3620 words, short story
When Host laughed, her esca wriggled, and the gills behind her pectoral fins vented hard enough to stir up the silt. Organ tumbled in the waste-stream’s wake, but kept one tiny black eye fixed on her bobbing, bioluminescent beacon—the first he had seen in six turns of the current along the foreign reef.
“I almost ate you, little one,” said Host. “Are you not too big to be wandering around on your lonesome? Does your gut not grow stunted, your digestion weak? Come, latch on—there is always room for one more.”
Organ’s gaze darted about the glow of her scattered bone spikes. Sure enough, two others were already fused to Host’s underside—the first recent enough that one dull eye still gazed back; the other reduced to little more than his seed, a dangling pair of gonads with no speech, no sight, no mind. In his hunger, Organ felt a muscle-cramping urgency to bite into Host’s skin. The proximity of her pheromones did not help.
“No, thank you,” said Organ, faintly, as he began to swim away. “I’m fine.”
Host at first said nothing, but when even the most furious pumping of his caudal fin brought no relief from her scent, Organ knew he was being followed. He could only keep up such a pace for so long, though, and in his exhaustion eventually dropped close to the silt, picking feebly at motes of dubious sustenance. Her long, sharp teeth soon lit the way.
“You will die out here, little one.”
Organ felt grains of sand sit poorly in his gullet—the beginning, he knew, of that very end, unless a serpent sensed him sooner, or one of the scuttling shelled creatures with long, snapping pincers that lurked in the crevices of rocks. He turned an eye Host’s way and worked the shiver of his body-length as if to say—“And I will die with you as well.”
But Host did not snap him up at once, as for a moment Organ feared she would. He knew her kind to be fiercely competitive among its own—one Host even feeding off another’s drifting egg sacks when territory was at stake—but whether the protectiveness he watched them extend to others of his kind would survive a refusal to merge as firm as his, he had no way of knowing for sure. The size difference alone gave him to fear the worst.
“But you will live, too, will you not?” said Host instead. “I will carry you into the next generation and your vitality will not go to waste.”
Organ shook with weak amusement, enough to make him brave. “Come now,” he said. “I have heard your kind sing greater virtues of the merge than that. Why, some promise knowledge far beyond what you say our minds can manage on their own—all of Host-kind’s wisdom coursing through our blood streams, if only we would take a bite! Still others invite us to ride with them, to witness distant wonders not one of us could ever visit on his own. Never mind that we will have ceased to be ourselves by the time we arrived.”
Host eyed him awhile, her long maw twitching just inches over the murk. “Would you rather I promised you such things? Told you I can still hear the other two? That their bodies may move less and less of their own volition, but inside me, their thoughts remain just as strong—or, no, even stronger—as when they first felt the calling to my flesh?”
“No.” Organ paused to choose his words carefully, conscious of how tremulous and small his breathing and body movements now seemed beside her sturdy boom, the heavier gestures of her fins. “But I am surprised that you do not lie like the rest. So many do.”
Host laughed again, her whole spine twisting in the act. Still her movements did not seem to Organ hostile. “We are not all of us users by intention, little one,” said Host. “By design, perhaps, but—come now, surely you understand. This has always been the way of things. What is to be gained by running from it? From dying alone, from hunger or predation? From giving nothing back to the circle of life that gave you life at all?”
Organ’s small pucker of a mouth opened and then closed. His gills flared but took little in. What life? he thought but dared not ask, What life have I been given? “Oh, never mind,” he said, and started down the reef again. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“No, please—try me,” said Host, easily keeping pace. Organ struggled to keep her scent from overwhelming all his other thoughts.
“It’s something I heard once, in the sweet waters of my nursery,” he said after a while, and at first only to distract himself from his hunger and her pheromones. “I heard it from the Hosts who lined the edges of the stream where I was born and reared. The ones who guarded us from all other dangers as we matured.”
“I have not done that good work yet myself,” said Host, watching Organ closely with one great big eye. “But I hope to give rest to an egg sack soon, and see it fully hatched and grown. Such talk there is, too, among the elders at the nursery!”
“Ours spoke of a very special stream,” said Organ. “A stream powerful enough to melt the solid above us, just as it comes from melted solids deep below.”
“Why, little one!” said Host. “What a giant notion for so small a creature! I had no idea your kind could hunger for such big bites.”
Organ fixed one eye coldly on her and burst ahead—if only for a few moments, before his weakness again took hold.
“Now, now,” said Host, easing up beside him. “I meant nothing by it. So you want to go to the place where the earth struggles to cut a hole in the sky? And you think you can make it all on your own, before the rest of you shuts down?”
Organ turned from the seeming incredulity in Host’s stare. “I aim to try,” he said. “It’s my lifetime, is it not?”
“You might be the strangest of your kind I’ve ever known,” said Host. Organ saw himself reflected as the tiniest fleck in her large, dark eye. “Mind if I follow you for a while?”
“If I said I did, would you leave me alone?”
Host laughed again—and this time, the violent wriggle of her esca caught the notice of another, hapless creature, no doubt thinking that it, in fact, was on course for a juicy meal. Instead, the instant it seized upon Host’s lure, Host’s jaw snapped shut and her prey shook violently in the grip of her teeth until at last it fell still.
“No,” said Host, after she had swallowed the bulk of soft-bellied creature. “I suppose not. But—there are advantages, no?”
Organ’s insides knotted at the merest whiff of a tendril of flesh still hooked about one of Host’s jagged, gleaming teeth. With great reluctance, but greater hunger, he darted in, nibbled a bit off the end, then darted well ahead to swallow. Host for her part made no smug comment, while the warmth of the meat moved easily, at least, through Organ’s aching gullet—and seemed to take with it the remainder of the sand. Still he sensed a weight lodged inside him, deep and raw: a little sac just below the ridge of his cheek, which pressed at him with more urgency now than he had ever felt before.
They swam at the great height of the reef’s crest for two more changes of the current—Organ working his fins routinely to exhaustion; Host swimming idly, sometimes barely propelling herself forward, by his side. For all the brightness of her esca, her spikes, and her teeth, her massive body cast a fearful shadow upon the silt, and for the first time since Organ had set out from his nursery, he did not sense imminent predation in the darkness all around. For a long while in their travels, Organ spoke very little, and Host even less—except when she posed the inevitable question, asking him his reason for a voyage that would still end at best in a lonely death.
“Because I want to know why I am here,” said Organ once, while resting.
“But that’s easy—to propagate, of course.”
“Why, though? To what end?”
Host studied him with one great black eye. “The stories among your kind are not enough, little one? All those Organ-songs about the great circularity of all being?”
“And what does your kind know of those?”
“Much,” was all Host would say. Organ felt too much resentment for her age, and the age of all Hosts, to ask for more.
Organ recalled the first time he had seen her kind, back when he and the other eggs from his clutch were still indistinguishable from one another—each just two big dull eyes and a whipping tail, blindly ravenous and desperately swimming towards a sweetness they could not yet name. There had been so little time to get his bearings when the long sheet of eggs that held him scattered, but one eye through the lens of his soft-shelled cradle fixed just the same on the flash of glowing teeth that had brought such swift and indifferent ruin to his kin: the Host on territorial rampage through waters just beyond the safety of the nursery. Then his own egg sac tore for all his frantic writhing, and when he was free of it his first sensation of the world at large was a scent so rich it immediately deadened the whole of his olfactory nerve. Instinct alone kept him moving until that central sight returned—of fear, of salt, of kindred and of stranger flesh, and finally of the distant call of food.
At the bottom of an eddy in the lushly glowing nursery, an older member of Organ’s kind lay half-buried in the sand, his dorsal sheared and his pectorals torn clean off: a far less fortunate victim of another Host’s attack on floating, unborn young. The richness of the water allowed him sustenance enough to meet his death more slowly—though even then, without the Hosts forever circling the perimeter, a scuttling hard-shell would have made quick work of him. For a time, though, he still could gape and whisper at the new arrivals gathered all around him—teaching them how the currents kept to patterns that would mark the passage of their youth; how all earth’s creatures lived in a great, round melt in an otherwise frozen universe; how brief their lives would be, and how that brevity made them strong though most were fated to be small.
“You give of your whole selves to the future,” said the old one, wheezing. “No Host can say the same. Pity them, Organs! Pity their long misery—far longer than my own—for they can never return in full to the eggs that made them. They lay the nests that we have seeded, and then move on. Never will they find such rest as we who will be reborn.”
Within eight currents, the few Hosts from Organ’s clutch had already grown far larger than their kin, and they started to swim in more exclusive ranks according to the size range of their glowing teeth and spikes. For them, the old Organ’s fading speeches proved of only passing interest; their eyes were now fixed on the twisting bodies of older Hosts, telling far older stories up above.
The rest in turn were starting to feel a hunger that the sweet water alone would no longer sate. After the old one had ceased to gape and suck breath in the sand beneath them, the first of Organ’s kind darted up and out of the eddy, heading straight for one of the long-toothed creatures that lingered so alluringly at the fringes of the stream. For currents now, the rest had watched these strangely kindred giants battle and heard their boastful calls—but the first mistook his aim and struck one in her esca. His death, at least, was swift.
One current later, others driven wild by their sense of smell forayed up and out, this time with greater success—the Hosts’ bellies beginning to swell with tiny new appendages; up to a dozen fresh mouths forever fused into their skin. Organ smelled the lurking Hosts just as powerfully as his brothers, but the giants’ gleaming teeth still brought to mind the terror of his first memory, and by holding back a little while he began to bear witness to the changes swiftly set upon his kin. The heavy silences where their mouths once stirred, their fins once moved. The useless folds where their eyes once lived.
A new Host arrived soon after, giving rest to a fresh sheet of eggs that Organ soon spied floating in the depths about the nursery, and she shared with the other Hosts what she had heard and seen along a distant, sandy stretch not twelve whole currents out. There, she said, a warm stream was projecting itself higher into the biting chill of the solid sky than any she had seen before; and a matching, piercing whine was coming from the solids of the sky like it was wounded, or maybe fighting back.
Organ looked to the clutch of new eggs drifting in the distance, far above the shallows of his nursery, and wondered then if they were not all trapped inside a greater egg. If all that was needed to escape his brothers’ fate was another violent wriggle—a desperate bursting out before still larger teeth and bony spikes came crashing in. Or perhaps the whine this Host had heard was another kind of seed? Perhaps the whole of this place had not yet been fertilized, let alone deposited near lands where the young within would further grow?
Organ had some sense of his chances when he swam up and out from the eddy just as the next batch of frantic young came pouring in, but currents would pass before he realized how fortunate his size had been in at least one regard—for in the midst of one of their heated tussles, the giant, sharp-toothed Hosts had completely failed to see him darting past. And though Organ swam eye-to-eye past more than one of his older, atrophying brothers, not one was in any position anymore to cry out on the Hosts’ behalf.
Organ woke with no recollection of having first fallen into the daze that often took him as he swam—let alone of Host scooping him into the tangle of her bony spines, where his weakening body had further rested while she swam. Even after regaining most of his alertness, Organ still reeled from what extraordinary images had just wended through his mind—of swimming endlessly in gaping mouths; of being trapped forever in blood streams larger than whole reefs. He trembled then, and in trembling realized Host’s skin was so close now that Organ’s whole body ached for want of pressing up against hers, and of letting that most natural of processes begin.
“Where—” he said.
“We’re close now, little one,” said Host. “Save your strength.”
But through the inky haze of his mind, Organ saw illumined a fact that would not commend his little body to further rest. “Why are you helping me?” he said. “What does my journey matter to you? You, who will live for all of my forever, and the forevers of all my brothers, and the forevers of all their kindred offspring besides?”
“Oh, little one,” said Host. “You think the world no less full of questions for we who swim so much longer in it? We who watch your kind give yourselves unthinkingly up to us—again and again? We who have as our ultimate duty your protection as younglings, and then the preservation and good use of your seed after you have latched and aged away?”
Organ leaned against Host’s bone spikes, which twisted steadily with every flick of her caudal fin—itself four times the size of him.
“Do you think there are other melts out there?” said Organ. “And streams so strong and hot they can run from one great melt of a world to the next?”
“The way I sense tell of it,” said Host, “our melt was made by a density of solids that could not sustain itself forever. Heat formed from the friction, the unfathomable pressure of so much solid, and lo! Our world was formed—a hot melt with a solid skin cast over it, over which a cooler melt was made possible by constant venting of the hotter melt’s excess. So do I think all this friction, all this density singular in the vast solid of the universe? No—it cannot be. There must be pockets just as dense out there—solids that have had to melt just like ours, and in melting filled themselves with creatures far beyond our wildest imaginings.”
Organ felt a feeble gladness come upon him. “I’ve never known a Host to be a dreamer,” he said. “I hardly thought you had need of dreams, when you already had so much else. Our whole lives—mine and my brothers—bleeding out to greaten yours.”
Host was silent for a long moment. “Soon you will have to decide, little one, whether or not to add yourself to that long line of givers, or die a dreamer out here instead.”
“I have already decided,” said Organ, and he struggled to lift himself from the twisting skin of Host’s tremendous back. “I want to see where the waste-stream from the melt below pierces the solids up on high. I want to hear the screaming of the sky.”
“As you wish,” said Host. “We’ll be there soon enough.”
And sure enough, there were few ridges left before they saw the great hot plume rising from an outcropping in the earth, and felt the warmth of their surroundings rising, and tasted a richer spread of metals than any Organ had experienced before. Nor were these new sensations altogether pleasant in his condition, for as the duo moved now his skin felt a shifty stranger upon him, and his bowels seized whenever he made any attempt to swim.
“Higher,” said Organ, faintly. “Please—I want to go—”
Host swam them up—up higher than Organ now knew he would ever have been capable of going on his own. The surrounding warmth abated as they neared the frosty impasse of the solid sky, but up close he could still see the deep, rounded indent the hot waste-stream of the earth’s gills was leaving in its wake. He could sense, too, a rumble unlike any he had ever heard before—and as the other Host had said, it did indeed seem to be coming from inside the wounded sky. Intensifying, even, as if the sky’s indignation were getting worse with every passing moment that the heat of the deeper melt was set upon it.
“Extraordinary,” said Host. She was careful to avoid the stream directly, and took her time around the whole of the phenomenon—Organ struggling not to drowse or daze as he scanned the whole of the stream for that greater and sustaining truth he had hoped might be lurking in its vicinity.
“Well?” said Host at last. The outrage of the sky seemed to be reaching a deafening zenith, and she dropped down a ways as if to better sense him speak.
Organ’s first thought was of denial when he found that he could not answer—nor could he even lift his mouth from the heat and richness of Host’s skin. Then shame flooded him as he realized what had happened; he tugged and tugged but could not tear himself from Host’s body now that a little sac within his gullet had loosed its holdings, which in turn had swiftly risen to consume his mouth and meld the surviving pulp to similar upon her flesh. It took Host a few moments longer to register what had happened: what Organ’s sluggish, worn-out body had done against his greater will.
“Oh, little one,” said Host. “I am sorry.”
There was fresh blood-warmth pumping through him, though—enough, for the moment, to restore his vision and give strength back to all other, failing senses. Enough for him to bear witness, while stuck astride Host’s backside, to the sudden shattering of the sky that followed, and the bright light that poured soon after through it. As Host scrambled to evade all the tumbling debris, Organ stared with one fiercely gleaming eye at the long and rigid esca emerging from the hole and sweeping its glow over the surrounding murk. Behind it appeared a hard-shelled creature with lines much smoother and much straighter than Organ had known to exist on any reef, or in the crevices of any rock. He could hardly comprehend at first the sight of this new creature’s one great, dark eye, which dwarfed even Host’s massive body within its glossy lens.
Host in turn did not move—as frozen, then, as the sky from which this hard-shelled entity had just descended. Struck silent, perhaps, by the sheer novelty of its domineering size. But after a moment, Organ knew just what to do—even though he could no longer speak, and even though he was thirty-times too small against Host’s side, and thirty-times more against the new arrival. For all that it was worth, Organ fixed his little black eye upon the giant approaching them with its toothless maw outstretched, and wriggled the whole of his body as if to free itself from the expansive egg of his first and fatal world.
Hello, said some of his last free movements to the queer, dark seed from yonder. Hello hello hello!
Canadian by birth, M L Clark is now based in Colombia. Clark is the published author of science- and speculative-fiction stories in Analog, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, with work forthcoming in F&SF. Other projects pending publication include a novel in the universe of “To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things” and “Leave-Taking,” and a humanist column and podcast to launch at the end of 2021.