Alien Invader or Assistive Device?

illustrations by Kelsey Liggett

Alien Invader or Assistive Device?

by John Wiswell

Probe was more of an anthropologist than a celestial object. It hit the planet’s atmosphere, coming out of sleep mode as friction tried and failed to burn it up. Probe had come too far to go that easily. After breaching the atmosphere, planetfall was easy. Mostly, you just fell.

It landed on the north side of a marsh, with as quiet a splash as it could make. Mud still got everywhere in its smart metal fibers. Probe shifted its metal body into sundry shapes, strenuously trying to shake off the filth. Getting messy was the worst part of arrivals. 

Hopefully nobody had seen that.

Utah’s snout followed the funny rain’s descent until it landed in the mire. The utahraptor blinked and sniffed in its direction, until whatever it was glinted metallic. Metal tasted terrible and always broke their teeth. Utah had to get back to hunting. 

Swishing their long, feathered tail, Utah wavered for balance on their injured left leg. The chunk Alpha had bitten from it was not healing right. If they didn’t eat soon, it’d fall off like their right arm had.

Further up the hill, a brown hippodraco munched on low cedar branches, ignorant of the utahraptor pack surrounding it from cover. It had clearly eaten well. The pack could feast on a thing that size for days.

Utah lowered their snout close to the earth and pushed a chunk of stone up. They had used stones to trick so manyof their prey over the years. They turned, readying their tail for the swing, when their leg wound opened further and their entire body seized. They squawked despite themselves, and gave their position away.

It was the first call for empathy Probe had ever heard. Probe wanted to oblige. It dissembled its nanites into a pool of metal to come up with the friendliest shape. This was Probe’s first first contact, and it would not mess it up.

Before Probe could reshape, the giant herbivore bucked from its dinner of bushes and made for the foothills. Three more carnivores like the disabled one sprang up to chase, but too late.

This was Probe’s chance to blend in with a whole family of locals. It tried to speed up its transformation.

Utah collapsed onto a thorny bush, struggling to push themselves up on their one arm. Their thigh felt like fire that wanted to burn itself off.

The other utahraptors prowled near, lead by Alpha. Alpha grunted twice, padded up with their teal feathers standing on end. They still had some of Utah’s thigh stuck in their teeth from Utah’s previous mistake.

Utah fought their injuries, heaving up just to bow their head and show remorse. Their throat clicked softly in pain, ready to hunt all night to feed the pack. 

Alpha darted in, jaws sinking around Utah’s left hip. The fire burned white hot. Utah’s severed leg fell down the slope. They fell a moment later.

The creature hurtled toward Probe, screeching in what sounded more like agony than the joy of discovery. Probe’s nanites were still too loose to catch it, and the creature plunged head-first into a flooded trench. 

None of the creature’s family came to help when they coughed. The family departed northwest, following the herbivore.

The disabled creature bled enthusiastically, getting Probe terribly dirty. And still they squirmed, clawing at the slope of the hill, trying to follow their kin. They kept pushing the joint of their lost leg against Probe’s metal form, as though willing themselves to stand again.

Probe obliged. 

It unraveled two thousand semi-metallic fiber clusters from its bank, plugging every tissue fissure it found. It duped nerve clusters to mimic instinctive walking patterns. There wasn’t any flesh that Probe’s smart-metal couldn’t plagiarize.

Probe worked quickly, eager to finish and clean the gore off itself. It was so sticky.

Utah bit the stupid metal thing. Their teeth shattered, and worse, then the metal got in their mouth and started replacing their broken teeth. 

At least the metal teeth let Utah bite the metal thing easier.

They tried to run away from their new leg, but it was part of their gait now. Utah tore up the slope, the leg helping the whole time. It was a funny, thin leg. It didn’t even have a claw.

Probe rewrote the foot and sprouted the sharpest blade this planet would ever see. Utah could shave neurons with it if they wanted.

This was fun work! The Second Law was to help out a host culture, ever since one planet had turned an exploratory probe into a chair. That probe revolutionized recreation for its culture and set the standard for anthropology. No decent probe wouldn’t want to be sat on.

Probe was elated when Utah manually tapped their new claw on the ground. They’d been bonded for seconds, but Probe could feel Utah’s desire to test it out. 

It also felt Utah about to swoon.

Utah staggered, nearly toppling down the slope. The blood loss and infections were taking everything. Hunger gnawed at their belly, and the chill of sickness made even their veins feel ravenous.

Their olfactory senses had been defective since infancy. When they sniffed this time, metal poked into their snout, whispering new senses to them. They sensed things northwest – things that immediately made Utah salivate. Soon they ran for the hunt on an alien leg.

Probe barely had to tailor its design given how rapidly Utah adapted to it. Together they cut through woodlands, and stalked below the bush line of a grove, feathers close to their skin. As far as Probe knew, Utah had hunted in the same pack for a year and a half. It expected they’d struggle to hunt alone.

Before them was a field of gastonias, herbivores with spiny shelled backs. Bulky parents sheltered plump young as they grazed on grasses. Probe experienced a lifetime of Utah’s memories of how gastonias tasted, and the relief of gorging on them after long fasts. Probe almost felt hungry itself.

On the opposite side of the herd, hunched in a ditch, were three more utahraptors. They all had teal feathers, and one had Utah’s blood on their mouth. 

Probe sensed them. It pinged Utah.

Utah squinted.

They checked the gastonias, and then their former pack, all artlessly clustered in the same ditch.

Utah nosed a chunk of granite away from the bushes. They didn’t need the metal for this. They set up the rock, swung their tail, and batted the granite high over the bushes, sailing over two baby gastonias. 

The granite thudded against a cedar near the ditch, and the three utahraptors startled upright. Two of them squawked, and while chips of granite pattered to the ground, the gastonias all stared at their predators. They honked, shielding their young and whipping up into a stampede in the opposite direction.

Utah’s bushes were in the opposite direction. 

Utah arched low until a gastonia calf strayed too close. Their new claw worked perfectly.

Utah’s pack approached, with Alpha coming closest. Their nostrils quivered, sniffing at Utah as though disbelieving it was truly them. Utah turned their body away and continued feasting. Probe was impressionable, but still approved the snub.

Alpha shimmied their hips and raised their hind-feathers up in fan patterns. They were more than impressed. They shuffled and turned to one side in an invitation to mate.

That’s when Probe learned two things about its host:

  • They were asexual.
  • They were vengeful.

Utah spun around, flashing their mechanical foot blade. 

Then Probe was dirty again. Alpha’s fluids got everywhere, even between Probe’s micro-fibers. It was going to be a chore cleansing itself. 

It began the cleansing process, only to be interrupted by Utah’s tongue. They licked the metal knee clean, then got the thigh. Their own scales and feathers, Utah left a mess. It was like they intuited Probe’s wants and had given it a gift.

Probe responded in an equation that wouldn’t make sense to any native life. 

It was going to love being a leg on this planet.

© 2020 by John Wiswell
1,400 words
April 3rd, 2020

John (@wiswell) is a writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His stories have appeared at Fireside Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and Podcastle. He has a lifelong dream of being eaten by a T-Rex, and would settle for a robot one if you have affordable rates.