Quicksand Thieves

by Miriam English


It was a long time ago, but I remember it so clearly. Is that because memories from when we're kids are stronger, brighter, do you think? Or maybe as we age things just become crowded together and less distinct? Back then I was young and adventurous. I'd become bored studying stellar biosystems and phased to an out-of-the-way world called Kremia. Heard of it huh? Well, it was out-of-the-way back then. It was a trade layover for a dozen different People, most of whom had never heard of humans. I hadn't even reached my first century — still wet behind the ears. Thought it would be fun to live a less planned life.

When I got there I didn't have any credits; didn't realise most other People still used them. I learned for the first time in my life what it feels like to be hungry, not just caloric restriction hungry, I mean starving hungry. Was rescued by Umban and Umpas, a pair of Gleeks. A sweet couple. Fine looking People, Gleeks. Tall, slender, like pythons with four long legs; soft, shiny yellow scales, and those high-mounted, soulful eyes. Lovely People. They kinda adopted me. Got me to help out in their store in the settlement. They had a few other charity cases there too — a nervous Senopian named Paf, a Tapiat named Tover, and two young Durls, Wik and Wok. The five of us became close friends and we regarded Umban and Umpas as our guardians.

We had a lot of good times. Some of my best memories were there on that world. We sold mostly equipment for travelers — People who travelled the old, slow way in lightspeed ships, not phasing like how I'd arrived.

Whenever a large supplyship arrived Umban and Umpas would go to the spaceport to pick up new stock, and leave us to run the store while they were gone. On one such occasion we were sitting around, telling tall stories to each other when three shaggy mole-like creatures almost as tall as me waddled in and started gathering up armloads of merchandise. Tover and I asked them if we could help them, but they deliberately ignored us. Paf, the Senopian anxiously approached them asking in his high, whistling voice if they wanted anything in particular. One of the ratty mole creatures peered menacingly sideways at him with squinty little eyes and sneered, "We take." They were on a shoplifting spree. Paf suddenly became even more jittery than normal. Tover growled and moved heavily on her stumpy legs toward the mole-guys, but Paf barred her way with one of his fragile, stick-thin arms. Wik and Wok had also started drifting over, but stopped when Paf gave them a frightened meaningful look. I don't know what the Durls were thinking. A strong sneeze could blow them away.

Paf began talking excitedly, whistling higher than normal, "Yes, take what you please. Most welcome. No trouble." All the while he kept an eye on us, motioning for us to stay back, away from these surly characters.

They didn't stay long — left carrying as much stuff as they could get their arms around. As they waddled out it sounded like they were making croaky snickering sounds.

The four of us turned to Paf, and started to demand what was going on, but he waved his arms and hissed us quiet. "Get water! Lots of water! And do not walk where they walked or touch anything they touched. Quick! Quick! Now!"

As we drenched the entry area in buckets of water and washed down anything they'd touched, Paf put a call in to the local cops and sent pictures of the thieves. All I caught of his feverish monologue was a word that translated from Universal as "quicksand".

After he got off the call he seemed a little less jumpy, and we insisted on being told what had just happened. He said he would explain, but pleaded for us to douse each other and him in water first, though the Durls were exempt as, floating around, they hadn't touched anything.

When we were all dripping wet Paf told us that he'd noticed tiny silvery flecks in the footprints of the mole-thieves and on some things they'd touched. They were infected. He used the "quicksand" word again. Puzzled, I asked what he meant. I knew he must mean something other than sand suspended in upwelling water. He explained that it was an almost-alive silicon substance that somehow transmutes other elements to silicon and hydrogen without releasing large amounts of energy. It would continue eating through anything it contacted, creating more of itself until it encountered something that blocked the chain reaction. There are a few materials that can slow or stop it. Water is the commonest. The quicksand would eventually kill the thieves, but slowed by the water in their bodies, it could take a long, painful time.

We looked around at each other then, realising how Paf had saved us.

Wik and Wok said in their thin, tremulous voices, "What about the store? How are we going to explain this to Umban and Umpas?" I saw now that the moles had taken almost a quarter of the equipment on display. The fluffy Durls floated against each other and set up a faint wail. Paf looked like he was going to have a seizure, he was so anxious. Tover closed her eyes and settled her thick body on her haunches like Tapiats do when they're really worried by something.

I tried to calm them all, saying something like, "It's alright. It will be okay." But I was looking around at all the missing gear and feeling like we'd let our loving guardians down badly. During my attempts at reassurance the Gleeks returned unnoticed by us. When they asked in their soft voices what had happened, the two Durls made a high-pitched shriek like something scraped across glass. Paf began shaking like a leaf in a wind, and Tover sank softly down onto her elbows, sphinx-like, catatonic. So I told them how Paf's quick thinking had saved the store, most of the equipment, and probably our lives, and how we'd washed everything down to neutralise the quicksand while Paf had notified the police.

Umban and Umpas cooed over us and thanked Paf and giggled good-naturedly at our worry. It was just equipment, they said, our lives were far more precious. And their latest trip to the spaceport would replace all that was lost and make enough credits to easily cover the losses.

They were nice People, those Gleeks. I miss them and my four friends. Hundreds of years ago now and I still see them clearly in my mind's eye — hear they way they talked and laughed. I miss them.

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