Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Amid the Words of War

Every few day-cycles, it receives hate-scented lace in anonymous packages. It opens the bland plastic envelope to pull one out, holding the delicate fragment between two forelimbs. Contemplating it before folding it again to put away in a drawer. Four drawers filled so far; the fifth is halfway there.

“Traitor,” say some of the smells, rotting fruit and acid. “Betrayer. Turncoat. One who eats their own young.” Others are simply soaked in emotion: hate and anger, and underneath the odor of fear. It lets the thoughts, the smells, the tastes fill it, set its own thoughts in motion. Then it goes downstairs and sits with the other whores, who make room uneasily for it.

It is an anomaly in this House. Most of the employees are humanoid and service others like themselves. It is here for those seeking the exotic, the ones who want to be caressed by twelve segmented limbs even though it is only the size of their two hands put together. They want to feel chitin against their soft skin, to look into the whirl of multicolored eyes and be afraid. For some, it only has to be there while they touch themselves to bring them to the flap and spasm of mammalian orgasm.

Others require its physical assistance, or its whispered obscenities telling them what they want to hear. It has learned what words to say.

It has never seen others of its race in this port. If it did, it would know that this place, far away from that distant front and its fighters, had been invaded by one side or the other, that soon the bombs, the fires, the killings would begin.

#

It was raised a soldier. It and its clutch-mates were tended until they were old enough to have minds, and then trained. It was one of six—a small clutch, but prized for its quickness and agility. They learned the art of killing with needle throwers, and once they had mastered that, they were given different needles: fragments that exploded, or shot out acid, or whistled until the ears of the soft-fleshed creatures who called themselves the Espen—their enemies—exploded.

They were provided with hundreds of Espen for them to train on. They were allowed to select their favorites. Some of them played unauthorized games. They told the prey they would be freed if they killed a hunter or if they killed each other, because it made them fight harder. When they were dead the clutch mates were allowed to take fluid from their bodies.

It liked the taste of their spinal liquid: salty plasma tinged with panic, complicated enzymes that identified where they came from. It became a connoisseur; it could name each of their three continents and tell you on which its victim had been spawned. None of its siblings could do the same.

The names such creatures call their clutch-mates differs according to many factors: the social position both hold, the spatial relationship, the degree of affection in which they are held that day.

For the sake of simplicity, think of it as Six of Six, and think of the clutch as One through Five of Six. One was simple-minded but direct, and never lied, in contrast to Two, who loved to talk and tell stories. Three was jealous of everyone; anytime the others were talking, it would intervene. Four was kind-hearted, and had to be prodded before it killed for the first time. (And even after that it would hesitate, and often one of the others would perform the final stroke.) Five and Six were often indistinguishable, the others said, but they thought themselves quite separate.

In those early days they lived together. They groomed the soft sensory hairs clustered around each other’s thoraxes, and stroked the burnished chitin of carapaces. It did not matter if what each of them touched was itself or another. They sang to each other in symphonies of caress, passing thoughts back and forth to see how they unfolded in each other’s heads.

They were not a true hive mind. They depended on each other, and one alone would die within the year lacking the stimulation of the others’ scent, the taste of their thoughts, to stir their own. But they possessed their own minds. Six of Six acted by itself always, and no other mind prompted its actions; when it was questioned by the Interrogator, it insisted that until the end.

They were like any clutch; they quarreled when opinions differed, but when others intruded, they held themselves like a single organism, prepared to defend the clutch against outsiders. At sleep time, they spun a common web and crawled within its silky, tent-like confines to jostle against each other, interlocking forelimbs and feeling the twitches of each others’ dreams.

Five and Six had the most in common, and so they quarreled most often. Everything Six disliked about itself, the fact that it was not always the quickest to act and sometimes thought too long, it saw in Five, and the same was true for the other. But there was no fighting for position of the sort that happens with a clutch that may produce a queen or priest. They knew they were ordinary soldiers, raised to defend the gray stone corridors in which they had been born. And beyond that–raised to go to war.

#

There is a garden in the center of this house, which is called The Little Teacup of the Soul. Small, but green and wet. Everything is enjoyment and pleasure here—to keep the staff happy, to keep them well. This spaceport is large, and there are many Houses of this kind, but this one, the manager says, is the best. The most varied. We’ll fulfill any need, the manager says—baring its teeth in a smile—or die trying.

The whores’s rooms are larger than any spacer’s and are furnished as each desire.

Six of Six’s cell is plain, but it has covered the walls with scent marks. It has filled them with this story, the story of how it came here, which no one else in this house can read. It sits in its room and dreams of the taste of hot fluid, of the way the Espen training creatures struggled like rodents caught in a snare.

One of its visitors pretends that it is something else.

Tell me that you are laying eggs in my flesh, he says, and Six crawls over him and says the words. But it is not a queen, and its race does not lay eggs in the living. It holds his skin between two pincers and tears it, just a little, so he will feel the pain and think it is an egg. He lies back without moving, his eyes closed.

My children will hatch out of you, it says, and makes its voice threatening.

Yes, he says, yes.

The pleasure shakes him like a blossom in the garden, burdened by the flying insects that pollinate it.

#

Everything was war, every minute of every day. The corridors were painted with the scent of territoriality–the priests prayed anger and defense, and the sound of their voices shook the clutch-mates to the core. They were told of the interlopers, despoilers, clutch-robbers, who would destroy their race with no thought, who hated them simply because of what they were. They massed in the caverns, the great vast caverns that lie like lungs beneath the bodies of their cities, and touched each other to pass on the madness.

They were smaller than the Enemy, the soft fleshed. With limbs tucked in, they were the size of an Enemy’s head at most, and every day the Espen people carried packages, bags, that size. So they sent ships laden with those willing to give their lives for the Race, willing to crawl through their stinking sewer tunnels or fold themselves beneath the seats of their transports, blood changed to chemicals that would consume them–and the Enemy–in undying flame, flames that could not be quenched but burned until they met other flames. They watched broadcasts of their cities, their homes, their young, burning, and rejoiced.

They put One, Three, and Six in armor of silver globules, each one a bomb, triggered by a thought when they were ready. They flew at night, one of the biological planes with no trace of metal or fuel, so it could elude their detection, and entered their city. Dropped at a central point, they clung to the darkness and separated, spreading outward like a flower.

Six found a café, full of the Enemy, drinking bitter brews that frothed like poison. They had no idea it was so close. The little ones ran around the tables and the adults patted them indulgently. They did not resemble the hatchlings Six knew, and each one was different in its colors. On the walls were pictures that did not show war: they showed clouds, and sun, and birds flying. It could smell the liquid in their bodies and knew it was on the third continent. It had tasted them before.

A child saw Six where it lurked, up near the eaves, and screamed. Some force took over its limbs and it could no longer move. The area emptied, and it watched the death numbers tick downward as the blast radius cleared, trying to figure out what to do. Their soldiers shot it with a ray like crystal, a ray that made the world go away.

When it awoke, its armor was gone, and it could destroy no one, not even itself. Even the little bomb that would have shattered its body and freed it was gone, an aching, oozing cavity where it had rested so long inside its body the only trace left behind.

The Espen talked to Six. They said they were its friends, they said they were its enemies. They said it would be spared, that it would be killed. They cut away two of its limbs but ceased when they saw it did not hurt. They burned it with fire and acid, and laughed when it made sounds of pain. They mocked it. They said it would be alone forever, that its race had been killed. They said they would kill it too, if it did not communicate, if it did not tell them what they wanted to know, even though it had no knowledge and did not know what the priests at home would do next.

When it could make sounds no longer, they made it into a trade. They gained three of their own in exchange. And when it was back among its own kind, the questioning began again, although this time it was by the priests. The Interrogator was a large, dark-chitined creature; from what the assistants said, Six gathered that the Interrogator’s clutch-mates had all died in the war.

The first day the Interrogator came and asked questions: What had it said to the Espen? What had it revealed about their own armies and weapons? Why had they kept it alive?

Why indeed? It did not know and said as much. The Interrogator looked at its mutilated body, at the stumps of limbs, at the raw places where they had pried away the carapace and burned the soft exposed patches, and went away without another question that night, trailed by its two assistants.

The next day the Interrogator appeared and ran through the list again. What had Six said? What had it revealed? Why was it alive? Six said it did not know and the Interrogator came closer to where it crouched, favoring its injuries. It reached out a forelimb and rested it lightly on a pain point. The touch was like fire all over again.

I don’t know, it said. Torture me if you like, as they did, and I will tell you everything I told them, which was nothing.

The Interrogator leaned still further in, pressing harder with its forelimb, smelling the scents it gave off while sunk deep in pain. Finally the Interrogator pulled back, and left the room.

The Interrogator repeated this act every few hours. In the dim light of the cell, as the cycles passed, as it came again and again, Six began to regrow its severed limbs, and the places where they had pried away pieces of carapace healed and thickened, except for the spot the Interrogator had chosen for his torment, which was ulcerated and sore, not healing.

Long after Six of Six’s regenerated limbs could flex as their predecessors once had, Five was allowed to see it. It stood well away, flanked by guards, so Six could not touch it from where it lay bound, no matter how it yearned toward its clutch-mate.

It asked the same question the Interrogator had. Why was Six still alive? One and Three had accomplished their mission, it said, and Four had died in a similar operation. Only Two and Five were left. But now they were suspect, clutch-mates of a renegade and no longer trusted soldiers.

They had found work as cleaners, and subsisted on the gruel fed to drones, barely enough to keep their specialized frames alive. Five’s eyes were dull, its delicate claws blunted from rough work. It did not think Two could survive much longer.

What can I do, Six asked. It felt itself dying inside, untouched. The Interrogator stood to one side, watching the interaction, sniffing the chemicals released into the air as they talked.

We are suspect, because no one knows what you have done, Five said. Tell them what you have done, and that we are not involved.

I do not understand, Six said. It was slower in those days. Its mind talked to itself but no one else, and it had grown lonely and unaccustomed to thinking. I have done nothing, Six said.

Then Two and I will work until we die, Five said.

Six could feel the thoughts pressing against its own, trying to shape it. I understand, it said finally. And Five went away without another word.

And so Six confessed to the Interrogators an hour later that it had told the Espen of their tactics, of the caverns full of training captives, of the plans it knew. It said its clutch-mates knew nothing. The Interrogator stood watching it talk. Six could not tell what it thought of the lie, but after that it came no longer.

A few days later, they placed Six in a cage, hung high in the air, and the armies marched past to look at it. It saw Two and Five, reinstated, but they would not look at it with their faceted, gleaming eyes. It looked at them, touching them with its sight, hoping that they would be well, that they would remember it.

Six thought the priests would kill it then, but they sent it back to the Espen, with the message, Here is your spy. And they sent Six to another planet and then another, until finally someone opened the door of the cage and said, we will provide for you no longer, you’re on your own.

It lived as it could for a while, hiring itself out for high-altitude or delicate work that clumsy fingers could not perform. But there are many drifters on a space station like TwiceFar, and people hire their own kind. It was not until it met the manager here that it realized uniqueness could be an asset.

The Universe is large, and the war of its people and that race of soft-fleshed is very far away now. But Six’s race remembers its missing member, the one who they believe sold them all for life. Its image hangs on their corridors amid the words of war, and tangles of foul scent adorn it.

Without the touch of its clutch-mates, it feels its intelligence fading, but each time the webs rouse it for a moment, and remind it who it is, who it was. And then it goes downstairs and finds a patron who wishes it to bring him pleasure, to torture him, or be tortured, or who will pay it to say what he wishes, and earn enough to keep it alive another day.

#

It has six drawers in its room holding the emotions that keep it alive–the thoughts of those who would see it dead.

It has six drawers. Soon all six will be full.

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Cat Rambo

Rambo, CatCat Rambo writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, appeared from Paper Golem Press in 2009, following her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories in 2007. Among the places her work has appeared are Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld.