Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts


In some Cities, the leviathan of the holding ponds had suffered at the Company’s hands. Open sores. Burns. In those places, Moss would sing to the leviathan to soothe it and dull its pain receptors and show it images of a limitless and fecund sea. Once, all she could do was ease the creature toward a merciful death.

Do you see me? Here I am.

Casting out a line before ever she saw the beast.

Here, the leviathan had been smarter, luckier, more dangerous, adapted, been deemed useless by the Company. In truth the leviathan, pure, was natural to this place. Had not been created but had lived here all its preternaturally long life.

I am not a threat. Not a threat. Not a threat.

In this version of the City, the leviathan was almost one hundred years old. Called it Botch, after a long-dead painter. But it wasn’t Botched. That was just a personal lexicon, the dark humor of reluctant soldiers. In which they sometimes called the blue fox Flue or Flu or even Flow. As a contagion that spread among the foxes and perhaps others.

I am here to parlay. This is parlay. I will send you what parlay means.

Botch, Fish, Leviathan had one massive dead white eye that was always weeping salt. “Grayson’s fish,” Chen joked, gently.

Ancient and weathered and huge, and even then the veteran of a hundred battles. Had devoured so many Company rejects and regrets, even though itself rejected.

Your enemies are our enemies.

A lyrical music that came out of its ugly grouper-esque mouth. That at a low lull could mesmerize prey out across the water to drown in its maw. That, brought from beautiful to a sawlike piercing, could stun at close range. A defiantly ugly fish wandering between the size of rhinoceros and whale.

A ripe stench that would’ve wrinkled Grayson’s nostrils, sent a wince across her face. As if Botch brought with it an olfactory record of every chemical, kind of offal, algae, muck it had passed through.

Botch had formidable defenses. Gills that pivoted outward sudden into blades. Razor scales that could angle at signs of danger and gouge at the touch. The mighty jaws lined with diseased and glistening yellow teeth that spread illness as well as lacerations. Strong wide fins meant for both walking and swimming. If it ever made it to an ocean, the leviathan would grow and grow and become a despotic lord among fish. Freshwater or salt? It had a map in its head that yearned for any kind of water.

Things I can give you in exchange …

Botch, wallowing in the sucking mud of a bog-like pond tempered by patches of yellowing grasses. Such a savage mockery of her tidal pools. The dash-dots of flies skimming over meant as cameras once but now click-clicked more out of ritual than purpose.

Botch wallowing and Moss letting herself go wide and shallow to cover the mud pond in a sheen of tiny green-and-white flowers lashed together like chain mail, from which something vaguely like a face held court and hailed Botch as friend.

In the moonlight and the shadow, which neither registered, given excellent night vision.

Botch caught in some dreaming pattern as it gulped down a cache of screaming alcohol minnows.

A kind of response, interpreted in the flush of first contact as: <<You think you are everything, everywhere. You think that the world is not everything, everywhere, around you.>>

The coordinates of control for a dreadnought like Botch were so different than for Moss. They spoke not in fish nor in the language of moss. Because they were neither fish nor moss. Not in person-speech. Because they were not human.

But not in something newly made or ordered. Not machine language or codes or mazes. It had to be translated on either side, strained through layers, halting, pushing forward. Sometimes what translated into supposed words was emotion or reaction. Approximates that had to be trusted in the moment, before these approximates became slippery and escaped into the mire. Because the translation was a kind of virus, and Moss trusted she was infecting the fish and not the fish Moss.

<<What can this be seen as but attack?>> Botch didn’t say, would never say, and yet, in some sense, did say … but remained there in front of her. The stillness of Botch, staring out across the floating field of Moss-blossoms was her clue that he wanted to eat her. If only he could find a heart to rip out and devour among all those flowers.

This beast that could carry her, some part of her, some version. Could find a way or buy them more time, or times, of a sort. Not the mission as agreed to by Grayson or Chen. But what she had worked through with the fox. A way that appealed to the plant cells in her, the moss and the lichen. If nothing else.

She told Botch that she truly saw him. That she could trace Botch back through the outline of his scars. For there was not a part of Botch’s body that did not have scars and so he was now white as snow, white as preternatural, white as something that did not belong in the City. White had not the strength of stone nor the armor of death, of fossil. But was only weakness revealed, the language of the future.

Unwound each scar from Botch’s body, each as it had happened, and she told Botch, who had forgotten, what each scar meant, and how it had happened and why and what else had been in the world around Botch at the time. Each scar removed in this way that told the story of Botch’s long life, and with each story Botch gained with the loss, and at the end, bereft of scars and thus of wounds, stood before Moss shining with an original truth.

For an instant, Botch was new again and the eye was bright but the murder had left it.

I need something from you. Something important.

It was not a thing she could force, but Moss tired of force and felt diminished by force and wanted as little of that poison in her as she could manage.

Part of me will protect a part of you. I will protect you forever and a day as I am able. I will be a type of armor.

For no one had ever gleaned that such a monster might feel the need for protection. Somewhere deep down in the depths of it, in the sunless ocean within.

<<I don’t know you. You know me and now I remember me. But I don’t know you.>>

But it wasn’t said. It wasn’t bellowed or sung. Yet Moss knew.

This is me.

This is me.

You are me.

Who are me? But she knew who are me. She knew. Down in the burning shed of her soul.

And let Botch in, even as Botch exploded through the mud, dove deep into the dark water, Moss leaping upon his back, dragged under, pulled below, breathing, not breathing, torn asunder, clinging in all the ways moss could cling, to the back of the beast that meant to kill her.

xii.

to be both receiver

and received

Moss against Moss, when it happened, rare, was like intricate garden combat. Between plants. Between obstinate weeds. Pugnacious. Sped up, slowed down. First one in retreat across a dusty yard full of skeletons and then the other. Add a third, a fourth Moss, drawn to the same reality, and there was in the confluence, the flux of outspread filaments and curling grasp nothing but the bliss of tiny flowers and exploding spores.

Until, finally, there was no difference between attacker and attacked, and no shame in cease-fire, because Moss could not tell herself from her self. From that place of comfort, the comfort of being greater than before, Moss could rise again in human form. One Moss. Ever divisible. Under no god. Under no rules of ungoverned, forgotten countries.

Many times—not this time, when Moss had stolen out to parlay with a fish—the mission meant Moss consolidated would stand leaking green mist out of the helmet of her contamination suit, as the three lurked in the shelter of the ravine. Leaking in loops and spirals that settled thick to the ground, began to form a hazy emerald specter that resembled Moss. When Moss closed her suit, it was done. There, before them, would stand what appeared to be another Moss, fuzzy at the edges, but the same warm smile. The same inquisitive look.

A gaze that transmitted light from one semblance of an eye to another. All of Moss was eyes. None of Moss was eyes.

Moss would talk to her doppelgänger and her doppelgänger would set off on the mission, accompanied by Chen, who could navigate the wasteland to the holding ponds and who turned on camouflage so, in his suit, he could not be seen except by arcane means. While Moss’s doppelgänger, this pointillist portrait of her, disassembled and reassembled by Chen’s side, in a shimmer of molecules that leapt out across the sky, circled back, formed a film creeping fast forward across the ground. Chen would wait at the holding ponds, while the wraith of Moss-like would spiral past and visible-invisible to the Company sensors, penetrate the Company building and complete Moss’s mission for her.

Or that had been the plan. In the past.

It wasn’t safe for Moss to get closer, for Moss was the way out. Without Moss, they’d never make it to another City if they failed.

Moss did not just tend tidal pools. Often, before Grayson, Moss sent ripples across those still surfaces. About the creatures who lived there and what their lives were like. She looked up from the pools, become what lived there, staring as the giant looming down to peer in, to be both receiver and received. In an endless amplified loop. Slipped across realities. Very tactical, as Grayson had said, and yet infinite. Each time it changed them, just a little. But Moss couldn’t remember what they might have been before, at the start. None of them could.

Moss couldn’t extend the field. But, at a price, she could become a door—they walked through her and she followed, and wasn’t that the definition of sacrifice?

As much as clinging in a film of green to the back of Botch as he dove so far and so deep, and twisted and bucked to dislodge what could not be dislodged, for Moss’s grip extended beneath Botch’s scarred skin, hooks in deep. Even as bits of her tore away from the violence of Botch’s panicked tunneling into the depths. Into the darkness.