Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts


It would look up from feasting with a mechanical grace and hunger, as if lusting for meat in a way that festered. Fostered the impression screams were more important than hunger.

Once, twice, the three witnessed the duck eviscerating a fox it had pinned to the sand, from back legs to snout, with the spurs on its scaly feet. And then the duck did bring down its head like a hammer that became an ice pick that split the fox’s head in a crack and splatter of blood and brain matter. A sound that carried over the sands.

But the duck ate no part of either fox. Perhaps wary of a trap. That the foxes might come free from the inside out, might somehow conquer it postmortem. That the foxes still spoke to one another when dead, voices floating in the air, seemed a desecration by the duck, but Moss could not be sure. All that seemed sure is that Charlie X hated the foxes. Or had once hated one fox.

Of the broken wing, the best that could be said is that the wing left a smile upon many a neck and torso. But never on a face. For the creature could in a motion reminiscent of some awkward bat unfold and unfurl and extend.

The wing by will locked in place. The edge knife-sharp and serrated. It with willful industry and psychotic intent vivisected and hacked apart scavengers as large as men and larger. With a zigzagging approach once taught perhaps but now as automatic as a stitched pattern.

Then came the sliding in a wet and separated slump to the dust, the dirt, the scavenger forever caught in a bloodstained, anguished look of confusion at the method of its own ending. Until the sun and smaller scavengers still did their work and turned the anguish into a smile. Because dead things felt only love for the universe.

Sometimes, the duck would distract with the voice of your beloved dead, plucked from your mind, and then dig into your brain like a worm or grub, and try to live in there for a while, eating out your thoughts until you were a husk that twitched and slobbered and spasmed in the sand. At which point, reduced to harmlessness, the duck would stab you with its beak wherever best to place a spigot. Bleed you out while eating you alive.

There came then, Moss knew, in some victims, the heights of ecstatic experience. A lightness that carried the mind off into the clouds to look down on the twisting and shaking mess of carcass without worry or care. Despite the pain that had arrived before that moment.

Oh happy memory for Charlie X, who had no memories anymore. Oh, happy days of youth evoked by the duck. The one he’d nursed back to health. The one he’d been given as a gift. The one he’d rescued from a zoo. The one he’d kidnapped at a park. Depending on Charlie X’s mood, the story changed, on a sliding scale of the sentimental that Chen could map to the cruel.

The one he’d told Chen about even as he created the demonic version, no space between the molecules of air that shouted Lie! and those that flowed from his mouth to tell what he thought was the truth, in that moment.

Who knew what was truth and what was story?

The logical next question, more remote because the answer was usually the same: Where is Charlie X now? Nowhere. Nowhere. Dead. Forgotten. Rags buried in sand, buried in the past. Just the duck left behind.

But that was not the case in this City.

Charlie X, a ghost given flesh, rising up impossible to meet them across the years. Yet they could not meet him. Must not risk that in his disturbed mind might still exist a memory of Chen, of Moss and the wall of globes inside the Company. And, so, seeing Charlie X from afar as they had headed for the Balcony Cliffs, by the polluted river … the three let him pass unhindered. Did not call out. Did not admit to the past. Hardly discussed it after.

They’d never turned him to their cause, either too broken or not broken enough. But here, and most places now, he had already long past been abandoned or been kicked out by the Company. Unable to use the micro-tears created by the portals that allowed Moss a way to come through. Burdened by the bat-like hardening of features that the Company had imposed on him. That never truly fit. That proclaimed mask or helmet or cage. And how he breathed uneven through it, rasping, and how the mice living in his throat bulged there, clung to soft tissue with their sanitized toes. How long it had taken Charlie X not to claw at his throat, for all that lived inside it? Knew, somewhere deep inside, that he always went mad, went bad, could not be trusted, lived in a place where the landscape had been stripped bare.

Yet still, sometimes, in some scenarios, Chen would pause in the shadow of some version of a ruined building as some version of Charlie X stumbled by. As some version of Charlie X cowered in an empty cistern. Or lay quiet under a trapdoor to catch his prey. Or sat in the dust and wept in a self-pity that Moss found intolerable.

“Should we end him?”

A pause.

“No.” This from Grayson. Always.

It would be for themselves, not for him. He could do no harm now that he had not already achieved. In the grand scheme, to the three he had truly become a ghost. What could they say but words over his grave as he walked away from them, mumbling to himself.

Besides, Grayson argued, there was the risk: They did not know what Charlie X’s death might mean to the duck.

Dark bird. Dark secret. They knew not what it hid, what was artifice and what was content. Peel away that layer, find a deeper monster still.

What did Charlie X scrawl in the sand with a stick? A design, a half-remembered purpose that they recognized because it was still, in part, their own. And, looking back when well south of him, through the binoculars, the wistful way the duck with the broken wing had halted in shadowing the three.

Out there on the broken plain, they could not encounter one another. Either the Company or Charlie X, in his last days before being cast out, had intervened, that neither should hurt the other nor acknowledge the other. Nor see the other. And if it should look like their paths might intersect, one or the other would step to the side and not know why, but continue on then, fellow ghosts ghosting straight through to the other side.

A creator who no longer remembered the creation: Wasn’t that one definition of a god?

For each circling lunge, the duck had an answer and soon enough Charlie X had whipped up a cloud of dust in his exertions and his foul cursing, and when the dust settled, the duck had disappeared once more.

Escaped to shadow the three, made up ground in an uncanny way, as if when they looked back to chart its progress, the duck occurred in the City via time-lapse photography, so that it always resided several yards in advance of where it should have been.

Moss was a heretic. Moss sometimes thought that Charlie X had, in a way, brought them together. That somehow, with the duck as the fulcrum, Charlie X had unwittingly orchestrated their resistance prior to crumbling before the onslaught of his own trauma.

Yet perhaps Moss had the right to think this way. For Charlie X had created her.

x.

a shadow

of a vastness

That night, while Grayson slept and Chen recovered, Moss dimmed her thoughts from them, crept through their defenses, snuck out of the Balcony Cliffs. Chen and Grayson never really slept. Perhaps because they were too connected or just couldn’t pretend anymore. But she hoped they slept in some sense, that what she did now was muted to them.

Chen had kept arguing that he should be the one for this mission, that he could convince the fish to help them. But Moss had decided she couldn’t let him. Wasn’t as suited for it, taxed and tested by the other Chen, and having only his blunt, Company ways to complete the mission; just wanted to spare her being hurt.

Still, Grayson would never understand. Not the risk. Not the trade Moss might have to make. The decision she had come to.

So she followed the ravine, the trace of water down the center. In a trance. In a kind of ebb and flow as she abandoned human form. A carpet of moss roiling across the dirt, sand, and rocks. A screed that rewrote whatever it encountered, so the dirt had new properties and the sand burgeoned with new life and the rocks began processes that might not germinate for centuries.

An onslaught, a hidden invasion. Runneling like an unseen, weightless, slow-motion avalanche, her advance guard become her rearguard. Spreading out to the sides and then in again. Folding over and over.

Lingering in the roots of shattered trees and the neural networks of fungi. All of it battered, not at capacity but alive still. A shadow of a vastness. And she existed there, splayed out across those axes in a special kind of ecstasy. Remembered the other ways. Thought, perhaps, to close down human-type thoughts, to stay. To exist just in that moment and the next. To not go back or go forward.

Exhausting. It exhausted to be so close to Grayson, to Chen. Ecstatic. Amazing, that intimacy. To lie down upon a bed with two others enfolded there, not cheek to cheek but the same cheek as one. Yes, ecstatic, but exhausting, exhausting, exhausting. Never alone, and Moss herself so many Mosses and thus never alone in herself either.

Moss kept the human form for certain advantages, to live with Grayson and Chen. Because it helped Chen hold his body together. She did it for other people.

Become nothing or everything. Nothing that could be other than nothing. Nothing that could feel what Moss had felt at the hands of Charlie X.

To be something again in the end—something that would mean everything to Grayson. That was the price, the price, the price. And at the very end, to come back into the consciousness that human recognized as human, that she might parlay with the fish on their behalf.

At the bottom of the ravine, the blue fox waited, as she had known he would. And by that sign Moss knew she hadn’t slipped into another place, another time. For this would never happen again and had never happened before.

“Are you ready?” the blue fox asked.

“Yes,” she said.

No, she wasn’t ready, she’d never be ready. Ready would be too late.

Or so the fox had convinced her.

xi.

such savage mockery

of the tidal pools