My Extended Death
—A serialized novelette from the worlds of the Human Legion—
Metamorphosis rebuilds brain and body – as well as creating two fresh pups, of course – but, even before the Dreamtime, the first onset of pregnancy blows away a little of the smoke from minds shrunk during workerhood. When I awoke from Kelile’s drug, my first sight was of ser stiffened corpse. Ser poisoned corpse. I laughed. Kelile thought sie had out-thought me, but in ser befuddled worker’s brain, sie had not been able to think matters through to my position now.
My body burned with the need to eat, to fuel my metamorphosis with my lover’s flesh. But the drive that should have compelled me to eat flesh had drained into the red dirt. Even if I could have forced myself to take of my Kelile’s body, I knew I must not for ser veins ran with poison.
When I raised my head from my spew, I noticed it mixed in the air with the scent of disapproval. I looked around and saw my fellow workers and our spinster drudges squeezed into the observation ledge.
I had no idea what to say, even less what to do.
A scribe must have seen the disruption and passed on word up as far as the Great-Parent. Soon my shame was forcing me to scrabble against my hunger and loss to push my face into the ground because my actions had disturbed our ruler enough to interrupt ser work. The Great-Parent of the Pristine Colony, Folashade, let off irritation. I trembled before ser contempt.
I withered under that attention. It could have lasted hours or seconds. I have no idea. It ended when Folashade lifted my head from the ground, leaned over and placed ser tongue into my mouth. It exuded a bitter fluid that stung terribly. I knew then that another change was being forced upon my body.
Folashade shook ser head sadly and said in a quiet voice: “You are now a pathfinder. Go!”
In my condition, that amounted to a death sentence, and a painful one.
It never occurred to me to disagree because a Great-Parent (a real one, not your chemical-pretend ones) considers the needs of the colony in ser every thought.
Sparring for mating rights sets the background to a worker’s life. For those who lose the constant skirmishing, a coarsening service to the colony as a spinster leaves then as dumb, subservient brutes whose once dexterous fingers have changed into clubs and blades, and whose heads gain such an adornment of protective horned haloes that they have to be spoon-fed by workers.
Finally, spinsters change into warriors, the beasts who protect the gates to the world outside the colony. In a word: expendable.
But in a plentiful season, when a rich harvest of game from the Outside adds to the supplies from our fungus farms, and when, yet again, no attack comes from other colonies, the Nest grows too crowded. Unwanted warriors are changed by the Great-Parent into pathfinders, the final caste change before death. These inquisitive creatures are forced out of the Nest to explore the dangerous outlands, wandering far beyond charted territory to search out new nest sites, new hunting grounds. A successful pathfinder lays a scent tail back to the Nest, a marvel of poetry, garlands and rest.
Except no pathfinder had returned for two thousand years.
Kelile had forced a promise from Sentwali that sie should live.
The battlesuit’s AI urged its wearer to action.
The two forces allied, forcing Sentwali awake. Sie looked around until the fuzziness had cleared from ser head. The battlesuit, purchased illegally at enormous cost from frontline troops, informed ser that it had navigated the descent to within fifty feet of the Nest’s west gate. Sentwali had no need of this information because little had changed in the outer face of the Nest. Only some new spoil heaps, long since coated in bushes and the occasional Osayaba tree buzzing with happy insects.
Sentwali felt no surprise. With the occasional help from Without, the territory exploited by the Pristine Colony remained sufficient to maintain its population.
Much to the battlesuit’s irritation, Sentwali sat down and dictated an additional upload to the transmitter high above at Betoto.
Then sie activated the emergency release on the battlesuit and tore it away. Sentwali stood naked, laughing at the AI’s disdain. Sie sniffed the air and felt the vibration pulsing below from the thousands of individuals working, sleeping, loving, and fighting in the Nest. Sie heard the warriors bound toward ser.
Driven by hunger and my new pathfinder’s lust to explore, I tunneled outward through the crush of warriors at the West Gate. If they grumbled in that careworn way of theirs then I did not notice.
Then they were forgotten as I stumbled, blinking into the enormity of a different world, dry, without ceilings and walls, smelling of loneliness and the unknown.
I had never been exposed to the Outside. Why would I?
I realized that my legs had carried me forward while my mind detached, crushed by the shock of gaping openness. I twisted around, desperate for sight of the tree-screened mound of the Nest. A small swarm of hoverbats escaped from the gate, quickly dispersing, perhaps to feed.
Where would I get food, though? The question quickly dominated my thinking because I was already famished.
Access tunnels ran for miles underground to the succulent roots of the Aberhanuut tree. Tubers would hardly substitute for the flesh of a defeated mate (I tried hard to avoid thinking of Kelile’s cold corpse) even if I could find untapped roots.
Pain pulled at my belly.
Then it twisted my insides so tightly that my legs curled beneath me and I rolled onto my back.
Kelile’s love darts had pierced me. In response, my body yearned for the Dreamtime and refused to be ignored.
To the south, the sun looked down on me, a shimmering red disc.
In the distant past, many colonies were said to worship the sun god: Eshe, Bringer of Light, Source of all Life. A few in the Pristine Colony still did.
Eshe smelled like a weak kind of god, not like Magomu whose divine presence was obvious in the great weight of earth pressing down upon every part of the Nest. Perhaps the Bringer of Light had diminished though lack of worship because the sun cast no shadows. Even a resin torch could force a shadow.
Hunger rasped my insides once more. So did despair when I realized the Great-Parent had sundered me from Magomu. In desperation I sent a prayer to Eshe, begging food for the brittle potential within me.
Inside Eshe’s disc, I imagined I saw a dot appear. Then another and more until it took on a briefly speckled pattern.
Courage seized my limbs and set me walking toward the Sun. Eshe had surely spoken: “Come to me, pup. I will give you succor.”
I picked up speed, ignoring the guilt in my gut that condemned me for not eating. Following a direct line to Eshe, I stumbled over rocky outcroppings, through dense thickets and marched through waving clearings of grass. I pushed across a dry river gully, clambered up the far bank and shoved through spiky mwiba bushes that gouged and grabbed until, panting, I fell into a wide grassy plain cropped by swala, the furry four-legged beasts we hunted for their meat.
I gave thanks to Eshe.
The swala blinked wide-eyed, as stunned as I was for a stretched heartbeat. Then they bounded away.
My mind sent another prayer to Eshe while my body stumbled after the swala. The speckles had left Eshe, but I glimpsed hovering dots moving through the sky toward me.
Throughout my advance, the swala repeatedly raced away then halted to crop the grass, occasionally eying me suspiciously. As I neared, they would bolt once more, easily escaping my lunges.
Eshe’s dots skimmed overhead, seeming to dodge and turn to seek cover but finding none on the plain. One came close enough for me to identify. Eshe’s messengers were hoverbats!
A new pain overwhelmed my surprise, not hunger but nausea so sharp it felled me.
After an instant of despair, I remembered the tales my pup, Kelilekwanza-pya, had told of the Outside. I realized I had reached the Field of Sickness, the edge of our world. Anyone who failed to heed the warning signs perished, none had travelled beyond and lived. Yet Eshe had promised me protection, I had seen it in the sun, and this talisman of protection conquered my famine and my sickness. I stumbled on to the sun, onwards to Eshe’s red disc.
Half the swala circled around me, crouching close to the grass as they did so, as if that rendered them invisible. Of course, I presented no threat, and they soon were cropping from the grass at the far side of the nausea, not caring even to watch me.
Clinging to the belief that the sickness was Eshe’s way of testing me, I pressed onward. Keeping my eyes shut helped constrain the nausea. I carried on this way for an unknowable distance until the scent of fear grew so strong that even I, with my trembling body, could smell it. I opened my eyes and saw how nervous the swala looked in front of me, no longer cropping the grass that I suddenly noticed had become hidden in thick, choking mist. The swala, my hope for food, glanced nervously at themselves and at me. Suddenly they scattered, each selecting a different route to safety.
A few ran to the sides, no doubt circling behind me to rejoin their fellows. Most fanned out in front of me and… The mist confused my sight but I thought I saw the remaining swala stumble and then vanish.
Invisible they may be but not inaudible. The swala cried in pain and shock before going deathly silent. A strangely familiar scent mixed with the mist hugging the ground and rose to my nostrils: the scent of a fresh kill.
The unexpected reminder of food made me retch.
When I had finished, I noticed a pitiful bleating, and a smell of fear but not injury. That invisible swala called for me.
I thanked Eshe, whose disc loomed directly overhead, and ran straight at the sound.
My head tingled, I felt my body pop, and then I was outside of the plain, away from the mist and the nausea, staring at a confused swala looking at me for answers.
I looked behind to check my escape route back to the world I had known. In the air, an immense dome, latticed with metal and light, cast the illusion of sky and clouds and rain, the lie that none in the Pristine Colony had thought to question but did explain some ancient myths.
I understood what I was seeing but I staggered trying to grasp what my eyes insisted was true.
Everything, my entire universe, was inside this dome!
In a slowly curving ring around the world I had known, I saw the trench of death pits where freshly killed swala lay atop ancient bones. I saw the red disc that I had thought to be Eshe for what it was, a red lamp shining through a gap directly over the safe passage through the deadly perimeter.
I had prayed to Eshe and the sun god had shown me the path to safety. Who is to say my prayers were not answered?
Hoverbats were leaving my world through that gap. Most slowed and came to a halt. A few circled around my head.
Reluctantly, I turned forward once more and acknowledged the truth that I found myself in a forest of enormous towers wreathed in light.
We may be primitive in the Pristine Colony, but you should not confuse ignorance with stupidity. Even in my mid-workerhood, I knew instinctively these towers to be dwellings, alien nests. Yet what amazed me most was not their size but that they were constructed above ground.
Through the scents of grease and power and intimidation and fire, I recognized amusement. I followed the scent message with my eyes and saw a couple clothed from head to feet in purple cloth fringed with pockets. Only their eyes were left naked. They stood, caressing each other, upon a floating disc that hovered a few feet above ground and moved toward me at a fast walking pace.
One untwined ser foreleg from ser lover and gestured at me. Sie spoke unintelligible words before stopping when sie saw my dumb incomprehension.
Sie threw off ser hood and smiled.
I moved to talk to ser but stopped when I sensed motion overhead. An oversized, brightly red figure leapt across the sky in a jerky motion before pausing to throw multicolored balls that exploded as soon as they were launched.
I sunk to the ground abasing myself. I was convinced this was Eshe, my divine savior. When after long moments with my face pressed against the smooth stone of the ground, the god had given me no sign in scent, or sound, or vision, I looked up again. The figure repeated its performance exactly as before. Then it vanished and started again. Once more your illusions had fooled me.
Of course, you understand what these marvels were. You call them advertising.
You built them.
I disown them.
From left and right – even above! – people raced toward me, many accompanied by hoverbats that I later learned were recording every scent, word and sight for the news channels. By following the safe path through your perimeter of poisons and traps, I was the first to make it out alive. I did not know that then, but I remember breathing in hope that the pups inside me would live, that I would fulfill my promise to Kelile. I would live!
You survived, Keligomo. So did your sib, at least for a while. I know that much.
Did I live?
My body persisted. My consciousness never ended, only dimmed by sleep. I accepted your drugs and your hormonal treatments, your money and charity and curiosity. But when my cycle ceased, was I truly alive?
My message to you is that I was not. I died when I cast away the cycle of renewal. I have persisted through two centuries of death.
Now I have cut away the implants in my body and purged myself of your drugs. I am reborn.
Text (c) 2015 by Tim C. Taylor. All rights reserved. Alien insect image (c) bluecrayola / Shutterstock