Sean Cooper gripped the handrail and smothered a curse. “You’re one lucky bastard, Mike. Nothing like this ever happens to me.”
Michael Cordova grinned. “You’ve never gone to space. Can’t expect to find a pot of gold here on Earth. There’s nothing new under old Sol.”
“I didn’t have a rich grandfather to finance an expedition.” Sean heard the bitterness in his voice. “These things are new. Something never seen on Earth before.”
“Well, sure. But I had to find ’em in the Big Elsewhere, didn’t I?” Michael paused to light a cigar. “We called ’em torpedoes, back on Hildebrand. After we got up the nerve to cook a few — you know — to try ’em out, we knew that name would never do.”
“But they’re not fish?” Sean’s journalist instincts pushed past his envy. “Not real fish — like here on Earth?” He watched the things in the giant steel tank, thinking of the drunken spacer in the hotel bar. What a story the man told!
“Not fish — no.” Michael drummed his fingers on the railing. “They’re similar in some ways. Not — not in others.”
Sean noticed his friend’s hesitation. The man in the bar had been a crewmember on the mission to Hildebrand. Was there something to his story? Should he ask? No. Michael was always quick to anger. Sean cast around for a safer subject.
“So — what do you call them now? Other than money, money, money.”
“Still just torpedoes. Marketing boffins have a contest going to come up with a better name.” Michael smiled again, obviously relieved. He punched Sean lightly. “Don’t take on so about the money. I won’t leave my oldest friend out of this.”
“You mean — ” Hope flared in Sean’s heart. Dim visions of wealth beckoned. The spacer’s words faded into the background.
“I mean just what I say. You can buy in. Ground floor. Say — a five percent share? Enough to make you wealthy a hundred times over, but damned affordable until tomorrow.”
Sean’s dreams vaporized. Tomorrow. He knew what was scheduled for the next day. Alien Cuisine, Inc. was going public. The initial stock offering was already over-subscribed and the share price was headed for the stars. “Five percent is generous. More than I could — more than anyone could expect. But I haven’t been in the media business long enough to — well, my finances aren’t so hot. Five percent at — how much a share?”
Michael grinned. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you. I’ll loan you the dough.”
“Can you do that?” Sean’s thoughts careened madly. His joy mingled with whispers of doubt.
“For an old friend? Sure. But we’ll keep it between us. My lawyer can draw up the paperwork this afternoon. He’s around here somewhere — working his butt off for a two percent share.”
The two men fell silent, staring down into the clear water. Silvery shapes darted around the perimeter of the tank. Slim and round, with a single eye and sucker mouth, the alien animals propelled themselves by forcing water down lateral chambers and out a pair of nozzles at the rear. Ribbed structures somewhat like dorsal and ventral fins served to guide and stabilize their movement. Small sucker-like appendages dotted the outside of each lateral chamber. As the creatures swam, they joined together using those appendages; sometimes as many as five or six jetted around the tank, their motions somehow coordinated and smooth.
“So you don’t know what, exactly, these — things — are?” ventured Sean.
“We’ll let the scientists worry about that. Hildebrandt is mostly water. One big ocean.” Michael chuckled. “Fried in butter, with a little salt — well, you’ve tasted ’em.”
“Heaven. Absolute heaven.” Sean grinned, remembering his first sample. The smile faded. He had to ask. “They’re not intelligent in any way — are they? I heard — ”
Michael shook his head vehemently. “No. Absolutely not.” He glanced around. “Not here anyway. Not on Earth.”
Bile rose in Sean’s throat. He had trouble speaking. “What do you mean?”
“They can live in salt water, but the salt irritates those sucker things.” Mike pointed at a group of three. It broke up as the two men watched. “They can’t stay together very long.”
“So? What does that have to do with intelligence?”
“It’s the groups, don’t you see? When enough join together, there’s sufficient networked brain power to create what the scientists call a critical mass. Large corporate groups cruise the ocean on Hildebrand, each with hundreds of singletons joined into a sentient whole.”
“Group intelligence,” whispered Sean.
Michael’s voice fell. “Intelligence? I guess so. We communicated with ’em, after a fashion. They weren’t very interested.” He turned away from the tank. “One thing is clear. The corporate groups don’t give a damn about singletons or any non-sentient groups.”
Sean swallowed the bile rising in his throat and stared down at the darting torpedo shapes. He recalled the spacer’s words. “Won’t that cause trouble? Some might call it — murder.”
Michael shrugged. He didn’t look back at the tank. “We thought it might. Eating intelligent beings, you know — or beings with the capability for intelligence. Can’t have that sort of thing. But it isn’t that way — won’t be that way.”
“I don’t see — ”
“It’s the taste.” Michael dropped his cigar, ground it underfoot. “The singletons ain’t intelligent and once people get a taste of ’em — ” He shrugged and began walking away.
Sean let go of the rail and followed. He suppressed an urge to look back. “I need a drink.”
“Me too. It’s a celebration. A reunion of old friends.”
“When can we see your lawyer?”
“We’ll get a drink, then hunt him up.”
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.