Messing with Snowflakes

by Irena Pasvinter

Josh was the last person I wanted to see. Josh is always stuck in his lab, his mountain of a nose glued to a microscope or to a computer screen, his unruly hair standing on end, but if he ventures out of his scientific nest and visits you, expect trouble.

“What’s up, Josh?”

“Captain, there’s something wrong with this planet!”

Here we go. Decent oxygen atmosphere, proclaimed so by Josh himself; the landscape — a blanket of pristine white snow; the inhabitants — cute furry animals, the snowballs as we christened them: nothing could be wrong with this cozy little planet.

“Calm down, Josh. We’ve checked everything, it’s all good.”

“No, it’s all wrong. Look!”

Josh shoved pictures at me.

“Snowflakes? What’s wrong with them?”

“All identical!”

“So what?”

Josh looked at me as if I myself was a wrong snowflake under his microscope. I was in for a lecture.

“Captain, these are all different snowflakes I photographed, and they’re all one hundred percent alike. This is freaking wrong! Scientists have been photographing snowflakes on Earth and other planets for centuries now, and they’ve never found two that are absolutely identical. Snowflakes are unique on a microscopic level because they are complex structures. As they fall from the sky, every tiny local change in humidity or temperature influences their formation. The probability of two snowflakes being identical is about the same as you and me having identical DNA just by chance”.

It takes Josh to compare snowflakes under a microscope. A minute ago I was sure that we were finally lucky to get a preliminary research of a quiet, friendly planet with no intelligent life, just a bunch of good humored flora and fauna. It takes Josh to spoil everything.

“So what could this mean if here all the snowflakes are identical?” I asked.

“Only one thing — somebody has been messing with snowflakes!”

“Messing with snowflakes? Josh, don’t be a paranoid.”

“And you, Captain, don’t be stupid. What else could this mean if they are all identical? Somebody made them like that, or they would not be this way — somebody who’s able to make myriads of identical snowflakes, and nobody I know can do this.”

He paused and delivered his final blow in a hissing whisper.

“We’re on a giant snow globe, Captain! Tiny action figures on somebody’s toy!”

“And what about snowballs? What are they? Action figures on a toy as well?”

“No idea. Ask your biologist.”

It took him ten minutes to come. The biologist looked sleepy and discontented. I must have awakened him in the middle of an exciting dream.

“Alex, what do we know about these snowball creatures?”

“Unintelligent, warm blooded. All look the same. What else do you wanna know? ”

“Have you taken their DNA samples?” Josh asked.

“Yes, I shot a couple with my blood sampling gun. It was fun.”

“Do they all have an identical DNA?” I said.

“No. They are not identical twins if that’s what you mean.”

I looked at Josh. He shrugged his shoulders and asked, “What do snowballs eat?”

“I saw them eating snow and digging for some roots under it. They wipe out these roots clean — nothing left. I couldn’t take any samples. And so far no luck finding these roots on my own. ”

“Anything else you want to ask, Josh?” I said. Josh did not answer.

“Thank you, Alex. Josh was curious about snowballs but he’s satisfied now. “

Alex turned to leave, probably still hoping to see the rest of his dream. I braced myself for a talk with paranoid Josh.

“Do you know what’s really funny about these snowballs, Captain?” Alex said while waiting for the door to open. My heart sank.

“What?”

“They’re all the same size. Usually you have adults, babies, male, female — all different sizes. Not snowballs. And you know what, they are growing bigger all the time. Remember how they were this little when we first saw them a week ago?” Alex parted his hands to demonstrate the snowballs’ size. “So, they are this big now!” Alex parted his hands twice as much. “You should see them rolling there, Captain.”

Josh shuffled his legs and pierced me with an “I knew it!” glance.

“I wonder how big they’re gonna grow, Captain,” he said.

“OK, let’s go look at them.”

The snow was fluffy and deep, an endless white sea around us.

“They have a favorite place just five minutes from here. You can always find them there,” Alex said.

He started the engine of the planet rover. It did not take long to see that Alex was right. We saw them at a distance, rolling in circles, playing with each other.

“See?” Alex cried, pointing at the white furry balls. “Damn, they are getting really huge! They don’t like the noise of the engine. I’ll get a bit closer.” He swung the door open and jumped out onto the snowy plain, pulling out his camera.

“I don’t like this, Captain,” Josh said. ”They are getting bigger as I look at them. Tell him to return immediately. He can film them from here just as well.”

Frankly, I don’t like when others tell me what to do. That’s why I wanted to be a captain in the first place. I looked at the distance vision screen. Alex pushed toward the snowballs struggling to advance in the deep snow. And the snowballs; there was indeed something eerie about them — they were slowly swelling out like balloons, weird fluffy balloons.

“Holly shit,” cried Josh, “they’re growing. They’ll be the same size as him soon!” He pushed the communication button on the dashboard and yelled, “Get back, Alex! Get back!”

Alex did not answer. He was filming the swelling balloons.

“Alex, get back immediately, it’s an order,” I said. Alex continued fiddling with his camera.

“Captain, I smell trouble,” Josh said. “Let’s drive closer to him.” Without waiting for my answer he took the controls and started driving.

“Alex, get back immediately!” I shouted.

“Just a minute, Captain. This is fascinating.”

“Get back now, you bloody idiot!”

We drove up to Alex and stopped. He was still filming. Suddenly it wasn’t just Alex — it was a huge snowball bumping into Alex, Alex falling into the snow and the snowball gliding over him as a vacuum cleaner runs over a heap of dirt. A second later the snow at the place where Alex was supposed to be was pristine white again, and the snowball expanded to the size of our planet rover. Its eyes got bigger too:  tiny black spots that used to be hardly visible amidst the white fur gave way to two crimson plates. They were staring at us, hypnotizing us with fear.

Josh recovered from the stupor first and pushed the controls. We fled. The giant snowball rolled behind us flashing its crimson eyes.

“Captain, look at the others!”

I did. The other snowballs were playing the same game that our red-eyed monster played with Alex — the wiping out game. The swallowed ones vanished and the swallowers grew huge.

I looked at the map of the crew members. Nobody else was outside the ship.

“Prepare for emergency take off,” I shouted into the general communication. “Crew, be prepared for emergency take off in five minutes.”

“I wonder how big this guy will be in five minutes,” Josh said. “You think it can swallow the planet rover?”

The snowball was gaining on us. We were close to the ship now, but not close enough.

I remembered how easily the creature annihilated Alex, camera and all. It was about Alex’s size then. Now it was about the planet rover’s size. Who could tell how much it could swallow. One thing I was sure about — I did not want to try our guns on this monster. After what happened to Alex, I wasn’t sure if guns would slow it down or make it even more dangerous.

Three other enlarged snowballs were rolling behind it, probably hoping to join the forthcoming feast. Or were they challenging it? Our crimson-eyed monster must have had the same doubts — it turned back and went on a rampage. Everything happened so fast that I could not tell for sure who wiped out whom. But the outcome that emerged on the snowy plain was terrifying. It was now comparable in size to our ship.

“My god,” Josh whispered. I knew he did not believe in god but it did not matter. I felt the same. My god.

The super-snowball lingered as if getting used to its new status. Then the red windows of its bloody eyes found us. It rolled.

We were almost at the entrance to the ship now.

“Chief mate, perform emergency take off the moment we get back on the ship.”

“Yes, Captain.”

The entrance doors slid open and we swooshed inside, the giant snowball gliding on our heels, barely missing us. I heard the noise of the ship’s engines. Take off.

I glanced at Josh. A drop of sweat fell from his crooked nose. He was shaking. I didn’t want to see how I looked.

“We made it, Josh. ”

“Not all of us, Captain.”

“Josh,” I said, “next time you smell trouble, I’m gonna listen to you. Snowflakes, flowers, shit, whatever — the moment you say something is wrong we’re taking off the bloody planet even if it’s made of pure gold. I mean, if I’m still a captain next time.”

“Don’t worry, Captain.” Josh said, wiping out the sweat from his forehead. “If they disqualify you, I’ll take you as my assistant. We’ll smell trouble together.”

“Thanks, Josh. Let’s go tell the guys what happened.”

“Captain, what do you think it’s up to now?”

“I don’t wanna know.”

“I think I know,” Josh said. “I bet it’s busy sucking in all the others. And at the end it gets so huge it explodes — bursts into thousands of tiny cute furry snowballs. And the game starts all over again.”

“Damn snow globe,” I said.

“Aye, Captain.”

The End