The shmoo-like creature’s long butterfly tongue poked at Audrey’s leathery trunk. Sated, the creature floated away. Rhinehardt pushed off from the translucent curvature of the cottage-sized sphere. He drifted to the plant, fastened his mouth to an oozing pore, and sucked its salty-sweet sap. Share and share alike, Shmoozer.
By the length of his hair and beard, at least a year had passed since he’d been trapped in this biosphere. What would Sue think of him now? Not that it mattered; chat logs he’d uncovered, that she thought she’d deleted, proved she was screwing her old boyfriend.
Stunned by her perfidy Rhinehardt had hiked into a box canyon near their Tucson home, powering along, dazed. What to do? Divorce her? Go OJ on them?
Then, with no sense of transition, he was floating, naked, in space.
No: he was breathing, encased inside a huge bubble. Beyond, a reddish-gold planet hung in blackness. Not Earth; not any recognizable world.
Nor was he alone. He had two companions. One was obviously an animal: white, eyeless, gourd-shaped, with a ring of bristles around its narrower end and five thin hand-feet around the wider end, it vaguely reminded him of the shmoo from Li’l Abner. The other entity was a huge plant. Rhinehardt dubbed it Audrey after the monstrous vegetable from Little Shop of Horrors.
The days wore on. Lacking anything to write with, Rhinehardt memorized every detail of his companions and their prison, searching for ways to escape.
The bubble, he observed, was in geosynchronous orbit. The splotches on the exoplanet never moved. Night followed day, about ten hours each. No moons, no familiar constellations.
Audrey resembled a rag-draped coral outcropping. Phototropic; its fronds moved slowly to face the sun. The shmoo was obviously a land dweller. At first Rhinehardt kept as far from it as possible. Likewise, it avoided him. It prowled around the cell, apparently as curious about its prison as he was, but making no effort to communicate.
Rhinehardt talked to it. “You and Audrey prove extraterrestrial life exists. Of course, the cell proves that. Someone sure built it.” The shmoo ignored him.
Whenever Rhinehardt relieved himself Audrey slowly extended a frond, grasped the floating globules of semisolids and liquids, absorbing them. It also took in Shmoo’s stringy waste. Audrey apparently needed no other nourishment, since she kept growing, putting forth fronds that threatened to fill the interior of the cell.
Nothing changed until one day Shmoo grasped Audrey’s trunk, deposited a soccer-ball-sized mass like frog’s eggs and then floated away.
Rhinehardt examined the eggs. Firm, sticky, silvery. They smelled fishy, like caviar. What the hell. He scooped the stuff into his mouth. Not bad! If they were eggs, Shmoo didn’t seem to mind them being eaten.
But Rhinehardt wondered. “So, Shmoozer; why didn’t our keepers snag breeding pairs? Leery of a population explosion?”
Shmoo, clinging to one of Audrey’s branches, made no reply.
“Prototype spaceship escape pod?” Rhinehardt looked around the bubble. “Thing’s tough enough… maintains livable temperatures, seems to shield us from radiation. Parts of it polarize when the star is visible so we don’t burn our eyes. They know us, Shmoo, I’m saying. They designed this to protect us. Even dumps our waste heat, somehow; wish I knew how it manages that. But why test it with a bunch of aliens?”
He paused, eyeing his companion. “Unless they’re your kin, and you’re being punished. Or you volunteered for the detail. In which case, how do you report? Because you sure don’t talk. Telepathy? Naah; I think you’re just an abductee, like me.” He flattened himself against the curved membrane and peered out. “See? That little spark? There’s another opposite us on the other side. I got good eyes, Shmoo. If there isn’t a necklace of little air-balls all the way around this frigging planet, I’ll eat Audrey. How many’d that be? Dozens? Thousands? What’s in ‘em all?”
The shmoo made a sound that might have been a sigh.
“Shmoozer, I’m more dependent on you two than you are on me. You drink Audrey’s sap, she absorbs your sewage. Why am I here? So whoever’s observing can watch me go crazy? What’s the point?”
Shmoo said nothing.
Some time later the cell’s environment began changing. The air grew warm, humid. Audrey leafed out, transforming the cell into a terrarium. Rhinehardt and Shmoo got more exercise clambering among her branches. But after a time Shmoo became sluggish and reclusive. Then it stopped eating. After three days, Rhinehardt cautiously approached its nest.
The creature lay stiff and still, limbs shriveled against its pale hide.
“Aw, Shmoo, man… ” He looked around at the cell. “I know you’re watching, you bastards! Why him? Why me? Why are you playing with us? Damn inhuman — ”
Shmoo’s corpse quivered, and split open along its length.
Rainbow-hued wings rose from the molt. Hundreds of small, winged creatures struggled out, a cloud of granular iridescence. He tore back the cocoon to free them. The babies gazed calmly at him through huge, glittering compound eyes. Other forms, spidery things, bolted for Audrey’s frond forest.
He leaned in, entranced, as the little fairy-things lit on him, light as soap bubbles. Tiny questing snouts tickled him. Needle-sharp but painless proboscises pushed into his flesh. The newborns drank, filling him with joy.
“That’s why you needed me,” he murmured. Some of the babies, satiated, flitted off through the fronds, exploring. Brains. Smarts. His DNA and Shmoo’s and Audrey’s, combined, entwining in new patterns of survival. His corpse would keep the generation going until they learned how to hunt the parasites.
“Why” didn’t matter. Maybe his species and Audrey- and Shmoo-kind were headed willy-nilly for extinction. Maybe this was a way to save them and the beings in the other orbiting bubbles.
“We’re the ones,” he whispered. The human race, sure, good luck to ‘em all; he and Shmoo and Audrey had found more than survival, had found liberation in a closed system.
A.L. Sirois cites creative influences as diverse as Firesign Theatre, the Beatles, Pieter Brueghel, Mervyn Peake, H. G. Wells, and Frank Zappa. An artist as well as a writer (and jazz/rock drummer), he has hundreds of illustrations and cartoons to his credit. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Nebula Award, and has appeared in Amazing Stories, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Electric Spec, tweetthemeat and other venues He lives in Doylestown, PA with his wife, author Grace Marcus.