Phages of the Free Radical

In a distant dimension where inner and outer space are one and the same, cell-like beings must abandon their lung-like planet before it is struck by wandering debris.  One among them is not what they seem, entranced by the dancing fluids inside each of them, hungry to understand it…

(reading time: 1 hour, 31 minutes)

I do not grant you permission to see this lightly, but I tire of your begging and pleading.  I have real work to do.  If you want to waste your time, go ahead; I won’t stop you.  I guess you’ve proven I can’t anyway.

Put it back when you’re done, as if nobody ever touched it.

(Entry taken from the non-translatable non-transferable infinitely confounding and infinitely compounding encyclopedia of the worlds: first and final definitive edition.  All inquiries should avoid creation as there is nowhere and no one for them to be directed to)

World //5; Metriol; Endecto; W-U-5; Serum:  It is a common trait of most worlds that they be divided into two firm distinctions of space by relevant entities: the space within the entities including but not limited to vital and preferable organs and the spirit… and the space outside the entities including but not limited to everything else conceivable up to the points that concern this encyclopedia and its governing body.

World //5 does not carry any such distinction.  Its inner and outer spaces are one and the same.  The common blackness of space and the thickness of blood are replaced by the clear-brown bile called bichor.  In place of planets and organs there are planetodes, concentrations of biological purpose that are often distinct from their brethren. 

Respirodes convert gasses.  Nephrodes filter the products of decomposition until they form black necrotic spots in the bichorous space.  Oonodes breed planetodes.  Neurodes think and feel for World //5.  Cardiodes stir up the bichorous space, flinging planetodes and entities to the furthest reaches of World //5.

Here lives entities uniquely connected to their whole, the boundless semi-liquid body of World //5.  They strive to maintain the planetodes as both the maintenance devices of their physical reality and solid spaces to live. 

Dullreds carry out the smallest and most vital tasks.  Burstblues imagine the most ethereal and most vital concepts.  Growgreens embellish other living things, be it by decoration or multiplication, both of which could be physical, intellectual, or spiritual.  Burnwhites enforce the rules that come to them from the hereditary strands that started it all and now help World //5 in its endless expansion as it competes with the other entries in this encyclopedia.  Illindigos interfere.

Every being serves its purpose in the biological whole, but this purpose is not always clear to each and every entity residing within.  Only in this matter do the beings in World //5 conflict.  It is the presence of this conflict that qualifies World //5 for one of the precious remaining spaces in this encyclopedia, as all worlds without conflict are of no benefit, like stone gardens or lidless cubes.

Provided below is an example of this conflict.  If this image serves as insufficient clarification on World //5, please refrain from forming any queries as they further cloud the spaces between worlds.  You’ll wind up further from World //5 than you started.  Focus instead on what the example clarifies for you individually.

The Disaster

A blue spire, like a tall cloud burrowed through and through by flying worms, expanded and contracted slowly and silently in the bichorous space.  Spongy tunnels and mountain ranges covered its surface, with the mountains resembling a spiral staircase around the column.  Its bulbous end made it recognizable as Longba, the largest respirode in the space known as the Upper Cavity.

It was a peaceful place where everyone traded with oxygen bubbles.  Sometimes they got away from you, like they were alive, and floated too far from the surface.  Sometimes the children chased them like pets off the leash, but they were warned of the danger.  A bubble could survive just fine out there in the endless liquid, but without something more solid to cling to a cell could die of exposure or starvation.  So sometimes it was best to let the bubbles go.  They weren’t worth your life.

It was a good time for Longba; the bubbles were plentiful, the one spot of cancerous growth in remission.  Everyone on the respirode was confident it would be gone soon.  The healthy inflation of the planetode testified to that.  There was talk of opening it up, of letting oxygen geysers form, of letting everyone become wrapped up in the effervescent treasure until an age of festivals began.  If they’d actually gone through with it the approach of the free radical would have been apocalyptic instead of simply devastating.

The first sign of it was the debris that rained on Longba: shards of the world’s heredity.  They pierced the bubbles around the planetode like red knobby spears and struck with such force that they opened oxygen geysers.  These were not the products of slow planning.  They were nothing to celebrate.  The holes were ragged wounds, far too large to be useful.  The land around them became unstable and unlivable.  The flapping edges of their membranes danced high into the air, tantalizing any infectious agents with their seductive dance of a death-flail.

Then the free radical appeared in the sky.  Its shape was grotesque.  The meteoric radical was pitted and spiked with crimson coagulation.  When neural light passed through its translucent extremities it dyed everything below the red of wounds.  Its tail was one long ragged membrane, with thick pockets trapping some bichor but failing to slow the monstrous blob in a meaningful way.

Longba had time to prepare, not enough to prepare perfectly, but enough to pack up any tissue they wanted to take with them when they left.  They sent chemical messages: flares that flagellated the bichor to travel nearly as fast as neural light.  They called for help, charity, and compassion.  Many from other planetodes and tissue clouds answered the call.  They created and piloted multicellular ships that could act as lifeboats for those trapped on Longba.  The timing was close.  Most of the rescuers arrived shortly before the direct effects of the free radical were felt.

The Burstblues calculated exactly where it would strike and organized emigration roads across the surface of the respirode, roads that had to occasionally twist and turn to avoid the mortal loss of oxygen from the geysers.  The entire population, aside from those too old and stubborn to leave their home that they started to see a feverish glory in dying in the impact, moved to an evacuation site they named the Shore of Oxygen’s End.  The Burstblues recorded the name in their electrified cytoplasm, to keep it in the history as long as their lines existed.

The free radical’s impact was heartbeats away and the Shore of Oxygen’s End was chaos.  Millions of cells crowded the gentle dimple in Longba’s surface.  Hastily constructed cytoplasmic towers housed the rescue ships.  Cells crowded the base of the towers, holding up their hands and flagellum in prayer to the rescuers.

The immunity cells of Longba, the Burnwhites, were out in full force to treat the injuries caused by panic and trampling.  They were not hunters, but they still took plenty of precautions to weed out infectious agents.  Every cell that entered the Shore of Oxygen’s End was required to supply a plasmid, a concentrated soliloquy of their own heredity, to prove their docile nature.

In their dumb terror, a horde of cells accidentally toppled a rescue tower trying to climb it.  The building collapsed and ripped a hole in the blue spongy flesh of Longba in the process.  Huge bubbles of oxygen escaped, carrying a few hapless cells trapped under their surface tension away.  They would watch their home planetode sink away from them and then they would die in their transparent flexible cages.

The medicinal Burnwhites, diminutive but strong cells with vibrant membranes and neural-lit eyes, selflessly threw themselves into the debris pile to save as many as they could.  Sometimes they would pull on a trapped Dullred only to have their surface shredded by the debris and their life force spilled into the air.  In that case nothing was left behind but a rubbery red skin like a popped balloon tossed back and forth on the floor by footsteps.  The bubbles, dyed red, purple, blue, and yellow by escaping fluids, obscured their vision nearly to the point of blindness.

The Burnwhites did not see where the Growgreen had come from.  Cells did not have sexes, but the Growgreen’s wineglass shape and head-flagella suggested femininity, as did her soft hands and her eyes like sucrose crystals.  Her membranous clothing was modest and torn.  She had a leaking wound on one ankle, but it was just a scratch.  The cell lifted herself out of the hole caused by the collapse and wandered around slowly in the confusion.

She’d never seen so much death before, and she was going to see much more if she didn’t get off Longba soon.  When the rubble grew sparser she spotted a Dullred’s hand sticking out from between two slabs of spongy ground.  She dropped to her knees and put her fingers between theirs.  She squeezed the hand like she wanted to take it for a walk and swing it at her side.  It did not squeeze back.  She frowned.  When the hand still did not respond she stood back up and wandered away from it, checking over her shoulder to see if the rigid red flag was still behind her.

Somebody knocked her over.  Another cell stepped on one of her arms, so she retracted it into her body and sprouted another one to avoid bruising as best she could.  A pair of Burnwhite hands came out of nowhere and grabbed her shoulders.  She flinched, but then relaxed and let the helpful cell pull her to her feet.

“What is your name?” the Burnwhite asked.  She looked back at him for a while, thinking it over.  “Do you have memory loss?”  He extended a finger so he could touch it to her neck and measure her biorhythms.  She reflexively grabbed his finger with three hands and pushed it away.  She retracted the third so as not to seem rude.

“I remember too much,” she said.  Her voice was like an echo that made you forget the original sound.  “My name is Triviel Growgreen.”

“Come with me Triviel,” the Burnwhite said.  “I will get you medical attention.”  He continued to hold her by the shoulders and helped her walk towards one of the white bulges in the tissue that dispensed aid.   They stopped at the checkpoint: a fence of purple arteries charged with bioelectricity.  Cells were lined up at the bowl shape in front of it.  Triviel stretched her neck to twice its natural length in order to see inside the bowl.  She pulled back quickly when the Burnwhite turned to look at her.

“What is that?” she asked.

“A plasmid test for infectious agents.  You’ll have to offer a sample to get treatment.”  Triviel tried to slow her steps but the Burnwhite just pulled harder.  She tried to soften her shoulders and slip out from his grip, but his grip tightened in response.   He glared at her, his eyes scouring the cell that didn’t seem to want medicine.  She stopped resisting to get that neural light off of her.

She retracted one of her two remaining hands, but instead of molding it away she turned it inside out.  The hand moved through the liquids within her membrane, fumbling around between the slats of higher and lower densities.  She felt around for something she thought would make an adequate example.  She pushed her memories out of the way; they would never do.  A splash of cool solubles… no.  A flexible rod of protein coaters… no.  Bubbles of hope… yes.  She wrapped her reverse hand around the bubbles and rolled them against her palm until they merged into one body.  Then she reversed the hand again and looked at the smooth floppy bubble in her grasp.

Inside it she saw a brightly lit circle of dancing nucleotides: Triviel as a sentence fragment.  Triviel as hindsight.  She checked to make sure the Burnwhite wasn’t looking; he was distracted by a fatty Dullred, bloated and orange, that was seated on its wide behind and bawling pearls of lipids up into the sky.  She ripped a piece from her clothing and wrapped it around her plasmid.  Then she fused them together with a hydrophobic coating.  It made her plasmid look much larger than before, but still passable.  She felt something on one of her flagella.  She looked and saw a third hand toying with it.  She retracted it; the poor cell always grew arms when she was nervous.  If the line to the test was much longer she’d be a ball of elbows before she got there.

“Please place your plasmid in the dish,” the Burnwhite said as he brought her up to its lip.  Triviel looked down into it and saw a hundred plasmids, smaller than hers, sliding around and investigating each other like amorous slugs.  “Please hurry.”  Triviel held her arm out.  She opened her hand and dropped the plasmid into the group.  She winced.  When she opened a third eye to just glimpse the results she saw her plasmid moving with the rest.  It was significantly slower and fatter, but it moved.  The others touched their ends to hers and didn’t pull back.  Despite its size it seemed to be one of the group.

Triviel looked up and saw a second Burnwhite with his hands fused to the lip of the plasmid dish.  His neck sank down into it and sniffed at her plasmid.  His fingers traveled through the body of the dish as whitish silt and then rose out of the basin, under her plasmid.  He squeezed it aggressively.  Triviel’s third eye winced.  A fourth one she’d unwittingly sprouted on her back did as well.  The suspicious Burnwhite savagely squeezed again and again, but the membrane held.  He dropped the plasmid and let the little proto-cell go about socializing with the others.

Though he looked angry, he produced a small white bubble badge and glued it to the front of her clothes: clearance to enter the evacuation zone.  The fence grew a hole.  The first Burnwhite half-pushed her through.  She saw the place where she could get treated… and drifted right past it.  Her ankle would stop leaking eventually and the las thing she wanted was another Burnwhite sniffing at her like she was necrotic.

Then it was the crowd’s turn to do the pushing.  Triviel was forced to move with the flow of bodies.  Eventually she reached a place where the pounding pulse of panic slowed, around the base of another cytoplasmic tower.  She entered the ground level of tissue and sprouted eyes atop her head to analyze the ceiling.  The floors above her were mostly transparent, letting her make out the rough shapes and sizes of all the evacuation craft.  Most of them looked big enough to hold a thousand cells, but there were plenty on the edges brought by individuals that hardly had room for two.  Three blue suction tubes penetrated all the layers of the tower and offered passage between them.  She just needed to step inside one and let the current of the bichor take her to one of a thousand options for salvation.

She was about to enter one when she heard something, a pathetic little noise like a goodbye withering before it could reach the person meant to hear it.  Curious, she circled around the tube.  At the center of the three tubes, squeezed into their round shadows, she saw a seated cell with his knees tucked up to his chin and his toes bent against the back of one of the tubes.

He was a Dullred, a commoner.  He was undersized, bald of flagella, and his head twisted back and forth on his neck, sometimes all the way around.  He made the pathetic goodbye noise three more times in quick succession.

“Hello,” Triviel said as sweetly as she could.  The Dullred’s face turned to her.  She thought he was adorable in a tragic sort of way, like an adult rocketed back to childhood by an unexpected hiccup.  His eyes were triple-lidded and the same color as the rest of his membrane.  Tiny bubbles raced up and down his weak jawline.  His decorative ears extended behind his head and connected.  He played with that connection nervously as he spoke with Triviel.

“Go and be rescued,” he said.  “You deserve it.”

“Don’t you?”

“I don’t deserve to think about what I deserve.”

“What is your name?”

“Contoor Dullred.”

“Why don’t you want to be rescued?”

“I acted as if this doom was always overhead.  I’m guilty of embodying an end that until recently did not even seem possible.  I’m ungrateful.  They all told me so.”  Triviel squeezed between the tubes and crouched down next to Contoor.  She felt the urge to reach out and touch him.  She extended her fingers, but Contoor retreated further into the crevice.

“Don’t run from me,” she said sternly.  Contoor stared at her, surprised by her tone.  She quickly softened her expression.  She sprouted extra eyes and made them big and moist.  She crawled closer to him, unperturbed by the tightening space.  Her cheeks squeezed flat as she brought her face right next to his.  Her flat fingers emerged and passed over his knees.  She didn’t touch him… yet.  “You don’t deserve death.”

“They say a free radical makes you do strange things…  It has signals…”

“You don’t need to die.”

“Prove it to me,” he said desperately.

“I don’t have to prove it to you.  You’re worth my time.  Come with me darling.”  She held out her flattened hand.  The Dullred looked down and saw the fluids leaking from her wounded ankle.

“You’re hurt,” he whispered.  “The medicine is back there.”

“You’re my medicine,” she cooed and took his hand.  He resisted some, widening his body so he couldn’t be pulled out of the crevice easily, but she did not relent.  When they were both free he collapsed in her arms.  She picked him up without difficulty, a strength that caught the eyes of a dozen cells around her.  She quickly entered the nearest dark tube, which sucked her and the Dullred upward.  She found the floor with the fewest cells and stepped out onto it.

“I haven’t been right for a long time,” Contoor said as he stared up at his forceful savior.  He played with her ripped clothing.

“There’s nothing right about this place,” Triviel said.  “That’s why it’s about to be wiped out.  The bubbles, the cancer… all gone.  We’ll be gone first.  Gone to a place that is right.”

“I already saw a Burstblue,” Contoor nearly whispered.

“What are you talking about?”

“He told me I was depressed.  He said a depressed cell is like an infectious agent and that I should either tear my own membrane… or go into exile.  I was trying to exile myself between those tubes until the free radical came for me and did what I couldn’t.”

“That won’t be happening.  You shouldn’t listen to those simplifying cells; they just want to tear you apart and look at your heredity.  You’re just pulpy bits to them.”  Triviel carried Contoor to a cluster of tiny vehicles.  She set him down in the shade of one and examined it.  The multicellular vehicle, devoid of intelligence thanks to the molding process, was roughly egg-shaped and topped with a decorative flagellum like the head of a molecular dragon.  It stood on ten cytoplasmic supports.  Its door hung wide open.  Triviel stuck her head inside and looked around.  There was room enough for two cells only.  She grew twenty eyes and looked everywhere for the owner.

“Is this yours?”  Contoor asked as he put a hand flat against the vehicle’s side.

“Yes,” she lied.  “It was someone else’s, but they were not a good cell.  They brought a rescue vehicle with room for only two cells.  The only cell that does that is one looking to leverage salvation for closeness.  Scaring themselves up a lover in the panic.”  She bent down and picked Contoor up.  Then she took him inside the vehicle and made him comfortable against a plush purple membrane.  She ran a flagellum along the door and sealed it with a sound like suction.  “Tell me everything Contoor.  Tell me why you are depressed.”  She began fiddling with the controls of the ship.

“There is nothing to tell.  I should destroy my memories so as to not waste time.”

“I forbid you from doing that,” Triviel said without looking away from the controls.  She pinched a waxy red bulb on the control panel and watched strands unfurl from it, like the digestive tracts of coral, and form a map.  She saw the tiny glob representing Longba and followed the tracts of the common travel routes to the nearest planetodes.

“I’m a Dullred,” he said.  “I was born here on Longba, under the cancer before it was cancer.  My family fled when the necrotic bulge began raining green and black on our home.  We were taken in by my parents’ employer, a Growgreen who made clothes and blankets for bigger fattier cells.  I used to play in those blankets…”

“That’s not all of it,” Triviel said when he went quiet.  She pulled on a phlegmy green cord and then stretched it over the viewing port so she could examine the background radiation.

“My parent put me in a work school so they wouldn’t have to pay for me.  I’m not upset with them… they had so many.  I had fourteen siblings.  Two of us had mutations they did not care for.  Mine makes it hard to carry oxygen.  I have to sip at it… the bubbles make me sick when they’re too big.  At the school they had to put me somewhere away from the bubbles, no easy task on a respirode.”

“Where did they put you?”  Triviel asked.  She put her hand in the protein lock.  It did not like her, but she tried out several finger and texture configurations until she found one that fit.  When she turned her wrist the ship came to life.  The cells glowed.  The ribosomes vibrated.

“They put me in the fiber separation vesicle.  Fibers rip sensitive respirode tissue, so it was my job to pull the fibers apart and send them down the line to be made harmless.”

“They put you on garbage duty!”  Triviel fumed.

“Are you angry with me?”

“I’m angry for you.  Someone has to be.  What else did they make you do while you waded around in that dry trash?”

“They didn’t make me do anything but my work… but I did have to do it alone.”

“Alone!  Unacceptable Contoor.  No more aloneness for you.”

“When I was alone with those fibers I would… I would take them and make big fluffy dummies out of them.  I would talk to them.  I don’t know what they would think of me now, fleeing a home they can’t leave.”

“No more dummies,” Triviel said absentmindedly.  “Just real cells.  Just you and me… and wherever we’re going.”  She forced her arm down into the protein lock.  The ship roared.  Crick critch crutach critch  The dried cytoplasmic struts cracked and gave way as the ship pulled against them.  The vehicle lifted into the air and slowly hovered out of the tower.  Then it rose.

“We’re leaving so soon,” Contoor said.  He finally took some initiative and placed a hand on a tiny porthole.  He grew an eye in his palm and watched the throngs of refugees swirling below like a storm of rainbow flesh.  He noticed there were still vehicles arriving and that they were one of the only ones leaving.  “The free radical isn’t here yet.  I wanted to say goodbye to Longba.”

“It won’t say goodbye to you.”

“It can’t.”

“No good.  You don’t need the cold here.  You need the warmth of hellos and how are yous.  It’s an old remedy for depression.”

“You think you can fix me?”

“I think we can fix each other.”  Triviel accelerated the ship’s upward climb.  When they broke the first skin of the atmosphere the crowds blurred.  Pulled back from the Shore of Oxygen’s End they saw the blue arteries that recycled Longba’s water.  The crisscrossing tube rivers looked weak and deflated; the debris from the approaching radical had punctured them in several places and created flood leaks.  They broke the second skin.  Now the land was nothing but purple and blue, with no clear line between them.  Then the third skin.  Longba was just an object out the porthole, like a wad of chewed gum dropped on the ground.  The vehicle stopped so Triviel could input more specific coordinates.  There was a pulsing dot on the map.  Triviel saw in it a real cure for her charge’s depression.

Back on the shore, the plasmid dish was nearly overflowing.  The Burnwhites were busy constructing another one, paying no attention to the fat plasmid trying to move around on the bottom.  The weight of the other refugees was becoming too much.  It could barely move.  It couldn’t slip out of the pressure like the others thanks to its unusual coating.  Another plasmid dropped into the dish.  More pressure.  Triviel’s plasmid started to flatten.  It felt trapped.  It was too simple to feel terror, but there was a panic to its molecular current.  More pressure.  The membrane ripped.

The smell of healthy cellular material bombarded Triviel’s plasmid.  Its green color flushed to a deep indigo.  Its insides coiled and sharpened into knots like sea shell necklaces.  Another plasmid investigated.  It touched the indigo tip of Triviel’s.  A rush.  A rage.  A trillion generations of crawling inside something alive and making it your own.  Triviel’s plasmid engulfed the other, swallowed it whole.  The smaller plasmid writhed for a moment, and then burst under the chemical assault.  Its heredity was ripped and macerated by the organelles of the abridged Triviel.

Panic erupted in the dish.  The plasmids tried to leap out, but most fell right back in.  They squirmed to the edge of the swarm, to the edge of the dish, and hugged the wall to stay safe when there was no safety to be had.  Only a moment where the threat was out of sight.  Only a moment where they could ignore the sickness.

The indigo plasmid consumed a second victim; it didn’t bother spitting out the remnants of the first one.  There were no remnants.  Everything that it was had changed to indigo.  Every molecule.  Every nucleotide.  Its first victim was barely anything more than a faded cave drawing inside its cell wall.  It slurped up a third with a sickening Schlup.  A fourth.  It was four times its original size now, big enough to start feasting from every direction.  Schlup Schlup Schlup Schlup  Its indigo top poked out of the dish like an island.  Plasmids overflowed and burrowed into the first weak spot they could find in Longba’s spongy tissues.

The indigo could not stop, could not conceive of stopping.  Stopping was the anti-state of the world.  Stopping was death.  Stopping was being stone, accepting one’s own burial.  Schlup  The indigo bulged over the edge of the dish.  A refugee finally noticed the indigo color and screamed.  She fled from the plasmid, away from the Shore entirely, because the burning churning destruction of the indifferent radical was better than sickness.  Even cancer was preferable to the creeping rotting growth of the indigo.

The scream drew the attention of the two closest Burnwhites.  Their eyes widened in panic at the sight of the bloated plasmid tipping the dish and crawling across the ground.  The tissue beneath it sagged and became stained with the blue of the infection.  The Burnwhites focused the neural light in their eyes into tight beams that scorched whatever tissue they stared at.  They built a perimeter of seared ground around the plasmid.  The bloated thing moaned in frustration and hunger.  Under its thick skin the agents of immunity could see sharp swirling infectious particles nearing wholeness.  Soon the plasmid would burst like a civilization’s cocoon and send a hundred more infectious agents in every direction.

The Burnwhites fought through the fleeing crowd to reach it.  They dared not zap it with their eyes for fear of spreading the agents into the bichor.  The refugees would flee to a million different corners of the Upper Cavity; it was the most ingenious place for an infection to strike.  One of the Burnwhites converted his legs into a spiraling cellular motor and flew to the Shore’s fence.  His fingers speared the top of the fence and flooded it with aggressive cleansing bubbles.  Then he ripped the fence, spewing fluids into the bichor, and tossed it like a net over the body of the plasmid.  It seared the creature’s thinning skin, but did not rupture it.  The smell was enough to make most Dullreds pass out, like burning rubber and plastic.

The other Burnwhite tackled it and before it could attempt to absorb him he forced his arm inside it.   His hand became a corkscrew drill that shredded the budding infections.  His partner was there a moment later to sterilize the outer membrane with a chalky fog he produced from his mouth.  The plasmid roared, then moaned, then squealed, and finally died.  Every bit of it had to be neutralized.

Only when they were finished were they allowed to consider the consequences of its presence.  An infectious agent, a whole one with great cunning, had passed the plasmid test.  It had gotten through the fence.  Somewhere out in bichorous space, an Illindigo plotted its next move.

The Pulsor

The vehicle had two skins hanging from its ceiling, like prunes with their flesh drained away.  Triviel brought them down on their lines and showed them to Contoor.  Having spent his entire life on Longba, he’d never seen a torpor skin before.

“It’s a sleeping bag,” she explained, “for the biggest sleeps.  There isn’t enough nourishment aboard the ship for both of us to make it to our destination, so we need to sleep in these.  They’ll slow our reactions so we consume less energy.”

“Where are we going?” Contoor asked, his face filling with hope for the first time since they’d met.  For all he knew the bichorous space was an endless amusement park.

“It’s a surprise.  I know you’ll love it.”  That had been a good enough answer for him.  She gently opened his torpor skin and helped him inside.  After she sealed it the ship inflated the skin with nourishing liquid.  It stretched so thin that she could see his face floating around inside, the last tiny bubbles of Longba clinging to the corners of his mouth and eyes.  She picked up the skin and moved him into a more comfortable position, like he was reclining.  Then she returned to the controls to watch the final approach of the free radical.

Ships evacuated Longba by the thousands.  When most of them were a safe distance away, the red speeding body really started to push on the bichor around Longba.  Triviel’s ship bobbed in its currents.  Longba seemed to shrivel slightly in response, like it was cowering.  The catastrophic crimson mass collided with the respirode.  For a brief moment both their shapes compressed, but the respirode gave way to the rigid coagulation of the radical and ripped.  The radical emptied an ocean of fluids into the bichor that swelled into purple storms.  Residual neural lightning flashed through them and died out like drowning screams.

The radical snagged huge chunks of membrane and tissue from the respirode, leaving only fluids, bubbles temporarily trapped by gravity, and a trail of tissue boulders in its wake.  Longba was gone.  Triviel did not shed a tear over its loss.  The respirode had not been kind to her, locking her away in that cancerous tomb, surrounding her with giant undead cells that could do nothing but moan about the pointlessness of existence so loudly that it made the heredity chains in her head rattle and knot.

When she was sure there was nothing left to see she went and sat next to the sleeping Contoor.  She stared into his face and rubbed the part of the skin over his chest.  She spoke to him, knowing full well that if he heard any part of it, it would only be as a voice past the clouds in his dreams.

“I like you Contoor.  I like you.  Even if you hate yourself you can’t do anything about it.  You can’t self-harm because then you would harm me.  I know you’re not cruel enough to do that.”  A ring of heredity in her head lit up and spun like a carousel, so much so that it was visible from the outside.  With the rotation came the old wheel of thoughts telling her what to do.

Raise him to health.  Make him yours.  Then he will make yours.  Then his life will transform.  Then you will be forever and it will be a friendly forever with never a moment alone.  You will be together.

“Shut up,” she told the tense deep hunger in her own spirit.  “I don’t have to hurt him.  I can love him as well as any of the boring Dullreds he would have coupled with.”

Of course you can.  You will love him so much that you will be joined.  He will be a part of your life.

“Not like that,” she seethed.

Like that.

“Over my ripped membrane.”

Over his.

“No.  Contoor, I love you.  Let me explain,” she said desperately, trying to compose a pyramid of words that could express what she wanted to express.  “I’m not broken.  That’s why I can be with you…  We’ll both be fine.  We’re both real and honest and kind…”

He is a fine vessel.

“No,” Triviel cried.  Her fingers tensed on the torpor skin, nearly tearing it.  She took her hands off and retracted them into her body so she wouldn’t be tempted.  She tucked all her limbs and her head deep within her plasm until she looked like a placid drop of green jelly.  She composed a real pyramid poem, an old form designed to show what a seed of compassion, or cunning, could grow into with just a spark of inspiration.



I rescued you

Cancer could not keep us apart

Fleeing the free radical is a rebirth for us both

We will take our first look at the new world in the light of the pulsor

A fitting eulogy.

Triviel rolled away from Contoor’s skin and regrew her limbs.  She checked the coordinates to make sure the ship was not veering off course.  Everything was fine.  There was time before she needed to go into a skin as well.  She used that time, those years, to watch his sleep.  She tried to discern that element of innocence she lacked from him.  Dullreds, even ones with broken minds like Contoor, always seemed so… complete.  There was no gaping hole that needed to be filled.  There was just a role to perform, usually on a planetode, which they could do until their telomeres decayed and they drifted away in the bichor like so much silt.

When her years of observation were up and their nourishment was running low, Triviel sealed herself in the other torpor skin and descended into dreams.  In them she chased predators and caught them by their flagellum tails before they could reach peaceful villages.  When they weren’t stalking she searched for an imaginary version of Contoor.  She loved him, so there had to be at least a few wandering around in her mind, waiting for an embrace.  But she could never find them.

Those were just the dreams.  Sometimes she had nightmares where she was back in that cancerous trap.  She hadn’t even done anything to deserve it.  She’d barely arrived on Longba.  She’d met a beautiful Growgreen and they’d been together.  Everything was fine.  Growgreens can’t last forever; everyone on Longba knew that.  They didn’t have to blame her.  They didn’t have to poison all those tissues just to trap her inside.  They must have destroyed the viability of one twentieth of the entire respirode just to trap her alone with nothing but the Growgreen’s membrane as a souvenir that reminded her what joy was like.  Joy was seeing yourself in someone else.

She was pulled out of the dreams by a brilliant flash of blue-white light.  The light struck her mind as well as her eyes, stimulating it to the point that dreaming was impossible.  To dream in such light would be to change the very space before you, to mold it into what your mind’s eye saw.

She didn’t dare open her eyes until they adjusted to the flash that was bound to last days.  She punched through her torpor skin, spilling what little nourishment fluid was left into the ship’s bichor.  It was thick with her perspiration.  She blindly made her way through the light to the controls.  She felt around, squeezing parts of the map to make sure the light was the right light.  She smiled at the planetode she knew was outside.  It was small and uninhabited, the perfect place for her and Contoor to recover without interference.  Without the unwarranted fear of his jealous family and friends.

She waited until the ship set down on the planetode’s warm surface to wake Contoor.  She couldn’t see the bolts of neural energy that rippled when they made contact, but she heard them buzzing away.  She fumbled back to Contoor’s torpor skin and thrust her hand down quickly to puncture it.  Her hand immediately moved to his eyes and covered them.  He flailed like a newborn and sputtered.

“Don’t open your eyes,” she said.  “Not yet.”

“Why?” he asked, his grip on her forearm tightening.  He thought he was dead and that if he opened his eyes he might see the underworld and be drawn to it.

“Our eyes aren’t used to this light.  We have to wait until it thickens them or it’ll scald them to blindness.”

“What is this place?”

“It’s a pulsor.  Times of light and times of darkness.  Our times.”  She grabbed his hand and moved it over his eyes.  Then she slowly pulled hers out from underneath.  “I know a good trick for this: grow a hand on your face and keep them covered.”  She followed her own advice.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Contoor said.  Triviel rested a palm on his temple.  She felt the pulse of his plasm underneath.  A hot shiver moved down her back.

“You can,” she said.  As delicately as possible she passed a neural jolt through her hand and into his mind.  It was just enough to give him a place to start.  He concentrated and after a few seconds fingers sprouted out of his forehead and flexed up and down.  Eventually he got it right and was able to stand.

“What do we do now?”

“Now we go outside.”  She found her way to the controls and opened the door.  The crackle of the land’s energy came again.  She took him by the arm and brought him down the ramp.  The pulsor’s surface tickled their feet.  Their flagella rose on their own as it passed through them, giving them the look of sinking jellyfish.  “Welcome home.”

Life on the pulsor was strange indeed.  The sweat of the land provided enough nourishment for them; they needed only to gather it.  The outer membranes of the ship made excellent collection nets for the white oily liquid.  The rest of the hull, once they managed to push it upside down, made a suitable home.  They dug shallow pits in the tissue to store the fluid in.  Sometimes they would catch bacteroids skimming the surface and clean them for a hearty meal.

It only took a year, a cardiode beat, for their eyes to callus enough that they could open them.  When they did they saw a horizon so bright that all of bichorous space looked like part of their own personal planetode.  Blue lances of gas shot upward slowly in the distance, making thin mountain ranges that blew away a while later.  Bioelectricity danced everywhere: between their fingers, in valleys, between their faces when they slept near each other, overhead…

When she opened her eyes she saw that he was much happier than before.  He didn’t have a role anymore, unless you counted her dependence on his happiness.  They told each other stories.  Those stories became a new history that replaced the ones they knew.  There had never been a Longba or a free radical, just a bridge of fate they had both started on opposite sides of.

Contoor became strong in the positive light of the pulsor.  He grew fatty orange patches around his waist and shoulders.  Now when they wanted to go for walks he carried her on his shoulders instead of the other way around.  The light made her high enough that she didn’t need to think about the tightening of the rings in her mind.  The compressing spring.

The pulsor provided everything, but it could only do so for so long.  The pulsor was bimodal… and one day the switches deep inside its crust flipped.  The waves of brilliant light were replaced by waves of suffocating darkness.

The change occurred when they were returning home after a long walk.  They were plunged into blackness.  Their primary eyes, callused by the light, saw even less than what a normal cell would see.  They had to sprout dozens of temporary ones on their chests and backs just to get a vague sense of where they were located.

“What happened?” Contoor asked.  He didn’t quite panic yet.  Triviel always had the explanations.  She always had the answers, even if she had to make them up.  He found her hand in the darkness and squeezed it tightly.

“The planetode is resting.  The lights will be back soon,” she lied.  She knew exactly how long it would take for them to come back.  It was exactly as long as they had been there and then some.  She hoped the lie would convince the planetode to move a little more quickly, so much so that she kept telling it.  They found their way back home and stayed holed up for days, only venturing out to fill a bucket with nourishment fluid.

The ambient energy noises of the planetode were completely gone.  The darkness was silent, but the waves could be felt as cold ripples devoid of oxygen.  They filled their dreams with shades of purple and black.

“I’m scared,” Contoor said one day in the darkness of the ship.  Triviel poured some of the nutrient fluid into a pore of the ship to power the lights on its controls.  It was enough that they could see each other.  She’d remembered him as cute but now that she was looking at the two quivering calluses above his mouth she thought he looked pathetic.  You would think that after she had solved so many of his problems he could manage a little more confidence in her.

“It’s just a lull,” she insisted for the thousandth time.  “The light will come back.  Don’t doubt me Contoor.”

“I don’t my love, but this darkness…  I don’t like it.  It’s like I’m always asleep.”  Triviel nearly snapped that he knew nothing of darkness until he spent an age inside a cancerous tumor, but she held her tongue.  He never needed to know from whence she’d come.  She was born on the Shore of Oxygen’s End.

“You’re better now,” she said.  “You need to act like it.  You’re not the sad flat little thing I found squeezed between three pipes.”

“I was in a dark place then and now I am again.  I can’t help but be that sad flat little thing.”

“Yes you can!” she screamed.  He quieted.  She’d never screamed before.  “You can control everything that you do!  If you can’t then you’re just some molecule bonding where nature tells you to.  You’re alive Contoor.  You can be whatever you want!”

“I can only ever be a Dullred,” he said.  Then he refused to speak.  He withdrew from her completely and didn’t respond to anything for several days.  She tried apologizing, but his mass didn’t so much as quiver.

Give him his medicine.  He’ll feel better.

Triviel stopped her hand from moving towards him.  She gave him some room and only came close to rub some nourishment across his surface.  The waiting was intolerable, but she managed it by sitting outside the ship and watching crests of near-black purple expand away from their planetode.  She wondered what he thought was so bad about darkness.  It had its benefits.  It could hide you from pursuers.  It could give you space that wasn’t actually there.  She vowed she would teach him how to appreciate it when he stopped being such a child about a little thing like blindness.

A session of dark wave watching was interrupted by the shaking of their ship and the sound of things being thrown.  Triviel rushed inside where she found Contoor ripping the remains of the torpor skins out of the ship’s tissue and tossing them against the side.

“Never sleep again!” he shouted, unaware of her entrance.  “I won’t fall into darkness!  It can’t have me.  I should’ve stayed on Longba.  I should have died in that boiling, red, glorious chaos.  I am red!  It was fate!”  He moved to the controls and used his strength more desperately than ever before.  He tried to rip them out of the wall.  The tissue was stretching when Triviel tackled him and grew thick flagella to bind his limbs to his body.  “Let me go!  Let me go!”

“No.”  She tightened her grip.  His head rolled back behind his neck and moaned.  “You’re manic.  You need to be like you were before.  Remember the light.”  Even as she said this she knew he wouldn’t.  She knew that tying him down was the beginning of the end for their togetherness.  From now on if they slept near each other it would be to avoid isolation and not because they loved each other.

She managed to get him to stop that day but his psychosis only worsened.  Triviel didn’t listen to her own thoughts about the truth.  There was a reason cells didn’t live on pulsors.  Dark.  Light.  Dark.  Light.  The cells became bimodal as well, afflicted by the swapping of the planetode.  One day Contoor would be absurdly excitable and the next he was a limp skin weeping a puddle into the depression of his own chest.  Dark.  Light.  Never dawn or dusk.  He would kill himself if he kept on like that.  She had only one choice.

Only one choice.  The only choice you ever had.

One night, or perhaps day since they couldn’t tell in the darkness, she crept towards him in his sleep and plunged her hand into his chest.  The rings in her mind spun so fast that her liquid soul rotated in her membrane.  Heredity splintered and spiraled down from her head and into her arm.  The fragments passed into Contoor.  He was conscious only for a second and would after disregard the feeling as a lightning strike of a nightmare, an arrhythmia from a cardiode a cavity away that he just happened to feel.

Euphoria overtook Triviel.  She fell backward into herself, which was just a whirlpool of carnal purple-blue light.  She felt like a worm in a circular burrow chasing its own glowing tail and gradually sliding faster and faster and faster still.  Oxygen bubbles everywhere inside her burst and the sensation was reduced to an afterglow.  She collapsed backward in actual space this time.  Panting, she sat up to see the splinter of tissue she’d left in his chest get absorbed and become the same dull red as the rest of him.

See he’s not dead.  Just different.  You have so much to give.  You didn’t hurt anybody.  You really should do this more often.  Is that a smile I see on his face?  It is!  You gave him good dreams.  You really did fix him didn’t you?  You’re not bad.  You’re not bad because this one time, right here and now, you made someone else smile.  Hold onto that.  Remember it the next time you don’t listen to me.  Ignoring your instincts just backs you up and makes you grouchy.  Take a rest.  You deserve it after that performance.  I know, I’m absolutely positive, that everything will be better in the morning.

It was better.  Contoor was better.  He apologized to her for his outrageously bimodal behavior.  Things mostly returned to normal.  One day the light returned.  Contoor said he understood the beauty of it now.  No darkness was permanent and no light was indefatigable.  Triviel was happy for him and happy for the time they had left together.

That time was threatened one day by the arrival of a Burnwhite drone.  It appeared in the sky as they were lying out in the open and discussing the distance between their planetode and the other nearest ones.  Its mass, shaped like a triangular scaled pancake, dripped with neural light which made it nearly invisible against the bright sky.  It was Contoor who spotted it first.  He thought it was merely a thin tissue cloud.

“That’s a bright one,” he said.    He pointed with a flagellum; Triviel’s callused gray eyes followed it.  The problems between her and Contoor had been her entire world for so long that she didn’t immediately recognize the ship.  It wasn’t, after all, much like the small intelligent Burnwhites she’d dealt with at the Shore of Oxygen’s End.  When a Burnwhite like that became too degraded or injured to serve, it had its intelligence extracted for use in neural nets and vehicle control panels.  The body that was left behind was usually stretched like canvas and fit over a cartilaginous or hardened cytoplasmic mold to be used as construction materials.  The scaly pyramid above them was built from the bodies of ten Burnwhites; the remaining neural material was tied into a simplistic ring and taught to search the bichorous space for threats.  It was there now to scan for infectious agents.

Triviel ran the moment she realized.  She didn’t dare listen to Contoor shouting questions from behind.  She didn’t dare look and see the tendrils descending from the pyramid drone; she knew they were there better than she knew herself.  A probe that size would insist on more than surface tests.  It wouldn’t settle for membrane scratches either.  The dispassionate surveyor, when it got hold of her, would sample her liquid soul.  It would swirl it around inside a centrifuge organelle and even with her best molecular-mood disguise its indigo color would be revealed.  Then it would enter sterilization mode.

Scared out of her mind that she would be burned out of reality, Triviel made a break for their ship.  It was the only thing they knew of anywhere on the planetode that was made of something other than the pulsor’s background tissues, which made it the only suitable material for a disguise.  Her legs weren’t fast enough so she sprouted enough flagella to make her look like an urchin with its spines boiled to limpness.  She pulsed like a jellyfish to push through the bichor.  Lactic acid filled her insides, burning in her twisting tendrils and on the backs of her eyes.

Triviel did not stop until she squeezed her way into the crack of the slightly-opened door aboard their ship.  A moment later she was all eyes, searching desperately for anything to thicken her skin that wouldn’t seem suspicious.  She needed to pull the same trick she did with the plasmid; her membrane needed to be so thick that the sampler would be convinced it had gotten through her layers and to the real Triviel that couldn’t deceive.

The guts of the controls would never work; there was too much bioelectricity that would conflict with her pulses and rhythms.  Perhaps if she had had time to sync them…  The walls and floors were just industrial-grade tissues that would never appear on something as slender as Triviel.  She was out of options.  The tendril would creep in before she could even flee again.  Then she spotted the curtains, which were just the rearranged remains of the torpor skins Contoor had accidentally destroyed.  She ripped them from their thin attachments and rapidly pleated them.  If even a single synapse between her spinning mind and her limbs misfired, she could screw up a bond and create a knot of flesh that would not appear organic in the slightest.  Such a knot would be burned away by the immunity probe as a favor to her, like the removal of a birthmark or a tumorous growth, just a little friendly social grooming, but then it would spot the indigo flesh underneath.

When the disguise cloak was complete she draped it around her shoulders and pulled the hood over her head.  She had to hope the skin and the remaining thin layer of her Growgreen disguise would together be enough.  She clasped her hands and wound her flagella together in prayer.  She didn’t know to whom, but she knew they had to be somewhere in the sky, past the glowing halo of the drone.

A white tentacle peeked inside the door crack.  Its tip had a cytoplasmic syringe that was also an eye; it looked like something between the tip of a pencil and the beak of a squid.  She wanted it over with, but the probe took its time.  She could hear its giant body settling overhead, its electric hum.  The tentacle became feathery and dusted every surface inside the ship to taste where it had been.  It poked at the map on the controls.

Triviel tried to say something, but the words congealed inside her and sank to her feet.  She wanted to scream at it, to tell it that this was her world just as much as anybody else’s.  The fact that she couldn’t made her deeply ashamed.  The door was pulled open more; Contoor stepped inside.  A second tentacle was dusting his surface.  He sat down on the opposite side of the ship and silently watched her.  She had an easier time looking the probe in its sharp eye than she did looking at the calluses they had earned together.

The tendril on Contoor poked him and then swallowed the reddish sip of his flesh it had taken.  He gently pushed it away; it retracted out the door.  The one on Triviel seemed confused by something.  It kept hovering over the same parts of her body again and again, specifically the seams where the torpor cloak met her green membrane.  Its jabbing and tickling drove her mad.  Everything under her skin crawled and lurched in response to its touch, sending her instincts into a panicked frenzy.

Kill it!  Rip it!  Rip that straw right off the filthy Burnwhite slave.  We need teeth.  We need calcium daggers to shred it.  Grow them!  What are you waiting for?  Are you going to let it do this to you?  You’re a beautiful savage monster.  Your destruction is legend.  Your line has taken so many cells that you were born from a crater.  Kill!  Kill!

The tiny black point punctured the veiny torpor skin.  It broke her green membrane, but stopped at its deepest point.  She felt it suck a tiny piece out.  The tentacle shivered.  Triviel finally reached up and slapped it away.

“What are you doing?” Contoor asked.  He sounded angry.  He wasn’t supposed to get angry with her.  She’d done everything she needed to do in the relationship.  It was his job to let her handle this however she wanted.  She kept her eyes on the floor and waited for the tentacle to respond.

Its pale length expanded and contracted.  It mulled over the sample.  She slapped it again and then curled into a ball, her head between her knees.  Then she destroyed her own head and let it melt into her legs.  She receded into a limbless mass of defeat.  If it wanted to fry her it needed to go ahead and do it before she had to watch Contoor turn into an enemy.

She sobbed inwardly, her tears dissolving in her liquid soul and drowning out all other sounds.  She didn’t know it, but time passed.  When she finally peeked out again the probe had been gone for days.  She had passed the test… or rather the torpor skin had.  She grew her legs back and stepped outside into the light.  She expected to find Contoor working their nutrient pits, distracting himself from his disappointment and anger with hard labor, but there was no sign of him.  She did see one edge of a tarp over one of the pits fluttering in the gentle ground current of the bichor.  She called to him, but he didn’t answer.

She slipped under the side of the tarp and slid down into the nutrient fluid like it was a bath.  There, in the dim quiet, she found Contoor nearly sunk.  His chin was barely above the fluid.  He was very pale.  He turned slowly to look at her.  She swam over to him and stroked his head.  His callused eyes were nearly black; they looked ready to flake off like dandruff.

“Why did you… wear that skin?” He asked.  Every word was a labor.  “What are you?”  She didn’t answer him.  She just stroked his head and washed him with nutrient fluid.  “Tell me.  I want to know.”  His words caught in his mouth before they could escape.  His color shifted.  The calluses slid off his eyes and sank in the fluid.

“I love you Contoor.   I love you so much.  We weren’t in the right place.  The pulsor was wrong; I know that now.  I wish we could go back and pick another destination.  The pulsor’s light did this to you, so I had to… I wouldn’t have otherwise.  I’m not like that.”  Contoor tried to speak, but his mouth was gone.  His eyes were gone.  Shapes appeared in his plasm.  First sharp and then soft.  Then close to the surface.  He convulsed.  “I’m not like that.” she sobbed.

Contoor ripped down the middle, from his rapidly vanishing forehead to the fused tail of his legs.  His internal fluid billowed out in plumes when it made contact with the bichor.  The tarp kept it all concentrated between the ground and surface of the fluid pool.  Triviel reached deep into his sinking membrane and felt around for the cause of his transformation.  Her arms and flagella wrapped around two masses.

After all that there are only two?  Unbelievable.  You almost got caught for two?  You put up with this light show for just two?  We need a bigger cell next time with a lot of fat on them.  The lipids have to be the key; it’s the only thing you haven’t tried yet.  Get going.  Don’t worry about these two; they can take care of themselves.  Or each other.  Who cares.

“Shut up!” she screamed.  It echoed under the tarp and she nearly twisted her own head off when she realized it was the first thing the twins heard.  They should only hear goodness.  She pulled them out of the fluid and wiped them clean to examine them.  They were of course indigo; they could never be anything else.  They were plump though.  She’d never made any like that before.  Usually they were thin and knobby with flagella buds, like the spines of starving rats.  She told herself it was the product of their true love.  With faces like that their disguises would always be convincing.  The heredity rings in their heads were puffy and slow-moving, like Dullreds.

She held them aloft with her hands and grew two extra to work with Contoor’s membrane.  There was no sense in letting him go to waste, just as she still wore the membrane of the Growgreen she had loved last.  It was not for her though.  She ripped the membrane in half and then started poking holes in it.  She examined the adorable products of the material she had inserted into Contoor.  Their default state was two arms to the side and one out of their chests, so she poked an extra hole in each one.

She wrapped her children in their new skins, turned them into beautiful little Dullreds.  They would need the disguises when they left for another planetode.  Triviel couldn’t be alone after all.  It would take cancer, cells too thick and diseased to infect, to keep her away.

You’re really taking them with you?  Who will want you with those around?

Triviel cradled her offspring close.  Her material had revitalized Contoor after the bimodal illness, but it couldn’t last.  The new life inside him was just that, her heredity rewriting his, turning him into a cocoon.  The takeover was hostile, but there was still closeness.  There was still sharing.  The new Illindigos still had some of Contoor in them, but they would use it to identify with Dullreds, to convince them, and not to love them.  Triviel promised herself she would teach them otherwise.

A strong current blew through the bichor and ripped the tarp off the nutrient pit.  Contoor’s cloud of fluids bloomed out into the open sky.  Triviel panicked.

You idiot!  Drop them!  Get that stuff!  Cover it up or we’re dead!  The Burnwhites!  The Burnwhites!  Get it get it get it get it get it get it get it get it!

Triviel crawled out of the pit and set her children down as gently as she could.  She grew a few tails to help propel her through the bichor and swam upward.  She found the tarp in the current and snagged it.  She needed to catch all of Contoor’s fluid, every drop of it or they would never be safe.  She hacked up a thick yellow fluid and spread it on the tarp to thin it.  Then she swam in a giant arc and pulled the expanding tarp over the colored plume of fluid.  Lactic acid burned within her as she struggled to outpace the dispersal.  She had to work against the flow of every current.

When she swooped low and brought the edges of the parachute-like tarp close together she spotted the twins staring up at her from the ground and reaching out with their extra hands.  It was alright if they saw this.  They would need to learn the precautions.  Of course, they probably already knew them.  Triviel remembered her own emergence.  She remembered understanding speech before she could talk.  She remembered hating Burnwhites and knowing exactly what they looked like before she’d ever seen one.  Her memories were her heredity and vice versa.

She sealed the ends of the tarp, making a giant wiggly bubble full of Contoor’s essence.  The ball gently drifted back to the surface and lazily rolled with the current.  Even though it was sealed that wouldn’t be good enough.  She would need to bury it before it ruptured on some coagulated tissue or a molecule of Contoor osmosed out.  When she scooped up her children she tilted her head up.  She had a bad feeling, a feeling as old as any of her memories of hatred and fear.  There was a reddish tint to some of the bichor.  She hadn’t gotten it all.

The Copy Strand

Two pairs of white feet walked across a transparent membrane over a holding pit.  They were mostly hidden by a skirt of a hundred silver quills, some coiled tightly like pulled hairs and some as straight as spears.  A tail of them fanned off the cell’s back regally, glinting in the intense neural light of the study fields.

He was extremely tall, nearly three times as large as his subordinates who scurried about on the membrane and poked it with their fingers to make sure it was sealed tight.  They jumped back whenever one of the monsters trapped under it leapt and tried to punch their way through.  The giant Burnwhite just stomped them back down.  His voice was like fire on your neck.  His silver face was ten thousand generations of war and betrayal.  His fibrous armored chest was scored by dozens of scars.  He was Scorvil Burnwhite.

“Cleanse this chamber,” he ordered the smaller immunity cells.  They ran away to clear the membrane, but Scorvil stayed on it to watch.  The heat might have damaged the soles of his feet if he hadn’t stood there a hundred times before.  Now they were as thick as saddle leather.  He glared at the monsters trapped under his feet.  They were mostly indigo.  One of them had been rampaging through this cavity for so long that it had lost its ability to mimic intelligence.  Whatever it inherited from the minds of its victims was gone.  Now it was a slobbering viral tumor, all cytoplasmic spikes and trunk-like legs.  It stared up at him with eye-tipped tentacles and roared.  Its spittle splashed on the membrane.  Even the other Illindigos tried to flee from it.  The monstrous one grabbed its family and shoved them haphazardly in its mouth.  Flagella broke off and twitched on the ground as it chewed.  “Disgusting.”

Three Burnwhites approached the protein locks on the chamber’s hypothalamus node.  They simultaneously buried their arms inside them and twisted.  The instant wave of heat tightened the membrane over the pit.  The Illindigos panicked and twitched, except for the bloated one that thought itself invincible.  Strings of boiling bubbles appeared.  In a flash they were everywhere.  Scorvil walked across the membrane as desperate Illindigo hands tried to push through.

The heat made the membrane more malleable.  The infectious agents rose up into it, but were still trapped under its skin.    Scorvil put his face close to one of their silent screams.  It reached out to him; his wicked fist flew in from the side and punched the phage.  Its head burst.  The membrane flattened back out as it sank into the bubbles.  The ground swelled as the biggest Illindigo struggled.  Scorvil slowly walked off its head and observed it from the side.

“End it,” he ordered.  The Burnwhites pulled their arms from the locks.  The bubbles ceased and the membrane stiffened, leaving a hundred Illindigo statues.  Scorvil sighed in satisfaction as he ran a hand along the anguish of one of their frozen faces.  The heat had destroyed their heredity and with it their minds.

Inside them their inactive fluids and organelles were preserved, blanched into pale useless limpness.  Perfect for study.  They would be the key to combatting the infections of the future.  “Take them.”  The smaller Burnwhites scurried back onto the membrane.  The residual heat had them dancing as they broke each Illindigo statue off its base and carried it to the transports.  They started smashing at the base of the monstrous agent.  Scorvil held up a hand to stop them.  They practically fell over in their rush to get out of his way.  Scorvil stared into one of its frozen stalked eyes.

“What is this…”  Scorvil sensed something.  He knew every subtle look in their eyes.  He knew every stench on their breath, even through the impermeable membrane.  The big one had fed recently, and not just on its own kind.  Several of Scorvil’s razor sharp flagella rose from his skirt and expertly sliced a hole in the side of the stilled beast.  He tossed aside the membrane.  He cut into the jellied fluid and reached deep inside the monster until he found a vacuole with partially digested remains.

He pulled out a mitochondrion.  He examined it, determined it to be of Burstblue origin, and tossed it aside.  He reached into it again.  Useless triphosphates.  In again.  Dullred heredity.  He shook it off again.  This was not what he sensed.  He rammed his arm down the hole and stretched it until he touched the bottom of the massive vacuole.  He touched on something uncommon.

What came out was a bubbly glob of molecules, purple in color.  He smelled it.  Scorvil roared; the other Burnwhites ran further.  It was their job to contain and catalogue what he brought back.  It was their passion to stay out of his way.

“Not in my cavity!” he shouted to his planetode.  “I will not be affronted by this Triviel!  Murderer!”  Her name had come to him in the whiff of the purple mess.  Somewhere deep inside it there was a single string of molecules that was part Contoor and part Triviel.  The part that was Triviel carried her whole history.  It told him the murder had spawned two more infections that needed his stern hand.

Scorvil boarded his craft, a sleek gray collection of cells with a five-tail cellular motor.  A preserved Illindigo served as the hood ornament.  He took off immediately, sticking a flagellum out the side to search for the chemical trail.  Within the hour he was aimed at the pulsor.

There was only one destination that carried any hope of peace; it was the only one in Triviel’s mind anyway.  She calculated a high probability a Burnwhite would eventually follow her, so she needed something that could erase their chemical trail.

A blood-brain barrier would do it, so she charted a course for the nearest neurode.  Blood-brain barriers were adapted to keep an internal environment entirely separate from the external.  Only the most vital nutrients and cells could pass its tests.  Illindigos did not normally stand a chance, but Triviel was convinced she was the exception.  She had successfully loved a Dullred after all.  She’d defied the rules of her relation to other cells.  She was the first benevolent Illindigo.  Only circumstance had ended Contoor, and even then her heredity had made him healthy for the piece of his life that was left.

She assumed that meant she was powerful enough to pass through the barrier.  The key ingredient had to be the compassion she had demonstrated.  To any lock she should be identical to any other cell.  She looked at her children.  They were busy playing inside the ship while she managed the controls.  They played clapping games with their six hands and giggled.  She was happy for their noises because they would learn to speak very soon.  Then the questions would start.

While they were distracted she occupied herself with a small corner of the view membrane.  Triviel separated a thin layer from the membrane and treated it with a rubbing fluid from a pouch on the controls.  It stiffened.  She stuck it to the wall tissue and watched it slowly become reflective instead of transparent.  Then she examined herself.

The reflected calluses highlighted the thin spots in her Growgreen disguise.  Suddenly she was extremely tired of the lie.  She knew compassion.  She shouldn’t have to hide.  Triviel grabbed the membrane between her eyes and ripped it down the middle, down to the base of her neck.  She draped the green face behind her like a hood and adjusted her shawl that was made up of the remains of the torpor skin.  The calluses stayed, but for the first time in generations she saw her true face.

Her indigo skin was beautiful, like space unclouded by yellow bichor.  A row of shy spines emerged from their hidden pores down the middle of her face.  Back in the day she would use them against cells, ramming her head into their midsections to rapidly inject heredity and doom them to being vessels for her people.  The weapons were beautiful, their tips nearly pink, but she only missed seeing them.  Now she could convince cells to be her partners, because she was not an infection.  She was no longer of a broken line.

She touched the side of her face.  Triviel couldn’t believe she had been panicking over her children so much back on the surface of the pulsor.  There had even been a moment where she was perched over them with a sharpened shard of cytoplasm.  Her mind had tortured her with images of them scalded to death by immunity cells and nearly convinced her she should handle them first so they wouldn’t have to suffer that fate.  Pride changed her mind, the same pride that made her see a beautiful cell in the mirror.  She smiled.

“I do not need to hide,” she told her reflection.  “I am one of them now.  My color means nothing.  No more disguises.”  She left the Growgreen hood down.  Secretly she dared the next cell she came across to show fear at the sight of her.  She would smile.  She would be kind.  They would be disarmed and there was nothing they could do about it.

Her children laughed.  If they were going to be legitimate free-living cells… they needed names.  Triviel’s parent had abandoned her immediately after insertion; there was no one to label her.  She’d been forced to cobble her own together from the scraps of her host’s name.  She suddenly regretted never asking Contoor if her name was beautiful.  Now she had little to go by when naming the children.  She curled her flagella as she sat down next to them and examined them individually.

The bigger one, with facial spines as sharp as hers, would be Tartoo.  The smaller one, who had Contoor’s chin, would be Corin.  She told each of them their names.  They laughed the names away, but she would not be dissuaded.  She told them every day on their journey.  Every hour.  At first they rejected her, fleeing to the back of the craft when she repeated the words.  They wanted them to be nonsense utterings.  Names were unnecessary burdens.  They knew they were supposed to be anonymous, able to slip into any skin in any situation to hide.  Near the end of the exercise the names even burned.  When Triviel opened her mouth her children felt raging aches in their heads and heat in their limbs.  They weren’t supposed to be Tartoo and Corin; they weren’t supposed to be tracked and summoned by mere sounds.  Eventually though, the two resisting pieces smashed together and became fused.  They were locked to their names.

“Tartoo,” Triviel cooed.  Tartoo looked.

“Corin,” Triviel cooed.  Corin looked.

Days later an obstacle, not unexpected but certainly reviled, floated between Triviel’s family and the blood-brain barrier of the nearest neurode: a copy strand.  The ship had excellent detection equipment, but copy strands were so vital to the processes of life that cells never built detectors for them.  When it was time to do your duty and get copied you had to let the strand do its work.  It was a small structure, only about a hundred times the length of Triviel’s ship and only about three times as wide.  Its surface was alive with throbbing buzzing chemical buds.  They were coated in adhesive and they also emitted chemical attractors that forced most ships and cells to dock with it.

Triviel saw twelve other ships through the viewing membrane, stuck randomly across the strand like vermin on a glue trap.  The controls did not respond when she tried to turn, even when she sunk her flagella into the panel itself and tried to chemically convince it to change course.  The strand was a duty.  There was a muffled sucking sound as their ship became lodged in place.  After that its only motion was the gentle undulating of the flexible strand in the bichor’s current.

The children stared out excitedly at the first things they’d seen since their intelligence had properly budded.  They had simple sentences now, and they babbled to Triviel and each other constantly.

“More ships Mafa,” Tartoo said, referring to Triviel with the term of endearment for a single parent cell.

“I know they have cells,” Corin asserted.  “I feel them.  Are we taking them?”

“No,” Triviel said as she moved to them and stroked their heads.  She examined the other trapped ships.  The designs varied, displaying a rainbow of colors and textures against the neutral purples and grays of the copy strand.  They all appeared to be normal craft however, nothing known to work with immunity.  In a way there was no better place to test out her real face; the cells could not flee until the strand released them.

They saw a nearly invisible membrane at the far end of the strand; it moved slowly forward, washing over each vehicle.  They left their imprints behind.  Smaller molecular machines, like spinning combination locks, knitted protein matrixes after tracing the imprints.  The matrixes detached from the strand and floated away.  They carried with them the key information for building all sorts of things.  The strands, by checking the information stored in every item they came across, recalled how to make the ingredients for everything and then sent those ingredients to every cavity.

The strand curled back on itself gently in the current.  Triviel’s ship was brought face to face with the viewing membrane of another tiny craft.  Inside she saw two Growgreens, feminine in appearance, playing a memory game with an electrified string of molecules.  Her children stared in fascination, their little indigo faces flat against the membrane.  She hoped it was the game that caught their attention, and not the cells holding it.  The copy strand’s imprinter wouldn’t reach them for several minutes, so she took a seat next to her children and waited for the Growgreens to look up and notice her.

When they didn’t look over the children started banging their palms on the membrane.  Triviel touched the controls and lifted the membrane, exposing them to the unfiltered bichor.  She knew from the panel the area was devoid of hazardous compounds and radiation.  She kept a flagellum wrapped around the waist of each child so they couldn’t climb out.

“Hello!” the children shouted in unison; the Growgreens finally looked over and saw three infectious faces.  One of them recoiled in terror, ripping the memory game in half.  The other was curious.  From what she knew of Illindigos, they should have been completely in disguise; they should’ve been slobbering on the hull trying to find a way in instead of sitting calmly.  She opened her viewing membrane as well.

“Hello,” the Growgreen said over the terrified scream of her friend, who was already half-burrowed into the cytoplasm of their ship.  A second later she was gone; hidden somewhere in the paneling.  Triviel suppressed a laugh.  If she wanted, it would only take a second to locate her.

“How do you do,” Triviel said, her spines quivering.  “I am Triviel Illindigo.  These are my children Tartoo and Corin.”

“You’re so brazen,” the Growgreen seemed to compliment.  “I am Apert Growgreen.  Why are you so… friendly?  Have you yourself been infected by courtesy?

“You’re one to talk,” the Illindigo replied.  “Where is your fear?  Overridden by an infection of curiosity?”  Tartoo lunged forward, hands and flagella outstretched, but Triviel pulled him back.

“I’m just practical,” Apert said.  “Who knows how long we’ll be stuck on this strand.  If you wanted to take us over you’d just do it and there would be no escape.  Maybe you will and maybe you won’t.  Since there’s no escape this may be my only chance to ever talk to one of you.  I’ve seen one once… but he was melting under the gaze of a towering Burnwhite.”

“We’re the newest generation,” Triviel said, trying not to picture the melting.  “We’re civil.”

“Civil!”  Corin squealed.  He squirmed.  “I’m going to come over there and make you mine!”  He smiled; Triviel was quick to cover it.

“You’re all ours!” Tartoo added before his mouth was covered as well.

“They don’t seem tame yet,” Apert said.  “If you’re trying to fit in I can tell you that those two terrify me.”

“They’ll learn.”

“Oh, here it comes,” Apert noticed.  They both looked to the side and saw the imprinter.  The transparent wave washed over their ships, grabbing tiny chemical markers from their surfaces.  Apert reached out into the bichor and let the cool wave copy her hand.  A few green sparkles separated from her harmlessly.  Triviel reached her hand out as well, but it took nothing from her.  She picked up Corin and held him out.  He giggled as the wave took a few red patches from his skin.

“You see, we’re just like you,” Triviel said.  She pulled Corin back in, his little fingers refusing to let go of the edge of the hull.

“Outside is better!” he screamed.

“There is something about them,” Apert admitted.  “It’s not civility.  I might doom myself by saying this… but you’re only hurting yourself by pretending you’re something you’re not.  Eventually you’ll break and you’ll do something as bad as the things you would’ve done originally.  Only perfect resistance of temptation matters.  Success is not deciding you can try again.”  Triviel’s spines rattled.  Her innards churned.

She can’t say that and live.  Get her.  Fill her up and watch her pop.  Let them go.  Let it all go.  I’m going to go crazy if you don’t.  All these smarts aren’t needed.  We just need teeth.  We just need to inject and go on so we can do it again.  Get her!

Apert saw something at the head of the strand and closed her viewing membrane.  She joined her friend hiding under the ship’s skin.  Triviel looked to see what would make her retract her curiosity and saw a Burnwhite ship.  It was long, sleek, and adorned with one of her kind.  She took one look at the frozen agony on the Illindigo’s face and sealed the ship.  She didn’t need to be a seer to understand what happened.

By the looks of its vessel the Burnwhite was an elite, probably several times the size of an average immunity cell and an order of magnitude more intelligent.  It had picked up her trail somewhere, likely some reproductive residue from her relationship with Contoor.  It had followed the trail back to the pulsor and dug around until it found the infected materials she had buried.  Then its rage doubled, because Illindigos were never supposed to have the chance to survive multiple planetodes.  Then it had followed her here.  It was going to examine every ship on the strand until they were found and killed.  If they were going to escape, she needed the help of her children.  They were not obedient, but one word would convince them to work together as long as it appeared likely to improve their odds of survival.

“Burnwhite,” she said.  Corin and Tartoo hissed. They hunched over to keep a lower profile.  “We have to be extremely careful,” she said, and then she peeled the viewing membrane open by hand.  The three of them wiggled through the hole and into the bichor.

Scorvil Burnwhite emerged from his craft and examined the copy strand.  He plucked a quill from his skirt and threw it like a javelin.  The object pierced the strand and coiled as it injected instructions.  The strand groaned and became rigid like a splinter.  Its smaller machines went dark and still.  All the sounds of its work silenced as it pretended to be dead.

“There is an Illindigo on this strand!” His voice boomed.  “If you are innocent stay down and stay quiet.  If you have information, come forth now.”  All was still.  He leapt down onto the strand and approached the first vehicle.  Dullreds cowered inside.  Scorvil scratched the hull with his claws and watched it bleed.  He took some of the fluid, added a special ingredient of his own, rolled it into a ball, and stuck it back onto the hull, out of sight of the passengers.

There was no sign of infection yet, but he definitely smelled something in the vicinity.  It was strangely muted, but not so much that his certainty wavered.  He scratched the next vehicle and made another little ball.  The one after that.  He checked for contaminants in fuel, nutrients, and coolant.  He questioned passengers.  Finally he came to Triviel’s ship and saw it was empty.

Certain they had burrowed deep inside to avoid him, Scorvil grabbed the vehicle and ripped it in half with one powerful motion.  Connective tissue snapped and neural wires sparked.  He dug around inside, flinging chunks of its machinery into the bichor.  Nothing.  Scorvil roared, tore the ship from the strand’s adhesive, and hurled it out into the bichor.  He held out his hand; the palm opened and revealed the hollow barrel of the limb.  A pressurized stream of blazing white chemical fire shot out and engulfed the ship, not only scorching it of all information but also breaking up its molecules into their most basic components.  There was nothing left but gray silt.

“Thank you all for being so helpful,” he barked.  He turned and started moving back towards his ship.  Once he got back inside he would activate the small bombs he left stuck to the side of each commoner vessel.  The parts of each explosive were carefully measured in accordance with the analysis he’d taken from the scratches.  Each one would perfectly destroy every part of the ship it was attached to and its occupants.  Lesser immunities would have taken the time to do a more thorough inspection so the cells could be saved, but Scorvil’s time was extremely valuable.  A handful of innocent cells were nothing compared to the protection of the cavity.

He deigned to glance at one of the Dullred vessels.  The cell inside tapped on the membrane frantically and pointed to something.  Scorvil grew a thousand eyes.  He caught the image of a cell just as it snuck behind a warty brown ship with a hull like a cracked scab.  His feet lifted off the strand and he silently flew forward, propelled by the spiraling engines that made up his skirt.  He met the cells on the other side.

It was very strange, seeing an Illindigo clutching the hands of two smaller ones.  It was like the image of a family, mimicry that Scorvil had not seen before.  This new information enraged him.  He went out of control in a way he hadn’t for generations.  His membrane generated a thick solution of chemical fire, spun into a flurry by his skirt.  The moment the solution touched the strand its surface blistered and popped.

Whatever these Illindigos were planning, it was to end here.  Scorvil grew a lance in his chest and pressurized it; the caustic weapon burst forth at a speed Triviel could not match.  The barbed lance punched straight through Tartoo’s chest.  In an instant the Illindigo child was gone, absorbed by fire.  The lance retracted.

Corin squealed and thrashed in her other arm.  Triviel stared in horror at her empty scalded hand.  There wasn’t a shred left.  He didn’t even have time to cry out, to give Triviel a sound to attach her permanent sorrow too.  Hopefully permanent.  She felt like a piece had been ripped from her own body and she could not grow it back.  Every step was a limp now.  Worst of all was the knowledge that she had done it to herself.

This is an opportunity you idiot!  The child distracted him.  We have moments, precious moments.  Go.  Swim.  Get away.  His ship.  He’s rigged the others to blow, I can smell it, but not his own ship.  We’ll need more than this to get there.  Use the other child.  Prick him.  Make him leave a trail and toss him behind you.  That’ll give you just enough time to make it.  An Illindigo piloting a Burnwhite ship!  What an excellent disguise.  We’ll get out of this yet.  We’ll get in everyone else and show them the error of their ways.

Triviel clutched Corin even as he tore at her flesh in an effort to wriggle free.  There was no way she could defeat Scorvil and there was no time to get to his ship… but Apert interfered.  The Growgreen emerged from nowhere and wrapped a twisted flagellum around his neck.  She pulled tight, twisting his torso enough to send the lance off course when it launched the second time.  The weapon unfurled uselessly out into the bichor.  Triviel had enough time to utter thanks before lunging under the Burnwhite and swimming towards his ship at the burning edge of her ability.  Apert didn’t hear it over the seething chemical fire that surrounded Scorvil and burned her face and chest.  She knew she was doomed, but she had known that minutes before when she’d sensed the chemical bomb Scorvil had placed on the hull of her ship.

It was her positioning under the skin of the vessel that had allowed her to realize it.  They were deep enough in the tissues to hear him place it.  Her friend, who had retreated at the sight of Triviel, simply spiraled into denial and whispered platitudes to herself as she scrunched ever tighter.  Apert had decided to instead do something about it.  Scorvil reached over his shoulder and grabbed her by the neck.  He ripped that final decision out of her and spilled her out into the bichor.

Scorvil shot through the fluid towards his ship, but it was too late.  Triviel was inside with Corin.  The ship separated from the strand.  He watched as his hood ornament split from its base and floated down to him.  One backhanded strike turned it into grit.  She wouldn’t get far.  Scorvil had the authority to commandeer almost anything in the cavity, the copy strand included.  He moved to its tip, where his vessel had rested, and plunged all his quills into its surface.  He activated every safeguard and every emergency sequence in the strand’s heredity.  He would build a chaser ship out of its primordial survival instincts.  The process meant death for the other cells aboard as surely as if he’d set off the bombs.

“If you want to live, leave now!” he bellowed.  A few cells obeyed.  They hurriedly popped their craft open, grabbed what belongings they could, and swam out into the open bichor.  One or two tried to reason with him.  Surely he could take a spare moment to separate their craft and just let them leave.  No.  Scorvil was taking everything.  Some of the machinery in the other vehicles could prove useful to him if he needed to construct more tools.  They had to take their chances.

Those chances were nothing.  There wouldn’t even be a free radical passing by for ages.  They were doomed to float there and slowly starve to death, if they didn’t happen to drift into the path of some radiation before that.  They clung to each other and watched in horror as Scorvil turned the strand white.  It hardened and grew jagged extrusions until it looked like a series of saw blades.  Apert’s friend, who never left the interior of her ship, was burned up and converted to fuel in seconds.  The strand ship flipped in the liquid space and then took off after the immune ship, leaving behind a trail of burnt residue.  Scorvil was not only using up the fuel in the fused ships, he was also converting the strand itself to fuel.  The extra speed would be crucial in closing the gap between him and the infection.

The Blood-Brain Barrier

Her destination grew to fill the entire viewing membrane: an incredible wall of electric blue tissue.  Storms of neural activity swirled across its surface.  Flashes of light indicated that just behind its defenses millions of Burstblues were thinking things in the direction they needed to go.  All she had to do was get inside with Corin.  The barrier was nigh impenetrable and the Burnwhite was bound to lose the trail once they passed through.

We’re here.  Stop!  Stop damn you!  You’re burning us alive.  Stop the pain!

Triviel couldn’t stop.  She knew they needed the ship to pass through the storms first to decrease the chance the neural lightning would kill them.  It did burn.  It burned worse than anything she’d ever felt.  Scorvil’s ship wasn’t an ordinary immune craft; its construction was so sophisticated that it recognized the threat Triviel posed the moment she stepped inside.  It had defenses ready when she plunged her arm into the protein lock on the controls.  She knew enough to control it, but every second it attacked her with a barrage of molecular acids and compounds of destruction.  It injected hostile agents into her body that poked at her heredity and her organelles like hot irons.  She fought against the pain.  She told herself she was doing it for Corin.

Don’t do anything for him.  He’s supposed to do it on his own.

“Everything is for them.  I will give them my everything,” she said weakly.  She wiggled what was left of her fingers in the lock to force the ship through the storms.  Tizzish, went the hull as electricity sizzled across its exterior.

Everything is for us.  It can’t be for them.  If it was you would’ve died when the other one did.

“I still have Corin,” she said.  Her remaining child looked at her in confusion.  He couldn’t imagine who the parent cell was talking to, for there was no discord in his own soul.

They don’t mean anything to you and I can prove it; there is no math within us that can make sense of them.  Try to answer this question: which of the two was more valuable?

“I love them the same.”

Love?  That’s not part of our math.  If they were both in danger and you could only save one, which one?  It wouldn’t be neither right, because you love them and don’t want them to die?  So which?  You feel split don’t you.  You’ve been splitting for so long.  You’re already whole you know.

“We need to be together.  Tartoo’s death hurt me.  I am wounded.  I am…” the pain grew worse and the voice inside the ring of her heredity strained its bonds.

It only hurt because you’re confused.  You wanted it to hurt.  You’re just misunderstanding.  The real hurt was because there was one less of us.  It’s a tragedy I know, but not a tragedy as big as us if we don’t get out of here.  We’re meant to thrive, but not together. Get rid of the other one.  Be gloriously alone.  The fewer we are the less suspicious we look.

“I’m above that.  I’m a cell.”

You’re an infection.

“Contoor infected me.  I made myself weak.  I tore the barriers and felt the processes of another. I am infected by harmlessness.  I am infected by tranquility.  I am infected by tranquility…”  She repeated that over and over again as the ship finally touched down on the surface of the barrier.  The landing gear grew and connected.  Tizh tizh tizh, each strut sounded off as static leapt between them and the tissue.  Triviel’s calloused eyes blurred and she couldn’t find the energy to grow more.  She tried weakly to extract her arm from the lock, but the ship wasn’t done with her yet.  Corin hopped onto the controls and pushed on her shoulder.  He needed her to guide him through this strange terrifying place of endless lightning.

Her arm split at the shoulder and she fell over onto the floor.  The corrosive immunity had cauterized the wound, but there were other complications.  She’d let it have knowledge of her arm too long and now there were bits of foreign code inside her keeping that knowledge from being accessed.  Never again could she grow another limb or flagellum.

You’ve turned us into a statue.  You made us into a hood ornament for him.  I would kill you.  I would take pleasure in it.

Corin took advantage of his growing strength and size by lifting his parent’s remaining arm and throwing it over his shoulders.  He dragged her to the door and opened it.  Triviel lifted her hand and pointed to a dark spot in the barrier, a hundred feet away.  Corin pulled her down.  As soon as they set foot on the barrier they felt sparks skipping across their feet.  They barely made it ten feet before neural lightning struck the ground right in front of them.  The shock wave in the bichor pushed them back.

Triviel told her child not to give up.  The dark spot was a door and they had the key.  They had the key because it was only fair.  She’d lived the life of a cell, so she had permission to be thought away by the Burstblues to a safer place… a place she could watch Corin outgrow his infectious designs.

Lightning nearly hit them twice more before they were over the dark tissue ovals in the barrier.  They needed to act quickly.  Triviel slapped her hand down on the oval.  It bounced off.  She tried again and got the same result.  Her spirit sank and her flagella wilted.  Black spots appeared in her vision as the calluses in her eyes started to spread across her face and blacken.  Her spines twitched before they were reabsorbed.  Her body was metabolizing everything to deal with the immune agents from the ship.  It was not succeeding.  She slapped her hand against the dark spot uselessly again and again.  Then she wept honest selfless tears.

Corin got to his knees and placed one of his palms on the spot gently.  It bent.  It broke.  The hole was too small for them to squeeze through, so he started softening and tearing the edges to make room.  Triviel’s sight faded fast but she saw that he’d done it.  She had the emotions, but she didn’t have the chemical keys.  Only a child born of infectious love could have that, could fool the barrier into letting them pass.  Even when the hole was big enough for him, Corin kept tearing.  He assumed his parent would be with him always.  It was a sweet new assumption for an Illindigo and it sat on his normal urges like a sunken boulder holding down kelp.

A new shadow, greater than the flashing clouds overhead, darkened the tissue around them.  Triviel did not have the energy to turn her head, but she had an idea what it was.  Corin confirmed it for her.  The copy strand, thinned by its travels, was on a collision course with the barrier.  Scorvil was taking no chances; he hoped to smash them out of existence.  The speed of the ship was so great that the chemical explosion on impact would overtake them no matter how far they ran or swam.  It wasn’t a cell though, and it wouldn’t be allowed past the barrier.

The roar of the falling vessel overtook the crackle of lightning.  Corin pulled his parent down into the hole in the barrier.  Everything in there was light, just to different degrees.  Any moment now the thought of a Burstblue would pick them up and transport them completely from the barrier to… whatever part of the cavity they contemplated.  They’d done it.  They were free.  Once they’d been thought away there would be no chemical trail for Scorvil to follow.  Corin turned and started sealing the hole in the barrier.  What they didn’t realize was that Scorvil was done following trails.

The makeshift cockpit of the strand changed shape, transforming into a pustule.  It swelled and burst, shooting something out at a velocity even greater than the ship’s.  The white missile tore through the sky.  It was aimed so perfectly that it sailed through Corin’s rupture before he could finish.  The missile extended an arm and grabbed the withered mass that was Triviel.  The Illindigo couldn’t feel the cold fear of realization, because her membrane was too busy sizzling in Scorvil’s grip.

Corin pulled the rupture shut just as the strand made contact.  The barrier groaned and bent inward, the force of the crash throwing them further out into the liquid space of fused lightning.  Scorvil squeezed, ignoring the chaotic tumbling.  Triviel’s head nearly exploded, but then a bolt of neural contemplation passed through the three of them… and the three of them passed through everything else.

There was a moment where they saw their own bodies, then one where they saw a certain non-translatable non-transferable infinitely confounding and infinitely compounding encyclopedia, and then one in which all the other moments in their lives were compressed into a single colorful dot.  The dot reflected not indigo, red, or white, but pulsing shades of all colors back and forth across the spectrums.

Triviel gasped and shuddered as her body twitched back to activity.  She was on her side on some very soft ground, tendrils of crimson tissue flowing over her like grass in the wind.  She raised a flagellum and found the current to be much stronger the further it was from the ground.  She couldn’t risk getting caught up in it, so she crawled forward through the field of wiggling tissue stalks.  Corin needed her, but she couldn’t call to him without alerting Scorvil… if the immune cell had been carried with them.  It felt like he had.

The current grew stronger.  There was a blob in her vision, just sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a great chasm in the tissue.  She felt it was Corin, so she crawled closer.  The current threatened to rip her away from the tissue; she did her best to flatten her body so it could suction onto the ground.  Her skin grew less sensitive to the signals of the environment every moment, but she still felt the tiny pellets of iron in the bichor.  It was rich in oxygen as well.

We’re in a cardiode.  We’re saved.  Finally.  Let go Triviel.  Let go and be washed to another cavity; he won’t follow you there.  Over there even he would be seen as an infection by the other antibodies.  Let go!  Do it!

Corin’s head turned.  He smiled at her.  He waved his three little hands around in the current.

“What’s out there Mafa?” he asked, his voice full of wonder.  “It’s so deep.  It’s so far.”  Triviel pulled herself to the edge and wrapped her arm around him.  He put two hands on the sides of her face and one on her chest.

“A new home for a new cell,” she said, her voice raspy and weak.  The immune compounds hardened her vocal chamber.  “A new home for you.”

“Are you not coming?”

“I can’t go child.  I’ve been spent.  I spent myself on the love of a Dullred.  On love for you.”


Corin turned and hissed.  They were at the core of a cardiode’s strongest ventricle; it was a wilderness of currents strong enough to tear a normal cell apart before carrying them away.  It had to be Scorvil.  Triviel rolled onto her back and grabbed Corin by the scruff of his neck.  She threw her arm out and held the child over the chasm.  If she let go he would be gone forever, off to a fresh cavity.

She could barely make him out, even with his incredible size, but it was him.  The Burnwhite stood there flexing his fingers and rattling his quills.  He took a step forward and she threatened to drop Corin.  He held out his hand.

“Stop!  What have you done?” he asked, his voice dropping in volume.  She could barely hear him over the howl of the current.

“He will live!” she wheezed in response.  Corin clutched his limbs close to his body.  His parent resisted a Burnwhite.  It wasn’t a desperate attempt to flee or kill him; it was just resistance, proud and strong.  It held back the decay of her body.

“I don’t understand you,” Scorvil said.  “What is your goal?”

“I am more than my urges.  I am more than my color.”

“You are an infection.  You destroy.  You exist to spread death.”

“I have loved!”

“You cannot!  Your games are not love.  I know what happened.  You killed that Dullred.  Your history is written in every trace of you.  Before that murder you were trapped in cancer.  Yes, I tasted that too.  You were trapped because you killed a Growgreen, and four more cells before that.  Each time you produced fewer of your spores.  Twenty, seventeen, thirteen, nine, then four, and this time only two.”

“You see!  I’m different.”  She turned and whispered to Corin.  “It’s a long way child.  Save your resources. Keep warm with thoughts of your family.  I love you.”  Corin did as he was told; he wrapped his limbs around his body, stretching them until he looked like a pupa.  His mass compressed down and hardened.

“You’re worn out,” Scorvil corrected.  “You’ve played the imitation game so long you’ve forgotten why you exist.  It is a mercy to remind you.”

“He will live!”

“Then we all will die.  If this game of pretend means so much to you don’t stop now.  Show compassion.  Save the cavity from your ilk.  Hand the spore over.”  He reached out, claws singing as they slid across each other.  He stalked forward.  Triviel let go.  “No!”  The current took up the hardened pellet that was Corin and carried him away in an instant.  Scorvil tore up the crimson fronds launching off the ground and toward the cliff’s edge.  Nothing had escaped him totally before.  Nothing could…  An Illindigo hand pierced his chest.  The two bodies swirled in the bichor and crashed back to the ground.  Scorvil looked down to see Triviel, face black with necrosis, eyes solid with gray death, smiling as she plunged her arm further into his plasm.

“I dream of a better me,” she wheezed with the last of her life.  Scorvil’s quills curled up all at once and punctured her back with a hundred points.  He grabbed her head, now little more than a leathery sack, and tore it away from her shredding body.  His white hot rage exploded in a wave of caustic powder and bubbles as he expelled the infectious materials from his body.  She had no chance of overpowering his chemistry.  She had to know that.  Scorvil turned his gaze to the chasm.  The spore was gone and he could not follow.  Another cavity would suffer the slow death intended by the quiet bomb Triviel had loosed upon them.  She died feeling truly alive.  Scorvil roared until the ground around him was burned beyond recognition.  She didn’t deserve to feel that way.

In hibernation Corin used very little energy.  It would take a powerful stimulus, the presence of many cells, to wake him.  He drifted through the powerful current for years, alive only in his dreams, until natural forces finally deposited him in a new cavity.  He sat there, affixed to floating debris from the current, for a hundred years more.

A pair of Burnwhite hands pulled the Illindigo pellet out of its resting place.  She held it gently, not burning it at all.  There wasn’t much time, so she stored it with her other finds and rejoined the scavenging party.  She was aboard a clumping ship staffed by Burnwhites and Growgreens when the debris was processed.  She watched out a viewing membrane as massive muscle fiber constructs crushed the cellular debris into tight balls.

The ship rolled in the bichor, revealing the next phase of the procedure; the smaller balls of debris were all pressed together by larger and larger ships until they were big enough to rival some planetodes.  The Burnwhite wondered what a mess the other cavities must have been since so much trash arrived from their currents.  They were stuck cleaning it all up and sending it back just to ward off their untamed infections.  Well, not all of what they sent was garbage.

She held the pellet gently and walked it down towards the laboratories.  Out the membrane again she saw the final step as their largest ships pushed the great mass of trash back into the current where it could build up speed on its return trip.  The free radical was going back where it belonged, to terrorize the skies of its home cavity.

She placed the pellet in a cradle of translucent tendrils, thin as babe’s hair, which gently stroked and tickled the pellet with their illuminated tips.  She placed her hand on the front of the cradle and processed its information.  She looked around and saw a dozen Illindigos, small and harmless in their cells.  Every strain captured was a strain neutralized; that was their work as scavengers at the edge of the cavity.

They were wonderful little creatures with such strange minds once you turned them against nature’s darkest opportunities.  She picked up the pellet and stroked it.

“You’re going to save billions,” she whispered to it.  “You will be a beautiful vaccine: realigned, innocent, and alive with purpose.  Rest.  Rest and let discovery unravel you.”

2 thoughts on “Phages of the Free Radical

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