“Valley. Can you still hear me?”
Julian’s voice filtered through her dying radio. The Prince of Cats was a speck of light, dimming through the gold-grey film that, atom by atom, was devouring her helmet.
Valley tried to say something, anything. Failed.
Julian was sobbing on the other end. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so kzzzzzzchchchcffft—” and that was it. Her radio was gone.
“Oh god,” she breathed to herself, to no one. “Oh god,” I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. She sobbed once, twice, and then, with tears pooling in her eyes and the Prince of Cats invisible through the liquid, she found a pocket of calm, like stepping from a noisy bar onto a cool, quiet street.
Something brushed against her hand, and she cried out, startled. Her vision was still blurred by tears, and the thing dissolving her space suit was like an iridescent veil across the glass of her helmet, but through it all she could see the outline of her hand.
Not her glove.
The veil, delicate as a cobweb when it had floated innocuously through space, was finally at the layer of her skin. It felt like cool air at first, then like nothing. Then her fingernails tickled.
She was so surprised to see her bare hand, covered only in iridescent gauze, against the black of space, without the sensation of it freezing solid, that she forgot she was dying.
When she remembered, she screamed again. And as she screamed, the iridescent veil dissolved the final layer of her helmet glass and fell toward her face.
Hyperventilating, she felt it against her nose and forehead, cheeks and lips, like cold mist, and every time her breath sucked in, the thing moved further into her mouth. She tried to spit it out, but in it came, in and in and in, forcing past her coughing and gagging, pushing into her nose and ears, and–
And she could see again. It had absorbed her tears.
Her spacesuit was gone.
She was still alive.
Her scalp itched. She touched her head — her hair was gone, and her fingertips felt strangely sensitive, on the edge of pain. She looked at her hands — her fingernails were almost gone. The itching faded, and she felt the cobweb against every centimeter of her skin, enveloping her like water. It squeezed. It squeezed everywhere until she could barely breathe — and then released the moment before panic overtook her again.
It was in her eyes, but it didn’t resist as she blinked.
Her eyelashes were gone.
It wrapped around her teeth and tongue, against the roof of her mouth and the inside of her cheeks. She tried to swallow, and felt it lining her esophagus.
Nausea overcame her. She dry heaved until the feeling faded.
She floated through space, holding her knees and crying tears that were immediately absorbed, breathing without drawing air into her lungs, the spidersilk feel of the space thing that enveloped her like impossibly thin gloves between the skin of her hands, which should be frozen, and her shins, which should also be frozen.
The cobweb had penetrated every part of her. It had eaten every strand of hair and every fingernail and toenail. She was left with nothing else, like a forgotten mannequin in a dusty storeroom.
She realized she was in shock. But she wasn’t dead. She felt her toes and squeezed one where there should have been a toenail. It hurt.
Ok. It hurt. Ok. I really am alive.
Valley dreamed of all the ways this could have been avoided, tracing back the sequence of events all the way to her first fossil hunting trip with her parents when she was five. She cursed them for it. Then cried again. She put the memory away. No. You’ve taken everything else, you can’t have that.
Valley had still been working on her PhD when she and Julian found the first fossil. It was a small mystery, like a crumpled piece of laundry with a too-regular microtexture, on a Kuiper Belt meteorite on Titan. When the press release came out, tech billionaire Linda Wallis convinced herself — or at least her board — that it was extraterrestrial technology. She’d recruited Valley and Julian, a crew, and the Prince of Cats to go looking for ‘live ones’ in the Kuiper Belt. It was a crazy long shot, like Jefferson sending Lewis and Clark after mastodons. The media went crazy when Linda announced she was going herself. Valley hadn’t believed the technology hype, preferring the biological explanation she’d defended in her thesis. But the promise of exotic tech, and Linda’s force of personality, won the expedition ample funding.
And they did find ‘live ones’. Whether they were biological or technological seemed irrelevant after that. They seemed to feed on icy bodies, floating between Kuiper Belt objects like motes of dust in a dark room. Harmless, delicate, beautiful when the light caught them.
Something was crawling on her arm. It startled her out of her regrets. She grabbed at the spot that tickled, but found only cobweb. The feeling of the layers brushing against each other between her fingers and her forearm was firm and smooth, as if her skin were made of silk. It looked impossibly delicate — she could still see her brown skin through its iridescence — yet it was strong enough to keep her pressurized in the vacuum of space. The vibrations moved around her body, touching every part with varying strength before finally fading.
What is it doing? How am I alive?
It must be producing oxygen inside my respiratory system. She held her breath and counted. Thirty, sixty, a hundred and sixty… she didn’t need to inhale. OK that’s not disconcerting at all. She tried not to think about it, failed, started to panic again.
She was distracted by a light flickering across her shoulder. Then her arm.
At first she thought it was coming from a ship she couldn’t see. She tried to look behind her, but without leverage it was impossible. As the glow steadily increased and moved across her body, she realized it was the cobweb making it, emitting light against every surface it touched. Just like the vibrations. This is starting to feel like a calibration sequence.
Wait. Was that it? Was it trying to communicate? Blindly trying every spectrum?
“Sound,” she said. “I use sound! Talk to me!”
A vibration started in her throat, then moved out across her face and became a voice as it approached her ears. It was her own voice.
“Sound,” it said. “I use sound! Talk to me!”
OK, space cobweb. This, I can do.
It might have been hours or millennia before they reached a planet. Valley’s periods of unconsciousness were indeterminate, and each time she awoke, the stars were a mess. Constellations kept shifting, changing shape, and disappearing altogether. She didn’t know enough astronomy to guess where the cobweb was taking her, but everything she knew about physics told her it was impossibly far. She assumed her periods of unconsciousness were long cryogenic sleeps — but how long? How much time had passed? Was anyone she knew still alive? Did it matter, if she had no way of ever going back? And where the hell was this thing taking her?
She killed her waking time by talking to the cobweb. It wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but it learned to count eventually, and it could mimic anything she said. She named everything she could see out loud, which included body parts and stars and… that was it. She named the thing, officially, Cobweb.
And then, after countless sleeps, she finally woke to a horizon.
It was blue. The wrong blue. A gas giant orbiting a red sun. Clouds swirled and spun in lava lamp dances from pole to pole, turquoise and robin’s egg and white. She watched it quietly, for hours, before naming it.
“Planet,” she said.
“Planet,” said Cobweb.
“Sorry I’m not more creative.”
“Sorry I’m not more creative.” She accepted its apology.
And just as a small, red-orange sphere rose over Planet’s endless storms, she fell asleep again.
Dusty sand supported her when she woke, holding her hands and feet, arms and legs, neck and face against gravity. It felt strange to feel her weight again, and stranger to feel her face, nose and mouth buried in sand that didn’t irritate her eyes or threaten to fill her lungs. Cobweb had set her face-down on this moon. How could it know she wasn’t accustomed to slithering or rolling? It seemed to have simply dropped her in the position from which she was least likely to fall.
Inside the cobweb, she felt no difference between this atmosphere and empty space, and had no way of knowing if the air had oxygen, if it was cold, or what the wind felt like. She couldn’t even taste the sand in her mouth. But at least it looked different.
She lay there for a moment, weakened by long-term weightlessness but also elated to be touching ground. Any ground. She couldn’t feel the planet directly with her skin, but the cobweb was thin and she could feel the texture of the sand if she rubbed it between her fingers, the bumps of pebbles prodding her flesh.
When she did decide to stand, she realized she was far too weak. Everything had atrophied. And she was thin – emaciated, on the edge of starving. But not hungry. Cobweb made every molecule she needed, and nothing more.
“Come on, help me out. You brought us through Galaxy knows how much space but you can’t help me stand up?”
“Come on, help me out…” Mindless repetition. She sighed.
The landscape reminded her of Mars. The odds were against this atmosphere being breathable by humans, but she had no way of knowing. She was in a space suit still — just a very thin, weirdly intelligent space suit that liked to kidnap exopaleontologists and happened to be equipped for interstellar travel.
Interstellar travel. The phrase echoed in her mind as her eyes followed the brownish-red horizon, the double-shadows of the rocks and dunes, and the blue giant in the sky whose reflected light made weak, blue double shadows. She was truly in another solar system.
Everyone… Julian, Linda, her crew, her parents… all gone with time. Julian’s sobbing last words to her echoed across the plain. They were probably the last human words she would ever hear.
“Why did you bring me here?” she asked.
“Why did you bring me here?” Cobweb answered.
“Six days have passed,” Cobweb told her the moment the red sun fell below the horizon. It was the first day it had told her on its own.
Valley smiled. It felt weird. She hadn’t used her smile muscles in… how long?
The days were less objective than on Earth — she was on a moon, so there was the orbit of the moon around the blue gas giant she’d named Planet, and then there was the orbit of both bodies around the red sun. So some nights the gas giant was in the sky, and some nights it wasn’t. And then there were eclipses, which were basically nights. All that considered, this moon’s rotation felt like maybe half a day to Valley, and its orbit around Planet seemed only slightly longer. But she had no frame of reference except her own compromised biology.
“How many days since you kidnapped me?”
It echoed her, dumbly. She kept walking. It had learned how to support her weight and assist her movements, but nothing close to a concept as abstract as ‘kidnap’. She didn’t even know to explain ‘take’ without someone else from which to take something.
The sky was growing dark, but she wasn’t tired and even if there was danger, there was no shelter. It really did remind her of Mars. A dead world. If Cobweb had creators, there was no evidence of them here.
She tripped over something, and fell hard into sand and rocks. “Dammit! Ow. You can protect me from the freezing vacuum of space but not from a stupid rock? Thanks a lot. Jerk.”
It repeated everything back to her, including her childish outrage. She fumed silently while she picked herself up.
The rock she’d tripped over could just barely be made out in the light of the crescent blue giant.
Its edge was too straight. She dusted it off. Its right angles were worn smooth by wind, but it had definitely been rectangular once. Made of red sandstone.
There were more of them on either side of it and underneath. Identical.
She’d tripped over a wall.
Oh, hell. It thinks I’m an archaeologist. You and every cab driver and half my cousins.
“I’m a paleontologist, Cobweb. Exo-paleon-tologist.”
And yet, looking over that worn right angle in the soft blue light, the magnitude of the discovery made her heart race. There could be fossils yet to be found.
Morning light revealed the outline of a buried city. She’d seen places like this as an undergrad, on the way to Mesozoic field sites in New Mexico. Unexcavated ruins, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding stone and sand until you start to see a pattern that nature doesn’t make. Just take out all the sagebrush, and turn the sky a dusty orange, drop a blue gas giant in the sky and —
Holy shit, what is that? Something moved in the ruins and it wasn’t masonry. A… blob… four or five times her size, lurched toward her.
It was wrapped in the same diaphanous material she was, grayish and shining gold where the sun hit it.
The blob had its own cobweb.
How long had it been here? How was it still alive? Where was it from? Was it dangerous? Was it intelligent?
It was shapeless, amorphous, moved like a galloping amoeba. It slowed as it came close, then stopped about four body lengths away from her. Was it afraid?
She waved. For a second she had a mental image of the naked couple on the Voyager plate and laughed — nervous, too loud — startling herself. The blob twitched.
It was flickering vivid purple patterns across its skin, under its cobweb.
“Blue,” said Cobweb.
She shook her head. “Purple.”
She looked down at her own body. Cobweb had perfectly matched the shade, on the outside. She was a vivid purple from head to toe.
She wanted to try something. “Red,” she said. Her exterior turned red.
The blob lost its color. No red.
“Blue.” She turned the precise color of the only blue around — the gas giant they orbited. The blob changed a dull purple. Maybe it can only do purple, she thought. Maybe most of its light perception is in the ultraviolet range, and I can’t even see ninety percent of what it’s showing me.
She tried something else. “One.” Cobweb drew one line, a photographic replica in purple of the ones she’d drawn in the sand, across her chest. “Two. Three. Four.” Cobweb kept up, adding lines as she counted.
The blob matched her at four lines. Then showed her five. “Five!” she said, and Cobweb matched it. The blob showed a sixth. “Six!” Cobweb translated. Blob went to seven.
Excitedly, she said, “Planet!” Cobweb displayed a vivid, photographic rendition of what she’d seen in space as they approached this world. A screengrab from the moment she named it. She couldn’t see it all, but suddenly her hands were covered with stars, her legs and belly were the blue of the gas giant, and rising behind it, across her chest, was the unmistakable red-brown surface of the moon that all four of them now shared — human, blob, and the cobwebs covering each. Where’s your ‘Sorry I’m not more creative,’ now?
Blob displayed a similar image, but in shades of purple, and from a different angle of approach.
She clapped her hands with delight. In response, Blob protruded two pseudopods and tapped their ends together.
I’ve made friends with an alien!
They walked the ruins together, stopping to dig at interesting spots. The city had been huge, and they spent days exploring. Valley wondered at first if Blob was from this planet, maybe some more habitable region, and if Blob’s people had created the cobwebs — assuming the cobwebs had creators at all. But the way Blob poked and prodded at the stones the same way she did, curiously searching these ruins as if this place were just as strange to them as it was to Valley, convinced her they were in the same boat she was. Alone and far from home, wondering why they were here.
Another intelligence with its own cobweb in the mix gave Cobweb the chance to learn more abstract concepts, like “us,” “here,” and “there.” Blob expressed themselves in flashing purple patterns and bulbous protrusions, no sound. She wasn’t sure if they had eyes, but they seemed to see in every direction at once.
“Having someone else here,” she rambled, knowing nothing would translate but needing to talk, “someone I can look at, walk side by side with — probably ride, but that seems rude — and talk to, sort of, it’s incredible. It’s the best. It’s like a new best friend on the first day of kindergarten. And…” she said the next line over Cobweb’s mindless repetition, “It’s so fucking lonely, too.” The words were lost in Cobweb’s echoes. When they finally repeated back, she cringed.
When it had just been her, she could forget.
Now, Blob reminded her of everyone else she’d ever walked with. Everyone who was gone. She found herself telling Blob about thunderstorms and coffee and the Prince of Cats, and even though Cobweb couldn’t translate basically any of it and had no idea what the Prince of Cats or even Earth was, Valley would trail off mid-sentence, choking on a name whose face she was already forgetting.
“My chatter must sound like birdsong to you,” she said to Blob.
“Birdsong?” Cobweb asked.
Blob flashed inscrutable purple patterns.
Maybe they were rambling, too.
Thinking of Cobweb’s calibration sequence, Valley realized she and Blob had a lot in common. Considering the vast range of strengths of different frequencies — what if Blob’s bioluminescence had blinded her? What if her voice had deafened them? What if she’d towered over them and accidentally stepped on them, or vice versa? Shit, had she stepped on anyone already? What other beings were out there? How many worlds with ruins? What other languages did the cobwebs know?
Blob and Valley operated at comparable time scales — although sometimes Blob made lightning quick pattern changes, like flipping through the pages of a book.
She imagined Blob giving up in those ruins where she’d found them. Wandering for months — years — being kept alive by their cobweb. How long had they been there, staring at the ruined walls? If she hadn’t found Blob, Valley could see herself sitting down one day and letting the sand bury her. Was that what Blob had been doing when she found them?
Day twenty-one (so Cobweb announced at sunrise) arrived with a question. Cobweb might finally be ready to answer it. “How long has this been here?” she asked, then had to spend the morning teaching Cobweb “wall” and “city” and exponents.
The short answer, which took four hours to get to, was that Cobweb didn’t know.
“Come on, you work at a molecular level, you create oxygen and amino acids on the fly! You’re telling me you can’t do some simple radiometric dating?”
And as Cobweb repeated back every part it was confused about, which was all of it, she realized she would need to find something organic, or some material that had crystallized the same time the city was constructed. Glass might work. Masonry would only give the date the rocks were formed, and sandstone masonry would only give the date of the rock its sand was made of… and as she recited the fundamentals of her profession to herself, she had flashbacks to freshman geoscience… and for some reason that TA, Miranda, the one she’d had a crush on… and then she started to cry again.
Fuck this planet.
She yelled the thought as loud as she could, and kicked the sand.
Blob came up to her, protruded a lump near their base, and kicked the sand with it.
Valley was startled to hear her own laughter.
Excavating became their life. They conversed in purple shapes and sand drawings, while digging and digging and digging. Valley dug with her hands, Cobweb reinforcing them into trowels, and Blob moved vast amounts of sand with a shovel-shaped pseudopod. Valley drew when they got tired. She taught Blob and Cobweb the alphabet, the positions of the stars she remembered from her own sky, silly symbols like hearts and smiley faces. She tried to teach Cobweb the different emotions, but it only seemed to understand them as chemical signals, which, when she thought about it, they were.
While Blob could replicate her sand drawings with perfect purple accuracy, Valley had no way of reproducing Blob’s flashing patterns. She would have to name the patterns she noticed, tell Cobweb the name, and have Cobweb display it back to Blob. But she never noticed the same thing twice. Maybe the meaningful parts were outside her visible spectrum, faster than she could observe, or maybe her brain just wasn’t built to recognize them. They would have to create a shared language in the media they had in common. Maybe their cobwebs could do the rest, eventually.
Cobweb now understood, at least sometimes, the difference between a statement and a question. That meant she could ask it things, and she discovered it was able to answer in pictures, displayed just in front of her eyes, in a kind of cave-painting-and-photograph head-up display. “Where is Blob?” returned a photographic rendition of Blob next to a rock or wherever they happened to be at that moment.
She drew her ship. The Prince of Cats. She made it as detailed as possible. Blob watched intently in their eyeless, faceless way, and displayed a perfect rendition of her drawing back to her, as creases and ridges in dust, sprawled life-size across their skin. She wondered if they even understood it as symbolic, or if they thought she was just playing in the dirt.
She looked intently at her masterpiece, and said, “Prince of Cats.”
“Prince of Cats,” Cobweb agreed.
“Picture. Use picture.” It obliged by showing her a perfect photograph of what she had just drawn, the same as Blob had done.
“Show me things like this that you and I have seen together.” It displayed a series of rocks, patterns in the sand, features on hillsides. She kept shaking her head. Finally it showed a comet — a KBO? — that vaguely resembled the outline. Maybe it was going back in time.
There it was! “Yes! The Prince of Cats! Yes!” It held the image. She felt her eyes make tears at the sight of it, and she felt Cobweb absorb them before they could fall. The Prince of Cats was beautiful. It had been her home for two years. She’d done the most important work of her career inside that tin can.
Her throat knotted. The Prince of Cats was long gone. Its crew were dust.
Had they made it home? Had Istry finished his book? Had Omar ever asked Reed out? Had Julian ever forgiven himself for forgetting her tether? And Linda — that psycho. Had her investors been happy when the Prince of Cats returned down a crew member but up an observation? Had they ever figured out what the cobwebs were?
And her mom and dad. Had they coped…? Oooh, Mom. I’m so sorry. Daddy…
She stared into the sand. Were there more grains or regrets?
“How long has it been?” she asked, her voice choking up with chemical signals that only she knew were emotions.
“One thousand and twelve days,” it answered.
How… Wait what?
She tried to guess how many Earth days that was. Maybe two years? How could that be possible? The Prince of Cats would barely be back near Saturn Station.
She needed to share this with Blob.
“Show the Prince of Cats to Blob,” she told it. Blob displayed it back to her instantaneously, then surprised her by overlaying her sand drawing on top of it. It was all in shades of violet. She nodded and smiled. Blob protruded a bulbous appendage that nodded back at her.
“Tell Blob it’s been one thousand and twelve days since we saw the Prince of Cats.”
Blob flashed violet patterns. They seemed contemplative.
“Cobweb, do you think Blob’s species hugs?”
This of course was too abstract, even if Cobweb had any way of knowing what a hug was. Anyway, she didn’t want to make Blob uncomfortable. So she drew a heart in the sand.
There must be something they were meant to find here, on this planet, some reason their cobwebs had brought them here.
The scientist in her kept digging, counting, drawing symbols in the sand.
One evening, when the blue giant had eclipsed its sun and the sky was filled with bright strange stars, Blob showed her their own ship. A purple cylinder floating in a purple star field appeared across their skin. The image panned around the ship, and then zoomed in on a star behind it. They’d composed a whole video.
“Is that your sun?” Their cobwebs translated what they could of the question from her sound into Blob’s violet patterns, and Blob nodded a protrusion. She wasn’t convinced they’d understood her question, though. Cobweb was still finding possessives a challenge.
“You’re homesick.” There was no translation. She tried something else. “Prince of Cats.” Cobweb displayed her ship. Blob nodded.
Valley fell asleep staring up at the endless stars, filled with hopeless frustration she didn’t know how to express.
It was a bright day. The sky was less dusty than usual and Planet was so crisp on the horizon she could see its clouds.
A good day for an abstract concept.
“Show Blob over by that wall,” she said. Cobweb knew which wall she meant because she was looking at it; she didn’t even need to gesture. Although to Cobweb, she supposed, a glance was just a gesture with a small wet body part.
It displayed an image of Blob near the wall. She got excited. Blob was not currently near the wall. They were right there in front of her.
Blob seemed excited too. They flashed purple, then, to her surprise and delight, lurched their way toward the wall, and stopped right where the image had shown them. She clapped her hands and nodded.
Blob nodded in response and clapped protrusions, then lurched back toward her.
An idea came to her as they approached, one of those ideas so obvious in retrospect you can’t help but laugh to yourself out loud, and Valley did.
Cobweb had brought her here to meet Blob, not find the ruins. There was nothing in the ruins.
It had landed her near Blob and subtly directed her to Blob’s location because their communication systems were so compatible. Or perhaps Blob was just the closest sentient lifeform of any kind. Either way — the goal of the cobwebs was to make introductions. That had to be it.
Perhaps Cobweb had not, after all, mistaken her for an exoarchaeologist. Of course they’d found nothing in the ruins. The ruins were incidental. They were meant to find each other.
Back at her side, Blob displayed an image of Valley standing by a large rock, about thirty feet away.
It was the first time she’d seen herself since she was on board the Prince of Cats. She was thrilled to see a human form, though it was purple, covered in the skintight cobweb, hairless and emaciated and effectively nude. She wondered briefly what non-living accessories Blob had started out with. She didn’t know how to ask. Fur? Scales? A carapace? Clothes? Integument came in so many forms.
She stood up and walked over to the rock, just where Blob had shown her. Blob flashed purple, nodded and clapped. Valley did the same, except the purple part, and ran back over to Blob.
She grabbed a rock. “Take this over to the wall,” she said. Cobweb didn’t know what to make of “take this”, but showed her the rock at the wall. “Show Blob and the rock at the wall.” It obliged.
Blob protruded a limb toward her. She held out the rock in her hand. “Take,” she said, as Blob picked up the rock from the palm of her hand.
“Take,” Cobweb repeated.
Blob lurched back to the wall, and gently set the rock down at its base, where Cobweb had shown it.
She clapped and nodded.
Now for the real test. Cobweb had taken her light years against her will. Could it take her twenty feet on command? “Cobweb. Take Valley to the wall.”
She felt her arms and legs move without her control. It was more terrifying than she thought it would be, but she tried to relax and let Cobweb move her. It was not unlike the way it assisted her movements normally, but totally giving up control was disconcerting and she kept tensing up involuntarily.
The movements were slow and jerky. Halfway there she felt a muscle cramp up, and her leg stiffened. Cobweb stopped its motions and she fell over. Blob rushed to her side. They couldn’t possibly understand that she was in pain, but they surely recognized motions that were unusual for her. Did they guess what she was trying to do?
Blob helped her up. She wondered again if their species hugged.
“How could I leave you alone here? We still have so much to learn about each other.”
The next morning, when she was fully awake and sitting up in the sand, trying to remember what coffee tasted like, Blob approached her. They displayed their purple cylinder ship in its purple sky, extended a protrusion, and gently touched her arm. On the protrusion was an image of a heart, drawn in lavender sand.
Then Blob collapsed into a crumpled piece of laundry.
Their cobweb was empty.
It ruffled slightly in the wind.
“No, no, no… Blob?? Blob?!” She crouched and reached toward the cobweb, then stopped short of grabbing it. It looked so fragile.
In the right environment, the empty, crumpled cobweb might, over time, be preserved between layers of sediment, and flattened into a fossil like the one she and Julian had found on that meteorite on Titan. The one she’d written her thesis on. The one that had started all this bullshit. The one that, eventually, had led her here, to Blob.
“Cobweb. Where is Blob?” She could hear the panic in her voice. Old terror crept back into her stomach, that fear of being eaten alive, the memory of the certainty of death when her helmet first caved in under the thousand microscopic mouths of a grey-gold film in space.
Cobweb displayed an arrow drawn in sand, a photographic replica of one she’d drawn when teaching it directions. It pointed up and to the left. Her eyes followed it until it hovered over a nondescript spot in the bright, dust-filled sky.
She remembered Blob’s last message. The image of their ship.
“Cobweb, what happened to Blob?”
“Blob is not here.”
“Damn it, Cobweb, I need a better answer! Is Blob hurt?”
“Blob is not hurt.”
“Can I see Blob?”
“Can I see?” Cobweb didn’t understand.
“Show me Blob.” Cobweb showed Blob as they’d looked right in front of her the moment before they disappeared.
She sat in the sand and dropped her face into her hands.
Blob had left her alone, with only Cobweb and the silent ghosts of this nameless, galaxy-forsaken moon.
She woke in a dust storm. Cobweb protected her skin and eyes, but she couldn’t see anything and didn’t feel like doing anything even if she could have. She lay in the sand and let the dust cover her.
How many sentient beings were buried in cobwebs on ruined worlds?
She thought of the first time she’d met Blob, the way they moved toward her — excitedly, she now realized — across those ruins. The first time Blob touched two pseudopods together after she clapped her hands. She thought of Blob’s excited purple flashing, and their shared moment of discovery when they taught their cobwebs ‘take’.
Had Blob told their cobweb to take them away? To take them home? Could it be that simple? But how had they travelled? It had seemed instantaneous, and Blob had left their cobweb behind. Maybe Blob’s species had some trick? Maybe they’d been rescued somehow?
Then another thought occurred to her. “Cobweb,” she whispered, “take me to Blob’s cobweb.”
She blacked out.
When she woke, the dust storm still raged but the sand under her had shifted. She felt around. It wasn’t anywhere in front of her.
She sat up. A crumpled, empty cobweb was just behind her, laying in the center of a human-shaped depression in the sand.
“Incredible,” she whispered. That wasn’t Blob’s cobweb. It was hers. She was in Blob’s cobweb now. It felt identical.
“How many cobwebs have I had?”
“Three thousand nine hundred and twenty nine.”
It was her own voice, just like her cobweb had used. She’d realized the cobwebs must share information from the way they facilitated her and Blob’s communication, but now it was obvious they were more intricately networked. They didn’t just transmit information. They transmitted matter. That was why they didn’t need propulsion. That was how they kept her and Blob alive on a planet that had only rocks and air.
There could be trillions of them. They could be in every solar system in the galaxy, undetected by civilizations like her own until adventurers like Julian and Linda and herself — and Blob — journeyed to their comet belts, where the cobwebs grazed and left trace fossils between accretion layers.
Blob had figured it all out, but hadn’t known how to tell her. They could only show her by example.
And Cobweb. All the cobwebs. They couldn’t just plant her on some inhabited world and expect the natives to treat her with respect — no, they had done this many times and knew how fucked up social species could be. They had to make introductions on worlds where two beings would be forced to become friends.
It had worked.
She thought of her ship mates. Linda’s constant string of profanity, which had apparently rubbed off on Valley more than she’d realized, and the rest of the crew — Istry with his dark sexy shoulders and quiet hours writing. Omar and Reed’s constant flirtation in the engine room. And Julian. Stupid, space-mad Julian who’d gotten her into this mess in the first place with a forgotten tether.
I am gonna kick your ass for this, Julian. …After hugging you really, really hard.
Valley closed her eyes. It seemed like a good time for a deep breath, but she hadn’t breathed in months, so she shrugged instead. No way is this going to work.
“Cobweb. Take me to the Prince of Cats.”
And the red world faded, and she fell asleep.
No spacesuit was needed. She floated outside the hull of the Prince of Cats, a layer thin as breath between her skin and the void. She was Valley, and she was Cobweb, and she was something else.
She’d come out here, to the Kuiper Belt, to find a fossil. Now she had a universe to share. A species of Blobs to introduce them to. A story that actually involved space archaeology, for all those distant relatives who only half-remembered her profession.
Someone noticed her through the window of the starboard cupola. Linda. A coffee mug fell from her hand, brown liquid splashed against the pane. Her mouth formed the shape of a four letter word. She turned and shouted to someone out of view.
“Cobweb, are you picking up any radio signals?”
Oh, there was still so much to teach this thing.
Someone else appeared in the window, next to Linda. It was Julian. He held up a piece of paper, letters hastily scrawled.
“Valley,” said Cobweb.
She nodded. “Would you write something back to him for me, Cobweb?” She spelled it out, and the letters appeared across her torso, replicas of ones she’d drawn in sand.
NEED HUGS THO.
She wondered, as the airlock door inched open, if there was any hot coffee left. And then a terrifying thought occurred to her. What if she couldn’t taste it?