Let me tell you a story.
The flower, the wreck and the monstrosity
“Alice, it’s bedtime!”
“Just a minute Nana! I’m watering the kitchen bonsai flora.”
“Wash your hands afterwards, and take care you don’t drop any spores on the floor!”
“I know I know! Nana? Will you tell me about the wreck again? For a bedtime story.”
“Are you sure it won’t give you nightmares?”
“I’m too old to have bad dreams now!”
It was springtime many many years ago. The Tub, the ship that I was serving on, was bound for the capital from Tectamus Linea with a dozen racing raptors on board, ready to be sold at an auction the next day. We were behind schedule and less than eager to spend any more time with the beasts penned in the cargo hold than we absolutely had to, so the captain picked a shortcut across known moloch territory.
Needless to say, it was slow going and barely saved us any time – we couldn’t afford even the slightest ping of the sonar to find our bearings. We passed no fewer than seven of the behemoths in the span of a few hours, and when we finally saw the reassuringly familiar approach of New Iapetus in front of us, we counted our blessings, our raptors and our crew and docked without taking another look around the submarine.
A few weeks later, when we were again dropping by the capital, the ship’s engineer was fired for dereliction of duty. He insisted he had not been drinking on the job, and I, too, told the captain that I had not once smelled ethanol on his breath. But the electronics were constantly breaking, and despite several pleas and warnings, Tom hadn’t got the grid fixed. Eventually, it cost us an assistant when the poor thing tried to fix a junction box above his pay grade, got electrocuted and fell down three decks worth of stairs.
Some time after that, the mechanic came back from fixing the ballast pumps with what looked like bruises all over him. He said they tingled and burned. The doctor didn’t know what they were, but they looked bad enough that he was assigned to bed rest. Our other assistant had declared a strike after her training partner perished, so I had to get my security officer’s boots wet and wade down there myself next time the main ballast pump started acting up like the valves were clogged.
What I saw in the far corner was almost pretty, in a strange, sinewy sort of way. In the simplest terms, it looked a lot like a flowering plant, and the air around it stung my eyes. I had never seen anything like it, so I cut off a branch and took it with me – both out of curiosity and in keeping with the Coalition standard xenomaterials protocol.
When I got to the laboratory on Salthane, the nearest research outpost, with my ballast-dwelling discovery safely enclosed in a biohazard container, the Tub and her entire crew were placed on lockdown. As it turned out, the people in the white coats hadn’t seen anything like it either.
We were kept under lock and key for months while scientists poked and prodded us, the sample I had cut and others they went to retrieve from the sub. What they discovered was that the flos navis is drawn to electrical currents and destroys circuitry with ease (that was when we sent a postcard to Tom the engineer to say sorry), is in fact not a flower, and spreads a burning gas when it, effectively, blooms (so we also figured out what those bruises on Dave were!). And then they discovered that the Tub had quietly sailed away on its own some time while we were in protective custody, and that was when they kicked us out of the brig to go get it back.
Presumably, the ballast flora (as we had taken to calling it) had destroyed the Tub’s transmitters, so we couldn’t track her, but the station’s security logs showed when she had left and what direction she had taken off in, so that at least narrowed the haystack down a little. Still, there was a lot of ocean to cover, and the pursuit of our errant vessel took us months again. One day, when our wild goose chase had us tracking a distress signal out in the middle of nowhere, captain Greg was writing another angry letter to central command in New Iapetus and I was peering out of the bridge window. That’s when I spotted a familiar silhouette in the distance.
Besides the silhouette, there wasn’t much left. The whole crew gathered round to gawk at it. We had all seen wrecked subs before, but the water shouldn’t have eaten away at the poor boat like that – the Tub, an old tin can though she was, was made of stainless steel after all.
We drew lots to decide who would investigate the wreck of the Tub; lady luck chose me and Judy, the remaining assistant. We donned our diving suits, double checked our oxygen tanks, grumbled at Greg for still not getting us those safety lines and grappling hooks we had asked for so many times, and headed out, hoping there wasn’t anything in the vicinity that the sound of our scooters would provoke.
We only made it halfway. That’s when –
“Ally, if you ask for a story, you can’t interrupt me!”
“But it’s too scary!”
“You silly, you even know how it ends! Judy got killed on impact, but I made it inside. I found the thalamus’s brain, harpooned it and carved out a piece to bring back to the scientists at Salthane outpost, and they named it thalamos thalassis. And because of that, you know not to let the kitchen bonsai grow too big.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to hear it? I was just getting to the good part.”
“Thanks Nana, but I think I should sleep now. Good night.”