Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts


All around, from every hiding place, peered the sandy-colored small foxes that were the blue fox’s comrades.

“We can make it easier, faster, for you.”

The fox considered that, looking out over the City as if the fox would rule the City one day.

“I will give you this much: There is no Moss in this City. No Moss at all. You should consider that before all else.” Moss by then was a conduit as well as a person, and even as a person she was an accumulation of Mosses, all of whom lived inside her. Every time Moss encountered another Moss, across timelines, they merged, and she had become more powerful because of it.

Then the fox trotted off the bridge, out of sight, and his followers melted away as if they had never been there.

“That has never happened before,” Chen said. He had noticed how the fox looked covetous at Moss, as if she were a tasty morsel. That had not happened before, either.

“Give it time,” Moss said, even though Time was a joke. Even though they had less of it with no Moss in the City. No new partner, no new joining.

“How much time do we have?” Grayson asked.

(What came back to Chen was how 7 became both lucky and finite, not a door but a wall. Without an anchor at 6.999999999999. But the fox was the master of it and thus in a way Chen could not see in the numbers … their master, too.)

As they met the fox ever earlier, so too would the Company be drawn to them that much faster. This they knew. And Moss knew one thing more the other two did not: that she would see the fox again, soon.

I think you are beautiful, Moss thought hard, at the space the fox had disappeared into. I think you have always known the future. I think this time I might trust you.

But she always had done that in the past, too. Because she meant it.

Where had the blue fox come from? The vexing question, the one they had stopped trying to answer. Moss said that the blue fox had not been born in the Company or borne by the Company, or they had so forgotten it that there was no residue. A rogue lab, Chen guessed. Or some spontaneous mutation. Neither probable.

Moss believed: The blue fox was aware of its brethren across all the paths. Moss believed: The blue fox often knew them before first encounter.

Once, Grayson, after analyzing the blue fox and finding only … fox … pressed the creature.

The fox replied, “I came from where you come from, Grayson. I come from up there.”

The sky. The stars. The leap of startled recognition in Grayson before she realized the fox was joking. That the fox was telling her she had been read, down to her core.

“How do you know?” Grayson had asked. Could not help that reveal.

“You stink of space,” the fox said. “You stink of stale air and the burn and countdowns to false zeros, and places not of Earth.”

But Grayson thought the fox lied and there was some other reason.

Chen said: Any theory at this point made as much sense, since no theory made sense. That the fox could be inhabited by an alien intelligence. Or it could be a particularly devious AI wormholing back under the power of a self-made destiny. If the paths were open, porous, then other sorts of doors could open as well. Even though Grayson, the only astronaut among them, said aliens had never been encountered by humankind out in the universe. That human beings never mastered AI.

Grayson, uneasy every time, instinct telling her she knew the blue fox from somewhere. Always on the cusp, never able to recall. Distrusting the emotion behind it, careful to keep the fox at arm’s length.

The probability was that they would never know. The way most never knew half of anything and had to be content.

“Catch me if you can,” the blue fox sometimes said to Moss in joyous reverie. “Catch me if you can.”

But they never could.

v.

the first glimpse

was always the most fatal

Only Chen had ever worked for the Company. Some version of it he had left far behind on the map. And so, the first glimpse of the Company building each time was always the most fatal for him. The trauma of it had been known to pull him apart at the seams, it left to Moss to hold him together, for he had the power to dissolve into the sky almost against his will, leave Grayson and Moss on their own, nothing ever his problem again.

Before the tidal pool rules, the three had smashed in the front door of the Company. They had laid siege. They had attacked from afar, through proxies. They had lured Company lackeys into sabotage. They had led uprisings of biotech. They had done this and they had done that. They had been wounded and changed and poisoned and defeated too many times, only got out because of Moss. All the Mosses. Could only regroup because of her.

Had to wait. Try more circuitous ways. Come back much later. After the damage had mostly been done. Irredeemable. Irreparable. Yet they still meant to repair it.

Each time: What next? What now?

Each time, the obstacle seemed more insurmountable.

Chen: “Couldn’t you find a future that’s a paradise, where we could live out our days together?”

But that was a joke. Because Chen knew none of those timelines contained a Moss, a Chen, a Grayson. Because those timelines did not exist. The Company had tick-engorged itself across all timelines.

This was the problem. You could try to live out your days and years in some remote corner, but even that place would be blighted by the Company, by what happened in the City. They would find you, in time. You would be reminded of your own unwillingness to fight against your fate. The three would become one and one and one, and then none.

Grayson: “There will be a next time.”

Moss never replied. She would be thinking of what she had received from Grayson because she loved her, too much. How without Grayson she would not have known to resist. Because Moss had been too close in, too close to Charlie X and, by extension, the dark bird. How Grayson had been like original sin, how Moss was now more fully herself than before.

That they might next succeed. That failure might no longer be about a semblance of the future. That, in the end, they were three, not an army.

The Company always looked basically the same: whether an enormous white egg or a vast gray triangle or a ziggurat or a series of spires, like a fractured cathedral. Holding ponds for biotech rejects always hunched up against the side, a convenient hell or purgatory, full of dying life, and then lines of invisible defenses across the wasteland beyond. Sometimes things flew through the air that should not have been able to fly, molecules of iridescent blue and green that scintillated and changed shape, ever vigilant.

This version retained the white-egg structure but had curved lines running through the architecture so that it resembled a giant egg slicer with a metal egg sliced within it. A lazy riddle interrogating itself about some other, unrelated question.

This version had propagated the holding ponds across the entire expanse of what was normally desert, and still was, in a sense.

“How did It escape?” Grayson would ask as they stared at the Company.

“We never escaped; It was always there.”

“Can It be put to the good?” Grayson would ask.

“No, It cannot. It must be burned to the ground.”

“But could we persuade It?”

“Only if you could find a human heart to persuade.”

“Only if you could find something other than a human heart.”

“What will replace It if we succeed?”