Mai knew them from photographs back on Earth, but she was still mesmerized by the creatures overhead. They were neither mammalian nor insectoid, not birds nor lizards, but the first denizens of a new kingdom, their temporary, webbed wings filling the sky with a murmuration that collected, diverged, dissolved as they ran their courses to the northern roosting grounds. Her first week on Shanti, she spent a very, very long time staring at the sky, at both the unnamed constellations and the creatures, and thought about how they would soon shed their filamentary wings and come to ground in a shallow bay off Shanti’s enormous, singular ocean. She watched the strange stars wheel, and said to herself, This is home, this is home, this is home.
She had awoken six weeks early, a month before landing. Time, which had stopped for the ten subjective years of her voyage, had begun again with a snap like a slingshot. She knew this not because of menopause, or grey hairs, or radical changes in earthly politics, but because of her inbox, which was filled with thousands of messages she could not yet bring herself to read. During all those years asleep, Mom had written weekly about what she put in the garden, who was married, what books she read. Her messages amounted to more than a million words by the time Mai woke. A million words she could not yet bring herself to read, because they unsettled the persistent sense she had that everyone was as they had been before stasis-time, all of them awaiting ignition as she had done at the beginning of her multi-generational tenure, losing consciousness before synthetic umbilicals snaked into her body. Ten years gone in a single moment so brief that when she woke she wondered if something had gone wrong and they were still circling Earth. But it was Shanti below them, and she had become a woman past forty, floating in placental goo that had not been there a moment before.
She had swallowed against the tubes down her throat. The panic started. She began to feel the callouses and sores of a decade suspended. She threw up and a hose carried off her yellowish effluent. She felt the slither of internal machinery, and as it withdrew she felt how deeply infested she was by plastic and metal. A voice in her ear—no, not her ear, in the middle of her head, a friendly voice: Do not panic do not panic. When she could raise her wet, entangled hand to her face she found she had no eyebrows or lashes.
And now she was here, the place to which she had been travelling for decades, since the first landing team shot images back to Earth and she, only twelve, fell in love with Shanti the greenskinned. Shanti, who surpasseth understanding, even when Mai spent a whole afternoon with her eyes turned upward, wondering at the flutter of translucent wings.
It happened on an afternoon she didn’t notice, walking barefoot near the river, maybe, or staring up into Shanti’s aurora. Some dormant wisp breached her body on an in-breath among billions of other in-breaths. Her hand rose to scratch the inside of her elbow and through the abraded skin slid the spore. Something kindled, something single-celled, a bubble suited only to drift, rudderless, with each heartbeat until it rose through the permutations of its lifecycle from spore to something larval, or like a nematode, and then some terminal, adult shape she could not imagine.
There are analogues on Earth, and she’s afraid her mother will find them and learn about parasitic horrors: the fungus that permeates the exoskeleton of an ant and drives it upward along a stem to the underside of a leaf, where the punctuating explosion of its possession rains infection down on its sisters.
There’s the flick of a small fish in the water, the light catching its silver belly, and the flash catching the eye of a heron, who catches the fish and—in eating—catches the parasite. The spreading brain-lesions that tell the fish: Flash, flick your tail up through the water to the air, to the beak of the waiting bird. Go. Go. Go. They say it over and over. Go.
Or the rat who rushes the cat. Or the man who rushes the telephone pole in a sportscar because recklessness is a lesion on his brain and Toxoplasma gondii exploits his nervous system. The tongueless fish. The caterpillar who’s nurse and nursery to a family of wasp larvae.
Her first impulse was always to lie. No, everything’s great, she always said. She wrote a letter to her mother, about how beautiful Shanti was. Lovelier than the pictures. Everyone was kind. The fruit trees were always in flower. The ocean was a deep aquamarine, shading into an orange like a traffic cone when the sun descended. There were no traffic cones on Shanti, so she deleted that bit, and added something about a mandarin orange from the shop Mom liked on Fisgard Street. She wondered if Mom had bought oranges there this last Christmas, or any of the intervening Christmases. She hoped nothing had happened to stop the yearly ritual of oranges in green tissue paper.
She wrote a(nother) letter to her mother. I’ve been infected by a parasite. I won’t tell you what because I don’t want you to search for it. By the time this reaches you it won’t matter much, anyway. In fact, I’m forbidding you right now from looking for anything or asking anyone. Apparently I have about twelve hours as myself. They won’t say what happens next, because it’s kind of unpredictable. There are lots of animals who’ve had it, but only two people. They won’t tell me.
I can’t stop thinking about the time we climbed up Mount Tolmie, the Christmas after Dad died, and you asked me something about agriculture in a seasonless ecology. And it was such a stupid question, I wouldn’t answer it properly.
I keep thinking I feel them—every itch, every little nerve-wriggle—though they’re too small to feel, so it’s all in my head. I know it’s all in my head. But they’re not in my head. Or, not yet. The blood-brain barrier is the last redoubt, and then—I don’t know.
I keep thinking about Mount Tolmie, and looking down at the lights when the city’s fogged over. I keep thinking about the oak trees on the way up, on either side of the path, and the Easter lilies in February and March. Then maybe walking down to the beach and getting gelato, maybe a sugar-cone, and sitting on the beach, and trying to pick up as much Styrofoam out of the high-tide line as we could find. If you want to know, Shanti’s seasonlessness is not much problem for permaculture, at least. Parasites, on the other hand, are a
She wrote the letter again, but differently, with no mention of the parasite or Mount Tolmie. She screamed at the doctors outside her isolation bubble: extract it, cell by bloody cell. Flood me with all the old cures—malaria or mercury baths, chemotherapy, kill it with radiation. Kill me on the way, if necessary. Kill it, kill it, just kill it I can feel it. Let me go home so they can get it out.
Overhead the convoy still floated, awaiting its return voyage, and she begged them to put her back in her pod and send her to Earth, hoping stasis killed it dead, or at least delayed its colonization. But the possibility of cross-contamination, the invasion of Earth’s ecosystem by what amounted to a biological weapon already embedded in what might become a compliant host. Besides, she had years ahead of her, probably, maybe. Shanti is always a one-way journey.
Do something with the last minute you have. Scream. Again. Scream. Hack yourself open and let the invading legions spill out through the wound you make in your own gut. No.
Write another letter home warning them that though they may, later, receive letters from a Mai-shaped creature, it will not be her. No, go for a walk. No, eat a meal as a human being. Use the most dire and terrifying pickup line of all time: I’m about to become a composite entity, governed by an occupying host of single-celled aliens, and I’d like to get laid one last time as a person. No. Whatever you do, don’t go to sleep, because then you won’t know when it happens. Just wait, all night if necessary, in the little hut on the edge of the settlement to which you have been exiled for the village’s safety because they really don’t know what happens next. Wait for each little spore to flower in your brain and affix itself to your very substance. No.
She wrote a letter to her mother: Does the fish flash in the shallows where the bird can see it because it is the parasite’s creature, or because of the pleasure it takes in sunlight? Does the caterpillar love the little wasps, and the rat feel a transfiguring passion for the cat?
She deleted it.
Mai seemed to remember that she had felt lonely in quarantine at first, maybe because it had frightened her, spending her nights outside the walls in the little hut. The loneliness, however, was temporary, because the first symptom of the Shanti Parasite’s successful colonization was that she stopped hating the Shanti Parasite. On the afternoon of the second day of her infection she looked down and was surprised to find she had broken two fingers in some struggle against the interior of her own body. There were gouges and deep bruises on her face and belly. That was when it had her, a species better adapted, wilder, subtler, more loveable than any creature any human had ever encountered.
She healed quickly. She re-read the first letter home, the one about the little dear ones, written in panic, but she could still remember the day on Mount Tolmie. How her mother had wanted to climb it at Christmas in some weak simulacrum of holiday tradition. They’d take the dogs along the winding path to the top, she said, and sit in a patch of sunlight for a few minutes as they had done before Dad died. Mom brought shortbread, Christmas baking that was also a remnant of that other world. To Mai, they all seemed like marionettes, following the forms of a family that no longer existed, and that wouldn’t exist—in the same way—ever again. She wished she’d declined to climb, as her sisters had done, but together she and Mom looked down at the city and Mom tried to make conversation, asking that stupid question about Shanti’s axial tilt. Mai could not control her irritation, nor the anger that flared at this question, since she had explained in great and pedantic detail about axial tilts and seasons and permaculture.
She remembered thinking: You should have known better than to come home for Christmas, because it was not home, but a husk, remarkable only because it possessed the shape of the thing it once held, which had been your family.
She’d left her mother to clean up the waxed paper and the Thermos, and gone back to the husk, taking the short, fast route down the mountain, her mother trailing behind her with the dogs. On Shanti, parasitized, Mai remembered the day with the disinterested gaze of a woman staring through a telescope at a tiny, perfectly focused star. The winter jasmine had been in bloom. She wanted gelato from the place down on the beach, and without looking back to see if her mother was still following she had turned away from the house and toward the water.
On Shanti, she stopped being afraid. She stopped sneezing. That was good. She didn’t mind that no one talked to her anymore because after the dissolution of fear and anger, and after her instantly cured hayfever, came love, which her doctors called a side-effect of the excessive production of oxytocin, phenethylamine, as well as other, as yet unidentified endogenous opiates in the reports they sent back to Earth. It would have been easier to call it love, she told them, and they ignored her. The excessive production was exactly what she told them it was: love passionate. Tender. Erotic. Love familiar, and love affectionate. All possible shades rushed her at once: love unspeakable, love irresistible, love both angelic and animal, love that burst her heart like a shell, her pupils permanently dilated as her blood boiled with the little dear ones, and those as yet unidentified endogenous opiates.
The earlier, earthly passions were only harbingers of Shanti, and she remembered each as a prefigure of the first real love she ever knew: her little sister’s babyhood when she was just four; her cat; her first love, at fifteen. Her second love, at eighteen. Her first adult love, which was also her terminal passion, when she was twenty-one. Then the years of stasis as she awaited Shanti in the library or on the starship, the blank years, during which time passed, but seemed not to.
And now: the little dear ones who kindled in her blood regulated—blindly, she thought, with the instinctively perfect manipulations of infancy—the operative chemicals in her brain, filling her with all shades of affection. All possible degrees and experiences telescoped into a passion for the single-celled creatures who floated through the viscera of her eye, droplets that cast translucent shadows in the day, and hazed her sight with the bioluminescence of Shanti’s night. She felt the rush of them through all the corridors of her body, the multitudes, the civilizations under her skin, whose shapes she could not imagine, whose futures were inaccessible to her, and whose language she did not speak, though she heard its murmur everywhere.
She scares the colonists, like she’s a timebomb about to cover them all with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is silly, because she couldn’t if she tried, and it doesn’t exist on Shanti, anyway. That’s okay, she says to the one doctor who’s stuck doing physicals and tracking the Shanti Parasite’s progress. When she goes in for her monthly examinations he is masked and latexed. She points out that the whole planet is teeming, and he goes pale and queasy and she feels sad that she’s upset him, but isn’t quite sure why.
The secret they won’t mention in their reports—though she tells them over and over again—is that the Shanti Parasite makes her a better person. Definitely a better daughter. She reads all her letters from Earth one after another without being afraid of what she’ll find. She wonders why Mai’s first thought was to lie to her mother, and is troubled by this, and by the memories that she possesses but no longer understands. With her astronomer’s gaze she remembers that other life: Mai’s mother on the last morning, in the garden, barefoot in her nighty. Mai in pajamas, sitting on the step with her very last cup ever of morning coffee, watching Mom pull a dandelion—its root as large as a carrot—from the bed beneath the pink rhododendron. Mai watched her snap the root, then scatter the leaves. Dandelions, an old-world invader species, arriving with the first North American settlers, and equally voracious. There were—so far—no dandelions on Shanti. Which was too bad, Mai thought, because dandelion root made a coffeeish sort of drink. Not a substitute, but something you could drink and remember coffee by.
The sun in the garden now, on the still-unopened buds of the lavender in the border that lined the path, in among the rosemary and low thyme bushes. Mom picked lavender stems, and the young branches of the rosemary and thyme. She carried them to Mai, wrapping them with a blade of grass, and handed Mai the tiny nosegay. Mai held it, and the faint stickiness of the herbs’ oily stems spread on her fingers.
Mai thought of Shanti’s permanent spring, the long, temperate year at the mid-latitudes of the settlement, the heat of the equator, the glacial mountains above the treeline. She held the bunch tight to her lips and breathed through their leaves. She did not look to see, but she thought her mother’s mouth twisted, her eyes fixed steadily on the ground under her bare feet.
“Take it with you?”
“I don’t know if they’ll let me.”
“Mai, you’re crawling with organisms. You’re a generation ship. A little bunch of flowers from your mother isn’t going to destroy Shanti’s ecosystem. We’ve probably already done that, anyway.”
Mai looked away from the garden, into which she, and her mother, and her sisters had been born, and said to herself, Never anything so familiar, ever again.
The little bunch of flowers and leaves are still with her, in a baggy, in a locker, with other things she does not use: notebooks, some jewellery still vacuum-packed that fit into her ten-kilo personal allowance. Like most colonists she had loaded up on information, the nearly weightless petabytes of data: favourite books, photographs, patterns and programs, recordings of her sister’s children telling stories.
The flowers, now scentless, their petals nearly grey, are the only things that demonstrate in their substance the passage of time. Other than her face, of course, which despite the no-doubt moisturizing unguents of the pod, shows years of existence, though not years lived. She and the flowers know it.
The developing Shanti Parasite: from the single-celled to something like a nematode in the fourth year of her infection. She was sick for three weeks, shedding most of the original millions so only a few thousand survived to settle into lesions on her brain and along her spine. The doctors won’t even touch her anymore. No one touches her, which is less troubling than the die-off that meant she no longer thrums inside like a salmon-river in spring. She misses them.
The new lesions brought the first of the neurological symptoms: the fingers of her left hand curled around the palm. She often wakes up with a thin film of some flexible amber spread over her face, tinting Shanti’s blue-green palette a warm, nostalgic gold.
Carriers—two others in the settlement, a few animals outside—recognize one another by the faint scent of what would on Earth be called orange blossoms, though it is unpleasant and foetid to the uninfected settlers, the doctor told her. He doesn’t use a mask anymore, but he breathes through his mouth when she visits. Even when she is out of quarantine, she avoids the canteens because faces change when she comes too close. She’s pretty sure some of them also think she should be executed. She is glad they are out-numbered, but she still stays away, in case of accidents. That is okay. The one night a few drunk kids from the village found her in her hut and called her out she hid in the closet until security cleared them away. She stayed there for a day and a night, her arms wrapped around her body, and the darkness lit by her own luminous excretions.
After that she stays away. She walks farther than any of the survey teams, farther than the scouts, or the trackers. She sleeps rough, alone, though never alone. Sometimes, together and without speaking—because to be a carrier is to be always in the wordless company of one’s beloved—she and the other two from the settlement climb mountains to the thin, high reaches of Shanti’s atmosphere, and bathe in a flood of cosmic radiation visible only to their naked, decaying eyes. Mai swims—the dormant creatures oxygenating her blood—an hour underwater. Her skin, once brown, now mottled a faint blue-green, pearlescent as it grows luminous in the blue glow of Shanti’s nightsky. Everywhere she sees a new colour adjacent to violet, something outside the human spectrum for which there is no name. She calls it Shanti.
She hears them teeming above her and underground, the littlest dear ones, the single-celled, the unattached, their bioluminous glow lighting the sky, and running through the water when, at night, she creeps from her hut and climbs the escarpment above the village, the last ridge before the ocean.
Even now Mai-who-is-no-longer-quite-Mai remembers to write letters to Mai’s mother, because to do so is kind. She does this monthly, and it is very difficult. She reads earlier letters in order to understand what letters to one’s mother are supposed to sound like. The problem is that, while she remembers, quite clearly, Mai’s life from before she became no-longer-Mai, she suspects she’s still missing something in the letters: some pain, some history that is no longer relevant or explicable in her new, composite existence.
She remembers a handful of lavender, which she held in her palm, and sniffed that first week on Shanti. The leaves were so old she wondered if the scent was a phantom of her desire to smell this last gift of her mother’s, which had travelled so far with her, and which had faded to grey-purple, the scent of something once green, of Earth. How she had kept it in the little pouch—the white one onto which her niece had embroidered three spears of lavender blossoms on their grey-green stems, her large, uneven stitches marked—so Mai’s sister had pointed out—with a drop of blood where the needle had dug deep by accident. Despite this mishap the girl had finished the little project, and Mai loved the stitches, down to the knots on the back, where her cotton had got tangled. The niece was in her twenties now. Out of school. Married. A mother. A religious zealot. An officer. A lesbian. A diplomat. A retail clerk. A slacker. An activist.
Mai-who-is-no-longer-exclusively-Mai feels the swelling along her spine, where in their dormant stage the creatures fixed themselves and now dream through the last sleep of their infancy. She thinks of all the shapes through which they travelled, of spore-consciousness and single-celled-consciousness, of jelly-fish blooms, the lesions of recent years, and then quiescence, the latent promises of the pupal stage, which is also the nearly-last stage of Mai.
She wishes she could smell it again. Lavender. They started a lavender hedge in one of the gardens, but the scent is different here, though equally beautiful. Or perhaps her memory is unreliable, and the thing she smells is lavender as it has always been.
She wishes the gardeners weren’t so uncomfortable around her. She could go visit the lavender more often then.
Mai-who-is-not-Mai knows these things, and knows that—somewhere inside, somewhere deep—there is a hurt, a structural break that will never come un-broken, even if she goes back home, even if they let her, even if she wanted to.
Mai is sorry, she writes on behalf of her addressee’s daughter, for that Christmas you climbed Mount Tolmie together. She remembers that after the mountain you both walked all the way to the gelato place that’s practically on the beach, and she told you that she’d been accepted in the third wave of settlers. You began to cry. It was chilly, but she bought a raspberry sugar cone, and you kept sniffling, and she could only think about how awful your sniffles sounded, and how she wished you’d brought a hanky, which you hadn’t, so in this imperious way she handed you a handful of napkins, and you sniffled into them, but you wouldn’t talk because your voice tore, so it was better to be quiet. Mai remembers looking across the water toward the Olympic peninsula, and the day was flat and she thought about how worn-out the world was, how crowded, how grotty, how back-of-beyond, how provincial. And how, winking invisibly at you, though you were both blinded by daylight, lay Shanti. And that was the future, not the tired old world where mothers could sniffle their tears into napkins from a gelato stand. Mai crunched through her sugar cone, and asked—angrily, and without compassion—why the most important decision of her life was more about her mother than it was about her. Mai is sorry for this. Mai would like you to know that she understands now why you were crying. I write on Mai’s behalf, but I am not, exactly, Mai. I am aware that this statement will hurt you further, but I think you would also prefer to hear this than to hear untruth, or nothing.
I wish I could tell you that Mai is doing well, that she’s not in pain, that she loves Shanti and is happy here, but I am not sure what these words mean, exactly. I wish I could give her the fingers with which to type this letter, but that is no longer possible. I know she wants me to say goodbye, though.
More than that, she wants to say she’s sorry.
She is relieved to wake up one day and know—without knowing how she knows—that it is the last day. The knowledge is not painful, because it comes with the love that always floods what’s left of her body. She knows what the other ones—the humans—expect her to do with this knowledge, which is to quarantine herself and alert the hospital, so they can destroy the creatures before they flower. They’ve talked about how they’ll handle it, which comes down to a fatal dose of morphine derivatives, and then something she does not wish to know regarding the destruction of her body.
She is no longer human enough to feel that silly sort of loyalty to the settlement. In the manner of hosts before her—none of them settlers, because she is the first one to bring the dear ones to term—she limps up the escarpment above the village before the sun rises. The instinct is as inexorable as the spawning runs of Pacific salmon, so she walks listening to the impulse, driving her upward. She hears their teeth, and—the part of her mind that was still Mai—imagines that somewhere, she is in pain. They are kind, though, they do not wish her to hurt, only want her to hear the grinding of tooth on bone, and the softer sound of something wearing away at the cartilage of her ribcage. When she holds one hand to her throat she feels through her fingertips a new vibration.
Her spine snaps as she reaches the top of the escarpment and she topples, her head turned enough so that one cheek presses into Shanti’s light soil, and one eye—the eye uppermost that survives the fall—staring now into the darkness that is no longer darkness to her, that glows with the faint phosphorescence of all the winged ones, all the dear creatures of the air, the glad host of Shanti’s heaven. Not long now, the first breaches her skin in a rush of blood, and then another, the once-limitless universe of her body too small to contain them all.
Her skull cracks, and she still loves them. Her brain, sentient a moment longer, hung about with the tiny creatures—their carapaces pale brown like her skin, and possessing her dark eyes—wriggling out into the sunrise, their long bodies, their damp limbs already knitting spider-web wings to catch the breeze. They flicker through her peripheral vision, gleaming in the ultraviolet spectrum. She thinks, How lovely, how lovely, as they leave afterimages and light trails in her eye.
Out in the sky, above the settlement, among the glad hosts of the infected. Go on. She expects no response, but she hopes they sense her as she senses them, and thinks, Go on go on go on.
Story copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Campbell
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Random Dreaming
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic. NeWest Press published her first novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013.
Random Dreaming 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.