Art by Rhiannon R-S.
From the author: A child is the sole survivor of a collision with a living-ship, a centuries-old extraterrestrial traveler. Can they both survive the disaster?
Interphase: the skin is struck hot and sharp and spills fluid and breath internal into void. Fat punctured, nerves spasm. The side is aflame, clenched lungs afire, the body seizes and rolls away from stellar light, turns eyes to darkness. Under skin the muscle will wither under the song of stars. It is not the first impact but it is the worst, vision inside and outside blinded, spotted with black pain. Skinplates wrench free as tendons contract around the wound, crush the invader, swallows breath tight so no more life will spill out.
Arkaadi pulled himself through the ship's wreckage, hot metal scraping away the surface scales of his emergency environmental suit. The impact klaxons rang in his ears though the sound had stopped with the buckling of the hull. He was small enough to fit through the gap the airlock had peeled open into. If the atmosphere burns, your only hope is outside-- he knew that much from drills and diagrams and the last words he'd heard before the suit sealed. Soot burned his hair and scorched his fingertips, but the suit kept clean oxygen/nitrogen pumped into his lungs. He couldn't even smell the fire.
"Papa? Mama?" he said, hands sinking into dark sponge, into the void pocked with lights like eyes--but not vacuum. The fire crept up behind him, his voice drowned by a rising thrum, a rhythm he thought might have been his own pounding heart until he looked up from the smoke to the cavernous muscle that surrounded him, a tiny foreign cell injected into a monster's dilated vein.
Arkaadi grew in the mother-ship's belly. We watched him grow with our many eyes, with our reaching tendrils and our grasping polyps, though we did not know his name then.
We knew him only as the child of calamity, the single-bodied life that crawled from wreckage alone and mewling while our flesh bubbled and burnt around it. For all we knew, he was born then, a tiny interphase cell spilled forth of fire and of metal. We had other concerns: our bleeding, our wounds, the inorganic shattering that splintered our walls and inflamed our tissue. It was not the first impact we had sustained during the journey, but it was the sharpest, the hottest, a lancing pain that penetrated our skins and seized our muscles into long, wracking spasms.
How did he survive those fiery cycles? Only on scavenging his ancestry, child; memory and meal, as do we all survive. He was talkative, but we were occupied with the quick actions and chemicals of survival, and we paid his vocalizations no mind. The stars speak as well, in the long dark silences between them, but they are pattern without intent; how were we to know his cries were different? When he quieted, that seemed no more a message than his noises had.
The collision had sent us slowly tumbling off of our set course. We made corrections while scar tissue formed over our wounds, stilling outer fins and causing a stiffness in the flesh when we exhaled that not even the heat of the star's radiation softened. Our pale lymph spilled into the void alongside our shellbody, bubbles whose rippling convulsions matched our own But leaving the pieces of the mineral vessel embedded did less damage than cutting them out would have--or so we thought, until white and black filaments bloomed, sore fractals expanding in foreign systems across our porous flesh. Arkaadi was not the only life brought forth from disaster; he was merely the least troublesome.
He couldn't bury Papa and Mama. Every time he cut into the floor, it closed back up; and even before sealing, his cuts were too small to roll the bodies into. He'd covered them with a fire blanket, but he could still smell the charr. His filters had overloaded, and even through the suit, everything in the ship smelled like meat, like the one trip he'd taken to a butcher's shop on a small planet. The worst part was that they couldn't hear him, or answer back, because they were dead. Where once the guiding hand, the kind voice, would answer him or suggest another question, there was nothing; so Arkaadi answered himself. He apologized a lot; he apologized to his parents for leaving them in the dark while he gathered lights, to the ship while he pulled the food that was still sealed out of the crumpled lockers, to the leviathan around him as he shoved a flap of the ship into it to lean against until he passed out from exhaustion and woke into a nightmare.
The meat of the cavern around him was rotting, shrivelled putty mottled with mold. It had bubbled and shifted in the night and dead pieces flaked all over his exosuit when he scrambled to his feet. Revulsion danced through him and he stomped and shook and brushed it away. Little chills remained as he covered his mouth and assessed the new situation. Think before you act, Mama said.
He took his bearings, arms folded around himself. It was everywhere, not just where he'd slept. Mold had exploded overnight, from the scattered food packets around the locker into long wisps of white that wrapped around his little shanty. The stench plugged his sinuses like a bad cold. He stuffed his pack with the sealed food and the knife and the lights and walked into the swollen dark.
The new growth drove Arkaadi away from the edges of his vessel. His wandering search made us suspect he was an organism in his own right, following our own sickening cells and making the small noises that we had ignored before. Persistence is its own form of communication.
His furtive circuits from the entry site widened in scope, avoiding our leukocytes as though they were something to fear, or unaware of his presence. Of course they paid him no mind; foreign material is not necessarily a threat by definition. But always he returned to the site to eat, to rest, and to scratch with makeshift tools at the uneven scarring that slowly enclosed the vessel that had contained him. We did not understand he required the contents to survive; why would he? He was simply a piece of the whole, adrift and mobile, like us, until he scraped pieces of the wreck out and moved them away, further into our interior, and did not return to the whole.
We watched, curious, while we excised the white growths before they spread further and deeper, waiting for him to put down his roots and sprout into metal and jagged struts like the creature that had birthed him; or at least to white and black, like the infection we cut out of our own flesh and processed back into our superstructure; but his growths were measurably small and his form did not shift. He did not cocoon while he rested, though his rests grew longer and longer, his body thinner, more jagged, his movements slower.
Arkaadi sat huddled against a piece of metal he'd pried into the walls, one of the emergency lamps by his side, and tried to plan out what to do. He'd grabbed his study-book; it was dirty and smashed on one corner but other that than it displayed fine, so he put it on notes mode and drew out his thoughts that way. There was a communicator in the ship, a black box that should already broadcast their emergency signal. He didn't have any way to make sure it was working, or any way to fix it if it wasn't.
He moved on to the next thing. Mama and Papa's bodies had vanished, along with everything else in the ship that was organic--laundry, even some of the, and often in the dark he saw things moving. Monsters that rolled, swooped, and pulled their fleshy selves along the meat corridors.
They were afraid of the light, he told himself. He drew them as stick-buers fleeing from his lamp, an untested hypothesis. As long as they stayed away, he was absolutely not afraid of them.
The thing he was afraid of was that he had run out of food.
His stomach, the great betrayer, told him that there was food all around him. Just like the butcher shop. The wall was the most like muscle, and the least like fat and tongue. Meat's inside an animal, and so am I, he said before he cut into the wall. It bled, so he apologized to the whale while he scraped a fistful of it out.
He only ate a little, but it only took an hour for him to feel so sick that he was sure he was dying. His stomach was so empty that there wasn't much to purge, and he didn't feel feverish, so when the monsters lurched from the darkness and loomed over him, he knew with total certainty that he was dead.
They were worse in the light than he'd imagined. They were the color of fat and char, skinless bone-things without eyes and limbs piled on one another like pick-up sticks. They scooped him up and carried him back to the shipwreck, and to his surprise, instead of dismembering or devouring him they laid him on one of the salvaged cots and dribbled water on his face.
It was warm, but it immediately soothed his swollen tongue and sticky mouth.
Our flesh made him leak poisons of a consistency and raw stink that we had not observed before. The mess and that he lay still was a common cell behavior, but one that indicated the imminent death of the cell. The paths of our leukocytes diverted to intercept the little hole he had dug for himself; barely an ulcer in our gut, and tolerable, but purposeless without an inhabitant. He made noise but did not struggle as our leukocytes wrapped him in their arms and carried him back to his vessel.
We listened for a pattern to his noise, a method to the emission. Did he need fire for health? Metal? Though born from them, he had sought neither of those, so instead our leukocytes brought him water, filtered through masticating grit and cooling capillaries, to replace fluids lost. Our flesh was insufficient sustenance. We were different; but the molds we had cultivated were of his kind. We harvested them in strips, warmed to his temperature and compressed to a size more comparable to his. Our leukocytes pressed them flat, held out in long arms as we might feed a grub in their compartments; take them, take them. At first he did not react, and we thought perhaps it was too late until our leukocyte, perhaps from concern, held the mash to its own orifices and took the foreign substance into itself. Encouraged, like all growing organisms, he nibbled at the sustenance.
Our leukocyte perished later, wracked with convulsions, as Arkaadi knelt by it, making small noises and offering it the water that he required. Our leukocytes removed him from the fallen leukocyte's side, with care not to bruise or shatter him, and our leukocytes cut the fallen apart and fed the pieces back into ourself.
He couldn't bury the dead alien, either. The others taken him away when he tried, and then butchered it and thrown it into a hole while he cried.
It made sense that the aliens couldn't eat what he ate--he'd written that down and underlined it, just in case. But what did they eat? The walls? Each other? They just turned in his direction when he spoke to them, silently. He seemed to have a posse, but it was hard to tell. Maybe they swapped places while he slept.
At first they'd seemed like nightmare monsters, but after watching them and sketching them while he recovered, he'd pinpointed where they would have eyes. Drawing them made them funny, cartoon animals that rolled around a cartoon throat and occasionally into each other. When he pointed at them, they pointed at themselves; and when he pointed at himself, they pointed back. In that sense, they were definitely friends. But they didn't make noises to each other and they didn't gesture to each other; how did they work together?
How'd they figure out how to make bread for him?
When he was healthy enough to walk along with them for long distances with his study-book and a water bottle, he noted that they didn't have jobs or hospitals or cemeteries or anything, just big meat tubes and small meat cubes, unfurnished, and sometimes they disappeared into sphincters that he couldn't push through.
We established a regular cycle of feeding and hydration, and he took to the nutrition well. Perhaps the spores had, in their original purpose, served as the vessel's food.
Recovered, he followed our leukocytes on their circuits until they passed through our permeable barriers into the veins and lumen through which he could not follow; when others returned he tugged at their limbs, climbing on them, searching each one when they re-entered. With his tools he marked them, and made noises, more noises in short patterns.
It wasn't the most creative set of names ever, but he ended up 'tagging' his posse--that was what biologists did, and he was a biologist now--with the letters A through F. Except for the one that had died from poisoning, the aliens didn't seem to feel pain, which is why it was all right to carve the letters into their legs. After the first one, they even held still for him, almost like they knew what he was doing.
So when A came back from beyond the sphincter holding a weird sack, he knew it was A because of the letter glistening on the bone of its foreleg.
"Hey, A," he said. It was nice to have someone to talk to, even if it didn't talk back.
A held out the sack, perched on a nest of fingers.
"Is this for me?"
It looked like a beating organ the same puce flesh as the walls. A pressed on the sack. The sack blatted.
"ME," it said.
It took several more tries before Arkaadi understood that it had invented a voice-box; and it mimicked his triumphant whoop, filling the corridor with shouts of joy. For a moment it even felt like he was in a home station again.
Me, I, alone, am Arkaadi; and that was how we learned his name. We had no word for another unlike and apart from us, only another like but apart from us, so we adopted his, the alien.
And with us he grew; he marked days on his study-book, then years. He drew his drawings into our flesh so that we could also enjoy them; he told us that where he was from, each person was a multitude, and he seemed to understand that we were one in the sense that he was, and he was inside us. The whale, he called us. Leviathan.
He empathized with the leukocytes, but he spoke with us. He was charming, and wise, and recounted sights we had never imagined. He claimed his knowledge came from the study-book, but the book was inert, merely one of his retrievable organs he called tools to differentiate them from his interior ones. We grew close, but he often confessed that he was lonely.
"And the leukocytes?" we asked.
"They're all right," he replied. "But I really miss having other kids around."
The sorrow was that he grew wrong, and frail, even as we prepared a gift for him. We poured over his study-book when he was too ill to move, but the ailments of his kind were numerous. All cell-bodies are fragile, birthed and dissolved with equal ease. His cell-body was the first we mourned the passage of.
But bodies, of course, are an amalgamate; so we harvested him before he cooled, dissolved him before the decay set in, back into the living pieces that presented Arkaadi. Our gift, the room we meticulously constructed to emulate the construction of his kind, was not in vain.
Arkaadi was never I, alone, had never been alone, and will never be alone. In the face of the universe, we are all small, and our times are short; but to be small is not to be nothing. Where he sickened and died in our embrace, you will not. You are unlike us, yet a part of us; you will be our messenger and our companion to these others who cross the abyss, the lifeless place, the birth of life. You, our child, Arkaadi.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.