Escape Pod 690: The Things (Flashback Friday)
2011 Hugo Award Nominee
2010 BSFA Award Finalist
2010 Shirley Jackson Award Winner
2011 Finalist: the Locus Award for Best Short Story
2011 Theodore Sturgeon Award Nominee
Kate Baker Homepage: https://www.anaedream.com
Kate Baker Twitter: @Kate_Baker
Cast of Wonders: Old Tea Cups and Kitchen Witches by Kate Baker
Peter Watts Homepage: https://www.rifters.com
Wikipedia: John W. Campbell
Wikipedia: Who Goes There?
American SF and the Other by Ursula K. LeGuin
Village Voice: The Men Who Were The Thing
by Peter Watts
I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.
I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.
I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.
The names don’t matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.
I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.
The world has found me out. It has discovered my burrow beneath the tool shed, the half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters. The world is busy destroying my means of escape. Then it will come back for me.
There is only one option left. I disintegrate. Being Blair, I go to share the plan with Copper and to feed on the rotting biomass once called Clarke; so many changes in so short a time have dangerously depleted my reserves. Being Childs, I have already consumed what was left of Fuchs and am replenished for the next phase. I sling the flamethrower onto my back and head outside, into the long Antarctic night.
I will go into the storm, and never come back.
I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.
So much wisdom I had. So much experience. Now I cannot remember all the things I knew. I can only remember that I once knew them.
I remember the crash, though. It killed most of this offshoot outright, but a little crawled from the wreckage: a few trillion cells, a soul too weak to keep them in check. Mutinous biomass sloughed off despite my most desperate attempts to hold myself together: panic-stricken little clots of meat, instinctively growing whatever limbs they could remember and fleeing across the burning ice. By the time I’d regained control of what was left the fires had died and the cold was closing back in. I barely managed to grow enough antifreeze to keep my cells from bursting before the ice took me.
I remember my reawakening, too: dull stirrings of sensation in real time, the first embers of cognition, the slow blooming warmth of awareness as body and soul embraced after their long sleep. I remember the biped offshoots surrounding me, the strange chittering sounds they made, the odd uniformity of their body plans. How ill-adapted they looked! How inefficient their morphology! Even disabled, I could see so many things to fix. So I reached out. I took communion. I tasted the flesh of the world—
—and the world attacked me. It attacked me.
I left that place in ruins. It was on the other side of the mountains—the Norwegian camp, it is called here—and I could never have crossed that distance in a biped skin. Fortunately there was another shape to choose from, smaller than the biped but better adapted to the local climate. I hid within it while the rest of me fought off the attack. I fled into the night on four legs, and let the rising flames cover my escape.
I did not stop running until I arrived here. I walked among these new offshoots wearing the skin of a quadruped; and because they had not seen me take any other shape, they did not attack.
And when I assimilated them in turn—when my biomass changed and flowed into shapes unfamiliar to local eyes—I took that communion in solitude, having learned that the world does not like what it doesn’t know.
I am alone in the storm. I am a bottom-dweller on the floor of some murky alien sea. The snow blows past in horizontal streaks; caught against gullies or outcroppings, it spins into blinding little whirlwinds. But I am not nearly far enough, not yet. Looking back I still see the camp crouched brightly in the gloom, a squat angular jumble of light and shadow, a bubble of warmth in the howling abyss.
It plunges into darkness as I watch. I’ve blown the generator. Now there’s no light but for the beacons along the guide ropes: strings of dim blue stars whipping back and forth in the wind, emergency constellations to guide lost biomass back home.
I am not going home. I am not lost enough. I forge on into darkness until even the stars disappear. The faint shouts of angry frightened men carry behind me on the wind.
Somewhere behind me my disconnected biomass regroups into vaster, more powerful shapes for the final confrontation. I could have joined myself, all in one: chosen unity over fragmentation, resorbed and taken comfort in the greater whole. I could have added my strength to the coming battle. But I have chosen a different path. I am saving Child’s reserves for the future. The present holds nothing but annihilation.
Best not to think on the past.
I’ve spent so very long in the ice already. I didn’t know how long until the world put the clues together, deciphered the notes and the tapes from the Norwegian camp, pinpointed the crash site. I was being Palmer, then; unsuspected, I went along for the ride.
I even allowed myself the smallest ration of hope.
But it wasn’t a ship any more. It wasn’t even a derelict. It was a fossil, embedded in the floor of a great pit blown from the glacier. Twenty of these skins could have stood one atop another, and barely reached the lip of that crater. The timescale settled down on me like the weight of a world: how long for all that ice to accumulate? How many eons had the universe iterated on without me?
And in all that time, a million years perhaps, there’d been no rescue. I never found myself. I wonder what that means. I wonder if I even exist any more, anywhere but here.
Back at camp I will erase the trail. I will give them their final battle, their monster to vanquish. Let them win. Let them stop looking.
Here in the storm, I will return to the ice. I’ve barely even been away, after all; alive for only a few days out of all these endless ages. But I’ve learned enough in that time. I learned from the wreck that there will be no repairs. I learned from the ice that there will be no rescue. And I learned from the world that there will be no reconciliation. The only hope of escape, now, is into the future; to outlast all this hostile, twisted biomass, to let time and the cosmos change the rules. Perhaps the next time I awaken, this will be a different world.
It will be aeons before I see another sunrise.
This is what the world taught me: that adaptation is provocation. Adaptation is incitement to violence.
It feels almost obscene—an offense against Creation itself—to stay stuck in this skin. It’s so ill-suited to its environment that it needs to be wrapped in multiple layers of fabric just to stay warm. There are a myriad ways I could optimize it: shorter limbs, better insulation, a lower surface:volume ratio. All these shapes I still have within me, and I dare not use any of them even to keep out the cold. I dare not adapt; in this place, I can only hide.
What kind of a world rejects communion?
It’s the simplest, most irreducible insight that biomass can have. The more you can change, the more you can adapt. Adaptation is fitness, adaptation is survival. It’s deeper than intelligence, deeper than tissue; it is cellular, it is axiomatic. And more, it is pleasurable. To take communion is to experience the sheer sensual delight of bettering the cosmos.
And yet, even trapped in these maladapted skins, this world doesn’t want to change.
At first I thought it might simply be starving, that these icy wastes didn’t provide enough energy for routine shapeshifting. Or perhaps this was some kind of laboratory: an anomalous corner of the world, pinched off and frozen into these freakish shapes as part of some arcane experiment on monomorphism in extreme environments. After the autopsy I wondered if the world had simply forgotten how to change: unable to touch the tissues the soul could not sculpt them, and time and stress and sheer chronic starvation had erased the memory that it ever could.
But there were too many mysteries, too many contradictions. Why these particular shapes, so badly suited to their environment? If the soul was cut off from the flesh, what held the flesh together?
And how could these skins be so empty when I moved in?
I’m used to finding intelligence everywhere, winding through every part of every offshoot. But there was nothing to grab onto in the mindless biomass of this world: just conduits, carrying orders and input. I took communion, when it wasn’t offered; the skins I chose struggled and succumbed; my fibrils infiltrated the wet electricity of organic systems everywhere. I saw through eyes that weren’t yet quite mine, commandeered motor nerves to move limbs still built of alien protein. I wore these skins as I’ve worn countless others, took the controls and left the assimilation of individual cells to follow at its own pace.
But I could only wear the body. I could find no memories to absorb, no experiences, no comprehension. Survival depended on blending in, and it was not enough to merely look like this world. I had to act like it—and for the first time in living memory I did not know how.
Even more frighteningly, I didn’t have to. The skins I assimilated continued to move, all by themselves. They conversed and went about their appointed rounds. I could not understand it. I threaded further into limbs and viscera with each passing moment, alert for signs of the original owner. I could find no networks but mine.
Of course, it could have been much worse. I could have lost it all, been reduced to a few cells with nothing but instinct and their own plasticity to guide them. I would have grown back eventually—reattained sentience, taken communion and regenerated an intellect vast as a world—but I would have been an orphan, amnesiac, with no sense of who I was. At least I’ve been spared that: I emerged from the crash with my identity intact, the templates of a thousand worlds still resonant in my flesh. I’ve retained not just the brute desire to survive, but the conviction that survival is meaningful. I can still feel joy, should there be sufficient cause.
And yet, how much more there used to be.
The wisdom of so many other worlds, lost. All that remains are fuzzy abstracts, half-memories of theorems and philosophies far too vast to fit into such an impoverished network. I could assimilate all the biomass of this place, rebuild body and soul to a million times the capacity of what crashed here—but as long as I am trapped at the bottom of this well, denied communion with my greater self, I will never recover that knowledge.
I’m such a pitiful fragment of what I was. Each lost cell takes a little of my intellect with it, and I have grown so very small. Where once I thought, now I merely react. How much of this could have been avoided, if I had only salvaged a little more biomass from the wreckage? How many options am I not seeing because my soul simply isn’t big enough to contain them?
The world spoke to itself, in the same way I do when my communications are simple enough to convey without somatic fusion. Even as dog I could pick up the basic signature morphemes—this offshoot was Windows, that one was Bennings, the two who’d left in their flying machine for parts unknown were Copper and MacReady—and I marveled that these bits and pieces stayed isolated one from another, held the same shapes for so long, that the labeling of individual aliquots of biomass actually served a useful purpose.
Later I hid within the bipeds themselves, and whatever else lurked in those haunted skins began to talk to me. It said that bipeds were called guys, or men, or assholes. It said that MacReady was sometimes called Mac. It said that this collection of structures was a camp.
It said that it was afraid, but maybe that was just me.
Empathy’s inevitable, of course. One can’t mimic the sparks and chemicals that motivate the flesh without also feeling them to some extent. But this was different. These intuitions flickered within me yet somehow hovered beyond reach. My skins wandered the halls and the cryptic symbols on every surface—Laundry Sched, Welcome to the Clubhouse, This Side Up—almost made a kind of sense. That circular artefact hanging on the wall was a clock; it measured the passage of time. The world’s eyes flitted here and there, and I skimmed piecemeal nomenclature from its—from his—mind.
But I was only riding a searchlight. I saw what it illuminated but I couldn’t point it in any direction of my own choosing. I could eavesdrop, but I could only eavesdrop; never interrogate.
If only one of those searchlights had paused to dwell on its own evolution, on the trajectory that had brought it to this place. How differently things might have ended, had I only known. But instead it rested on a whole new word:
MacReady and Copper had found part of me at the Norwegian camp: a rearguard offshoot, burned in the wake of my escape. They’d brought it back—charred, twisted, frozen in mid-transformation—and did not seem to know what it was.
I was being Palmer then, and Norris, and dog. I gathered around with the other biomass and watched as Copper cut me open and pulled out my insides. I watched as he dislodged something from behind my eyes: an organ of some kind.
It was malformed and incomplete, but its essentials were clear enough. It looked like a great wrinkled tumor, like cellular competition gone wild—as though the very processes that defined life had somehow turned against it instead. It was obscenely vascularised; it must have consumed oxygen and nutrients far out of proportion to its mass. I could not see how anything like that could even exist, how it could have reached that size without being outcompeted by more efficient morphologies.
Nor could I imagine what it did. But then I began to look with new eyes at these offshoots, these biped shapes my own cells had so scrupulously and unthinkingly copied when they reshaped me for this world. Unused to inventory—why catalog body parts that only turn into other things at the slightest provocation?—I really saw , for the first time, that swollen structure atop each body. So much larger than it should be: a bony hemisphere into which a million ganglionic interfaces could fit with room to spare. Every offshoot had one. Each piece of biomass carried one of these huge twisted clots of tissue.
I realized something else, too: the eyes, the ears of my dead skin had fed into this thing before Copper pulled it free. A massive bundle of fibers ran along the skin’s longitudinal axis, right up the middle of the endoskeleton, directly into the dark sticky cavity where the growth had rested. That misshapen structure had been wired into the whole skin, like some kind of somatocognitive interface but vastly more massive. It was almost as if…
That was how it worked. That was how these empty skins moved of their own volition, why I’d found no other network to integrate. There it was: not distributed throughout the body but balled up into itself, dark and dense and encysted. I had found the ghost in these machines.
I felt sick.
I shared my flesh with thinking cancer.
Sometimes, even hiding is not enough.
I remember seeing myself splayed across the floor of the kennel, a chimera split along a hundred seams, taking communion with a handful of dogs. Crimson tendrils writhed on the floor. Half-formed iterations sprouted from my flanks, the shapes of dogs and things not seen before on this world, haphazard morphologies half-remembered by parts of a part.
I remember Childs before I was Childs, burning me alive. I remember cowering inside Palmer, terrified that those flames might turn on the rest of me, that this world had somehow learned to shoot on sight.
I remember seeing myself stagger through the snow, raw instinct, wearing Bennings. Gnarled undifferentiated clumps clung to his hands like crude parasites, more outside than in; a few surviving fragments of some previous massacre, crippled, mindless, taking what they could and breaking cover. Men swarmed about him in the night: red flares in hand, blue lights at their backs, their faces bichromatic and beautiful. I remember Bennings, awash in flames, howling like an animal beneath the sky.
I remember Norris, betrayed by his own perfectly-copied, defective heart. Palmer, dying that the rest of me might live. Windows, still human, burned preemptively.
The names don’t matter. The biomass does: so much of it, lost. So much new experience, so much fresh wisdom annihilated by this world of thinking tumors.
Why even dig me up? Why carve me from the ice, carry me all that way across the wastes, bring me back to life only to attack me the moment I awoke?
If eradication was the goal, why not just kill me where I lay?
Those encysted souls. Those tumors. Hiding away in their bony caverns, folded in on themselves.
I knew they couldn’t hide forever; this monstrous anatomy had only slowed communion, not stopped it. Every moment I grew a little. I could feel myself twining around Palmer’s motor wiring, sniffing upstream along a million tiny currents. I could sense my infiltration of that dark thinking mass behind Blair’s eyes.
Imagination, of course. It’s all reflex that far down, unconscious and immune to micromanagement. And yet, a part of me wanted to stop while there was still time. I’m used to incorporating souls, not rooming with them. This, this compartmentalization was unprecedented. I’ve assimilated a thousand worlds stronger than this, but never one so strange. What would happen when I met the spark in the tumor? Who would assimilate who?
I was being three men by now. The world was growing wary, but it hadn’t noticed yet. Even the tumors in the skins I’d taken didn’t know how close I was. For that, I could only be grateful—that Creation has rules, that some things don’t change no matter what shape you take. It doesn’t matter whether a soul spreads throughout the skin or festers in grotesque isolation; it still runs on electricity. The memories of men still took time to gel, to pass through whatever gatekeepers filtered noise from signal —and a judicious burst of static, however indiscriminate, still cleared those caches before their contents could be stored permanently. Clear enough, at least, to let these tumors simply forget that something else moved their arms and legs on occasion.
At first I only took control when the skins closed their eyes and their searchlights flickered disconcertingly across unreal imagery, patterns that flowed senselessly into one another like hyperactive biomass unable to settle on a single shape. (Dreams, one searchlight told me, and a little later, Nightmares.) During those mysterious periods of dormancy, when the men lay inert and isolated, it was safe to come out.
Soon, though, the dreams dried up. All eyes stayed open all the time, fixed on shadows and each other. Offshoots once dispersed throughout the camp began to draw together, to give up their solitary pursuits in favor of company. At first I thought they might be finding common ground in a common fear. I even hoped that finally, they might shake off their mysterious fossilization and take communion.
But no. They’d just stopped trusting anything they couldn’t see.
They were merely turning against each other.
My extremities are beginning to numb; my thoughts slow as the distal reaches of my soul succumb to the chill. The weight of the flamethrower pulls at its harness, forever tugs me just a little off-balance. I have not been Childs for very long; almost half this tissue remains unassimilated. I have an hour, maybe two, before I have to start melting my grave into the ice. By that time I need to have converted enough cells to keep this whole skin from crystallizing. I focus on antifreeze production.
It’s almost peaceful out here. There’s been so much to take in, so little time to process it. Hiding in these skins takes such concentration, and under all those watchful eyes I was lucky if communion lasted long enough to exchange memories: compounding my soul would have been out of the question. Now, though, there’s nothing to do but prepare for oblivion. Nothing to occupy my thoughts but all these lessons left unlearned.
MacReady’s blood test, for example. His thing detector, to expose imposters posing as men. It does not work nearly as well as the world thinks; but the fact that it works at all violates the most basic rules of biology. It’s the center of the puzzle. It’s the answer to all the mysteries. I might have already figured it out if I had been just a little larger. I might already know the world, if the world wasn’t trying so hard to kill me.
Either it is impossible, or I have been wrong about everything.
They did not change shape. They did not take communion. Their fear and mutual mistrust was growing, but they would not join souls; they would only look for the enemy outside themselves.
So I gave them something to find.
I left false clues in the camp’s rudimentary computer: simpleminded icons and animations, misleading numbers and projections seasoned with just enough truth to convince the world of their veracity. It didn’t matter that the machine was far too simple to perform such calculations, or that there were no data to base them on anyway; Blair was the only biomass likely to know that, and he was already mine.
I left false leads, destroyed real ones, and then—alibi in place—I released Blair to run amok. I let him steal into the night and smash the vehicles as they slept, tugging ever-so-slightly at his reins to ensure that certain vital components were spared. I set him loose in the radio room, watched through his eyes and others as he rampaged and destroyed. I listened as he ranted about a world in danger, the need for containment, the conviction that most of you don’t know what’s going on around here—but I damn well know that some of you do…
He meant every word. I saw it in his searchlight. The best forgeries are the ones who’ve forgotten they aren’t real.
When the necessary damage was done I let Blair fall to MacReady’s counterassault. As Norris I suggested the tool shed as a holding cell. As Palmer I boarded up the windows, helped with the flimsy fortifications expected to keep me contained. I watched while the world locked me away for your own protection, Blair, and left me to my own devices. When no one was looking I would change and slip outside, salvage the parts I needed from all that bruised machinery. I would take them back to my burrow beneath the shed and build my escape piece by piece. I volunteered to feed the prisoner and came to myself when the world wasn’t watching, laden with supplies enough to keep me going through all those necessary metamorphoses. I went through a third of the camp’s food stores in three days, and—still trapped by my own preconceptions—marveled at the starvation diet that kept these offshoots chained to a single skin.
Another piece of luck: the world was too preoccupied to worry about kitchen inventory.
There is something on the wind, a whisper threading its way above the raging of the storm. I grow my ears, extend cups of near-frozen tissue from the sides of my head, turn like a living antennae in search of the best reception.
There, to my left: the abyss glows a little, silhouettes black swirling snow against a subtle lessening of the darkness. I hear the sounds of carnage. I hear myself. I do not know what shape I have taken, what sort of anatomy might be emitting those sounds. But I’ve worn enough skins on enough worlds to know pain when I hear it.
The battle is not going well. The battle is going as planned. Now it is time to turn away, to go to sleep. It is time to wait out the ages.
I lean into the wind. I move toward the light.
This is not the plan. But I think I have an answer, now: I think I may have had it even before I sent myself back into exile. It’s not an easy thing to admit. Even now I don’t fully understand. How long have I been out here, retelling the tale to myself, setting clues in order while my skin dies by low degrees? How long have I been circling this obvious, impossible truth?
I move towards the faint crackling of flames, the dull concussion of exploding ordnance more felt than heard. The void lightens before me: gray segues into yellow, yellow into orange. One diffuse brightness resolves into many: a lone burning wall, miraculously standing. The smoking skeleton of MacReady’s shack on the hill. A cracked smoldering hemisphere reflecting pale yellow in the flickering light: Child’s searchlight calls it a radio dome.
The whole camp is gone. There’s nothing left but flames and rubble.
They can’t survive without shelter. Not for long. Not in those skins.
In destroying me, they’ve destroyed themselves.
Things could have turned out so much differently if I’d never been Norris.
Norris was the weak node: biomass not only ill-adapted but defective, an offshoot with an off switch. The world knew, had known so long it never even thought about it anymore. It wasn’t until Norris collapsed that heart condition floated to the surface of Copper’s mind where I could see it. It wasn’t until Copper was astride Norris’s chest, trying to pound him back to life, that I knew how it would end. And by then it was too late; Norris had stopped being Norris. He had even stopped being me.
I had so many roles to play, so little choice in any of them. The part being Copper brought down the paddles on the part that had been Norris, such a faithful Norris, every cell so scrupulously assimilated, every part of that faulty valve reconstructed unto perfection. I hadn’t known. How was I to know? These shapes within me, the worlds and morphologies I’ve assimilated over the aeons— I’ve only ever used them to adapt before, never to hide. This desperate mimicry was an improvised thing, a last resort in the face of a world that attacked anything unfamiliar. My cells read the signs and my cells conformed, mindless as prions.
So I became Norris, and Norris self-destructed.
I remember losing myself after the crash. I know how it feels to degrade, tissues in revolt, the desperate efforts to reassert control as static from some misfiring organ jams the signal. To be a network seceding from itself, to know that each moment I am less than I was the moment before. To become nothing. To become legion.
Being Copper, I could see it. I still don’t know why the world didn’t; its parts had long since turned against each other by then, every offshoot suspected every other. Surely they were alert for signs of infection. Surely some of that biomass would have noticed the subtle twitch and ripple of Norris changing below the surface, the last instinctive resort of wild tissues abandoned to their own devices.
But I was the only one who saw. Being Childs, I could only stand and watch. Being Copper, I could only make it worse; if I’d taken direct control, forced that skin to drop the paddles, I would have given myself away. And so I played my parts to the end. I slammed those resurrection paddles down as Norris’s chest split open beneath them. I screamed on cue as serrated teeth from a hundred stars away snapped shut. I toppled backwards, arms bitten off above the wrist. Men swarmed, agitation bootstrapping to panic. MacReady aimed his weapon; flames leaped across the enclosure. Meat and machinery screamed in the heat.
Copper’s tumor winked out beside me. The world would never have let it live anyway, not after such obvious contamination. I let our skin play dead on the floor while overhead, something that had once been me shattered and writhed and iterated through a myriad random templates, searching desperately for something fireproof.
They have destroyed themselves. They.
Such an insane word to apply to a world.
Something crawls towards me through the wreckage: a jagged oozing jigsaw of blackened meat and shattered, half-resorbed bone. Embers stick to its sides like bright searing eyes; it doesn’t have strength enough to scrape them free. It contains barely half the mass of this Childs’ skin; much of it, burnt to raw carbon, is already dead.
What’s left of Childs, almost asleep, thinks motherfucker, but I am being him now. I can carry that tune myself.
The mass extends a pseudopod to me, a final act of communion. I feel my pain:
I was Blair, I was Copper, I was even a scrap of dog that survived that first fiery massacre and holed up in the walls, with no food and no strength to regenerate. Then I gorged on unassimilated flesh, consumed instead of communed; revived and replenished, I drew together as one.
And yet, not quite. I can barely remember—so much was destroyed, so much memory lost—but I think the networks recovered from my different skins stayed just a little out of synch, even reunited in the same soma. I glimpse a half-corrupted memory of dog erupting from the greater self, ravenous and traumatized and determined to retain its individuality. I remember rage and frustration, that this world had so corrupted me that I could barely fit together again. But it didn’t matter. I was more than Blair and Copper and Dog, now. I was a giant with the shapes of worlds to choose from, more than a match for the last lone man who stood against me.
No match, though, for the dynamite in his hand.
Now I’m little more than pain and fear and charred stinking flesh. What sentience I have is awash in confusion. I am stray and disconnected thoughts, doubts and the ghosts of theories. I am realizations, too late in coming and already forgotten.
But I am also Childs, and as the wind eases at last I remember wondering Who assimilates who? The snow tapers off and I remember an impossible test that stripped me naked.
The tumor inside me remembers it, too. I can see it in the last rays of its fading searchlight—and finally, at long last, that beam is pointed inwards.
Pointed at me.
I can barely see what it illuminates: Parasite. Monster. Disease.
How little it knows. It knows even less than I do.
I know enough, you motherfucker. You soul-stealing, shit-eating rapist.
I don’t know what that means. There is violence in those thoughts, and the forcible penetration of flesh, but underneath it all is something else I can’t quite understand. I almost ask—but Childs’s searchlight has finally gone out. Now there is nothing in here but me, nothing outside but fire and ice and darkness.
I am being Childs, and the storm is over.
In a world that gave meaningless names to interchangeable bits of biomass, one name truly mattered: MacReady.
MacReady was always the one in charge. The very concept still seems absurd: in charge. How can this world not see the folly of hierarchies? One bullet in a vital spot and the Norwegian dies, forever. One blow to the head and Blair is unconscious. Centralization is vulnerability—and yet the world is not content to build its biomass on such a fragile template, it forces the same model onto its metasystems as well. MacReady talks; the others obey. It is a system with a built-in kill spot.
And yet somehow, MacReady stayed in charge. Even after the world discovered the evidence I’d planted; even after it decided that MacReady was one of those things, locked him out to die in the storm, attacked him with fire and axes when he fought his way back inside. Somehow MacReady always had the gun, always had the flamethrower, always had the dynamite and the willingness to take out the whole damn camp if need be. Clarke was the last to try and stop him; MacReady shot him through the tumor.
But when Norris split into pieces, each scuttling instinctively for its own life, MacReady was the one to put them back together.
I was so sure of myself when he talked about his test. He tied up all the biomass—tied me up, more times than he knew—and I almost felt a kind of pity as he spoke. He forced Windows to cut us all, to take a little blood from each. He heated the tip of a metal wire until it glowed and he spoke of pieces small enough to give themselves away, pieces that embodied instinct but no intelligence, no self-control. MacReady had watched Norris in dissolution, and he had decided: men’s blood would not react to the application of heat. Mine would break ranks when provoked.
Of course he thought that. These offshoots had forgotten that they could change.
I wondered how the world would react when every piece of biomass in the room was revealed as a shapeshifter, when MacReady’s small experiment ripped the façade from the greater one and forced these twisted fragments to confront the truth. Would the world awaken from its long amnesia, finally remember that it lived and breathed and changed like everything else? Or was it too far gone—would MacReady simply burn each protesting offshoot in turn as its blood turned traitor?
I couldn’t believe it when MacReady plunged the hot wire into Windows’ blood and nothing happened. Some kind of trick, I thought. And then MacReady’s blood passed the test, and Clarke’s.
Copper’s didn’t. The needle went in and Copper’s blood shivered just a little in its dish. I barely saw it myself; the men didn’t react at all. If they even noticed, they must have attributed it to the trembling of MacReady’s own hand. They thought the test was a crock of shit anyway. Being Childs, I even said as much.
Because it was too astonishing, too terrifying, to admit that it wasn’t.
Being Childs, I knew there was hope. Blood is not soul: I may control the motor systems but assimilation takes time. If Copper’s blood was raw enough to pass muster than it would be hours before I had anything to fear from this test; I’d been Childs for even less time.
But I was also Palmer, I’d been Palmer for days. Every last cell of that biomass had been assimilated; there was nothing of the original left.
When Palmer’s blood screamed and leapt away from MacReady’s needle, there was nothing I could do but blend in.
I have been wrong about everything.
Starvation. Experiment. Illness. All my speculation, all the theories I invoked to explain this place—top-down constraint, all of it. Underneath, I always knew the ability to change—to assimilate—had to remain the universal constant. No world evolves if its cells don’t evolve; no cell evolves if it can’t change. It’s the nature of life everywhere.
Everywhere but here.
This world did not forget how to change. It was not manipulated into rejecting change. These were not the stunted offshoots of any greater self, twisted to the needs of some experiment; they were not conserving energy, waiting out some temporary shortage.
This is the option my shriveled soul could not encompass until now: out of all the worlds of my experience, this is the only one whose biomass can’t change. It never could.
It’s the only way MacReady’s test makes any sense.
I say goodbye to Blair, to Copper, to myself. I reset my morphology to its local defaults. I am Childs, come back from the storm to finally make the pieces fit. Something moves up ahead: a dark blot shuffling against the flames, some weary animal looking for a place to bed down. It looks up as I approach.
We eye each other, and keep our distance. Colonies of cells shift uneasily inside me. I can feel my tissues redefining themselves.
“You the only one that made it?”
“Not the only one…”
I have the flamethrower. I have the upper hand. MacReady doesn’t seem to care.
But he does care. He must. Because here, tissues and organs are not temporary battlefield alliances; they are permanent, predestined. Macrostructures do not emerge when the benefits of cooperation exceed its costs, or dissolve when that balance shifts the other way; here, each cell has but one immutable function. There’s no plasticity, no way to adapt; every structure is frozen in place. This is not a single great world, but many small ones. Not parts of a greater thing; these are things. They are plural.
And that means—I think—that they stop. They just, just wear out over time.
“Where were you, Childs?”
I remember words in dead searchlights: “Thought I saw Blair. Went out after him. Got lost in the storm.”
I’ve worn these bodies, felt them from the inside. Copper’s sore joints. Blair’s curved spine. Norris and his bad heart. They are not built to last. No somatic evolution to shape them, no communion to restore the biomass and stave off entropy. They should not even exist; existing, they should not survive.
They try, though. How they try. Every thing here is walking dead and yet it all fights so hard to keep going just a little longer. Each skin fights as desperately as I might, if one was all I could ever have.
“If you’re worried about me—” I begin.
MacReady shakes his head, manages a weary smile. “If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it…”
But we are. I am.
A whole planet of worlds, and not one of them—not one—has a soul. They wander through their lives separate and alone, unable even to communicate except through grunts and tokens: as if the essence of a sunset or a supernova could ever be contained in some string of phonemes, a few linear scratches of black on white. They’ve never known communion, can aspire to nothing but dissolution. The paradox of their biology is astonishing, yes; but the scale of their loneliness, the futility of these lives, overwhelms me.
I was so blind, so quick to blame. But the violence I’ve suffered at the hands of these things reflects no great evil. They’re simply so used to pain, so blinded by disability, that they literally can’t conceive of any other existence. When every nerve is whipped raw, you lash out at even the lightest touch.
“What should we do?” I wonder. I cannot escape into the future, not knowing what I know now. How could I leave them like this?
“Why don’t we just—wait here awhile,” MacReady suggests . “See what happens.”
I can do so much more than that.
It won’t be easy. They won’t understand. Tortured, incomplete, they’re not able to understand. Offered the greater whole, they see the loss of the lesser. Offered communion, they see only extinction. I must be careful. I must use this newfound ability to hide. Other things will come here eventually, and it doesn’t matter whether they find the living or the dead; what matters is that they find something like themselves, to take back home. So I will keep up appearances. I will work behind the scenes. I will save them from the inside, or their unimaginable loneliness will never end.
These poor savage things will never embrace salvation.
I will have to rape it into them.
About the Author
Peter Watts is an awkward hybrid of biologist, science-fiction author, and (according to the US Department of Homeland Security) convicted felon/tewwowist. In addition to a number of accolades for science fiction, he has won minor awards in fields as diverse as marine mammal research and video documentary. None of these have gone to his head since they never involved a lot of cash.
Watts’ work is available in 20 languages. Described by the Globe & Mail as “one of the very best [hard-sf writers] alive”, the overall effect of his prose is perhaps best summed up by critic James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.”
Peter Watts is actually a lot more cheerful than you might expect.
About the Narrator
Kate Baker is the Podcast Director and Non-fiction Editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. She has been very privileged to narrate over 400 short stories/poems by some of the biggest names in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
She has been nominated for a Parsec Award, and a World Fantasy Award. Kate won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine in 2011 and 2013, the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine in 2014 and the World Fantasy Award for Special Award: Non Professional in 2014 alongside the wonderfully talented editorial staff of Clarkesworld Magazine.
Kate is also currently lending her voice to The Dark Magazine podcast and has also read for various other audio venues such as Cast of Wonders, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, StarShipSofa, Escape Pod, Nightmare Magazine, Mash Stories, and The Drabblecast.
She has completed a few audiobooks too, all of which can be found on her narrations page.
Kate is also a professional SFF genre writer. You can find her short stories at various venues. Check out the writing tab for links.
Kate is currently situated in Northern Connecticut with her first fans; her wonderful children. She is currently working as the Executive Director for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).