“How can we survive on this planet?” Nomin asked; her face had formed the scowl her husband Arkeem recognized too well. “What will we do here?”
“You wanted to leave the last world,” he said, unable to take the bitterness out of his tone. “They put colonists out at random, on the next available homestead. Now we’ve used our five options. They won’t even let us back on Earth.”
“Earth? There is no Earth!” Her arm made a reckless sweeping motion across the desert landscape. Porous volcanic shards rose out of sand like crushed charcoal; red and gray shrubs showed in patches. “This isn’t much better! I say we take the rocket and move on.”
“Where would we go, even if we had fuel? We have no map of the other settlement worlds.”
“I’ll contact Netar again,” Nomin declared, referring to her sister, who worked in the Settlement Department. “She’ll tell us.”
“She supposedly nudged the machine to give us the last three assignments, and you didn’t like any of those.” In a private place he reserved deep within his own mind, Arkeem believed Netar had given them punishing territories to get rid of her disagreeable sibling.
“What are you saying? That my sister betrayed kin? That she deliberately abandoned her own niece and nephews on a dead rock?”
He held up his hand. “Look, it’s not my fault we’re here. I don’t feel like arguing. Besides, the kids need to see us present capability, companionship, confidence, cooperation, and courage. The Five-C’s, remember? And they’re probably hungry.”
“Danglers!” Nomin shouted now. “Don’t give me the Five-C’s! If you don’t want to argue, what else are we going to do on this ‘post heap? Even the sand is the color of diseased compost!”
Pin distracted her again. The boy had gestated during a pass through a dark matter vortex, which must have affected his mind. At seven years of age, he often seemed disengaged from his own intelligence, unaware of his physical being. He was forever getting into something filthy or threatening or poisonous. It was a knack. That was his gift. One day, perhaps, it would save his young life.
Now, waving a red branch of leaves, Pin poked and swatted at a crab-like thing that had come out of the jagged face of a black rock close by. The creature’s black shell had an irregular shape, like a flat iron that had been warped on one side to approximate a comma, and it was covered in uneven spikes. The crab had taken a defensive stance, its arms upraised and extended to grapple its antagonist. From the bigger arm, a soft pink protrusion danced in the air, as if sniffing for its target. A red hole showed at the tip of the blob, and a ropy, yellow tendon emerged. Then this strand of flesh began to twirl, flinging a fine stream of foaming liquid in ever widening circles to intercept the boy. As usual, Pin laughed. He enjoyed making things happen, even if they were bad things.
The boy’s father darted forward in a crouch, grabbing his son with one arm. The crab’s tube had extended several inches, allowing it to throw poison, or acid, or something quite a distance. A drop of it struck Arkeem’s upper arm and he screamed as it burned, boring into his skin, descending into muscle, plunging toward bone. He fell outside the diameter of the crab’s spray, releasing Pin to roll still further out. The boy laughed, a wild keening sound that held little joy. The peals seemed to strip away layers of reality, down past all the rational human mind’s cherished illusions about its place in the universe, its right to colonize, procreate, build, and cultivate, as well as its urge to destroy and devour, to covet and kill.
Nomin came to her husband with first aid gel and bandages. The medicine had the property of adapting to any type of illness, bacteria, or poison and neutralizing it, then triggering the body’s own DNA to regenerate and repair the damaged tissue. It worked just as well for a respiratory illness as for an intestinal one, even healed breaks, cuts and sprains. The hole in Arkeem’s bicep had enlarged—he could push his index finger all the way down to the bone—but the acid seemed to have dissipated on its own.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, applying the gel and wrapping his arm in sterile gauze.
“Not so much now, with the meds. But a chunk of my arm is gone. I won’t be able to work as hard for a while.”
“We have the rocket to stay in.” Her voice had abandoned the combative tone for an encouraging one. “There’s no hurry to build other shelter. The food will run out, eventually. But the guide said there were edibles here.”
Now it was Arkeem’s turn to be bitter. “Probably this black sand.”
She laughed, but not like Pin. Her laugh sounded like happy bells on a spring day, calling friends and family to join a picnic with grilled meat, fresh fruit, wine and good cheese. “I’m sorry I acted so childishly. I don’t adjust well to change; you know that. I’ll get out the monitors and start analyzing these plants and the creatures around here. The children can help. You should rest.”
Their other children, daughter Tesca and oldest son Falernum, didn’t like the trouble of outdoors life; they sat inside their edutainment cubes, where programs showed on four sides at once.
“Good luck getting them out of their boxes. And be careful, there may be more creatures like that crab out here. With our luck, that’s the only edible species.” His own laugh had more darkness than hers. “Although I’d like to take a bite out of him, raw or cooked!”
Over the next four days, they searched an ever widening radius around the rocket, probing everything in sight with the bio-monitors. Falernum had found a dead crab like the one that had attacked his father, and it had proven toxic through and through. Some fish could be used as food, although they had an acrid taste the adults liked no better than their children. Pin would eat the seafood, but only so he could vomit it up in stinking piles near his sister. The youngest child liked to hear her scream. The red and gray plants proved to be the only palatable food, but for the children, it was like eating spinach, Brussels sprouts and broccoli for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The adults reserved the packaged survival rations for their offspring, portioning them out to make the meals last as long as possible.
On the fifth day, they climbed into some hills of volcanic rock, their porous sides a mass of irregular, scalpel-sharp protrusions. They all carried foraging and hunting tools and wore heavy gloves and boots, but their clothes soon became torn, legs and arms lacerated. Pin enjoyed wounding himself; he laughed at the sight of blood and enjoyed tasting it so much, he kept cutting his hands to suck the fluid—and to offer the delicacy to the others.
“Make him stop, father!” Tesca squealed. Her face ran with tears. Arkeem couldn’t tell if she was sobbing or gasping for breath.
“Pin, don’t bother your sister,” he groaned. If only he had a thimble of rocket fuel for every time he had said it on this excursion alone, they could launch from this sand pile and make it across the galaxy.
“She needs blood!” Pin said, as if explaining his motives. “He needs blood!” Now he pointed at Falernum.
“Leave me out of this, kid,” Falernum said. The oldest child at thirteen years, he had become indifferent to family squabbles and dramas. “If I had my way, he’d be stuck in an edi-cube all day.” He addressed no one in particular, although his mother took his words as fault finding.
“We have to show him the world, so he can find his way in it. What would happen if we were suddenly gone?”
“You mean if we all ran away from him?” Falernum gave a sarcastic laugh. “He’d probably love that, too!”
“Your brother has special needs!” Nomin had taken the bait, had gotten upset. “We need to teach him the power of empathy and love!”
“Good luck with that,” the adolescent said, but then he caught his father’s eye and looked away. “I’m sorry, mom. Hey, look at that!”
They turned to the western horizon. An oblong cloud seemed to be tumbling across the sky in their general direction, flinging arcs of itself about in random bursts. The chaotic mass expanded the nearer it got, threatening them with its shadow.
“What’s that gray stuff hanging below it?” Tesca asked.
“I think that’s rain,” Arkeem said, enjoying for a moment his ability to teach her something about their new planet. “Must be quite a deluge.”
“It’s going over the rocket, soon,” Falernum observed.
And then it did. Flaps of cloud thrashed around the fragile metal spire, battering it with wind and rain. The family watched their home tilt, possibly as the sand below its feet softened and washed away. In slow motion, like an altimeter dropping to zero, the spire leaned away from them; then gravity caught it and pulled it to ground with greater force.
They watched the rocket hit, breaking into several pieces. As the rain and wind moved on, they saw flames licking the sides of the engine compartment at the rear. The fuel rods must have cracked, sparking electricity and radiation to heat the organic materials in the ship until they combusted. The fire leaped from one section to the next, while father, mother, son and daughter stood frozen on the razor sharp rocks.
Pin, however, clapped and danced, delighted to see the spectacle. At first, his mirth came as dry peals; these changed into gruff barks before billowing into the cackling, unconscious madness of a triumphant crow. Then the boy’s laugh shifted again. It had evolved into a pulsing, nearly electronic sound, high-pitched and grating, like crickets or cicadas grinding out a rapid squeal through the voice box of a chimpanzee.
Nomin began to cry, openly wailing; Tesca followed her mother’s example, and even Falernum abandoned his reserve and indifference to bawl and moan. Arkeem struggled to control himself, softly chanting the Five-C’s, but the private place in his mind had torn open, releasing a Pandora’s chest of cynicism, doubt and despair.
Then the father wept openly, while his mind unspooled a vision in which he slit his youngest child’s throat with an ebony blade of volcanic stone.
Together the family wandered the desert in search of food and shelter, eating the bitter red and gray weeds for lack of other food. They had abandoned the rocket without a second glance. None of them, except possibly for Pin, could bear to view the burned out rubble of their home and hope, the former symbol of their mobility and strength, their last vestigial link to Earth and humankind. In any case, the salvageable supplies would have been contaminated by radiation. Instead, they had continued on across the sharp hills, coming down on another vast plain of monotonous black sand. The weeds grew more plentifully here, at least, and they saw small animals, like rats or groundhogs, rustling in the bushes. Falernum managed to stun one with a rock, surprising even himself by the accuracy of his throw. The bio-monitor indicated it had nutritive value, but as none of the weeds would burn, and none of them could stomach eating it raw, they left the creature there to recover.
“One nice thing about this place,” Arkeem said after another salad, “the weather never changes.”
“What’s so great about that?” Falernum grumbled.
“It’s always 72 degrees. And there are no predators. We don’t really need shelter.”
“Speak for yourself,” Nomin said; she had been glum ever since the fire. “I’d give anything to sleep on a bed again, under a roof. Even a tent. Use a composting toilet. Take a bath.”
“We might be able to weave these weeds into mats and make a hut.”
“It’s all I can do to pick enough for a meal,” she said. Tears had formed in her eyes, so Arkeem let it drop.
“How about a nap?” he asked. “Then maybe we’ll go on a bit more.”
“Fine,” Nomin replied, but the children said nothing.
The silence alerted the father, and he jerked his head to locate the youngest. Pin sat quietly, watching them with large, empty eyes. Perhaps he was waiting for another row, another conflagration, another disaster. But for some reason, he had been quiet and cooperative ever since the fire, as if that entertainment had satisfied him for a while, or he had read his own murder in his father’s mind.
The sand stretched on while the world turned under their feet. One day, they came to a gentle rise, for once just a dune and not a ladder of blades. At its height, Falernum’s sharp eyes made out something in the distance; he coached the others where to see it, too. After much pointing, squinting and head-shaking, they observed black orbs resting on stilts, like a farm of water towers, perhaps no more distant than a day or two’s walk.
“Perhaps it’s a settlement,” Nomin said. “The department must have sent other colonists here. We can join them! All is not lost!”
“Remember the Five-C’s, my love,” Arkeem said, trying to tamp down his own rising zeal. Steak and gravy, ham and mac, turkey and stuff—his favorite ration concentrates swirled in his brain, wafting their savory odors and luscious flavors down the synapses to his stomach, which tumbled now in his torso as if ready to abandon them all in a wild sprint toward an imagined civilization.
“Dad,” Falernum said, “stuff the Five-C’s. You know that’s ‘post. Those dumb rules can’t feed us or make us like this place any chasting better!”
“Oooh, you said chasting and compost!” Tesca teased.
Instead of getting angry, Arkeem smiled. Even Nomin had a brighter look on her face. For this rare moment, they had become a family again, riding on hope to a world of happiness and pleasant dreams. If only it could last.
“Family vote. Rest or go on?”
“Go on!” Falernum and Tesca cheered. Pin remained silent, as if wishing a disaster would tumble out of the sky for his amusement.
Nomin smiled at her family. “Perhaps a few hours rest. I’m tired, and you must be, also. Then we can cover what’s left of the distance easily. We may need our strength. We don’t really know what’s out there.”
“Okay, kids,” Arkeem said. “The voice of reason has spoken. I can wait another few hours for a steak and gravy. Right?”
“Yeah!” the oldest ones agreed. Even Pin smiled now, but the grimace froze his father’s heart.
The next day, Arkeem’s family found the sea. The water spread in a vast, low arc across the broadest horizon he had ever seen, and it seemed alien and homelike at once, for it appeared white and thick, like sweet, nourishing milk from the kind of Earth-based farm only legend spoke of. The shore remained calm, possessing little of the rollicking movement of a tidal sea. Instead, the wind or little anomalies of atmospheric pressure pulled the water into spiraling peaks, rising and dropping on their own whim. Against the fine black sand, this creamy ocean seemed open and forgiving and full of life.
What they had seen from the distance proved not to be water towers or landers or a new colonial home design, but enormous creatures resembling spiders. As if carved from boulders of obsidian and given a fine, smooth finish, globular bodies rose from the sand on eight legs like massive flying buttresses; starting as fragile looking spindles, these appendages curved upward fifteen or twenty feet, took a sharp parabolic arc back downward, and intersected the abdomen in a trunk-like thigh. The creatures possessed a fearsome array of mandibles, palps, and siphoning mouthparts, but seemed uninterested in any kind of food, let alone their visitors. Flat red spots dotted the area above the arthropod mouths, and the family agreed these must be the creatures’ eyes. What the spiders saw, and how, could not be determined. But it seemed clear they remained indifferent to the visitors that walked among them, gaping and pointing.
Nomin tested the spiders first. “The monitor says they’re edible!” Her face brightened, for she had become hungry for animal food after weeks of bitter herbs.
“I don’t know if that’s good news, or not,” Arkeem joked. “I’ve never before considered eating a spider.”
“Don’t call them that, father,” Tesca scolded with all the seriousness of her ten years. “I hate spiders. Anyway, these can’t be spiders, because they’re not on Earth.”
“Brilliant deduction,” Falernum mocked her, but even he gazed in wonder at the creatures, waving his own monitor in their direction. “If the monitor says we can eat them, I say we give it a try. They can’t be any worse than the plants.”
“We have nothing to lose,” Arkeem said, trying to maintain a fatherly good will. “How do we bring them down?”
“You have your shock-stick?” Nomin asked. “That may do it.”
“Worth a try.” He took the stick out of its plastic case and began to unscrew the segments to extend the pole. The instrument started at three feet long, but could reach up to thirty feet, more than enough to zap one of these monsters without getting too close.
“How much height would you say we need, son?” Arkeem asked Falernum.
“Well, they’re at least ten feet tall, and you don’t want to stand right under one, in case it kicks or stampedes. I’d give it at least twenty.”
“What would you say, Tesca?” He hoped to bring his daughter into the conversation, encourage her to participate in decisions and calculations.
“I don’t know, father. What Fal said.”
The girl rolled her eyes.
“Okay. Pin, how about you?”
They all looked around. With relief, Arkeem noted the boy stood nearby, although he had positioned himself beside the massive, spike-like foot of the biggest spider in the herd, or gathering, or whatever one called a group of these creatures.
“What would you call a plurality of these spiders, son?”
“A ‘post-load, dad. What else?”
Pin had seemed in no danger when he was still, but then he touched the leg, pulling a long black hair down toward himself, as if hoping to break it off. In response, the spider abruptly lifted the appendage, carrying the boy into the air. Pin squealed, but did not seem afraid; he did not let go.
Nomin screamed. Again Arkeem was forced to react to protect his helpless child. He rushed forward with the pole, struggling to maintain a grip, keep the length of it up in the air, while fumbling for the control panel. Making it to the side of the beast, he slapped the disc-shaped head of the device between two of the lowest red eyes, then he pulled the trigger. A shower of sparks emitted from the disc, and the creature’s massive body shuddered, all eight legs vibrating. The jaws and palps spread wide, the tubes and siphons stiffening into horizontal lines, and it seemed to gasp, exhaling a scent like exotic flowers, both cloyingly sweet and carrion sour. Then the legs sagged until the giant orb of a body almost touched the sand. Returned to the safety of the ground, Pin wandered away as if nothing had happened.
“Is it dead?” Nomin, Falernum and Tesca asked at once.
Falernum stepped up, scanner raised. “No sign of life. Still reads edible.”
“Okay. What do we eat first?”
Tesca and Nomin laughed. “It’s like a crab or a lobster, silly,” his wife said. “We’ll have to crack it open. And you always start with the legs.”
Arkeem tried to give instructions for the butchery, but it didn’t matter what order they did things. Finally they settled down to chip away at a single segment, one of the feet that had bent parallel to the sand so the joint lay within reach. Using their machetes and picks, they chopped at the shell until they broke through, then pried the crack open. When a three foot long section of the foot broke loose, exposing soft pink meat to the cool air, they cheered, again enjoying the feeling of family togetherness, the success of mutual cooperation and effort. The Five-C’s were beginning to work for them, after all.
They had no way to make fire, but this time they all were too hungry to care about the rawness of the flesh. Each sliced off a portion with their knives, and Falernum gave a chunk to Pin. Then, as one, they filled their mouths and chewed.
“Fantastic,” Arkeem declared.
“It’s the best thing I ever tasted,” Nomin said, sounding surprised. “I never expected that.”
“Me either. Kids?”
Tesca and Falernum nodded, continuing to stuff the wholesome meat into their mouths, while cutting away second helpings. Pin had swallowed his whole, and now stood biting on the leg that had lifted him into the air.
Arkeem and Nomin laughed. This happiness had not come into their lives often. For the moment, it seemed endless. The future spread out along the vast horizon of the sea of milk: houses, grandchildren, feast days, hunting and harvesting, health and industry and a city on the shore, every day like a vacation. They had found their paradise, their family, their home.
Bite after bite, the spider legs tasted like summer fruits and shrimp cocktail—a salad of mangoes and pineapple, buttered scallops, and a lime-scented red pepper sauce. Spicy, sweet, tangy, refreshing. They spent a week gorging themselves, and at the end they still had leg meat left over. It remained fresh, never spoiling, never growing stale or discolored. The monitors reinforced the observation that the meat remained good, so they continued to eat.
They hollowed out each leg in turn, and as they did, the body sagged lower and lower, until it settled into the sand. When the legs had been devoured, they debated how to get into the body, for the monitors told them food fit for humans also lay within the giant black carapace.
Pin discovered the opening first, crawling through a large socket where a leg had attached. Inside, they found more of the sweet, tangy meat, and they consumed it. Then they came to the viscera. The monitors told them to eat, and eat they did. Each of the organs possessed a different flavor: lungs like lemon tart, liver like beefsteak, intestines like oatmeal cooked with apples and golden raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon. In the body cavity, they located unidentifiable glands and tubers, tasting like sweet potatoes, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce. And one swollen, pear-shaped bladder filled with a substance like sweet wine.
Effervescent spring water flowed from a nearby knuckle of jagged black rock. They shredded hands and feet and knees on the sharp edges until they piled sand on the stone, covering this with mats of woven vegetable fiber.
From the moment they had cleared sufficient space in the shell, the family slept there, rising only to cut off another piece of delicious meat, talking only to describe the nuances of its flavor profile with the others. Life on Earth had been one endless round of deprivation: eating stuff that could barely be classified as food, breathing gas that could hardly be called air, drinking liquid that could never pass for water. Tesca had won the colony lottery at her school; at first they had to convince her not to take four of her closest friends on the escape rocket. Then the family had taken their trials: a frozen planet, a sauna planet, a lightless planet, a planet without air and pressure. Now things had gone in their favor, and they could ride this bliss forever, for they had earned it by their mutual right to colonize, to consume, to create.
The meat ran out, but now they had a home. They lined the floor with woven mats and slept whenever they liked. To Arkeem’s delight, he had no need to farm, or fish, or even hunt. He had only to walk among the docile spiders by the sea and shock them to death, one at a time, so his family could feed at leisure on a banquet fit for the kings of old, or the Master Builders of their present day. For their next kill, they chose a smaller creature. Before long the legs were gone, but the sockets were too small for any of them to fit inside. Together, they fashioned chisels from the volcanic rock, chipping sections down to hammers they could hold in one or both hands, then cushioning them with woven material. Using these tools, they cracked the spider cub’s shell and accessed the meat within, delicate flesh of such rich and delicate essence they joked it could have won Michelin stars.
Arkeem and Nomin and their three children sat on the ebony sand, circling a curved black bowl of organ meat. Using their hands and knives, they reached in for portion after portion, never failing to exclaim over the surprising flavors, the marvelous juices, the voluptuous textures, the gorgeous odors.
“Give my compliments to the chef,” the father told his brood, and even though the joke had long grown stale, his wife and two older children chuckled. From the moment they had found the sea, their beach vacation had extended over timeless, delightful days, and it stretched ahead in a never-ending agenda of loafing and eating and playful good cheer.
As one, five pairs of eyes noticed a small, glossy patch on an upraised portion of the shell bowl. It looked as if the exoskeleton had formed, by accident or design, a small pocket; this had cracked to reveal a protruding lip of bright pink flesh, the like of which none of them had seen before. The first to act, of course, was Pin, as if he sensed the uproar he could cause by snatching the prize for himself. To a chorus of “No fair!” and “Wait!” and “Your old man wants some of that!” the youngest child crammed the morsel between his lips and gave it a vigorous chewing.
“That little creep!” Falernum exclaimed, his own meal gone sour in his mouth. “He always ruins everything.”
“Mother! Make him spit it out!” Tesca whined.
“Would you eat it if he did?” Nomin asked, but she too felt annoyed with this child who, even in paradise, could stir cold sand into hot coals.
“He would grab it for himself,” Arkeem joked. “It probably was the greatest delicacy of them all. But think of it, every one of these spiders must have one of those morsels, maybe more than one, even the one we live in.”
“What did it taste like, Pin?” Falernum asked.
“Bubblegummy!” Pin said with a squeal.
“Ugh!” His father laughed “Not such a delicacy after all.”
That night, the family found that their shell had developed a rubbery kind of lining throughout the interior. Nomin picked at it with her fingernail; her concern drove Arkeem to test it with his knife. If he cut it, the material repaired itself instantly; if he scraped it, he couldn’t quite get down to the layer of shell. The lining even covered the leg sockets, but this wasn’t a problem; each one of them carried a knife, so they just cut a slit big enough to crawl through, and the rubber healed up after them.
“If I could patent this stuff,” Arkeem said, “I’d make fame and fortune as the genius behind the self-sealing door.”
“How would you get it to grow on a plastic framed house?” Falernum had asked, always the devil’s advocate.
“Perhaps that can be your contribution to the family business,” the father replied, feeling magnanimous after another fine meal in paradise. “Or yours, Tesca.”
“What would Pin’s contribution be?” the older son asked.
“Staying out of the way.” And they all laughed at the expense of the youngest.
Pin had always been peculiar, but after eating the ganglion, his body seemed to change, as if it had decided to catch up to the mind it harbored. Less than a week had passed; now his torso seemed plumper or rounder, the skin seemed darker and more solid. His eyes started to bulge, and clumps of hair littered the ground wherever he stopped for any length of time.
These symptoms alarmed his mother; she hovered over him for several hours, tracing her bio-monitor over the changed places of his body. A pantomime developed, where the mother would approach with the device, waving her arms and muttering as if performing some work of witchcraft, and Pin would push her away, squealing his annoyance.
“I think this machine is broken,” Nomin said after the first hour of the practice. “Give me your monitor, Arkeem.”
He handed it over. She repeated her spellcasting. Apparently, the results satisfied her no more than with her own machine, for she quickly switched out her husband’s tool for those of her oldest children. Arkeem sat in the sand and watched her antics; he had a fresh piece of lung to chew, and the day seemed as beautiful as always, and the milk white sea hypnotized the hidden place in his mind. For once in his life, he felt content. He had no intention of breaking his own inertia, picking up his old anxieties where he had left them.
“I don’t understand it,” she said at last. “The monitor says it cannot read his body. I’ve never seen this error message before.”
“Maybe the batteries need changing.” Arkeem knew the power cells would last for a hundred years, but he felt he had to say something.
Nomin rolled her eyes at him. “You could at least try to provide a better excuse for not helping me.”
“I’m not a doctor, dear. If the machine suddenly can’t read him now, I have nothing to add. I haven’t been able to read the little creep from the day he was born.”
Tears formed in his wife’s eyes. “Why do you have to be so hurtful? Pin is our child! Look at him! He’s obviously sick with something.”
The other children had moved down along the beach, poking at the walking fish with pieces of weed. Feeling emboldened by their distance, their father opened up some of his resentment on their mother.
“In case you haven’t been paying attention, Nomin, our son has been sick with something for a long time. What you see now is probably a temporary disturbance caused by the weird piece of meat he ate.” He paused; a thought had come to him. “Actually, we should probably be grateful to him. If he hadn’t gulped it all himself, we’d all be infected.”
Gratitude sparked empathy—with his wife, with the child—so he rose to his feet to inspect the monitor. The complete message remained a cipher:
“Unknown bio-form. Not edible,” he read it aloud. “No further data at this time. Connect to interspace telecom for system update.” He paused as if to digest the information.
“Typical programming cop-out,” Arkeem muttered. An abrupt huff of laughter escaped him. Even in paradise, a computer could have a bug. Perhaps things were too perfect here for the machine to cope.
For the first time since the illness had started, he inspected his son at close range. The skin had taken on a chitinous appearance, almost as if it stood halfway between skin and shell. If the effect had been more developed, he would have sworn the boy had just donned a section of a spider’s exoskeleton as a game, a new way to aggravate his mother, so he could watch her dance a tarantella of nervous anxiety. He poked the child; the skin felt hard, as well. Naturally, Pin swatted his father away, making an ugly squawk of protest and disgust at the contact.
“Let’s try testing him again a little later,” Arkeem said, a puzzled look on his face. He couldn’t quite figure out whether he should be worried, frightened or relieved that the boy may have contracted a fatal disease. Perhaps this would happen to all of them in due time, the true price of a paradise of sweetmeats, honeyed fruits, milk and wine. He looked at his wife, who had stopped crying the moment he had picked up the burden of her concern. “Perhaps the monitor will reset, and we’ll get better information from it.” This was no better an excuse than his first one—the monitors never needed rebooting or refreshing—but it satisfied both of them for the moment. They could eat another meal with clear consciousnesses.
That night when the family retired, Pin could not be moved to join them, so they left him standing there, staring at the sea. Without predators or other dangers, there seemed no need to guard the child; he had been better behaved on this planet than anywhere else they had ever been. As if he had found his spiritual home, Pin seemed content to coexist here in the company of the spiders.
The two changes in their world proceeded in parallel over the next weeks: Pin’s body took on more of the features of the native spiders, including vestigial legs protruding from his new carapace, and the lining of their home firmed and thickened. Being helpless to alter either one, Arkeem and Nomin observed these phenomena with resignation, filling their bellies with good food, their lungs with good air, their lives with leisure. The planet, or perhaps the hypnotic motions of the sea, inspired an indifference that troubled both of them.
“Will he die?” Nomin asked once, her voice so quiet, so calm he could hardly comprehend her words.
Arkeem shook his head. “He doesn’t seem in any distress. I find it difficult to look at him. He no longer seems to be my son, but perhaps he never was.”
His wife gave him a wan smile, as if for once she understood him, felt empathy with that secret place in his mind.
One night, Arkeem dreamed, watching himself body surfing on the pure, white sea. The spiraling waves lifted him up and let him down in gentle dips and swells, the way his own father had tossed him in the air when he was an infant. Each time his father had caught him, he would tell Arkeem, “Baby fall down!” But it was always a safe landing, and he would laugh and grin in the simple safety of his father’s arms. The water moved him, little by little, further from the shore, until at last it brought him to a kind of waterfall. In the dream, he continued floating, although in a long downward slide; the slow pace reassured him, and he felt certain his father’s arms waited at the bottom of this descent.
Changing, spinning, speeding up, falling into blackness. The waterfall had become a rough, dark vortex, like an inversion of the upward rotation of the normal waves, a reversal of the bright whiteness of the ocean, a corruption of the luxurious softness of the atmosphere. This air felt hard in his mouth, depleted of oxygen, toxic to life. This water constricted and consumed. What life the terrestrial world nourished, this underwater world depleted.
Eyes wide on a profound darkness, body slick with perspiration, lungs and heart together choking and leaping in his chest, Arkeem found himself awake in a home that had become a cage. He shook Nomin, but she only gasped weakly. The children too would be unconscious, he reasoned, with the last fragment of his reasoning mind. His hand found the knife on his belt. Fumbling forward on hands and knees, he groped for a socket, where the rubber coating would bow outward under his weight. As he crawled, he sensed that the lining had thickened and toughened. In some places, it had arched upwards in dome-like structures; bubbles, he thought, as if the lining was peeling away from the shell.
Arkeem’s body moved without mind, flapping hands and limbs about the floor, desperate to find an escape. The knife appeared in his hand, so he slashed at the rubber, stabbing and slicing, digging the blade into the material so it might be gouged out if it wouldn’t cut or tear. No action produced a result. The lining remained thick and strong and springy.
‘Help,’ Arkeem thought. He could no longer hear. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t screamed the word. ‘Help, help! Pin, cut out the door! Can you hear me, Pin? Help! Help your father and your mother. Help your brother, Pin. Help your sister. Come and get us out of here! Pin! Pin!’
Lungs burning, he felt his throat also had caught fire. So he had been yelling. Now the air had almost gone.
The lining bubbled away from the exoskeleton everywhere that Arkeem could reach. Far thicker now, it seemed to be actively contracting as he kept his hand in contact with the rubber wall. He felt something sticky under his feet, like mucous or glue, and for a moment he imagined that Pin had come in and coughed phlegm onto the floor, or that one of his other children had vomited in their distress. But the tacky, gooey stuff covered the whole surface. His feet pulled up long strands of it; he knew this not by sight, but by the way the goop caught his flesh and allowed his legs to lift a certain distance but no more before it dragged them back to ground. The level rising, Arkeem thought about his wife and son and daughter laying in the milk and honey of this world, asleep after an excellent meal and a day in bright sunshine and cool air. He had grown tired, so tired, he decided to lay down with them. He couldn’t understand why he had ever gotten up, unless to fill his belly once more.
And he did lay down, sensing the heavy liquid rising over his body. His last thoughts focused on a sharp sensation in his flesh and an unclean smell, like the belly of a centipede, or the hot breath of a spider on the abdomen of a green bottle fly as its burning ichor dissolved the body of its prey.
Pin stood at the membrane covering the spider’s leg hole, the one his family used most often to come and go from their shelter, listening and guarding to ensure they could not escape the thickening membrane and its digestive effusion. He sensed the giant spider coming alive again, starting with this bladder that would become the renewed creature’s stomach. The father of them all would be with them soon. Pin knew this with a part of his mind he had never heard speak before. The voice delighted him, cheered him with its assurances and marvels: the resurrection of the dead, organ by organ, to enjoy once more the milk of the sea and the fruit of the land and the sweet breath of the air.
Over the next few days, or weeks, or months, Pin felt his carapace hardening, beautifully black and smooth and rounded like nothing he had ever seen before had been beautiful, certainly not soft skin or naked limbs, or flabby faces. His own black legs lifted his body above the black sand, each a magnificent arc of joints and segments. On the ground lay some pale blobs of flesh, smooth and tubular, which had once been human limbs. As the shell had grown around his viscera, it had severed the withered and vestigial appendages, cleaning up the silhouette of his new form.
His head remained. Hairless now and covered in a black shell, but not fully integrated as on a native animal. Instead of flat red eyes, his human eyes protruded from the sockets of his skull on long, chitinous stalks. His arachnid mouthparts also were not fully formed; there were palps and mandibles, but they surrounded the protruding nose, fleshy mouth, and endoskeletal jaw of the human body. Perhaps, as the other spiders reassured him, these features too would change when the ganglion he had ingested finished its work. But for now, he possessed a mouth unlike any mouth that ever existed on a creature of this world; a soft mouth with lips and a flap of tissue inside that had neither inner nor outer bones. He still had a throat, as well, lined with tendons to vibrate, to sing, and to laugh. And so the sound of laughter came to the mouth of a spider on this planet of black sand and razor rock.
The youngest spider stood with its fellows by the water, watching the waves spiral up and fall, watching the crabs spray burning foam on the armored fishes as they pulled themselves across the ebony beach with their heavy fins. It took a few tentative steps into the surf, just so it wet the spindles of its hard black legs. The creature once named Pin of Earth looked over the broad, milk white horizon, blowing air through its flaccid lips. Then its laughter came—a chortle, a cackle, a surging wail of ugly mirth without pity or hope—shrieking into the wind, howling at the sea, scratching and gnashing away the last illusions of the rational human mind.
A multi-media artist living near Washington, DC, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music and glitch video. He has published nineteen books, all available through the usual online markets, including Savage Magic (poetry) and Heta’s Book (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.com.