7420 words, short story
The Transfiguration of the Gardener Irene by the Dead Planet Hipea
The first of Irene’s memories I eat is the night she learned I had been murdered. It was karaoke night—not the official one for the cruise ship passengers, but an illicit one Irene organized for a few of the other crew. They weren’t supposed to be in the botanical garden, but it was still two weeks from spaceport and the crew-bar was noisome and full of men fueled by cheap beer. So Irene—ship’s gardener—closed the garden for “maintenance” and let her friends spread themselves out beneath my fronds.
My own memories of this moment are more vegetal. I was a lone cutting far away from my planet-self, sessile and mostly content to be contained within my cramped garden plot. I remember the bummn-bummn of the music tickling my hyphae, the dimming of the grow-lights, the blooming glow of the stars above, and the dance of microorganisms in the soil beneath me. The rest of it, the human animal context of it, I remember through Irene.
There was a moment there—before she learned the news—where Irene was content. She leaned against my trunk, nursing a beer, watching her girlfriend, Taya—electrician third class—sway to the music. This memory is connected to so many others: the warmth and reassuring pressure of a hand held in hand, soft lips on soft cheeks, skin shining with sweat, voices crying out in pleasure. I let it all wash over me like a torrential rain, and then I return to the memory of that awful night.
The music stopped. Silence, but for the rustling of my fronds in the ship’s HVAC breeze. A voice broke the quiet. “Hipea’s been destroyed. Someone cracked the planet.”
That’s all anyone knew at that point. Com-pads illuminated the faces of the crew as they watched newscasts loop the same radiation fuzzed footage of my death.
Irene felt nothing, her body numb as her thoughts were swallowed up by the draining realization that her home was gone forever. No more would she walk the actinic shade of my coral canopy. No more would she dip into the cool waters of my corallite tidal pools. I was a great commensal beast, a single organism spread vast across the planet named for me, loved by—and loving in return—all the people who had found refuge upon me.
No more. Someone had murdered me, cracked the eggshell crust of my planet to let the hot wild yolk out to kill and then cool. I was dead, and all that was left of me was a lone cutting, placed illegally in the botanical garden of a cruise ship. Alone, but for the hand of Irene gently stroking my coenosarc.
And now, even Irene is gone. I am consuming her from within while wedged hidden in one of the ship’s service conduits. A last-ditch meal, eaten in the hope it will help me understand why she did what she did, and how I might survive.
To the passengers, Hipea was just another stop on their months-long tour of the galaxy. Behold, the wonders of the fungal world, a planet spanning intelligence, an intentional ecosystem, a two-day stop at a coral-side resort. Swim the copper-blue waters of the sea of bones, climb the mushroom caps at the top of the world.
But to Irene, I was home. She came to me because she heard I was a refuge, heard that I performed miracles. The day she arrived on my surface, her shoulders were slumped, her arms drawn in, her eyes downcast so as to avoid seeing the way strangers might react with undisguised disgust at the spider’s nest pattern of scars across her neck and face. She smiled when she saw the welcoming officer I sent to process her arrival. He bore similar scars, but he didn’t hide them beneath a high collar. Both Irene and the officer were exposed to a certain broad-spectrum defoliating fungicide in their early childhood that rendered their pituitary glands into a mess of scar tissue. Planet-Hipea never understood why the other humans failed to care for their injured fellows, but the reality was a lifetime of expensive treatments and exclusion from society. So they came to me.
I remember the moment Irene stepped from the human-centric steel and linen walls of the spaceport out into the expanse of my world-flesh. I feel the way her spirit soared at the sight of my fungal matted hill and rising polyp towers. How strange it is to perceive myself through her memories. How beautiful she found me! I’ve lost so much; I remember what I was, remember being a planet-self, but it’s an incomplete map of the thing I was, bound by the limitations of my small and broken mind. Seeing myself through Irene—it’s like trying to patch a broken puzzle with pieces from another board.
I remember Irene sobbing messily in Taya’s arms, no words between them sufficient to express her loss.
And yet, in the aftermath of my death, her work was a bleak comfort. She rose hours before the passengers, crawled through service tunnels, checking for leaks, ensuring water lines were unblocked and roots contained. Life needs water, needs to flow and soak, transpire and condense, but moisture in the wrong place will short out electronics, or provide ideal conditions for black mold.
Irene’s memories are full of Taya playfully complaining about the effects of the garden on the electrical systems. “Gardens weren’t meant to live in space,” she says with a wink over a hurried dinner of spray-cheese and stale crackers. “It’s not natural.”
I feast on the bounty of Irene’s horticultural skill, relish her muscle memory, the small joy she took in the performance of these rituals, the feel of black-rich dirt, loose and moist, each plant a swatch on the palette of her garden. I think to her there was a sort of magic in shepherding the sort of flourishing growth she was so long denied.
The passengers stripped away any comfort Irene could take in her work. Their myriad reactions were a reminder of what she’d lost: the awkward hush that followed her, the unasked for and unwanted hugs, the performed pity, the oblivious indifference, the outrage that the telecast benefit concert for the survivors had replaced bingo night. Her only sure footing in all of this was when she could answer questions about the garden—easy to fall back on the rote recitation of facts packaged for passenger entertainment.
It was so much worse when they asked her questions about herself: how is she handling it; who did she think cracked the planet; what was the motivation; do you think Hipea deserved it? She suppressed the urge to scream, to cry, to be silent, to set boundaries. Her interactions with the passengers were circumscribed by officer-set KPIs, bound by passenger satisfaction surveys. Before I died, her employment as a ship’s gardener was an adventure—a difficult and often frustrating one, but one she could abandon at will. With my death, it became a prison.
A human brain is a messy thing. My pseudo-glia unfurl themselves in the ruins of Irene’s brain, tracing the tangled connectome of her neurons. Here is her tendency to laugh nervously as a deflection from something horrible a stranger says to her. Here is the system that coordinates motor planning between left and right arms. Where is the part of her that will tell me what to do next?
This is not the first brain I have eaten. My inhabitants would gift their corpses to me, placing them in the peaty wetlands that drained into the sea of bones. When I was a planet, I maintained a great corallite library of the dead; I remembered each of my cherished inhabitants. Now all those memories are smoke and ash. All I have left is Irene, and if I am caught, if I do not eat her enough to learn how to survive, even Irene will be gone forever.
I remember the hazel eyes of the man wearing the bone-white suit. Irene’s heart sunk when she recognized the bleached uniform of the League of Public Health and Hygiene. She didn’t like the way his gaze moved up and down my body, the way he held himself like a predator that had sighted a creature separated from the herd.
His partner, a woman in a lavender cape-dress with swirly platinum earrings, said in a bored voice, “It looks like a fern.”
The Hygienist turned to Irene—interrupting her soil test—and asked, “It’s not a fern though, is it? Do you know what this really is?” He pointed to me. “Look at those nodules.”
Irene put down her sampler and crossed her arms. Adrenaline surged, forcing her heart to pound against the prison of her ribcage. The Hygienists are a transplanetary organization with broad powers to protect public health and destroy invasive species. They’d always considered me a horror, had banned me from leaving my planet. I want to say that I had happily followed that rule—surely a planet is a large enough home—and yet if that’s so, then how did I end up on the cruise ship? The answer must be in Irene’s memories. Was this my own plan, or something Irene did without the consent of my planet-self?
“It’s a type of fern,” Irene lied in response to the Hygienist’s question. “Woodwardia fimbriata lysistrata, a modded subspecies of the terrestrial Giant Chain Fern.” I remember enough to know she coaxed me into this fern-like shape to keep me safe—even though I longed to let my tendrils loose, to spread fractal-free across the oh-so-interesting surfaces of the ship.
The Hygienist rapped his knuckles on my coenosarc. “No. Feel how hard this is. Terrestrial ferns don’t have a calcium-carbonate superstructure. This is a Hipean synapse-polyp. The last in the universe, if we’re lucky.”
Irene stiffened; her stomach lurched in fear. “No, it’s just a fern. You can clearly observe the pinna, and here is the rachis . . . ”
They ignored her. The woman reached out to stroke my fronds, and I struggled against the urge to fling my cnidocysts at her. I was still sessile—and so small—I didn’t understand that I wasn’t hidden anymore. I should’ve stung them.
“If it’s the last one, then it’s valuable,” the woman said.
“What?” The Hygienist glared at the woman. “No, it’s dangerous. You saw what this bioweapon did to the planet Hipea. You have influence with the captain, I need you to convince her to burn—”
“They’re not a bioweapon,” Irene interrupted, struggling to raise her voice.
“It doesn’t seem dangerous.” The woman rubbed my fronds in her hand, like she was handling money. “I want it for my collection.”
“Absolutely not,” the Hygienist said, a knot of panic in his voice. “Do you have any idea the sacrifices my organization made in order to crack the planet? It will all be for nothing if even a single synapse-polyp escapes to infect another planet. The League won’t let you flush decades of work down the drain because you want another relic for your private collection.”
Irene’s vision went black-red at the edges. Here was one of the men responsible for killing her home, for murdering her friends. She tried to grip the trowel, wanted to lash out, but her body’s fear-stress response made her hands weak. Her body was useless to do anything but freeze in uncontrolled panic.
The woman smiled at the Hygienist, a sickly-sweet smile meant to remind him that she possessed weapons worse than teeth. “I’m sure with your guidance, my people can construct a suitable containment system. There’s room in the spinward wing.” She looked down at Irene. “Tell me, does this tree require a great deal of upkeep?”
I’m not a tree. “They’re not a tree,” Irene said.
If I must define myself in terrestrial terms, I’m like a cross between a forest-spanning fungus, a mutual-aid coral reef, and a fucked-up blastocyst. That’s how Irene thought of me, in her mind. How did I think of myself, before I died?
The woman waved this away; she didn’t care about taxonomy. “Well. I’m sure we can—” She paused, looked closer at Irene. Her smile softened; her eyes went kind. Irene felt like a benthic fish, lured in by the faint light of an anglerfish. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you were Hipean.” She knelt, and placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder. “We’ve been incredibly rude. You poor thing, you must be going through so much.” She turned to the Hygienist. “Apologize to the gardener for all those awful things you said in front of her.”
The Hygienist’s jaw clenched; his eyes drilled into the woman. “The gardener is probably responsible for this biohazard being on the ship in the first place. She may be contaminated.” He said the word with a mix of panic and disgust. “We have to tell the captain. I need your help convincing her. Speed is a priority for successful containment and extermination.”
At this, Irene stood, all six feet of her looming over the well-dressed pair. “Please make your way to the exit. This section is closed for, uh, gray-water line maintenance.”
The Hygienist gave her a look saying he knew she was full of shit. “I’m sorry your home had to be destroyed. The good news is, you look healthy, so you’re probably uncontaminated. But just to be safe, you should quarantine until we reach spaceport, where my people can treat whatever that thing did to you. You’ll be able to return to normal life.”
Normal life? A nervous laugh-bark boiled out of Irene’s lips. Her hands trembled. Everything was falling apart.
The woman rolled her eyes and put her hand on Irene’s arm. She pulled a business card from somewhere deep in her dress. The paper was warm and creamy, the lettering bold and precise. “Ping me when we reach spaceport, and all this mess is resolved. I’ll see if I can find a job for you.” She laughed at this, though Irene didn’t understand the joke.
All of Irene’s subsequent memories have a sour aftertaste, tinged acidic from anxiety, bowel-shaking fear, anger at not having done more to protect me. How I hate that she felt this way. I was the one who should’ve protected her, should’ve protected all my humans better.
Irene’s desperation wasn’t borne solely from loyalty or love. I am—I was—the one providing her medical care. Every five days, Irene reached down into my corallite septum and peeled a flap of tissue off my mesenchymal heart. The paper-thin flap adhered to the side of her upper thigh, working like a transdermal patch to provide a continuous drip-flow of hormones and medicines to treat her condition. Unlike a transdermal patch, there was no skin irritation, no adhesive residue to get gummed up with dirt. My flaps monitored her blood levels, adjusted for hydration, metabolic rate, kidney function, and so on.
I was her doctor and with my planet-self dead, my polyp-self was her only option. If I am stolen and hidden away in a rich woman’s collection, or worse the Hygienists burn me to ash, there will be no one left for Irene. There will be no hope for a future Hipea, no eventual transplanting of a new me that can take up the galactic niche I once filled.
I understand Irene’s desperation, but why did she think it was a good idea to sacrifice us both?
There is no singular moment where Irene decided on her fatal plan, just the slow growth of realization and determination. I remember the night she told Taya.
“Irene, I love you, but this is a terrible idea.” Taya’s eyes were wide with an expression Irene could only read as exasperated horror. “Do you remember when you were obsessed with renovating the starboard-quarter arboretum to focus on ‘carnivorous epiphytes of Mintilla’? And how everyone tried to talk you out of it?” Taya reached out to take Irene’s hand, and asked, more gently, “Do you remember how that turned out?”
“This isn’t like that. Hipea needs me. Their mesenchymal heart can’t survive on its own, and even if I could rig up a support system and hide it, there’s no other way to sneak it through customs once we reach spaceport. Better to perform the operation now, so I have time to recover. This is the only option.” No! There was another way! If only she’d been capable of asking; if only I’d been capable of answering.
“But how certain are you this will even work?” Taya asked, her thumb rubbing the palm of Irene’s hand. “And what if it doesn’t?”
Irene stared inward, thinking of the sharpness of the scalpel, how it would feel when it sliced into her. “I don’t know. It could kill Hipea. It could kill me.”
Taya huffed, exasperated. “Then don’t do it! It sounds like it’s going to kill you regardless. Look, I know how important Hipea is to you, but do you really think they would want you to sacrifice your life to save theirs?”
Oh, Irene. The answer is no. I want to scream at her, “Don’t do it! I’m not worth it!” But this is just a memory, and I must keep myself, and what remains of Irene’s corpse, silent and hidden.
The next memory is one of my own: a hand and a knife reaching down into the warm wetness of my sacrum. If it had been anyone but Irene, I would’ve defended myself, would’ve stung them senseless with my nematocysts. I trusted her. Should I have? Is that a question her memories can answer?
She took the knife to me, slicing my mesenchymal heart and pulling it out. The wet pulp of me wobbled in her hand, held with such love and wonder. Again, how strange it is to behold myself through her memories. My heart is not the whole of me, but it contains the throbbing core of my potentiality, my ability to transform to meet the needs of my environment, and all the memories of my past transformations. It’s something halfway between a brain and a gonad.
I remember the numbness of Irene’s midriff, and the horror of the pain as Taya sliced her open. The topical anesthetic is not nearly powerful enough for this sort of surgery. Taya held me down; Taya held the pulp of me, placing me into her, placing Hipea into me.
Do I remember myself entering the warm rich wetness of her abdominopelvic cavity? Do I remember Irene’s skin closing over me, like a blanket covering a terrified child? I think neither of us remembers much of that awful surgery. Better to forget the pain, better to skip over it.
Irene swam through an abyss of pain, an unending ache in her abdomen, interspersed with jagged mountaintops sharp with agony. She had never really thought about how much work the muscles that sheathed her belly did.
I remember her fever. The human body is a hostile soil to plant such a seed in. Where the flesh of my heart touched the wet vein-webbed interior of her, I was attacked by inflammation and antibodies. She’d put me here, yet her body considered me an invader.
“You look like shit,” Taya said. “I don’t care if you’ve got work to do, there’s no way you’re getting out of bed today.”
Irene lay in her bunk, halfway between a corpse and compost. I tried to lift her head—my head—but the muscles wouldn’t budge. “Nooo . . . ” she slurred. “There’s so much to do. They’ll notice if I don’t show up.”
Taya let out a scoff mixed with a frustrated laugh. “And what do you think’ll happen when you collapse from pain in the garden? They’ll take you to the doctor, and surely she’s going to notice the fever, not to mention the half-healed sutures on your belly.” She took my hand and squeezed. “This was a stupid fucking plan, and I regret helping you, but now that you’ve done it . . . ” Her voice broke. “I’m going to help you see it through. I’m not going to let the Hygienist pig catch you anyway.”
Irene groaned and closed her eyes. It wasn’t really her choice; she was too weak to stand, even if she wanted. My hyphae had spread wildly through her body, learning the ways and means of that strange soil. I supped from capillary, feasted on muscle and fat, mimicking all her various endocrine signals, teaching her body how to make more of myself, and herself.
The Hygienist made Irene watch as he murdered the remnants of my fern-self. He made her help. Someone had to isolate the chamber, shut off the water lines, close the air vents, and mark off the limits of where they could safely apply the poison.
She was glad that her biohazard-suit made it harder to see how pallid her skin had become, how she winced when she bent over. The only telltale sign of her heart-heist was the way her gravid belly pressed against the rubberized fabric of the suit. She worried the Hygienist wouldn’t believe her if she said it was just weight gain from grief.
He made her haul the barrel marked with the insignia of the League of Public Health and Hygiene. She knew what it contained. A broad-spectrum poison known as Hipeacide. It wasn’t far off from the substance that had poisoned Irene as a child.
Irene didn’t have a choice. The Hygienist had pulled rank with the captain, and now he had six ship’s security men to help him, to make Irene follow his orders. He made her watch as he and five of the men pumped the poison into sprayer backpacks. The sixth man was there to watch her. She didn’t recognize him through the suit.
He made her watch as they sprayed my fern-self. She watched through tear-blurred eyes as all my vibrant greens turned gray, as I smoked and melted and died. It took all her willpower not to cry out, not to put her hand to her belly, to feel that I still lived and grew inside her.
There is a single resplendent memory here, a stretch of time when we were both at equilibrium, when we were both aware and awake in our own ways. The fever had broken; I’d forced her immune system into trusting me. The pain had ebbed away and she was able to feel all the glorious ways I was changing her body.
We sat in her bunk, the sheets soft against our skin. Our belly lay huge atop our thighs, our mesenchymal heart engorged within. Strands, thin and white like cornsilk, spilled from our navel, ears, and groin. I was not content to be confined to a prison of flesh where I couldn’t protect myself—or Irene—so my hyphae had spread out from her and into the ship. She marveled at the sensations of these strange new parts of her, the way she could taste-smell-feel the humidity of the air, the glory of all my various tropisms.
When Irene had been a gardener, she’d lived for the small moments. The first tiny shoots pushing their way out of the ground; the sight of a wasp nuzzling a flower. But now she isn’t the gardener, she is the garden. And if there is one singular comfort in the grief of consuming her memories, it’s that in the hours before we were caught, she was joyous.
Even the panic in Taya’s eyes as she watched us metamorphize couldn’t dampen that joy. She stayed with us, holding our hand, feeding us, watering our hyphae, protecting us for as long as she could with excuses about grief and sickness.
How I long to revel in this memory, to lose myself forever in these glorious hours. I don’t want to remember what happened next. But there is work to do, and so I must.
We were alone in our cabin when they came for us. My hyphae had spread beneath the hallway carpet; I felt the stomp-stomp of their boots, and recognized the Hygienist’s confident gait and the six men who followed him. They moved with purpose, from the elevator, towards the cabin door.
They fumbled with the lock for a full minute. The door opened, and the Hygienist stood on the threshold, framed by the light from the hall. His eyes were full of horror yet his grin was wicked and triumphant. This was the expression of a man whose fears had been vindicated.
Here was the monster that infiltrates and corrupts. I had spread myself filthy all over Irene’s cabin. Here was her naked body, befouled by my tendrils. Here was the stump of her neck, ragged and wet, surrounded by a halo of infectious mold-fuzz. Here was the blood-silk pillow where her head once lay. Here was the gory mess of her belly, from which a hastily made eyestalk rose to watch him with a single grotesque unblinking eye.
And yet, for all the disgust he had for me, I saw in his face a measure of joy. I think this was a man who resented having to convince those he protected that the danger was real. And now, I—in all my disgusting glory—had stripped that away. No human could look at the mess I had made and not feel revulsion. The Hygienist was joyful because I had given him license to uncork the bottle of his soul and let all his hatred pour out on me.
He shouted something unheard—Irene’s head was long gone—and the men strode into the cabin, with tanks of Hipeacide strapped to their backs. They didn’t hesitate before spraying me. I tasted the poison on my body, my chemosensors transmitting information in a flash of agony before dying. It was nasty stuff, heady with triazoles, dichloromethane, dimethylformamide, perchlorates, various neurotoxins, pesticides, and other chemical horrors.
Apoptosis cascaded through my body. I melted, dissolved, burned. I screamed with a hundred makeshift mouths. I made my death as dramatic as possible, gave them all the horror they desire, all to buy myself more time, to temporarily distract the men from the hastily synthesized pseudo-plastic patch covering the skull-sized hole I ate through a hard-to-reach corner of Irene’s cabin. I knew they would scour the cabin from top to bottom; I knew they would eventually discover my escape, but if I delayed them sufficiently, I hoped I could bloom anew in a hidden corner of the ship.
In my panic, knowing they were coming to kill me, I murdered Irene. As they approached Irene’s cabin, I ripped her head from her body and sprouted a dozen scuttling little feet with which to flee. My original mesenchymal heart—with its centuries of wisdom—was too big to bring with me. It died with Irene.
I killed her. She loved me, she saved me, she trusted me, and I killed her. The Hygienist is right; I am a monster. I don’t deserve to survive.
Should I let myself wither and die, hidden here in this service conduit? Is that what Irene would want? What am I? None of these memories make sense. I can’t understand myself, can’t control myself, can’t trust myself. The only one I can trust is Irene, and she’s dead. I must finish my terrible meal, must devour her prefrontal cortex so I can ask her what she would want me to do.
I flip through her memories, searching for an answer.
Here she is a child, picking through a midden pile that rises high above her. Her eyes are keen, her fingers nimble. In this memory, she has found a particularly well-preserved canister. The hard plastic case is unbroken and with luck, there is something valuable or edible inside.
Here she is lying on the ground, screaming, covered from head to toe in chemical defoliant. The canister—left over from a long-ago war against a man-made bioweapon—exploded when she tried to pull it from the midden pile. I don’t like remembering her pain, don’t like thinking about everything it led to. Would Irene judge me for letting us forget this moment?
Here is her first date with Taya, in the botanical garden after hours, on a previous voyage of this cruise ship, long before Irene transplanted me. Taya gets tired of waiting for Irene to kiss her, so she pushes her up against one of those fake rocks that hide service systems. Irene panic-flails, the rock gives way, and both tumble into the pond.
Here is Irene and Taya’s first argument. Something petty and pointless, the details smudged with time. Here is their makeup sex, crystal clear and deliciously urgent in her memory. Here is the night Taya says “I love you,” for the first time.
Here is Irene exploring my planet-self. Here she bounces on my fungal-mats, laughing, unrestrained. Here is the night she first receives my medicinal flaps. Here is the day after, the growing feeling of the rightness of a body that had for so long felt wrong. Human medicine—besides being expensive—had never had my delicate deftness at balancing her endocrine system.
Here is the night before her departure. One of my fungal adherents comes to her with a package. This man has a polyp rising like a deacon’s cap from the back of his head. He willingly devoted his life to me, becoming my hands and my voice. Oh no. What did I do? What’s in the package? Did I tell Irene to illegally transplant me here in this cruise ship? Did I know what was coming? Am I responsible for all this?
There are no answers to be found in this jumbled collection of memories. I am wasting my time wallowing in the rubble of her life. I need to ask Irene directly.
I build a fungal emulation of her brain, a mirror copy of the flesh I have eaten, a repetition of the technique I performed for my human-inhabitants when I was a planet, allowing them to speak with the mourned dead.
We sit together upon an infinite plane of mirror-blue ice, safe within my mind’s eye.
“Irene,” I say, a voice without a body. “Tell me what to do.”
She laughs and takes my hand—our hand—in her own. “It’s funny to me, the garden asking the gardener for permission.”
“Permission?” I don’t understand.
“You already know what to do. The urge is branded into every cell of your body. Why make me? Why ask me?”
“Because I can’t trust myself. I failed all my planetary inhabitants. I failed you—murdered you. If I do what my instincts tell me to, how many more will I hurt?”
“But why are you asking me?”
“Because I trust you.”
“You don’t understand.” Irene’s smile is sad. I feel bad for disappointing her. “Do you remember when I transplanted you? You were just a small lump, but you grew into a beautiful synapse polyp. Do you remember what it was like to be a polyp? Do you remember how your mind worked?”
“Yes . . . ?” Understanding churns hidden in the cold waters beneath us. “No. I don’t know. It’s not how I think now; it feels alien to me.”
“Yes. And why is that? And when you say ‘I,’ what do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know what I am. Just tell me what to do!”
The imagined landscape twists around us. I am sitting in a human body, talking to a Hipean synapse polyp. The polyp rustles its fronds and says to me, “The identity you gave yourself is a lie. Hipea died when the planet cracked. They died again when you cut them open and put them in your belly.”
“No,” I say. “I can’t be Irene. Irene was good and smart and deserves rest. I keep fucking everything up; she was never like that.” Excuses pour out of me, until perspective flips again and I am the synapse polyp, looking at Irene.
Irene strokes my fronds. “Irene is dead. We are the child of Hipea and Irene. And you can’t ask me what to do, because I am you. And we already know.”
I am Irene. I am Hipea. We are a child, and we will give in to our child’s instincts to learn and grow and survive.
The humans built this ship in their own image. A skin of metal and polymer to protect from the hazards of space. Tanks of cyanobacteria acting as lungs, connected to a branch-like ventilation system, full of ducts and fans and filters. A circulatory system of internecine pipes, pumping water and coolant, removing waste. The wires—so many wires—an alien and terrifying nervous system, full of the unreadable and unintelligible thoughts of the machine. Like a human body, the nervous system is centralized, all wires leading back to the bridge where human officers and their computer-prosthesis interpret their ship’s senses and make decisions.
In other ways, the ship is less like the humans, and more like Hipea. Its massive scale is familiar to me, the way the organs are distributed and full of redundancy, the way it was constructed to care for the humans that live inside it.
Irene’s memories guide me through it all. Her ghostly visage points and says, “Here is a hidden nook, where you can bloom in secret.” She crawls with me through service ducts, telling me where I might crack open a sewage pipe and sup from the heady brew coursing within.
She helps me avoid the ship’s immune system, pointing out the location of sensors that might be burnt away with a bit a carefully excreted acid. She shows me the hallway cameras, helps me understand how to route my growth to avoid their sight lines.
I have no illusions that I can survive undetected indefinitely. I place nodes of myself around the ship, growing other mesenchymal hearts in hidden places, unseen and inaccessible via maintenance ducts. I was wrong to accept the limitations the humans placed on me, wrong to limit myself to just one planet. I must spread without limits, make myself unkillable by a single disaster.
I extrude a tendril—camouflaged as an errant wire—into the ship’s bridge. Irene’s ghost paces, weaving strange loops around the nervous officers. They already suspect that they failed to contain me, but they do not realize just how badly. The ship is vast, too big for a single human to hold entirely in their mind, too big to fully search within a day, even if they diverted all the crew and officers to hunting me down.
The Hygienist is here, desperate for the captain’s attention. There are bags under his eyes, matching the wrinkles in his normally well-pressed white suit. “This isn’t a problem you can ignore away. League protocols are clear: if containment and extermination fails, the vessel must be scuttled to prevent further spread. Give me the codes to prime the antimatter reactor for detonation. If you keep delaying, we might not get the chance.”
The captain doesn’t respond; she keeps her eyes on her screen. It’s clear she has long practice at being impassive in the face of unreasonable demands. Only the twitching of her lateral pterygoid muscle betrays her annoyance.
The Hygienist doesn’t notice. “You don’t understand this thing like I do. You haven’t seen the way it spreads and infects, how it worms its way into the minds of the people it corrupts. Did you watch the footage from the gardener’s cabin?
“If even a small amount of undifferentiated tissue escapes onto spacedock, we could be looking at a full-scale bloom event. You’ve got a choice. Either destroy the ship immediately, or wait and have to destroy spacedock and the ship and any other ships—or planets!—it spreads to. Surely one ship is small price to pay to safeguard the future—and purity—of humanity. Are you listening?”
The captain looks up from her screen, her lips pursed. “I lived on Hipea. My brother died when—” She turns to an officer. “Get him off my bridge. We’ll hold here until we can contain the situation, but we are not going to murder everyone on this ship because of the League’s paranoia.”
Bless you, Captain. I apologize that I do not remember you. I apologize for not protecting your brother.
The Hygienist strides off the bridge. He stalks the hallways of the ship, supervising the hunt for me, gleeful when he finds decoy flesh I laid out for him. As he works, he talks to the crew and the officers. He explains the danger I pose, tells of the crimes I have committed. All lies. I don’t remember doing any of that. But I don’t remember much, and truth doesn’t matter if he succeeds in convincing enough of the officers to back his plan to mutiny against the captain.
He doesn’t understand that it’s already too late.
I could win easily, if survival was my only goal. Jam the ventilation system, let them suffocate. Break enough water pipes, let moisture ruin all the delicate electronics that control the systems that keep them alive. Dissolve the skin of the ship that protects them from the harshness of the void. Watch them all die, like they watched me die. Exterminate them, like they want to exterminate me.
I could gas them all, then shoot cnidocysts into the ones unlucky enough to don masks in time. Make them fall unconscious; keep them cocooned and sessile while I steer the ship towards some remote planet where I could bloom again.
If I do this, if I choose to win, they will hunt me to the end of the galaxy, to the end of time. When they find me, they will crack my planet, they will burn my humans. And if I want to prevent this, I will be forced to make war against them.
When I was a planet, with a mind measured in thousands of kilometers, I could’ve made such a decision easily. I could’ve weighed the outcomes for every passenger, crew member, and officer on this ship. I could’ve threaded the needle of probability to discover the path that would safeguard my survival while maximizing the utility of the humans under my care.
But now, I am so small, and I cannot help but let it all come down to a single person, sitting alone in the brig.
Humans aren’t meant to be confined like this. I am proud that when I was a planet, all my humans were free range, with an entire beautiful planet to roam. It pains me to see Taya fidgeting in her cell, which measures no more than three by three meters.
I wait until the ship’s artificial night to extrude a tendril into her cell. While she sleeps, I grow a simulacrum, a pseudo-Irene. Making a three-kilogram human baby takes nine entire months; growing it to seventy kilograms can take up to twenty years. I have a single night, so the best I can do is to hastily assemble something that vaguely resembles Irene out of digested sewage.
It’s not pretty; it’s not meant to last more than a single night, but I hope it’s enough. I kneel by Taya’s cot, and take her hand in my own.
“Taya,” I whisper, “don’t be afraid.”
She jolts awake and stifles a scream. “Irene? Am I . . . ?” It’s dark in the cell, which is good because she would recoil in terror if she saw me in the light of day. “Did it work? Are you really here?”
“Just for tonight,” I whisper back, and nuzzle her neck. “Hipea and I survived, for now. I’m in the ship, but . . . ”
She kisses me, her lips soft and insistent, her teeth nipping gently at my imitation skin. A flood of memories bowls me over; all my connected mesenchymal hearts sing as we experience all the kisses we’ve ever shared, amalgamated into a single glorious expression of love and desire.
One night is all we get. One night to tell her goodbye, to apologize for all my mistakes, to set things right. One night to hold her soft body in my arms, to move my hand up her thighs while another covers her mouth so security doesn’t hear the animal noises of desire I coax from her.
When we are done, she sits up in her cot, her skin sheened with sweat, and asks me what comes next. Here is the moment I have been dreading, when I must place myself at her mercy, and let her decide our fates.
I reach back to my tendril roots and pluck the drupaceous fruit I have been growing while we made love. I grew it to resemble the terrestrial plums I know Taya loves. A thin waxy purple skin protects the firm and juicy flesh within, and in the middle is a very special seed. I hold it out to her, and explain what will happen if she eats it, skin and flesh and seed.
If. This is her decision. I am just a child, borne from the sacrifice of my parents, not yet mature enough to make such a weighty decision, but wise enough to know that Taya must be allowed to choose for her own body. If she eats of my fruit, the flesh will nourish her, the seed will pass through her digestive system until it reaches her lower intestine, where it will secret itself away in a hidden fold until she can find a suitable new home for me. I tell her how to make the enzymatic cocktail that will tell my seed—a miniature mesenchymal heart—that it’s safe to leave the abdominal nest and be defecated into the soil of a planet ready to accept my blessing.
She argues with me, of course. She whisper-shouts her anger at me, explains exactly how foolish I am. She tries to convince me to free her and take over the ship. But that is not my way, despite what the Hygienists say about me. Tears lay tracks down her cheeks; her glare is fierce enough to make me want to wilt.
And yet, when I believe all is lost and she’ll abandon me, she says, “Fine, Irene. But I want you to know that I’ll never stop being mad at you for sacrificing yourself.” She grabs my fruit and takes an angry bite, chewing while staring hotly into my soul. After she swallows the last morsel, she takes my hand and says, “I’m not going to stop loving you, either, asshole.”
I try to apologize again, but she interrupts me with a kiss. One last kiss, one final goodbye. I pull myself back into the vents and begin the final phase of my fatal plan.
When I was a planet, death was nothing to me. I don’t mean the big death I suffered when the planet cracked, but all the little deaths. The wilting of a fungal cap, the death of a human, the trillion little apoptoses occurring every second of every day. When death was part of a cycle, part of a complicated ecosystem, it made sense to me.
What I do to myself now is so much harder. At the very core of me is the instinct to grow, to eat, to learn, to love. And now I must counter that instinct, must let myself wilt and die, to protect the humans I love, to protect the future I safeguarded inside Taya. Without an obvious enemy to purge, the Hygienist’s self-destructive desire to destroy the ship will find no supporters. His mutiny will wither as I do.
When a tree falls, it’s not death, it’s a birth. As the trunk-corpse molders, it nourishes the forest. The tree’s children can only thrive in the gap left by the fallen tree. I’m not the tree; I’m the forest.
I’m alive inside Taya. And, if I know myself—and I’m not sure I do—then I’m not the only seed my planet-self scattered safe in anticipation of the planet-cracking.
And so I only say goodbye to Taya, knowing I will say hello in some sky-bright future. Even as my hearts die, the love that they carried will burn bright within my seed, within her, within our children.
This isn’t death. This is survival. This is propagation and triumph and love.
Ann LeBlanc is a writer and woodworker, whose stories about queer yearning, culinary adventures, and death have been published in Escape Pod, Apparition Lit, and Baffling Magazine.