No Earthly Shore (excerpt)

A kind friend is adding a promotional page for my new novel, To Die A Stranger, to her blog and she suggested putting an excerpt up. That hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s a really good idea. So here’s a bit from No Earthly Shore, my Kindle SF novella. It comes after the Amazon Look Inside section, so it’s a bonus. “I” is Dr Zuzana Aaron-Jones, a marine biologist included in the team sent to a  world called Calvados to find out if sea-quilts, previously assumed to be dumb invertebrates who float aimlessly around the coast, are intelligent.

I took a late lunch down to the cove – bread, ewes’-milk cheese and an apple – and ate it on the hoof, meandering down the shoreline to the south. Around the central crescent of sand was a tidal labyrinth of rock-pools filled with an abundance of marine life. Most of the plants and animals I was familiar with, Earth species seeded when the colonists arrived, some deliberately to form a food chain for the imported fish stocks, a few by mistake. There was a sprinkling of native Vadosian life; tiny colonies of algae like dainty lace fans, chrome-yellow and blue, beds of vast purple anemones, like chrysanthemums with curled petals, their tentacles bristling with giant nematocysts – fat stinging cells I could see with the naked eye – which looked toxic enough to lay low a human, and a fierce brown wedge-shelled crab with ten legs. Knowing how easily I could lose myself in a leisurely study of the pools, I took off my sandals and stuffed them in my pockets, then rolled my trousers up to the knee and headed for the surf. The grey sand was warm and squidgy between my toes. I laughed aloud at the silly joy of it, at Zuzi Jones, mission specialist, alone and in her element, playing like a big kid on an alien beach. When I trod on something that definitely wasn’t sand, something that moved like muscle contracting under my foot, my heart nearly stopped.
The sea-quilt lifted itself out of the soft sand, lumping its mass into a shape rather like a child crawling around under a rug, and scurried for the sea. Scurried was the only word I could use to describe its motion. It seemed as if myriads of tiny feet around its edge were propelling it over the sand.
“Sorry!” I called after it. “Didn’t mean to tread on you. Didn’t know you were there.”
The squilt stopped. Such instant response to an external stimulus, it gladdened my biologist’s heart! How did it do that without brain, ears or eyes? Whatever the experts said about this beast, I had the damndest feeling it was looking at me.
“Uh, hello,” I waved and smiled like some dumb idiot; that’s what it says in the bible of first contact – thou shalt smile and wave a lot, and try not to get eaten. “Have we met before?”
The squilt ruffled its edges in what I chose to interpret as an amiable fashion, then made a salvo of rude farting noises by pressing itself against the sand. I couldn’t help giggling and, as if in response, it produced another salvo. It sat there and again I had the feeling it was watching me, waiting for me to do something, so I knelt down in front of it and tried to replicate the sounds with the flat of my hand. My efforts were pathetic. As if I’d failed to give the correct reply to its password, it curled its edges underneath it and scuttled off into the sea.
“Shit!” I slapped the wet sand, splashing water over my shirt. So close to communication, so very close…
I stood up and followed the squilt, wading out into the shallows. It was some way from shore now, swimming lazily, rippling along just under the surface. The tide was on the turn, beginning to go out and Yemitzov was sinking towards its pale sunset. I turned to leave the water and froze.
The land was slipping down to the sea, as all the squilts that had been basking unseen, half-submerged in the grey sand, undulated back into their element, twenty, maybe thirty of them. All of them rippled towards me, as if I were a magnet that drew them on, as if they would drag me down and crawl over me. There was no sense of danger, no malice, and at the last moment, they swirled aside. I didn’t dare to move as they flowed past me in a living river, paralysed not by fear but by awe.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, that uncanny, silent migration, only minutes probably, but it felt like a lifetime, The final pair of squilts scuttled close to each other, as if they’d been sewn together along one of their long edges, and played chicken with me. It wasn’t a fair game – I had nowhere to run. These two jokers skimmed through the surf until their leading edges met my shins, then they split and oozed languidly past me, their touch gentle against my skin. Gentle and little else, this fleeting contact with the unknown. I turned back to watch them swim out into deeper water. What collective noun would you use for a group of sea-quilts? An ottoman?  A dormitory? A summer exhibition?
“You are intelligent, aren’t you?” I shouted after them. “I’ll prove it, you bastards, see if I don’t!”

If you enjoyed that and want to read more, No Earthly Shore is available at Amazon UK and US for only £1.24/$1.99.

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