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Mama

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Fourteen Alpha clicked their mandibles together, vaguely grumpy that their wings were pinned to their back by the spacesuit. It just felt wrong, even if the atmosphere was nowhere near dense enough to fly in.

“I’m not seeing anything,” Valya said. “Except rocks.”

“Well, planets don’t just show up all of a sudden,” the ship radio said. “Poke around some more. Take some samples or something. We have to have some proof we didn’t just fuck around in space for a week and a half.”

/Samples of what?/ INaK said. Its name wasn’t really INaK, but nobody, including the mimic in engineering, could pronounce its actual name, so it had decided early on that the characters looked sort of like some English letters and that had been that.

Fourteen looked around. INaK had a point. They were on a flat plain with more or less no other defining features. There were mountains in the distance, but they weren’t about to try and get there on tarsomere. Or foot, or tread, as the case may be. The plain was rock, probably granite, but there was none of the debris that Fourteen would have expected of an unsettled planet.

“I guess we can dig some of this up,” Valya said. “I don’t know what you think we’re going to f—!”

The ground shook and juddered. Fourteen dropped to all six legs for stability. INaK broadened its treads to stay upright. Valya just fell over. Silly biped. Fourteen had been concerned the first time they’d seen that, but apparently humans bounced, or something. No exoskeleton. Weird, but useful.

Fourteen expected the earthquake to last a few seconds at most, but it continued. Some fifty meters away, a gouge opened in the rock plain, stretching fluidly in a way that rock shouldn’t.

“Holy shit,” the ship said. “I mean, uh, come in, away team, are you okay?”

“Depends,” Valya said. He hadn’t bothered trying to get up. “What the fuck is going on?”

“Um, it’s, uh.” The radio crackled. “Holy fuck. Jesus in the void.”

Valya gritted his teeth, or at least it sounded like he did. “An actual description would be nice, Daybreak.

“Fuck, uh, you know, like... you ever seen an armadillo? Or one of those little bugs that roll up in a ball?”

“Daybreak.”

“It’s unrolling.”

“What’s unrolling.”

“The planet.”

“Wha—”

Fourteen finally regained stability (was there a pattern to the movements?) and quickly snatched the First Mate up, snipping his belt of lead weights loose and settling him on their back in case a quick exit was called for.

/Look. Look!/ INaK said suddenly. It pointed away from the mountains, to what they’d assumed, from the air, was the caldera of a long-dormant supervolcano. The ground was splitting evenly between the two halves of the depression. For a moment Fourteen feared an eruption, but as the fault line widened, they saw that what was underneath was something shining wetly. Not liquid, but far more malleable than the ground that had hidden it.

The stone continued to buckle until the new surface spanned the entire caldera, with the old rock sloughed to either side. Then something in the wetness moved, like an unbreaking wave, and Fourteen realized with cold terror that there was nothing geologic about it at all. The caldera wasn’t a caldera; it was a socket. Focused on them from hundreds of kilometers away was a single, vast eye.

/It’s alive,/ INaK said, echoing what Fourteen would have signed, if they could have done so without falling. If the synthesized voice could be said to have emotion, Fourteen would have called it faint.

“The shuttle,” Valya said urgently. “We need to get to the—” The tremors stopped abruptly. “—shuttle?”

There was a beat of silence and stillness. Then a wall of sound crested and broke over them, psychic and physical both. Fourteen heard it through their entire body, and felt almost sick from the vibration. Valya clapped his hands to his ears, ultimately uselessly. It was overwhelming. It blotted out everything, not just other sounds but light and movement, so that the only sensation was that unearthly wail. In a voice like the scream of a murdered star, the planet said one word, then fell silent once more.

/Did it just speak English?/ said INaK.

“Uh—” Valya started, but Fourteen cut him off.

Did it just call us ‘Mama’?