DANIEL H. WILSON
Daniel H. Wilson is the New York Times bestselling author of Robopocalypse, as well as titles such as Amped, A Boy and His Bot, and How to Survive a Robot Uprising. He earned a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be found online at www.danielhwilson.com.
There is a time for some things, and a time for all things; a time for great things, and a time for small things.
In my memory, the cleanroom floor is impossibly white and smooth and unblemished. Nothing dirty, nothing natural. That hazy nebula of dust and microbes and pollen in which we all live and die has been scrubbed away. The skin of reality is peeled back to expose the raw aching bones of light and sound. It’s just hard physics that’s left, needling into your eyes and ears from some place where it’s been folded up tight and sharp-cornered and invisible.
Life in the cleanroom is an equation. The only error is human error.
The memory of what happened in there sank its barbs into me. At the emergency room, after it was over, the nurses figured out pretty quickly that I had been drunk. Once that got out, the media did not take it easy on me. Neither did the jury. I went to prison for three years. Five years after that, the cold metal of the memory is still with me, writhing under my skin with every beat of my heart.
No matter what, my wife used to say, you can’t smell nanomachinery. She was a scientist, like me, and she knew for a fact that human beings don’t have olfactory receptors capable of detecting the presence of nanomachines. That’s just the physics of it. You can’t know you’ve inhaled the nanomachines until it’s too late. Science says so, anyway, and it doesn’t give a damn what any of us thinks.
In the industry, the nanomachines we worked with were called “cretes.” Every crete is its own robot, just a couple of nanometers in size, designed to wriggle into the seams of things—into the nitty-gritty nooks and crannies of reality. They work from the inside out, rearranging individual atoms with submicroscopic precision. Together, a million cretes might form a single mote of gray dust. Not much to look at, but plenty of potential.
The potential to do good. Other potentials.
Cretes are legion. And each individual fulfills its purpose with gusto. Goal one: recognize a useful substrate. Two: self-replicate to a tipping point. And three: rearrange the substrate to solve a problem. Water into wine. Carbon into diamond. Create a desired outcome. Each crete wants to make relentless order out of a world in chaos.
And God help anybody who gets in the way.
Up close and wide-eyed, watching a crete work is like witnessing a magic trick. Say you drop a purification crete into a bucket of toxic sludge. For a few seconds, nothing happens. Nada. This is the long flat part of an exponential curve. Cretes are doubling and then doubling again and again and … then the water goes clean, like flipping a switch. Look away, you’ll miss the miracle. The curve hits a flash point and bang.
“It’s alive!” as a guy in a lab coat once shouted.
But somebody has got to catch that monster when it escapes from the laboratory. Throw a slab of timber across the portcullis and light a torch. That was my job. I specialized in stopping the miracle. At cocktail parties, I used to say, “The water in the jug can turn to wine, but let’s not drink the whole damn ocean.”
My cretes didn’t play nice. Every one of my babies—and there were trillions—would lie in wait for other cretes. On contact, they would identify an enemy crete variety and trick it into triggering a false positive for mutation. When you self-replicate by the millions, every copy has to be perfect. The slightest mutation means self-annihilation. So, my invention convinced other cretes to commit suicide.
I called it creticide.
After the accident, I was pretty sure the world had left me behind. My life had fallen into a dull comfortable routine of failure, self-neglect, and despair. Yet when the army called, I didn’t hesitate. Not for a second. The plane tickets arrived in a thin manila envelope, and the next day I boarded a flight down to Florida.
I guess I hoped I might have a destiny after all.
This morning, I washed my hair with waxy hotel soap, then went outside and waited on the curb in the cold dawn air under a buzzing streetlight, my mind humming along with the lamp in idiot synchronicity.
I wonder again what the military wants with a guy like me.
An anonymous black sedan slides up. Government plates, tinted windows. The long car purrs beside me for a moment, hood glistening with morning dew. The driver is a ramrod of a man, sitting straight as geometry in an uncreased military uniform. Cloaked in pointless camouflage, he stares directly ahead. Doesn’t speak to me. Doesn’t look at me.
That’s not the reason I hesitate before getting inside. What gives me pause is the fact that Ramrod here has a stubby, carbon-black battle rifle dimpling the plush leather across the front passenger seat. It puts a little stutter in my step. But I get in the back and carefully buckle myself in, eyes boring a hole through the seat in front of me where I know that rifle is.
Once upon a time, I would show up to work and slip on shoe covers and a hairnet, stomp the debris mat, slide on two pairs of latex gloves, a hood, boots. Snap my goggles into place. I’d wrap myself in crinkling white butcher-paper coveralls and check myself in the mirror for fatal flaws. If I was feeling extra cautious, I’d sometimes grab a respirator and it would be just my goggled eyes swimming over two salt-shaker cans in the mirror. Then the crucial last step. The coup de grace, right? Arms out, legs apart, so a technician can coat my hands and feet with my own scientific specialty—quick bursts of aerosolized creticide.
Time to go to work. Time to protect the world from the future.
Looking back, I see now I was kidding myself. The pore on a human forearm is, on average, fifty microns wide. That’s a superhighway to a crete. Cretes will float through clothes fabric like wisps of cotton through the Grand Canyon. And don’t even talk to me about the mouth and eyes or any other mucous membranes.
I fooled myself every day back then. But maybe I can fight through that bright cold memory. Sitting in this car, I’m thinking that maybe I can fool myself again.
After half an hour, the driver takes us through a quick checkpoint and we enter a military base. He leaves the main road and hits a wide-open tarmac, the whole car humming, tires singing. We weave between plodding yellow tractors and zipping military jeeps. The howling of airplane engines drowns out the coughing bark of construction equipment. Colors and sounds hammer at the tinted windows in waves of titanic, meaningless movement and noise.
It looks like progress.
“Where are we headed, exactly?” I ask the driver, expecting no response and getting none.
Ahead of us, the paved plain stretches out to the horizon. We are passing bigger hardware now, neat rows of dusky armored personnel carriers, their metal-plated chins held high, peering down at us through bulletproof window slats. The driver tugs on the steering wheel and we race toward a maze of government prefab buildings. Windowless rectangular trailers, arranged in trim grids, their retractable metal stairs lightly scratching the pavement.
The car lurches to a neat stop. The driver’s eyes flash at me in the rearview. He cuts the engine.
“So, uh, what’s the rifle for?” I ask.
His eyes flicker to me, then away. The engine ticks while he thinks about whether or not to respond. Decides to.
“In case you ran,” he says.
The driver starts the car again and puts it in drive, his foot resting on the brake. I shrug, crack my door, and step out into the lancing sunlight and pollution-sting of the wind. The sedan pulls away.
The trailer complex is surrounded by mounds of supplies stacked on wooden pallets. Cases of bottled water swaddled in distended plastic wrap, stacks of identical white cardboard boxes, sedimentary layers of bulging green duffle bags—all of it packed neatly and crisscrossed by tight tan straps. Armored forklifts are collecting and transporting the supplies in a rugged ballet.
The door to the nearest prefab opens.
An older man wearing a crisp military uniform steps out onto the flimsy stairs. The camouflage pattern on his outfit is a new one to me. It shimmers with some kind of fractally pixelated pattern cooked up by a computer and printed on hologrammatic material.
My eyes try to cross and instead I force them up to his face. He’s got a crescent of tanned scalp chasing trimmed gray hair. A pair of metal eyeglasses sinks into the skin over his ears. His hands are placed awkwardly on his hips, right pinky finger curled to avoid touching the stiff fabric of a brand-new holster, complete with a dull black sidearm.
I get the feeling he doesn’t wear this uniform often. Or maybe this is his first time.
“Colonel?” I shout over the engine noise.
He blinks at the milling, roaring airplanes, pushes his glasses up his nose, and takes a step down. Nods at me and leans over to give my hand a brisk shake. He shouts something incoherent over the racket, doesn’t smile. Motions me up the stairs.
The colonel shuts the hermetically sealable door behind us. As it closes, it sighs, leaving my ears ringing in the silence. It’s like a classroom in here, just a table, a chair, and a chalkboard. I can feel the skin on my face tighten in the blisteringly cold air-conditioning.
“Thank you for coming … ah, doctor,” he says. “Please, pardon the chaos.”
“It’s fine, colonel. I just didn’t realize you were on active duty. I thought this interview was for laboratory work.”
“I’m a professor at the United States Military Academy. Technically, we’re always on active duty.”
My face must be blank.
“West Point,” he adds. “Until recently, I was teaching mathematics and updating the latest edition of a textbook I coauthored.”
“So, you’re a colonel of math?”
“Nanorobotics, actually,” he says.
The colonel pulls some kind of eyepiece from his shirt pocket. He takes a few small steps closer to me and holds the eyepiece out like a shot glass. Shakes it.
“Would you mind if I …?” he asks.
“Is that a pocket microscope?”
“If you would just roll up your sleeve a bit,” he urges.
After the incident, there wasn’t a single person in the nanotech field who would willingly be seen with me, much less hire me. Most of my former colleagues have made it clear that they would rather I were still in prison for what I did. Whatever kind of job the army has for me, this is my one and only chance back in.
I pull up my suit jacket sleeve.
The colonel leans over, peering into his little metal cylinder. The cold ring presses against my forearm. I can see the colonel’s lips moving as he lifts and presses again on several different spots.
“Small. Smaller than average,” says the colonel, standing and slipping the eyepiece back into his pocket. “Good for you.”
“Your pores,” says the colonel. “They’re smaller than most people’s. Didn’t you know that? You should be thankful. Every micron counts.”
“And why’s that?”
The colonel of math steps away. Walks to the other side of a shining, laminated table. He puts his knuckles down on it, leans forward, and hangs his head. Takes a deep breath.
“Your creticide works, doctor,” he says.
“Against what?” I ask. “It’s useless outside of a cleanroom.”
“Things have progressed considerably in your absence.”
The colonel turns to the chalkboard. He produces a piece of chalk so naturally that it puts to rest any suspicion that he isn’t really a teacher. On the board, he sketches a lopsided circle.
“Caligo Island. Twenty miles in diameter. A thousand miles south of Africa. Thirty-five hundred miles east of South America. And those are the nearest continents. Completely isolated, thankfully.”
The colonel marks an X in the middle of the island. In short frenzied bursts, he draws vectors out of the crossed marks. Short arrowed lines that together form a gentle curve that sweeps over the southern half of the island, then out to sea, where it dissolves in scribbles.
“We have a small problem,” he says. “Well, ah, a lot of small problems. All of them located on Caligo. And unfortunately poised to spread farther.”
The vectors remind me of something. Dispersion patterns. Like the flow of dust from a broken vial. A spreading surge of blood. Crumpled forms lying still on the floor under the vacuum scream of an air purifier. The thought makes my knees go slack.
“What have you done?”
“Ah, so, it bears mentioning that it wasn’t me. In fact, I am rather far down the line of those who have been assigned to sort out this problem. My predecessors failed to meet the challenge, as it were. But you were my idea. And regardless of what has already happened in the past, to either of us, this is my … our … problem, now.”
“The original creticide patent is ten years old, colonel. My research ended years ago. Definitively. I doubt it’s good for much. Even if you poured a whole garbage can full of it—”
“We use your invention by the planeload, doctor. The planes are loaded with dump trucks. You have already saved more lives than you will ever know,” says the colonel, his eyes wide and bloodshot. His bottom lip quivers and he clears his throat. “Now you will have the opportunity to save more.”
“This isn’t a spill,” I say. “Somebody is using cretes as weapons? Is this a terrorist thing? An international conflict?”
“Oh no,” he says. “We are dealing with a single man. A brilliant man—I cannot stress that enough. He is one of our best and brightest. An incredible internal asset. Truly visionary. His name is Caldecot.”
It’s a military research facility. The vector lines describe cretes escaping into the wind, infecting the rest of the island. Cretes exposed to the open air. Possibly weaponized. Lethal either way.
My hearing fades and is gone, replaced by the singing of blood as it courses through my brain. I can see the colonel’s lips moving. Slowly, his words come back into focus.
“… figured out the crete engine. Dr. Caldecot’s recipes can put holes in titanium. His specialized crete varieties can rearrange the atomic structure of almost any substrate into more useful configurations. Plain dirt into Chobham tank armor. Vegetation into trauma field supplies. An amazing breakthrough. Certainly, the technology has gotten away from him a bit. But we can help him fix this. Caldecot can put this situation back under his steady hand …”
The armed mathematician continues to speak, but my eyes return to the chalkboard. To the simulation of airborne particle spread.
“Nuke it,” I say. “Now. Before it gets off the island.”
“Not a bad suggestion,” responds the colonel, surprisingly calm. “It is certainly being considered. The problem is that the shock wave could eject unwanted material into the troposphere. A rogue cloud of aerosolized nanomachines would be a highly negative outcome. Rather than take that risk, we need simply to shut it down. Contain the problem and go back to the way things were before.”
The colonel is methodical. Clipped. His small mind works like a compact motor. The perfect man for a job like this. He doesn’t understand enough to panic. I close my eyes and concentrate on breathing. Open them to white lines on black chalkboard.
I think maybe I’m looking at the end of the world.
The entire prefab shudders. The plane engines outside are getting louder. I notice there are no windows in this tiny vibrating room.
“We need you to go there,” says the colonel. “The army has established a beachhead outside the perimeter of … the worst of it. A portable laboratory is waiting for you. State of the art. You will collect samples of the cretes that have gone feral. You will adapt your creticide to destroy the central machinery of the various varieties you collect.”
“You want me to go there?” I ask, lips numb.
“Yes, well …” He sighs, then continues, speaking slowly. “We can’t risk taking the cretes off the island … so I’m afraid we’ve got to bring you to them. You will of course be well compensated.”
The trim little soldier is like a machine, spitting out facts with no concept of what they mean. I wonder what a man like this sees. What color does the flush of fear on my cheeks appear to him? Gray, I imagine. Gray as an equation.
“I’ll die,” I say.
“That’s not a certainty,” he says. “Besides, in your case, after everything that’s happened … don’t you feel that you owe some kind of … a debt?”
The memory is as bright and hard as white tile.
“I went to prison, colonel. I paid my debt. In more ways than you can imagine,” I say, voice rising over the racket outside. “My answer is no. No fucking way. Thank you for the invitation and I really appreciate the opportunity and all, but there’s just no way. It may be hard for you to believe, but I don’t want to die.”
“Ah, boy,” says the colonel, sitting down on a thin plastic chair. It strikes me that everything in this room is made of lightweight plastic. Even the trembling walls. The colonel’s fatigues crease stiffly at the knees when he sits. It’s familiar, somehow. A tendril of fear is wriggling up from my belly and into my chest.
It’s creticide. I think the colonel’s clothes are coated in creticide. The coup de grace, right?
“This is the awkward part,” says the colonel.
Outside, the noise surges even louder, rattling the door frame. It’s a howling thrum that seems to come from the center of my head, causing my teeth to chatter. My vision dances with each shivering pulse. Something big shoves against the trailer from outside, and I stumble, arms out to catch the door.
“Good luck, colonel. Good-bye.”
The colonel shows me his palms and shrugs. “Thank you for your service.”
I yank open the flimsy door, half expecting it to be locked. I’m on the retractable landing before it dawns on me that I don’t understand what I’m seeing.
A soaring wall of tan fabric mounted between curved ribs of steel. Flip-down metal seats mounted to the wall, folded upright and erect, their loose seatbelts flopping like untied shoelaces. The line of seats is broken only by a small oval door with a long metal handle. Glowing red lightbulbs illuminate the narrow passage. Stenciled on the door are the words Only Qualified Personnel to Open Mid-Flight. C-5M Super Galaxy.
I am in the belly of a C-5M transport aircraft.
“You see, we are already on our way,” says the colonel, producing a metal flask. He looks smaller now, silhouetted in the shaking doorway. The vibration recedes as our wheels leave the ground and his voice is suddenly louder. “Ah, don’t forget … every micron counts.”
And the colonel kicks the door shut in my face.
“Okay, you guys. Okay. What’s the situation? What are your orders? Do you have some kind of a dossier I can look at?” I ask.
The young man stares at me for a couple of reptilian blinks. Then, a smile trampolines to the corners of his mouth. The red interior lights of the transport plane glint darkly from his creticide-coated army fatigues. “Did you say a dossier? He’s asking me for a dossier?”
After a few minutes cursing outside the colonel’s locked trailer, I began creeping down the narrow corridor studded with flip-down seats. The plane’s center aisle was loaded with wooden crates covered in netting. An armored trapdoor that seemed to lead to the cockpit was locked, my knocking ignored.
I heard laughing and smelled cigarette smoke before I saw them near the back of the plane. About a dozen young men dressed in military uniforms, sprawling over the folded-down seats. Most were asleep or pretending to be, their boots up and resting on crates across the narrow aisle. Crimson-kissed silhouettes.
But these two were awake. Private Tully and Sergeant Stitch.
“Yeah, a dossier. Some kind of report,” I say. Tully looks at me with round glassy eyes, his smile like a gash in his face. “Look, I’m the crete expert,” I say. “They called me in to fix whatever the hell has gone wrong down there. Help me do my job. Does anybody here know anything?”
Tully is seized with giggles, compulsively scratching the back of his crew cut with a bony hand. I frown and look at the other paratrooper sitting next to him, the one called Stitch.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
Stitch’s face is slack, almost paralyzed. “Jesus, man. You’re not the first,” he mutters slow, not looking at me. “We’re not the first. Not the last. Not even close.”
Tully pulls his lips apart expectantly. Inside his mouth, milky-white teeth are mottled with dark spots. Pieces of metal filling, silvery. “Did you think we were it, man?” he asks. “Did you think we were like a crack squad or something? Huh?”
He swallows and puts on a serious face.
“Roger that, sir. United States Marine Force Recon, special technological retrieval and recovery operational detachment reporting. Rest assured that we will handle this situation, sir. Handle it! We will fucking handle the shit out of it!”
The giggler goes back to scratching the back of his head, fiercely.
“Handle? We broke the handle off,” mutters Stitch, smiling to himself. His eyes are closed now. His fleshy cheeks quiver with the mechanical vibration of the cargo plane.
“How many others have been sent?” I ask. “What’s the situation?”
“Oh shit,” says Tully, sitting up, eyes wide. “He wants to know the sitch, Stitch. Hear that? The sitch, Stitch.”
Stitch won’t respond. Or can’t.
“Thanks,” I mutter, weaving my way back up the aisle, wading through the murky red glow of overhead lights. When I can’t hear the laughing anymore, I collapse onto a folding wall-mounted chair. Shut my eyes.
I can feel the darkness outside the plane. The raw infinite space. It should stay empty, I find myself thinking. Everything is red in this booming cavern, and I’m starting to feel like I’m going blind. I’m in a metal tube screaming toward the epicenter of something very, very bad. Acid lingers in the back of my throat.
Those faint giggles keep coming, mechanically, and I understand now they’ve got nothing to do with humor.
Eyes squeezed shut, I rest the back of my head against the fabric skin of the wall. Focus on the vibration, the cold air breathing over the nape of my neck. I try to let the repetitive wailing of the engine smooth out the edges of my fear. After a few minutes, it starts to work.
“Hey,” whispers someone, and I startle. Private Tully’s face is inches away from mine, his breath hot on my cheek. “Let me show you the sitch, Stitch. Take a look-see.”
The young paratrooper leans forward, still rubbing the back of his head. When I see what he is scratching at, I hold my breath and ease away from him. I should close my eyes, too. Any mucous membrane is an entry point for a crete. But I can’t look away from the deformity.
It’s beautiful, in a way. The tooth. A tiny white bud. Perfectly formed calcium growing from the back of his skull. The imprints of surrounding molars are dimpled knuckles under his skin.
It’s probably not contagious, since he’s still alive. The crete must have been designed to grow spare teeth for dentists. It’s all I can think of. I didn’t know it was possible. The crete borrowed some calcium from his skull and rearranged it. Part of me wants to harvest a specimen. Another part wonders how badly it hurts.
Tully’s voice is muffled, his head down, words swallowed by the rumble of the plane. “It’s the small things,” he says. “On Caligo, you got to be sure and watch out for the small motherfuckin’ things.”
I unstrap my seatbelt and get up without a word. Go for a long walk around the humming belly of the plane. Try to work the dread out of my belly. That soldier should be in a hospital, not sent back into service. But we’re both on our way to Caligo: an infected soldier and a broken scientist. It smells like desperation.
After a while, I find a coffeepot strapped to the wall and pour myself a cup. Find another seat by myself. Sipping coffee, I look out the window and try not to shake. Some city is sprawled out far below. A gleaming explosion, spreading its smoldering tendrils across cold earth.
Light eating the darkness.
The barbed memory appears unannounced, as it always does. That morning my head was tucked under the ventilation hood. The rush of air in the cleanroom was hypnotic. I remember being hungover from the night before, watching my gloved hands at work, thinking about whether or not I should have had a beer and a shot for breakfast. My wife was across the room, working at her station with her back to me. We hadn’t been speaking much.
The vial fell.
More accurately, I dropped it. Being a little drunk, I hadn’t bothered to activate the plastic shield that was supposed to cradle my arms. The finger-sized cylinder was made of inert hardened glass, but it took a bad bounce and the lid shattered on the outer lip of the hood. The vent pulled in part of that puff of concentrated crete dust in a swirling arc that moves slowly in my memory, like the spread of a galaxy. But the rest of the dust was thrown out into the room in a fine expanding powder.
I remember touching my face by instinct to secure my respirator. The baffled plastic was there and ready. I had put it on to hide my beer breath from my wife. The drinking had been getting out of control, and I knew it, but it didn’t scare me. I had only felt curious about how far it would go. That respirator was the reason that I recovered after two weeks in the hospital, instead of bleeding to death from the inside out.
For a moment, the other scientists stood oblivious at their stations. Then a panicked scream muscled out from under my respirator. My wife half turned to face me, her thin arms out and holding a pen and clipboard. A lock of blond hair had escaped from her paper hat and hung curled behind her ear. Seeing my wide eyes and empty hands, she flashed her teeth, nostrils flaring as she drew a sharp intake of breath. An autonomic startle reaction. Designed to increase oxygen flow to prepare the body for fight or flight.
Evolution is so slow to catch up with technology.
While I was yelling in half-drunken fright, all three of my labmates were inhaling airborne particles of an experimental self-replicating creticide variety down their windpipes. The cretes were immediately embedded into the soft tissue of their lungs.
Christoff ran for the door. It was locked. Shoulders slumped, he kept rattling the bar up and down. The panicked synapses of his brain were stuck in a loop. Jennifer stood frozen, her mouth moving, repeating the same words over and over: “You fucker. You stupid fucker.” She knew what was coming and she had never liked me anyway.
But my wife just stared, hands over her stomach. Pen and clipboard fallen to the tile. Her blue eyes were sad and round. They were filled with tears.
And the hemorrhaging began.
I force my eyes open, snap back to the present. Outside the window of the cargo plane, the shine of that anonymous city licks the underside of the airplane wing. It paints the sobbing jet engines as they choke down the frigid night and shit out thrust and toxins and torn air. Outside, the plane and the night pound into each other. Like the surf crashing against the shore, each trying to consume the other without hunger or urgency.
Turning my face up, I stare into the dome of space. Far above, hundreds of billions of stars invade the night sky, gorging on the vastness.
Mindless, and eternal.
I wake up with Tully’s grinning face inches from mine.
“You’re dropping with me, doc,” the paratrooper says, shoving a harness into my lap. “Put this on and let me check it. You drop no matter what, so put that shit on tight and right if you want to live.”
Rubbing my eyes, I see it’s still night outside. A chill has seeped through the thin padding on the metal chair and through my suit pants. Standing, I stretch and stamp my feet on the metal decking, trying to get feeling back. Tully is already down the aisle, mechanically checking the chute pack of another paratrooper.
“Can I get some warmer clothes?” I call after him.
“What you got is what you got,” he says, not turning.
My response is cut off by a wall of wind. Stitch has just opened the side door, yanking a bar and pulling the whole thing in and up. Only blackness and noise is on the other side.
Hurrying, I slide into the brown harness. I tug the straps tight, ignoring my awkwardly cinched-up pants. With shaking hands, I button my pathetic suit jacket. As an afterthought, I lean over and retie my wingtips as tight as possible.
“Let’s go,” shouts Tully, grabbing my arm.
The dozen other paratroopers are lining up, lifting their belly-mounted gear bags with both hands. Stitch is at the door, shouting commands to the soldiers. They waddle like pregnant women, latching carabiners onto a sloping wire that runs down the wall.
The floor shudders and the rear bay door of the plane yawns open, revealing a grinning slice of ocean. I can see a sprinkle of stars above a purple horizon. Someone pulls a switch and pallets of supplies whip past me, inches away, rolling down and right out of the back of the plane. Falling into nothing, deploying damp parachutes that glisten like exposed lungs.
My limbs start to shiver uncontrollably.
The line of paratroopers is moving now. A round light next to the open doorway shines a steady piercing green. Stitch is methodically collecting the umbilical cables as each paratrooper steps through the door.
“Time to go,” Tully shouts over the wind.
“Wait,” I’m saying.
From behind, he yanks hard on my leg straps. My breath catches from another momentous tug on my shoulder straps. Tully latches his harness onto mine. Hands on my shoulders, he shoves me to the rear of the line. I lurch forward on my slippery dress shoes, legs numb. Then we are trotting, a shuffling column racing toward a flat purple doorway.
“Wait!” I shout, but now I can’t even hear myself over the ringing of boots on metal. I trip on my next step, feel Stitch slap me on the back of the head. There is no step after that, just wind, and my eyes squeeze closed. Twin tracers of freezing tears crawl blindly over my temples. My breath is pulled out of me and shoved back in, mixing with the bellowing atmosphere.
And finally, I open my eyes.
The island is real—a brownish scab on the broad silvery ocean. A pall of dark smoke hovers over it. The dawn sun, a pink smear sitting on a perfectly flat horizon, pushes stained fingers through the smog. It spills the rest of itself in streaks and dashes over miles of ridged waves below.
As I hang from the deployed parachute, the harness bites into my armpits. My suit is ripped, my legs dangling, pale ankles flashing. My pant legs flap in the breeze. It’s quiet now, and I hear the parachute canopy creaking in a nautical kind of way. Instinctively, I grab the strap over my chest and hold on to it with everything I’ve got.
We drift through the smoke and into the light.
The air still has a chilly edge, but I can already taste the moist tropical undertones. And something else underneath. Something burnt and coppery.
“Doesn’t look so bad,” I call to Tully.
“Even hell looks pretty from far away,” he says, as we sway together.
And then the ground is looming. Instead of a green-brown blur, I see individual trees and military buildings. I catch flashes of detail from all over the tiny island. Far inland, there is a stone pavilion surrounded by deep jungle canopy. Radio towers sprout from a cliffside. And directly below, coming fast, is a sprawling vista of soldiers and buildings and vehicles. It’s insectile—looming termite mounds of human activity.
“Feet up,” calls Tully, and I comply.
A grassy field speeds past like a conveyor belt. Tully’s boots flare up and he plants them loosely on the grass. He runs a few steps and leans back into the parachute’s drag until we are sitting, my body buzzing with sensation, dewy grass soaking through the thin fabric of my pants.
I hear a clink as Private Tully unfastens himself from me.
Around us, the dozen other paratroopers are landing, too. Hopping up and chasing down parachutes and folding them. Nobody speaks to me. As the field clears, I wriggle out of my harness and hold it in dumb fingers. It has no more purpose, so I shrug and drop the high-tech bundle into the deep grass.
Warm sunlight winks from the metal bits as I walk away.
“We’re reclaiming the heart of Caligo, one speck of dirt at a time,” says the captain, dabbing sweat from his forehead with a starched white handkerchief. “Don’t you worry about that.”
Tall and broad with too much skin around his neck, the captain stands with his arms crossed over his chest, watching me without much interest. I’m in my torn suit, stained with water, ears still ringing. Trying to get my bearings.
We are standing in the shade of a canvas field tent erected on a small hill, the ocean at our backs, looking out toward where the grass meadow turns to dim jungle. The smoke above is only a faint haze here at ground level. At the tree line, a ragged band of probably twenty soldiers is spaced out over a half mile. Each grunt wears a peculiar backpack and sways slowly in place. Liquid flame spews from the guns they carry across the dark face of the jungle. The fire creates a glowing rind that eats its way into branches and vines, sending up a wall of black smoke.
“Flamethrowers,” says the captain, following my gaze. “Outlawed by the Geneva Conventions for half a century. Those were requisitioned from an old World War Two ammo dump. Took the army two and a half years to get ’em reconditioned and transported here. First batch got dropped straight into the ocean, half a mile off the coast. Close, but no cigar. Second batch was compromised. Four fatalities in two weeks. Necessary evil. Can’t risk buying ’em foreign. This whole operation is under Uncle Sam’s hat, understand?”
“Nobody told me this was classified,” I say.
The captain’s eyes bounce up to the skyline and back down. The message is clear enough. It didn’t matter.
“Enough chitchat,” he says. “You want to get situated, I can tell. The research facility is about ten klicks inland. Things are haywire there. Pumping out all sorts of funny shit. Closer you get, the more hilarious it is. Get close enough and you’ll laugh yourself half to death.”
“The colonel mentioned a laboratory for me?”
“Your fancy laboratory caught fire. Set it up too close to the jungle and one of the boys got overexcited. Hell of a show. Don’t know what they had in there, but goddamn it sure burned pretty. Bright as the sun, too. Me and the boys were betting oxygen tanks against chemicals.”
The captain raises his eyebrows at me, waiting. “Maybe you could settle the bet?”
My mouth must be hanging open, because the captain nonchalantly reaches over and taps my chin. I snap my jaw closed.
“Gonna catch flies like that. Or something worse. Don’t you worry, doc. They’ll drop another lab down here for you. Give it six months.”
“Six months?” I ask.
“A year at the latest,” he adds.
“What am I supposed to do until then?”
“Field expeditions. Need you to get out there into the shit and bottle any wild cretes you find. By the time you’ve got a couple of species on ice, why, we’ll have your little laboratory all set up. Then you can get right to work figuring out how to kill all them little buggers.”
“I don’t understand why you need me,” I say. “Why don’t you go shut down the facility yourself? Maybe use some of these soldiers.”
“Can’t get near it. Place sort of defends itself, you could say. There is a certain talented but stubborn individual running that operation, and he is not always a friendly man. Our monitoring indicates that he has something big planned. And soon. Current goal is to build an arsenal of specialized creticides before pursuing our next discussion.”
“Is it a discussion or a war?”
“Caldecot is a great man. His mind is a serious asset. As such, we are in an ongoing discussion with him. A spirited discussion.”
The captain flashes a grin at me with his mouth, not his eyes.
“Part of your lab didn’t burn. You can kit up with what’s left. I sent a boy down there to help you. Name’s Fritz. He’ll provide maps and a uniform and whatnot. We may not have a lot of time. Get set up and head toward the center of the island. Just a little walk. Grab anything interesting and bottle it. Leave now and you’ll be back by nightfall.”
“Take some of the paratroopers you showed up with. Hell, take ’em all.”
“Don’t they have jobs to do?”
“Negative. Those boys you dropped with are rebounders.”
“Sent back from where?”
“You are not afraid to ask questions. That’s good. What I’m saying is they escaped. Off the island. Rigged up a boat maybe a month ago. Picked ’em up at sea and brought them back on the round trip. Boys will be boys. Now they understand. There isn’t any way off this island. Not until we reach an agreement with Caldecot. Meantime, we gotta get our creticide in order and get that research facility shut down before Uncle Sam decides to hell with it and starts dropping nukes.”
“We can’t leave the island,” I say slowly.
Hearing myself, I instantly know these words are obviously, immutably true. The captain searches my face to see if I’m joking. Decides that I am, and bursts into laughter. “Why, hell no, we can’t leave! Not until it’s mission accomplished.”
He claps me on the back hard.
The captain’s snarling smile worries me. The sunlight reflects so brightly from his squinted eyes. I’m losing confidence that he and I are seeing the same things.
“But this ain’t all fun and games,” he says. “When a bad breeze sends a crete variety sweeping through here, the men start dropping like flies. If they’re lucky. Sometimes … they sort of melt. Never know what the cretes were designed for in the first place. Some of them react with human skin, others don’t. The smoke helps. But it’s best to get hold of a respirator and have it handy. Keep your eyes open, but not too wide. They’re a prime vector for body penetration.”
“This is insane,” I mutter.
“Yes sir. Now you’re getting into the spirit,” says the captain, grinning. “You’re gonna do fine, boy. Just fine!”
I start to walk away, the sheer pointlessness of this place settling into the meat of my shoulders, making them tight. After one step, a hand clamps onto my bicep. It nearly jerks my shoulder out of its socket and I spin around, fingers curling to fists. I stop when I see the captain’s face.
“Don’t walk that way,” he says quietly. “Take the long way around.”
I look where I was headed and see nothing. Just a broad mound of soft dirt. The earth has been pushed into a swollen oval about the size of a baseball diamond. Some kind of pale gray slime that must be creticide bubbles up in slick patches. Beyond the mound is a distant white tent framed by a blurry line of flame. The far-off soldiers sway at the hip and continue coating the dark jungle in arterial spurts of red glitter.
“Why not?” I ask, glancing at the soft dirt.
“Because, son, it’s bad luck to walk on the other men’s graves.”
A pungent wind wafts in from the jungle and ruffles my hair in a friendly way. I catch myself holding my breath, my chest tight, throat locked up. Any breeze or blade of grass or particle of dust could be carrying rogue cretes.
Melt, the captain said. Sometimes the men sort of melt.
Whatever has gotten loose on this island makes the worst day of my life look like spilled milk. The technology here has gone native. It’s lurking in the hazy jungle, stalking the quiet shadows, burrowing into tree trunks smooth as skin and clutching on to membranous leaves. And the captain says it’s floating, too, buoyed on the swell of the wind. Roaming free but not off the island. Not yet.
I take the long way around the mass grave.
Under the lazy sun, soldiers hurry back and forth in crisp steps. They jog past wearing spotless camouflaged fatigues, the respirators around their necks flopping like metronomes. Aside from curt nods, nobody speaks. These men all seem to have serious business to attend to. Not rebounders, but full-timers. In it for the long haul.
The white tent I spotted earlier turns out to be a hospital. As I get nearer, I can see that it is made of bulging translucent plastic. The gymnasium-sized structure quivers like a mound of Jell-O in the hot breath of the jungle, pressurized from the inside, like a balloon.
Rounding the corner of the path, I see that air is being pumped into the tent by a sputtering generator mounted on a diesel truck. Two soldiers lean on the truck, dark eyes lazily tracking me, mouths hidden under the dirty canisters of their respirators.
The sight of them accelerates me.
I stride past the inflatable hospital, catching tessellated glimpses through the gently breathing plastic walls. It’s a single huge room inside, canvas-floored, easily the length of a football field. The expanse is filled with a sweeping, precise grid of identical cots. At first glance, every one of the low folding beds seems to have an occupant.
At the back end of the tent is a cornucopia of advanced medical equipment that’s all been pushed into a haphazard pile. Defibrillator paddles hang from their cords. IV stands are tossed on top like silver matchsticks. Millions of dollars’ worth of equipment tossed uselessly into a frozen avalanche of technology. It’s the future, abandoned in a heap, apparently not advanced enough for whatever shining afflictions have come marauding out of the black jungle.
As I pass into its shade, the hospital tent sighs, bloated and belching and sinking into the folds of its own belly. I can make out human forms inside, shrouded, dim shapes swimming behind sheets of creticide-coated plastic. Without consciously making the decision, I stop and peer inside, hoping to find some movement or noise—some sign of life, anything, from the rows of supine mannequins.
A quiet darkness permeates the field hospital.
Birds call distantly in the jungle behind me. My breathing has synchronized with the building’s. Things are becoming clearer. Things inside. Men whose faces are stretched out, torsos distended into taffy-twisted malformations, limbs too long to make any sense. There are strange things growing here, I think. The cretes are like seeds. Pinhead seeds, too small to see, floating on the air. Seeds looking for dirt.
We’re the dirt, I think, and something inside me wants to giggle.
Private Tully comes to mind. The way he scratched the back of his head. Whatever-it-was had already gotten inside him. Planted itself in his scalp. Laid roots. A perfectly formed tooth. Bone-leached calcium.
I force myself to look away from the hospital. Begin to jog, then break into an outright run, trying to ignore the vampiric heat from the sun at my back. My leather shoes clumsily pound the earth. Sweat wells up from my pores and forms a sheen on my forearms.
The sweat is clear because it’s just water. Not red like blood. Not red like on her face that bad morning.
The acrid smell of burning chemicals pricks my nostrils. I stop running and double over, breath heaving out of my lungs. The air here is thick with the smell of scorched plastic.
I nearly vomit, and spit bitter saliva next to the steps of my ruined trailer laboratory. The wreck squats in a dark patch of burned grass, half-melted, the rear of the building drooping awkwardly like a paralyzed dog. The front door hangs from its hinges, petrified and brittle, tortured into sinuous curves by departed heat. A small reinforced window in the door has shattered, giving the trailer a baleful, Cyclopean glare.
And everything is coated in fluttering white pellets, like snowflakes. I resist the urge to scoop up a handful, crumble them between my fingers. The pellets must be some form of my creticide.
A respirator, I think. Get yourself a respirator.
Inside the trailer, someone is whistling merrily. I can hear rummaging. Items bouncing off the walls and floor.
I start to knock on the flaking plastic wall, then pull my knuckles back. Better not to touch. Every micron counts, after all.
“Hello?” I call into the shadows. The noises stop.
Pale eyes appear in the doorway, hovering above a clean blue surgical mask. They belong to a hunched-over man who is now peering down at me. He pulls the mask to his chin, flashing a wide yellow-toothed grin.
“Doctor,” he says, hobbling through the doorway, arms outstretched. “Welcome!”
I shy away from his touch. The misshapen little man is dressed immaculately in a tan T-shirt tucked into camouflage fatigues. A blue paper hairnet billows from the top of his head as he bounces down the charred steps. His meaty hands are sweating under blue latex gloves. The paper mask hangs askew at his throat. Something wrong has happened to him. A rash of pulpy scars are smeared from ear to cheek; the fleshy topography pulls his lip to the side and gives him a partial lisp. Something has been burnt off his face.
It looks like it was done in a hurry.
“Who are you?” I ask, keeping my hand by my side.
“First Lieutenant Fritz, sir,” he replies, motioning toward his face in a half salute. “Your research assistant. Before the accident, anyway.”
I don’t know whether he means what happened to his face or what happened to the trailer. I decide not to ask.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, gamely. “The captain told me to get down here and salvage what I can find.”
Fritz nods enthusiastically, reaches back into the room, and drags out an olive drybag. He holds it up to me. “I found your things, doctor,” he says. “Gathered up everything I could salvage. Very sorry about what happened, but they love to burn things here.”
I take the waterproof drybag from him with a thumb and forefinger. Peek into its dark interior. Immediately, I snatch out a respirator and pull the goggles and cans over my head. Hanging around my neck, that familiar rubbery smell dazes me for an instant. I think of lipstick-red smears on white tile floors. The bag falls onto the ground and Fritz flinches, knees dipping.
“Oh no, sir,” he mutters, picking up the bag and inspecting it. He holds it downwind and shakes it out. “We mustn’t drop our things onto the ground like that. We mustn’t be clumsy. The soil carries more than you know. The island, herself. She is swarming with the engines of creation.”
Satisfied with his inspection, Fritz hands the bag back to me.
“You mean the cretes?” I ask.
“The whole coastal base is in a natural wind tunnel,” says Fritz. “But Captain says this is where we make our stand. That we should be willing to die for the cause, and so on. When the wind blows, he says, the cradle will fall. It’s why we’re all counting on you.”
“You’re a doctor,” he says, incredulous. “Father of creticide. A man with a plan, right?”
Fritz smiles at me broadly, scratches his neck where the blue paper mask clings.
“Right,” I respond. “I do have a plan. And I am … was a doctor.”
“And that’s why you’ll succeed where others have faltered. You won’t be rejected by him. I can feel it. It’s the genius inside Dr. Caldecot that causes him to revile the soldiers, you see? It’s his terrible genius that forces him to cut those poor boys down. But you can speak to him. Negotiate with him, doctor to doctor. Genius to genius, if you will.”
The madman at the center of the island. Again.
“Caldecot. Who is he? Who put him in charge?” I ask.
“Oh, he’s a great man. A powerful man. You don’t know? Caldecot shapes the world by his will. His crete varieties are a revolution. A running leap into the future. He created all this with his mind, don’t you see? All of this. Every bud and leaf of it!”
“You’ve known him?”
“I was honored to work for him.”
“In the interior. Deep inside. ‘Ten klicks in, where the light gets dim, and the sights get mighty strange,’ as the troopers are prone to singing.”
The malformed little man tilts jaundiced eyes toward the coast, watching the razor-thin line of the horizon.
“You were injured,” I say. “Was that thanks to this genius as well?”
Fritz looks at the ground. He absentmindedly caresses his face with one finger, gingerly tracing the broken terrain. A childlike look of pure sadness folds itself into the asymmetry of his eyebrows and into the spongy flesh of his cheeks. I wonder what a crete infection can do to a person’s neurology. If this is his face, what might have happened to his mind?
“In the end, I wasn’t worthy to serve a man like that,” he says. “The doctor tried to show me the future, you know, but the sight of it was too much. It was so bright. It scorched my eyes and I ran away when I should have stood firm and been brave.”
Fritz looks up, hopeful.
“But you’re made of different stuff, like him. I read your file, doctor. Pardon me for saying it, but you know when to take the lives of others into your hands. Men like you … you can make death mean something. You’re the ones strong enough to bring light into the world.”
I remember sipping hot air through a respirator. Squinting through the foggy plastic of my goggles while a crest of blood blossomed over the floor. Her body was a fallen mountain range across the room. It was just a vial. Just a single broken vial.
We use your invention by the planeload.
“I gathered your team. They’re waiting over at the tree line. Six rebounders was all I could find. Sergeant Stitch and Private Tully are with them. Old friends of yours, right? All outfitted and ready to go. Everything you need for today is in the drybag, including a map.”
I mutely look down at the bag in my hands. My plastic respirator digs under my chin in the familiar way that it used to in the lab. Inside the bag, I spot cardboard boxes labeled MRE and a full surgical satchel and a specimen sampling kit and tan clothing and a pair of boots. A metal container the size of a lip balm is labeled CRETICIDE.
I look uncertainly at the tree line.
The moist jungle breeze sighs over the back of my neck, gentle as a snake gliding under sheets. If I stay here, I’ll end up in that tent of horrors behind me. The cradle will fall. But there is another scientist on the island and he’s only ten kilometers away.
Fritz is still blinking at me with his poisoned eyes.
“Thank you,” I say. “I’ll be back before nightfall. Set up a place for me to sleep?”
“It will be my honor, doctor,” says Fritz, but the way he is watching me, well, I get the feeling he’s not convinced. We shake hands awkwardly.
He presses a vial into my palm.
“What’s this?” I ask.
Fritz looks away, somehow embarrassed.
I hold the inky cylinder up to the light, turn it upside down and watch a viscous tide of gray-green flecks tumble in slow motion toward the opposite end. Fritz motions at me to put it away, his head swiveling frantically. I tuck the vial into my pocket.
“It’s a flesh-eater,” says Fritz. “A dangerous crete. But useful in case of an emergency.”
“Won’t it disseminate?” I ask.
“Liquefied,” he says. “Too heavy to spread in the air. Eats the target only.”
A flesh-eating crete. Murder in a bottle.
“And who do you think I’m going to have to kill?” I ask.
“What?” responds Fritz, blinking his pale eyes in surprise. “Oh no, doctor. You don’t understand. When the time comes, you’ll want to use that on yourself.”
I can’t think of how to respond.
“It’s a quick one, see?” says Fritz. “A gift for you, sir. Quicker than most. Why, it’s almost painless.”
At the tree line, Stitch and Tully and four other young troopers are smoking cigarettes and standing around, waiting. Nobody leans on anything. They’re too smart for that.
I reach them, wearing my new military fatigues. My cleanroom experience has paid off. I’ve got my pant legs tucked into chunky tan boots. The laces are tied up tight and also tucked inside my boots. I’ve duct-taped the whole thing snugly around my ankles. Smeared creticide around the seams. I notice the others have done the same. My outer jacket is buttoned up all the way, the fabric stiff and crinkled with a pre-coating of what must be creticide.
I wonder if it’s the same stuff I invented.
Thankfully, the wind is pushing the wet smoke of burning jungle away from us, letting it spread up and over our heads like a false sunset. The sheer volume of particulate matter created by the chemically fueled combustion is forming a shield—a toxic screen that stands a chance of knocking down or absorbing whatever nightmares might be floating in on the languid wind. It’s a poor man’s creticide.
“You’ve all been inland before?” I ask. “Near the epicenter?”
The troopers look at each other. Stitch speaks for them: “Little bit. It’s why we decided to jump ship in the first place. Let me tell you, going in there is no fun at all.”
Chuckles pulse from stubbled throats.
“Well, don’t worry,” I say, pointing with my folded map. “I just want to get the lay of the land for now. We’ll go a few kilometers, grab some samples, and get the hell back out. Good?”
In response, several cigarette butts hit the dirt. The paratroopers watch me emotionlessly. Each wears a neat rucksack and has a pistol strapped to his hip. I don’t know what they’ve been through. What atrocity made them run. But the lack of emotion on their faces makes me uneasy. I find it hard to tell them apart. They’re all hopeless and unafraid in the same sick anonymous way.
By habit, I tap the respirator hanging around my neck to make sure it’s still there. A few others do the same, like silent echoes.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Two ruts from a jeep path snake beyond the tree line and into the island interior. Stitch points out the path and guides us in. After a few minutes, he silently drops back and gives me the lead.
As we trudge into the throat of the jungle, I hear a droning noise from far above. More supplies are sloping out of the sky. Swaying wooden crates strapped to double parachutes. The wind is pushing the line of supplies too far east, away from the island.
More sacrifices to the ocean.
Someone laughs. Otherwise, the march is silent. Even our footfalls are quiet—the troopers step high to avoid brushing the grass whenever possible. The men keep their mouths closed, sleeves down. They’re happy to have sweat dripping out of their pores, just so long as nothing goes in.
The jungle is slowly strangling this narrow road. It’s obvious that it used to be a major route, clean and straight and worn into the terrain. But it’s been a couple of years since it was used. At least. We march down the forked tongue in single file, draped in chlorophyll-stained shadows. The wind-brushed canopy of leaves murmurs above. There is nothing obvious to harvest, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Just dark waterfalls of vines and leaves.
Until the first scream rasps out of the jungle.
It comes from somewhere up ahead, just off the path. A feminine wail of pain followed by a high-pitched, wind-sucking gurgle. The soldiers glance at each other. Respirators go on in panicked synchronicity.
I put my finger up for everyone to stop moving. Nobody lays a hand on his weapon. Instead, questing fingers check seams of clothing in a flurry of small patting movements. Each man inspects the man next to him. I think of an educational video I saw once of ants cleaning each other.
Leaving them, I step off the path to investigate the noise.
“Hello,” I call, voice muffled by my respirator. “Are you injured?”
Ducking under arched ferns, I hear another gurgling wheeze. In the tunnel vision of my respirator goggles all I can see is a long-overturned tree trunk. It’s a tall one, surrounded by debris created when it fell. A shallow pool of dark reddish liquid seeps into the dirt around it, drowning shattered pieces of bark.
It looks exactly like a pool of congealing blood.
Then, slowly, the trunk moves. A gnarled pink orifice splits open. It sprays bits of bark as a gust of air pushes out in a grunting shriek. My mind stumbles, trying to comprehend.
It’s the small things you’ve got to look out for.
The tree trunk is breathing, sheaves of fleshy bark rising and falling in crying gasps. Some kind of medical crete has grown into the wood. It has given birth to something that defies all natural experience. Cretes have limitless potential. Atom by atom, they spread and consume, twisting the world we know into a phantasmagoria.
“That’s just wrong,” says Tully. He and Stitch have gathered behind me, panting through their respirators.
“It’s incredible,” I say. I squat and peer into the shuddering hunk of meat. “Those look like human lungs in there. Formed by a colony of sub-micron-sized nanomachines. Billions of them penetrating a natural substrate and self-replicating from local materials. Manipulating the carbon atoms. Tree bark into human organs.”
I reach into my drybag and pull out the sampling kit, snap open a disposable pick, and scrape a piece of bark into a vial. I try not to wince at the high-pitched grunting coming from the log.
“Imagine,” I say, musing. “A functioning pair of lungs.”
“Ain’t he just like a dog chasing a car?” Stitch asks Tully, nodding at the look of awe on my face.
“Wonder what’ll happen if he catches it?” asks Tully.
“Be eating a rubber sandwich is my bet,” replies Stitch.
“This is science,” I say, looking between the two of them. I pack up the sampling kit as I talk. “Not magic. It’s the result of a simple reaction. A medical crete designed to generate human organs landed on an organic wood substrate. Okay? The crete doesn’t care where it gets carbon from as long as it gets it. They’re windborne and they’ve gotten into the vegetation and that’s bad. But it just means we have to be more careful.”
A sliver of nausea slips into my stomach. Part of a human heart is wedged in the pool of reddish mud. It shivers, once.
“Yeah, but the tree is fucking breathing, man,” points out Stitch.
“It sounds like it’s in pain,” mutters Tully, reaching for his gun. “Maybe we should put it out of its misery.”
“No,” I say, standing and putting my hand over his. He shies away like I’ve slapped him. “Try and think of it as a collection of atoms in a particular pattern. That’s all. Little machines forming order out of chaos. It’s all according to a plan. Just don’t touch anything. Keep your respirators on. I had no idea the tech could become this complex this fast. I spent years studying this and I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would see …”
Stitch and Tully are staring at me, bored.
“Wait a minute,” I say, looking around the clearing. “Where are the other guys?”
“Bailed,” says Stitch, grinning.
“Rebounders, man,” says Tully. “What’d you expect?”
“Sonofabitch,” I exclaim.
I turn quickly and my jacket accidentally brushes against a drooping leaf. A pang of terror obliterates my anger. Veins bulge in the swaying leaf. They are thick and fractal and my God, I don’t know—they could be made of human tissue, for chrissake.
Stitch and Tully are watching me like I’m an animal in a zoo cage. Two pairs of dark goggles glittering over respirator cans. At least they’re finally interested.
“Why didn’t you go with them?” I ask, quietly.
“What’s the point?” asks Stitch. “You can’t stop progress, right?”
Instead of returning over covered ground, Stitch takes us on a wide loop back toward the base. Heavy rubber respirators bouncing against our chests, we resist wiping sweat from our faces. After twenty minutes, I smell diesel gas on the wind.
In an isolated clearing, we find three soldiers, full-timers, judging by their fatigues, facing into the forest. They don’t look up at our approach, focused instead on something out beyond the trees. The shirtless young men are panting, grinning, and hunting whatever-it-is. They call to each other, wide eyes winking in the sun as they lunge with the excited playfulness of bloodhounds on the scent.
A portable pump is snuffling liquid from a metal barrel on one end and coughing up white liquid through a shuddering hose on the other. Two of the soldiers hold the flexible tube in the crooks of their arms, wrestling to aim its spray into the jungle. Another soldier operates the pump, one gloved palm flat against its quaking surface and his other hand twiddling knobs, sweat pouring from his forehead as he tortures the shrieking device.
Pale, shining fluid arcs through the air in an alabaster spray. It shatters the harsh sunlight into a rainbow spectrum. Trees and leaves and vines droop under the weight of a sticky layer of liquid that reflects the light in an eye-dazzling cascade.
Under the sheets of rapidly hardening creticide, the plants begin to look like statues made of newly poured concrete. A dense onslaught of shimmering vines and branches halted in an unnatural attempt to creep out of the darkness. Limbs are swaying, leaves quivering. A confusion of tree trunks lean toward the three hooting men with a slow-motion malice.
“Hey!” I shout over the din. “Hey! What’s going on?”
The soldier on the pump smiles, keeps his eyes on the instruments. “Jungle been walking, man. Some of it, anyway.”
“Impossible,” I say, my voice loud in my ears.
But in the wafting shadows, the trunks and vines are intertwined, sponging into each other like fleshy limbs. Surfaces quiver and ripple; the wind pushes bark like sagging skin. Shadowed muscles form in the valleys and hills of tree trunks. And I detect a nearly imperceptible twitching. A subtle but rhythmic shudder. A pulse.
The tendons in his neck straining, another soldier belts out: “And a walking jungle is not in the motherfuckin’ plan!”
The man has his shirt off. His back is dark, scabbed with metal scales. The chips of metal flex and squirm as he moves. He is grinning hard and mechanical as he chokes the convulsing hose under his arm. I can’t tell whether it is pain or humor that is yanking his lips back from his teeth.
I hurry to catch up with my pair of rebounders.
Stitch and Tully are still walking, heads down, wordless. The bare-chested soldiers don’t pay us any mind and I don’t bother to call out to them again. This scene has a familiar feeling. It’s been played out before. It will play out again. Behind us, the soldiers keep pounding mindlessly against the jungle, and the jungle pounds back.
We’re less than a kilometer from base when we see the diamonds.
In a dusty clearing, I step over the first scattering of glinting rocks. Odd sizes, odd shapes. Each lying in a small circle of dirt that looks like a meteorite impact crater. My peripheral vision fills with shimmering sparkles.
Tully steps toward me, eyes wide.
“What are they?” he asks. “Are they really diamonds?”
“Leave it alone,” says Stitch.
“I’ll take a look,” I say, digging into my satchel for a pair of tweezers. “And Stitch is right. Stay back.”
I lean over, hands on my knees, and consider the droplet of light lying nearest me. Carefully, I pluck it off the ground with the tweezers and hold it up to the sun. Tully has crept even closer.
“It is a diamond,” he says, jaw slack. “Swear to God. Diamonds everywhere.”
The soldier is right. A jewel has fallen from the sky and slammed into the loose dirt. I turn it over, and as I do, the glittering confusion shifts into focus as something eerily recognizable.
This diamond appears to have been shaped into an exquisite sculpture of a fly. Only it’s not a sculpture of a fly. In actuality, I realize this is just a very, very dead fly.
“This is a horsefly,” I say. “Or it was.”
Some kind of diamond crete has gotten to it.
“Bag up!” shouts Stitch. I’m already scrambling to put my respirator back on. I drop the tweezers and the dead fly on the ground. Tully gapes at us both in disbelief as we pull respirators over our faces.
“It’s still a diamond,” he says. The rangy kid squints down, hesitates for a second, then carefully snatches the diamond out of the dirt.
“No contact!” Stitch shouts at Tully, his voice muffled by the cans on his face. “Don’t fucking make contact!”
But Tully is smiling now, holding up the diamond triumphantly. His fingertips are still clean, and between his index finger and thumb is that frozen fly, twinkling with a mad intensity.
“There’s more! In the dirt here. All around!” he says, stuffing the diamond into his pants pocket. “We’re gonna be rich!”
“You’re gonna be infected,” says Stitch sadly. He is already backing away, hand on his gun.
Tully’s grin flickers like a broken neon sign. “No,” he says, standing up. “How? Where am I infected?” He spins around, kicking up more dust. “I’m fine, you guys.”
But even I can see that he is lopsided now. His balance is off because his left hand is getting heavier. The arm attached to it is stretching sickeningly at the bicep, like taffy.
“It’s nothing, you guys,” he says, staggering, yanking his shirt off over his head with his good right arm. His eyes kind of bug out when he sees the left arm. A crete has gotten into his bloodstream. Traveled up his forearm and then latched on somewhere. The skin of his bicep is going taut as it elongates. It’s hard to tell what it is just now. What it is becoming.
It’s not right that isn’t right.
I back away, breathing in sharp panicked gasps that trigger the cutoff valve of my respirator. I try to slow down my rate of inhalation, straining and hearing a little groan deep in my chest. My lips curl moistly into the respirator at the sad insanity of what is happening to Tully.
It’s a weapon-maker crete. Must have been in the dirt.
The paratrooper’s left hand has collapsed in on itself now. The fingers are fusing together and the whole mess is solidifying into a metallic hunk. Some part of my brain is estimating the iron percentages contained in human blood. How much carbon is in human skin? Is that why Tully is so pale? Is the crete breaking down the metal in his blood?
“Oh,” says Tully.
I’m seeing a weapon design now. A cylindrical shape rippling under the skin of his forearm like a submarine about to surface. Tully’s teeth flash white in the sun as his flesh splits and the unblinking black eye of a gun barrel pushes out through the top of his hand. I can hear his knuckles grinding against each other as the hand spreads and collapses.
Tully finally screams. Reaches for us with his good right hand. He is begging now. Left shoulder humped. Dragging that melting piece of foreign weaponry on the ground, his arm stretched out like bubble gum, the barrel in his ruined hand cutting a furrow through poisoned dirt.
“Wait!” he shrieks, fumbling for his sidearm with his good hand. “Don’t leave me!”
A hiss followed by a snap. Leaves waft down around us as another diamond rips through the canopy. This one sounds bigger than a horsefly.
“I am so sorry,” I say.
Stitch and I run together. More impacts slash through leaves around us. Precious gems thunk off tree trunks. We’re dealing with a highly infectious diamond crete, and it must have an airborne transmission capacity if it’s vectoring into goddamn flies. Head down, I do the only thing I can: keep moving.
In the distance, behind us, I hear a gunshot. Just one.
Stitch pauses, speaks to me in rapid bursts. “We’ll circle around. Go back through a different area. Double time.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, panting. “He was your friend.”
Stitch shrugs. “Sometimes you catch a bad breeze.”
We push deeper into the jungle. Moving farther from the shoreline, closer to Caldecot. I cringe every time a piece of grass flutters against my leg. The creticide that coats my boots and pant legs is turning gray with the corpses of millions of gummed-up cretes. The material still has that odd stiff gleam and I’m thankful for it now in a way I never imagined I could be before.
I watch Stitch’s shoulders. Focus on my breathing and on keeping up with the lanky soldier. That’s why I see the fist-sized diamond hit Stitch on the back of his calf mid-stride.
It must have fallen from someplace high, because the diamond smacks into him with a meaty thump that sends the paratrooper staggering forward. To his credit, he doesn’t fall down or do anything stupid, like grab a tree limb for support. He just hops a few feet, slows, and stops. Throws his elbows back until his shoulder blades kiss. Then he screams into the sky long and loud. The sound echoes back from the jungle in a strange, flat way.
“No,” he grunts. “What was it? Did it break the skin?”
I scan the ground and find the culprit: a bird, made of diamond. It is beautiful, frozen—wings still splayed in flight. A parrot.
“Yeah,” I say, putting a hand on Stitch’s upper arm. He leans against me, heaves a shaking breath, and peers over his shoulder at his calf. His pant leg is shredded. Muscle exposed. Black-red blood leaks in aimless rivulets from the impact wound.
“Oh no,” he says, and collapses to a knee with his bad leg laid out behind him. Slowly, gratefully, he touches the ground with his palms. Drops his head and lets the sweat drip off his nose. I crouch beside him, keeping a safe distance.
A sharp twanging vibration plucks the air behind me. I look back down the path. The landscape has changed.
The sun is staring low from the horizon and blinking at me through what looks like a layer of plastic wrap. Not plastic. Diamond. The cretes are spreading, eating the jungle whole, fabricating a frozen diorama of fine crystal. Trees are igniting into splinter bursts of light.
“Take it off,” Stitch says. “Take the leg off now.”
I turn back to the fallen man, panic rising in me. I watch the raw pain dance up his spinal cord and germinate in shivering beads of sweat on his forehead. Behind me, the world is turning to ice.
A seesaw sound wavers out of the diamond frost. Like the chirp of electrical wires in a storm. It is followed by a gentle warmth pushing out of the crystalline jungle: the waste heat generated by an exponential atomic reaction taking place five hundred yards away. A spreading wall of contagious diamond wreathes the jungle in light and is closing in on us fast. I start to rise, urged ahead by the hot breeze.
“Please, just take the leg off,” says Stitch. “Please. Then you can go.”
The leg stretched out behind him is becoming stiff. The edges of the wound are already turning pale and going translucent. Carbon to carbon. Patterns wrought in flesh.
“Then you can go,” repeats Stitch. “Please.”
My hands move before I dare to think about it.
With a gentle nudge, I push Stitch down onto his chest. Pin his thigh under my knee, careful not to touch the ground myself. He groans but doesn’t complain. Looking at the ripped flesh of his calf, I gauge this will be a transtibial amputation. Just below the knee.
I pick through my satchel and find that Fritz has sent me off disturbingly well prepared. Quickly, I snap on a pair of creticide-coated latex gloves. With two quick tugs, I widen the rip in Stitch’s pant leg and expose the skin around the wound. It is frosting up quickly, with diamond material jutting through in unpolished ridges. Byproduct water courses out of the wound, making the ground muddy. I smell the brightness of pure oxygen. The wound itself is not bleeding anymore, but I wrap his thigh with a tourniquet anyway. Tie it off tight.
All I can hear now is my own breathing inside the respirator. Wet exhalations flowing over my nose and mouth, hot as they leak out under my neck. Sweat courses down my cheeks, into my eyes.
I draw out a hand-sized portable surgical saw, tear the sterilized plastic protector off the blade, and let it fall fluttering into the hot breeze. How thoughtful of Fritz. I think of his other special gift to me—the vial of flesh-eating nanorobots in my front pocket.
Quicker than most.
“It’s going to be okay,” I say to Stitch. “Be still.”
“It hurts inside,” says Stitch.
The saw blade spins up with a thin whine. My fingers are so clumsy compared to this shining steel. Like rubber gloves filled with liver p^at'e, gross and graceless. I flinch as another bird hits the ground a few feet away. The jungle is waking up, crete victims striking the dirt around us like missiles. I drop the blade edge against Stitch’s sweating calf, as close below the knee as I can manage.
“I’m gonna be okay,” says Stitch, whimpering through the reassuring words. “I’m gonna be okay.”
It helps to think of something else. Anything else.
The beauty of a crete. Technology so much cleaner and more elegant than the human form. A billion dancing atoms with a singular purpose. Each nanorobot a flawless unit, carrying nothing extra, none of the baggage left over from eons of evolution. Each crete made perfect in its own image. Ready to make something out of the chaos.
And none of this filthy meat.
“I’m gonna be—”
The medical saw sinks into Stitch’s flesh with no resistance. Like filleting a fish. A red line appears under the blade, four inches above where the white-and-pink skin brightens into a shining clump of diamond. My elbow dips as the saw eats. The whine drops into a grinding pulse as the blade bites into bone.
And then the blade stops spinning, bucking in my hands.
Stitch has his face pressed against the dirt. No more talking. His breath convulses in his chest, sending dust tornadoing away from his nostrils. I yank on the saw and it won’t move. Oh no, oh no. The crete must have gotten it. Craning to look into Stitch’s wide, tear-filled eyes, I get the feeling that he isn’t seeing anything.
His chest rises and it doesn’t fall.
Leaning back on my haunches, I resist the urge to wipe my forehead with my arm. Sour wind on my neck, I watch the fading sunlight refracting in Stitch’s open eyes. And for a split second, I see the most beautiful sight of my life.
The diamond crete has spread into Stitch’s bloodstream. Remade his bones and his veins and flesh until finally, the cretes must have traveled into his optic nerves. The tiny machines have converted the lenses of Stitch’s eyes into orbs of pure colorless diamond.
His dead eyes flicker with the captured fire of the sun.
I let go of the stuck saw. The wound is no longer bleeding and the pink-white of his bone has faded away. The steel saw blade bit into diamond. Now, the carbon in the steel is also turning to diamond.
Time to run.
A fresh surge of heat grips my shoulders and I abandon Stitch’s frozen body. Dancing heat shadows caper over the ground around me. That wall of diamond is rising higher, twanging loudly as it builds itself. Through it, the sun’s rays feel accelerated, impacting my skin with an otherworldly velocity.
The whistling updraft is doing something to the weather. Clouds are gathering, swirling. Angry thunder rumbles out of a darkening sky.
Alone, I run from the frozen trees, away from that tortured cobweb simulacrum of a jungle, deeper into the island. The wall of diamond is spreading behind me. Only the barrier isn’t straight. It curves around me to the right and left, leaning over my head, growing taller.
It isn’t a wall.
This shining thing rising up behind me is the dawn of something incomprehensible. As it arcs over my head, I can see now that the cretes are growing into something else entirely. They are turning into a perfect dome.
My only choice is to plow forward, away from the heat of creation.
The sun is falling now, spreading fading tendrils of light through the haze of crystal. That odd twanging and chirping fades as I proceed farther down the path. After a couple of kilometers or so, I come to a wooden gate next to an empty guard booth. From either side, a chain-link fence topped with razor wire stretches off into the jungle, forming a gleaming perimeter.
Beyond this point, the previously overgrown road becomes paved and straight.
I step around the sagging wooden slat of the barrier. Feel the familiar solid pavement under my boots. This road, a last vestige of civilization, leads straight across manicured grounds to the rogue research facility. Or what’s left of it.
I walk the final kilometer in a daze.
Jeeps and army trucks are abandoned on the sides of the road like flotsam left behind after a tidal wave. Some of the vehicles lie in puddles, the metal having melted into rubbery piles feathered with flakes of green paint. Others have partially sunk into the ground, their noses pointing out at awkward angles like fallen lawn darts. Titanic forces have twisted and disfigured the landscape here, and everything in it.
The bodies themselves are hard to recognize. They’ve been pulled into strange shapes. Dissolved and folded in on each other. People melded with their own equipment, bodies tortured into unthinkable dimensions. The road is covered with bundles of angles, acute and obtuse, but none identifiable, not as human beings. No flies trouble these rotting, rusting carcasses. There are no birds and no animals. Only the sigh of infected wind. A bad breeze.
All of it is digesting in the harsh, fevered light that weeps through the dome.
Ten klicks in, where the light gets dim, and the sights get mighty strange.
The earth here is crusty, broken in sweeping patches. I catch sight of the hull of a ship, half-buried, breaching out of the ground with the obscene weight of it buckling the earth and cantilevering a swathe of jungle up into the air. Naked tree limbs sway in the breeze and clap to themselves, having dissolved into what look like propeller blades. A sheer rock face has grown into cannon bores and collapsed under the weight of the deformation. I walk by logs made of furrowed human skin, bleeding gently under a coating of moss.
My footsteps echo on the pavement as I face this gauntlet.
Beyond all of the metallic confusion of flesh is the research building. The major walls still stand, but the ceiling has collapsed. Shards of the structure have migrated to the edges, heaped up in the crude imitation of a nest. Familiar bits peek out of the confusion—part of a ventilation hood, an office chair, a hallway water fountain, some cubicle walls. The rest is harder to describe, hard even to look at: quivering limbs of metal; ridged tiles of pure gemstone; gnarled vines sprouting human hair.
A slanting doorway leans before me. A black mouth open wide, choking on its own broken teeth of shattered glass. This is the X on the chalkboard. This is the spot where I saw the world in ruins.
This is the end.
My mind starts scrabbling away from the moment. I’m alone now and the others are dead and I remember this one thing. It slid its barbs into me and never let go. Unable to stop, I fall back into the memory—to a place where the pain is something familiar and it wounds me in a reassuring way.
I put out my arms that morning in the cleanroom. But I could not catch her. My wife was holding her hands over her stomach and she fell to her knees, still watching me. Her teeth and nostrils and eyes were already stained with bright pinpricks of blood. Mucous membranes first. Then skin pores. A gruesome sheen over soft flesh. Billions of crimson dots expanding through sterilized white cotton. She was coughing, wheezing with the raw choking gasps of a dead body still striving to live—not quite up to date with the inevitable.
I managed to hit the emergency stop button. Felt the sudden chill as the industrial-grade exhaust system started swallowing tainted air. Through fogged goggles I saw my wife’s face when she finally fell, and if I’m being honest, it looked like she’d been skinned alive. Every inch of her face was seeping blood.
She was too far away for me to catch.
This is my crystalline moment—the one that plays through my mind, fast or slow, depending on how long I close my eyes. Air roaring in my ears. A small blond woman is lying facedown and the machines inside her are still doing their grisly work. Her blood is surging away from under her body in a spreading pool. Swift and plum-dark across impossibly white tile.
I watched, dazed and curious, as the polished tile floor somehow canted and rushed up to meet my face. I smacked into the ground and a high-pitched note began to sing in the meat between my ears. From behind cracked goggles, I watched that tidal flow pulse toward me. Watched my wife’s body stop moving, stop breathing.
Together, she and I were going to make something. Create our own order out of the chaos. In the three-dimensional ultrasound, my son’s eyes were closed and I swear he had a half smile on his lips. His only job was to grow. Our baby boy was inside her and when she fell her hands were over her stomach to protect him and yet I lived.
My heart staggers again.
I take another step into the leaning doorway. There is only death on the other side. The knowledge is in every atom of my body.
Don’t you feel that you owe some kind of a debt?
The memories are razored feathers that slice through my mind. Only by magnifying the details can I save myself from the whole lacerating knowledge of it. So I think of the microscopic particles of flexing metal spreading into the rivers of her bloodstream, out across the pale heaving ocean of her lungs. The nanomachines, they’re only small things, but they spread so far and so fast. They are two hundred thousand years of technological evolution written in the pattern of a handful of atoms. The living blueprints of humankind’s most magnificent achievement, our past and our future—hungry, spearing into the deep tissue of her body.
What my wife said was wrong. Nanotech does have a smell. It’s a metal bucket filling with rain in a thunderstorm. Ozone and sweat. A coppery slick pooling in the back of your throat. The cretes want to make something out of the chaos. In the face of this unstoppable miracle, your body weeps a trillion droplets of blood.
Tomorrow eats today.
A sound like the plucking of brittle guitar strings cascades over me from a hundred yards up. The dome is completing itself over my head. It reminds me of a cathedral ceiling, except the diamond is almost transparent through rays of falling sunlight. Above the dome, dark clouds have collapsed into bruised smears. Blackness above, and blackness before me.
I step through the doorway.
I emerge into vegetation, my sight swimming from the muted shafts of light that filter in through the gossamer dome. The building has swallowed itself. A short, broken hallway has abruptly ended in a green expanse of vines and leaves. There is no more roof.
This is a circular amphitheater. Lush but featureless, save for a tumble of stones growing out of the grass at the dead center of the room. Now that the dome has sealed itself, the air in here is stagnant. No movement; the only sound is a soft whoosh from high above.
I almost don’t notice Caldecot.
Sitting on the rocks, the man is frighteningly gaunt and long-limbed, even from a distance. Chin in his hand, he seems lost in reverie. The pile of broken rock is formed into a throne, carved by some kind of crete to fit perfectly with Caldecot’s slumping, pale body.
I step closer, fingers closed over the vial in my front pocket.
High on his throne, Caldecot seems to be melting, his face falling away in shadowed rivulets. But moving closer, I see that the light and dark playing on his face are coming from above. Sunlight twists and courses through streams of water coursing over the outside surface of the dome.
It is raining out there, in the world.
I clench the vial in my palm and approach the throne. Caldecot still does not respond to me. I can’t even tell whether his eyes are open. The skin on his face is slack. His body is eaten by darkness, half-swallowed by the slabs of rock around him. I can make out coils of thin wires wrapped around his body.
He doesn’t stir. Doesn’t even seem to be breathing; his chest is still.
I pause at the foot of the throne and stare up. One of his hands hangs over the promontory of rock, pallid and relaxed. His fingers are long and sensitive, the back of his hand laced through with dark veins. I move my gaze up his forearm, to where his elbow rests in a mess of wires that spill over the side of the throne. Continuing up past the bicep, I see a broad chest, whitish collarbones sunken into pools of shadow. On his long neck, tendons pull the skin in taut marbled folds, supporting a massive head that lists to the side. His jowls undulate with rolls of waxy flesh up to his cheekbones—to a pair of open black eyes open, watching me darkly.
I startle, take a step back.
“Dr. Caldecot? Are you all right?”
Laboriously, Caldecot straightens his back. Those fathomless eyes lock onto me hard, the way a crow might watch a lizard. His breathing is shallow, but I can see his chest moving now. He speaks to me in slow precise syllables, his voice growing, its power rumbling out from hidden depths.
“Oh,” he says. “It’s you. They finally sent you.”
I take another careful step toward the throne. The pocketed flesh-eater vial is still cradled in my sweating fingers. Caldecot regards me calmly. I notice a glinting braid of wires and cables and hoses hooking over the top of his throne and splaying out into the foliage behind it. The toe of my boot hits something hard, and I see that similar cables meander through the grass as well, across the entire clearing.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
Caldecot winces, the expression spreading its way over his exaggerated features. “Of course. My apologies for the travails you must have suffered to reach this place. It could not have been easy, and I fear that I may have played a part in the difficulties.”
His voice is deep and sonorous and it expands to somehow fill the cavernous amphitheater. Maybe the entire dome.
“You’ve got to stop this thing, Caldecot,” I say. “You’ve got to come back with me so we can fix this.”
His lips move, peristaltically, until he appears amused.
“How is it? Out there?”
“People are dying,” I say, climbing the bottom step of the dais. “There’s no sense to any of it.”
“Change,” he says, “is often mistaken for tragedy.”
The empty clearing sighs with the falling of rain outside the dome. Now I can see that some of the wires go inside him. His arms and legs and torso are riddled with ports.
“It’s madness,” I say.
“Madness?” he asks. “Hardly. Your own research was the leaping-off point. You made all this possible. We are creators, my friend. We do not fear change. We wield it.”
“Will you come willingly?” I ask.
He continues speaking in a low monotone, as if he hasn’t heard me.
“We’d had purification cretes before. Nothing more than chemical tricks. Not mechanical. Not true molecular reassembly. The chain always failed after a few hundred generations. Mutations crept in, followed by self-immolation. But I found the solution in an old patent. Yours. I watched how you made the creticide scan its enemies for flaws. Then I reverse-engineered it.”
Caldecot’s words spread over me like anesthetic. As the torrent flows faster and faster, a buzzing numbness settles over my face.
“We think the breakthrough came after midnight over a weekend. A lab assistant named Jacobs was working on a silicone variety. Highly experimental. At some point, it worked—it fed upon the silica of the glass vial. I imagine Jacobs must have laid his tired head down to sleep at his desk. Funny to think it all happened while he was dreaming. But by then, none of us were making it home from the lab very often. The whole facility was on the verge of being mothballed.
“When I found Jacobs, the skin of his face was fused with the surface of the desk. Stretched like brittle glass, yet pliable as a polymer chain. His throat was collapsed in a fan of skin and his vocal cords were sunk into the tabletop like veins. His arms were puddles of flesh; the fingers splayed and melting.
“We could not understand how he was still alive.”
I close my hand into a fist around the vial. Caldecot continues, speaking to me but not looking at me.
“But he was. Young Jacobs was silently crying with the one eye he had left. Crying so softly as that crete ground the silica from his bones and turned it into plastic. A whole week passed before the rest of his face was swallowed. During that time we learned to work around him. A sheet was placed to block the sight of his work station. But it never could block the sound of the grinding.”
Caldecot blinks, seems to notice me again.
“We mourned him. Don’t think we didn’t. But we also celebrated. Jacobs was a miracle at work. And I made sure we were there to witness. To build on this incredible good luck.
“Some of my scientists ran, then. I let the deserters go. Others from the army came and they tried to stop me. But I simply allowed the light of creation to shine. It ate them whole and in pieces. In the stench of cauterized flesh, my cretes found in my enemies so many new forms to take. The light wants to shine into dark places, you know. Who am I to stop it? Who are you to try to stop it?”
His voice drops to a whisper, almost inaudible, and I step forward.
“I tell you … there was a moment, when I put my hand on Jacobs’s shoulder to rouse him on that first morning, when it happened … and I saw the horror of what he had become … It was a split second that spawned universes. Right then … at that moment … I could have stopped all of this. I could have retreated into ignorance, but I chose to keep my eyes open to the terrible face of our destiny.”
Another step. I could throw the vial now. End this.
“Do you see? Do you understand the decisions we must make? Men like us owe it to the world. We are obligated. We can’t stop—we can never stop. Without us, none of it means anything. If we were to stop, why, the sacrifices we’ve made … they wouldn’t mean anything.”
His final words evaporate on the air, but I swear I can still feel the baritone rhythm echoing inside my chest. Men like us.
“Will you come willingly?” I ask again.
A shudder runs through the foliage. Something shifts in the grass behind me. Ten yards away, the earth is vibrating. A pure-white gap is emerging in the thick folds of grass. As it grows, I see it holds a ramp leading down into the research facility.
He has preserved it.
“Your lab is sterilized. Ready for operation. For a new era. I offer you this invitation. The opportunity to shape a new reality by the power of your mind. Together, we will unleash the future and watch lovingly as it feeds upon the flesh of the old world.”
The hazy glow spilling from the ground solidifies into the shine of row upon row of fluorescent lights, test tubes, and cloudy sheets of plastic. I hear the familiar whir of a ventilation hood and I taste my own vomit. I am looking into a cleanroom, its tile floors impossibly white and smooth and unblemished.
The barbed memory is back and this time it is real.
“We can’t do this,” I say. “I won’t do this. It’s wrong.”
Caldecot leans forward, only an inch, but his eyes are two wells of inescapable gravity. I suddenly feel as if I’m standing on a cliff. As he leans, the world seems to lean with him and a sudden vertigo overwhelms me.
“It wasn’t your fault she died,” he says.
Her hands were on her stomach when she fell.
My vision quiets and I stumble. My hand lands on his knee and it is cold and hard as stone. I snatch my hand back. The air feels heavy. Like I’m breathing underwater.
“What?” I say, forcing the word out.
“Change is hungry. It feasts.”
Some part of me is bleeding inside. I’m breathing in gasps. She didn’t deserve it, none of them did. My baby boy …
Could I make it mean something?
“Are you insane?” I whisper.
I do not know who I am asking the question of.
“Your wife’s death meant something,” says Caldecot. “Fuel for the future. You have only to take the credit, not the blame. You and I—we will make all of it mean something.”
“The credit?” I ask.
My chin dips a few times as confusion coalesces into rage.
“It was my fault,” I say. “I have no excuse. There is no … there can be no excuse. I killed her. I killed him. The blame is mine. I claim it.”
I stop talking, my chest heaving. I can taste my tears.
Caldecot responds, his voice still amused: “Ah, your son. Yes, a shame. But don’t you see? You have made another, far more important child. The creticide.”
My fingers grip the vial.
“Will you come or not?” I shout at this grinning jack-o’-lantern.
Caldecot’s languid smile droops to a snarl and back. “You and I will never leave this place. Of that, I guarantee you,” he says. “We will stand at ground zero as the world is eaten. While the others die, the light of a new dawn will sear our eyelids away. And you and I will stare into creation and finally and from then on we will know the true face of the world.”
His smile returns, blazing and wide.
“The answer is no,” he continues. “No. I will not go with you willingly or in any other capacity. Our destiny is here under this diamond sky, and we will face it together.”
“No, we won’t,” I say, pulling my hand from my pocket.
The vial glints. Murder in a bottle.
I pull back to throw it and something nudges my calf. Instinctively, I step over a cord. They are writhing now, all the cables spread out in the grass. Moving in concert toward some unknown end. A heavy coil loops over my throwing arm, and continues wrapping around my torso, pinning my wrist to my thigh.
As I struggle, a small whimper uncurls from the back of my throat.
More wires are rising up before me. Draping themselves over each other, swaying like vines in the cool air. I get the strange impression that they can see me. They are all around me now. Stalks of grass shiver with slithering metal.
“What are you?” I ask, stuttering over the words. I don’t even know where to look while I speak. Worse, I don’t know where to run.
“The terrible face of change.”
Something hard and cold circles over my chest and under my armpits. Fear keeps my head pointed forward. With a hydraulic shudder, the coil lifts me off the ground.
Caldecot continues speaking, his voice gaining volume and power. A thump of bass drops into his words as thick cables rise up like cobras and throw themselves against the ground.
“I know that you see death in me,” says Caldecot. “You fear the dread that claws up from your chest and into your throat. The grim specter settles into the darkness between your eyes. When your fear turns to panic, it is your life, calling to you.”
I struggle to breathe. My legs are wrapped up now, ankles to thighs. I’m hanging helpless from hard metal wire. The vial is clenched in my fist and trapped against my own body.
“But life is not rational,” says Caldecot. More hidden snakes surge through the grass. “You will learn that in time. Life is mindless. It only wants to grow. And when you challenge it, life will fight back with everything. That is why I have protected us.”
Disembodied fingers of wire lift, pointing to the sky.
“The diamond?” I ask, craning my neck. My breath comes in pants now. My chest is burning from the friction of tightening cables.
“A layer of diamond, certainly, but much more than that. There is no name for what has never existed. It is impenetrable, self-healing, very nearly alive,” he intones. His voice seems to come from multiple sources, echoing itself, high-and low-pitched. It is everywhere at once and grows still louder, vibrating every molecule of air.
“Let me out of this dome,” I say.
“Not a dome. A sphere,” says Caldecot. “Round like the world.”
The cables squeeze the breath out of my chest. An oily weakness is spreading through my limbs. In a detached way, I suppose this weakness must be the knowledge that I am going to die. I find myself believing that perhaps dying is the best I can hope for. And knowing that it’s exactly what I deserve.
The thrumming wires of the Caldecot-thing wring my body like a dishrag. The world has retreated to the far end of a long black tunnel. I can hear my bones grating together, but I can’t feel anything anymore. My hand has gone numb. I flick my thumb anyway. Crane my neck and watch the lid of the flesh-eater crete fall away. The thick liquid rolls.
A gift for you, sir. Quicker than most.
I’m hanging, crying. I turn my head to watch the crystal sphere as rain waterfalls down its outer surface. It is a curtain that blends with my tears to turn the sky into whorls of fading sunlight.
“Please let me out,” I croak, and all hope has fled my voice. The gray-green liquid creeps down the vial. Closer to my fingertips.
“You are not locked in here, my friend,” says the Caldecot-thing. “The rest of the world is locked out there.”
… nukes they finally dropped the nukes oh my God …
The wires go slack, dropping me onto my knees in a galaxy of silent throbbing brilliance. A new sun is born on the lid of the sphere above. Through the ground, I feel the muted shock waves as a second nuclear warhead detonates against the sphere. And another. The filtered light is paralyzing and beautiful in the way I imagine heaven would be. Wholly beyond the threshold of human experience.
When the flashes fade, we are still living.
Through a rainbow of chaotic dust and debris, the setting sun is collapsing into the horizon now, fat and simmering. A broad tongue of light dances across stippled whorls of ash smeared over the sky. The raging nuclear dust storm outside shimmers and gyrates in the gory colors of the formless void.
Abruptly, I remember a tide of blood. Spreading over impossibly clean white tile. She and I were going to make something from the chaos. Her hands were over her stomach. Our baby boy was growing inside her, strong and slow and waiting to come into this world, but that never happened. He never happened. Never was able to happen.
We make things. We destroy things.
Caldecot’s face is turned up toward the detonation. His teeth flash, brilliant patterns evolving on his face. A single tear etches a radiant path down one gaunt cheek.
The vial is still in my palm.
I throw the flesh-eater crete, and it bounces harmlessly off the back of the stone seat. For a frozen moment, it cartwheels away. Then the vial shatters on the arm of the throne. A star-burst of black liquid spatters onto Caldecot’s shoulder.
Such a small thing. A vial.
“Oh,” says Caldecot, his surprise already fading.
I’m clambering through wire-laced foliage, backpedaling for my life, eyes never leaving the thin man. The crete does nothing for a moment. It’s in the long flat part of the exponential curve. Then, like a switch has been flipped, it sinks through his clothes, eating. Metallic flakes, tentative and beautiful, curl up from his skin and launch themselves into the placid air.
In a second, a spreading hole appears in Caldecot’s shoulder. Inside, I see flesh and pale bone, but also more wires.
“What a clever crete,” he says, and then he wipes the dust onto his fingertips and puts it to his lips. Tastes the crete even as his lips disintegrate into millions of scales that float away like pollen.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Forgiven,” says Caldecot, voice slurring. I can see his molars through a spreading slit in his cheek. His eyes look past my shoulder to the bright laboratory.
“The future is yours,” he says.
The flesh-eater is spreading through his body in the helter-skelter fractal exponential manner that is the natural gait of all cretes. Eating Caldecot’s neck and jaw. Climbing his face and sending pieces of his chin dropping into his lap. A smoky haze has risen above his throne, the waste heat of the reaction pushing spent particles higher up into the air.
Under the raging light of the nuked dome, I watch the technology consume Caldecot’s clothes and flesh from the outside in. Only the wires are unaffected. Left coiled over the throne, they begin to thrum and twitch. The intertwined links of cable rise and slap themselves idiotically against the stone in fading death throes.
The ash plume that used to be a man expands into the still air. Glinting particles form constellations in the flickering shadows. Higher and higher into a divine frenzy of luminescence.
I watch through tear-blurred eyes as the shock waves keep dancing through the dome’s surface. The white-hot sheet quivers but remains intact as bubbles of heat claw off it into the atmosphere. The surface glows, absorbing sweeping cataracts of radiation and rendering the nukes harmless. As it heals, the sphere begins to go still and bright and clear. The sun continues its slinking escape over the horizon, taking the light of the world with it.
But a new light has arrived.
It emanates softly from the crevasse in the ground, surging up from under the grass in a pure halo. The room’s neatly labeled test tubes each carry a miracle. With the accompanying equipment and notes and data, I see a complete toolkit for the creation of a new world.
On shaky legs, I step down the ramp. Brush my fingers over the layers of hanging plastic. Close my eyes and let the fluorescent glare paint red patterns through my eyelids. The pure white light of the cleanroom envelops me, holding all of the infinite potential of the future.
All of the infinite horror of the past.
Above, a mushroom cloud of atomized jungle is boiling into the atmosphere. Hundreds of miles away, a sonic boom kisses the ocean’s surface. A million miles farther on, moving as fast as physics, the blinding light of creation itself races into the vastness.
Mindless, and eternal.