3450 words, short story
Embracing the Movement
We are not so different, sister sojourner.
Correct us if we are mistaken, but we are both creatures trying to survive under the most adverse circumstances, evading hazards, defying misfortune, and eluding death. We share more in common than you think.
Yet we have never seen anything like you, a strange being from an equally strange world.
We found you wandering alone in an unexceptional asteroid belt and, at first, we hardly noticed your presence. But your machine’s movements revealed you: like comet dust, you maneuvered your vessel incomprehensibly, at one moment accelerating and at the next slowing, plotting ridiculous feints in the vacuum. We gave chase, trying to make sense of your suspicious behavior.
Most beings who detect our presence shy away, fearing the reach of our offensive capacity: the destructive power of our attack system is legendary throughout the galaxy. And yet you drew near in your mediocre artifact and initiated an amazing dance. In one of the moments when you diminished your speed, we approached your position, and instead of fleeing, you remained steady next to our hive. We watched you circle us, always showing the same face of your vehicle.
Some of us thought you were courting us, while others supposed you were gathering information about our composition. Would it not have been more useful to question us directly? What were you seeking? But you remained mute all the while, intent on your mysterious dance, ignoring our calls to confer. How could you disregard our formation of contact? We unfolded ourselves into a posture of appeal and repeated our call innumerable times, but you merely observed us without response.
When we saw you leave your machine, we hardly believed you were alive and could contend with this universe all by yourself: such a weak organism of elusive organic material at the mercy of the inhospitable vacuum, a solitary crew member who must protect herself against lethal radiation with several layers of carapace.
For the universe is an enormous fatal trap, make no mistake. We do what we can to carry on despite losses and reversals. Our own sisters have even been decimated, which forced us to explore the spheres near and far in pursuit of new lands. We were as hungry and needful of rest as you. But we did not yield, and we have learned to grapple with the hostile weather, lethal atmospheres, and imbalanced masses of the worlds we found that crushed or destabilized our substance.
We are also moved by this instinct for survival that all functioning creatures possess, a universal quest that bids us to draw strength from within the folds of our weaknesses and stirs us to solve problems as we face them.
We are united, then, by the need to survive. Endurance, if you consider it carefully, is a blind yearning that can incite mad exploits, such as crossing insuperable distances or suffering privations without succumbing to fatigue. Because all that lives and moves, that nourishes and replicates itself, shares that need. This spirit, embedded in our cells to motivate us to action, can be found on an infinite diversity of planets and in creatures whose forms are as original as your own. Where does this obligation arise to seek eternity?
Some of our sisters ask that question, while others of us respond. To defeat death is to be, we tell ourselves with a polyphonic voice as our bodies throb toward the answer. We who ask come to embrace the movement: after all, the only sensible existence is as a group. Dissident sisters separate and become lost, failing to subsist without collaborators who launch their pseudopods to explore space. Is that not a sad way to cease to be?
Division becomes lethal conduct, and union vital strategy.
Where are your sisters? What if something in your body fails? How would you manage alone? If one of us becomes ill, we undertake her work to let her rest. If she fades out, we hold a vigil and honor her as best we can, which is by absorbing her, and thus, in her final disposition, she becomes part of us. One must not waste organic material, friend. It is sacred. If we did not make use of her, we could not consider ourselves powerful, in command of the sky. Thus we distrusted your design, so highly inefficient.
Among ourselves, some eventually interpreted your behavior as a hostile declaration, but most of us chose to understand it as the behavior of someone who feared us but did not know how to react. Our presence is imposing, to be sure. Customarily, the creatures who detect us retreat to whatever hideout they came from, be it sterile rocks speeding through clouds of cosmic dust, bits of slow rusty scrap stolen from working colonies, satellites patched together from technologies of different civilizations, or irregular encampments created from cosmic plasma and floating trash.
And yet, you did not flee at all. Even though you are one and we are multiple. Even though your machine can barely reach the requisite speed to travel the celestial path, and your body has no means to survive even a few seconds outside of your carapace. You did not respond to our attempt at communication. Nor did you initiate an assault maneuver, although it would have served you little, clearly. We can separate and reunite ourselves so that any plasma or antimatter flux you aimed at us would be lost in deep space. But we doubted you were disposed of the necessary technology to enter into battle.
When a life-form comes to us with barely any defenses, it tends to act out of either ignorance or daring. Which applies to you? We cannot comprehend a civilization that would place its explorers at the mercy of fortune and allow them to leave without sufficient protection. What kind of leaders are yours who let you voyage alone?
But you left the shell that surrounds you, and you presented yourself before us with the immensity of the eternal night behind you. Do you know how insignificant you seem? If some of us were to twitch, you would be sliced in half as fast as the distant stars twinkle. Can you see their light flicker? That is the time it would take for us to rip you from top to bottom.
Now you are our guest.
Few have visited our refuge: consider yourself regaled. Without offering resistance, which would have been more annoying than dangerous, you reentered your machine and followed us. We formed a welcoming passageway to flank your arrival. You traversed our twists and turns and let some of our sisters examine you with our flagella. We attended you with great deference, ensuring that the forces propelling us to this point did not undo your vehicle’s seams. We used our own bodies to absorb the tremendous accelerations of the journey to our lair, but we are accustomed to such things, and it cost us no extra effort. We wished to be accommodating so you could enjoy our hospitality.
For we are not cruel beings. Despite our reputation, I assure you we are sensitive. How else could we have prospered if not by caring for each of our sisters? The union of our swarm is only possible through the concern and attention with which we treat every one of our members. All of us, equally, are important so that the group functions as one, and this certainty is what feeds our determination.
How do our sheltering walls seem to you? We prefer the peaceful ambiance of our chambers, where the subdued light repels the wild beasts that steal energy. We prefer a wide, well-ventilated, shadowy abode to the little cells inundated with light that you frequent.
We have seen your colonies, sojourner. In those places, you waste resources shamelessly. You and your sisters seem to compete to see who can construct the largest building, the most lavish monument, or the most complex network. Accumulation is your sign of identity, not efficiency nor truthful assumptions. You act as if all the gasses of the universe belonged to you, as if you had the right to every plasma star and every quasar. This behavior is widely practiced and not exclusive to your species. We have seen it in many other civilizations that act with the recklessness of the ignorant.
Here, each of us occupies a well-defined space because we are all necessary and contribute our fortitude and intelligence to the hive. If you approach the cells, you will see the care in their construction, the soft material that cushions the corners so we can rest as if we were floating in zero gravity. Observe our ample sanctum. Is it not spectacular? You have no doubt seen few chambers as imposing in your voyages. Its vast size can contain us all so that some of us may feed, others may break down the food, and the rest may expel the remains to be used to construct new cells to accommodate more sisters.
Our collective can resist the pressure of the solar wind, the most extreme fluctuations of temperature, and the force of our own migrations, which, as you may imagine, are multitudinous and tumultuous. But we need a place to recover, and thus we put so much effort into constructing our colossal refuges, even though many remain uninhabited: if filthy beasts sully them when we are absent, how can we occupy them again? How can we rest on floors trampled by those who know neither respect nor decorum? They filled the cells with light, hung repugnant apparel on the walls, and divided the spaces into chambers so small they could not accommodate a single one of our pseudopods.
They made our palaces of peace and tranquility into absurd quarters filled with their madness. How could we not hunt them down? We put an end to them all. We followed them across planetary systems in this and other galaxies to their disgusting dens, and we felt enormous pleasure when we destroyed their dwellings with them inside. We devastated entire civilizations and let no beast escape to reproduce their filthy offspring on some benign planet, if such a place existed.
In truth, are not all planets hostile? Or, rather, does any fail to hold lurking danger? We know of none, and we are untiring travelers, sojourner. We can recite by memory all the stars of the galaxy along with their planets and satellites. We know the shape of their orbits, no matter how eccentric, and we hold a detailed registry of the meteoroids that roam through each system. No celestial body escapes our gaze. No rock circulates through the sky without our antennae’s notice. No creature rides in its machines without us detecting her. We are the sentries of our hives, porters of justice, and exterminators of hideous, pillaging, corrupt, squandering vermin.
Our morality is impeccable, although that may be hard to see except from our viewpoint. For we make order from chaos, cleanliness from proliferating contamination, and sterility from deep-rooted infection, and we do all this while seeking nothing in exchange. Is that not sufficient proof of generosity?
We render justice indiscriminately on those whom their own kind hold in eminence or in disregard, those aware or ignorant of dimensional secrets, those whose metabolism moves fast or slow, those who have or have not, and those who lead hordes or who follow their leaders. We treat equally creatures great or small, rich or poor, deformed or sublime, and healthy or ill. We are intimate with all forms of life without concern over their organic composition, technological level, and social hierarchies. We care naught for the ideologies they follow, the customs they adopt, and the fashions they exhibit. We are impartial in this sense, and we laugh at no strange devotion they display because we have seen everything and accepted everything. Difference is tolerated as long as it proves its effectiveness and guides any form of logical conduct.
And if external forces melt, freeze, or disintegrate our honeycombed hives, we seek alternative refuges. Do your sisters suffocate in your colonies as well? Let us guess: have the stars that warmed you ceased to shine? Eternal darkness is the worst nightmare for any form of life, without light, without available energy, and without trusted references. Or perhaps greed expelled you from your world as you fought among yourselves to control resources.
Perhaps your world dried up and your oceans evaporated. Perhaps the atmosphere became unbreathable after you filled it with toxic gasses. We have seen such things in other civilizations, whether with creatures as insignificant as you or as adaptable as ourselves. It seems that the more some intelligent life-forms develop, the more toxicity accumulates in their environment and envelops them: instead of venerating the rocks that sustain them, they scrape them clean; instead of caring for the liquids that nurture them, they contaminate them; instead of coexisting with the organisms that surround them, they destroy them. What kind of intelligence is this? It has happened so many times on so many spheres that we have determined it to be a universal law.
To accumulate matter serves only to slow the voyage: so, we teach as the oldest and wisest sisters. We are those who have spent the most time in the swarm, communed with other generations, and transmitted knowledge by barely perceptible electrical charges because our internal language is electric. We have little strength to offer counsel, but we remain in service for the good of the multitude. For that, we are revered and assured of a sufficient supply of provisions.
The youngest bow as we pass and make us comfortable in our chambers when we become weary in the sanctum. Sharing wisdom bears a price, sojourner: the cost of investing energy to establish the calls and conversation that must remain registered in our cells.
This is our formation for learning. Do you see the beauty? We organize ourselves in clusters to repeat the directives and devour the data so it can be distributed homogeneously. If some of us split, others vomit out the information at some point, perhaps before their own rupture.
As you can see, we need ample rooms to exercise our formations, which is how we communicate. Our conversations are drawn in space, calibrating physical dimensions to contextualize the discourse, which is most solemn when we dilate ourselves to the limit of our elasticity, most festive when we fold ourselves one over another in linked wheels, and most technical when we adopt an intermittent geometric torsion. If nostalgia overcomes us, our bodies execute a fine and infinite braid. If anger inundates us, we compose an undulating surface, a flowing liquid force that manifests itself as breaking waves and even as tides. At times sadness possesses us, and our organisms pulsate in a fractal of fluorescent scales. Each formation requires precise, sophisticated training and drills in order to achieve perfect alignment and a proper level of fermentation, as our sisters most concerned with these duties whisper to us. Only through this practice can we reach our metabolic potential.
See the membranes that we burst forth in our happiness! They are like wings that allow us to cleave distances at incredible speeds, and thus we journey best when our spirit rejoices. Can you see the striation that grows from the friction? Admire the elegance, the functionality of the linking connections, the aerodynamic tongues that grow when we reach cruising speed. The more sisters that join us, the greater is our fermentative capacity and the easier we can mold our anatomy to the needs of the voyages.
We do not know if you can understand what we say. We have unfurled formation after formation in front of you, but we are unsure if you have perceived them or can comprehend their significance. Meanwhile, we have registered not a single attempt at communication on your part, although we have extended all the mechanical antennae of our dwellings and all the organic antennae from our bodies. Your movements remain incomprehensible, although we hardly expect great things from a creature who wends her way in dangerous solitude.
Do you even know how to pilot the artifact that brought you here? Apparently, you can steer it, so you must possess minimal intelligence. Thus you must know about speed and distance, acceleration and braking, which makes us think that you must have some notion of the forces of the universe. You can distinguish between thrust and direction, and surely you understand the rudiments of gravity, because otherwise we doubt you could have arrived here in that machine, which in every sense is poorly equipped to travel among the stars. Do you really launch yourselves into the sea of space in those devices? You must be delusional or dullards because no one with any sense would dare to leave their atmosphere in such a hulk. Where are your force fields? Your fusion engines?
We can hardly believe that your frail casing and impotent motors have allowed you to reach beyond the orbit of a satellite. We simply note how weak and sickly you are, an organism as unstable as your machine, fragile and unprotected. Look at us, how our bodies shine as bright as neutron stars, how they dilate and recoil with vector forces, how they adapt to conditions in every place we choose to make our harbor. We are well disposed to admire the beauty of nebula, the monumental coronas of event horizons, and the white holes that spew energy and matter.
See the beauty of our synchronicity! We travel among the stars in clouds that move in unison because we have designed our vehicles to imitate us. We are one made of many that reach decisions and work together, and we have imbued this same spirit into our technology. Can greater beauty exist? The multiple is the measure of things as a referent to reality and as the foundation of a civilization that conquers the elements. Our own elements reconfigure themselves according to our needs, and we can form a structure that functions as a super-machine. If we break ourselves into scores of components, it is because this is the best strategy to adapt ourselves to the unexpected. You do the same: we know artifacts similar to yours. The same unique morphology and the same brittle exterior, but of artificial nature. You cannot overcome your weaknesses, not even with the contrivances you construct. You stubbornly repeat the errors of your organic design, an incomprehensible decision. How can you have managed to vanquish the mysteries of nature and yet obstinately reproduce your limitations using technology?
You have seen our dwellings. We have shown you the formations that transmit our expressions in an attempt to incite you to communication. We have invested time transcribing our impressions to you as a means to activate mutual confidence, but we have received nothing but silence from you. We cannot accept that an intelligent species would willingly fall mute. Thus we must recognize that you are not valid interlocutors.
This is our formation of disappointment, sojourner.
We decompose into groups that barely touch, using only a few filaments to maintain our forms, and we spin, the small whirls latching together when our frenetic gyrations cause us to collide. We had hoped to show you the secrets of the universe and explain the complex relationships between its organic and inorganic components, the links among the elements and ambient conditions, and the oscillations of space and time in this plane of reality. You would have visited our sisterly clusters and observed our most effective attack squadrons. We would have opened the dimensional portals so you could admire the certainties of the universe. Yet you answer us with a heartrending silence that defiles our flesh. Is this a befitting return? Your refusal is an insult, an affront to the attention we have showered on you. Do you believe you can fend us off with your indifference? Do you think we will disregard your conduct because you seem exotic?
If you do not seek to establish contact, if you have no interest in interacting with us, why did you choose to follow us? What dark motivations hold you here at our side? We cannot understand you, and this exasperates us. The fault, you must admit, lies in your solitude, because you cannot undertake formations to transmit your intentions.
We have no choice but to be practical and execute the maneuver that circumstances require. It would be unforgivable if your genetic material became lost in the immensity of the sidereal planes.
Look, sojourner: this is our formation to absorb you.
Originally published in Spanish by Crononauta, 2020.
Cristina Jurado is a bilingual author, editor and translator of speculative fiction. In 2019 she became the first female writer to win the Best Novel Ignotus Award (Spain’s Hugo Award) for Bionautas. Her recent fiction includes the novella CloroFilia and her collection of stories Alphaland. Since 2015 she runs the Spanish multi-awarded magazine SuperSonic. In 2020 she was distinguished as Europe’s Best SF Promoter Award and started to work as a contributor of the bilingual quarterly Constelación magazine.
Sue Burke is the author of the science fiction novels Semiosis, Interference, and Immunity Index. In addition, she’s published short stories, poetry, journalism, and essays. She&srquo;s also a translator, working from Spanish into English, for such writers as Angélica Gorodischer, Maria Antónia Marti Escayol, Sofia Rhei, Josué Ramos, Juan Manuel Santiago, Eduardo Vaquerizo, and Cristina Jurado. She’s currently in Chicago but had the pleasure of living in Spain from 2000 to 2016.