by Lyra Hill
They glistened, above all else. Light from stars trillions of light years away crawled across their surfaces, or sank through if the angle was right. Movement was languid, but full of grace. The ship contracted, expanded: a luculent jellyfish swimming through the Milky Way. A peripheral view would provide a vision of tentacles touching stars like fingers groping glitter in warm black water.
Ten of them traveled in the Jellyship. Within undulating layers of glowcell membrane, they touched each other, merging in a ring. The spacecraft's central tunnel ran through the middle of the combined beings; slowly, the circle contracted, until joining with this inner wall. Data osmosis, previously conducted between a Squishsack's comprising fluid and the goo in its three gelsacks, now occurred between all ten Squishsacks, and between the creatures and their Jellyship. Liquid information, like mercury, flowed through soft, expanding ventriculars. They had no language—who is to say they had no language—is contact not a form of communication? They had no math.
Periodically, the aliens would pause to explore a new environment. They had no home planet, but retained a curiosity for those belonging to other species. Sensing a new gravitational pull, the Jellyship slowed its course and increased production of norepinephrine by one in three thousand and twenty seven parts.
Residing primarily in the dust streams between stars, Squishsacks and Jellyfish slowly decompose over the course of their lives, eventually bonding one final time to initiate the release of spores, then disintegrating completely into phosphorescent space dust. The relationship between ship and passengers is one of organic symbiosis. The average Jellyship will hatch between eight and ten Squishsacks; out of eight million spores, roughly fifteen will mature into living spacecraft, depending upon their drifting proximity to heat and light. Those jellies not sucked into a star, but positioned near enough to photosynthesize, will grow, discus-shaped, until space bores a hole through the head's center and sack-pods form along the tunnel's inner wall.
When the ship boosted its adrenal levels, the suspended gelsacks responded with an increase of glutamate and the synaptic command to congeal. As the Jellyship's tentacles contracted, pulling the head backwards and arresting forward momentum, the aliens inside unglued from their host and each other, briefly ricocheted, then propelled themselves, amoeba-like, towards the apex of the ship's dome. Gathered there and pulsing gently with excitement, two mounds formed on each Squishsack's surface, oriented as one towards the distant planet. These lumps, translucent at first, gradually acquired a fibrousness and pinched look; rising like volcanoes they began to depress at the tips until twin holes sank a tunnel in either formation. Each tube snaked its way towards the alien's primary gelsack and connected on opposing sides.
Visually abled, the Squishsacks gazed through the roof of their mother craft. The mottled planet before them appeared without cloud cover, diffused through a sparse but hazy atmosphere. The aliens observed five full rotations before turning away and back towards the center of the ship. Their sight-sphincters shrank and disappeared and they touched again, slipping effortlessly into the Jellyship and undulating as one towards the heavenly body.
What initially appeared as a small, distant disk grew into a sphere as the spaceship approached. Debris became more prevalent. A small cylinder with lateral grooves spiraling down the shaft punctured one of the Jellyship's tentacles and flew out the other side. Soon, the creature reached the outer layers of the thermosphere. The planet was no longer visible within a static gaze: its scope was overwhelming, monumental. Through stratified layers of radioactive gases, light striking the surface pierced upwards, reflecting with particular violence off of the black oceans covering the majority of the planet.
Though Squishsacks are born into and live within their spacecraft, they are capable of exiting the mother ship. After liquidizing through the inner wall of the Jellyship and re-emerging inside the central space cavity, a Squishsack may be pulled out and downward by the ship's tentacles, then placed on or propelled towards a planet. Once outside the spacecraft, the Squishsack gains its bearings through a number of methods including chemical absorbency, extrasensory emotional perception, and the opening of its sight-sphincters to take in the available spectrum of light and radio waves. These capabilities are monitored by the organism's three gelsacks. The gelsack connected to its sight-sphincters is often the largest. At rest, the aliens will reunite with the host and re-fuel, by siphoning energy from the Jellyship's photosynthetic process.
The matter of the astral body was powerful, and the Jellyship felt itself being pulled downwards and in towards the hotter gases. It spun instinctively, with a flourish of protrusions, to point into the center of gravity. Building momentum, the mother craft pushed through the Kármán line and into the mesosphere. It narrowed its dome and bellowed its central cavity. Moving its tentacles in tight alternation, it increased propulsion at the same time as it vacuumed ice clouds through its space cavity, sucking forward.
Previous descents, on other planets, had occasionally been rough. This was the worst. As the temperature and turbulence increased, the speeding vessel was buffeted by toxic winds and sharp, frozen crystals of carbon dioxide. The ship's thin membrane, while honed aerodynamically and self-healing, could not knit itself together as quickly as it was being torn apart. The steady increases in pressure, temperature, and friction combined to shred the jelly's puncture wounds into gaping holes. As the craft barreled through the tropopause, it plaited its few remaining tentacles behind it in a makeshift net and allowed the thin film holding its head together to dissipate. The retraction of fluid by their host left the Squishsacks exposed, cradled in the woven remnants of the Jellyship, falling gently away from one another as their home burned to nothingness behind them.
Having individualized and disconnected from their nervous sensors, first contact with the Earth's surface did not pain the Squishsacks. Their sight-sphincters retracted, and lacking any considered form, each alien squashed into the debris as a shapeless puddle, spreading across the surfaces of cardboard and molded plastics in an even pâté whose diameter of extension—related exponentially to the strength of propulsion with which the creature was ejected—reduced slowly at first, quickening as the elastic pull of re-formation overtook force of impact. Mucous realigned, they lay for some moments, trembling mounds, before exerting any conscious movement.
The sun shines bright on planets with reduced atmosphere, and despite Earth's low oxygen levels fires still erupted from time to time among the bleached and bone-dry refuse. Now, at the peak of midday, three valleys within fifteen miles of the wreck puffed weakly, the blazes there indistinguishable from the heat distortion everywhere else. Ten green dots marked the white and brown, scattered within that radius and burning with their own remarkable light. While the Squishsacks retained their own luminosity, their current brilliance was a product of multiplied sunlight, refracting infinitely within them and bounding outwards in every direction.
Two mounds began forming on the surface of one Squishsack lying in the bottom half of a broken refrigerator. The door was missing and the machine sat at a forty five degree angle, its back resting on two decimated molded plastic child-size automobiles. Across from the fridge lay an assortment of second-rate stereo equipment, piled inside the hull of a rusted propane tank, lying within a claw-footed bathtub on top of the right wing of a passenger air craft. The Squishsack's sight-sphincters pinched and opened, and slipped downward across the body of the alien to take in the surroundings.
The creature's ocular tunnels remained thin, pinpricks at their deltas, due to the daylight's ferocity. Slowly, it shifted mass towards the edge of the refrigerator cavity, bulking up and extending two makeshift limbs downward before dropping over the side with a small plop, catching itself on the tips of those appendages and raising a small cloud of dust through which it proceeded to trip, unevenly, towards a more advantageous vantage point. The dust hovered in the air five minutes before settling.
The roofs were visible as dark rectangles. Organized in rough, curving grids, some rose further out of the sand than others. Occasionally windows peeked above ground, leading under. Most were smashed, or cracking under pressure from the valley walls sliding downwards in an imperceptible avalanche of decomposition. Recognizable items made up the tops of the mountains; apart from the roofs, little in the lowlands was distinguishable except for the metal skeletons of basketball hoops and air conditioning units. The Squishsack, perched on a tall cabinet filled with polished cross-sections of petrified wood, began its plodding descent.
Several hours had passed by the time the Squishsack reached the nearest home. The sun was setting in the northwest, and slanting rays of daylight were just penetrating the window. Standing there, the Squishsack looked inside at sunspots colored green by filtration through its own body. Warping light cast swimming pool shadows, shimmering over ripped wallpaper and chipping sinks. The creature articulated two additional limbs, then clambered into the kitchen.
Sunlight continued traveling over the walls, moving steadily upwards until disappearing as its source dropped behind a hill. The alien's fluorescence bloomed in the incipient darkness, and allowed the Squishsack to continue exploring by its own light. With wide open sight-sphincters, it stepped silently across the kitchen floor, leaving ovular footprints in the dust on the linoleum. It approached the counter opposite the broken window and, touching the side of the trash bin underneath, identified traces of monosodium glutamate and crystallized lactose. The extraterrestrial stretched upwards, extending the dome of its eggy head until level with the countertop. Resting its crown on the fiberglass edge, rippling its two upper limbs higher on its body, the being orchestrated a slow tipping, lifting mass in a reverse spillage until its entirety was piled four feet above the floor. In a kind of physical sigh, the alien's gelsacks slipped over one another as the body began to re-align. Its sight-sphincters, pressed up against a torn patch in the wallpaper, sucked closed and reopened on the opposite face.
For the alien, Earth was a new kind of puzzle; never before had it experienced such variety on one planet. Each object it encountered, and the house itself, was incomparable in size and shape to the last. Aside from a tendency towards right angles in three dimensions, every new item boasted completely different facets, depressions, seams, and textures, not to mention elasticity, density, and finish. Looking now at the toaster sitting next to it on the counter, the Squishsack followed a series of protruding knobs down the front of the appliance to the extension cord tangled beneath it, and the electrical plug buried in the knot.
After some examination, the Squishsack slipped to the floor and continued through the house, pausing often to peer into small spaces behind furniture and within piles of broken down shelving and garbage. A shattered monitor lay in a scatter of letters from a naked computer keyboard a few feet away. A vacuum cleaner stood upright inside a demolished bunk bed. The alien moved from one object to another, noting the regularity of quadruped upholsteries, buttons in grids, and flexible plastic cables ending in uniform, two and three pronged, conductive interfaces.
Pausing near a floor lamp, the Squishsack stopped again. Here was a tall, thin item with the same kind of tail and mechanism attached; three pronged in this case, at the end of an off-white cord about half a centimeter in diameter. The Squishsack bent over and wobbled out a little arm. Thinning this appendage into a delicate, radiant tongue, it wrapped around the end of the extension cord and lifted the plug into the light and closer to its sight-sphincters. Each prong was a different length. One was cylindrical and smooth. The other two were flat, with wider ends.
A shape on the wall behind the lamp caught the creature's attention. Pattern-analyzing, it noted a schema of similar proportions to the object now clutched in hand. Perforating a small round dais on a larger rectangle raised slightly from the wall, there were three holes. One was circular and two were slits, the left a bit longer than the right.
Slowly, the Squishsack's sight-sphincters narrowed, expanded, and narrowed again. It looked at the socket on the wall and back at the plug in its hand eight times before deciding the likelihood of the two fitting together was more probable than not, and following this leap of faith, tipped sideways and forward, extending diagonally towards the wall, to plug in the lamp.
When nothing happened after two hours of waiting, the Squishsack unplugged the extension cord and plugged it in again. Still nothing happened. Yanking the plug out of the wall, the alien held it up once more, then sank the conductor into its own flesh.
The shock of 100 watts crackling alight startled the extraterrestrial so much that it momentarily exploded. Its gelsacks shot outwards in alarm, and the normally gentle undulations of its outer membrane amplified so much that the creature appeared covered in flickering spines, like a puffer fish or a plasma ball in a popular haunted house. The electrical plug was expelled by the turmoil and the lamp went dark. The Squishsack, in shock, coalesced and puddled, with a muffled shumping sound, into a smooth still dome on the floor.
Having sustained no actual injury aside from that of surprise, recovery was brief. Only moments after collapsing, the Squishsack's curiosity got the better of it and it started rippling again, beginning in wide rings at the base of the circular body and moving upwards, as if it were a pond with a pebble dropped in reverse, until the gleaming furrows met at the top and rebounded outward, sweeping downwards again in waves that washed gently over the emerging islands of the alien's two sight-sphincters. Bubbling with excitement, the Squishsack rose, reached out, grasped the abandoned electrical plug, and thrust the device again through its membrane. When the lamp lit up, the creature trembled with pleasure. Its sight-sphincters squeezing to pinpricks, the mounds surrounding each ocular tunnel bulged outward from the being's body, now almost conical with excitement. The bulb's alternating current slipped in and out of phase with the Squishsack's quavering humors, and each light source beamed and dimmed accordingly. Hypnotic, this soft back and forth continued past dawn, not that the hypnotized creature could have witnessed the rising of the sun, being as it was, lulled, luminous, in concert under ground.
Gradually, over the next few days, each Squishsack on the planet Earth examined enough rubbish to discover their own generative power. Neon signs, box fans, power drills, and a 16mm film projector sprang to life, though the projector was without a film strip or functioning bulb, and therefore quickly rejected as unexciting by its temporary benefactor. The breadth of enable-able appliances was unending, and for the aliens, each object possessing an electrical plug offered a completely new and often inexplicable experience.
The mechanics of a rotary sander were fascinating enough, but after a thorough analysis of the interlocking parts and mechanisms, including a trial in which the device was allowed to float freely inside the alien's membrane, the tool was discarded in favor of a pinball machine. The Squishsacks gravitated as a whole towards electronics that, like themselves, emitted light. One being, among the detritus of a demolished superstore, spent three particularly titillating days watching the readout change on a digital clock.
They were separated by distances of one to several miles, but the Squishsacks gathered knowledge and developed preference at similar rates. By the time one of the creatures had found the sublime in a Fake Aquarium Moving Seascape, two others had plugged in handheld video game devices, and another, sitting in a golf cart crushed under a basketball pole resting, uprooted, atop it, marveled at a tablet computer flickering through its cracked screen.
Inside the underground house, the Squishsack had unplugged itself from the floor lamp. It sat in the middle of the tattered living room with three extension chords trailing out of its shimmering body, facing a cabinet containing a large television screen, speakers and video playback system. The wallpaper above the entertainment center was mottled with dark patches where picture frames had once hung, and a sparkling Wiggling Water Snake toy, one infinitely self-enveloping tube, lay on the floor amid the pieces of the fallen frames, a tennis ball, and several disintegrating photographs.
The television was on. Soporific murmuring seeping out of each speaker rippled across the skin of the Squishsack. Slow motion sequences depicting leather car wipes and rhinoplasty took turns saturating the room with light. The space and its occupant, richly illuminated in reds and blues, watched home movies of celebrating humans eating large quantities of food.
The alien had never been away from its siblings and its spaceship for this long a period of time. Entranced by the sounds and images emanating from its new partner, the Squishsack neglected recuperation.
Over time, the current flowing out of its body took a toll, draining it like a Petri dish through a straw, or a grape evaporating into a raisin. Its undulations ceased and its glistening skin withered, settling into folds as it grew smaller, tougher, and darker.
Its sight-sphincters, still open, emaciated, eventually swelling only at their apertures and otherwise sucking tight over the fibrous musculature surrounding them.
The gelsacks, squeezed together and slowly turning dark yellow, finally extinguishing in a sudden fade to black. In the same instant, the television cut out, with a burst of static and a truncated sigh.
The room was dark. In the kitchen, sunlight crept across the ceiling and out the window.
Lyra Hill is an artist and organizer living in Chicago. She makes comics and films on film, and runs a performative reading series called Brain Frame. Lyra holds a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She blogs in exhaustive detail at lyrahill.com..