A recon detail brought in another one just after dawn. The soldiers had donned full biohazard suits; nothing could convince them that this wasn’t contagious. They set the body on a gurney. I wheeled it into a quarantine room and inspected it.
This time, for the first time, it was a child. A girl, about eleven years old. Half of her face was still visible.
• • • •
“The whole premise sounds ludicrous,” Colonel Terence Jamison said, stirring more sugar into his coffee.
He wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Thirty minutes off the ship from HQ on New Eden, he sat diffidently on the edge of a foamcast chair in my cluttered office as if visiting a priest to confess sins. Slightly built, soft-spoken, he seemed reluctant to meet my gaze with his pale, milky-blue eyes. Out of uniform, he wouldn’t look like much, certainly not a senior officer in the Seven Planets United Space Corps.
I said, “Maybe it is ridiculous. After all, we have no documented proof, only anecdotes from, in most cases, unreliable sources.”
Jamison blinked at me. “Dr. Seybert—”
“Nora, please.” I am a civilian contractor, and this was a “courtesy visit.” Yeah, right.
“Nora, to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why I’m here. Someone up the chain of command got a bee in their bonnet.”
He was not telling the truth, and had Jamison ever seen a bee? I hadn’t. Both New Eden, where I’d been born, and this outpost on Windsong pollinated their native plants by wind or bird. I knew exactly why Jamison was here, and both possible outcomes of his mission.
Neither was good.
“Dr. . . . Nora,” he said, “shall we get started?”
• • • •
I am Elizabeth DiPortio. I hate my life. I choose this change. It can’t be worse.
• • • •
“My god,” Jamison said. And then, “I didn’t know . . .” And finally, regaining composure, “Briefing pictures were inadequate.”
“Yes,” I said.
We stood beside the gurney. The “spiders,” which were not really spiders, had done more of their work. A thin, filmy web of very fine, dull red filaments was being spun over her naked body. The spiders worked unevenly; her forehead, neck and genitals were as yet completely uncovered, while her eyes, neck, and budding breasts were already sealed into the cocoon.
Jamison’s face twisted in revulsion. “Why don’t you wash it all off her?”
He knew the answer to this already; it was in ten years’ of situation briefings. So we were going to be playing games. He would pretend ignorance, hoping that my answers would reveal whatever information the Corps thought, suspected, or hoped I was holding back. There wasn’t any, but try convincing HQ Special Ops of that. I knew as much about Jamison as he did about me; I have friends at HQ. The stakes here were too high to not play along.
So I said, “We tried internal and external laving, in the early years. Twice. Both patients died. You see the ‘spiders’ but you don’t see the biofilms that have invaded her nostrils, mouth, anus, vagina, ears. Those early autopsies revealed them. She’s being colonized by sheets of microorganisms, changed from the inside out. Go ahead, you can touch her—both spiders and microbes have already attuned to her DNA. They won’t do anything to you.”
He didn’t touch her. “Is she in pain?”
“No.” He’d never glanced at the monitors, which showed plainly that her brain waves registered no pain. He was not a doctor.
“Who is she?”
“We verified that only a few hours ago. Her name is Elizabeth Jane DiPortio, a Corps dependent. Her mother is a grunt at the mining base; she’s been sent for and will be shuttled here from the coast. Her father is a civilian dependent and, preliminary report says, a drunk. He may have abused her.”
“This wasn’t seen and dealt with?” Disapproval dripped off him. Not compassion—disapproval. Drunk or abused dependents did not meet Corps regulations. Under his mask of diffidence, Jamison was a martinet. And he handled Windsong’s gravity, lighter than New Eden’s by point two gee, like a man used to a lot of interstellar travel.
“Colonel,” I said pleasantly, “Alpha Beta Base has over 6,500 people now, military and civilian. We can’t see and deal with everything.”
He nodded, blinking in that deceptively harmless way: Nobody here but us rabbits. “Tell me what is changing inside her.”
“Her digestive flora—the microbes from her mouth to her rectum—are being destroyed, augmented, or replaced with ones that are part of the biofilms. Which are, of course DNA-based—panspermia, you know.” I was being condescending. He didn’t react. “Most of her organs are being modified only enough to accommodate the new microbes, with the exception of her vocal chords. They’re being drastically reconfigured to make sounds at a pitch above human hearing.”
“To communicate with what?”
“We don’t know. Maybe only each other. It’s a big planet, Colonel, and the Corps is still just a speck on it. Two specks: base and the mining operations in the mountains.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling, without mirth, in response to my condescension. I hated him. “I know. How do the . . . the . . .”
“We don’t know. Some Terran spiders inject their prey with venom that digests tissue. Maybe these spiders are injecting something that denatures DNA, or activates parts of it. Maybe the microbes are injecting some of their own DNA into the host and taking over selected cell machinery, like viruses. But most likely the process has no real Terran analogy.”
“How much of this microbial activity is affecting her brain?”
“Some of it, although it’s impossible to quantify. The smallest invaders are the size of viruses. They can get past the blood-brain barrier just as some viruses can.” This was why Colonel Jamison was here.
For the first time, he looked directly at me. “I want to see a finished product.”
“They are not products, Colonel. We call them ‘moths.’ And we don’t—”
“Moths? Do they have any sort of wings?”
“No, of course not. I admit the name is a little fanciful. We don’t keep them on the base after they emerge from the cocoons. They head out to the bush.”
“But some wander back. One is here now.”
His intelligence was better than I thought. The Warrens tried to keep their son’s visits a secret.
Jamison said, “I want to see Brent Warren.”
• • • •
We am Elizabeth DiPortio. We hate my life. We choose this change. It can’t be worse.
• • • •
The first one was an accident. Ten years ago, Corporal Nathan Carter, Private Sully O’Keefe, and Private Sarah Lanowski went off-base to “party” in the bush. This was really stupid because Windsong is home to predators, including one beast as large as a rhinoceros. There may be even larger, more dangerous animals on this huge, mostly unexplored continent. But the three soldiers were all young and, like young everywhere, considered themselves invulnerable. There was alcohol, drugs, sex. The next afternoon O’Keefe and Lanowski, already AWOL, staggered back to the base. Carter was missing. A search detail found him a quarter mile away. The spiders and biofilms had already started cocooning him. We put him in quarantine, laved the filaments off him, hit him with broad spectrum antibiotics and anti-virals and everything else in the medical arsenal. His heart stopped and he died.
Since then, there have been twenty-two more. Some were accidents, some may have been suicides. Most occurred at the mining camp, a rougher environment in both geographical and human terms. Here, where the ground is flat enough for the spaceport, it’s easier to maintain the chemical-soaked perimeter that keeps out the spiders. No one has ever been cocooned within the base.
Elizabeth DiPortio deliberately walked off base, alone, at night. Brent Warren was taken at the mining camp. He was the only moth, until Elizabeth, who had a family here to return to.
The SPUSC skimmer set down a mile from base, on a flat meadow between woods and the river. A rover already sat there. The pilot turned off the engine. Jamison said to me, “That’s not a Corps rover. The family has its own?”
“It belongs to their church, which loans it to them. The Warrens are good people, Colonel. A close family, which may be why Brent made his way from the mining camp back here, and why he wants to see them every few months.”
“How does he—”
“He just comes here and waits. Eventually a dronecam spots him and someone lets the family know.”
His mouth tightened. “A Corps dronecam.”
“Which is not diverted from its usual business by noticing Brent.” The more I saw of Jamison, the more frightened I felt.
“Where are the Warrens and . . . and him?”
He had almost said “it.” I snapped, “How should I know?” He looked at me—quiet, diffident, rabbit-harmless—and said nothing. I added, “We wait.” I climbed out of the skimmer. Jamison followed. The wind that gave the planet its ridiculously lyrical name blew in our faces. Warm, sweet-smelling wind, neither breeze nor gale, blew from sunrise to sunset.
A few minutes later, Gina and Ted Warren emerged from the trees. They had their little girl with them, whose name I couldn’t remember. Brent trailed behind. Just a normal family, out for a Saturday walk.
Jamison drew a sharp breath.
Brent Warren walked lightly, fluidly, like a dancer. He was naked. The cocooning stage lasts for about a week—sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. We don’t know why. What emerges is not human. The form still has two legs, two arms, torso, and head. The dull-red skin bristles with tiny projections—not hair, not fur, not scales—whose function is unknown. It’s the head that causes revulsion.
Brent’s face bulged in a round, smooth ball. The two early autopsies showed that tissue had been added beneath the skin, containing organelles of unknown function that sent tendrils deep into the brain. On the surface of Brent’s face, features had been minimized. His nose was now two small nostrils, his mouth a lipless slit without the levator muscles that enable smiles or frowns. Above the face, on the top of his head, was a second, smaller bulge. Only his eyes remained the same, gray flecked with green, and it was into their son’s eyes that the Warrens mostly looked.
They stopped walking, uncertain, when they saw us. Gina smiled, but her eyes flicked over Jamison’s uniform. Ted did not smile. Both worked as civilian contractors for the Corps, and both had been planning to leave before this happened to Brent. Now they would stay, to be near him. But the Warrens, no less than the rest of us, knew what rumors would have reached HQ.
“Colonel Jamison, this is Ted and Gina Warren, their daughter . . . uh . . .”
“Elise,” Gina said.
“Yes, sorry, Elise. And this is Brent.”
Brent stared without expression at Jamison. His lipless mouth moved slightly, but whatever he said, in whatever unimaginable language, it was not said to us.
• • • •
am Elizabeth DiPortio. hate my life. choose this change. It can’t be worse.
• • • •
Jamison took charge of the meeting, raising his voice to be heard over the river and the wind but keeping his deferential, rabbity manner. Nonetheless, we felt compelled to answer his questions. He was Corps, and Corps ruled Windsong.
“Mr. Warren, can you talk to your son?”
“Do you communicate through gestures?”
“Could you demonstrate for me?”
Ted Warren’s jaw set. Gina put a hand on her husband’s arm and said, “We can try. Brent, dear, please show Colonel Jamison the herbs you found for us.”
Brent did not move. But his left hand was lightly curled, as if he held something in it.
Gina moved as if to touch her son’s left hand. Ted stopped her. “He doesn’t want to, honey.”
Elise moved behind Gina and clutched her mother’s legs.
Gina said to Jamison, “Well, he showed us some herbs, and then gave us some.” She held out her own hand, which held a bunch of small purplish stalks with purplish leaves. “I told him I had a headache and he picked me these and pantomimed chewing them.”
I said quickly, “Please don’t eat them, Gina. Brent’s metabolism is—may be—much different from yours. Now.”
Jamison was not interested in anybody’s metabolism. He said, “This . . . Brent understands English still? He knows what you say to him?”
“Yes,” Ted said. His dislike of Jamison rose off him like heat.
“Has he understood you ever since he came out of the cocoon?”
“If you give him an order, does he follow it?”
“I don’t give him orders.”
“Does he volunteer information, through gesture or pantomime or any other means, in addition to responding to what you say?”
We were coming to it now.
“Yes,” Ted said.
“What kind of information?”
Gina said, “He tells us he is well and happy. Before I ask.”
“How does he tell you that?” Jamison asked.
Before she could answer, or Ted could say something sharp, Brent stepped forward. One step, two. Jamison didn’t shrink back—I’ll give him that—but in the skimmer, the pilot tensed. She raised the gun I’d suspected she’d held on her lap and leveled it at Brent. The Warrens did not see. I don’t know if Brent did, or if he understood, but he stopped walking. His lipless mouth moved, talking to air—certainly not to us, since he must have known we couldn’t hear him. Who or what else was listening?
Brent half-turned toward his parents and raised his right hand to his mouth. He pressed his mouth to the hand and then blew toward the Warrens. A kiss.
Then he was gone, loping into the woods, disappearing among the trees.
I never cry, but I felt my eyes prickle.
Jamison said, “Does he never touch you directly?”
“He does, yes,” Gina said quickly, before Ted could answer.
“When he touches you, do those projections on him feel sticky, scaly, or something else?”
“Go to hell,” Ted said.
• • • •
am Elizabeth DiPortio. æ hate my life. Ø . It will be good.
• • • •
In the skimmer, I said, “You never got to what you actually wanted to ask. You alienated them, and you did it deliberately. Why?”
Jamison said mildly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then, “They shouldn’t bring that child near that naked thing.”
I didn’t answer. I needed to think. Jamison was not doing what he was sent here to do, and I could only think of one possible reason why.
• • • •
am Elizabeth DiPortio. æ my life. Ø . It will be good.
• • • •
At the clinic, Elizabeth DiPortio’s parents sat in an exam room. Kurt, my assistant, said, “I wouldn’t let them into your office, and I certainly wouldn’t let them in to see the patient, I don’t care who they are.” He scowled.
Peter DiPortio sat slumped in a chair, eyes half closed, smelling of sweat and alcohol. Beverly DiPortio, a muscular woman in her thirties, was garbed in miner’s gear and stomping fury. “How the fuck did you let this happen to my daughter! I work for the Corps, you’re supposed to look after us, and now you . . . them . . .”
“I’m sorry this has happened to Elizabeth,” I said, “but it was not the Corps’ responsibility, nor mine. Elizabeth left camp at night. Apparently no one was at home to notice.”
Peter DiPortio muttered, “Bad seed.”
I thought I hadn’t heard him right. Before I could ask him to repeat, Beverly said, “I want to see Elizabeth!”
“Certainly. But I must prepare you for—”
“Cut the crap. I want to see her!”
I led them to Elizabeth’s room. Peter shambled tensely, a gait I could not have imagined. The bottom half of his body lurched along, but his face and shoulders clenched with fear. For Elizabeth? No—the moment he saw her, his face relaxed.
Beverly said, “She’s too far gone. I seen this, at the camp. You’ll have to destroy her.”
I felt my mouth fall open.
“She ain’t human anymore,” Beverly said, and there was pain in her voice but not as much pain as revulsion.
“That isn’t going to happen, ma’am.”
She turned on me. “It’s my right! She’s my kid! Give me the papers to sign!”
Peter was gazing at Elizabeth’s mouth, half covered with red filaments. “Can she still talk?”
I lost it. Jamison, this child, these horrific parents . . . I snapped, “Yes, when she wakes up she can talk. When she comes out of her cocoon. The Corps is interested in what she’ll say.”
He believed the lie. His face paled. Then he staggered sideways and nearly fell, catching himself awkwardly on the doorjamb. Beverly threw him a look of deep and total disgust, pushed past him, and strode out of the room.
I stayed a long time beside Elizabeth’s bed, watching the mite-sized spiders work. I couldn’t quiet my mind. Then I told Kurt to cancel my afternoon appointments, let the nurses see any walk-ins, and page me for any emergencies. I signed out a rover and drove to the Warren bungalow.
• • • •
am Elizabeth DiPortio. æ my . Ø . It will be .
• • • •
Anybody who says that we understand human motivation, that we can formulate simple and clear reasons for why people what they do, is either lying or naïve. Standing in the Warrens’ neat bungalow, surrounded by photos of Elise and a pre-cocooned Brent, I thought that I would give everything I had to never see the inside of the DiPortio’s bungalow. A deep, heartfelt, completely irrelevant thought.
“Gina, Ted, I need to ask you some things, and I want you to trust me when I say that the questions are important. You’ve heard the rumors about moths?”
Ted said, “We’re not discussing that, Nora.”
“If we don’t, we may all die.”
His eyes widened. I had planned it this way, to compel his attention and, I’d hoped, his compliance. But Ted Warren was not an easy man to compel. He said, “You’ll have to explain that.”
“I don’t want to yet, because I’m not sure. Could you just—”
“It’s Colonel Jamison, isn’t it?” Gina said. A look passed between her and Ted, one of those married-couple looks that say so much more than outsiders can discern. She followed it with, “We’ll tell you anything you want to know, provided you agree to not tell anyone—anyone at all—without our say-so.”
“Yes,” I said, and wondered how much this lie would cost me in the future. “Have you heard the rumors about moths?”
“Of course,” Gina said. And then again, hands clasped together so tightly that the knuckles bulged blue, “Of course.”
Everyone had heard the rumors. A moth, a former engineer, supposedly had appeared to a miner taking an ill-advised walk outside the mining camp. The moth pantomimed falling; the next day, a section of mine collapsed, destroying two expensive bots. But . . . the strolling miner had been on recreational drugs. A moth had supposedly stood in the road between the mine and spaceport, stopping a loaded ore transport. Nobody knew what to do, so the tableau froze while the drivers argued: Run her over? Inch forward and hope she moves? She did, after five minutes. The transport reached a bridge five minutes after the bridge had collapsed. There were more stories, but most could be coincidences; a lot of the narrators were unreliable; pantomime is not a precise method of communication; some “pre-cognitive warnings” could be after-the-fact interpretations.
Rumors. Factions. An amateur evolutionary biologist—the outpost didn’t yet have the real thing—offered the theory that, once, all humans had pre-verbal awareness of the near future, as a survival mechanism. That had disappeared with the Great Leap Forward, the sudden, still unexplained spurt of human culture forty to fifty thousand years ago on Earth’s vanished savannahs. Increased creativity and rationality had replaced the ability to sense the future that, like a river, always flowed toward us, its rapids heard before they could be seen. But the ability, latent, was still locked in our genes. Massive genetic alteration could free it.
Did I believe this theory? I didn’t know. A doctor is a scientist, committed to rationality. But I also knew that ideas of “the rational” were subject to change. The list of things once derided as irrational included a round Earth, germs, an expanding universe, and quantum mechanics. HQ thought that moths’ pre-cognition deserved at least minimal investigation.
I said, as gently as I could, “Gina, has Brent ever told you anything that later came true?”
Ted made a motion as if to stop her, but said nothing. Gina said, “Yes.”
“Tell me. Please.”
“We . . . we went to see him. At the usual place by the river. While we were visiting, Brent suddenly pushed us all back into the rover. He was frantic. We got in and he ran off into the woods. Then one of those big animals like a rhinoceros came out of the woods and charged the rover. It almost knocked it over. We barely got away alive.”
“Could Brent have heard or smelled the animal?”
“I don’t think so. We sat in the rover talking for at least fifteen minutes before the animal arrived. Elise wasn’t with us and I was crying.”
Ted said, “It might have been coincidence.” His face said he didn’t believe it.
I said, “Were there other times?”
Gina said, “One other time. We—”
Ted cut her off. “We’ve been straight with you, Nora, because we trust you. Now you trust us. What’s happening with Jamison?”
“I don’t know for sure. But I think HQ will do anything to stop what they see as a possible epidemic of cocooning. Jamison sees moths as a dire threat to what it means to be human, and he’s making the decision. The only way to sway him is to show that people like Brent have potential value to the Army. A battalion accompanied by a moth who can see what an enemy will do in the future would be—”
“No,” Ted said.
“Ted, I think he might destroy all the—”
“Let him try. Our boy and the others can take care of themselves. They know how to live off the wilderness and it’s a big, unexplored planet! Plus, they might know in advance when the Army would strike.”
It was almost unbearable to say my next words. “Jamison knows that. He knows that if HQ wants to destroy the moths, they would have to destroy all of us and quarantine the planet.”
Ted and Gina stared at me. Gina finally said, “They wouldn’t. You said this was only speculation on your part. And if they quarantined the planet, there wouldn’t be any need to destroy the humans on it.”
“If we all become moths and later another expedition comes to Windsong—”
“More speculation!” Ted snapped. “But I’ll tell you what isn’t speculation—what they’ll do to Brent if we give him up to ‘save’ ourselves. They’ll take him to HQ and examine him in ways that . . . it would be torture, Nora. Maybe even murder, to see what makes his brain so different.”
“The alternative is that maybe we all die.”
“I doubt that,” Ted said, and Gina nodded.
They wanted, needed, to doubt it.
As I left, Ted said, “Remember, you promised to keep all of this to yourself. Everything we said. You promised.”
“Yes,” I said. “I did.”
• • • •
am Elizabeth DiPortio. æ my . Ø . It .
• • • •
I sat in my office at the clinic, in the dark. No one was on duty; we had no patients except Elizabeth and there was nothing any of us could do for her. Moonlight from Windsong’s larger moon, delicate and silvery as filigree, flowed through the window. It was light enough to see my untouched glass of expensive, Earth-exported Scotch.
Time as a river. I saw Brent and the other moths standing on its banks, just beyond a bend, looking into water the rest of us could not yet see. I remembered how Jamison had deliberately alienated the Warrens before they could say anything positive about Brent. I saw Jamison’s revulsion at the sight of Brent and Elizabeth. It wasn’t even revulsion but something deeper, some primitive urge to so completely destroy a perceived enemy that they could never rise again: the urge that made Romans salt all the fields of Carthage, Hitler try to exterminate all the Jews. I saw the base and the mining camp burning and cratered, reduced to smoking rubble by weapons fired from space. I saw myself as wrong for thinking all this: melodramatic, building a case purely on speculation. I saw the decision I had to make as two roads, both shrouded in mist, and both leading to tragedy. I saw—
Something moved in the hallway.
I rose quietly, heart hammering, and crept in the dark toward the door.
• • • •
am . æ Ø , It .
• • • •
Elizabeth—post-cocooned Elizabeth, who should not have emerged for another day—stumbled along the hallway. I turned on the light. Her round, inhuman face showed no emotion. She extended an unsteady arm and, her movements in her altered body not yet coordinated, took my hand and tugged me along the hallway to the clinic’s back door.
Why did I let her? Was there some faint, latent pre-cognitive ability in my brain, too? Later, I would ponder that, without answers.
We went out the back door just as Peter DiPortio reached the front. From where Elizabeth and I hid in the rover shed, locking it behind us, we heard his crowbar smashing against the door. We heard his drunken shouts that he would kill the thing that had been his daughter. He was, in demeanor and temperament and appearance, the opposite of Colonel Terence Jamison. Yet he was the same.
I made my decision. It was not a choice between Brent or Elizabeth, not between the force of a promise or the force of reason, not between the good of the many or the good of the few. It was something far more primitive than that, something arising from my hindbrain.
Survival against a perceived enemy.
• • • •
“I don’t believe you,” Jamison said.
“I know you don’t,” I said. “That’s why I’ll give you Brent Warren. On New Eden you can . . . ‘test’ him to determine exactly how and when moths can see the near future.”
We stood in the Spartan living room of the Corps guest bungalow, surrounded by the decorations of war: antique crossed swords on the wall, a cast-iron statue of the SPUSC logo on a table. I don’t know who decorated the place. Jamison’s deferential, rabbit-like manner had completely disappeared.
“No,” he said.
“Colonel, I don’t think you understand. I’m offering to bring you Brent Warren, to . . . trap him for you, so Army scientists can find ways to use the moths’ pre-cognitive ability. They can—”
“There is no ability.”
I gaped at him. “Haven’t you been listening? I saw it. It’s real. Elizabeth DiPortio—”
“There is no ability. You’re lying, in order to save these inhuman abominations you’re so unaccountably fond of. There is no ability.”
I said slowly, “Is that what you’re going to report to HQ?”
“I already have.”
“What will they—”
“I don’t know. I just make the report, doctor. But you should think about this: Suppose this dehumanization spreads to the other six planets? To Earth? To the Corps?”
“I will think about it,” I said and moved toward him, taking my hand from my pocket.
• • • •
In the rover, I force myself to think calmly. I have maybe twelve hours until the Corps begins to wonder why Jamison has not contacted them. I don’t know how much time will be left after that. I don’t know how many other Corps soldiers on Windsong will believe me, or will rate their loyalty to the Corps above everything else. I don’t know how long it will take to spread the word to 6,500 people. I will start with the Warrens. I am on my way to their place now.
Twelve hours. In that time, a great many people can escape into the wilderness, can fan out into small groups hard to track, can get into the planet’s numerous caves or beyond the range of space weapons concentrated onto two small settlements. They cannot eradicate everybody. People can carry supplies until we learn to live off this planet. We have few old or sick. Brent will help us, and maybe more moths will, too. Some of us will become moths. That is inevitable. But we will be alive.
There are all kinds of cocoons. Time is one. Rigid organizational rules are another. But the most deadly cocoon may be the limitations of what humans consider human. Perhaps it’s time to emerge.
Twelve hours. I don’t know how many people I can save in that time. But I do know this: Twelve hours is enough for the spiders to begin work on Jamison’s body, held immobile by a non-fatal dose of ketamine from my syringe in the ditch where Elizabeth and I dumped him.
I hope to meet him again someday.
Spread the word!