“Shmoof,” Basil announced. “It’s this powdery stuff that puffs up into a big kind of blob when you pour water on it. If you eat it right away, it goes on swelling in your stomach and makes you feel like you’re about to burst.”
“Real,” Bonty declared. “I’ve had it.”
Bonty usually won their games of ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’. She liked to pat her round belly and joke that it was because she was a Bonshoon, and Bonshooni loved their food, but the simple truth was that she was three-and-a-half thousand years old and had tried just about everything. Moreover, she had an endless supply of random noises that she could insist were foods that no longer existed, and not even the Conch’s computer could prove she was lying.
“Alright, Bonty,” Hartigan sat back and raised his glass in a toast. “The round is yours. Let’s hear your next outburst of appalling claptrap.”
“Marglegargle,” Bonty pronounced happily.
“Real,” Scrutarius said immediately. “Although it’s better known by its main ingredient, Madame Margolyse, Marglegargle is a sort of warm drink made from the stuff. Disgustingly sweet.”
“Does that count as a food?” Chillybin asked. “If it is a drink … ”
“Ah, point of order,” Hartigan straightened in his armchair. “As Captain, I need to deliberate on this before making a ruling. When would one usually drink this Marglegargle? And would one drink it from a glass, or a mug, or a bowl?”
“Usually a bowl,” Devlin admitted, “and it’s usually served as a dessert rather than a – what do you call it? A nightcap?”
“Well then, I say it qualifies in the same way gazpacho did,” Hartigan declared, picked up a spoon from his empty supper plate and tapped the side of his glass. “Round to Devlin.”
“I still think you made gazpacho up,” Galana said, “and the computer is in cahoots with you.”
“Why, Commander Fen,” Hartigan said, “the very thought.”
They didn’t usually talk about food, because sooner or later Wicked Mary would always say something horrible and make it creepy. But right now she was off the general comm grid and even her giela – rebuilt since their run-in with the Fudzu – was offline. She was hunting Squirty Pete III, the battle squid they’d grown for her, and had promised to only check in if she needed medical attention. Galana had long since stopped worrying about their mission failing due to their Fergunakil crewmember being killed by her own dinner. Wicked Mary was, it seemed, quite invincible.
The game went on late into the night, shipboard standard, at which point the human and the aki’Drednanth retired to sleep. Molran, Bonshoon and Blaran went back to their quarters as well.
The next morning, they were all in high spirits. It was finally time to come out of the grey and make another planetary survey, the next stop in their long journey around the galaxy. They had reason to believe the planet they would be visiting had life – perhaps even intelligent life. It had looked promisingly vegetation-covered and hospitable from their last stop. Furthermore, another planet they had visited a few jumps back had given them an even more exciting clue. On the surface of that waterless and otherwise uninhabited world, they’d found a broken-down and frozen machine. It had been a probe of some kind, resting in the middle of a crater.
There hadn’t been much left of it, but the Conch had figured out enough to guess a few things. It had used a very clever but not-particularly-advanced form of relative drive, but it had been a one-way ticket for the machine, probably as a test. The drive and generator had burned out and dissolved neatly on arrival, but the probe had remained. And with it, a name: Zoogo Zaroy.
Well, the Conch had been fairly certain it was a name. There hadn’t been much information to work with. Years on the inhospitable planet’s surface had eroded most of the markings on and inside the machine. But there were icons for inventor or professor, and others for exploration and contact and faster-than-light travel, and even soft-space – all of these were complex concepts, and the art of figuring out sounds from alien symbols was even more intricate, but the Conch’s computer was very good at its job.
There had been some disagreement about Zoogo Zaroy, though, because there just didn’t seem to be any translation for it. Just the sounds that the computer insisted the symbols represented. This was what had inspired their games of ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’, in the spirit of gentle ribbing.
As a result, they had been looking forward to arriving at ‘Zoogo’s World’ for a long time.
“Here we go then,” Hartigan said cheerfully, and the drab grey of soft-space was replaced with the darkness of space. Zoogo’s World, still as green and blue and pleasant-looking as it had been several hundred light-years away, rose into view. “Computer?”
“We have buildings,” the Conch reported. Hartigan, Scrutarius and Bonty all cheered in a slightly non-regulation manner, but Galana didn’t comment. She felt like cheering herself. It had been a long time since they’d found anything remotely interesting.
“Jolly good,” Hartigan said. “Can we send them a message in the language we found on the probe, tell them-”
“I’m sorry, Basil,” the Conch said. “There are buildings, there is evidence of active technology, but the only life signs I am detecting are small animals, local wildlife. No sign of habitation in the buildings. Nothing intelligent.”
“So … we’ve arrived too late?” Hartigan asked unhappily. “Nothing but ruins? Of all the jolly rotten luck … ”
“Not exactly,” the Conch replied. “Everything is in good repair, it seems like everything has only just stopped. The inhabitants are gone but the buildings are not ruined, or even overgrown.”
“Fled?” Bonty asked. “A battle, perhaps?”
“There is no sign of evacuation, and even less signs of any sort of fighting,” Wicked Mary reported. “Everything is intact down there, as the computer said. But I don’t think this was a very big settlement.”
“I would have to do a full orbital scan,” the Conch agreed, “but the buildings we have already seen would appear to be the only ones. It is a very small set of structures, hardly what one might consider a civilisation.”
“Unless they happen to be as tiny as the Nyif Nyif,” Scrutarius put in.
“There is that possibility,” the Conch conceded. “It seems unlikely from our study of the probe, but ‑ ”
“I say, is this an inhabited planet or another deserted bit of work by some aliens from another planet, like the probe?” Hartigan demanded.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Basil,” the Conch replied patiently. “It doesn’t seem to be either. There are no spaceports. I have spotted a couple of small platforms that may have been used to launch the probe we found. There’s a set of what look like laboratories or research centres, although of course alien architecture is hard to identify. And it is all deserted.”
“No sign of anything dangerous?” Hartigan pressed. “Toxins in the air, viruses? Interdimensional fire beasts the size of a solar system ready to jump out of soft-space and burn us all to a crisp?”
“Underground constructions with two hundred billion Damorakind hiding in them?” Scrutarius joined in.
“Lost aki’Drednanth subspecies that have been liberated and slaughtered all intelligent life on the planet?” Chillybin added. “Oh, wait … I should be the one telling you about that.”
“Yes yes, we’re all very clever and amusing,” the Conch said. “No, Basil, it looks fine down there. It is a very small settlement, a few buildings that could be laboratories, and nothing alive aside from a few birds and small animals.”
“We are getting a steady signal from one of the buildings,” Chillybin reported, “but it is just a beacon, or a random signal showing that some machine or other is still switched on. Whatever happened down there, it happened very recently.”
“No comms though?” Galana asked.
“No, Commander,” Chillybin replied. “Just a single tone.”
“You’re about to suggest we go down there,” Galana said, “aren’t you?”
“Well I wasn’t about to suggest we turn around and head off on another four-month jaunt through the bally grey, Fen,” Hartigan said cheerfully, and jumped to his feet. “Detach the Nella!”
Galana sighed. “Yes, Captain.”
They landed not far from the outskirts of the little cluster of buildings, actually using the handy landing pad that had apparently been used to launch a rocket containing the probe they’d found. Judging by the state of the probe and the run-down look of the machinery around the pad, it had been some years since the last launch. The rest of the settlement was tidier and not so long-abandoned … although it was clearly still abandoned.
Hartigan, Galana, Bonty, Chillybin, Scrutarius and Wicked Mary walked into the silent, eerie settlement. They moved slowly and cautiously, scanning all the while.
“Seems like a nice place,” Hartigan remarked. He looked around. “Quiet, though.”
“Yes,” Galana frowned at her scanner. “According to this, there aren’t even any birds or wildlife in this area. Nothing bigger than a bug.”
“What size of a bug?” Devlin asked with the ghost of a smile.
“Small,” Galana said.
They crept into the largest building, and stopped just inside the doorway.
“Well,” Captain Hartigan said, “I don’t think any of us were expecting to see that.”
Just inside the entrance, a strange object sat on the floor. At first Galana thought it was an alien life-form crouching there, some kind of gelatinous gastropod or other mollusc. It was like a large rounded disc of lumpy brown, with a second smaller disc lying on top of it, which in turn was decorated with pale brown globes that might have been eyes or buds or…
“I hate to be that Bonshoon, but is that a cake?” Bonty asked.
Galana blinked. The object did look like a large confectionery dessert, smothered in decorative icing. As she looked across the large, clean space, she saw three … no, four, five more of the objects, each one different. Some were on the floor, others slumped on the strange articles of alien furniture and machinery around the room. Some were bright pink and blue, others a rich brown and black, others white and decorated with little crystalline flowers of what looked like sugar.
“Yes,” Galana said. She stepped over to the closest of the strange objects and held her scanner over it. She read sugars and fats, complex chains of phosphates and acids … it was inert, reconstituted from naturally occurring ingredients, and had apparently been baked at a high temperature. It was a cake. “Yes, it would seem to be a cake.”
“This one too,” Bonty said from the far side of the room, where a large intricate pink and purple thing was slumped over what looked like a broken container full of dirt. “It appears to be a fruit cake of some kind.”
“I would recommend strongly against eating any of these cakes,” Galana said.
“Now really Fen, what kind of fools do you take us for?” Hartigan said.
Wicked Mary had clicked forward, scooped up a handful of creamy topping from another of the cakes, and smeared it underneath the lenses and scanners on her giela’s head. “Yes,” she said, planting her cake-messy hands on her gleaming metal hip-joints. “We do have some self-control, Commander.”
Galana sighed. “Anyone with organic components that cannot be chemically sterilised on returning to the ship,” she said, “don’t touch the cakes.”
Aside from the unusually large assortment of cakes, however, and the fact that they all appeared to have been freshly-made in the past few hours, there was nothing much to see in the strange alien laboratory. They did locate a few devices with similar markings to those found on the probe, which confirmed their theory that the device had come from this site, or at least that the same alien culture was responsible for both relics. It would, however, take some time for the Conch to translate any of it.
“I believe this is a workstation personally belonging to Zoogo Zaroy,” Wicked Mary called from a small side-chamber. They joined her, and found another tidy room filled with more complex machinery and a large, particularly delicious-looking layered cake covered in swirls of pale purple cream. “There is another cake here,” the giela added, “under what looks like some sort of scanning machine.”
“What was the active tech that was giving off the signal we picked up?” Scrutarius asked.
“Whatever it is, it’s in the next building,” Chillybin reported. “Nothing is actually being communicated, so I think it must be a generator of some kind. Maybe a solar battery.”
“Let’s go and check it out,” Hartigan said, and scratched his face in irritation. “I think there are bugs here,” he grumbled. “Probably fruit flies or something, attracted to the sugar I expect … Bonty, careful with the samples but let’s see if we can’t give one or two of these cake thingies a bit of a good old analysis, what?”
“Copy that, Captain,” Bonjamin replied, and pulled out a bio-sample container.
They checked the other buildings, but aside from the bulky shape of what did indeed look like a solar-powered battery power source of some kind, and several more cakes, they didn’t find anything of interest. Now that she was looking for them, Galana noticed several more of the desserts scattered around in the undergrowth and pathways around the little scientific outpost. These ones had definitely been smudged and flattened by the elements and probably – as Hartigan had guessed – by the local fauna. The absence of larger scavengers was still a mystery, however.
She frowned at the Captain, who was muttering and scratching and now seemed to have several unpleasant-looking white growths on his face and hands.
“Captain,” she said, “something here is affecting you. Badly.”
“What? Nonsense, just a couple of rotten old bug bites,” Hartigan scoffed, and picked at one of the little sores. He frowned and crumbled the white substance between his fingers. “That’s odd.”
“Captain?” Galana took a half-step towards him, then froze when she saw the thick, clear amber fluid oozing from the wound. It wasn’t blood, but she didn’t know enough about human anatomy to say what it was. Hartigan’s eyes rolled back in his head and he staggered. “Tactical Officer Mary,” Galana went on quickly, “please help the Captain back to the Nella. Doctor, Chief, we’re leaving. Chillybin, we need to … Chilly?”
The aki’Drednanth was standing in the doorway of the main laboratory building, opening and closing one of her giant refrigerated gloves slowly.
“I think this is also affecting me,” she said, moving her fingers slowly and meticulously to transcribe the words.
“Back to the Nella,” Galana said, fighting down a sudden bolt of panic. We should have run more tests. Atmospheric analyses. We should have sent the giela in first. “Back to the Nella, now.”
The shuttle section had a minimal med station, but on a moment’s consideration Galana set them to launch and headed back to the main ship. The Fergunakil’s aquarium was a whole separate environmental system and the rest of them were already as exposed as they were going to be, so the benefit of the main medical bay outweighed the risk of bringing an infection on board. As an added precaution, however, she had the Conch shut down and isolate the OxyGen life support. The last thing they wanted was the crystal core and their air and food generation system to get infected. If they hadn’t solved this by the time they ran out of breathable air – the Conch could hold a couple of shipboard days’ worth – then it was likely all over anyway. The computer, and Wicked Mary, could perform a full purge and then figure out what to do next.
The Captain, meanwhile, was worsening steadily. By the time Wicked Mary set him down on the little bed and Bonty began to examine him, he was mumbling and shivering. The white sores had run together in a sort of crust and was steadily weeping sticky yellow-brown fluid.
Bonty identified it almost immediately.
“It’s sugar,” she said.
Galana looked across from where she and Scrutarius were helping Chillybin out of her suit. “Excuse me?” she said.
“Not Earth-plant sugar, of course,” Bonty went on, “a sort of variant that seems to be distilling out of Basil’s blood. And this – this stuff – seems to be some sort of syrup,” she touched one of the oozing sores with a sensor, and Hartigan groaned in pain. “Fen, his body is converting into … into food.”
“You mean he’s turning into a cake,” Scrutarius said. “Something on that planet turned the last bunch of settlers into cakes, and now it’s doing the same thing to us.”
“We don’t seem to be affected yet,” Galana said, “but it may just be slower to work on us. Molran, Bonshoon and Blaran immune systems are ‑ ” they finally got the envirosuit open and Chillybin staggered out in a cloud of freezing vapour and an almost immediate sickly sweet smell. Aki’Drednanth didn’t smell particularly good at the best of times when they came out of their freezer suits and began to thaw a bit, but the smell that was now exuding from beneath her fur was somehow even worse because it was so pleasant. “Doctor Bont,” Galana went on urgently.
“Coming, coming,” Bonty slipped a sedative into the Captain’s bloodstream – or syrup-stream, perhaps, by that stage – and hurried over to help Galana with the aki’Drednanth. The enormous beast towered over them and could have lifted one of them in each hand, but she let them shuffle her over to a patch of floor near the med machines and allowed Bonty to examine her. “She doesn’t seem to have the same symptoms as the Captain,” she said. “There’s still a sort of sugar forming, but it’s more like – like a frozen fatty layer … what do humans call it? Ice cream?”
“They’re turning into different sorts of cakes,” Galana said, remembering the variety of strange alien desserts that had been lying around the laboratories. “Probably because they have different chemical compositions and operate at different temperatures. There were no people or larger animals in the immediate area because they’d all been affected. What else do we know?”
“Whatever it is, it was airborne,” Bonty said. “Particles hitting the skin, or being breathed in. Bloody Mary was the only one to touch a cake, and nobody ate any, yet it affected Basil first, and Chilly not long after.”
“And it is not affecting us,” Galana said, “yet. What else didn’t it affect?”
“There were bugs,” Scrutarius said. “Even in the affected area.”
“And plants,” Bonty added. “The plants weren’t being converted. Except I think there was one in the lab, the cake lying on the tipped over pot of dirt, I think that might have been a test to convert a plant, but it hadn’t spread to other plants. I got samples, I’ll need to analyse them … ”
By the time they reconnected to the Conch and got the Captain and Chillybin to the medical bay, both patients had begun to change shape. Their limbs and bodies were shifting, softening, and contracting into the familiar rounded layers of Zaroy’s cakes. Hartigan’s sugar-encrusted, syrup-running skin was turning into a glazed crust, and Chilly’s grey-white fur was vanishing into a marbled swirl of fluffy white and blue ice cream. Neither of them were able to talk, and both were struggling to breathe as their organs failed – or, more accurately, simply ceased to exist.
Even worse, Devlin grimly raised a hand and showed them a spreading pattern of dark brown lines under the skin.
“It feels hot,” he said, “and it’d getting hotter.”
“I have made some preliminary translations of the symbols found in the laboratory,” the Conch said, “and cross-checked them against the markings on the probe.”
“Go ahead,” Galana said, and went on passing samples and solutions back and forth between Bonjamin and the medical scanner. She was starting to feel a slowly-building feverish heat in her throat and legs, but didn’t have time to stop and examine herself. Hartigan was shrinking and condensing still further, grotesque and quivering. The molecules that had made up his body were converting, the excess trailing away as slightly discoloured water or baking off him as steam as his cake-form cooked to readiness. Soon there would be nothing left.
“It seems Zoogo Zaroy was indeed an inventor, although perhaps a more obvious title would be ‘mad scientist’,” the Conch explained. “He was sent to this planet, exiled here with a small group of followers. I am not sure of the crimes he committed on his home planet, but his intentions seem to have been benign. He had plans to feed the hungry, cure the sick … it seems as though his methods were quite mad, but his species did not want to kill him just in case he managed to succeed. So they sent him to a planet where he could experiment to his heart’s content.”
“And the probe?” Bonty asked. “Galana, run the conversion simulator on that sample from the plant-cake. And here, check it against these readings from the unaffected local plant material I collected.”
“The probe was something of a side-experiment,” the Conch continued. “As Zaroy’s madness deepened, he decided he deserved to return in triumph to his home world. He thought he’d found a way, and the probe was intended to test the relative speed engine he’d put together. It probably crashed by accident, or was intercepted by his people and dropped on the planet where we found it.”
“Where are his people now?” Devlin said. His voice was hoarse and pained. “Did he infect them? Why didn’t they stop us from landing?”
“Unknown,” the Conch replied. “His work continued. He was working on a virus, or a smart nano-reprogrammer, that would be able to generate edible food from basic materials. Sugars and other molecules, reconstituted from various matter. He … liked cakes, and so his first attempt was intended to convert ‑ ”
“A small laboratory fruit plant into a fruit cake,” Bonty said.
“What happened?” Galana asked.
“His creation multiplied out of control,” the Conch said. “It converted his assistants, and all the other nearby life-forms, into cakes. Including the great Zoogo Zaroy himself, before he could do anything to stop it or reverse it.”
“But it did stop,” Bonty said. “The entire planet’s biosphere wasn’t made into cakes – just that little area around the settlement. What ‑ ”
“Where is Basil?” the computer said suddenly.
“That’s him on the examination table,” Galana said wearily, and when she waved a hand at the slowly-pulsating half-cake monstrosity on the slab, she saw that her skin had darkened and seemed to be bubbling.
“Basil?” the Conch cried out, its voice alarmingly worried considering it was just a computer. “Basil, can you hear me? Basil!”
“Hearing – that’s it!” Bonty gasped. “The sound. The conversion particles are being activated by the signal from the generator down on the surface. That’s why it hasn’t spread beyond the immediate area of the settlement. And it’s still affecting us up here because something in the signal that we picked up is still repeating on the – computer, are we still picking up the signal from the surface?”
“Basil, speak to me!” the computer wailed.
“Mary, shoot that ‑ ”
“Already rolling us into position, delicious Doctor,” Wicked Mary reported.
“And shut up with the ‘delicious’ talk for once in your big wet smelly life,” Bonty snapped. Her short temper was so out of character that for a moment it jolted Galana out of her deepening daze.
“Wait,” she gasped, “what if you’re wrong about the generator? What if we lose something we need down there?”
“At this stage we haven’t got much to lose,” Bonty said grimly. Galana noticed, although her eyesight was blurring, that her old friend had begun developing a strange pattern of glistening toffee-coloured stripes on her face and hands. “Mary?”
“The generator is destroyed,” Wicked Mary confirmed. “Quite a lot of the surrounding area too. It was … rather more explosive than I had estimated.”
“Wait,” Bonty said, frowning and leaning over the scanner. “The conversion has stopped,” she reported in relief.
“What about reversing it?” Galana asked.
“I can try simply switching the signal patterns from positive to negative and then playing the new signal over the comm system,” Wicked Mary suggested. “It may throw the process into reverse.”
Galana attempted to raise her ears, but they felt stiff and heavy. It didn’t seem likely that she would be able to hear the signal anyway. “Wouldn’t Zaroy have thought of that?” she wheezed.
“I don’t see why, Commander,” Wicked Mary replied. “He was mad, you know.”
To everybody’s relief – especially, for some strange reason, the computer’s – the horrifying process that Devlin later dubbed ‘the cakening’ slowly reversed. Hartigan and Chillybin were critically drained of vital nutrients as a result of the extremity of their change, but fortunately Bonty was sufficiently recovered to set them up with everything they needed from the med bay. Within a month, Chillybin was back in her freezer and galloping up and down in full health. Within three months, Basil was back on his feet and hobbling, a little frailly, along the corridors and insisting that his moustache still smelled ‘liquoricey’.
It took a while for them to fully isolate and clean out the Zaroy particles responsible for the cakening, but with the signal to keep them inert they were able to reconnect the life support system and continue their work at leisure as they continued on their way through soft-space. The crew unanimously decided that if they ever came across the species that had exiled Zoogo Zaroy to what had turned out to be his final resting place, that species could count itself damn lucky if they didn’t drop a waste canister full of the particles and a planetary signal booster unit from high orbit, and leave them to it. Part of being an AstroCorps crew was taking the high road and doing the right thing, Hartigan said, but getting turned into a bally cake was a bit too bally much if anyone were to bally well ask him.
And the next time they all gathered together in the Captain’s quarters for supper, not one of them suggested playing the ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’ game.
Not even Wicked Mary.
Soon, in The Fang of God:
It had snuck up on them without warning, completely unexpected and catching them completely unawares.
“Ten years,” Basil shook his head. “Has it really?”
“According to the ship’s calendar,” Galana said pointlessly, “yes. We departed from Declivitorion-On-The-Rim on this day exactly ten years ago.”
“You know what this means,” Scrutarius said with a wide grin.
“Please no,” Galana murmured.
“Yes,” Devlin beamed. “According to ancient spacefaring tradition ‑ ”
“It is not ancient,” Galana protested. “It was made up by a single AstroCorps crew who insisted they’d learned it from the Fleet, but the whole thing was traced back to a group of Fleet Blaren who made the whole thing up. I have the transcripts ‑ ”
“According to ancient spacefaring tradition,” Devlin repeated, “after travelling together for ten years, a starship crew should share secrets with one another that they have not previously told anyone.”
“This sounds like a simply appalling idea,” Hartigan declared. “And besides, I’m pretty sure you and I passed the old ten-year mark long before now, Dev. And we’ve never ‑ ”
“Ah, but this is official AstroCorps crew business,” Devlin said earnestly, “and it’s time. Look, I’ll get us started if you like. I know a lot of you have been curious about my special Blaran augmentation, the alterations I might have made to myself to set me aside from the Molran norm. As you can see, they’re not readily apparent,” he said, and spread his arms.
“Alright,” Bonty leaned forward. “Tell us.”
“It might actually be easier if I show you,” Scrutarius said, and Galana was surprised to hear a note of hesitation – perhaps even shyness – entering the bold Blaran’s voice.
He raised his upper hands to the neck of his casual off-duty shirt … and at that moment the ship’s computer sounded an all-hands alarm, summoning them all to the bridge.