Elana Gomel’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”
Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She speaks three languages and has two children. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature and serial killers. Her fantasy, horror and science fiction stories appeared in Apex Magazine, New Horizons, The Fantasist, and many other magazines and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including Zion’s Fiction, Apex Book of World Science Fiction, and People of the Book. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019).
She can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you her story:
Where the Streets Have No Name
I found Spartak slumped on the sagging sofa in the lounge. His eyes were wide open and had that unmistakable reddish cast, indicating that he had been played out. Fleeting shadows of dragons and monsters scurried over his sightless irises like clouds over a desert.
It was all going to hell quicker than I expected. Our bedraggled space startup, cobbled together on a shoestring budget and enthusiasm. The budget was running out. The enthusiasm had evaporated long ago.
I looked at the ancient flat screen that showed a live feed of Dis. The screen was chipped where Malika had hurled a glass of wine at the panorama of tapering black towers swathed in prickly webbing, stark against the inflamed sky. Our CareBob had managed to clean off the stain from the cheap rug but the screen was not worth replacing – even if we had a spare which we did not – because it never showed anything new.
To be fair, it was not exactly true. There was movement and change rippling over the depressing panorama. But there was nothing that could break the stalemate of our failure to establish communication.
The couple of drones we had flown into the city faithfully recorded the sunrise and sunset of Gliese 512 – an M-type red dwarf. Twice in the planet’s short day, the colorless sky would flare up with all the hues of scarlet fever as the swollen disk of its sun reluctantly dragged itself up or dipped down. Then the shadows of the towers on the scummy carpet that served this planet for vegetation would congeal into smears of darkness, and the carpet itself would heave and bubble with hidden life before settling again into a corrugated film. That was the full extent of local variety. Well, not to mention the Daemons.
“Hey, Ruthie,” the detestably familiar voice purred into my ear. “Watching your friends?”
I did not turn around. Jean-Paul was not in my line of command, insofar as we had any, which was debatable. According to the terms of my contract, I was answerable only to our captain, Ivan Ivanovich Marchenko who had gone into Dis two days ago and did not come back.
“Are they finally paying attention?” Jean-Paul continued, sidling too close to me and staring at the screen. “Or still being coquette?”
I groaned. Jean-Paul’s English was perfect when he wanted it to be. In a multinational crew, such as ours, overlooking linguistic glitches was a matter of basic courtesy. Marchenko’s heavy lugubrious accent; Spartak’s predilection for lapsing into Russian when the captain was around, thus excluding the rest of us from the conversation; Qingshan’s sing-song voice, soft to the point of inaudibility – I was never irritated by any of my mates’ communication quirks. Except for Jean-Paul’s. Our biologist wielded his chic Parisian accent as a weapon, deploying it when it suited him to put others down. He was helped by his expensive good looks – and by the fact that he was the most important person in our ragtag crew. The investors who had paid for our transit through the mysterious entanglements of the X-web were interested in many things: minerals, chemical compounds, striking visuals. But above all, biologicals. If every trip is unrepeatable, you better come back with something that can be replicated and utilized to justify the expense.
I demonstratively stepped away from Jean-Paul but did not leave the lounge. Despite myself, I was spellbound by the scene unfolding on the screen in front of me. I had seen it before, of course, but there was that persistent hope that this time it would be different. That this time they would actually look at us.
At each sunrise, crowds of Daemons would flood the narrow meandering streets of Dis, moving in flows and eddies. The exited and entered the tall slender black towers by climbing the tangles of spiky webbing attached to the outside of these stupendous edifices. The city would ring with their voices: chattering, shouting, singing, conversing. Or maybe it was out human anthropomorphism, assigning arbitrary labels to whatever they were doing. When Malika was sober, she tried to decipher the Daemons’ language and came to the conclusion that it could not be done. I took it with a grain of salt. She had a dodgy diploma from a dodgy West African university, and our deep-learning software was at least five years out of date. So, when she claimed that the sounds the aliens produced at sunrise and sunset were not actually a language, I did not believe her. I had a reason. And the reason was right in front of my eyes.
“Look at him!” Jean-Paul smirked. “A handsome devil, isn’t he?”
I rolled my eyes. Still, irritating or not, Jean-Paul was the most functional member of our bedraggled crew – and this counting myself. After Marchenko’s disappearance, I as the CFO of our space startup should have stepped into his shoes. But I did not want the responsibility for our impending failure. And now it might be too late. We were falling apart. Spartak was escaping into deep gaming; Malika into alcohol. Qingshan was locked in her tiny cabin, still chasing her dream of plotting a steady course through the quantum sea. But I had lost hope that she would succeed. The X-web that randomly linked scattered solar systems throughout our galaxy was not navigable because it was never static. Quantum entanglement that enabled transit changed every time it was observed, which meant that a road once taken could not be taken again. Fortunately, a body transiting through the web to a new destination would, when re-entering it, be snapped back to its point of origin, which was the reason space exploration was not a suicide mission. But it also meant that anything valuable found on a new planet had to be taken back to Earth or lost forever. The X-web made multiple trips to the same destination impossible. Every alien encounter was unique and final, never to be repeated or redone.
Our startup with the ambitious name of SilkRoad had been pitched to the investors as a game-changer. We had Qingshan’s novel mathematical approach that promised to stabilize the X-web. In simulations, it worked perfectly. In reality, not at all.
“So much like us!” Jean-Paul muttered, dropping his fake accent and sounding genuinely awed.
A Daemon stopped in front of the drone that sat placidly in the middle of an open space, paved with the same black oily substance as the rest of Dis. We had made no attempt to disguise our drones when they had flown into Dis, just as we had made no attempt to disguise our transit capsule. We wanted the inhabitants of Gliese 512-b to pay attention to us. And fool that I was, the face on the screen kindled my hope anew that they might.
And of course, nothing happened. The large blue eyes stared vacantly through the drone that whirred and exuded a flat screen on which our own hopeful images smiled and spoke in all the languages we knew.
Then he turned around and walked away.
A pale slender man in a one-piece garment. I would not have given him a second glance had I seen him on the Tube. Even his hairlessness – a gleaming cranium, no eyebrows or eye-lashes – would have been chalked up to some new body-mod fad.
Intelligent aliens had been discovered before, only to vanish into the shifting patterns of the X-web. I had read reports of previous expeditions – both commercial ventures and the rare military encounter. The aliens – six species so far – were all non-humanoid. One species looked like a cluster of floating grapes; another consisted of giant whale-like forms tethered to their dwellings by a blood-pumping tube. While a two-way contact, properly speaking, had never been established, at least the grape-like beings showed a fair degree of curiosity and something that might, perhaps, develop into barter if humans could find these potential trading partners again.
But on Gliese 512-b we had hit the jackpot. The inhabitants of the planet were so human-like as to make “like” superfluous. They looked like us – sans hair but who cares? They were men, women and children. They wore clothes. They lived in cities.
And they paid us absolutely no attention.
Somebody entered the lounge behind my back. I knew it was Malika – Qingshan moved as silently as a cat. The first glimpse of our linguist lifted my spirits somewhat because she was not drunk – at least, not conspicuously so. Ignoring Jean-Paul and snoring Spartak, she waved her hand at the screen, darkening it to black.
“Is Ivan back?” she asked, folding her lanky body into the armchair. I was mildly shocked by her casual use of the captain’s first name but then, I was a stickler for decorum. Good-girl Ruthie; number-crunching Ruthie; old reliable Ruthie. And here I was, in the company of misfits and miscreants, on an alien planet whose inhabitants refused to acknowledge our existence, let alone engage in any meaningful trade or exchange. Not for the first time, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
“No,” I said.
“Any luck with translation?” Jean-Paul inquired silkily. “So that we can walk into Dis, demand to be taken to their leader, and negotiate our brave captain’s immediate release?”
“Cut it, Frenchie,” this came from the corner of the sofa where Spartak had shaken off his post-gaming stupor and was grinding his meaty fists into his eyes, trying to clear away the cobwebs of the neural interface. “What about your DNA analysis? Anything useful we can carry back to our corporate masters?”
Suddenly I had had enough.
“Stop it!” I yelled, straightening up to my full height of well-padded five feet four. I was not fat but being in the company of petite Qingshan and slender Malika made me body-conscious. Now, however, I was too mad to care.
“We are all going to be in debt for the rest of our lives if we don’t do something! And we might be investigated if we come back without the captain and have our credit ruined forever. Not to mention the fact that I am not leaving him behind, no matter what! So, stop bickering and start planning!”
Jean-Paul lifted an eyebrow.
“May I inquire who appointed you acting captain?”
“You did, you idiot!” Once the dam broke, I was not holding back. “Maybe you should reread your contract? I am the CFO of SilkRoad and I am responsible for our fiscal situation, which is as damn close to bankruptcy as you are to having your face slapped next time you sidle up to me! I’m taking over. It is all in the contract, which you have signed. So why don’t you answer Spartak’s question? What about DNA?”
DNA and other biological materials from alien planets were the investors’ Eldorado. Pharmaceuticals, bio-tech, gene-ed – that was what justified the expense of singular forays into the unknown. The expense was not that great, actually, since transiting through the X-web required no spaceships. You could do it in your yoga pants if you had the quantum key. But the key device was fragile and patent-protected; and if you ended up in yoga pants on the surface of a high-gravity planet, no quantum magic would protect you from becoming a splatter. For unknown reasons, the X-web only connected roughly earthlike planets but even among those conditions varied enough to deliver a variety of unpleasant deaths to improperly equipped explorers. We had sunk our pooled resources into our equipment. Unless we had something to show for it, SilkRoad was finished – and so were we.
To my surprise, Jean-Paul’s response was to the point.
“We have no Daemon DNA, as you know, because we cannot recall our drones. I analyzed the DNA of the ground carpet – and yes, it does have DNA, as opposed to Kepler 5-a, and most others where life uses a different information-coding system. It’s not exactly like ours…but anyway, the long and short of it is that it looks a bit like slime molds on Earth.”
“Slime molds?” Malika made a face.
“They are fascinating,” when Jean-Paul talked about biology, he dropped his irritating quirks and sounded genuinely enthusiastic. “They are unicellar creatures most of the time but when conditions change, they can congregate into multicellar bodies and function as a single organism.”
“This crap outside is like pond slime?” Spartak waved the screen back on. It now showed the feed from another drone located on the outskirts of Dis where the edge of the city abutted the ground carpet. The black pavement ended in a razor-straight line and beyond it stretched the unbroken parchment-like surface of pale greys and browns, peeling in leprous flakes and hunching up in rounded protrusions. As far as we knew, it went on like this forever. There were some lakes but no oceans and precious little in the way of mountains.
“Not really, unless pond slime wants to eat you,” Jean-Paul answered acidly. “This organism is predatory. I don’t know what lives under its surface, but it feeds on other life. It does not photosynthesize.”
I shuddered with disgust but it was Malika who asked the next question.
“Yes indeed. Sime molds are many in one, or one in many. This whole thing – as far as we can see – is a single body.”
“This is very interesting,” Spartak interjected, “but it does not help us with these guys. We need to get their attention and record our talks. Can you imagine the media coup? The first humanoid aliens we have met! We’ll be all over the net. SilkRoad will go viral!”
“Spartak Abujinov, our man in Hell!” Malika sneered. “Sorry, our handyman!”
“Any progress on the communication front?” I asked. Spartak was sensitive about the “eggheads” making fun of him, even though his jack-of-all-trades expertise was at least as important in Malika’s linguistic skills. She had nothing to show for them, while Spartak’s babysitting of our expensive equipment kept us alive.
“Not my field, communication,” he responded, casting a malicious glance at Malika. “I can’t do anything without a DNA sample. And the drones…”
Yes indeed. After the drones had landed and displayed themselves to the indifferent Daemons for a couple of days with no results, we tried to recall them. But no go. It seemed that the sleek machines had been somehow tethered or bound to the pavement. And yet the recordings showed that nobody had approached or touched them.
“What if Ivan…the captain…has established contact?” Malika asked.
“More likely, he is dead,” Jean-Paul responded.
“Then our choice is to get the hell out of this place or to go after him to hell.”
“First,” I said, “Dis, the city of hell, is what we call it, not the inhabitants. Maybe they call it Paradise. It was your idea to grab a name out of The Divine Comedy.”
“It fits,” she said glumly, gesturing at the black-red-and grey landscape on the screen.
“Maybe it’s our human prejudice speaking. But the Dae…the aliens are astonishingly human-looking. I refuse to believe that communication is impossible. Maybe you should run another deep-learning translation program…”
“You think I did not try?” Malika yelled. “It gives me sweet fuck-all. Different results every time. These people…these creatures…it is as if they were teasing us. Making up languages as they go along.”
“Maybe they do,” Jean-Paul said.
“What do you mean?”
“There is a lot of purposeful activity in this city. We can’t see what they are doing inside these towers but they are not just randomly milling around. If we had an anthropologist with us,” – not a very subtle jab at me since I had vetoed the addition of an anthropologist to our crew on the grounds of cost efficiency – “maybe we could have analyzed the ebb and flow of pedestrians and come to some conclusions about their social structure. But even though they refuse to interact with our technology in any way, they must be aware of us. They have seen the drones. So perhaps this seeming indifference is a calculated strategy of avoidance. It is not that they are unaware that we are here; it’s just that they want to send a clear signal that they are not interested. Faking languages, as you call it, may be part of this strategy.”
“Like a collective cold shoulder?” Malika asked.
“Something like this.”
I opened my mouth to say – sincerely – that it was the first halfway reasonable idea about the Daemons’ behavior any of us had come up with, when Qingshan walked in.
Speaking of cold shoulders, she was an expert in this. She was deeply enmeshed in the world of numbers that her human interactions were kept to the bare minimum. But now she seemed animated, a touch of color in her cheeks, and when she spoke, I could actually hear her.
“This planet is special,” she said.
“No shit!” Spartak sniggered and I gave him a baleful look. Qingshan went on.
“Its position in the web is unique. I believe I could plot a course back to the Earth than would collapse the probability wave in such a way as to stabilize its configuration.”
“Does it mean we could come back?” I asked.
“Probably. A two-way street, so to speak. But…”
I knew there would be a “but”.
“It would only work for Gliese 512-b. I wanted to develop a universal navigational algorithm for the X-web. But it does not work. The math breaks down when any other coordinates are input.”
My knowledge of math was limited to spreadsheets but I trusted our resident genius. The implications, however, were exciting. For the first time, we could come back again and again, develop the planet’s resources, and establish proper trade. And by an incredible stroke of luck, the planet’s inhabitants looked like us.
I made a quick decision, reveling in my newly-found executive power.
“In this case, establishing communication becomes imperative,” I said. “It is our first priority. Our second priority is to bring back the captain. We need an uplifting story of heroism to get more funding.”
“Even if he is dead?” Malika asked.
“Even if he is dead. It will play great on the net, our attempt to rescue him. Whatever the result.”
I turned to Jean-Paul:
“You are coming with me. We are going to Dis; and we are not coming back without recordings of conversations with Daemons, DNA samples, and the captain.”
Jean-Paul opened his mouth to deliver a stinging retort, then closed it and simply nodded.
“You,” I pointed to Spartak and Qingshan, “make sure all the equipment is shipshape and nothing breaks down when we have to transit. We want to show them that your algorithm works.”
“Wait!” Malika butted in. “I’m coming with you, right? If you want to talk to them, you need me.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask how long she could keep away from the bottle but I stopped myself. Wasn’t trust and encouragement the cornerstones of leadership? At least so it had said on an inspirational plaque in my former boss’s office.
“All right,” I said.
We did not have a flier – too expensive – and our tiny ground vehicle would probably stall on the slime-mold surface, so we walked, just like Marchenko had done two days ago.
It was weird walking on the ground-cover. It was firm enough but it gave slightly like a spring mattress. And there was perceptible roiling motion underneath, the ground sometimes trembling or shuddering, or something invisible causing it to peak up and flatten out again.
“Is there life under this…slime mold stuff?” I asked.
“Probably but I don’t know what kind. If we had infrared or GPR…”
“We don’t,” I said “because it was too expensive and we had no idea what we would find. If Qing is right, we can come back with whatever we need.”
“At least we have guns,” Malika muttered, sounding crabby.
“We do, and you are not going to use them unless I say so.”
Jean-Paul gave me a strange look.
Dis towered into the pinkish-grey sky as we came closer and I had to admit that Malika’s name for the alien city was appropriate. There was something demonic about these slender windowless structures wreathed in twisted garlands of spiky webbing. As we came closer to the edge of the pavement, I realized a couple of things that were not so obvious from the video feed. First, the pavement and the towers were made of the same kind of material. It looked like matt plastic or maybe some organic compound. Definitely not stone or metal. Second, the towers were grouped in clusters, and the narrow mouths of the meandering streets and alleyways that wove around them looked like black holes. No artificial illumination, and the red light of the star was too dim to penetrate into those pinched canyons.
I stopped, struck with a sudden insight.
“I know!” I exclaimed. “I know why they don’t react to us. They are blind, all of them! This is the country of the blind!”
Jean-Paul shook his head.
“They have eyes”, he said.
“Most blind people do!”
“But their eyes react to light. I saw pupils contracting and expanding.”
“So why is the city so dark?”
We stepped into the chilly shadow of the towers that settled over us like dirty snow. Our thermo-suits were very efficient, but even so, I shuddered.
“Where are we going?” Malika asked.
It was a good question. Marchenko’s comm had fallen silent after he crossed the city’s boundary. Nor had he shown on any drone feed.
“We will go to our closest drone,” I said with more assurance than I felt. “He would have gone there first. And then we’ll see.”
Jean-Paul dropped to his knees and examined the edge of the pavement. It was flush with the ground cover but blessedly stable, without the nauseating heaving of the alien slime molds. And still I hesitated to step on it. It was Malika who did.
The streets were so narrow that the three of us could not walk abreast. I ended up walking side by side with Malika, Jean-Paul lagging behind, stopping from time to time to examine the black walls hemming us in. Not that there was much to see. The towers had no windows or doors. We had already figured out that Daemons exited and entered their dwellings by climbing the ladder-like structures attached to the sides of the towers and then diving through slit-like openings. But from close up I realized that these things were less like ladders and more like enormous snarls of ivy. The towers were draped with convoluted tangles of thorny cables and rubbery tendrils, wound around each other in a cat’s cradle of loose webbing. The complexity of it hurt my brain.
“It’s like the city is abandoned, “Malika whispered. “Like it’s overgrown or something…”
Jean-Paul shook his head.
“These…things are made of the same material as the walls and the pavement. Look!” he lifted a tendril the thickness of his arm that hung down a tower. I touched it cautiously and snatched my hand away. It was oily and slick. And now I noticed the smell. It permeated the city, coming off the walls and the webbing. It was unpleasant in a hard-to-define way: like a combination of diesel and vanilla.
There were no Daemons on the streets but it was to be expected: after the morning rush, they would all but disappear into the towers, coming out again at sunset. The population seemed to be moving around during these two waves, perhaps exchanging places but it was hard to determine. If some towers were residential and some the equivalent of offices, it was not obvious from the exteriors: they all looked alike. And what were the aliens doing during the day? I could not get out of my head a creepy vision of a multitude of blind bodies milling around in total darkness, bumping and shoving each other.
We were making for the intersection where one of our drones was located when we saw a pedestrian. It was a woman. Her one-piece garment, the same drab color and cut as everybody else’s, loosely outlined her breasts and rounded hips.
When she walked past us without as much as slowing down, Malika grabbed her by the shoulder.
And then she was flying through the air like a rag doll tossed by a child. She collided heavily with a tower and slid down the wall, leaving a slick smear behind.
It happened so quickly that I had no time to react as the female Daemon continued on her way with the same unhurried gait. I must have screamed but she did not even turn her head. And then I was raising my gun but I could not fire because Jean-Paul was between us. He snatched a handful of the Daemon’s garment. Her arms moved but he sidestepped nimbly, pulling at the loose material that came away from the body with a sickening wet sound, ripping off from the pale flesh underneath, the abrasion quickly beading with scarlet drops. The Daemon swiveled around. Her eyes were still blank and seemingly unfocused but she lunged toward Jean-Paul.
My finger found the trigger. There was a small sound like a cork coming out of the bottle and she was lying on the ground, blood – as ruby-rich as human blood – oozing from the neat hole in her forehead.
The shakes hit me so badly that I dropped the gun. I had never killed anybody before. CFOs don’t, usually.
Jean-Paul knelt by Malika’s prostrate body and even before he slowly got to his feet, brushing invisible stains off his trousers, I knew what he was going to say and I desperately wished time to rewind, just a few heartbeats back when we were all alive and walking into adventure. Surely if quantum mechanics could bend space, it could erase the absurdity of Malika’s being suddenly gone. Malika who had been as alive as myself just a couple of moments ago was now irrevocably and forever dead.
“How?” I asked hoarsely.
“A very bad angle of impact. She broke her neck.”
I could not bring myself to touch her but I had to. I straightened her limbs and closed her eyes. It occurred to me that we would have to carry her back to the capsule.
Jean-Paul bent over the Daemon’s body.
“Leave it!” I yelled at him, overcome with sudden revulsion.
He shook his head and beckoned me to come closer. And I did because, of course, he was right. That was what we were here for.
He gestured at the tear in her garment that hung in a moist-looking flap down her back, sticky with blood.
“It’s not clothing,” he said. “It’s part of her.”
I did not know what to say.
He continued his examination, quickly and efficiently, and then took a DNA sample, sealing it in a small plastic container that, I knew, would pay back our debt and earn SilkRoad a tidy profit. I wished I could feel anything but revulsion and sadness.
“I thought it was mimicry,” he said, “but it’s not. She is a mammal, just like us. This body…is real. It’s her. It just includes a secondary skin that looks like an overall. And yes, Ruthie, she can see. And hear.”
“So where are the police?” I asked. “Or at least her friends?”
The shot was not loud but it did not belong in the stillness of Dis. Daemons should be pouring out of the towers, swarming in, surrounding us, the alien interlopers. But there was nothing. The same sickly hush as before, full of unspoken and watchful menace.
“I don’t know.”
“We need to go back,” I said. “Take… Malika back.”
“No,” Jean-Paul said. “You were right from the beginning, Ruthie. We need to find the captain. We can’t leave him here, in this…place.”
“What about Malika?”
“She is not going anywhere.”
I wanted to lash out at him for his insensitivity. Instead I holstered the gun and went on. Jean-Paul walked beside me.
We followed the comm-charted route to the drone closest to the city’s edge through the maze of twining streets. I realized as were walking that all streets were the same width: there were no avenues or backstreets here; no downtown; no shops; no palaces or temples. What kind of city was it?
Dis, the city of hell. Malika had been right.
It still felt horrible, leaving her body behind but I consoled myself that the comm would lead us back to it. And since Daemons had not interfered with our drones, why would they interfere with another inert object?
Except, of course, human rules of logic did not seem to apply here.
We came to the drone standing in a small open space – not quite a plaza but as close to it as could be found here. It worked, instantly reacting to our approach by lighting up its interface panel. Jean-Paul frowned as he examined the bottom of the machine. I followed his gaze. The drone was embedded in the pavement; it looked as if the black substance had melted, flowed around it and then hardened again.
I typed Marchenko’s Personal Code into the drone’s interface. Perhaps the drone’s sensors could indicate the route he had taken.
A schematic map blinked on my comm, showing that Marchenko had walked toward the tallest tower among the cluster on the far side of the plaza. I tried to tease the device into extending his trajectory but it refused to do so. Jean-Paul and I exchanged glances.
“Shall we?” he pulled down the tangled tendrils of the web swathing the cluster. It looked like a handful of torn black lace wound around dead tree trunks, magnified tenfold.
We started climbing. It was not difficult: footholds were plentiful and the tendrils did form a rough approximation of a ladder. But it was very unpleasant. The tendrils felt greasy and swollen, and the smell – diesel and vanilla – was so thick that my eyes were watering and I found it hard to breathe.
The opening loomed above – a narrow and irregular slit, masked by the loose weave of the black ivy. To my surprise, there was a feeble reddish luminescence spilling out from it.
I was the first to reach the opening. I poked my head through and froze.
The tower was hollow inside, a cylinder 60 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, dimly lit by the scarlet glow whose source I could not identify. Crawling up its walls was the thick growth of the same black ivy as outside, only more densely tangled. And hanging in its coils were bodies.
They looked human but after a couple of panicky seconds I realized they were, of course, Daemons, except that from this distance it was impossible to tell the difference. They hung loosely like broken puppets, supported by the black tendrils that coiled around their limbs and torsos, their heads lolling. There were males and females but I also saw smaller bodies – children. A couple of them stirred lazily when I crawled through the opening but most did not react. When I perched in a loop of black ivy that gave me a view of the entire tower interior I saw why.
Not all bodies embraced by the ivy were whole. Many were disfigured with open wounds through which naked bone gleamed whitely. Blood dripped onto the tower floor but less than expected, as if the bodies had been exsanguinated. Some were little more than skeletons, their flesh dissolved and stripped away, only dry rags covering the nakedness of death.
Beside me, Jean-Paul gasped. I thought he had seen the same thing as me but even as I was climbing down the ivy, he remained in place, scanning the entire picture, as if trying to commit it to memory. But I did not have time for his revelation. Swinging through the greasy black vines like a movie Tarzan, trying not to look down where the floor of the tower was littered with dry husks and stripped bones, I reached the figure I had seen from above.
Marchenko was swathed in black bands from head to toe, only his face remained free. Enough for me to see the dry peeling skin, the empty hole of the missing eye, the open cut on his cheek that no longer bled. The captain had been a big man but the cocoon that hung from this infernal vine seemed too small for his bulk, as if he had shrunk.
I touched his skull-like face, fighting back tears. I had never liked him in life, agreeing to work for SilkRoad only because I had been laid off from my previous company. It had been a demotion for me and I resented it, looking down at the mismatched crew I was forced to be part of. Now I would give anything to have the captain and Malika back.
Marchenko’s lips moved. I snatched my hand away.
A black worm crawled out of the side of his mouth and slithered down the vine.
Jean-Paul’s hand squeezed my arm, stifling my scream.
“We have to go, Ruthie,” he whispered.
The climb back was far worse because the black ivy started waking up. Its movements were so sluggish that they were hard to notice at first but primed by horror and revulsion, I was becoming aware that the slither of its slick tendrils was more than the tug of our bodies. The tendrils twitched; their tips quested; the entire loose weave of the ivy subtly rearranging itself. And only the bodies ensnared in it hung slackly among all this whispery, stealthy movement.
A greasy cable looped around my shin. I tore it away, noticing that it did not adhere to my thermo-suit but grew stickier when it came into contact with my skin.
Jean-Paul was the first out of the opening, recklessly climbing through the web on the outside of the tower, almost slipping off in his haste. I caught up with him and he slowed down. The black ivy outside seemed to be inert but the bloated disk of Gliese 512 was slipping below the thicket of towers, flooding Dis with dusk. We had headlights but I did not want to turn them on. I did not want the city to see us.
Finally, we reached the ground and ran through the curdling darkness toward the place where we had left Malika’s body. There was no question now that the city was awakening. Daemons clambered down the ivy-covered walls but now these puppets – or were they prey? –were becoming aware of us. The city rang with their voices. But their shouting was as inarticulate as a cry of pain. And perhaps that was exactly what it was. Heads turned as we passed by; feet tried to trip us off; hands tried to grab us. But these actions were as sluggish and uncoordinated as the creeping of the ivy inside the tower, and we ran fast, spurred on by the gathering dark.
We came to the place where Malika’s body had been and saw a white gleam in the pool of shadows, the ivory of the skeleton smeared with drying blood. Jean-Paul gasped but I was numb. Stumbling, almost falling, but tugging each other along, we finally jumped over the sharp line that divided Dis from its surrounding plain.
The slime molds were soft under our feet but as restless as the city. I pulled out my gun.
The twilight was thickening into the night, and Gliese 512-b did not have a moon. But there was still enough light to show me that the planet was awakening. I saw the parchment-like cover bulge and split. A blind snout pokes out from the fissure. A flat snake’s head, as big as a five-year-old. It dove back, the slime mold closing seamlessly over it. I caught a glimpse of what was on top of its ridged skull: a screaming human face,
The ground was roiling and shaking under our feet. Long rolls of flaking skin humped up and flattened back, undulating like gargantuan caterpillars. What would this shaking do to our capsule?
When we finally saw our perimeter lights, I was relieved that the capsule was still in place and seemed undamaged. We dove through the automatic door and I almost collided with Qingshan who was standing at the entrance, nervously wringing her hands.
“What happened?” I yelled.
“Spartak. He…he saw something on the feed. I don’t know what. He got really upset, demanded that we go into transit now. But I refused to program the key, said we should wait for you. And then…he went into the gaming mode and I can’t wake him up…”
Spartak’s body was slumped on the floor of the lounge. I turned him over, seeing his bloodshot eyes, the pupils dilated, the irises dappled with shadows. He was breathing, deeply and sonorously, but Jean-Paul shook his head. Gaming coma, it was called, when the software implanted in the brain overloaded, sending random electrical signals into the cortex and shutting it off. It was reversible in most cases, though resulting in some brain damage. He could be treated in a clinic on Earth. If we could reach it.
The feed showed only blackness marbled with even blacker shadows but I could imagine what Spartak might have seen to send him into the refuge of the familiar dangers and predictable monstrosities of the game-world. The snakehead with a screaming face on top…Who knew what else bred in the darkness of the planet-wide slime molds?
“Can you program the key?” Jean-Paul asked.
“But what about Malika and the captain?”
We told her.
The quantum key was small and inconspicuous: just a gleaming box with a folding input keyboard. Qingshan touched and paused looking at us.
“What did you find?” she asked.
“Dis is alive,” Jean-Paul said wearily. “We were so stupid, trying to figure out why the city’s builders would not talk to us. Well, because they can’t. They are no more intelligent than the bacteria in your gut. The entire city is one giant organism. A composite, like the slime molds outside. The Daemons…I don’t know where they come from. But I think they have been captured. And bred.”
“Yes. This planet…the ecosystem here is out of whack. Slime molds don’t photosynthesize. They are predatory, feeding on other organisms. There must be some input of solar energy into the system, maybe from water plants, but otherwise…it’s all about eating. The city eating its inhabitants, the ground cover eating whatever it is breeding underneath. But at some point, it’ll run out of food. This planet will eat itself.”
“So, no intelligence?”
Jean-Paul shook his head.
“Maybe the Daemons were intelligent at the beginning. But now they are just cattle.”
I turned away, staring at the black screen. This was disappointing. But after all, we did not come looking for exchanging wisdom with space brothers. Intelligence would be a side benefit, something to boost our ratings on vid shows. The real money was in biologicals. And an organism that could literally build entire cities; that could tame and genetically modify other species; that could create an entire farming economy within itself….That would be worth billions!
The capsule shook. Qingshan gave a frightened squeak.
The screen showed something moving in a tangle of shadows. Something big. Very big.
“Do it!” I yelled at Qingshan. “And program it for return!”
Her fingers flew over the keyboard as the capsule shook and listed. Jean-Paul opened his mouth but I could hear nothing in the thunderous ripping, tearing noise coming from the outside.
And then we were in transit.
Quantum transit, of course, takes no time, either objective or subjective. Quantum tunneling plays havoc with what we, in our arrogance, think of as the constants of spacetime. But there is an interval in which the object in transit sort of settles into its new coordinates. It takes about five minutes. Some people react to it with nausea and headaches but I was immune. Jean-Paul looked a little green around the gills. Qingshan stood still, her eyes on the keyboard.
I looked at the prone body of Spartak.
“We’ll be able to afford the best clinic for him,“. I said. “Cure him of his gaming addiction.”
Qingshan said something but so softly that I had to ask her to repeat it.
“I told you I have an algorithm for return,” she said, “and it works. But I ran a simulation again and it…well, it is precise with regard to space but it is smeared across time.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can pinpoint two coordinates in space and create a permanent quantum link between them. But as a corollary of the uncertainty principle, I cannot determine the temporal displacement. It will always be arbitrary to a degree.”
“Speak English!” I yelled, suddenly furious.
Qingshan finally looked up into my eyes.
“We are back on Earth, Ruthie,” she said. “In exactly the same point where we started. But I don’t know when we are. We may be in the past or more likely, in the future. In order to ensure the possibility of our return to Gliese 512-b, I had to twist time. Don’t be surprised if our investors have forgotten all about us.”
Jean-Paul meanwhile had unlocked the door. The fresh light of early morning spilled across the threshold.
The rigidity of his back told me more than a scream would. I stepped forward to stand beside him.
Looming above the parchment-like plain, black ivy-draped towers gleamed in Earth’s yellow sunshine.