You said, “I’ve found them.”
The moth dips down through an atmosphere: carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water, trace gasses. Pollen. Bacteria. Particulate. It ebbs and flows through the porous mass of the planet. My system flags the input. The wind patterns are planet-wide, regular, sound like ragged breathing. It sounds like it will stop any second now.
I don’t talk about how fucked up this thing you’re seeing is, because I think that should be obvious, to you and to everyone. I won’t insult you by explaining all the reasons why this should not be. There are towers on the surface, or maybe very skinny mountains. Geology has a hard time squaring with spheroid masses of collagen and calcium, trace human tissues. So if the towers resemble deliberate structures, woven in ribs and radii, forgive the brain that processes it so. We all work with that which we are given.
The moth flutters down on wings of light, catching every joule it passes. Feathered arrays sense and speak; it doesn’t care what it senses, which is why you’re there. It doesn’t care that none of this is possible.
You don’t either, but I don’t notice that at first.
This world has a daytime sky, though there are no stars close enough to diffuse the light. It’s a cinder-coloured sky that reaches all the way down, swirling in fog and dust through hills and valleys, through scapulae and vertebrae.
The moth notices stars through that haze, but that’s not its interest, nor its pilot’s, either. The moth is looking for a way in, feeling at the architecture of the structures on the surface, sniffing, like a dog, for marrow. The wind of this place is strong enough to topple structures. We see a tower fall in the distance.
I call your name, because the fall of the tower reminds me that no one has spoken in the better part of an hour. You’ve said all you were planning to say, though, and so you don’t respond.
I do what I am bid in cases like this. I call. I order, not that I have the authority to order you around, really, and I have to cite regs in the course of ordering you. My face gets hot, and I start yelling, and when yelling is done, I beg, and then I threaten.
Your babies need their mom. My babies need their auntie. I put in the emergency call from our listening post, but I’m pretty sure people already know what’s going on here, which is why no one responds. This is showing up with flags in lots of peoples’ queues, which is probably why no one is responding. They think you’re right.
We have been in this listening post in a nowhere spot half of every year for the last six years. Ships used to stop here a lot during the war. We were new to the post, just you and me, and not a lot of room, just a little, and soldiers came in, every so often, to talk shop, check on things.
We used to be a depot as well as a listening post those first couple of years. It was weird, all the windows we could see out of after armistice, once all the bays got taken down and floated away. Back then, there were a lot of soldiers, mostly boys, mostly young, so terribly pretty, delicate and scared, carrying weapons into war.
We weren’t really supposed to, but everyone did, and no official sanction came down for it. Not even when we did our jobs with babies in our slings. They were nice, stretchy fabrics that rolled in sunrise colours: indigo to blue to white to red to pink to white again and gold; was the sergeant who brought that fabric to us yours or mine?
Of course I know whose he was. I’m just asking to get some response from you. The wind is rising in a moan down on the surface, kicking up dust. Dust-dust, like what goes through the filtration system here, mostly dead skin. I can see the moth’s wings reflect off the motes like sunlight.
It’s just you and me again. Our babies, three apiece, are back with our respective parents; eldest ones about to enter preschool on continents almost as far from one another as they can get. Will your parents let me see my nieces and my nephew if this shakes out the way I think it will? Will they let me see you?
Everything that goes over the channels, everything I say out loud is going to be logged, picked over. I know this and that’s why I begged and threatened. It’s for my sake, not yours.
I feel like this was inevitable; it’s written on the back of your sketches. All those young faces. You never showed your models the pictures you drew of them. I see them all over your bunk, looking back. I see it in the light in each eye, the curve of every lip.
Paper is your extravagance. There’s not much to it; cheap, something the cultures can spit out with just the least amount of sugar if you aren’t particular about the surface texture, the size or the shape. You never were. The texture was a thing you left to chance, the size, unplanned as your next subject. You trimmed the edges; there are still little curls under your bunk that you missed bringing back down for the cultures to recycle.
I go down to see your body, strapped up, wired in and sealed in oxygenated fluid, running on its own while you’re in the moth. In nine hours, there won’t be enough of you left in either place to prevent the moth from coming home. Then, we’ll see. A lot can happen, then. You can come out dead. You can come out a vegetable. You can come out you, but not quite you. You can come out, and they will bring you back home and decide if you’re competent to answer for what you’ve done, and though you’re only hurting yourself, you’re never coming up here again, except as a passenger.
I’ll give you all the time there is. You might come back on your own. You’ll have a lot of things to explain. I will be mad. It’s hard to stay mad in this tiny place, but I will hold onto it for as long as I am able, and I used to have a strong back for a grudge.
You’re ten metres below the surface, now, in a cavern of tibiae and mandibles, sweeping your lights over every surface, feeling your way. The moth brushes bone with feathery antennae. I tell myself you might come back on your own, but I don’t believe.
The first night we spent together here, you tried to make dinner. You looked at boxes, ran your fingers over the labels, tested the heft of the vegetables from the garden and I knew, knew you’d never cooked a meal in your life, but I kept it quiet and let you try to bluff your way through it, claiming each brown or blackened lump you produced was traditional cooking in your family. I believe in a diversity of cultures, but no one can eat that much mace in anything.
I picture you, twenty-three, two months older than me, holding a carrot in one hand and a beet in the other, waiting for them to tell you what to make of them, running your fingers along and across them.
You make the moth stroke the walls of the cavern, bone by bone. It’s warmer here, and there’s a sound, a sense from down below. It’s weak and much too slow, but I know it reminds you of a heartbeat.
Remember when I found the body? It wasn’t far from where you are now, not for space, anyway. Practically right on top of where you are now. Just hanging there, limbs sort of out. No suit, just a green coat and black hair. Like he was drowned, face down in a dark quarry lake.
“I expect to see a frog hop off his back and disappear into the dark, leaving just a ripple behind.” I read his ID, and by the time I got home, you had him drawn, floating, facedown in the water with a frog on the small of his back.
All our channels stay quiet a little longer. The moth feels its way down below, remembering every change in attitude and altitude, mapping its way home. You can’t get lost, your own consciousness entangled with the workings of the moth, an imperfect feedback loop. They won’t let me come after you. The logs say I was locked out the moment you found the planet. All the bones are woven tight down here, scraps of fabric binding them each to each, implanted tags broadcasting their origins and names.
Reported KIA 01.17. Reported KIA 12.03. Reported MIA 08.28, Presumed Dead. Update: Confirmed KIA 09.19. It’s a trove of information that doesn’t tell us why or how it exists. It shivers a little.
I look out the windows of the listening post, extravagant, dangerous windows, even now. I don’t look very often. There is not a lot to see. I charted every star I could see from every window as the hull spun and spun. Charted them long ago on long rolls of paper, labelled every one; you have to keep your mind occupied, otherwise you start imagining ghosts.
I remember a boy who couldn’t stop shivering. He was moaning in his sleep and shaking, his skin was clammy. I couldn’t keep him warm and it made me cold. With my eyes closed to the dark, I imagined him, blue light leaking his skin. I shivered along with him and didn’t sleep. It took until morning to warm him up.
Reported KIA 10.14. I’m not certain it’s his face, his bones. Certainty is not something I require. It’s not something he requires, my little boy blue. His face passes in a stream of faces and I will never find it. I could just as easily fish a teardrop from a river by hunting for the salt.
I’ve been told to standby, so I am standing up. Walking away, but I never have to stop watching as I walk. So I do not stop watching.
You guide the moth through a gallery where towers drip from the ceiling and rise from the porous floor, ending in thin spires, studded with ulnae and hip joints. The war chirps in burst-transmissions from bone tags and lost devices: gun cameras, data assistants. Where are they? You shine the moth’s lights in their direction, but they are peep frogs and the lights won’t reveal them.
There are lots of things in this listening post that people I don’t see, never met and never will see can control without my knowledge or consent. There are others they can’t. Grandma used to tell me that the lever and the switch were the last bastions of a free society. She was a spacer, too. I throw some switches, pull some levers, and pull a couple of components out, placing them on work surfaces. I am humming to myself, but I’m listening to you.
Each thing I change in the listening post makes a signal. It takes a while for that signal to come through in the places that listen to our listening. I did not put hands on the levers to get their attention, but it works, and so neglected children never learn not to misbehave.
Here’s the story, if you’re interested: they have decided what you’ve discovered is important after all, too important for you to have discovered it. Someone whose voice I have never before heard, a man, old as my dad-as-I-remember-him, tells me to re-engage that which I have disengaged and accept a lockdown.
I am not nervous or afraid. I am in the guts of our home, pulling components, because Grandma told me that a well-positioned wrench is the real last bastion of a free society, and the nearest pursuit ship is two weeks away.
Why am I doing this? My body is doing this, I am a passenger. I wonder if it’s the same for you outside of your body, imprinted on the moth, touching everything, following the warm puff of air down and in. It’s crumbling around you, expanding, contracting. Towers come down and the occasional machine voice goes silent. This is how we still manage to forget.
In my family, we wash dishes after a funeral. We fill up a basin with water and soap and we soak the dishes, let the pain of hot water convince us that our stranger hands belong to us, but we let them choose which dish next to scrub. Locking the unfamiliar voice out of the listening post is my dish to scrub. Stranger hands check back with my memory and mind occasionally, to see what still needs to be done.
You are far below the surface, in the porous parts, shimmying and squeezing, sometimes, your wings filtering through the gaps in the bones, your stubby little legs crawling and pressing. The list of questions comes down to the bones themselves, and it shocks me how long it took to ask this. How is it that there are only bones? There are some traces of flesh, here and there; taken as a whole, quite a bit, but we are a species that still uses scarab beetles to strip bones. Even with the inexplicable atmosphere, there is not enough life in this place to account for decomposition, let alone enough decayed matter. This quiet house is clean.
Did the notion of first contact take as long to occur to you as it did to me? Someone has gotten into the PA system here and is broadcasting horrible music at maximum volume. Fortunately, there are things I can do about that. If you speak again, I will not be able to hear you. I begin to look over the manuals and listen to the single, long tone. It takes me a while to manage this basin of dishes. If you spoke, I missed it.
I got good at making turnip cake. It was a weird thing, I had never had it and you never learned how to make it, but we had turnips and long stretches when we were locked out of our own systems, when the military needed to defend and so they deafened us.
We lost our crop for a while when Orange 7 group requisitioned our garden and tore it up while I tried in vain to keep their shivering soldier warm. They took half our soil. I remember seeing you at the atrium with soil to your elbows and smeared across your face, and the look on my shivering boy’s face when he saw what they had done. You threw clods at him as he retreated and never said anything. We got seeds eventually, round about the time that I knew I was pregnant with Lucy. I’m glad she wasn’t his.
There’s a picture of us you drew when they first came to the station, me leading him off to my bunk with a lyre in my hand, him pale and washed out as a ghost. You crumpled it up and threw that at him, too, as he fled, scared, back to the underworld. I smoothed it out and pinned it to the wall in the deep guts of this place, somewhere you don’t go. It’s the only picture I have that you drew of me.
I remember to eat, eventually, leftover turnip cake, pepper sauce, noodles. I am not hungry and I am ravenous. I eat more than I wanted and less than I cooked, and don’t really know where my belly is with what I ate.
I watch you. Once I can listen again, I listen. I look at bones. I get a count of the signals catalogued. Over a billion so far, but that doesn’t begin to account for the bones here, the mass. It’s not really that big. I keep calling it a planet, because it feels like one, but I am wrong and I know I am wrong about that. It doesn’t matter. This is a funeral. I fill a basin with hot water and soap. The long shower I was saving up to have.
You are far below the surface, now, out of range of signals that aren’t the one line between us, following something. I don’t see it at first. It doesn’t appear through the visuals, only in data, but once I see it there, I start to hear it. Once I start to hear it, I feel it in the vibrations through the listening post. I close my eyes and I feel the cool of his skin, the goose flesh and the bones beneath. I see blue. He’s shivering. All the boys are shivering.
There are girls too, almost as many; an enlightened species we, sending what was once a significant proportion of all of us to their grave, the one through which you are picking. I feel them all through your skin, as I don’t remember it, chilly, shivering. It’s not you with your covers thrown wide from the second hour of sleep, lightest blanket you could get from the cultures. But it is you, they are you, but I can’t keep you warm. I couldn’t keep him warm, and I can’t keep any of them warm.
I don’t miss my children; that was a secret that we kept between one another. Neither of us did, much. Enlightened species we, but still expected to live entirely for them and through them once we’ve got them. I never have. Dad remembers Grandma as distant, even when she came home. It’s a spacer thing, he said. He took my kids in because his grandma took him and his siblings in. He knows. I knew, and watching you among the bones, I am starting to understand why.
There’s no power in bringing life into the universe, no power you can weigh against this. It’s just energy from a chemical reaction escaping as heat. Mothering becomes as confusing to me as eating was. I want to see them, and I want to not, and I want them to have never been.
Dust is sifting down here, lights, orange and blue sitting in corners, the displays on trapped devices grown vulgar and obscene in the dark. Peep frogs squashed on the roads after a rain.
You hit one when you visited me, way out in the country, and you looked at the car like it was a unicorn or something. I took you out driving in the middle of the night when our kids were sleeping, and you crept along in the driver’s seat, chattering until the frog came out from the tall, wet grass, hopping. You forgot where the brake was until long after it was too late, and between the tears you swore at the collision detection programs that never were and never will be set to register something so small.
The dust looks like snow. It falls like snow in the low gravity, still too much gravity for the mass of this object. I want to say that for a moment, I can see them, but the moment stretches on and on. I become aware of my awareness; my scalp prickles, my chest and stomach get hot.
You have made it close to the core. It seems like the trip should have taken longer, and the sigh of the rogue bony planet is stronger and regular. I deny it for as long as I can, but it’s become a heartbeat. I don’t know exactly why I don’t want it to be so, it feels wrong, and it feels inevitable.
There is a heart at the core, bigger than this listening post, bigger than the largest asteroid station, and its vessels fade into columns or towers of bone. It shines, green corona to pinks to almost scarlet at the core, brighter than the brown dwarf of our sun, brighter than any light, and I see them then.
I see them all, pressed together, body on green-lit body, shivering, skin to skin, trying to get warm. They crowd around you, the tiny reactor, the moth’s solar wings still warm. They contract in, they crumble. I would call it seismic, but these are bones. It’s more as though what made them clump together, what made them a tiny rogue planet simply left, vanished, and the crumbling, tumbling debris of bones and detritus starts to drift apart.
The heart beats once more and then pops with no more consequence or trace than a soap bubble. Everything is dark.
The moth is destroyed. All those bones start to move again as they were meant to, and they batter each other and the moth into dust. This could be the best thing to happen for you; we will find out together at the end of the two-hour acclimation cycle. It would be nice to have someone competent to stand trial with me, but in the face of the miracle I’ve witnessed, I don’t dare hope for another one. No miracles ever.
Except I was wrong. Sometimes I can be so thick. For a long time, I floated there, just curled up in the microgravity of the inner workings where my sabotage left me in the dark with the chirps of our post still registering hits from the tags. Just like the peep frogs back home, just like in the swamp. The last of my momentum had me drifting, just a bit, brushing the walls until the edge of the paper caught on my skin.
It was the picture of him and me you drew as Eurydice and Orpheus. I loaded all that you have seen onto a chip and plugged it into the remaining moth, because it’s not katabasis until you come back to the light again. I unlocked it.
It will take a while for the planet to break up completely. It will take a while for your capsule to let your body out, and if your body still has you in it, this is going to be on your bunk. It will take too long for anyone to stop me; we’re here because the moth is so much faster than anything that carries a body inside it. Maybe we can’t keep them warm, but we can give them back to the ones who can, we can bring them to light. I will see this through for them, for you. I will see them scatter; all the stars ever, and also bones.
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Story copyright © 2014 by Erik Amundsen
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Tomasz Wieja
Erik Amundsen is a medium monstrous humanoid, always chaotic evil. His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Not One of Us.
Tomasz Wieja (artwork) is an illustrator, photographer, and art director based in Poland. A graduate of Fotoacademie Rotterdam, he combines studio and location photography with photomanipulation in order to seek out new undiscovered realities. His work has been exhibited in galleries in the Netherlands and Poland, printed in the prestigious GUPNew yearbook, and nominated for the Dutch Photo Academy Award. He currently makes up part of the Treslettres Collective.