Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
“There’s absolutely no chance of me helping you until you’ve answered all my questions,” Dr. Richard J. Marco informed his surprise guest. The man paced around the doctor’s apartment impatiently, looking ready to knock over lamps and vases. The situation needed to be controlled, as the doctor had only recently finished redecorating and was in no mood to sweep any of it up.
His visitor said his name was Harrison and that he was with the Contamination Bureau. That didn’t help to narrow down the reason for his visit. Since mankind had left Earth the definition of contaminant had to expand even more than mankind’s role in the universe. There were alien organisms to consider now, alongside good old fashioned radiation, terrorism, and diseases mutating within the isolated floating islands of massive colony ships.
Harrison looked the part; he wore a black suit and dark glasses. Instead of a tie he had a badge on a blue cord that never bobbed or flipped thanks to a tiny stabilizing device on its edge. It had all the right watermarks, indicating he was someone with incredible authority. Still, Dr. Marco was the ultimate authority in his own home.
“We don’t have time for this!” Harrison nearly shouted. He moderated his volume as if he was afraid his voice could rip through the wall. The doctor guessed he’d been raised in some kind of barracks, or perhaps a cave down on the planet. Marco had been living aboard the Yennifer Moody transit space station for more than three years as it orbited the colonized purple planet Mimir.
“I want to make sure you’re not an android,” Marco said. “People are always sending me androids to see if they can fool me. My questions will determine your humanity.”
“It’s good you got your questions loaded,” Harrison said, “because I need you to use them. Only you have to aim them outside your damn apartment. We’ve got five escaped extra-terrestrial subjects mingling with the public as we speak. They most likely want to assimilate with their shape-shifting abilities, in which case we’ll never find them.”
“What sort of organisms are these exactly?” Dr. Marco asked. He took a seat in his leather chair, reaffirming that he would not move until he was satisfied. Harrison threw himself onto the opposite couch, forced to lean forward so his body language wouldn’t admit how absurdly comfortable the new item was.
“They were grown from human embryos,” Harrison explained, “but their epidermis and dermis is laced with layers of copy root DNA. “In their isolation they resemble people with blank faces, no hair, and mauve skin, but when exposed to the populace they will undoubtedly fill themselves in the way those plants do.” The doctor knew of the organism in question. It was what made the planet Mimir purple, and it only did so after human colonizers arrived.
It was discovered as little more than a stalk: no leaves, no flowers, and no roots. Nobody understood how it could stand in the soft soil without anything holding it there. One notable scientist had famously said that with the myriad forms evolution had simmered up on Earth, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find organisms with nearly-incomprehensible survival strategies.
The copy root simply mimicked whatever organism was brought closest to it, even stealing its method of reproduction. When the native population was exposed to human flowers, they bloomed in incredible fields that took over most of Mimir’s landmass. They would mimic animals as well, mostly in shape and chemical composition. They’d never become mobile or intelligent, at least until some unscrupulous company or government aboard the station crafted their five escapees.
“Other agents are on other experts,” Harrison finished, “but I’m on you. Like it or not, we’re a team. We’re supposed to search this area for any sign of an assimilated subject. They’re named mauve-creature one through five by the way.”
“Very well, let’s go,” Dr. Marco said, rising and grabbing a light jacket.
“I thought you had a million questions to prove I wasn’t a robot,” Harrison reminded.
“You basically answered them in your speech. Your body language is so human that it’s practically chimpanzee. You’re a model organism. Where to first?”
mauve creature one
The station had taken granite from Mimir in giant chunks and swallowed them whole, turning them into miniature mountains for the local park. Dr. Marco had theorized that the creatures would seek out the place on the station with the most life, thus allowing them more choice in the subject of their mimicry.
Dr. Marco was a painfully honest man who could never practice psychiatry thanks to his inability to soften blows for emotionally-wounded people. He didn’t understand how anybody could lie about anything unless they were criminals hiding their deeds. To spare someone’s feelings was to simply push the harm behind them and hope they never turned around.
Instead he had turned his mind to the actual process of thought, studying and dissecting it in humans, animals, software, and even within the pseudo-brains of organism collectives. That was how he knew the mauve creatures were suffering. Harrison surely saw them as monstrous parasites or liabilities. If he took a moment to step into their purple toes he would realize there was nothing enjoyable about being one of five in a universe of a trillion others. They were both exceedingly rare and only one fifth of the word unique.
Harrison patched into the public address system with a wrist-mounted device, warning all patrons of the park to stay where they were and that anyone attempting to leave would be detained. They walked through the oak trees, all cloned to stand straight and tall, until they reached two slabs of the borrowed granite. It used to be one, but it was cracked up the middle, creating a fissure just wide enough for a person to disappear within.
There was sobbing coming from the stone, bubbling out of it like a cold spring. Dr. Marco leaned over to see, but Harrison held him back with one hand. The device on his wrist revealed itself to serve many functions; it was no wonder the doctor hadn’t recognized the model. It wasn’t the sort of thing an average coddled station citizen would want to own. The front of it clicked open. A row of three needles emerged, each connected to tiny ampules of white liquid.
“I thought I was hear to make sure we asked questions before we shot,” Dr. Marco whispered.
“I don’t need you for this one,” Harrison said darkly. “I can see it from here. Damn thing’s still purple.” He told the truth, which the doctor only recognized when he disappeared into the crevice, silenced the sobbing, and dragged out the creature. Marco held two fingers against its neck. No pulse. The darts in his wrist launcher were a fast-acting poison. The doctor was stuck following a murderer, seeing as it was illegal to disobey an agent of the bureau.
There wasn’t even time to protest, nor to pity the small white eyes of mauve creature number one. The entities either had incredible hearing or a telepathic connection, for the moment number one died, several pairs of feet were heard rushing through the leaf litter of the park. They had scattered, but Harrison had a screen on his wrist connected to every camera aboard the station. Four to go… and hopefully four to interview
mauve creature two
“This is my first time speaking to one of your kind,” Dr. Marco addressed the woman. She looked perfectly ordinary, except for a purple splotch on her left hand. It could’ve been a birthmark. Harrison’s needles were pressed against the back of her neck until that was proven the case. She was on her knees in a sun dress; the large man pressed her down into the exercise mat they’d found her stretching on.
The gym was emptied in moments, by the agent’s order. It was just the three of them. The nearest camera had shown a mauve creature scurrying about in this area. At the sight of her hand Harrison jumped the gun, but now it was Marco’s turn to make sure he didn’t do anything else with that gun.
“You’ve never spoken to a girl before?” the woman grumbled angrily. There was no fear in her voice. Her pupils didn’t dilate.
“I’m trying to save your life from the gorilla holding the syringes,” Dr. Marco told her. Harrison’s nostrils flared, but he let the man do his work. “We’re tracking down escaped aliens. It’s for the good of the station. This first one will be easy. Are you an alien?”
“No, I’m human,” she insisted.
“Tell me how a human thinks.” She looked up, jaw tensing. His questions would only get easier and odder. The way to break down a disguise was to ask it about the details that even the original never thought about. When he was warmed up every question mark was like a scalpel, laying bare and raw the inadequacies of any mind. He could reason artificial intelligences into self-destructing or people into doing the same.
“What do you mean?” the woman asked. They were crossing swords, but compared to his sharp wit she was only wielding a floppy kelp blade. “A human thinks with its brain. I think with mine.”
“What does thinking feel like?”
“It’s different from…” she froze. It was over. Different from her prior state, she obviously meant. Not only that, her birthmark visibly shrank. Harrison’s wrist twitched, and her head flopped forward.
mauve creature three
The security teams of the station, nearly three miles away, called up Harrison and advised him about the footage from the park. Next they had to search the boardwalk. It was built from imported wood, grown in one of the solar systems a little friendlier to trees, and overlooked a hologram see that extended outside and into space. People could relax, watch the water blend with the stars, and smell the artificially salted air and food.
Someone was seen eating a corn dog, but suspiciously so. They held it sideways like an ear of corn. Dr. Marco advised that such confusion could be a sign of information tangling within a mind attempting to adapt. He also stated they should be on the lookout for anyone having trouble tying their shoes or anyone who started a wave or a nod from an off-putting direction.
“I’m here to help you,” Dr. Marco told the man once they’d cornered him inside the very stand he had purchased his food from. He was crouched on a counter, wielding a ladle, and hyperventilating. There wasn’t a mauve spot on him anywhere, meaning the others had likely completed their disguises as well.
“I’ve heard what’s happening!” the man squeaked. “You’re killing those things! And if you think I am you’re going to kill me!”
“That’s right,” Harrison interrupted, needles aimed. “I’m also going to kill you if you don’t answer his questions.”
“Easy,” the doctor said, trying to calm the agent’s trigger finger more than its target. “Can they not surrender? Go back to whatever lab they were grown in?”
“Not the orders,” Harrison said, shaking his head. “The people who made these want to make a trillion of them. The same way those flowers turned the planet purple. They wan to turn stations and planets whatever political color they’re aligned with. We’re killing them to reduce the number of chances those people have to take samples and do it again. Now tell me if he is one.”
“I’m not!” the man shouted.
“I’m sorry, but you are,” Dr. Marco said. The words tasted awful in his mouth, like a hundred years of desert grit blew through his teeth in a moment.
“You might not even know it,” the doctor said delicately. All he could offer the poor creature was a poetic image. “Your disguise is nearly perfect. Your new thoughts mask your old ones, but I can see the old ones. You’re mouthing them between sentences. Maybe that’ll go away with time, maybe you’ll be like water joining the rest of the ice, but you’re not solid yet. There’s still some slush on your…”
He collapsed onto the hot grill next to him, arm hanging off the counter, three needles in his elbow.
Mauve creature 4
With only two to go, they followed another tip to the garment district. Dr. Marco wouldn’t get a chance for another interview, something he would use more to manipulate Harrison than interrogate their target. He wanted to convince the man to spare at least one of their lives, for posterity and study, he would reason.
The creature took its fate into its own hands. They were in an alley, surrounded by automated looms and the hissing steam of industrial-sized irons. They never heard the footsteps on the catwalk above them as number four leapt onto Harrison’s shoulders and tried to wrestle the device off his arm.
“Survival!” the creature rambled. “You don’t deserve it if you have to build things! We do it all with our bodies! All with anything that shows up! We don’t need you!” Marco circled around the scuffle, hands locked behind his back. He noted that this one had not gotten lost in its disguise. He very much wanted to know how the brain, in passively adapting, would decided whether to integrate the thoughts or remain an outsider within the hordes.
“Get him off me!” Harrison barked.
“I don’t know how to handle contaminants,” Marco said stoically, “so I’ll leave it to the expert. I’ve seen how good you are at getting your hands dirty.” No matter how this turned out, the doctor was confident he could avoid consequences. The agent was supposed to handle everything himself, otherwise they wouldn’t have given him such a multifaceted murder weapon.
“Help me!” Harrison demanded once more, but the doctor just circled. Sadly, the creature’s determination couldn’t overpower the puny body it had mimicked. The agent rolled onto his back, pinning him down, and jabbed the device behind him, into the creature’s side.
Marco looked away. Upon death, after about twenty seconds, their eyes went white and their skin mauve. He didn’t need to see it again. There was one more to find. Apparently, it was the cleverest of them all, for no camera had caught it. The doctor was dragged all over the station, through three different methods of public transport, for the rest of the day without any other suspicious activity. Worse still, a Mimir day clocked in at thirty-five hours.
He was only able to return to his air-conditioned apartment when Harrison himself started to flag. The agent must have been tired from literally grabbing Marco’s arm and pulling him everywhere. It was clear there was no forgiveness for his failure to intervene in the killing of number four.
“I’ll be at your place again in nine hours,” he promised. That was his only goodbye. The doctor was happy to take the shuttle home and close his door. It was silent in there. He was alone with all his new decorations. The only problem was the smell he’d brought with him: the crowds, the sweat, and even a hint of wet iron from the blood of the mauve creatures.
He wanted that gone as soon as possible, wanted to shed the guilt with it. He wondered if his new washing machine was up to the task. He didn’t recall seeing a ‘dirty deeds’ setting on its dial, but he would try all the same.
Dr. Marco peeled off his wet shirt and opened the washer’s glass door. A sleeve flopped out. There was a hand inside. His eyes followed it up the arm and to the squished body inside the machine. The doctor blinked. It wasn’t his reflection in the glass door. It was just him. Dead.
“Oh,” Dr. Marco said aloud. He turned his thoughts inward, the scalpel touched to his pulse, and realized. His disguise was the best of all. Harrison would never find his fifth. Nobody would ever find it, especially after he’d redecorated to clear all the blood.
The fate of the other mauve creatures never upset him as much as it should have, even if he had been human. They weren’t dead. They panicked, because their masks were falling off, but as long as copy root existed their thoughts floated around in all examples of it.
Copy root now had a brilliant mind to represent it. Dr. Marco sent some thoughts down to Mimir’s surface, a few things for the whole planet to chew on. They had to decide what to do with
mauve creature five