An essay by Priscilla von Muller, as provided by Genevieve McCluer
Art by Luke Spooner
“Ms. von Muller, I was hoping we could ask you something.” Kirkpatrick, the head scientist of the facility, waved me over. His smug smile as he stood in front of his meaningless little Tesla coil made me feel all the less amicable toward whatever his request might be. I just hoped it wasn’t to fetch him coffee again. Honestly, we were not grad students anymore; there were far more effective stimulants.
“It’s doctor,” I corrected.
The hint of annoyance only flashed on his face for a second, but it was unmistakable. I felt the same every time he opened his mouth. “Of course. Doctor.” He said it almost sarcastically, like the years I had spent studying were all just some big joke. “Well, all of us have been working on that new specimen. So far it’s given us nothing.”
“Have you tried vivisection?”
He groaned. “We’ve cut into its tentacles repeatedly, but they just regrow, and nothing seems capable of piercing its body.”
I cocked an eyebrow at that. We had more than enough tools to do such a simple job. I’d only seen the specimen in passing before, but it didn’t look like it would be a particularly tough nut to crack, as it were. “Have you tried a diamond-tipped scalpel?”
He waved off the comment, giving the distinct impression he had not attempted it. “We’re well past such things, Priscilla. But the creature seems to be learning. It’s already developed as good a grasp at English as you have.” The Brits would never shy at the chance to insult a foreigner’s mastery of their language, no matter how pitiful they themselves may have been at it. “We were hoping you could talk to it?”
That was certainly unusual. “Why me?”
The smile on his face didn’t quite reach his eyes. Then again, they never did, not after the scars from his attempt at creating a new type of explosive that was supposed to be capable of discriminating between enemy and ally. Apparently it thought he was an enemy, as it harmed nothing else in the lab. “Well, it seems to be a female. We thought perhaps you could bond with it over that. Maybe bring it some dresses or makeup. Whatever it is that you like.” His snide grin returned, along with a slight chuckle.
Fire burned in my very core. They had begged me to come here. These ignoramuses promised the world–they offered a lab, an army of assistants, and anything else I needed. I invented the first automated motor car three years before Carl Benz’s pitiful machine was released to the market. And then, I topped that, creating an automobile that could reach one hundred kilometers per hour in a mere three seconds–a feat that had yet to be topped. Nevertheless, despite my genius, despite how they groveled for me to take a contract here at P.L.O.T., they treated me as little more than a lab assistant. They wanted me to talk to the specimen? “I’ll make sure it spills every last secret it has.”
Out back of the manor they kept their little experiments in, there was a shed, reinforced with steel and brick, where they housed anything they felt was truly dangerous. My lab was the closet-sized building across from it, which was once an outhouse before they sorted out indoor plumbing. It had at least given me an excuse to work toward miniaturizing my perpetual battery. Once I could mass produce it, it would put Edison and Tesla out of business.
I opened the door to the shed to find the shrieking creature they so feared. Tentacles protruded from its spherical body, shimmering with iridescent skin, each one reaching out for me, but halted by the chains pinning it to the back wall, an inky viscous fluid welling up around the small stakes holding the restraints in place. “You’re new,” it hissed. The words came from a fanged beak on its underside, but sounded like nothing befitting the monstrous form, while the bright green eyes in the spherical head atop it bored into mine.
“I am.” My scalpel was back in my lab. I supposed I could save vivisection as a last resort; the creature was not likely to tell me much more once I took that option.
Two of the tentacles bunched up underneath it, at what would be an awkward angle if they had bones or joints, and it rested upon them, tilting its body so both its head and mouth could face me. “You haven’t brought a weapon. Everyone else has been too busy electrocuting me and attempting to slice me open to even say hello. It’s silly really, unless they were attempting to feed me.” The voice didn’t sound quite human, but it had a soothing lyrical quality to it, which I found immediately suspicious.
That was quite interesting indeed. Already, I had learned more than the simpletons who claimed to be my superiors had in their days of effort. It ate electricity. That was a start. “Well, then hello. Guten abend, if you prefer.” If it could speak English, I saw little reason it wouldn’t be able to speak my mother tongue.
“Guten tag,” it replied, following up in German that its name was a series of sounds that even in my language didn’t resemble a word.
More interesting information. It hadn’t picked up English from their attempts at extracting information from it; it had already known it. “A lovely name,” I replied. “I am Dr. Priscilla von Muller. Tell me, what brings you to my planet?”
“Your planet? In what meaning?”
I shook my head, staring into that beak and its rows and rows of jagged teeth. “Unfortunately, while I’m certainly one of the best fit to lead it, I only mean by status of my residence.”
“Now that is a shame.” The tentacles adjusted and the creature reclined. “I was hoping there was someone I could negotiate with.”
“For your release?”
Several tentacles lifted up and dropped back down, chains rattling as it approximated a human shrug. “That would certainly be a first step. I came all this way through the ether of space, and in my few days here, I’ve been given little reason to think much of this planet.”
In my many years, I’d been given little more. “Well now, what can you offer me in return? If we are to begin negotiations, I believe a quid pro quo is expected.”
Its head bobbed down, its eyes never leaving mine, and never blinking–I don’t believe it even had eyelids. “What would you like?”
“Information, for a start.”
“I can give you much. But tell me, are you bartering on your behalf, or on that of your planet? For whom are you trying to procure this information?”
This creature was starting to interest me. Taking a seat on a barrel of turpentine, I answered, “I negotiate only on my own behalf. I want answers and knowledge. The rest of the world can’t even hold a candle to what I already possess, and yet even I have never found a way through space. Tell me, what did you use?”
Its beak contorted, curving slightly. “I have a vessel–a ship or automobile that can swim through the ether. As the first advance scout to explore this solar system, my people have given me complete authority over the inhabitants of this planet. I can take you with me, I can show you the universe, or, if you’ve more Earthly goals–that is what you call this planet, is it not?”
“Well, I can offer you all of it. This planet could be yours–well, ours.”
The last time someone had offered me the world, I’d believed them far too easily. Yet, at least this one seemed capable of following up on their offer, rather than expecting the future brought to them in exchange for nothing. “I need proof. If you expect me to free you, then I’ll need some assurance that you’re on the up and up.”
Its eyes softened. They didn’t change shape or size, but the light they seemed to emit dimmed an almost imperceptible amount. “You are not a trusting person. That is a trait I find most commendable. I take it that the other so-called scientists are using you as their last resort. A being of your intellect deserves better than that–”
“What makes you think I’ve such great intellect?” I refused to succumb to empty flattery.
“The questions you ask, in part. But primarily, I’ve been watching your research through these walls. The battery you’ve created, while primitive, is capable of a continuity of output that even my own attempts have failed to create–and I’m responsible for the power systems of the entire fleet.”
I blinked, faltering for a moment as I stared at this creature. “You can see all of that?”
She nodded, repeating that same bouncing movement that it–she–had done before. The creature had paid me a respect greater than any I’d known, and I had no intent to disrespect her in turn. “Finish your question, Ms–” I attempted her name, rolling out the string of syllables the best that my frail tongue could manage.
The sound that came from her beak was something resembling a laugh. “That was actually most impressive. With some surgeries, I’ve no doubt you’d be more than able to learn my tongue. For now, though, how about you call me Verial? It’s an approximation of the fourth and fifth syllables of my name.”
“I’d gathered. Verial, what was it you wanted to know?”
Her voice grew somber. “How long do I have? If I convince you to free me, how long is it until they decide they have to attempt something else? Nothing they have could kill me, but I’d rather they not pull you off this assignment.”
“As you said, I’m the last resort. I’ve little doubt that they’ll at least give me a few days.” Assuming they wouldn’t attempt my diamond scalpel suggestion first. “You’re not vulnerable to diamond, are you?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever attempted it, but I’m not aware of any substance from your planet that could harm my kind, and we studied its material makeup and cultures for a good many weeks before we even considered sending a scout.”
To my surprise, that was truly a relief.
“Come back first thing tomorrow morning, and I’ll have your proof.”
The next morning, bright and early, I showed up at the office, happy to be at work for the first time in far too long. Now, I’ve personally never been one to sleep, so I took the time to work on my battery at home, where there was actually room to work on it. I wanted to have it to show to my new friend.
The device provided a comforting weight in the sewn-in pocket of my gown as I walked through the empty lab. No one else had bothered to show up that early. In the bright–well, as bright as England ever gets–sun, I tucked a stray strand of brown hair back into my bun and took in the day. The garden had once been beautiful, but a few too many projects had leached into the soil, and while there was an interesting assortment of colors and shapes, the plants tended to attack you if you spent too long looking at them.
In the shack, I found Verial as I left her, impaled and chained to the wall of this little building. “Guten morgen,” I greeted her, taking my seat on the barrel, bunching up my petticoats to gain a more comfortable position.
“Good morning, Dr. von Muller.” She stretched, her tentacles pulling at the wall, as she adjusted into a more comfortable position.
“I trust you have what you promised?” I wasn’t sure what I expected. Nothing seemed like it would be enough to make me trust another person–even if that person was from another planet.
With one of her limbs, she gestured toward a chest next to my barrel. At first, I thought she wanted me to open it, but as I hopped back to the ground and peered at it, I found something on top of it. Picking up the object as it shimmered and distorted, seeming to change shape even in my hands, I studied it. For a moment, I thought it was a feather, but the barbs were warm to the touch, and it seemed to hum. “Hit the button on the bottom to turn it up, and strike the chest with it,” she said.
I did so and found that it cut into the lid without the slightest resistance. I would say it was like a hot knife through butter, but even that would have been a more difficult cut. “What is this?” I asked, as if I wasn’t already sorting out the answer.
Understanding struck me. Of course she couldn’t prove that every word she said was anything more than a lie to manipulate her jailer, but she could give me a way to defend against her, should she be lying. “This will cut you?”
“If you’d like to test it, I’m willing.”
For a mere instant, I considered her offer. A tiny abrasion would hardly do her any real harm, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done so to a living subject, but it just seemed cruel. Never before had I actually cared about the suffering of something I was meant to be researching, but neither had any of my subjects treated me this way. “No. I–” I hesitated, the word not coming easily to me. “I trust you.”
Sinking into her tentacles, Verial released a breath in what must have been a sigh. I’d expected it to smell faintly of fish, or perhaps oil, given the appearance of her skin, but it actually smelled more like candy floss. That was unusual, but far from unpleasant. “Then we have a deal?” she asked.
Taking a few steps toward her, I nodded. “We do. There is something I’d like to show you, but first, I suppose I should take care of this. It will hurt,” I told her, as I reached up toward the first of her many tentacles and promptly sliced through the chain before pulling out the stake. My plan had been to pull the stake out and then remove the chain the old-fashioned way, but this saved time and I wanted to be quick.
Her body writhed, and a whimper echoed through the room. “You did warn me,” she said. “I swear, it wasn’t near as bad going in.”
Chuckling at her remark, I moved onto the next one. “I truly am sorry.”
Another shake and a whimper, but she held still as best she could. “It’s nothing. You’re freeing me, that’s more than I thought I’d be able to ask. I had expected to have to effect an escape myself.”
I shook my head. “No. You have me.” Flashing her a quick smirk, I moved onto the next one, hesitating before I grabbed it. “Are you ready?”
“Just do it. We don’t have time for me to be ready for each one.”
Given her apparent lack of pain tolerance, it surprised me that they had been unable to torture anything out of her, but she did seem the sort to be stubborn. Though I might have just been thinking of myself. I moved from one stake to the next, cutting and tugging as quickly as I could, before I finally freed all twelve of her limbs. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, collapsing to the ground. “Yes, I’m quite all right. Much better now.”
“Is there any way I can help you up?” I was not entirely sure what her method of locomotion would be, though I assumed something resembling an octopus.
Her head moved from side to side and to my surprise, she pulled herself upright onto six of her limbs, looking more like a hexapodal dog than any sort of cephalopod. She opened the chest with two of her other tentacles and began sifting through its contents.
“Just where did you produce this knife from?” I asked, as she put on what could best be described as gauntlets, being armour for her long limbs.
“You’d rather not know,” she confessed. “I had to cough it up through my siphon. I’d recommend sterilizing it, it can handle even the strongest of liquids with no damage.”
Snorting out a laugh, I stared down at the weapon and cut open the tank of turpentine, dunking it in before stepping away from the fumes. “Tell someone something like that first.”
“In my defense, I was rather focused on my release.”
“No harm done,” I say, wiping the substance off on my skirt.
A tentacle stretched out, holding a spherical jerkin of a strange scaly material. “This is my armour. I want you to feel safe, and trust that I will not double-cross you. Cut it.”
Not bothering to argue with her, I pressed the knife into the fabric, seeing it part easily under the blade. “Thank you.”
Her laugh was strange, almost musical, but without the rhythmic nature that brings to mind. “Oh, think nothing of it. It’s nice having a bit of a breeze.” The armour molded around her as she pulled it over her head, slots allowing her eyes and mouth easy access to the outside world as she sealed herself inside.
“Let’s get moving,” I said, taking in the woman standing next to me; even in her armour, she didn’t look like the horror that one would expect. “While I don’t think the other scientists will give us any trouble, I’d rather not have to put that to the test if I can avoid it. Which way to your ship?”
“Follow me.” She led the way, stepping out into the sun for what must have been the first time in days. She was a prisoner no more, and we had to hurry.
We stopped only long enough for me to rinse the turpentine off my hand as we fled the facility. Fortunately, my inimitable vehicle was waiting for us outside. It took a few tries for her to sort out precisely how to fit into a seat, but she managed to stretch out comfortably in the back, a tentacle sitting beside me to guide the way as I pulled away from what I’d thought would be my dream job.
“It has a cloaking device,” she explained. “I doubt any of you primi–any of the rest of them would have been capable of discovering it, let alone moving it.”
“I appreciate that you view me as so far removed from the rest of my kind.”
“What I have seen of the men of your species has been electrical weapons and saws–it would not take much to be better than them. Though, I will say, you have soared high above that very low bar.”
That laugh again. It filled the small car and made me wonder about the idea of putting something inside of the vehicle that could produce music. It would make long trips far more enjoyable. “So, what was it you wanted to show me, Priscilla?”
“So we’re on a first name basis now?”
“If you’d prefer my first syllables as well, then you’re welcome to call me Jokrev, but I much prefer how Verial sounds on your lips. That is what they’re called, yes, I am using the term ‘lips’ correctly? They’re a most unusual adornment.”
Snickering at that, I glanced back at her, before having to make a turn. “I believe I could say the same about having a beak.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll come around.”
I rolled my eyes and slammed on the accelerator. Even if anyone cared to outlaw going as fast as I could, it wasn’t like they’d be able to catch up. “The battery you’d mentioned,” I said, finally answering her question. “I finished miniaturizing it.” Risking taking a hand off the wheel, I reached into my pocket and set the device in her already outstretched tentacle. “Take a look and tell me what you think.”
The road was straight for a good long while, so I couldn’t resist watching as her eyes shined even brighter, taking in the perfected prototype of my battery. “Oh my,” she breathed. “This is–how does it work?”
“You’re taking me to space, aren’t you? I think I’ll have plenty of time to explain all the details.”
Her beak turned up and her eyes seemed to change color slightly, growing almost yellow, her ever-shifting skin changing to match. “True. Perhaps I would just enjoy hearing you describe it. But, either way, this is truly a remarkable device. What does it output?”
“It can keep a stable two volts, forever, powering itself off only a quarter of its output.” I grinned proudly, admiring my invention as I appreciated someone else doing the same.
She continued studying it, tilting it a few more times before finally handing it back, seeming almost reluctant, and pointing out a turn I’d have to make, going off road. “I can’t imagine what you’ll be able to do with the technology I have to show you. Perhaps you’ll truly be able to revolutionize our armada as only I had before.” I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped.
“I’d love to.”
Her gaze tore away from mine and she looked out into the field before us, where the barley seemed to be growing substantially better than in any of the fields nearby. “Can your vehicle go through that?”
“It might be able to, but I’d rather not put it through that unless it’s necessary.”
She nodded, seeming to understand my compassion for my mere tools. “Then let’s walk. It’s only a short distance, anyway.”
Short distance was right. Halfway through the field, not even a kilometer, she stopped, and a strange vehicle appeared before her. It was roughly spherical in shape, but with fins on either side that must have allowed it to slice through the ether. Verial took a step toward the ship and faltered, staring back at me. “Are you sure this is what you want? It is your planet, and I’d understand if you felt loyalty to it.”
I had to ponder that. I really wasn’t sure what I felt for Earth. “What will happen to it?” I asked.
Three of her tentacles rose and fell. She sighed. “I said I’d be truthful with you, so I will: we’re going to subjugate it. If you’d like, I have the first claim on the planet, and am free to rule it, though my preference would be continuing my research, and perhaps exploring more worlds. Though perhaps ruling wouldn’t be so bad if you wanted to join me. That is to say, it would be easier with a native–although, of course, it would also be more enjoyable with your company.”
“Ruling has never seemed that appealing.”
She nodded. “Then what do you want?”
My smile was difficult to contain. “You said something about research.”
That laugh. “You mean it?”
“I do. I’ve never found such a worthy research partner before. Naturally, there will be a bit I’ll have to catch up on before I can properly improve on your inventions, and create my own, but with your help, that should be far more pleasant than having to extract advanced lessons from instructors who seemed ill-fit to provide them.”
Her teeth showed, and the rows upon rows of them didn’t seem at all intimidating. “It would be my pleasure. And you’re comfortable leaving your planet under another’s rule?”
I shrugged. “It wasn’t like it ever did anything for me in the first place.”
Four of her tentacles wrapped around me, holding me close as she joyously shouted, “I’m so glad to hear it. Then let’s be off. I have so much I want to show you, and I absolutely must hear about how you created this battery. If we can expand from there–well, I suppose we’ll see.”
I hugged her back. “We’ll revolutionize the galaxy.”
“The universe,” she insisted, pulling away, her bright green eyes meeting my gaze.
“Then there’s no time to waste.” So we climbed aboard her ship, and I left everything I’d ever known behind. To be honest, I’ve never even regretted it for a second. A new life awaited me, and it was more than I ever dreamed, and I had the perfect companion with whom to share it.
Priscilla von Muller. The greatest scientific mind of her generation. After revolutionizing automobiles, she moved on to perfect advanced weaponry, anti-sleep pills, and infinite energy. She had devoted her life to the pursuit of science, forgoing all else, including love, and even moving from her home in Germany to join an upcoming institute in England. While she regretted the decision, she still had to show up those small-minded Englishmen in their feeble attempts at advancing human understanding. She doesn’t believe in the concept of leisure time.
Genevieve McCluer was born in California and grew up in numerous cities across the country. She studied criminal justice in college, but after a few years of that, moved her focus to writing. Her whole life, she’s been obsessed with mythology and past cultures, and she bases her stories in those.
She now lives in Arizona with her partner and cats, working away at far too many novels. In her free time, she pesters the cats, plays video games, and attempts to be better at archery.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Stars Swimming in the Ether” is © 2019 Genevieve McCluer
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner