A sci-fi story for Burns Night
Even when his ship broke through the mass of grey cloud surrounding the planet, Garvis didn’t recognise it. His console scrolled a list of facts: sixth planet in around a class G sun, smaller than his own world, mostly water, breathable atmosphere (just), inhabited by one dominant race (non-space faring, intelligence rating 38%), one small moon - lifeless. He liked playing this game, testing out his memory, trying to remember when he was here before but he never fared very well. His mind was too cluttered, a sea of memories of different planets and different places. This was just another world visited long ago for reasons he’d long forgotten.
He was in the control room, slumped in a high-backed triangular chair designed to accommodate his unusual frame: his elongated neck, small inconspicuous head and the large muscular haunches of his back legs. He was flying with the secondary shielding down so he could get a good look at what lay below but he wasn't flying the ship. Dorza was doing all the work. Dorza was his name for the ship’s intelligence (meaning Smart Ass in his language). It was the seventeenth name he’d given the ship over the years. He changed it as he felt the need but Dorza had stuck for quite a while now and for very good reason.
‘It’s no good,' he said. 'I can’t remember. Tell me Dorza, when were we here before?’
‘Forty years ago, give or take.’
‘What’s that in their years?’
He groaned, bending his long neck forward. ‘Could you also remind me why I thought this was a good idea?’
The ship’s voice gave a metallic rattle that passed for a laugh. ‘Garvis you say that every time. We do this because it’s our duty to repair what we’ve broken.’
‘We don’t actually know if we broke anything or not.’
‘We probably did.’
‘Yes I know that. Anything on the scanners?’
His long pointed craft dipped lower giving him a better look at the surface. It was a tough rural wilderness. Beautiful though, dominated by purple hills interspersed with craggy mountains and velvet green pastures. Many of the lower hills boasted proud stone-built fortifications. All different, all unique in design, from tall austere fortified houses to turreted romantic fairytale castles superior even to those on his home planet that filled his dreams during his youth.
‘Hey Dorza. I think I do recognise this place. We were here on a routine mapping visit.’
‘And we went down to the surface.’
‘But I’m not sure why we needed to go down.’
‘We didn’t need to. If I recall correctly, which I do-’
‘You know, I don’t really like that name, not when you say it like that.’
Garvis chuckled. ‘I wasn’t saying your name.’
‘If I recall correctly,’ said Dorza, ignoring him. ‘You said something about spotting the perfect castle?’
‘Oh yes. Is this it? What do the locals call the place again?’
Dorza paused for a few moments to let him to try to guess but nothing happened. ‘Earth,’ it said eventually.
‘That’s it – Earth. Can you remember where we landed last time?’
‘Then let’s get down there.’
He couldn’t remember how many planets he’d revisited over the years, always looking for the same thing and never finding it. How was he to know he’d had a verlin on board? He didn’t even know what a verlin was until the manager at the maintenance station told him they’d found evidence that one had been hibernating on his ship.
‘And it’s not here now,’ the maintenance manager had told him.
‘That’s a relief,’ Garvis had said.
‘I think you’re missing the point. Verlin breed like crazy. There’s no stopping them. If that creature got off at the wrong stop you could have an ecological disaster on your hands.’
‘There was only one. I assume it’s dead by now.’
He remembered the manager shaking his head at him. ‘Verlin lay up to 300 eggs at a time. If the conditions are right there can be over a million within a year. And the one you had on board was pregnant. That’s probably why she was hibernating. She was waiting to get out onto some planet to lay her eggs.’
Not wanting to be known as a destroyer of worlds, since then Garvis had spent much of his spare time retracing his steps. It turned out that verlin can hibernate for years when they’re pregnant, waiting for the right climate (or in this case the right planet) so it could have escaped onto any one of the hundreds of worlds he’d visited over the years.
As they landed on a bed of the soft purple foliage that dominated the high ground of this part of the planet, Dorza gave Garvis a rundown of the sensors stats.
‘We have five possible targets in the vicinity. All around the right mass, surface area and speed.’
‘I’ve heard that before. Instead of me having to chase after the local wildlife, can’t you identify their DNA beforehand?’
‘With a camera?’
‘It would make my life a lot easier.’
‘What have I told you about reading too much sci-fi?’
‘Maybe I’m just ahead of my time.’
‘I’m waiting in anticipation for the camera that can sample DNA from ten thousand metres.’
As the door opened Garvis donned his earpiece and microphone so he could stay in contact with the ship. Then he pulled on his flexible helmet and neck guard, completely encasing him in a suit of black material ridged with grey.
He looked outside. It was dusk. ‘What’s the dark coefficient?’
‘Should be enough. Blend me.’
As he stepped out the camouflage sensors in the suit blended him nicely with the background. He didn’t disappear, his suit just began mimicking the general environment. If he kept to the shadows hopefully no one would spot a four-legged, long-necked alien walking their fields.
Garvis looked up at the stone walls in front of him stretching up in the gloom to form the ramparts of a ruined medieval castle. This is what he stopped to see the first time. The castle walls were still intact and he ran a gloved hand over the sandy stone. He could imagine enemy ranks storming the castle in a great siege. Swords and leg-lances and attack kites. Incredible. He loved this place.
‘The first two targets are close together,’ he heard Dorza say through his earpiece. ‘In the next field.’
Garvis left the castle behind and passed through an open gate into a grassy field sloping down towards a river. There wasn’t much cover so he moved slowly.
‘I see something.’ He whispered. As he edged closer two creatures took shape. They were hopping around, nibbling at the grass. Grey fur, long ears and four legs. Similar in size to a virlin but nothing like it. Cute though.
‘Targets are negative.’
‘The next one is through the woods on the other side of the field,’ said Dorza flatly.
There was more cover down by the river and Garvis followed it along the side of the field and into the woods on the other side. It was darker under the trees, much safer. He followed Dorza’a instructions and there in a small clearing, munching on some kind of bulbous white fungus, was a round creature with shaggy black hair and no discernible head. Garvis knew the shape so well, even though he had never seen one in real life before.
‘You’re not going to believe this,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve found one.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ve studied them long enough. That’s a verlin.’
‘Excellent!’ said Dorza excitedly. ‘At last!’
‘What do we do now?’
‘I’ll run some checks to determine the population levels then I’ll look at introducing the poison. It won’t affect the indigenous-’
There was a loud bang. The verlin flew up into the air and then fell back down a couple of metres from where it had been feeding. It wasn’t moving.
‘What was that?’ said Dorza.
Garvis pushed himself deeper into the shadows as a thin two-legged creature strode into the clearing. He had a knife in his hand and a primitive projectile weapon over his shoulder. Its barrel was still smoking and Garvis cowered back. He didn’t have a weapon. In fact he’d never even fired one before but he knew what it was. Why had this creature shot the virlin? Had they multiplied so much over the years they constantly had to be culled?
The two-legged creature picked up the verlin and made an incision in its hide. With a flick of his hand he deftly turned it inside out and Garvis nearly gagged. Then he stuffed it into an opaque casing, pulled it tightly closed then turned and walked back the way he’d come.
Garvis crept after the creature, following him through the woods to a street of one-storey dwellings. The creature walked up a path to one of the houses and went inside. Garvis looked through the window and saw him hand the verlin to a second creature with longer hair who popped it into a large pot bubbling on a stove.
‘I think the Earthsters are going to eat the verlin.’
‘But its cellular structure developed on a different world. It would be barely digestible.’
Garvis slipped away and went to the next house but its windows were shaded. The windows of the third house however were uncovered. Inside a group of Earthsters sat around a large table. These creatures had already cooked themselves a virlin and it lay steaming on a large serving platter. One of them got to his feet and began speaking in verse. Part of the way through he picked up a knife and plunged it into the virlin, slicing it open from top to bottom while still reciting the verse.
At the end of his soliloquy he shouted ‘Gie her a Haggis!’
‘Dorza, they seem to worship the verlin. I just witnessed some strange ritual they go through before eating it. They call it haggis. Have you got those stats yet?’
‘Yes, it looks like the population is low, confined to the very north of this particular island.’
‘I know why. For 500 years the locals have been living on them.’
‘So what do we do now? We can’t take away their food supply. We might make an even bigger mess.’
Garvis laughed, after all this searching, after all these years. And in the end they find the verlin has neatly slotted itself into the local food chain.
‘I think we can leave things as they are,’ he said.
‘If you think so.’
‘But Dorza. Before we leave I want that recipe. I want to try this haggis for myself.’