Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation: The thrilling book behind the most anticipated film of 2018

I thought about that for a moment, took in the full measure of the psychologist’s stare as she focused her attention on me. Nightmarish, paranoid scenarios came to me. Returning to find the entrance blocked, or the psychologist picking us off as we reached for the open sky. Except: She could have killed us in our sleep any night of the week.

“It’s not that important,” I said after a moment. “You’re as valuable to us up here as down there.”

And so we descended, as before, under the psychologist’s watchful eye.

The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall … the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat … and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don’t know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.

“What’s wrong?” the surveyor was asking me, voice muffled through her mask. “What happened?”

I grabbed her hand, forced her palm against the wall.

“Let me go!” She tried to pull away, but I kept her there.

“Do you feel that?” I asked, unrelenting. “Can you feel that?”

“Feel what? What are you talking about?” She was scared, of course. To her, I was acting irrationally.

Still, I persisted: “A vibration. A kind of beat.” I removed my hand from hers, stepped back.

The surveyor took a long, deep breath, and kept her hand on the wall. “No. Maybe. No. No, nothing.”

“What about the wall. What is it made of?”

“Stone, of course,” she said. In the arc of my helmet flashlight, her shadowed face was hollowed out, her eyes large and circled by darkness, the mask making it look like she had no nose or mouth.

I took a deep breath. I wanted it all to spill out: that I had been contaminated, that the psychologist was hypnotizing us far more than we might have suspected. That the walls were made of living tissue. But I didn’t. Instead, I “got my shit together,” as my husband used to say. I got my shit together because we were going to go forward and the surveyor couldn’t see what I saw, couldn’t experience what I was experiencing. And I couldn’t make her see it.

“Forget it,” I said. “I became disoriented for a second.”

“Look, we should go back up now. You’re panicking,” the surveyor said. We had all been told we might see things that weren’t there while in Area X. I know she was thinking that this had happened to me.

I held up the black box on my belt. “Nope—it’s not flashing. We’re good.” It was a joke, a feeble joke, but still.

“You saw something that wasn’t there.” She wasn’t going to let me off the hook.

You can’t see what is there, I thought.

“Maybe,” I admitted, “but isn’t that important, too? Isn’t that part of all of this? The reporting? And something I see that you don’t might be important.”

The surveyor weighed that for a moment. “How do you feel now?”

“I feel fine,” I lied. “I don’t see anything now,” I lied. My heart felt like an animal had become trapped in my chest and was trying to crawl out. The surveyor was now surrounded by a corona of the white phosphorescence from the walls. Nothing was receding. Nothing was leaving me.

“Then we’ll go on,” the surveyor said. “But only if you promise to tell me if you see anything unusual again.”

I almost laughed at that, I remember. Unusual? Like strange words on a wall? Written among tiny communities of creatures of unknown origin.

“I promise,” I said. “And you will do the same for me, right?” Turning the tables, making her realize it might happen to her, too.

She said, “Just don’t touch me again or I’ll hurt you.”

I nodded in agreement. She didn’t like knowing I was physically stronger than her.

Under the terms of that flawed agreement we proceeded to the stairs and into the gullet of the tower, the depths now revealing themselves in a kind of ongoing horror show of such beauty and biodiversity that I could not fully take it all in. But I tried, just as I had always tried, even from the very beginning of my career.

My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people asked me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up. My mother was an overwrought artist who achieved some success but was a little too fond of alcohol and always struggled to find new clients, while my dad the underemployed accountant specialized in schemes to get rich quick that usually brought in nothing. Neither of them seemed to possess the ability to focus on one thing for any length of time. Sometimes it felt as if I had been placed with a family rather than born into one.

They did not have the will or inclination to clean the kidney-shaped pool, even though it was fairly small. Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long. Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent. The short bushes lining the fence around the pool lunged up to obscure the chain link. Moss grew in the cracks in the tile path that circled it. The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae. Dragonflies continually scouted the area. Bullfrogs moved in, the wriggling malformed dots of their tadpoles always present. Water gliders and aquatic beetles began to make the place their own. Rather than get rid of my thirty-gallon freshwater aquarium, as my parents wanted, I dumped the fish into the pool, and some survived the shock of that. Local birds, like herons and egrets, began to appear, drawn by the frogs and fish and insects. By some miracle, too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.

Within months of our arrival, the pool had become a functioning ecosystem. I would slowly enter through the creaking wooden gate and observe it all from a rusty lawn chair I had set up in a far corner. Despite a strong and well-founded fear of drowning, I had always loved being around bodies of water.

Inside the house, my parents did whatever banal, messy things people in the human world usually did, some of it loudly. But I could easily lose myself in the microworld of the pool.

Inevitably my focus netted from my parents useless lectures of worry over my chronic introversion, as if by doing so they could convince me they were still in charge. I didn’t have enough (or any) friends, they reminded me. I didn’t seem to make the effort. I could be earning money from a part-time job. But when I told them that several times, like a reluctant ant lion, I had had to hide from bullies at the bottom of the gravel pits that lay amid the abandoned fields beyond the school, they had no answers. Nor when one day for “no reason” I punched a fellow student in the face when she said hello to me in the lunch line.

So we proceeded, locked into our separate imperatives. They had their lives, and I had mine. I liked most of all pretending to be a biologist, and pretending often leads to becoming a reasonable facsimile of what you mimic, even if only from a distance. I wrote down my pool observations in several journals. I knew each individual frog from the next, Old Flopper so much different from Ugly Leaper, and during which month I could expect the grass to teem with hopping juveniles. I knew which species of heron turned up year-round and which were migrants. The beetles and dragonflies were harder to identify, their life cycles harder to intuit, but I still diligently tried to understand them. In all of this, I eschewed books on ecology or biology. I wanted to discover the information on my own first.

As far as I was concerned—an only child, and an expert in the uses of solitude—my observations of this miniature paradise could have continued forever. I even jury-rigged a waterproof light to a waterproof camera and planned to submerge the contraption beneath the dark surface, to snap pictures using a long wire attached to the camera button. I have no idea if it would have worked, because suddenly I didn’t have the luxury of time. Our luck ran out, and we couldn’t afford the rent anymore. We moved to a tiny apartment, stuffed full of my mother’s paintings, which all resembled wallpaper to me. One of the great traumas of my life was worrying about the pool. Would the new owners see the beauty and the importance of leaving it as is, or would they destroy it, create unthinking slaughter in honor of the pool’s real function?

I never found out—I couldn’t bear to go back, even if I also could never forget the richness of that place. All I could do was look forward, apply what I had learned from watching the inhabitants of the pool. And I never did look back, for better or worse. If funding for a project ran out, or the area we studied was suddenly bought for development, I never returned. There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.

As we descended into the tower, I felt again, for the first time in a long time, the flush of discovery I had experienced as a child. But I also kept waiting for the snap.

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that …

The tower steps kept revealing themselves, those whitish steps like the spiraling teeth of some unfathomable beast, and we kept descending because there seemed to be no choice. I wished at times for the blinkered seeing of the surveyor. I knew now why the psychologist had sheltered us, and I wondered how she withstood it, for she had no one to shield her from … anything.

At first, there were “merely” the words, and that was enough. They occurred always at roughly the same level against the left-hand side of the wall, and for a time I tried to record them, but there were too many of them and the sense of them came and went, so that to follow the meaning of the words was to follow a trail of deception. That was one agreement the surveyor and I came to right away: that we would document the physicality of the words, but that it would require a separate mission, another day, to photograph that continuous, never-ending sentence.

… to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen …

The sense of unease in ignoring the ominous quality of those words was palpable. It infected our own sentences when we spoke, as we tried to catalogue the biological reality of what we were both seeing. Either the psychologist wanted us to see the words and how they were written or simply suppressing the physical reality of the tower’s walls was a monumental and exhausting task.

These things, too, we experienced together during our initial descent into the darkness: The air became cooler but also damp, and with the drop in temperature came a kind of gentle sweetness, as of a muted nectar. We also both saw the tiny hand-shaped creatures that lived among the words. The ceilings were higher than we would have guessed, and by the light of our helmets as we looked up, the surveyor could see glints and whorls as of the trails of snails or slugs. Little tufts of moss or lichen dotted that ceiling, and, exhibiting great tensile strength, tiny long-limbed translucent creatures that resembled cave shrimp stilt-walked there as well.

Things only I could see: That the walls minutely rose and fell with the tower’s breathing. That the colors of the words shifted in a rippling effect, like the strobing of a squid. That, with a variation of about three inches above the current words and three inches below, there existed a ghosting of prior words, written in the same cursive script. Effectively, these layers of words formed a watermark, for they were just an impression against the wall, a pale hint of green or sometimes purple the only sign that once they might have been raised letters. Most seemed to repeat the main thread, but some did not.

For a time, while the surveyor took photographic samples of the living words, I read the phantom words to see how they might deviate. It was hard to read them—there were several overlapping strands that started and stopped and started up again. I easily lost track of individual words and phrases. The number of such ghost scripts faded into the wall suggested this process had been ongoing for a long time. Although without some sense of the length of each “cycle,” I could not give even a rough estimate in years.

There was another element to the communications on the wall, too. One I wasn’t sure if the surveyor could see or not. I decided to test her.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked the surveyor, pointing to a kind of interlocking latticework that at first I hadn’t even realized was a pattern but that covered the wall from just below the phantom scripts to just above them, the main strand roughly in the middle. It vaguely resembled scorpions strung end-to-end arising, only to be subsumed again. I didn’t even know if I was looking at a language, per se. It could have been a decorative pattern for all I knew.

Much to my relief, she could see it. “No, I don’t recognize it,” she said. “But I’m not an expert.”

I felt a surge of irritation, but it wasn’t directed at her. I had the wrong brain for this task, and so did she; we needed a linguist. We could look at that latticework script for ages and the most original thought I would have is that it resembled the sharp branching of hard coral. To the surveyor it might resemble the rough tributaries of a vast river.

Eventually, though, I was able to reconstruct fragments of a handful of some of the variants: Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world … God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness … Chosen for the service of a higher power.