By Peter Watts
Those encysted souls. Those tumors. Hiding away in their bony caverns, folded in on themselves. I knew they couldn`t hide forever; this monstrous anatomy had only slowed communion, not stopped it. Every moment I grew a little. I could feel myself twinning around Palmer`s motor wiring, sniffing upstream along a million tiny currents. I could sense my infiltration of that dark thinking mass behind Blair’s eyes.
Imagination, of course. It’s all reflex that far down, unconscious and immune to micromanagement. And yet, a part of me wanted to stop while there was still time. I’m used to incorporating souls, not rooming with them.
This, this compartmentalization was unprecedented. I’ve assimilated a thousand worlds stronger than this, but never one so strange. What would happen when I met the spark in the tumor? Who would assimilate who?
I was being three men by now. The world was growing wary, but it hadn’t noticed yet. Even the tumors in the skins I had taken didn’t know how close I was. For that I could only be grateful – that Creation has rules, that some things don’t change no matter what shape you take. It doesn’t matter whether a soul spreads throughout the skin of festers in grotesque isolation; it still runs on electricity. The memories of man still took time to gel, to pass through whatever gatekeepers filtered noise from signal – and a judicious burst of static, however indiscriminate, still cleared those caches before their contents could be stored permanently. Clear enough, at least, to let these tumors simply forget that something else moved their arms and legs on occasion.
At first, I only took control when the skins closed their eyes and their searchlights flickered disconcertingly across unreal imagery, patterns that flowed senselessly into one another like hyperactive biomass unable to settle on a single shape. (Dreams, one searchlight told me, and a little later, Nightmares). During those mysterious periods of dormancy when the men lay inert and isolated, it was safe to come out.
Soon, though, the dreams dried up. All eyes stayed open all the time, fixed on shadows and each other. Men once dispersed throughout the camp began to draw together, to give up their solitary pursuits in in favor of company. At first I thought they might be finding common ground in a common fear. I even hoped that finally, they might shake off their mysterious fossilization and take communion.
But no. They’d just stopped trusting anything they couldn’t see.
They were merely turning against each other.
My extremities are beginning to numb, my thoughts slow as the distal reaches of my soul succumb to the chill. The weight of the flamethrower pulls at its harness, forever tugs me just a little off-balance. I have not been Childs for very long; almost half his tissue remains unassimilated. I have an hour, may be two, before I have to start melting my grave into the ice. By that time I need to have converted enough cells to keep the whole skin from crystallizing. I focus on antifreeze production.
It’s almost peaceful out there. There’s been so much to take in, so little time to process it. Hiding in these skins takes such concentration, and under all those watchful eyes I was lucky if communion lasted long enough to exchange memories: compounding my soul would have been out of the question. Now, though, there is nothing to do but prepare for oblivion. Nothing to occupy my thoughts, but all these lessons left unlearned.
MacReady’s test sample, by example. His thing detector, to expose imposters posing as men. It does not work nearly as well as the world thinks; but the fact that it works at all violates the most basic rules of biology. It’s the center of the puzzle. It’s the answer to all the mysteries. I might have already figured it out if I had been just a little larger. I might already know the world, if the world wasn’t trying so ahrd to kill me.
Either it is impossible or I have been wrong about everything.
Soon, though, the dreams dried up. Image: Megan Jorgensen