By Sloane Leong
The scent of quartz hits you like a collapse, inky dreams crumbling into a cold, crisp awareness. White dust falls from your eyes and mouth as they part in a gasp, pink saliva oozing a new trail from the gate of your glassine teeth. You will all six of your eyes open, breaking the crystal rind with rapid blinks. The sound of your eyelids crackling the hardened film across your pupils, the sounds like a newborn escaping its egg. You heave a firstborn breath, agonized. What has woken you?
You sit up with all the pain a crystallized body offers, emaciated, full of ancient stalagmite ribs and thin, shriveled entrails. You untangle yourself from your nest’s nutrient-rich feeding tendrils. They slither back into the porous walls with a sucking pop. You lick your time-bloomed sores, knead the knots of vigilante veins and arteries with the heel of your clawed hand. Vision returns slow as flow stone, dripping into clarity. When it finally settles into the vivacity you recall, you look out of your skull at the grey-pink ruin of your skin, your many arms, flushed talons, the knotted river of a tail. You wonder how long the sickness has kept you beneath the black membrane of sleep.
A foreign sound spears through you like a stinger.
In the deep recesses of your den, you see your sisters. Have they woken you? Called you from beyond hibernation? No. They are coiled up with one another, a cluster of sculpted diamond fossils and rolling opalescent spines. The nest’s umbilici nurse them in their dehydrated slumber, their bodies lantern-lit with liquified algae, glowing them blue from the inside out. Ragged breaths swell the cavities that houses their delicate fluttering lungs, the slow inhalations like a clatter of falling pebbles. Just the presence of other living things makes hunger thump hollow in the fist of your stomachs. You hover over them, the expanse of your thousand arms capturing the faint luminance their bones emit, a whisper of light on your translucent skin.
You stretch out a single hand over your oldest sister’s crown, listen to the heart buried in her ancient bones. A diadem of sharp segmented horns jut from the apex of her illustrious skull. Her filaments rise up eagerly from the middle of her forehead and pierce the center of your palm, hooking into the soft silver skin defiantly. Your oldest sister dreams loud, images screeching through the nerve channel:
oceans of grief explode from the black pressure/abandoned skies flicker into absence/emptiness drones into the crying future/floods of violence bruise blood high in the skin/respirating endless ash/the music of a memory a suicide of the last fetish for life
You unbridge your minds with a quick tug. You slither to your younger sibling’s side, hold a weary hand over her ivory head. Her flesh contorts and blossoms, a scaffolding of nerves leap and curl upwards from the thin skin of her forehead. They root into your open palm, lotus-like, symmetric. Through the nerve channel, she whispers:
suckling from heavens wounds
the blackened teats of void and fire
I test the truth of corroded space with every palm
I make queens of every lesser dimension
daughters of every starlight vapor
You let her rest, the connection already wringing you of what little waking energy had roused you. They are stirring, but not ready to wake quite yet. A little more solitude will do you good as you recover your sense of self.
A specter skitters in the chasms. The subtle wave of noise circulates in your skull.
The tunnel from your sleeping chambers to the feeding den is cavernous now that your body is starved slim, ripped of its meaty regality by sleep and starvation. Time has tailored the bones in your hands as well, their muscular thickness whittled down to transparent grasping slivers. They creak as you crawl onwards, muscles snapping in a staccato rhythm as you lay down hand after hand after hand, the roll of your thousand shoulders smoothing into a singular muscular wave of motion.
It takes you five seconds to take one thousand steps, to cross the stretch of untouched cavern hall. A sense of bitterness overtakes you. You are slow and withered and tired, and your millepede majesty is not what it once was. The ligaments in your shoulders shudder in effort after the next wave of movement. As you move, you see the ceiling bubbled with ancient eggs. The thought of offspring pulls resonant chords from your throat, strumming sorrow from your muscle fibers. You shake the dust from your spine and elongate your neck to reach the clutch clustered on the stone. Your tongue flicks out to listen to the quiescent embryos, waiting to feel the vibrato of the hatchling hearts.
You hear the shattering before you see them break. They crumble in at your proximity, their delicate husks giving way to golden particles. No watery egg matter, no precious viscous infant. Only dust. Only a future drawn in ashen particulate. You suck your tongue back behind the enamel cage of your teeth and feel another sour flavor burden the bile in your throat. You have been asleep longer than you ever meant to be; even your progeny has succumbed to the strange malady. You are atrophied nursemaid, blind gravedigger. Dead queen of a sarcophagus moon. You purr a mourning song and trample the egg dust back into the dirt of the tunnel.
A second sound flares an echo. A foreign scent ghosts into your nose.
You trail it, predator reflex edging your wan skin. The emerald glow of the feeding den leads you on. Your jaws gape a little, stomachs turning at the prospect of a meal. Movement from a distant chamber siphons vibration through the tunnels. The polyps in the floor grow taut with unease. Still bone-sharp and fire-pulsed, you draw away and let the sound lead you, your body finally awake and hemorrhaging predatory instincts once more. Something is in the nesting tunnels.
You sniff the air, shutting your waxen eyes, and test the scent against your magot-ridden memory. The scent is bilious and cuts through your olfactory recess like your mother’s talons. The culling room is carbon black and capillaries of phosphorous red light allow it only to smolder, never glow. The noise is louder now. You hear murmuring in a foreign tongue, flaccid syllables falling from a mouth that has only one mandible. An incessant beeping chirps out quicker now, the sound of it ricocheting off the walls of the culling chamber like calamitous curses. A luminous creature stands among the carnivorous flora, miniscule and pathetically structured. Four-limbed. Bipedal. A pest? A phantom? No. What are they called? Oh, yes. A human.
The human doesn’t seem to see you, hear you. It is kneeling down, examining the teeth of the culling flowers, lights from its second skin glowing in delicate lines down the front of its body. You peer a little harder and see it carries a small object with it in one hand while the other prods the culling blossoms petals. The beep echoes from the little object, a wave of laser light poring over the flora, mapping it out in a grid of light. Curiosity steels your reflexes and you resist the urge to snap the little being up into your mouths. You crouch low in the primordial bulbs of fanged festering flowers and slither closer. It is almost embryonic in its dwarfishness, you think. You are moon-skinned and majestic, and your hands arc silent over the diminutive creature like chiming wings. You listen to its heart flutter steady, waiting for it to notice you in the darkness.
You snatch it up on the third pulse, the blood flow to its single heart catapulting into rapid pulsation. It screams in terror as you hold its limbs apart, the singular tone pathetically monotonous. Two arms, two legs. Nothing more than a pink amputated spider, crippled arachnid. Your crystal teeth set into a trifecta of frowns and attempt to communicate a word to be silent, but the human only screams in response, clutches the sides of its little skull. It gasps and flails as you offer it the nerve endings from your speaking palm, the tendrils flowing towards its howling face. It yowls and struggles even more, uselessly squirming in your hold.
You hiss in frustration. Perhaps it would be wiser to simply eat it. The little creature has not yet developed the ability of higher communication. It continues to squawk out incomprehensible base language, high decibel cries. Your nerves are rendered fluorescent as the instinct to transcribe your body into something quiet, predatory, moves over you. You mine your past and recall the curious species, its abilities and impairments, and suddenly feel relieved. Perhaps it might help you pass the time until your sisters wake.
You offer it an open palm with pythonic grace, a delicate coil of nerves reaching outwards towards the tiny entity again. It responds, slow as amniotic sap, looking up at your six eyes with its meager, un-glowing pair, terror dampened by curiosity. It is wondering why it is not dead yet, you think. It may be cleverer than you gave it credit for. Your bones burn a pale vigil and the luminance causes the human to pause and reach out to you. This is not the first emissary or vermin you’ve enraptured with the glory of your body; its effulgence is hypnotic, an aspect even you are susceptible to.
Your nerves reach out, pricking a tiny entrance into the foreign creature’s palm, electric flitting back and forth across the bridge of hybrid fibers. You blink at the clear connection, lachrymal ooze pooling in the corner of your sestet eyes like tar. You inquire of the human, though you do not know how to designate it. You wonder briefly if it also has sisters like you do. You decide to refer to its dominant permutation of creatic fragrances wafting from the banquet of its body.
“Fear-salt-fleeing-love, do not be frightened. Tell us why you are here, in my moon-nest-kingdom.” The human is shaking and its open palm is leaking a small channel of red down its wrist. You braid the connection tighter, hoping she understands you. Humans have such a strange way of gathering and sorting the elements of their world; their language is a parasitic thing, its function leech-simple. You wonder if perhaps it is confused, but then the human speaks.
“My ship landed here. She is hurt, her wing is blasted apart. Someone was chasing us. S-she is sitting on the surface of this moon. I am looking for material to repair her, so I ventured into these caverns…” The human is tense, but the syncopation of its words coupled with the stream of untendered thoughts through the nerve bridge allow you to grasp its meaning.
You angle your head towards the moon’s surface, incline your sixth eyes to search for heat vectors through the strata. It doesn’t take you long to find it. “Your ship is crying out.”
The human nods and its trembling tickles the veins in your arms. You hear your sisters yawn in the not so distant nesting chamber, their moans snaking through the tunnels in purring waves across the sediment. You look at the miniscule being once more, tentacle tongue lapping at your upper mandible in thought. The tenor of your sisters rising vibrates the delicate motes of pollen in the air.
You rush in a blaze of unfurling limb through the cave channels, moving like smoke through the shard nest and up to the exoskeletal layer of the moon where the human’s ship sits singing itself a dirge. The human doesn’t squirm as you crawl, but you can feel its only set of eyes on you, tracking the saliva running down your throat.
“What…what are you? Do you have a name?” The clarity of the questions surprise and confuse you; humans seem to be obsessed with individualism, inertia, singularities.
“Name? Many names. Many ‘whats’.” You sleuth through her visual memories, plucking out concepts from her past and compiling a visual and verbal collage of ‘whats’ that could help her grasp what you are at the present moment. You think you have something suitable. A ‘name’. “My presence now is mountainwomb-keratinfather-millipedesister-famineheart-wondercrave-cavernking-vermintender.”
You cannot read the emotion in the human’s beady eyes but you imagine she is not grasping your attempt at sharing the cumulous excuse for a parsable identity. The human can only offer a quiet “oh.” It was a silly concept to begin with.
“My name is Sarantstral.” The human looks down and then off somewhere else, as if it is confused. Perhaps it is always confused, an integral part of its nature. You hiss your acknowledgment, but you do not understand the concept of having a ‘name,’ as it does not explain anything about the creature’s make up or mood or intent.
Sarantstral bares her tiny teeth at you, not unlike a few leeches you pulled from your skin once. “I will call you Daban. It means ‘mountain,’ in my tongue. It is easier to remember than…all that.”
You rumble a little at the human’s pronouncement. It seems pleased with itself, but naming you after a singular concept seems useless, if not insulting. You burn through the passageways, a blur of aquamarine fungus coating every inch of the cavernous halls. Hibernation stales the caves during the colony’s aphelion, and the air is thick and heavy from its stagnation. You feel colder as you reach the skin of the colony, and then you are there, breaking the surface of your ruminant castle. You hear the low humming of engines running on mute and see the human’s ship across the flushed sands. Stars bleed the black from the sky, and you cannot remember the skin of the colony looking this vivid, luminant against the vast ocean of dark matter that floats around you.
You set Sarantstral down on the surface and it taps out something atop its wrist, a rhythm, a pattern, a message. “Here, I’ll show you my ship. Her wing was infected with starmites after getting hit by a hivebeam. They’re eating her…”
You follow Sarantstral to its small ship, a watery silver contraption made of soft angles and flowing contours, its membranes throbbing in time with its pendulumlike weeping. You examine the insectoid abrasions on its right wing as Sarantstral soothes it, petting its long beak and whispering assurance into the transparent mucous that compromises its skin. It is an infantile ship, and it is already septic, blushing sand settling into the gaps in its body. Its cartilage is beyond repair. A pang of maternal pity flushes through your enthroned arteries. You consider your thoughts, mold them into something the human can parse. “We-I will need to…take it into us. It needs to be gutted and reconstituted within our-my body.” Sarantstral seems frozen to the spot. You take the silence as assent and unhinge your jaws with a wet series of cracks.
“No!” The human fumbles at its side, pulls a minuscule object out of a holster at its hip. Recognition flickers. A plasma gun. They aim it between your sextet pupils, the gleam of its laser sighter an insignificant mote of light on your looming carapace. “No, you can’t eat her! Please, you said you would help!” There is a new smell on the human now, rage sloughing off it like a musk.
You do not feel the need to explain yourself. You pinch the gun into particulate. The human screeches in frustration but you brush her aside and hollow your jaws. You swallow the ship with a golden-tongued slurp. Sarantstral screams, a grief-laced sound, and pulls ineffectively at one of your many wrists, beating against the weight of your serpentine body. The ship’s fear manifests itself as thorns to keep its imminent digestion at bay, a last-ditch effort in its agony. You growl, annoyed, and choke the ship down, its long wings flailing from between your lips. The human goes limp in your grip, watches in whimpering horror as its ship-companion-parasite ekes its way down your throat.
You muscle it down, and your long-starved belly grows fat with new matter. You wait. The ship coils up in your gut, screeching out in unknown languages as it is invaded by your charlatan cells. It thrashes as you rejuvenate its stricken bones, its tattered wings. When it quiets and your stomach begins to roil, you dig your thousand hands into the softness of the moon and heave forward, your central mouth unhinging. You vomit the creature at the moon’s feet, reborn from abyss to abyss, its new nova-bright wings now more than worthy of cutting through intergalactic space. It glistens in your verdant saliva and shakes itself loose from the embryonic sap, cries out in an eclipse of joy and glory.
Triumphant with the revelation of motherhood, you let the human loose. Sarantstral stumbles to the ship’s side, splashing through the amniotic mucus to embrace the sharp line of the ship’s neck. There are blades in the human’s voice when it thanks you, the words scraped raw with tears. The ship trembles and unfurls its millipede-crafted wings, sharp enough to shear a comet in two. You look over its form proudly; the ship is more than lucky to share your royal genes, your majestic cells. On this dormant moon, in the deafening black thought of space, this, before you, is something like a descendant. A child forged, finally, with your blood, born in the temple of your will.
Then you hear them. Your sisters clawing up from the abyssal caves, an insurrection against their own hibernation, drawn to the waking world by the smell of foreign creatures.
“What is that…?” Sarantstral follows your line of sight. The ship glowers, vitreous skin rippling in fear.
“Our-my kin.” You nuzzle the ship, stimulate the condensed bud of its engines into blooming. “You-they should leave if you-they want to stay alive.”
Sarantstral stutters out a nod and jumps into the new, shimmering flesh of its hybrid ship, settling into the apex of its newborn brain and manipulating the gelatinous limbs with the twitch of their small fingers. Sarantstral flinches when it swallows the first bit of sentient ship jelly, grits her teeth when its filaments embed into her spine. The craft and human unify in their consumption of one another, body into body, mind into mind. Alighting from the ground, the ship rises, unshackled from mite-eaten wings, dyed the softest hue of emerald, a gift from you, the tyranness worm of the cavernous pink moon. The ship and Sarantsatsral steal away into the sky and you follow them up and up and up, and that is when you see it. In the theatre of star-black, a myriad of muted ships, blinking in and out of the darkness. Their transparent near-invisible hulls blanket the landscape of the sky.
Culling barges dissolving into existence.
Your sisters spring from the ground, yowling as they force themselves through a small opening. They are serpentine disarray, tangled up in each other, tooth to tail, fang against scale. They kick up pearl-pink dust behind them as they stampede towards you, incarnated from slumbering skeletons to roaring queen-worms. The sight of the ships shimmering like broken glass in the sky makes them growl, shaking the moon with rage. The sky is dotted with the gently sloped crafts as if the cave fungus had reached into the moist vault of the stars and planted its family there among them the glowing bodies.
“Hunters!” They hiss, their vicinity all violet shadows. “Enemies! Trespassers!” Their screech rises in a bloody chorus, the army of their voices tearing across the moon. The first barge sends down a filament of quantum fire, draping into a spiral around you. Your siblings rush to tent you with their spines, a prism of scaled light, a heaving, dripping, shining sarcophagus. You are sweating layers of malachite from fear. Your sisters scream in horror as the ships move in closer, their engines howling bone-deep as they approach.
The barges unravel more long, spear-like tendrils from their mouths, taunting and teasing you and your monarchal sisters with their daring proximity. You screech and snap at the burning filaments together, and then, there is a rush of searing agony from every direction, pain falling in on you like an entire moon crash. The tendrils straighten and fly downwards, piercing and pinning you all to the pearlescent sands beneath.
You are a thicket of tangled, impaled hearts, a choir of agonized song. You are bilebetrayed-bloodscaled-keratinlonging-lovelunged. You lose feeling in your limbs. Your vision blackens. Together you roar from your hexad throats until silence consumes the world. Time flashes in and out like a scenting tongue.
The world blurs into nothing around you.
Vile inflammation orbits the dark vectors. Vacuum pulls at figure chitin. A vapor penumbra your trance.
You wake surrounded by a foreign flux of heat. The buzz of it encases you like a chrysalis. Your senses melt into the shape of the world around you, constrict down to skin, and then muscle, then bone. You test your teeth against the ground; it is not soft like the ship you swallowed, but made purely of coarse bone and stinging spines. You thrash against the heat, and triangles of blazing violet light resound out, sparking against your skin. Any movement chars your skin to tendon.
You go slack, and finally, you see: the humans have pulled you and your sister’s carcasses into the gut of the culling barge’s main hangar. In the cages across the chamber, you see the remnants of your flayed sisters, honeycombed with exit wounds, the end result of being speared through with quantum thread. You curl up tight to yourself, helpless as a larva, watching three of your sisters become minced and deboned, pickled and boxed. The barges are processing you, preparing you as delicacies to sell. You watch them send pieces of your sisters down the processing tract silently as stone. You test the strength of your cage again, prodding it with a single clawed finger. There is a loud snap and you draw your hand back, your talon nothing more than black stump.
Then you smell it, that familiar mix of scent marker. The human. Sarantstral.
They slink behind the processions of glowing cages, inching their way towards you. You arch your neck down to see into the dark flecks of its eyes and they reach through the bars of the cage, pressing their small hand to your forehead.
“Daban, I’m so sorry.”
Her voice is a fragile thing, eggshell thin, but it is lacquered in the purity of truth; she did not mean to bring death down upon you and yours. Sarantstral taps out a quick, leaping sequence on the hololock on your cage, and suddenly, the burning bars disappear. Sarantstral stumbles back, and you unfurl all the length of your limbs, freed. You nudge Sarantstral away, and they understand there is nothing left for them to do but get out of your way.
What you mean to do next will leave nothing alive because you are Daban. You are mountainqueen-wormking-starvingdaughter. You are ragethirst-famineboned-venomtongued-vengeancecoiling. You move like an explosion from your first prison, surge through the rest of the culling fleet like a dancing plague. The barges break under the force of your touch, talons rending their exoskeletons to dust as you tear each and every heart-engine free and open until blue fire floods the black emptiness.
You are death, and you gather the remnants of your sisters into your arms to watch the procession of slag and barge rubble. Your wounds ooze haemic silk as you float in space, the wreckage of the behemoth barges and their gelatinous innards drifting around you, silent as clouds. You have never felt cold like this. Your skin is disintegrating, and you realize your bones have never been splayed to the distant sun in such a way.
You embrace what is left of your sisters, to what is left of you. A vertebra, a claw, a molar, a larynx, your youngest sister’s severed head. Sarantstral has already fled far from the turmoil of your fury, a milky black trail of displaced dark matter marking its wake. It pleases you to know the ship is the last of you, that your child-ship-hatchling will conqueror the seven star-quadrants and cut through all the suns that mar its path. Your body segments itself apart, baring you to the last sensation of ancient light, of elder void, and you wonder at how sensual it is, this final exit, the numbing warmth of sinking into the boiling black.
Your heart decays, flakes away, your particles flocking outwards
towards the nearest spiral galaxy. Your eyes flood with shadow as you suck in your last breath, sated in every atom, cradled by your sisters. The stars coax your consciousness away. Thoughts maraud the expanse of nothingness. Each exhalation a perfect black gestation. The vision of your future condenses down into a filament of hope stretching out forever into nova mist. A pinpoint of light in your child’s wake.
© 2020, Sloane Leong