A two-person crew embark on a mind-bending deep space mission inside a living wormship capable of burrowing through space. What lies on the other end is unknown—as is what they will do once they get there.
The job comes with an implant, punched into the fleshiest part of Chimezie’s thigh. It’s still aching as he walks down the quay to the waiting wormship. Iron-laced snow falls from the dark sky. Fever sweat freezes on his few exposed slices of skin: forehead, eyelids, the back of his neck. His breath is a ghost.
He hopes the wormship is warm inside. Someone is working on the exterior, climbing among the slow-writhing cilia with a nutrient spray. When he gets close, they scuttle down the side—no safety harness—and jump down onto the quay.
Chimezie’s crewmate for the six-month haul is wide-shouldered, slim-hipped, clad in company black. He catches a glimpse of a nonstandard protective mask before it pulls away from a porcelain face, nose blotched red. Her eyes are chemical yellow.
“I’m Mola,” she says, and he realizes that despite her captaincy she is no older than he is. “Chimezie?”
She offers the graphene contact point on the elbow of her company jumpsuit; he taps it and feels data slither into his hindbrain. The linked shipnet is simple. Bare-bones. His company profile joins Mola’s in the void and revolves there slowly like a vented corpse.
“Just you and me and the Naglfar,” she says. “Welcome aboard. Watch your fingers.”
She burbles in her throat, maybe a laugh, and jabs the wormship’s ventral curve. The entry expands like a wound, shunting steam into the perpetual winter.
Chimezie climbs inside.
The job is a survey job. Detling & Dronyk have found a candidate for core-mining, a small rocky satellite with a bellyful of zinc. Because of archaic colonist legislation, the company—which is a sprawling digital organism, a mulctuary machine mind—is required to use two of its numerous human-flesh extremities to claim the moon in person.
Mola explains this, among other things, while she shows him the Naglfar. Chimezie has to duck his head and fold his shoulders; the corridor needs dilating. Its glistening walls are lit from inside by a disease-green bioluminescence. Every so often, conduction fluid drips from the ceiling and splatters against his scalp.
“The engine stalk starts out as an ovipositor, of sorts,” says Mola, a flitting shadow ahead of him. “It has to be flensed and refashioned to house the Schrӧdinger drive. Any eggs are rerouted back into its digestive system.” She turns over her angular shoulder. “We feed the Naglfar its own children. What do you think of that?”
Chimezie has not been asked things for a long time. Mola’s chlorine-gas eyes are fixed to his. He imagines them seeping out into the air between them and burning his mucous membranes.
“Wormships aren’t grown with brain anymore,” he finally says. “So the wormship’s not bothered.”
Mola nods, seems satisfied. “It’s not bothered,” she agrees. “They do grow brain still, though. We just scoop most of it out.”
The Naglfar unwraps itself from the frosty pier and crawls up the sky, down Bheur’s curving gravity well. The cilia writhe and swell to inhale a last snatch of atmosphere. The burning tip of the engine stalk brands the dark firmament like a firefly.
Chimezie is in his cabin, which is formed from a small pocket in the wormship’s flesh. The tilt of its floor and curvature of its dimensions seem designed to funnel him back out into the main. He suspects this is to encourage movement and interaction amongst the crew on their long journeys through impossibility. The bed, when he tests it, ends at his anklebones.
He sets to unpacking his things. The company provided him a membranous stowbag three days ago, and from it he now pulls his spare boots and undershoes, his rumpled worksuit, his vapor pipe and a dozen cartridges, his nail-knife and epilator, his black-shelled moska, and finally the Object.
The Object is fist-sized, angular, verdigris in color. It bears his own scarlet thumbprint, preserved under a tiny drop of smartglass.
He is not sure of his Object’s purpose; the company briefing did not specify. He slots his other possessions into the small greedy holes palpitating beneath his bed, then takes his Object in hand and allows himself to be funneled out. He hopes that when Mola sees it, her reaction will offer a subtle gauge of its significance.
As he is leaving, a sort of spindly limb descends from the ceiling and strokes the space between his shoulder blades. He spins and reflexively grabs hold of it. The appendage is wickered with small keratin protrusions that somehow recall both teeth and nails.
He releases his grip. It folds itself back to the ceiling, returns to slumber.
The induced gravity weakens at the wormship’s center. Chimezie is mostly adrift by the time he finds Mola in the galley, the backs of her thighs suctioned to a curved bench made of rubbery gray cartilage. The light is red and warm here, embryonic. One of the sunken walls is covered by elaborate cysts in a carnival of colors.
Mola has a rough disc of collagen sitting on her lap. She jabs here and there with a needle, directing the living tissue’s slow creep across its wireframe, sculpting a familiar shape.
“Are you settled?” she asks, eyes cleaved to her work.
“Yes, enough,” Chimezie says.
The cysts prove on closer inspection to be myriad masks, variegated in form. He sees one harsh and tangled, slitted eyeholes half-hidden in a nest of curlicued iron. He sees one yolk-smooth, with a pigmented red mouth and no other features. A mask with fluttering ears and telescoping lenses, a mask with cherubic cheeks and yellowed mandibles, a mask that could almost be Mola’s face, but split down the center by a gold-toothed grotesque emerging from its interior.
“Hobby of mine,” Mola says, and holds up the unfinished one. “To while away a few hours on the long hauls.”
Chimezie inspects the pallid lump. “You grow them from the ship?” he asks.
“Yes,” Mola says, glaring at him now, perhaps thinking it an accusation. “A minute diversion of nutrients, well within the company’s waste allowance parameters.”
“They remind me of the Elliptic Festival,” Chimezie says.
The words dilute Mola’s harsh stare. “I’m unfamiliar with that one,” she says. “Is it common to Bheur?”
“No,” Chimezie says. He is becoming comfortable with his voice again. “It’s common to Aker. Near the bacterial sea where I grew up. I freightered from there to Bheur seven years ago, to work.”
Mola eyes him, estimating length of telomere. “As a child, then,” she says, resuming her own work. “And now you are on a wormship destined for the nebula’s farthest extremity. Do you so detest civilization?”
“The pay is good,” Chimezie says. He pauses. “When you told me to watch my fingers, was that a joke?”
“Oh.” Mola’s lips flex a smirk. “You and the Naglfar have been getting acquainted.”
“An arm came down.”
“Wormships are ravenous by nature,” Mola says. “How else would a beast evolve to burrow through the body of god? But you’re quite safe from its appetites.” She taps her needle gently against her thigh. “The implant sees to that.”
Chimezie rubs the ache through his pantleg. “Oh,” he says. “Good.”
They increase the gravity before they eat together. Chimezie sits on the bench and a table unfurls from the floor, cratered with bowls. Mola fills them from a great membranous sack not unlike the stowbag in Chimezie’s cabin. The pinkish sludge slops and settles. He inhales the steam, suddenly wolfish.
“You were eating by dole, down on Bheur?” Mola asks.
“Same as everyone.”
Mola breaks open a withered seedpod and shakes a familiar black spice into her bowl, then offers it to him. He does the same. The flecks curl and dissolve and the aroma puts a jet of hot saliva under his tongue.
Mola pulls a shallow spoon from the end of the table. “Can I see it?” she asks. “The stoma?”
Chimezie pauses, because for a moment it feels as if she is exchanging the spoon for the sight. But he is not ashamed, so he unhooks his shirt from his trousers and peels it chestward, exposing the small plastic beak nestled under his lowest rib. All workers on Bheur, whether they labor in the meat factories or hunt phantoms in simulacrum, bear the same artificial mouth. It’s efficient.
“It’s very much like the Naglfar,” Mola says, eyes narrowed to yellow shards. “I wonder which came about first. Inspiration is so often cyclical.” There is an underpinned longing or jealousy in her voice, which she seems to hear and startle at. A curious flush spots her cheeks as she hands over the spoon. “Here.”
Chimezie begins to eat, careful with the unaccustomed tendons of his jaw. The spice runs his nose and waters his eyes. The meaty-earthy taste, the fill-and-swallow satiety, offer a transportive comfort. He becomes nostalgic for childhood meals, fibrous things grown in volcanic soil.
“We’ll dig our first hole once we’re past the ice cloud,” Mola says, slurring through a full mouth. “Then re-emerge in normal space about a kiloparsec on. Those recruiters down on Bheur, did they brief you on Schrӧdinger sickness?”
“Bodily dissociation,” Chimezie says. “Minor hallucinations. Loss of time.”
“All that and more.” Mola’s bowl is nearly empty; she tilts the table to get the dregs. “But unless we need to evade a Friar blocktrap, it should only be three or four holes to reach the planetoid. Ample recovery time in between.”
“What are my duties during the haul?”
“None,” Mola says. “I tend to the ship and to the Schrӧdinger drive. Your duties begin when we reach the planetoid.”
Chimezie remembers the Object, and pulls it from his suit’s marsupium. “Do you know what this is?”
Mola’s face shows no flicker. “A talisman,” she guesses. “Brought from your homeworld.”
“It was given to me by Detling & Dronyk,” Chimezie says, recalling the prick of his thumb, the warm trickle. “When I bled my name for the job contract.”
Mola’s high shoulders shrug higher. “We serve inscrutable masters. Are you finished eating?”
Chimezie’s withered stomach is bulging, but the smell lures him back to his bowl. He spoons the last of it into his mouth and holds it there, relishing primal endorphins. On the sunken wall across from him, one mask parts its stained red lips as if to be fed.
The Naglfar has no true porthole, but there is a circular screen of smartglass, like a scrying pool, set in a dark heave of flesh. Chimezie watches there as the wormship emerges from the ice cloud. They are towing a frozen chunk behind them, chewing at it with toothed cilia, filling the bladders.
Beyond them, the starry void. Chimezie was freightered from Aker to Bheur in hibernation, one of a hundred saline-veined demi-corpses, so he was not privy to the view. Now that he is untethered from any world, the immensity of the spaces between them—the eyeline of a nucleus to the edge of its electron cloud, an angstrom made carnate—staggers and terrifies.
A thought is carried to him across that black sea: The wormship does not burrow because it is hungry. It burrows because it wants to hide.
“I’m activating the drive,” Mola says, when she finds him at the glass. “You might do something to relax yourself. A drug, or a meditation.”
Chimezie pats his marsupium, but the pouch holds only the Object; his vapor pipe and corresponding cartridges were left in the cabin. Mola reaches down past him and strokes the smartglass off, turning it back to an inert black slab. She pulls a swathe of the Naglfar’s skin across it for good measure.
“I’d hoped to watch,” Chimezie says.
“Nothing to see,” Mola says. “And it would damage the instruments.”
She sits where she is; the floor bubbles up to meet her, forming a soft throne. Flesh envelops her feet and weblike ligaments bind her arms across her chest. Just when he thinks it might swallow her whole, it stops. Her exposed face, bloodless and unconcerned, peers out at him.
“Is it a violent passage?” Chimezie asks.
“No,” Mola says. “But you may feel a restlessness, as if every part of your body wishes itself displaced. The cocoon helps it pass.”
He fingers the bruise on his thigh, then sits and lets the ship slither over him. He finds himself holding tight to his Object, as though it truly were a talisman from his homeworld, as though he’d arrived on Bheur with anything more than his emaciated body.
He accesses the shipnet and sees time trickling through a geometric gauge, a countdown beside it in company numerals. He and mummified Mola stare at each other. The Schrӧdinger drive activates, and the wormship turns a universe inside out.
Chimezie feels crackling pockets of emptiness all around him, all through him. There is a cavern behind his mouth, phantom limbs beckoning his real ones, sprouting from the same joints. He can’t inhabit the tempting spaces, but the Naglfar’s cocoon alleviates him of the responsibility.
The feeling passes, in a minute or an hour, and Mola stands upright.
“That’s it,” she says. “We’re tunneling now.”
Unreality is banal. Only the shipnet assures him they are churning through the underbelly of the universe; they could as easily be gliding slowly through real space or docked utterly still on the frosty piers of Bheur. Mola suggests he begin a sleep cycle.
Chimezie circumambulates instead, trying to purge the last restless tremors from his legs by following the ship’s twisted innards. In the scant time since the Naglfar launched, its corridors seem to have widened themselves. He can walk tall without brushing his head against the jelly ceiling.
More curiously, the corridors seem to cant downhill. As he was funneled out from the cabin, he is now funneled back toward it by whatever processes—algorithmic or biologic—govern the wormship’s mutable physiology. He decides not to begrudge it. He returns to his quarters.
Inside the cabin, he places his Object on the shard-like shelf a half meter above the bed, then retrieves his vapor pipe and cartridges. He selects from among the latter. His reawakened nostalgia directs him to the cyan extract, which carries all the pungent sprawling eucalyptus groves of Aker in a tiny sarcophagus.
He slots the metallic flake into pipe. Suckles at it. When the cold flume tickles his lungs he feels cold Bheur melt away, as if those seven years were sublimations. He returns in his mind to the village by the bacterial sea. He thinks: he was a happy child until circumstance intervened.
Once the pipe has extinguished itself, and Chimezie’s head is softly electric, he retrieves his moska from below the bed. The artificial organism murmurs inside its glossy shell. He lies back as if for Procrustes, his tingling feet hung over a cliff, and places the moska on his bony chest. Two tiny hooks emerge from its shell. Like an embalmer, he guides them into his nostrils.
They find the conduit to his hindbrain, the small silicon bundle built into all skulls at birth, and connect themselves. He descends into the dataflow. The shipnet offers its handshake; he ignores it. He prefers to keep his thoughts to himself.
Here in the murmuring moska, buoyed by cannabinols, he peruses his own curated memories. He skips and sprints through transplant orchards, playing hide-and-find. He rides in a skimmer, slicing across bioluminescent waves with his white-haired nopa steering. He watches freighters descend from cloud-cloaked sky, their lumbering geometries so unlike the writhing Naglfar. He attends the Elliptic Festival, sees the leering lurid masks, one of them red-lipped.
All the while, a digital lockbox drifts over his shoulder, home to those fragments of memory he hewed away from himself, quickly and clumsily, the very first time he used the moska. There is a reason some call it the memory eater.
Chimezie thinks again of the wormship’s frenzied burrowing, its deep need to hide deep. In that way, more than by the stoma that interpolates his gut, he and the Naglfar are linked.
The moska drains his head of dreams and he sleeps well, curling fetal to fit the bed. He awakens absolved, to find the dimensions of the dim-lit cabin have contracted on all sides. Earlier this would have alarmed him, would have seemed the wormship’s aborted effort to smother him. But he recalls the cocoon, and intuits it as an embrace instead.
He retrieves his epilator, scours his skin. The bristles fall slowly, lazily, carving back and forth in the air. Gravity has changed again. He dresses, and when he leaves the cabin to go to the scrying screen he finds it uncovered, displaying the smoky pillar of a nebula.
Chimezie lingers there to admire the star-sewn leviathan. They are back in real space, as if they never left, but the shipnet’s map shows Bheur and its ice cloud a full kiloparsec away. The Naglfar has rebirthed itself far along the spiral arm.
“All as it should be,” Mola tells him when he finds her tending the Schrӧdinger drive. “The next hole will be deeper, though.”
The chamber that was once an ovipositor is not big enough for two people. He watches her work from the peeled-open doorway, the sides of which prod him with the occasional tendril, aggravated by him standing half-in, half-out.
Mola’s silhouette is rimmed green by the phosphorescence of her equipment. The drive itself gives off no illumination; rather sucks it in, a black orb that seems composed of negative space. She brushes a hooked instrument across it, and for a moment there are two Molas. One continues working on the drive, humming high in her throat. The other turns and eyes him for a reaction.
Chimezie gives a small grunt of surprise. The Molas collapse back together.
“That happens, sometimes, during maintenance,” she says. “Schrӧdinger drives are capricious.”
Chimezie realizes that the Object is in his hand, all vicious angles. Mola notices too.
“Still worrying that bone, are you?” she says. “I imagine its use will become apparent when we reach the planetoid.”
“Do you know what’s involved?” he asks. “In order to claim the planetoid?”
“No,” she says. “I never do. I never leave the Naglfar.” She reaches upward, and a stubby limb reaches down in tandem. She rubs it affectionately. “But the company chose me well for my job, and likely you for yours.”
They eat in the same arrangement as before, the same stew from the same sac. Because Mola inquired as to his origins earlier, he ensures social chirality by asking after her birthplace. She stares at him across the steaming crater of her bowl, brow knit, perhaps struggling to recall.
“A refugee colony,” she finally says. “On a slow crawl between systems.”
“Born in the void,” she says, as if she’s never heard the term. “Yes. I suppose. We were fleeing a Friar incursion.” She sweeps her hand toward the decorated wall. “They sent us off with a bacterial stowaway. A plague. As a child my world was all filtration mazes and quarantine suits.”
“And masks,” Chimezie surmises.
Mola dips her chin. “Even during the lull years, I rarely saw uncovered faces. As a child it ignited my imagination. I pictured all sorts of fantastical things beneath. But faces, as it turns out, are rather disappointing in their uniformity.”
“Sorry,” Chimezie says, feeling heady from the food, almost playful, almost a child himself.
“Your face, I don’t mind,” Mola says, peering as if to memorize each pore. “It has an enjoyable bit of asymmetry.”
“The Naglfar is very asymmetrical.”
“It is,” Mola agrees. “It’s a beautiful organism.” Her retinas seem to gleam, like the eyeshine of Aker’s nocturnal grazers. “My childhood colony financed its existence through hatchery. Quite by accident, at first. The story is oft-recycled: a wounded wild worm, drawn to the rich fumes of our exhaust, emerged into space mere kilometers from our hull in all its writhing glory.”
Chimezie pictures it: a multicolor leviathan unfurling from the void, a sudden cloudburst of moving flesh, a bioluminescent flower blooming in the night. It quickens his heart. He feels sure, from Mola’s face, that she pictures it the exact same way. A shared memory, pulled from some intangible moska.
“We sprayed its wound shut,” she says. “We let it feed on our wake. When it left, it left its eggs glued glistening to our hull.” Her forehead creases. “So it must have known, somehow. It must have known what we were going to do to its children, and found that an acceptable bargain.”
Mola shakes herself, and reaches under the table. Her hand brushes cold against Chimezie’s hot knee—he feels a pulse there for the first time, a tangle of capillaries boiling blood—then emerges holding a bottle.
“This came from Bellerophon’s Moon,” she says, tapping a frayed nail against the clear glass. “They call it the dreaming drink.”
Chimezie remembers ingesting poisons on Aker, things extracted from predatory plants and diluted into head-spinning clay cups. He watches Mola puncture the seal of the bottle with her thumb. She doesn’t pour it into her mouth; instead she raises it toward the shadowy ceiling.
A limb descends, this one terminated by a small yellowed beak. Chimezie’s fingers go unbidden to his stoma.
“Would you like to dream together?” Mola asks, and he hears the pang of fear in her voice, the uncertainty of navigating flesh faces and human intentions. It makes him almost sure of something: She has not hewn her bad memories away. She carries them all through the universe with her, maybe searching out a place to put them. Chimezie feels a gossamer thread spinning between them now, that rare and tenuous variety, so he nods his head.
The Naglfar drinks first.
Chimezie becomes a swamp. He is hyperaware of his gut flora, his bacterial colonies, even the ancestral invaders of his mitochondria. He is flowering, decaying, whirling through space with all his vines and creepers reaching, grasping. Rake-limbed automatons stalk through him, past crumbling murals on firebombed walls. The swamp is a battlefield.
“Peaks and troughs,” says a soft voice. “Remember? You’ll come down again soon.”
The gray skies above the swamp are inhabited by wind creatures, molecular minds built of zephyrs intertwined. They grieve.
“The worst pain? I think the worst pain is pain easing,” Mola says, and he realizes that a Chimezie-controlled mouth, far away, asked her this question. “The deadening sensation. Feeling it slip away. Because it’s taking memories with it, and emotions, and whoever you used to be when you remembered and felt them.”
Chimezie recalls the gaps in himself, the sections neatly excised by the moska’s sodium hooks. He comes down and finds his body, his unswamp body, lying back-to-back with Mola’s on the Naglfar’s soft and undulating floor. The crest of her scapula touching his.
“A collection of breezes shooting the breeze,” he says.
“Still on the wind creatures, are you?” Mola asks. “It’s a pleasing idea. All thought is motion, after all.” Her body rustles, but she doesn’t turn over. “Why did you leave Aker?”
Chimezie plucks the correct word from a foaming burnt-orange river. “Work.”
“Am I to believe that in the entirety of the homeworld for which you clearly bear love, there was no work that suited you?”
“I wanted to hide for a while.”
Mola’s hand finds his and guides it haltingly to her thigh. He feels a ridge of scar tissue. He remembers the implant punched into his own quadriceps, and realizes hers has been sliced out. His fingers linger there while she assembles her thoughts.
“I wanted to die for a while,” she says. “And I thought I might as well be of some use. But when I took the implant out, the Naglfar didn’t try to digest me. Which I took grave offense to, initially. All it did was stopper the bleeding.”
“Good,” Chimezie says.
The trough becomes a peak, and the oneiric wave carries him away. He sees naked nomads roaming a gleaming white supersurface, their entire world sheathed by nanotube, an unending desert dotted with catalytic oases.
They are in his cabin, sitting on the too-small bed. The Object watches them from its shelf. The Naglfar has protruded limbs from its ceiling; they swirl idly in one direction, then the other. Chimezie thinks of a child seated on a sturdy branch, kicking their legs in the air.
“I left my colony when I was young still,” Mola says, holding solemnly to his shin with one cool dry hand. “The Detling & Dronyk recruitment algorithm found me quite early. It came to me as a dancing holopuppet, when I was a child, and we played such games together. There were not many breeders on the colony. Not many children. The plague prevented it. In each cycle of isolation, the holopuppet was my most faithful companion.”
Chimezie has become a thousand things. He tries now to become Mola, small Mola, sitting in a sealed room, chin on her fists, speaking to a holopuppet while the void slides past outside. “You must have been special,” he says. “It’s rare, I think. For the machine minds to seek out a child.”
“Not many children grow up in such a precise crucible,” Mola says. She raises three bony fingers. “Biological familiarity with deep space. Proximity to wormships and their ways. Long stretches of loneliness and isolation.”
“Are you alone, then,” Chimezie asks, “on the majority of your voyages?”
“Never,” Mola says, and reaches up to pat the Naglfar’s hanging limb.
Chimezie feels he is asking the question from the edge of a precipice, but does it anyway. “Even though most of its brain was scooped out?”
Mola’s face shows nothing, but the hand that was on his shin departs. “It’s not bothered,” she says. “And even so, it’s smarter than any dog you can grow in a vat.”
Chimezie wants to say: Voidborn Mola, you only love that which you can control. But he knows, even dream-drugged, that it would send him off the precipice, and he knows he has his own sins. They are stamped deep in his gravity-born bones.
“I understand,” he says. “In the end, a human is a holopuppet is a wormship.”
He lies back on the bed, on his left side with his right hand tucked under his temple. Mola shifts to make room, but does not leave. He feels saline worming down his cheek. He feels Mola notice it. He thinks they have passed the last peak of Bellerophon’s Moon.
Mola’s voice lowers. “It’s good to weep, sometimes, I think.”
Chimezie gives a minute shake of his head. “Gravity is pressing on the duct,” he says.
“Oh.” Mola leans in to inspect. “That’s why it’s only the one eye.”
“I don’t think I cry,” he admits.
“Oh.” Mola looks sideways. Smiles at air. “I’ll fashion you a mask,” she says. “A weeping mask. So if you ever need to cry, you just put it on.”
Chimezie thinks of the moska waiting in the gel compartment beneath his bed, ready to clear his mind of all the things the dreaming drink has spawned. But his arm is tired, sodden, and he does not want to use it with Mola here, even though he thinks he is beginning to understand her, maybe even trust her.
She curls around him, and it feels achingly correct. In the morning, or rather the beginning of the following work cycle, there is no shame. They perform their ablutions together; she is precise in this, as one would be growing up on a plague-besieged colony. An immaterial smile hovers between them.
The haul takes on a biorhythm of its own, as if he and Mola and the Naglfar are organs of an even larger body, interacting in steady pattern. Chimezie forgets when they are burrowing and when they are adrift in real space. He has not used the shipnet or even his own moska in a long spell; his only indicator of the wormship’s medium is the circular screen, either sealed or open.
Because he has no duties, he spends his time watching Mola at hers. They speak easily now, whether about the breeding of wormships or the tragedy of consciousness or the many places the Naglfar has carried her. Seeing her love for the ship makes him love it as well. Eventually, with persuasion, she allows Chimezie to do a bit of the nutrient spraying.
Sometimes he finds himself crooning to the keratin-knobbled walls as he works, enjoying their answering vibrations. Sometimes he thinks that his true duty is Mola: Detling & Dronyk must value her, in their own inscrutable way, to have sought her out as a child and employed her for over a decade. Maybe his only function is to keep her company.
They go earlier to the galley, and leave later for their cabins. The Naglfar has learned to secrete its own decoction of the dreaming drink, more pungent, less potent, and they drink it often with the meal. One night Mola asks to touch the stoma beneath his floating rib. One night they link hands and kiss clumsily.
One night they go to the overgrown smartglass, their blinded scrying pool. Under Mola’s urging fingers, the membrane begins to peel away.
“We’re burrowing, though,” Chimezie says, holding her bony shoulder for balance.
“Yes,” she says. “This is not generally permitted.”
“Will it not damage the instruments?” He rotates his head, which is orbiting his neck. “You said it would damage the instruments.”
“You and I are the instruments,” Mola says. “And some things are worth damaging oneself for.”
The membrane scuttles all the way backward, revealing the screen. Chimezie is drawn to the incandescence. He wants to slip into its glow. As he leans over the scrying pool, he expects an ethereal vortex, a thudding artery—some passageway they traverse in solitude.
Instead, he sees a vast multitude of wormships. They glide in all directions, unsynchronized, sometimes passing through each other, other times seeming to coalesce like droplets of liquid streaking down glass. There are so many of them he cannot see the substrate they move in; the whole of his vision is occupied by their asymmetric bodies.
It takes his eyes and brain another moment to realize the wormships are not other wormships. They are, all of them, the Naglfar.
“Infinite iterations,” Mola whispers in his ear. “And inside each, a Mola.”
Chimezie feels his pulse pound his eardrums.
“And a Chimezie, too,” she adds. “Now that you’re aboard. Infinite Molas, infinite Chimezies, all on their infinite way.”
Chimezie has always known this, in theory, but seeing it through the smartglass makes every part of his body tremble or go numb. He turns away.
“When will you tell me what happened on Aker?”
They are in the galley with the gravity down. Mola is suctioned to the usual bench, working on a mask, slipping metallic stents into its soft collagen. Chimezie is floating free, because lately he enjoys the sensation. His body is becoming accustomed.
Her question is the one thing that could make him feel heavy.
“I don’t know what happened on Aker,” he says.
“You scrubbed it,” Mola says, with the finality of one completing a neural puzzle, a certain wistfulness accompanying. “Moskas were not permitted on my colony. Memory eaters. They were considered bad for the soul.” Her mouth stretches into her I am nothing to myself smile. “We believed so many stupid things, on the colony.”
For a moment, Chimezie thinks she understands. He thinks they have concluded this topic and will move to another. Then her smile stretches wider, nervous, ingratiating.
“I need to know, Chimezie,” she says. “Because I told you everything. It’s like balancing an equation.”
“A perfunctory exchange of damages,” Chimezie says, showing his only joking teeth.
He wonders if he is one in a long line of brief companions, ephemeral passengers of the Naglfar, with whom this scene has occurred. She would tell him if he were to ask. She would tell him, and it would not cheapen things, not when an infinity of Chimezies and Molas swim the scrying pool.
But it might trigger a biological jealousy deep in his hindbrain, and that could make things end badly, clumsily, and the six-month voyage back to Bheur will seem much longer.
“I know the outline of it already,” Mola says, eyes on her work. “The fact that you do not is impressive to me. At times disturbing. The moska has done more than carve a hole in your memory, Chimezie. It has planted a singularity.” She pauses. “Though I suppose that’s just a very particular sort of hole.”
“A singularity destroys,” Chimezie says, and even without gravity he begins to feel his pulse, a fizzing rush in his ears and at his throat. “The memories I scrubbed are intact. They’re in a box.”
“But the gap where they were now sucks down any . . .” She blinks. “Any dreg, any trace of information that might lead to them. Your own miniature black hole. If I told you what I know of what happened on Aker, what I learned when you piqued my curiosity, you wouldn’t be able to hear me. Observe.”
But instead she abandons the topic, and they slip back into semi-warm silence. Chimezie is glad that she understands. He watches, mildly fascinated, as she shapes an artificial tear duct.
The Naglfar burrows one final time and emerges an asteroid’s throw from their target destination. They can see it through the smartglass: a small dull lump of rock veined with coveted ore, wobbling in wide orbit around its decaying sun. After the glorious nebulae and ethereal ice fields Chimezie has seen in the scrying pool, it underwhelms.
They celebrate anyway. They fill and drain an entire bottle of the wormship’s intoxicating excretion. Chimezie slots his vapor pipe with cannabinol and shares it with Mola; she shows him the misshapen ring she can billow through her cheeks.
They make a pact in which each of them eats a seedpod whole, with great ceremony. The spice barely burns him but makes Mola’s eyes stream. She laughs and wails and Chimezie fumbles for a chunk of ice for her to place on her tongue.
They pass the ice back and forth, debating its trace minerals. She puts her cold tongue against his ear; he takes revenge by pressing the last of the ice into the nape of her neck. He watches the goosebumps sweep over her skin and feels them on his.
They go to her cabin, which has no bed, only a Mola-shaped indent in soft warm floor. It widens to accommodate the both of them. When they move together in the dark, Mola is too tender, too light-fingered. She touches him as if she is defusing him.
Chimezie stops. “What did you do?” he asks.
“I’m sorry,” she says, like a mechanism. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
He goes back to his own cabin, to the palpitating holes beneath his bed. When he pulls the moska free, he sees its hooks have been adjusted, introduced to a smaller septum.
He has not been angry in years. Now his fury is a boiling ghost. It animates his body as he reaches for his nail-knife, intent on prying open the moska’s smooth black carapace, gouging at its circuitry until every traitorous quantum of digitized memory is gone.
“I knew we were alike,” Mola says from the doorway. “From the first sight of you on the pier on Bheur. We’re so, so alike, Chimezie.” He hears her snorkel back phlegm. “The company put us together for a reason. They’re not always cold water and lye. Sometimes—sometimes they give a lonely child a holopuppet.”
“I’m a holopuppet, am I?” Chimezie says, and is startled by his own growl, the ferocity and vibration of it in his throat. A much calmer version of his voice whispers: In the end, a human is a holopuppet is a wormship.
“I’ve wrecked the equation again,” Mola murmurs. “I always do.” She knuckles her eyes like a lonely child. “You’re not a holopuppet. A hollow puppet. You could chop out half your memory and still be more real to me than most people.”
Chimezie can see the change in her face now, the one he failed to notice while they drank and laughed and gamboled. Her knowing-of-the-thing has altered all other things.
“But these memories,” she continues. “This black box in the black moska—it’s part of you by presence or by absence. You know that. I assume.”
Her knowing-of-the-thing, his unknowing, has placed them on opposite poles. He can feel the distance growing by the second. Mola is no longer a warm body clinging to his back; she is a wormship burrowing to the farthest extremity of the universe.
“I know I made a mistake,” she says. “And I know that in some fashion, I am manipulating you even now. If you want to wipe the moska, crush it, burn it, I will clap for its demise and never speak of it again. If you want to open the box, I will come with you.”
Back to the jungles of Aker, back to the bacterial sea and the teeming purple sky. Chimezie has not used the moska for months; it scrapes at him now, reproachful. He can feel the hook maneuvering in a distant iteration of his skull. He and Mola stand together on a windwaxed eyrie, yellow scrub and deep gray rock. They watch a predatory plant belch toxic spines at a scurrying ungulate. They watch the bacterial sea pulse and twitch far below.
“Such a beautiful place,” Mola says. “I can see—I can understand. I understand why you didn’t want it marred. Why you wanted to keep it this way.”
“Don’t talk,” Chimezie says, and he reaches above himself, behind himself, to the lockbox that is a singularity.
The skimmer engine cuts and they slosh forward on the last kick, drifting slantwise. Chimezie and his nopa are silent, heads craned, observing the steady descent of the freighters. Each ship is splashed with the religion logo of the Friars, a cupped hand in upward motion.
“The other hand is kept behind their backs,” his nopa says. “Holding a knife. It will be no different here, Chim. I swear it will be no different.”
Chimezie disagrees inside himself. There is a Friar in the village already, who wears head-to-toe robes of privacy textile, seething static, and sometimes when he catches Chimezie staring he gives him a little cube of yellow sugarfruit.
“They haven’t changed, they haven’t softened,” his nopa says, flexing creased and vein-knotted hands. “Your fathers are deluding themselves.”
Chimezie barely hears, too fascinated by the hot blue burn of the freighter’s stabilizers. He is a happy child.
In the back of the skimmer, Mola is already crying.
Chimezie is on his way to the fresh-fabbed school, a small dome at the edge of the village. His fathers ate half the night arguing, but the Friars have offered a gleaming gray biorecycler to each family that sends a child, and the doctrine is the same doctrine half their neighbors already follow.
As he joins the trickling students, he sees Suun but not Nipo, Cate but not Tellam. It’s only when they are all inside, seated in the waxy fresh-fabbed chairs, that he realizes only boys have come to the school—no girls, no nons.
The teacher’s privacy textile is a pixelated rainbow, all sorts of colors dancing together, and it nearly distracts them all from the thing in the corner. An angular metal thing, crouched and folded into itself.
“For our safety,” the teacher says, when Suun asks. “There are many who would attack us. Many who spurn the message we bring.”
The dirtpack streets are full of automatons. There is a foundry in the belly of the Friar ship, a churning womb, and its skeletal children all speak in the same electric chirp. Chimezie follows one at a distance, imitating its stiff gait. Nipo laughs and laughs.
“Shouldn’t do that,” Tellam says, with a fierce shake of their newly shaved head. “Not safe.”
They are in a bad mood because the village medroid razored their hair away—it does this with all the nons, now, because of an obscure sliver of doctrine; Chimezie’s nopa says that the Friars willfully misinterpreted the lines.
But the automatons are safe. They are here to protect them, because something happened in Oldport, on the other side of the bacterial sea. There are rumors of a murder, of a riot, of a Friar temple burned to ash and slag.
Chimezie’s fathers discuss this often, sometimes with the neighbors that they invite down to the curing cellar to drink. They argue about doctrine, as always, but lately about reprisals and inevitability, as well. The words mean little to Chimezie.
“Look,” he says. “They are building something in the square.”
It’s the first day of the cold season, Chimezie’s eleventh. Clouds are scudding north, spores blowing on an ice-licked wind. Chimezie doesn’t go to the school anymore, so he and Nipo are making chalk creatures on the wall of his house when a neighbor strides past, barely glancing at them, and enters.
His fathers emerge a moment later, faces scrawled with shock and fury. For a nonsensical moment Chimezie thinks it is because of the chalk, thinks they have forgotten how simple it is to wash away.
“Your nopa. Something has happened.”
Chimezie’s heart clubs his ribs. His fathers do not try to make him stay, but as they join the rush of murmuring people, all of them heading toward the village square, they hold his hands. They have not done that since Chimezie was small.
The Friars have finished their sculpture, a strange spindly thing that shivers in the wind. Two automatons are leading Chimezie’s nopa toward it. At first he thinks they are holding hands, but when he gets closer he sees that his nopa’s hands are swallowed to the wrist in blocks, which are magnetized to the automatons’ metal limbs.
A man is waiting at the sculpture with his privacy textile turned menacing red. It might be Chimezie’s teacher.
“Trespasses must be corrected,” he is saying. “Trespasses must be exposed.”
Chimezie’s left hand is suddenly free; his father dropped it to stride forward, bellowing. “What are you doing? What is this?”
The Friar shrinks backward, but one of the automatons places itself in front of him. “This non has broken doctrine and spread malicious lies,” he says. “They will spend three days in the pillory.”
Chimezie follows the man’s pointing finger. He sees the toothy holes in the sculpture now, and begins to understand. His nopa’s body will have to bend and contort to fit through them. Their old spine will be cracked almost in two.
“Who accused them?” Chimezie’s other father shouts now. “Who trialed them?”
The Friar cups one hand and lifts it serenely toward the sky. Chimezie remembers his nopa’s words: The other hand is kept behind their backs, holding the knife. And his nopa was right, because now the Friar’s other hand emerges from the deep pockets of the red robe, clutching a humming razor.
Chimezie realizes the Friar is going to shave his nopa’s gray head, shear away their wild locks. He laughed when it was done to Tellam, but now he regrets that badly, badly. Now his skin is hot with shame. As the first tuft of silver falls, the shame becomes fury.
He worms his hand from his father’s grip. He reaches down and finds a jagged stone with heft. His fathers are still protesting, moving this way and that, barred by the slinking automaton every time they try to get closer. The crowd murmurs.
Chimezie slips through them, finds a gap beside a woman carrying a bundle of dry seedpods. He adjusts his grip. Tests the weight a final time. He hurls his stone—
“As you should have,” a ghost called Mola whispers. “As you should have.”
It strikes the Friar in his hooded head, a dull crack. The man staggers, wails, sinks to one knee, and Chimezie feels, for one sliver of one second, that his rock has righted the world. Then the face of the woman beside him becomes an eruption of blood and teeth.
He screams, and the crowd screams with him, scrambling in all directions as the automatons’ rake-like limbs turn to chattering guns. Someone bowls him over. He sees one father leaping toward him, the other toward his nopa. Both die in a cloudburst of blood and bone.
The Friar is crouched in the center of the maelstrom, only watching, no longer wailing. His red robes are thirsty. Chimezie sees his nopa dive at the Friar, swinging bound hands at the man’s hooded head. An automaton turns and shreds them from sharp hip to wrinkled neck.
The coppery smell of it, greasy and pungent. The chatter of guns vibrating his skull. The chirp and burble of the automatons as they stalk through the square, making things safe.
Chimezie hides himself in corpses.
He and Mola are standing on clifftop, overlooking the bacterial sea.
“What will you do?” she asks, and points upward.
Chimezie looks at the open box drifting over their heads. He has excised these memories before; he can excise them again. That realization triggers another: it is impossible to know how many times he has opened and closed his black box. It makes him feel sick.
“Even if I were to carve them away again, everything would be different,” he says. “You know. Your knowing makes you think differently of me.”
Mola blinks. “I could carve them, too,” she says softly. “I have never used a memory eater, but if you were to help me, I could forget with you.”
Chimezie imagines it: both of them inside the moska, paring away the Friars and the massacre, maybe the plagues and the loneliness, obliterating all their hurt. They could leave flushed and pink and newborn.
“I don’t know,” he says.
They approach the planetoid in a gelid silence. They have not spoken much since the moska, only civil words as required by circumstance. Chimezie stays in his cabin, no matter how steeply the Naglfar tilts its flesh floor. Mola tends to the Schrӧdinger drive with unnecessary zeal. The masks keep their own company in the unused galley.
Chimezie only emerges from his cabin when the Naglfar touches atmosphere. He is wearing his worksuit for the first time in months. His Object is sealed inside its marsupium. He can no longer see the scar on his thigh, but he imagines he can feel the implant pulsing in his sinew, reminding him of his duty, reminding him that the voyage with Mola was always meant to end.
The planetoid is skinned with ice, cold like distant Bheur but with no company cities, no swaths of artificial light. They are far, far, from any shred of civilization—so they are jolted when the Naglfar hears the whisper of a foreign claim beacon. Some other company, some other machine mind, has contrived to arrive before them.
Mola’s eyes are wide and worried. “I am beginning to understand,” she says.
When Chimezie looks into the scrying pool, he understands nothing. Squatting against the cragged surface of the planetoid, projecting its claim, there is a freighter painted with a red hand rising.
“I finished your mask,” Mola murmurs. “I finished it in the night.”
Inside his worksuit, the Object begins to vibrate.
The Naglfar extends a hollowed limb for his passage, cilia clinging tight to the freighter’s frost-furred airlock. He crawls it as if he is crawling out of a dream. The soft warm walls of the wormship give way to cold metal. He is holding the Object in his fist now, feeling the familiar weight and shape of it, and when it nears the airlock the cold metal shudders open.
Chimezie descends into the gut of the freighter. He sees the silent fabricators, the crouched and frozen automatons. Whatever code burrowed through the airlock’s security protocol renders him invisible now. Nothing stirs.
He thinks: The Friars are their own sort of plague, spreading their doctrines ever outward. They will harvest this zinc for their freighters, for their skeletal companions, and even if they arrived only days before the Naglfar, their claim beacon is legal.
Chimezie knows this, so Detling & Dronyk, the digital organism with a vestigial name, must know this also. The company is bound by deep laws, laws that would prevent it from harming even the worst sorts of sapient. The company chooses its employees with care.
The freighter is still calibrating its atmosphere; he finds the Friars still hibernating in the hold. Without the cloaks their naked bodies look all too human, netted together by an intravenous web pumping sluggish saline. Their sleeping faces are unbothered. Chimezie looks at them how he looked through the Naglfar’s scrying pool that one dream-drunk night. He sees an infinity of cupped hands and hidden knives.
The company has been inside his moska. He always knew this, vaguely; they were the ones who gave it to him, on the same day they installed the stoma under his rib. He knows the Object in his clenched fist is the exact weight, to the gram, of the stone he hurled on Aker.
The moska will be waiting for him inside the Naglfar. So will Mola. He reaches into his marsupium and retrieves the beautiful mask she fashioned for him. The glands around its dark eyeholes secrete a silver sludge. He watches the metallic tears wriggle like millipedes, moving down channels carved into marbled collagen.
Chimezie puts the mask on. He adjusts his grip on the Object. When he hurls it, it becomes a vicious swarm. The nanites turn the sleeping Friars to pink vapor, then set to work on the fabricators, the automatons, the freighter itself. His heart roars and foams in his chest and becomes a singularity, a black hole sucking down all his pain, all this misery, never filling.
Chimezie walks back toward the airlock. His silver tears don’t splatter the shipdeck. There are pores and pumps built into the chin of the mask, recycling them endlessly.
“Even If Such Ways Are Bad” copyright © 2023 by Rich Larson
Artwork copyright © 2023 by Sara Wong