Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts


“That wasn’t there in mine.”

“Was in mine.”

“In mine there were only mines. There.”

And there and there and there.

Not mines that could blow you up. Mines that could destroy your mind, change your body. Make even the thought of you never exist.

A dark joke. An old joke. Useful to remember, until you could no longer remember … anything.

Other times, they moved backward and the Company appeared in stages of construction, with such activity and so many guards that they could not even comprehend the depth of the danger and challenge before them. In that false promise you could lose your self, could be convinced the futures were glorious … if you hadn’t already seen the futures. Everything that promised glory become gory, spreading death underneath, death preferring to dive before erupting back up at the end of days.

Thus Moss, who used Chen’s equations to hone her internal compass, so that her foldings in on herself spared the three the impossible ones and chose only those Cities where the bitter possibility of collapse, the cusp of the possible, provided them with a corridor, a moment.

While Chen, bound by Moss, would calculate rates of decay and acceler-deceleration. Would add in relative unknowns like the cataclysm/catechism of the duck, other Chens, the likelihood of one day meeting a hostile Moss, or meeting another Grayson at all.

What it would mean to meet up with a Charlie X who had not become deranged, expunged his memory. What it would mean for Chen not to hate Charlie X or to remember the feeling of Charlie X’s gaze upon him. Moving backward to a point where Charlie X would be young and almost featureless in his innocence, the way his face reflected nothing yet of terrible experience.

What Chen never added to the equation.

What Charlie X, in rags, had told him, as something clicked into place behind his eyes. Would click off again, for in those days and those versions Charlie X could never hold on to his self for long.

That one time. In that one place. With Moss and Grayson preoccupied and Chen a fortress-sentinel.

“I remember you. I remember you. I remember you. You were just a dream I had. A dream I made. That’s all you are.”

Chen had trembled, tamped down the urge to dissolve and in that dissolution take Charlie X into the dark with him.

For that would be surrender.

Moss had put forth the rules to govern Chen’s more useful equations. Moss’s “tidal pool rules,” which included: Stay still, be small, bring the right camouflage, know good hiding places, become a symbiote or parasite, be poisonous or venomous, be able to regenerate body parts.

If you wanted to survive, reduce all motion to zero over long stretches of time. Trust the current. The current. The current. The species already there. How at high tide the water rippled across all of the tidal pools, even those that had been inviolate, their own tiny kingdoms, before.

If this were the purest City. The one that most rippled through all the others and the Source. If this was the one, then the effect would be greatest here.

But: Be tiny, be motionless. Take your time. Perhaps it would not be the first wave or even the thousandth. Because direct was defended. You contaminated the wall of globes inside the Company, then went to the Source. The portal wall, the magic mirror that led back to where the Company came from. You let it trickle in, like a slow-acting poison that was actually:

Life, again.

She could feel herself, sometimes, using the tidal pool rules to do the things she wasn’t doing here. Phantom sensations. Of standing in the ravine. Of watching her doppelgänger set off, with Chen by her side.

Memory of Grayson turning to her and saying one of these three things:

“This time. This time. I feel it.”

“Someday. We’ll go back to your tidal pools.”

“How many times has it been now?”

Say a number that felt low. That felt hollow.

Like one of Chen’s equations was screaming to get out. Like one of Chen’s creatures, trapped in the wall of globes.

iv.

for you cannot give us

what we already have

In this City, as in all Cities, the three knew they would find the foxes. Moss loved the foxes, while Grayson suspected them—thought them already too clever, believed, perhaps, the foxes had led to their failures, as much as the insidious nature of the Company had.

Chen had no opinion, for in his calculation the foxes must always be part of the plan. So he wasted no emotion on them one way or the other.

On a cracked dead bridge splayed in segments across a riverbed of rocks and weeds, the fox met them. They had been clambering across the gully, headed southeast, toward the Balcony Cliffs apartment complex. They wore now their camouflage, so that they appeared only as a glimmer against whatever backdrop they moved across. Faery mode, Moss liked to call it.

In a sense, the fox had ambushed them by taking the high ground of the bridge. This startled them. It had never happened so soon, or in this place.

The blue fox stood perfect-still, regarding them. It was as large as a wolf and Grayson felt the threat of its regard. Could see with her eye the peculiarities of its brain. Just could not tell if the fox had been born that way or tinkered with.

“You are a long way from home,” the blue fox said.

“This is our home,” Moss replied.

“Not all of you. Not this City. Our City.”

“The Company’s City.”

“Not forever.”

Moss was their receiver, and it was through Moss that Chen and Grayson heard her parlay with the blue fox.

“Will you accept a gift from us?” Moss asked.

“I accept no gifts from strangers.”

“But we aren’t strangers. You know us.”

Moss was letting the blue fox into her mind. The farther into that labyrinth the fox explored, the more of the gift the fox would receive. For it would understand their mission, gain more understanding of the Company, and also see how the foxes had helped them across so many Cities. That was the hope.

(What bled through, into the head? Where did they travel all unknowing? This in Moss’s mind as disturbance, registering in Chen as a possibility: v.2.1 = 2.2 + 2.3 + 3.0 + the things that could pull a mind apart if examined close up.)

“Neither shall I set foot on strange paths without a map,” the fox said or thought, and in real time it was neither but an image the fox showed Moss—of the fox come to a halt at the entrance to a dark green maze of vines, and the maze was Moss and the fox would not enter the maze. And Moss put this image into words for Grayson, for Chen.

Words ripped smooth by repetition. What Moss had said many times before: “The Company will kill you without our help.”

“The Company already kills us, and yet we are here.”