by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, January 2018
A metal behemoth cruised through the nebula, cool and casual, like it didn’t care about any of the frolicking younglings and their sing-song radio waves or the older starwhals jockeying for territory, rearranging the ambient dust into moats and walls.
The attitude of the metal creature — the complete nonchalance — intrigued Chlooie, and she followed it on its strangely linear course through the nebula.
Chlooie swam through the empty vacuum of space in a laconic sine wave, examining the metal beast from one side and then the other, back and forth, lazily. It seemed to be in an awful hurry, flying so straight. Everything about it was exotically angular and hard edged.
Chlooie sent out a gentle interrogative radio wave from her spiral cranial horn, and moments later, she was answered with a tingly sensation throughout her blubbery teardrop-shaped body. The sensation startled her, and she jetted away from the metal creature with a blast from her dorsal tube organ.
The question appeared in Chlooie’s mind, all jumbled up — like she couldn’t tell if she’d heard it or seen it or remembered it from a long time ago. Still, it made her picture herself: one of the smaller starwhals in her litter, recklessly curious, too old now to play with the younglings but not yet interested in the games of the adults. An outsider.
“Chlooie,” she thought back at the voice she’d heard, hoping it would ask her more questions. Hoping it was the voice of the metal beast. Hoping it would play with her.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Arellnor.”
Along with the words echoing in her mind, Chlooie saw a completely nonsensical image: a tiny fuzzy creature with a pair of complicated branching horns sprouting from its weirdly round head that topped a body with four utterly aerodynamically useless jointed appendages. It made Chlooie laugh. Her blubbery body shook with the laughter.
“That’s not what you look like,” Chlooie thought back at Arellnor, all while picturing Arellnor’s proper metal body with all its weird straight edges and sharp angles.
Arellnor projected back several confusing images of the antlered body being eaten by the metal body, but Chlooie lost interest in her new friend’s body dysphoria and suggested they play a game.
So they raced each other, chased each other, sang and swapped stories. Arellnor was on a long journey and appreciated the company; Chlooie loved that Arellnor would play with her and delighted at the strange images she shared.
“I have to stop here,” Arellnor thought when they came to a solar system swarming with other metal creatures. They all swam through space in weirdly straight lines like Arellnor, but otherwise seemed nothing like her. Many of them were far larger than Arellnor, and their shapes varied far more than starwhal shapes did.
None of them answered Chlooie when she pinged them with her radio waves. It was like they were dead inside. Creepy.
Arellnor nosed up against the largest metal creature in the system. Chlooie had never seen anything like it — it was shaped like several concentric rings, connected by spokes, and many of the smaller metal creatures were nosed against it. Was it a different stage in their lifecycle? A mother suckling the younglings?
“Why don’t the other metal beasts talk to me?” Chlooie asked.
“They think your voice is static and block it out,” Arellnor answered. “I’m going to be busy for a while. Will you wait for me?”
Chlooie pictured a span of time and agreed to return. Truth be told, after such a long flight, she could use a stop for sustenance as well. Chlooie left the brood of metal behemoths to their strange ways and found a tasty gas giant. She skimmed along the planet’s frothy surface, sucking up astro-microbes and nutritional minerals through her baleen maw. When her belly was sated, Chlooie dove and surfed in the planet’s heavy gravity for a while, just for fun.
When the span of time had passed, she swam her way in lazy spirals toward the metal ring mother, but before she got there, she passed Arellnor flying back in the direction they had come.
“Arellnor!” Chlooie thought. “Shall we race again?” She had energy to burn.
But Arellnor didn’t respond.
“We could sing?”
But Arellnor didn’t respond.
Chlooie followed her friend, pinging her with radio waves and beseeching her with thoughts, but Arellnor had changed. After feeding at the ring mother’s teat, she’d gone dead inside like all the other metal behemoths in this system. All she would do was fly straight and true. No images. No songs. No games. No playing.
Chlooie’s dorsal tube organ fluttered in a heartbroken sob. Arellnor had outgrown her, just like the other starwhals. She wondered if she should return to her home nebula and try to grow up too.
Then she felt the familiar presence in her mind, but it didn’t come from Arellnor. It came from another, different metal monster.
“I’m sorry,” the metal monster thought at her. “I wasn’t expecting to have to trade ships. This must be a shock for you.” Along with the words came the picture of Arellnor’s self-image, the strange antlered body, inside of this new metal monster. Somehow, Arellnor’s soul had transferred from one metal body to the other. “I needed a little extra cash, so I traded my old ship in for an even older one,” Arellnor thought. “But it’s still me.”
Chlooie swam around this new metal body, examining it from every side: Arellnor was even smaller and more angular now; her metal skin was darker and pockmarked with age. But her voice sounded the same. Her crazy self-image with antlers had stayed the same.
“Will you still travel with me?” Arellnor asked.
Chlooie knew she’d go home eventually, but she had time for a few more adventures with her friend before she grew up. “Yes.”