Jeff VanderMeer
Dead Astronauts

Grayson’s Chen knew the panic, understood it: that this Chen could not conceive of the truth but knew another truth. The Company could make people if it wanted, and the thrashing, terrible intensity of attack, the visceral nature of it, meant that Chen, seeing Chen, understood this, too.

All the memories of Chen—of family continents away, of work history, of hobbies, of relationships—that this was a sham and a shame and that the only way to keep some sense of personhood was to destroy the invader. In some Cities, some Chens might fold under that weight, but most of the time it made the Chens fight long and hard and dirty.

Except Chen didn’t care if he was a made thing or not—Moss had cured him of that neurosis—and he had the advantage of having fought Chen before. He knew all of his moves, knew all the ways to end it, including how he had learned to adapt his flesh from Moss, that he could detach his hand and turn it into a dangerous flaming star flying through the sky.

Yet still Chen muttered at Chen as they struggled, pleading with this other self to submit, to give in, that they could work together if only Chen had a chance to explain. Trying again.

“Submit and join us. Two are better than one. What do you owe the Company?”

“Submit and the Company will welcome us back in. Submit and we can both have the life you had before.”

“A dead life?”

“Something to hold on to.”

But had Chen said that or had Moss’s Chen thought it? Who was lying to whom?

As Chen fought back and refused to submit, Grayson’s Chen grew weary. Not of the fight, for he had learned to love fighting because at least it ended in a vanquishing that denoted a kind of progress. But as he traded blows with himself—rabbit punches, kicks to the groin—Chen felt something sanded down finally and forever. As his fist struck Chen’s jaw and Chen’s fist struck him in the stomach. As they stumbled in the grapple, neither quite going to the ground, Chen realized he was weary of killing himself. He was tired.

This was the fourth time.

With a great spasm and twist of self-loathing, Chen moved to the side and locked his arm around Chen’s throat in a choke hold, clambered onto his back, and clasped Chen’s torso tight with his legs. Chen fell with Chen on top of him, bucking, trying to get at Chen with elbows, then trying to dislodge Chen’s legs.

Chen managed to twist enough to get his fingers under Chen’s choke hold and flip so that they were face-to-face on the uneven floor, in the dust and dirt next to the swimming pool. Now each had hands around the other’s throat, those bull-like necks, so close they could have kissed or spat or done anything.

Moss had altered Chen’s oxygen capacity, or taught him to do so. He never remembered what was augmentation and what was just training. So Chen was content to choke Chen, until Chen passed out and there was a moment when Chen had always, would forever, continue to apply pressure to the throat and Chen would die.

But this Chen, too, must have altered oxygen capacity, or was working from a different equation, and did not tire and did not pass out or die, but only squeezed harder on Chen’s neck, too. Which alarmed Chen, and then all the solidarity with his own flesh that he had built up over time … gave way.

Grayson’s Chen burst at the seams. Became a mound of writhing green salamanders, in a sigh, a deliquescence. Slipping from Chen’s grasp as he gasped and stepped back. In surprise or disgust? For salamander-Chen still formed a rough composite of Chen’s form. Slouched over on the ground, the salamanders fierce-eyed, determined to pledge allegiance to an equation made obsolete.

Stared up disoriented at Chen through the array of a thousand eyes and, with a shudder, misdiagnosing, thinking he was back at the wall of globes in the Company building, he screamed. Chen shrieked. The salamanders wailed with him in an uncanny chorus. Even as locked together they clung, embraced, their feet like hooks, a community of flesh desperate not to succumb to a more nomadic impulse. How lonely that would be. For everyone.

Then Grayson was there, enveloping Chen and keeping Chen whole, putting him back together, subsiding the frenzy of the salamanders.

Then Moss was there, subduing the other Chen. Muffling the Chen in waves of green particles, come a little undone herself to undo Chen.

Who, stunned, stumbled now as if through a dream or nightmare. Grappled with this nothing dissipating through the air and made despairing sounds. Subsided, rendered frozen by the pinpricks of Moss’s transference of her defensive blood. Moss recoiling at the feel of Chen’s blood in contact with her particles.

Grayson found rope in Chen’s pack and bound Chen’s hands and feet.

“I have you, Chen.”

“I have you, Moss.”

“Another time, Chen. Another time. But not now.”

Chen outside was Chen again. Could not describe the feeling of being so distributed: to have so many bodies at once and so many eyes, and so many beating hearts and breathing lungs. A legion of tiny lives that could not be reduced to equations, that existed in every moment, each unique, nothing about math or structure. He needed music. He needed a huge meal. He would get neither, just the relief of his own labored breathing. Singular.

Charlie X had altered Chen to fail because he was disposable. Moss had made him fail in a way that allowed him to live, that gave some comfort, that was not really failure. That allowed Chen to atone, that manifested in his flesh.

Grayson and Moss looked down at Chen. They could see the imprint of salamander bodies like a fading tattoo. They could see it, so Chen could too. Feel also their concern.

“Should you do it or should I do it?” Grayson asked Chen.

Kill the other Chen.

Chen said, “No! Keep him alive. He might have value.”

Chen had never had value because Chen never knew as much as Grayson’s Chen. Chen had never suggested saving Chen. It was too dangerous.

Moss put a hand on Chen’s shoulder.

“You said the duck is on our side,” Chen wheezed out through the retreat of salamanders in his throat. “We can afford to.” Just to say something. Just to be normal. Which was impossible.

“The duck was at our side,” Moss observed.

True: The duck had appeared next to the swimming pool, watching them. Had it been there the moment before?

Then it was gone again.

The duck had seen Chen explode into salamanders. It had seen Moss help reconstitute Chen.

What else had it seen?


a creator who no longer

remembered the creation

How to explain the weight of the duck with the broken wing? In truth of flesh and blood and light, though it could not fly. The wing deliberate, part of Charlie X’s plan, that the duck might always be cast out from the Company. That the duck might register as prey. As low and cast out and as prey.

To the three when they encountered the duck, it was as heavy as if made of brass or steel or gold. The duck’s gaze was impervious to the years, pinned them down with that weight. Always when they arrived: that urgent, nagging question. Is the duck with us or against us? Does the duck recognize us?

The duck represented a paradox. It roamed where it would, and wherever it patrolled for the Company it also negated anywhere within its shadow the Company’s surveillance. The duck could do that, to lesser and greater degrees, across all of the Cities.

“Schrödinger’s duck.”

“Heidegger’s duck.”

“Swedenborg’s duck.”

“Seneca’s duck.”

Charlie X’s duck.

The worst versions of the duck: Carnivorous, enflamed, the cruel lizardous eye. Oozing a thin crust of blood that dried on the mottled white. Oracular stigmata, appraising. Price of seeing too much of the future. Most often observed replicating the murders of birds of prey—bill sharp, serrated in microscopic detail. Buried in a limp rat-thing, tearing out the guts. Gulping them down like a ghoulish stork. Gnawing on what was left in an artistic way, the delicacy in how long the duck could leave the recipient of its attentions alive.