Someone as a joke had painted out the second L in The Lickety Split. Everybody just rolled with it.
The thing was there, hidden in the darkened bowels of the Spit, squeezed behind the pipes. And it was hungry. It reached out with one of its hands, wriggling its clawed fingers. Its two yellow eyes gleamed in the shadows.
“Pass me my sandwich, would you?”
Adam handed the peanut butter and anchovy on rye to the blutarian mechanic, who shoved it whole into its maw without bothering to unwrap it. It swallowed, plastic and all, in one gulp, and went back to work.
Adam hated sewage duty. He wasn’t built for crawling around in these cramped spaces. Not like Nickles, who had the advantage of a skeleton made almost entirely of cartilage and only three vital internal organs had their advantages.
Adam was almost entirely useless in these situations. He ended up as the guy sitting in a hole, handing tools and sandwiches to Nickles. It was easy work, but it was boring. Time passed slowly.
“Wrench,” said Nickles.
“Wrench,” repeated Adam, handing the tool.
Nickles grunted as it wrestled with the pipe. It swore in native blutarian, which was a melodious language so it sounded like singing happily as it worked. The merrier Nickles sang, the more irritated it was.
It’d managed to reduce the steady leak to a steady drip. In the unforgiving void of cold space, that was merely downgrading the problem. There were a thousand and one things waiting to go wrong. It was why any ship worth anything used robots for these tasks. Tireless, efficient, dedicated, expensive robots. So some ships had to make due with a crew of people who were cheaper than good robots. It wasn’t much cheaper since a small malfunction could cost a lot. But workaday freighter captains cut corners where they could and hoped it didn’t bite them on the ass later.
Nickles screamed a short aria. “This fruckn thing. Give me some gloop, would’ja?”
“Sure.” Adam passed the all-purpose gel. If you couldn’t fix it any other way, you could always gloop it. The aged ship was probably held together by wishful thinking and gloop, in that order.
“It’s fucking,” said Adam. “Not fruckn.”
Nickles squeezed a generous portion of gloop into its mouth and swished it around in its cheeks. “That’s what I said,” it mumbled.
Adam saw no point in arguing.
Once the gloop had been properly salivationed (Saliva activates the magic! went the slogan.), Nickles spat it around the leak and molded the patch.
“You don’t want the gloves?” asked Adam.
“Nah, I got this.” It shaped the gloop until the leak was gone. When Nickles pulled back its hands, they were stuck to the gloop. It sang a short jingle.
“Should’ve worn the gloves,” said Adam.
Annoyed, Nickles licked its hands, re-salivationing the gloop long enough to pull its hands free. Adam offered it a napkin to clean off the bits still clinging. Nickles waved it away, licked the gloop from its hands and swallowed.
It’s Non-Fatal! declared the label on the tube. There was an asterisk, noting the dozen or so species that gloop would kill if consumed. For blutarians, it was a good source of vitamin zorp, giving their eyes an extra shiny yellow. For humans, too much gloop could lead to constipation and the sweats, but it didn’t kill you, even if you might wish it would.
Nickles squeezed its flexible body out from behind the pipes, standing uncomfortably close to Adam. Somewhere, in the darkness, another drip could be heard. Both of them listened to its slow steady rhythm. It didn’t sound too bad. Probably wasn’t anything serious enough to worry about at the moment.
Adam started writing a note on his notepad, but Nickles stopped him.
“Don’t do that.”
“We’ll need to fix it. Eventually.”
“If you write that down, they’ll ask you why you didn’t just fix it now? And what will you say then?”
Adam tapped his pen against the paper. “If we don’t note it, it’ll just get worse.”
“So that’s some other crewmate’s problem.”
“No guarantee it won’t end up being us,” said Adam.
“No guarantee it will be,” said Nickles.
Adam tucked his pen in his pocket. “Fine, but if we end up up to our knees in reconstituted waste water–”
“I’ll owe you a soda,” said Nickles.
Adam climbed out of the access hole and into the dimly lit halls of the Lickity Spit. Half the bulbs had burned out and management had turned down requisitions for more. Costs were to be kept down. He reached down and helped Nickles out of the hole. The short blutarian could manage on its own, but it was a lot of grunting and struggling and musical swearing and just easier to help.
“Is it time for break yet?” asked Nickles, sorting through its toolbox for another snack. The closest terrestrial ancestor to its species were sharks. Blutarians ate constantly, a steady stream of snacks. Whether this was a necessity of biology or their culture was unclear. It chomped on some jerky but stopped chewing and glanced behind Adam. Nickles half-saluted, mumbling, “Captain.”
Adam wheeled. Captain Deerdro stood before him, decked out in a full uniform. Nobody cared much on the Spit for formalities, but Deerdo made more effort than most. Her jacket was wrinkled, and there was a stain on her collar that refused to be laundered away. Sometimes, she even wore the hat, but not today.
She was taller than Adam. She had one green eye, one brown, and one bright blue. A crest of fine red and blue feathers stuck out of head, adding another six inches to her height.. A couple of centuries ago, genetic engineering had been a thing with everyone designing unique looks to their babies. It wasn’t popular nowadays, but the genetic baggage was still rattling around the human race.
“Captain.” Adam saluted.
“I trust everything is well,” she said.
“Yeah, no more leaks or anything,” said Nickles.
She nodded to it. “Excellent. Crewmate Admins, I request your appearance at my quarters in exactly three hours for carnal engagement. Does this sound agreeable to you?”
“Very well. Carry on, crewmates.” Deedro marched down the hall, disappearing into a darkened corridor.
“That humanoid has a bone up her frukn butt.”
“Stick,” corrected Adam.
Nickles slurped down the last of its jerky and belched. “Hey, keep your mating rituals to yourself. I’m eating here.”
Over its decades of operation, the Spit had been fitted and retrofitted innumerable times. Crew compartments were removed and replaced with cargo bays. Where once, a crewmate might expect to have a six by six block of space for their own, it was now standard to share a bunk with one or two others. Adam’s bunkmate snored, and it was his desire to escape that for one blessed night that had led him to accept Deedro’s first offer of engagement.
At the time, it’d been a bit of a surprise, though upon further consideration, there weren’t many humans aboard the Spit. Just the Captain and Adam and Pete and Brenda and Magillicutty. Pete was always sniffling. Brenda was pair bonded with a psychic starfish sitting on top of her head. And Magillicutty, well, nobody liked Magillicutty.
As captain, Deedro’s quarters were the nicest. They were still cramped, but they had decent noise dampening so that the thrum off the freighter didn’t penetrate your bones. They were closer to the air scrubbers so it smelled less like burning oil and dank. Not that you ever got away from the odor.
She greeted him at her door, and he held up a wilted flower. There was no telling what it was supposed to have grown into, but he thought it could have been a rose.
She frowned at the gift, taking it from him without any ceremony. “You’re late.”
“Two minutes,” he said. “I was getting the flower.”
She pulled him inside and started unbuckling his belt.
“I found the seed in the cargo bay,” he said as she pulled his pants down. “Took me a month to grow it in a makeshift hydroponic.”
Sighing, she stepped back and pulled up her shirt. Her breasts were nice, but the matter of fact presentation left him cold. Or maybe that was her quarters, which had the luxury of being farther from the engines and were a touch chilly at the best of times. Technically, that shouldn’t have been true since in cold space heat convection was difficult. Most freighters of the Spit’s class and age were fighting a losing battle against boiling the crew alive. There was something wrong with the ship, and it’d have to be fixed eventually. But there was always something wrong with the ship.
“Is there a problem, Crewmate Admins?” asked Deedro.
“What?” He pulled his pants up. “It’s cold in here.”
The Captain said, “I only have fifteen minutes scheduled for this engagement. You’re wasting time.”
“Sorry, but I was just wondering…what are we?”
Deedro lowered her shirt. “Crewmate Admins, when you filled out the forms for this arrangement, you checked the box for no emotional investment, didn’t you?”
“Then I think it’s clear what we are.”
“Sure, but can’t we modify the paperwork?”
“Advancement of carnal engagement to emotional investment is a hell of a lot of paperwork.”
“Well, it might be worth it,” he said, though he noticed he sounded uncertain. He wasn’t sure he liked Deedro. They’d talked for maybe fifteen minutes, and that was counting all the times she gave him an order or asked for a status report.
She sat on the bed. The only place to sit. “I’ll think about it.”
He smiled. “You will?”
She shrugged. “If you insist.”
He lowered his pants.
“What are you doing, Admin?”
“We aren’t engaging?”
“You’ve altered the situation. It would be inappropriate.”
Pants around his ankles, this wasn’t the outcome he’d hoped for, although only now did he realize he hadn’t been hoping for anything specific. Just something better than this.
An alarm blared and the single red light in Deedro’s quarters flashed an alert. She grabbed her jacket and ran down the hall without another word. He pulled his pants up and ran to his station.
Freighter work was usually quiet. The hyperspace lane the Spit frequented was within the Civilized Zone. There were a few pirates and raiders flying this space, and fewer who might consider a beat up old ship like this worth attacking. The last time the Spit had been boarded, the raiders had gotten several hundred tons of defective booboop dolls and seven hundred cases of almost expired canned nrok meat.
The speaker grumbled and buzzed, but it was impossible to understand. Personnel moved with purpose. The Spit was an old ship, crewed by whoever ended up on her, but everybody understood that emergencies in cold space were to be taken seriously.
A tarnished silver robot joined Adam in his rush down the hall. X7 had a round body with multiple utility arms joined at odd angles. She rolled on her treads. The right one had a hitch that made a loud clunk every three feet. Like any robot crewing the Spit, she was defective, but not not quite defective enough to be scrapped.
“How was carnal engagement?” she asked.
The speakers mumbled again.
“Radiation field,” said X7, being one of the few aboard the ship who could understand them.
“Everyone report to shielded areas,” she translated.
The shielding on the old freighter was mostly good, but some places were safer than others. Adam’s favorite spot was a storage bay on the lower decks. It was inconvenient enough that few crew ever jammed in there.
He and X7 found the bay, where Nickles had already set up the folding table and was shuffling cards. Brenda was there too. The starfish on her head throbbed as she stood quietly in the corner. Adam tried not to judge lifestyle choices, but it didn’t seem healthy, even if Brenda claimed that by hosting she’d eventually have access to the telepathic superbrain that ran Paradise-Shiva and all the information in the universe then. Then again, he’d never been a religious sort.
Nickles said, “Standard Tepas hold ‘em.” as it dealt the cards.
“Texas,” corrected Adam.
“Nobody gives a damn.”
X7 picked up her cards. The lights on her chassis blinked in a specific order. Her tell.
“I fold,” said Adam.
They passed the time playing cards while Brenda communed with her parasite in the corner. When the clear siren sounded, Nickles raked in its won ration chips. “Thanks very much, suckers.”
X7 said, “Can I get one of those back? I’m going to have to run at half-power for the rest of the shift rotation otherwise.”
“I don’t see how that’s my problem,” said Nickles with a pointy toothed grin.
“Where’s that biological empathy I’m always told I lack?”
Nickles winked. “Propaganda, kid.”
She threw her cards down. “I knew it.”
The ship shuddered. The ship shuddered a lot and often. Constantly, in fact. So steadily that most crew wouldn’t have noticed this particular shuddering. But as maintenance, Adam, Nickles, and X7 were more sensitive than most.
“Maybe it’s just an anomaly,” said X7.
The Spit trembled in a bad way. It was difficult to quantify. More of a feeling. But they all knew it would be a problem.
The speaker mumbled.
“Failures on decks six, four, and one,” translated X7.
Adam snapped on his belt. “Time to get to work.” The old freighter was one catastrophic failure away from killing everyone aboard in the merciless cold space, but not on his watch. Or so he told himself because it helped him sleep at night aboard the Spit.
The garbled speaker filled the air with static again.
“More failures on six, five, two, three, six again,” said X7.
“We got it,” said Nickles as it ran out of the room with its toolbox, shoving a candy bar down its gullet. X7 rolled out behind him. Brenda stood in the corner, communing with her parasite.
“Shouldn’t you report to engineering?” asked Adam.
“No need,” she replied. “The superbrain has calculated our odds of survival at four percent.” She turned her white eyes toward him. “You are all going to die. I alone will be uploaded to the superbrain where my data will become one with the cosmos.”
“Yeah, Great for you.” He’d heard this before. Brenda was often predicting the end of the Spit, and not without cause. But he suspected that her own biases swayed the odds.
She smiled. “Know that your name shall be recorded, Alex Admin, and that this recording shall carry on as part of the final equation.”
She stopped smiling. “Are you sure?”
The freighter rattled, and something, somewhere, exploded.
He joined the crew as they scrambled through the ship. Emergency protocol meant that everyone had a station to report to. Maintenance personnel spread throughout the Spit, trying to cover as much ground as possible while prioritizing those areas more likely to malfunction and those malfunctions more likely to kill everyone. His assignment was within running distance of the engines and power core. By the time he arrived, steam filled the corridors and his steps splashed in gray fluids. Water and hydraulic fluid and probably some sewage. Leaks were everywhere, dripping from the ceilings and the walls and spraying from seams.
Something had gone wrong with the gloop.
He thought about every problem they’d fixed with gloop, every patch, every leak, every mechanism kept working because the gloop held it together. And how it must all be failing at once.
Brenda was right. They were going to die.
A few ounces of gloop dropped from the ceiling to land at his feet. It squirmed and twisted, gathering up into a single mass. The stuff lunged at his boot, and he kicked it away. Tried to. It was sticky and determined. He knocked it away with his hand, but it clung to his finger with a warm, tingly sensation. It crawled down his fingers until he was finally able to hurl it away with a hard fling.
His fingers felt numb, which was odd as they weren’t there anymore. Half of his index and middle finger were gone, eaten away by the gloop in the brief contact.
“Well, that’s not good.”
He reached for his comm.
“The gloop is alive and hungry,” shouted Nickles. “Don’t let it touch you.”
“Roger,” said Adam, putting his missing fingers out of his mind. One problem at a time.
Bits of gloop bubbled up through the floor to merge with the piece he’d kicked away. It slithered around, blindly looking for something else to eat.
“Maintenance, status report,” asked the Captain.
Someone started filling her in as Adam ran down the corridor. Gloop leaked from the walls and pipes, and it all squirmed in silent ravenous hunger. The Spit’s meager security personnel were using whatever they could against the stuff. Electroshock did nothing. Flames appeared to excite it. Lasers burned it, but there was literal tons of gloop all around them, and even if they managed to destroy it all, that’d just leave the freighter to fall apart or explode or decompress or a hundred other fatal failures.
Adam arrived at maintenance storage with Nickles and X7 right behind him. They all had the same desperate idea as they rushed inside. They dug through the boxes of supplies, emergency manuals, and way too much junk that ended up here because there was no better place to put it.
X7 held up a tablet that was shinier and newer than anything on the freighter, including its cargo. The Spit went though a lot of gloop, qualifying them for a a direct hypercomm line to customer service.
She activated the tablet, and the screen lit up. A prerecorded face appeared. The Kubble smiled at them and tilted its furry head to one side. @Kubbles were the most adorable species in the galaxy and were commonly used to quell irate customers. Even as the ship rattled to pieces around him, Adam found himself smiling at the fuzzy creature on the screen.
“Hello, Customer0012100110234XTX.Currently, you are number 1,234,567 in queue. Please, hold the line, and we will be with you shortly. We apologize for any delay. Your business is important to us.”
“We’re frucked,” said Nickles, but the recorded Kubble wiggled her pointy ears, and everyone felt a little better.
“This is going to take forever,” said Nickles.
“Incorrect,” said X7. “Eventually, the ship will fail, and the call will end.”
“Robots,” grumbled Nickles.
The tablet popped to life, and a new Kubble face appeared.
“Our gloop is alive,” said Adam, vainly hoping to get the recording’s attention.
The operator perked up, twitching her button nose. “I see. And approximately how much gloop has gained willful motility?”
“Oh, you’re real,” said Adam.
“Yes, sir or madam or whichever gender nomenclature you would prefer. How much gloop, approximately, would you say–”
“All of it,” said Nickles. “Tons of the stuff.”
X7 waved the tablet at the bits of gloop leaking into the room.
“I see. Have you exposed your gloop to any unorthodox mix of radiation recently? If so, this might be grounds to nullify Gloop, Incorporated of all legal responsibility for whatever mechanical failures ensue.”
Nickles almost shouted, but the operator batted her big brown eyes, and his anger faded, if not completely disappearing.
“We just don’t want it to eat us,” said Adam, he held up his hand with its missing fingers.
“Your gloop is ingesting matter then?” She clicked a few strokes of her keyboard and glanced at an offscreen readout. “Is it strictly organic matter or has it become universally omnivorous?”
“Just organic matter,” said Adam.
“Ah, excellent. This shouldn’t be a problem.” Her voice had such a pleasant tone that everyone found themselves more optimistic than was strictly deserved. “Do you have access to a Level Three or higher empath?”
“None of us are psychic,” said Adam.
“What about that new crewmate?” said Nickles. “The green one with the giant head. Anybody with a head that big has to be psychic.”
“She’s not,” said Adam.
“How would you know?” asked X7.
“I just know.”
He didn’t want to get into the details now, but he’d tried striking up a conversation with the green crewmate because, aside from the giant head, she had a hell of a body, and he’d always had a thing for women with four arms since he’d discovered Kalbrokian porn. He couldn’t remember the exact course of their talk at the moment, but she’d shouted something about not being telepathic and walking away in a huff.
“What about Brenda?” said X7.
“She won’t be any help,” said Nickles. “She never is.”
More gloop leaked into the room, pooling into hungry masses that felt along the boxes and crates for prey. If there was a psychic crewmate aboard the Spit, none of them could recall.
“No problem,” said the operator calmly. “Gloop, Incorporated will be happy to connect you with a contracted empath, at a small service charge.”
“We’re in the middle of cold space,” said Adam.
“Yes, Customer001210011023XTX, we have already received your location when you placed your call. The empath should reach you in two to three business weeks. Thank you for using gloop, the galaxy’s most reliable fix-it fast tool.”
The screen went black.
“We’re so frucked,” said Adam.
The gloop congealed into a giant mass and pounced on them. Adam and Nickles dodged aside, but X7 was snatched up and swallowed halfway before being spat across the room. She squealed and flailed her limbs in an effort to get herself back to her treads.
Adam and Nickles ran for the door, scrambling over the mess and each other. Adam tripped and fell on his face as Nickles stabbed the open button.
A long, angry screech shook the entire ship, and Adam realized if they escaped the gloop, they were still dead. When a tentacle of the stuff wrapped around his leg and yanked him back, he was more relieved than upset.
X7, having righted herself, reached for him, but with a shrug, he disappeared into the slime. The shadow of his body dissolved in the blackened goo. She plunged her arms into the stuff and pulled out his hand. And only his hand. She dropped the half-melted limb, and the gloop slurped it back down.
“Sorry, buddy, I tried.”
She rolled out of the room, and Nickles shut the door. Gloop leaked down the corridor. Nickles climbed up X7’s back as the carnivorous slime surrounded them.
The gloop tore down the storage room door, and a portion of the stuff congealed and convulsed before them. The gloop stopped its advance and slowly, crawled its ways back into the walls. The Spit shuddered, but it was the old familiar shudder. The kind of shudder that meant they weren’t about to die in cold space. Probably not going to die.
The remaining gloop in the corridor rose up and took on a humanoid shape. It paled to a stark white and its head split open in a wide approximation of a mouth. It gargled and wheezed as two eyes formed on its face. They were small and black and high on the forehead, slightly askew.
The gloop swayed on two misaligned legs. It focused its eyes on Nickles and X7, and Adam’s voice, or a close approximation, emerged from its mouth.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
“You aren’t the only one,” said Nickles.
Then Adam vomited a few globs of colorful slime, which quietly slithered back onto his foot-like appendage.
“You’re melting again,” said Nickles.
Adam felt his face with his fingers. It was sliding a bit to the left. He concentrated until it fixed itself. He was still getting used to his new body, a rough imitation of his old body held together by willpower and psychic feedback. He still couldn’t get the skin right. The color was okay, but the texture was rubbery and hairless.
He kind of missed hair.
Adam was still working on coordination. It wasn’t like starting from scratch. Just learning the quirks of a new model. He still limped for no clear reason and he could make running work, even if it looked weird.
“What’s it like in there?” asked Nickles.
“Not so bad.”
A medical scan after it was all over showed that the gloop had eaten everything but Adam’s brain. Whether it was a latent psychic talent or simply chance, the gloop had bonded with the organ in a symbiotic relationship that had freaked him out for a few days. He’d even pondered if he was the same person or if the old Adam Admin had died and this new thing was only something that thought it was Adam Admin. But thinking about it too much gave him a headache, so he just rolled with it. The Spit didn’t pay crew to sit around and ponder philosophical unknowables.
Nickles bit into a donut and offered the other half to Adam. Before Adam could bring it to his simulation of a mouth, he’d already absorbed it through his palm with a slurp. It didn’t freak him out that he could taste it. Not anymore.
Captain Deedro approached and nodded to them both without saying a word.
“No more carnal relations?” asked Nickles.
“No, but that’s probably for the best.” Adam wasn’t sure how his biology worked now, and it was better to just hold off on anything too complicated right now.
He stopped walking and listened to the Spit. Precisely where he ended and the gloop holding the freighter together began was a gray area now. But it made his job easier..
“Crap. We’ve got a major leak on deck three.”
Nickles said, “It’s weird when you do that.”
“You’ll get used to it. Also, you owe me a soda.”
And the Lickity Spit drifted onward.