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Stream of Consciousness
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1999 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology Packing Fraction,
edited by Julie E. Czerneda, January 1999.
- Winner of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award
for Best English-Language Short Story of the Year.
Stream of Consciousness
by Robert J. Sawyer
The roar of the helicopter blades pounded in Raji's ears he
wished the university could afford a hoverjet. The land below
was rugged Canadian shield. Pine trees grew where there was
soil; lichen and moss covered the Precambrian rocks elsewhere.
Raji wore a green parka, its hood down. He continued to scan the
There! A path through the wilderness, six meters wide and
perhaps half a kilometer long: trees knocked over, shield rocks
scraped clean, and, at the end of it
Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
A large dark-blue object, shaped like an arrowhead.
Raji pointed, and the pilot, Tina Chang, banked the copter to
take it in the direction he was indicating. Raji thumbed the
control for his microphone. "We've found it," he said, shouting
to be heard above the noise of the rotor. "And it's no
meteorite." As the copter got closer, Raji could see that the
front of the arrowhead was smashed in. He paused, unsure what to
say next. Then: "I think we're going to need the air ambulance
Raji Sahir was an astronomer with Laurentian University. He
hadn't personally seen the fireball that streaked across the
Ontario sky last night, flanked by northern lights, but calls
about it had flooded the university. He'd hoped to recover a
meteorite intact; meteors were a particular interest of his,
which is why he'd come to Sudbury from Vancouver twenty years
ago, in 1999. Sudbury was situated on top of an ancient
iron-nickel meteorite; the city's economy had traditionally been
based on mining this extraterrestrial metal.
The helicopter set down next to the dark-blue arrowhead. There
could be no doubt: it was a spaceship, with its hull streamlined
for reentry. On its port side were white markings that must have
been lettering, but they were rendered in an alphabet of
triangular characters unlike anything Raji had ever seen before.
Raji was cross-appointed to the biology department; he taught a
class called "Life on Other Worlds," which until this moment had
been completely theoretical. He and Tina clambered out of the
copter, and they moved over to the landing craft. Raji had a
Geiger counter with him; he'd expected to use it on a meteorite,
but he waved it over the ship's hull as he walked around it. The
clicks were infrequent; nothing more than normal background
When he got to the pointed bow of the lander, Raji gasped. The
damage was even more severe than it looked from above. The
ship's nose was caved in and crumpled, and a large, jagged
fissure was cut deep into the hull. If whatever lifeforms were
inside didn't already breathe Earthlike air, they were doubtless
dead. And, of course, if the ship carried germs dangerous to
life on Earth, well, they were already free and in the air, too.
Raji found himself holding his breath, and
It was Tina's voice. Raji hurried over to her. She was pointing
at a rectangular indentation in the hull, set back about two
centimeters. In its center was a circular handle.
"Should we go inside?" asked Tina.
Raji looked up at the sky. Still no sign of the air ambulance.
He thought for a moment, then nodded: "First, though, please get
the camcorder from the helicopter."
The woman nodded, hustled off to the chopper, and returned a
moment later. She turned on the camera, and Raji leaned in to
examine the door's handle. It was round, about twenty
centimeters across. A raised bar with fluted edges crossed its
equator. Raji thought perhaps the fluting was designed to allow
fingers to grip it but, if so, it had been built for a
He grasped the bar, and began to rotate it. After he'd turned it
through 180 degrees, there was a sound like four gunshots.
Raji's heart jumped in his chest, but it must have been
restraining bolts popping aside; the door panel shorter and
wider than a human door was suddenly free, and falling forward
toward Raji. Tina surged in to help Raji lift it aside and set
it on the ground. The circular handle was likely an emergency
way of opening the panel. Normally, it probably slid aside into
the ship's hull; Raji could see a gap on the right side of the
opening that looked like it would have accommodated the door.
Raji and Tina stepped inside. Although the outer hull was
opaque, the inner hull seemed transparent Raji could see the
gray-blue sky vaulting overhead. Doubtless there were all kinds
of equipment in between the outer and inner hulls, so the image
was perhaps conveyed inside via bundles of fibre optics, mapping
points on the exterior to points on the interior. There was
plenty of light; Raji and Tina followed the short corridor from
the door into the ship's main habitat, where
Raji felt his eyes go wide.
There was an alien being, dead or unconscious, slumped over in a
bowl-shaped chair in the bow of the ship. The fissure Raji had
seen outside came right through here as a wide gap in the hull; a
cool breeze was blowing in from outside.
Raji rushed over to the strange creature. There was, at once, no
doubt in his mind that this creature had come from another world.
It was clearly a vertebrate it had rigid limbs, covered over
with a flexible greenish-gray hide. But every vertebrate on
Earth had evolved from the same basic body plan, an ancestral
creature with sensory organs clustered around the head, and four
limbs. Oh, there were creatures that had subsequently dispensed
with some or all of the limbs, but there were no terrestrial
vertebrates with more than four.
But this creature had six limbs, in three pairs. Raji
immediately thought of the ones at the top of the tubular torso
as arms, and the much thicker ones at the bottom as legs. But he
wasn't sure what the ones in the middle, protruding halfway
between hips and shoulders, should be called. They were long
enough that if the creature bent over, they could serve as
additional legs, but they ended in digits complex and supple
enough that it seemed they could also be used as hands.
Raji counted the digits there were indeed six at the end of
each limb. Earth's ancestral vertebrate had five digits, not
six, and no Earthly animal had ever evolved with more than five.
The alien's digits were arranged as four fingers flanked on
either side by an opposable thumb.
The alien also had a head protruding above the shoulders at
least that much anatomy it shared with terrestrial forms. But
the head seemed ridiculously small for an intelligent creature.
Overall, the alien had about the same bulk as Raji himself did,
but its head was only the size of a grapefruit. There were two
things that might have been eyes covered over by lids that closed
from either side, instead of from the top and bottom. There were
two ears, as well, but they were located on top of the head, and
were triangular in shape, like the ears of a fox.
The head had been badly banged up. Although the alien was
strapped into its seat, a large hunk of hull material had
apparently hit it, cutting into one side of its head; the debris
that had likely done the damage was now lying on the floor behind
the being's chair. Interestingly, though, the head wound showed
no signs of bleeding: the edges of it were jagged but dry.
At first Raji could see nothing that might be a mouth, but then
he looked more closely at the middle limbs. In the center of
each circular palm was a large opening perhaps food was drawn
in through these. In place of peristalsis, perhaps the creature
flexed its arms to move its meals down into the torso.
Assuming, of course, that the alien was still alive. So far, it
hadn't moved or reacted to the presence of the two humans in any
Raji placed his hand over one of the medial palms, to see if he
could detect breath being expelled. Nothing. If the creature
still breathed, it wasn't through its mouths. Still, the
creature's flesh was warmer than the surrounding air meaning
it was probably warm blooded, and, if dead, hadn't been dead very
A thought occurred to Raji. If the breathing orifices weren't on
the middle hands, maybe they were on the upper hands. He looked
at one of the upper hands, spreading the semi-clenched fingers.
The fingers seemed to be jointed in many more places than human
Once he'd spread the fingers, he could see that there were holes
about a centimeter in diameter in the center of each palm. Air
was indeed alternately being drawn in and expelled through these
Raji could feel that with his own hand.
"It's alive," he said excitedly. As he looked up, he saw the air
ambulance hoverjet through the transparent hull, coming in for a
The ambulance attendants were a white man named Bancroft and a
Native Canadian woman named Cardinal. Raji met them at the
entrance to the downed ship.
Bancroft looked absolutely stunned. "Is this is this what I
think it is?"
Raji was grinning from ear to ear. "It is indeed."
"Who's injured?" asked Cardinal.
"The alien pilot," said Raji.
Bancroft's jaw dropped, but Cardinal grinned. "Sounds
fascinating." She hustled over to the hoverjet and got a medical
The three of them went inside. Raji led them to the alien; Tina
had remained with it. She had the palm of her hand held about
five centimeters in front of one of the alien's breathing holes.
"Its respiration is quite irregular," she said, "and it's getting
Raji looked anxiously at the two ambulance attendants.
"We could give it oxygen ..." suggested Bancroft tentatively.
Raji considered. Oxygen only accounted for 21% of Earth's
atmosphere. Nitrogen, which makes up 78%, was almost inert it
was highly unlikely that N2 was the gas the alien
required. Then again, plants took in carbon dioxide and gave off
oxygen perhaps giving it oxygen would be a mistake.
No, thought Raji. No energetic life forms had ever appeared on
Earth that breathed carbon dioxide; oxygen was simply a much
better gas for animal physiology. It seemed a safe bet that if
the alien were indeed gasping, it was O2 that it was
gasping for. He motioned for the ambulance attendants to
Cardinal got a cylinder of oxygen, and Bancroft moved in to stand
near the alien. He held the face mask over one of the alien's
palms, and Cardinal opened the valve on the tank.
Raji had been afraid the creature's palm orifices would start
spasming, as if coughing at poisonous gas, but they continued to
open and close rhythmically. The oxygen, at least, didn't seem
to be hurting the being.
"Do you suppose it's cold?" asked Tina.
The creature had naked skin. Raji nodded, and Tina hustled off
to get a blanket from her helicopter.
Raji bent over the creature's small head and gently pried one of
its pairs of eyelids apart at their vertical join. The eye was
yellow-gold, shot through with reddish orange veins. It was a
relief seeing those the red color implied that the blood did
indeed transport oxygen using hemoglobin, or a similar
In the center of the yellow eye was a square pupil. But the
pupil didn't contract at all in response to being exposed to
light. Either the eye worked differently and the square pupil
certainly suggested it might or the alien was very deeply
"Is it safe to move it?" asked Cardinal.
Raji considered. "I don't know the head wound worries me. If
it's got anything like a human spinal cord, it might end up
paralyzed if we moved it improperly." He paused. "What sort of
scanning equipment have you got?"
Cardinal opened her medical kit. Inside was a device that looked
like a flashlight with a large LCD screen mounted at the end
opposite the lens. "Standard class-three Deepseer," she said.
"Let's give it a try," said Raji.
Cardinal ran the scanner over the body. Raji stood next to her,
looking over her shoulder. The woman pointed to the image.
"That dark stuff is bone or, at least, something as dense as
bone," she said. "The skeleton is very complex. We've got
around 200 bones, but this thing must have twice that number.
And see that? The material where the bones join is darker
meaning it's denser than the actual bones; I bet these
beasties never get arthritis."
"What about organs?"
Cardinal touched a control on her device, and then waved the
scanner some more. "That's probably one there. See the outline?
And wait a sec. Yup, see there's another one over here, on
the other side that's a mirror image of the first one. Bilateral
"All of the organs seem to be paired," said Cardinal, as she
continued to move the scanner over the body. "That's better than
what we've got, of course, assuming they can get by with just one
in a pinch. See that one there, inflating and deflating? That
must be one of the lungs you can see the tube that leads up
the arm to the breathing hole."
"If all the organs are paired," asked Raji, "does it have two
Cardinal frowned, and continued to scan. "I don't see anything
that looks like a heart," she said. "Nothing that's pumping or
beating, or ..."
Raji quickly checked the respiratory hole that wasn't covered by
the oxygen mask. "It is still breathing," he said, with
relief. "Its blood must be circulating somehow."
"Maybe it doesn't have any blood," said Bancroft, pointing at the
dry head wound.
"No," said Raji. "I looked at its eyes. I could see blood
vessels on their surface and if you've got blood, you've got
to make it circulate somehow; otherwise, how do you get the
oxygen taken in by the lungs to the various parts of the body?"
"Maybe we should take a blood sample," said Bancroft. "Cardy's
scanner can magnify it."
"All right," said Raji.
Bancroft got a syringe out of the medical kit. He felt the
alien's hide, and soon found what looked like a distended blood
vessel. He pushed the needle in, and pulled the plunger back.
The glass cylinder filled with a liquid more orange than red. He
then moved the syringe over to the scanner, and put a drop of the
alien blood into a testing compartment.
Cardinal operated the scanner controls. An image of alien blood
cells appeared on her LCD screen.
"Goodness," she said.
"Incredible," said Raji.
Tina jockeyed for position so that she, too, could see the
display. "What?" she said. "What is it?"
"Well, the blood cells are much more elaborate than human blood
cells. Our red cells don't even have nuclei, but these ones
clearly do see the dark, peanut-shaped spot there? But they
also have cilia see those hair-like extensions?"
"And that means?" asked Tina.
"It means the blood cells are self-propelled," said Cardinal.
"They swim in the blood vessels, instead of being carried along
by the current; that's why the creature has no heart. And look
at all the different shapes and sizes there's much more
variety here than what's found in our blood."
"Can you analyze the chemical makeup of the blood?" asked Raji.
Cardinal pushed some buttons on the side of her scanner. The LCD
changed to an alphanumeric readout.
"Well," said Cardinal, "just like our blood, the major
constituent of the alien's plasma is water. It's a lot saltier
than our plasma, though."
"Human blood plasma is a very close match for the chemical
composition of Earth's oceans," said Raji to Tina. "Our
component cells are still basically aquatic lifeforms it's
just that we carry a miniature ocean around inside us. The alien
must come from a world with more salt in its seas."
"There are lots of protein molecules," said Cardinal, "although
they're using some amino acids that we don't. And my
goodness, that's a complex molecule."
"That one there," she said, pointing to a chemical formula being
displayed on her scanner's screen. "It looks like
"What?" asked Tina, sounding rather frustrated at being the only
one with no medical or biological training.
"It's a neurotransmitter," said Raji. "At least, I think it is,
judging by its structure. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals
that transmit nerve impulses."
"There's lots of it in the blood," said Cardinal, pointing at a
"Can you show me some blood while it's still in the body?" asked
Cardinal nodded. She pulled a very fine fibre optic out of the
side of her scanner, and inserted it into the same distended
blood vessel Bancroft had extracted the sample from earlier.
On the scanner's screen, blood cells could be seen moving along
"They're all going the same way," said Raji. "Even without a
heart to pump them along, they're all traveling in the same
"Maybe that's why there are neurotransmitters in the
bloodstream," said Bancroft. "The blood cells communicate using
them, so that they can move in unison."
"What about the head injury?" asked Tina. "If it's got all that
blood, why isn't it bleeding?"
Cardinal moved the scanner up to the alien's small, spherical
head. The eyes were still closed. On the LCD screen, the skull
was visible beneath the skin, and, beneath the skull, the scanner
outlined the organ that was presumably the brain within.
"It's so tiny," said Raji.
Bancroft indicated the spaceship around them. "Well, despite
that, it's obviously very advanced intellectually."
"Let's have a look at the wound," said Raji.
Cardinal repositioned the scanner.
"There seem to be valves in the broken blood vessels that have
closed off," she said.
Raji turned to Tina. "We've got valves in our veins, to keep
blood from flowing backwards. It looks like this creature has
valves in both its veins and its arteries." He paused,
then turned to Cardinal. "I still don't know if we can or should
move the alien."
"Well, the oxygen bottle is almost empty," said Bancroft. "Who
knows if it was doing it any good, anyway, but "
"Oh, God," said Tina. She'd still been holding her hand near one
of the respiratory orifices. "It's stopped breathing!"
"We could try artificial respiration," said Bancroft.
"You mean blowing into its hands?" said Tina incredulously.
"Sure," said Bancroft. "It might work." He lifted one of the
arms, but, as he did so, orange liquid began to spill from the
"Yuck!" said Tina.
Raji pulled back, too. The head wound had started to bleed as
"It's bleeding from the mouths, too," said Cardinal, looking at
the medial limbs.
"We can't let it die," said Raji. "Do something!"
Bancroft reached into the medical kit and brought out a roll of
gauze. He began packing it into the mouth located in the palm of
the right medial hand. Cardinal grabbed a larger roll of gauze
and tried to stanch the flow from the head.
But it was no good. Orange liquid was seeping out of previously
unnoticed orifices in the torso, too, as well as from the soles
of the feet.
"It's dying!" said Tina.
Blood was pooling on the spaceship's floor, which was canted at a
bit of an angle.
"Maybe one of our viruses has the same effect on it that
Ebola has on us," said Bancroft.
But Raji shook his head. "Viruses evolve in tandem with their
hosts. I find it hard to believe any of our viruses or germs
would have any effect on something from another ecosystem."
"Well, then, what's happening to it?" asked Bancroft. And then
his eyes went wide. Raji followed Bancroft's gaze.
The orange blood wasn't pooling in the lowest part of the floor.
Rather, it was remaining in a puddle in the middle of the floor
and the puddle's edges were rippling visibly. The middle of
the pool started to dry up. As the four humans watched, the
opening in the middle grew bigger and bigger. But it wasn't
round rather, it had straight edges. Meanwhile, the outside
of the puddle was also taking on definite shape, forming straight
edges parallel to those on the inside.
"It's it's a triangle," said Tina.
"The orange pigment in the blood it's probably iron-based,"
said Raji. "Maybe it's magnetic; maybe the blood is pooling
along the field lines formed by magnetic equipment beneath the
But then pairs of liquid arms started extending from the vertices
of the central triangle. The four humans watched dumbfounded
while the blood continued to move. Suddenly, the six growing
arms turned in directions perpendicular to the way they'd
previously been expanding.
Finally, the outline was complete: the central object was a
right-angle triangle, and off of each face of the triangle was a
Suddenly, lines started to cross diagonally through two of the
squares one square was crossed from the lower-left to the
upper-right; another from the upper-left to the lower right; and
the third square was crosshatched, as if the patterns
from the other squares had been overlain on top of each other.
"The square of the hypotenuse," said Tina, her voice full of
wonder, "equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides."
"What?" said Bancroft.
"The Pythagorean theorem," said Raji, absolutely astonished.
"It's a diagram illustrating one of the basic principles of
"A diagram made by blood?" said Bancroft incredulously.
A sudden thought hit Raji. "Can your scanner sequence nucleic
acids?" he asked, looking at Cardinal.
"Can it compare strands? See if they're the same?"
"Yes, it can do that."
"Compare the nucleic acid from a body cell with that from one of
the blood cells."
Cardinal set to work. "They don't match," she said after a few
"Incredible," said Raji shaking his head.
"What?" said Tina.
"In all Earth lifeforms, the DNA is the same in every cell of the
body, including in those blood cells that do contain DNA
non-mammalian red corpuscles, as well as white corpuscles in all
types of animals. But the alien's blood doesn't contain the same
genetic information as the alien's body."
"Don't you see? The blood and the body aren't even related!
They're separate lifeforms. Of course the body has a tiny
brain it's just a vehicle for the blood. The blood is the
intelligent lifeform, and the body is only a host." Raji pointed
at the orange diagram on the floor. "That's what it's telling
us, right there, on the floor! It's telling us not to worry
about saving the body we should be trying to save the blood!"
"That must be why the host has built-in valves to shut off cuts,"
said Cardinal. "If the blood cells collectively form an
intelligent creature, obviously that creature wouldn't want to
give up part of itself just to clot wounds."
"And when the host dies, the orifices and valves open up, to let
the blood escape," said Bancroft. "The host doesn't hate the
blood this isn't an enslavement; it's a partnership."
"What do we do now?" asked Tina.
"Collect all the blood and take it somewhere safe," said Raji.
"Then see how much we can communicate with it."
"And then we wait," said Raji, looking up at the transparent
ceiling. It was getting dark; soon the stars would be visible.
"We wait for other aliens to come on a rescue mission."
Raji dropped his gaze. The alien blood was forming a new pattern
on the floor: the outlines of two large circles, separated be
about twenty centimeters of space.
"What's it trying to say?" asked Cardinal.
Lines started to squiggle across the circles. The lines on the
right-hand circle seemed random, but suddenly Raji recognized the
ones on the left: the coastlines of North America. It was a
picture of Earth and of another planet, presumably the alien's
As the four humans watched, the two circles moved closer
together, closer still, the gap between them diminishing, until
at last they gently touched.
Raji smiled. "I think that means we're going to be friends."
• The End •
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