling the contained garden which kept the crew fed and breathing.

Outside the station, where the pressure and the dense atmosphere made it very difficult for the crew to venture, the gizmos were essential to the scientific work. Their six wheels turned through ninety degrees to become propellers, effectively flying through the syrupy clouds. Filters on their propellers collected hydrocarbons from the atmosphere which they used to power themselves. Even better, being not much larger than the bowl of a large spoon, the gizmos seemed to be able to approach the cephalids without disturbing them.

"Did we get any good footage today?" asked Sarah, twiddling a discarded probe between her long thin fingers.

"Yep -- nice stuff. Look at this." Aaron turned to the screen beside him and found the area he was looking for, before turning the screen so she could see. The picture was a little grainy -- perhaps due to being taken in an area of very thick cloud cover. Despite the picture quality, she could clearly see two cephalids approaching one another, their fine tentacles ruffling like fingers running regularly up and down a keyboard, propelling themselves through the mist. They paused, their huge eyes contemplating one another for a moment, before their tentacles started, hesitantly at first, and then with more gusto, to entwine right down one side of each creature. The free tentacles waved gently in the current.

"What do you think they're doing?" she asked, her eyes locked on the screen. She was aware of the warmth of her colleagues arm next to hers.

Aaron made a noise in the back of his throat. "Having a conversation? Breeding? Just a friendly hug? I don't know. Keep watching -- it gets better."

A third creature drifted into view, and again after a short time of apparently gazing at one another, it joined tentacles with the two already entwined, making a rounded triangle of soft bodies, all staring expressionlessly into the space in the centre. Suddenly, they all convulsed, and shot upwards out of the field of the gizmo's view. There were blurry images which seemed to show it pursuing the three beasts, and then it cut out.

Sarah sat back, her hands resting on her stomach. "Wow! I've never seen them do that before. Surely that must be a sign of some intelligence?"

"Maybe, maybe. Don't count your chickens until they're hatched." The side of Aaron's mouth twitched upwards. "Not that I've ever seen a real chicken. Have you?"

"I don't remember. I know what one looks like, but a real one..." Sarah trailed off. They had been taken for training as scientists so young, she sometimes found it hard to distinguish between genuine memories, and what she had been told about her early life on Earth. Recognised for her passionate curiosity as a child, Sarah's enthusiasm for research had never left her. Sometimes, she wondered if that passion had really served her well: after all, here she was, isolated in a metallic bubble with only two other geeks for company. Sarah shook her head slightly in annoyance, her ponytail flicking the back of the armchair.

"Chickens are beside the point. It looked to me as if there was some kind of collaboration going on there."

"Yeah, to me too. We'll send it off in the next message to the Centre. They'll get the gurus on to it." Aaron pushed back his chair, picking up the defective gizmo as he rose. "I'm going to get some rest. I might just have one last look at this thing in my room. See if I can figure out what went wrong."

"OK. Sleep well," she smiled up sweetly at him, and then turned her grey uniformed back.

####

Eight hours later, his eyes bleary from playing his games, Renni came to relieve her. He sloped into the room with a loose limbed stride which was supposed to look cool and casual, but to Sarah just served to highlight his gangly frame, like a puppet with loose pins in his joints.

"Hey chicky, how'd it go? Gluppies do anything interesting?" He drawled.

"Hardly anything. They seem to be lying low." She stretched her back, tired from hours hunching over the console, peering at blue pictures of the outside world for signs of life. Renni's eyes flicked momentarily to the curve of her breasts as she arched, then back to her eyes. She couldn't blame him really: it was a long stint on the research station, and he was so young.

"Aaron got some nice stuff -- it's on the file if you want to look. We had another gizmo go missing. No. 12 I think."

"Another one? That is four now, yes?"

"Three. One came back. Aaron's trying to nut it out. Oh, and I couldn't find the memory for Unit B. Seen it?" she asked, thinking that maybe he had "borrowed" it to improve his gaming setup.

"No, but I look. I've got eight hours of this shit. It'll give me something to do when I can't find any gluppies." Renni smiled, and his dark eyes crinkled at the corners. He threw himself into a padded chair, and it spun around.

"OK. See you later."

"Later, chicky."

####

Sarah turned over irritably in her bed, the sheet tangling around her. She always found it hard to sleep. She had tried exercise before bed, reading, doing crosswords, and sitting trying to meditate in the viewing dome. The last of these had been a real disaster: the bottomless blue atmosphere had just given her nightmares about falling. At home, Sarah slept quickly and deeply, and she suspected that the slight movement of the station was unsettling her, even after all this time. It was a little like being in a ship, floating on an ocean, but as they were floating in dense clouds, not water, the movement was irregular and slow.

Staring up at the slightly curving white wall beside her, Sarah tried imagining sheep jumping over her bed, but she ended up counting the reflected flashes of an LED from the communications system. The patina of the wall was just like an eggshell. Here they were, she reflected, floating like an egg of alien life in the seas of Avenia. No wonder the cephalids were curious. Aaron's reassurance that they could not see in was little comfort. If they had any kind of intelligence, they must wonder about the mirrored sphere which had appeared in their world. Thankfully, the only interaction between their world and that of the human observers was through the automated gizmos, and that was strictly a one way street.

Sarah was distracted from her thoughts by a glimpse of movement in the corner of the room. She lay still, trying to move no more than her eyes. Surely there could be no vermin on this sealed, isolated bubble? Holding her breath, she strained her eyes to catch any further movement. Nothing. When she could hold it no more, she relaxed, and collected her straggling hair from where it had wrapped itself around her neck. It must be lack of sleep. Sarah pulled down the covers and rolled on to her side. The alarm would sound in two hours. She firmly closed her eyes and willed sleep to come.

A tiny metallic sound had her leaping out of bed towards the corner where she had first seen the movement. Seizing the discarded shirt from her uniform, she penned the corner where something continued to move. Grasping it tightly, she peeled back the grey material. It was a gizmo. She stared at it, uncomprehending. Then she stood up and tried to grind it under the sole of her foot. It was useless of course: they were built for high pressure environments, so a bare foot was completely ineffective, but it helped her to vent her feelings. Someone on the station was spying on her.

####

As Sarah headed down to the work station, she reminded herself that she must try to act normally with her two crew-mates. There was no chance of catching her stalker if they knew they had been sprung. She hoped that the gizmo she had caught in her sleeping quarters was not beaming live, but to a recording device, or they would already know that the game was up.

The coarse grey material of her uniform rasped slightly as the sleeves brushed the tunic, so Aaron heard her come in before she greeted him. He spun around in the padded armchair, a cheerful grin splitting his face like a melon.

"Hey! How are you doing?" He asked, evidently in a jolly mood. Was it a front, Sarah wondered?

"OK, thanks. I didn't sleep so well, but otherwise..." she wandered over to the consoles. "Anything good this time round?" she asked casually.

"Nope, not a damn thing. But guess what?"

Sarah lifted an enquiring eyebrow. Aaron went on, shifting to the edge of his seat in his zeal. "I got that malfunctioning gizmo back on track!" he crowed.

Sarah suppressed a smile at his geekish enthusiasm. It was clear how well suited he was to this life. "It was doing my head in; everything seemed to test normal, just it had no memory of what it had sampled. Then I gave it a nice bath in solvent, and a tiny bit of organic stuff drifted up. It must have become jammed in its sensors outside somewhere."

"You think that's what happened to the others that went missing?" she asked.

"Could be. Although they haven't come back of course, so until they do, we can't know for sure." Aaron stretched his short muscular arms, trying not to yawn. "I'm done in. It's about as much excitement as I can take in one day," he smiled ruefully. "All over to you, Ms. Sarah."

Aaron patted her companionably on the back and left, drifting clumsily into the doorframe in his tiredness. Sarah was left with the banks of monitors, the schedule for gizmo launching and service, and her own thoughts. The screens glowed coldly blue, recording what the active gizmos were seeing. On Avenia, often long storms whipped up the atmosphere, blending the heavier and lighter gases so that it was impossible to see much more than an occasional turbulence pattern between them. She much preferred the calm days, when the dense atmosphere seemed to settle into layers, and you could pretend that the station was driving slowly through a land with gently rolling hills. The cephalids seemed to prefer the weather in this state too: the research scientist's observations of the strange life forms were both more frequent and more enlightening when it was still.

Sarah scanned the blue screens intently for some sign of the cephalids. Her mind played back the brief exchange with Aaron. It seemed so innocuous, so chummy, that it seemed unlikely that he would send one of the gizmos to spy on her in her sleeping quarters. However, he was the most technically adapt with the little probes of all the crew. Would he do it as a technical challenge?

Catching a glimpse of movement on one of the screens, she directed the nearest gizmo to investigate. Probably just a gas eddy, but worth a look all the same. Renni seemed the more likely candidate as stalker. Young, ambitious, but with that fire well dampened under a cloak of insouciance. He was hard to read, but it seemed more in character that if he felt the urge, he would make a direct move on her, rather than mess around with electronic spies. At the same time, she was aware that to him, she must seem ancient. Sarah stroked her face, moving her thin fingers smoothly upward over high cheekbones, and felt the loose skin stretch as she did so, forming folds at the corners of her eyes.

Abruptly, the gizmo she had been directing came to a halt, and vision of a fine tentacle drifted across the screen. All other thoughts evaporated as Sarah focussed intently on the readouts. Flicking the switch on the audio sensor, the room was suddenly filled with the sound of the wind. It must be quite a storm out there. Under the noise, she detected a deep bass rumble: the sound of a resting cephalid. As the gizmo turned, the screen suddenly filled with a writhing mass of the filament like arms, and she realised that the little machine must be practically rubbing up against the alien life form. Shivering involuntarily, she directed it to pull back. The rumble was rising in pitch, becoming louder and more insistent. The image jerked suddenly, and she realised that it had been detected by the vast creature. Perhaps it was no more important than a fly would be to her. The screen filled with the centre of the jellylike eye, and Sarah had the oddest sense that instead of her observing the cephalid, the roles were reversed, and it was staring intently at her. The rumble had risen to a piercing scream, and she winced, closing her eyes momentarily against the sound and the horrible translucent eye on the screen.

At that second, the noise stopped, and when Sarah looked again, the screen showed nothing but static. She tried to contact the gizmo, but received no response.

"Shit!" she exclaimed, pushing back her hair from her forehead in exasperation and slumping back in the chair. Sarah spun the padded chair around several times in annoyance until she started to feel dizzy.

Sighing, she started to hunt through the mess on the console, looking for the log book. Everything would be sent back to Central electronically, but they kept backup hard copies in case of power surges. She chucked left over coffee cups and crushed food containers into the waste chute. The off-duty gizmos would render them down and use them as fertilizer on the station's contained garden. Hunting through the papers, she couldn't see the log anywhere.

Twenty minutes later, crawling about on the floor, she found it, inside an old graphic novel one of the crew had been using to pass the time on shift. Sitting down with her knees bent in front of her, she flicked idly through a page or two. The flash of a green LED near her ankle caught her eye, and she leaned forward, disbelieving. A green LED? That meant a dispatch; outgoing information. Sarah pressed the release button, and it snapped off, disgorging a portable memory device. It must be the one she had noticed as missing yesterday.

Horribly curious, she plugged it into a monitor and set it to playback. Sitting back in the big armchair again, she turned gently from side to side, her jaw becoming more set as she watched. On the screen were scenes from inside the station; most of them of her. The viewpoint was usually low to the ground, making her think that they had all been recorded by one of the gizmos.

A glimpse of the side of her face, laughing in the kitchen as she twirled the end of her pony tail between two fingers. A view of her on the treadmill in the gym. A picture of Aaron making a sandwich, and then licking the edge of the peanut butter tub where it had spilled. Sarah sleeping, an arm outstretched and vulnerable. Her face, concentrating on something, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. Renni playing his interminable games. Sarah again, staring out of the viewing dome at one of the cephalids, trying to cling to the glass. She snapped off the vision, angrily.

Whoever had been spying on her, seemed to have been spying on them all. She felt a tiny bit guilty for having blamed her colleagues. They were highly trained professionals, after all. Could it be Central checking up on them? After all, the memory device had been set to dispatch: the snatches of life within the station were being sent somewhere. Sarah wouldn't have put it past the Central staff. There was always a degree of mistrust between the bureaucrats and the real researchers.

The door of the work station slid back, and Renni sloped in, still absorbed in his gaming console.

"Hi, chicky!" he called. Sarah did not respond, and he finished blasting whatever electronic beasts he was battling before putting the console down on the newly tidy benchtop.

"All OK?" he asked, propping a buttock against the corner of the monitors, and looking down at Sarah, her teeth gritted in the big armchair.

"No, Renni, it's not." Sarah stared straight ahead at where the images of the team had been playing out.

"Boredom too much this time?" he asked, completely misinterpreting her body language. She sighed, and turned to him.

"No. Someone has set one of the gizmos to spy on all of us, and has been dispatching images of us."

His eyes widened. "You're making fun of Renni," he said, doubtfully.

Sarah flicked the memory device to playback again, and he watched in amazement. He blinked a couple of times like a large owl. "Which gizmo?" he asked.

It had not even occurred to Sarah to look. She drew out the one which she had caught in her room, its sampling devices effectively muffled by a Band-Aid. Its numbers should have been recorded on the underside, but when she looked carefully, they seemed to have been burnt off. It often happened while they were outside: a corrosive area of gas could sear the surface, but rarely damaged the operational parts.

"You go and get some rest." Renni ordered. "I'll see if I can extract the code number from the recording."

Sarah didn't want to leave: she needed to know who had been watching them. Was the appearance of the other crew members just a cover in case the recording was found? Shaking her head, she could feel the drag of fatigue, and knew that she wouldn't be up to the highly technical task of extracting the information.

"Aaron should be getting to the gym about now," she suggested. "I'll get him to come and give you a hand."

Renni twitched an eyebrow as if he was well aware that she didn't fully trust him. His mouth curled up in a bitter smile. "OK. Go get Aaron. He'll help me."

####

In Sarah's dream, all she could see was the huge jellied eye of a cephalid. It filled her horizons with its blank stare. Struggling and squirming, she tried to look away, but it seemed as if she was held up for inspection before the giant creature as helplessly as a doll. She couldn't feel the grasp of its thousands of tentacles: it was impossible that they would ever touch. Sarah knew that if she ever ventured out into the blue gaseous atmosphere of Avenia without a pressure suit, she would be crushed in seconds, like a discarded drink canister, and quickly dissolved. The atmosphere of "Soup-World" was a poisonous brew.

Engulfed by the alien gaze, she felt like it was reading her soul. She screamed, and tried again to twist away, but couldn't. Then, with a sense of surprise, Sarah discovered that she could read some sort of expression into the huge eye. The previously blank stare had changed a little, and without knowing why, she had a sense not of empathy, but of intense curiosity. Something was shaking her, and she tried to return the frank stare more as an equally curious life form, but the shaking was insistent.

Aaron was holding her shoulder, a look of concern in his pale blue eyes.

"Sarah! Are you OK?"

She made an inarticulate noise of waking, blinking against the cabin lights.

"You were screaming like a bloody banshee! I've never heard anything like it. Are you OK?" he asked again.

She sat up, rearranging the T-shirt she slept in. Rubbing her hand over her face, she felt with a little embarrassment that it was wet with tears. "I'm OK." She smiled weakly. "Just a dream, I guess."

As the fog of sleep lifted, Sarah remembered what she had left Renni and Aaron doing: trying to find which of the research stations electronic gizmos had been used to watch them.

"Did you find out about..."

"We did," he interrupted, anticipating her question. "It was one of the ones which we lost. We sent it out probably three weeks ago, and it never returned. Well, that's what we thought. Evidently it did come back somehow. I gave it a solvent bath like the malfunctioning one yesterday, and just the same thing: a little piece of something organic jammed in its works."

Sarah had a sudden picture of all the thousands of filaments of a cephalid; those fine, elegant and eminently manipulable tentacles which teemed around each alien. Her dream came back to her with a jolt, and she shivered.

Smiling crookedly, she whispered, "Aaron, maybe the 'gluppies' are brighter than you thought. We use gizmos as our eyes and ears because we can't go out. But perhaps they use them to study us, because they can't get in. They're using our own technology to be able to see and hear us, in just the same way we watch them."

####

Sarah sat in the viewing dome, waiting for the shuttle which would take the three of them back to Central. The bureaucrats considered the mission sabotaged, and had reassigned Sarah, Renni and Aaron to a new mission on a moon a light year away. Two cephalids bumped gently against the plastic of the dome, their huge eyes turning to try and pierce the reflections from the mirrored surface. Sarah, respecting their curiosity, gave them a little wave of acknowledgement, tears pricking her eyes. She would not miss Avenia, but she could not help but miss the only other known scientific researchers in the Universe.

THE END


© 2012 Kasia James

Bio: Kasia James writes primarily science fiction, with forays into other slightly unreal realities, and has recently released her debut novel 'The Artemis Effect'. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with a hydrologist and a big black cat called George.

E-mail: Kasia James

Blog: Writer's Block

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