Always Home

It’s finally here. Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn, our anthology of some of the best speculations that have appeared on this very site over the years, is officially out in the wild. You can order a copy here or find it wherever good books about bad futures are sold. To celebrate, we’re running a brand new story from one of our all-time favorite authors in this space, Jeff Vandermeer. Jeff’s work is inimitable; it teems with technologic anxiety and uncontainable life. This story, set in a strange but strangely familiar future, so perfectly embodies the Terraform ethos that I won’t say anything further here. Just lose yourself in this epic, masterful work—and enjoy. -the eds.

1.

She flowed along on many legs, her rows of eyes raised to the rain forest canopy, alert to incoming data from the layers of life above her. She didn’t need to grow eyes to see, and seeing was the most primitive of her sensory inputs. But she was old-fashioned, had cultivated affectations arrived at from her extensive internal library of books. Tomorrow she might grow an eye because the sensation was pleasurable. Or she might not and employ sonar to forsake the surface, to plunge below and tunnel deep, tap into the millions of fungal networks that channeled information worldwide.

At any time, too, she could call up others like her, and some would let her exist behind their mind’s eye for a day or a week or a minute. Or she could visit them physically, convert her body for flight, and rise up through the canopy to the raw sunlight above, mindful to harden her epidermis and bring forward up through her pores the photo-sensors that would turn her energy intake solar. It was much hotter and harsher than before.

Today she was low to the ground “in scuttle mode” as she called it, and hurrying to the site of an anomaly. She did not really need to sleep, but it conserved energy to do so. Sometimes she would be in sleep mode for months, so that the deep core of her, the deep spark, could concentrate on, worry at, some philosophical or existential problem. But this morning the wildflowers on her waking had alerted her, as had some faint unclear change in the habits of the ground-dwellers and the flight of certain birds.

A thousand languages traced their way through the forest. She could read them all. While this, too, was pleasurable, it had a purpose. Her job was to be the steward and defender of a vague territory that stretched two hundred miles through the valley, until it met mountains, where another of her kind lived and did the same.

The anomaly became clear just a minute later; a tattered dull green tent made of composite artificial fibers. This the world still could not easily break down. The plastic parts registered in her awareness as an alarm. “Plastic” was a deadly concept passed down from the Old People, and so she knew the source, who lived in the tent. “Tent” was also an antiquated concept, meaning a kind of home, not deadly except in aggregate.

Old People found New People disconcerting, so she paused to become bipedal, to absorb all but two eyes and to create a face with a mouth and a nose. Then she made a sound half-welcoming, half- threatening. It brought the Old Person rushing out from the tent flap, clutching an outdated weapon.

He pointed it at her, aimed, but did not fire.

With half a thought she could cause the atoms of the gun to fuse with the atoms of his hand, or just focus on fired bullets and move her vital organs aside long enough to let them pass through and strike the trees behind her.

It had been a hundred years since an Old Person had managed to kill a New Person. But someone like this had created her kind. Someone like this had had to relinquish control, had to turn a fist into an open, raised palm, and let the seeds blow away in the wind.

“What do you want?” he asked, in one of the old languages.

She disliked those languages. There was only sound to them, along with some small meaning, and they didn’t feel good, not in the way of pheromones and spores and the countless other messengers swirling through the air around them both.

“Your home is a hazard, poisonous,” she said. “I have to render it down. That is the rule.”

If there was one law set down by her creator, it was that all systems, all processes, all technologies, must conform to the framework of a world without human beings in it. Even as human beings still lived in the world.

“I like this tent,” he said. “It was my grandmother’s.” He had not lowered the gun.

Unlikely, she guessed. Was he delusional?

“I must render down your home,” she said again.

“I order you to leave me alone,” the man said.

He had moss hanging off his face, or something like moss, and more of it hanging from his head down to his shoulders in gray waves. This meant he was aging. She knew it wasn’t moss, but in relaying this to her friends it was meant as a kind of joke, because of all the things that hid in moss or got tangled up in moss.

New People humor was very different from Old People humor. It had a different texture, and it brought in a nexus of hundreds of referents. Some of the friends speaking in her head had already expanded the joke to include rivers and vines on trees and explosions of natural trellises and were now chuckling to each other.

“You can take what you need from the tent,” she said, “and you may travel through this valley, but your home isn’t allowed here.”

“You’re just a machine.” Always, the same refrain.

“I am not a machine.” Old People often mistook the genesis of a thing for its reality in the moment. She couldn’t blame them for it. Who with only five senses and a reliance on obsolete metal tech could really understand what it meant to be alive? To be sentient.

The Old Person lowered his weapon, and she knew then that he would give in, that he would leave his tent behind and allow her to start biodegrading the tent. That he might give up his gun, too, and wander then through the valley and perhaps even leave and become some other New Person’s problem.

She felt a twinge of sympathy. She had enough perspective from her library to understand what he thought he was due. And yet nothing around them had the same expectation, despite expressing life in all its complexity.

“What does it feel like to have no home?” the living fossil said, gruff. “What does it feel like to be nothing and no one?”

“Home?” she said. “This is my home.” Gesturing all around her. “All of it.”

Later, she realized there might be some nuance in the old language after all. Because the Old Person had, perhaps, been talking about himself.

2.

But the man did not go away as she had hoped. A week later, the report came to her lazily through the air, spiraling up to where she curled and twined around a redwood’s trunk, high in the canopy. These trees were not like the old ones. They had been made tougher, more able to withstand drought. But they smelled the same as the old ones, with a freshness that came through their bark, and into her skin exhaled a kind of contented sigh.

That calm evaporated when the spores released their message all across her body and she picked up on its import. Somewhere within the remains of an ancient factory on the far edge of her domain, someone had started to scrape away the lichen and fungi meant to render down and eat the last contaminants. To reclaim the metal, to break the concrete and infiltrate until there was no space between the cells of the living and the particles of the dead.

This time, she didn’t bother to make the journey, but used a sector proxy: a smaller version of herself that morphed from heron to centipede in seconds, parachuting in free fall to the ground and then bursting out into the factory area. She crawled fast once de-winged across crack and crevice, over vines and stones, until she came to the partially sunken gray wall surrounding the factory, half-buried in dirt and tangled roots. The ratio of earthworms per square foot was sparse, the number of grubs lower, the trace amounts of pollutants still higher than it would be months from now. But even so the factory, covered in vines, resembled a hunched-over husk, almost reduced to the shape of a fallen giant from fairy tales.

The Old Person dangled his heels over the edge of a wall, a crude digging tool in his hands. He’d been pulling down vines and excavating the door to the factory, not realizing that the debris in front of it was actually there by her command, the agent turning the automated factory into something safe.

A month ago the factory had been functional and operating in secret underground. She had only discovered it by chance during a routine reconnaissance. Sometimes factories could not take their isolation, experienced a kind of loneliness, and bellowed out their locations, even asked to be silenced and taken apart. A century of making the same products and then internalizing them, recycling them, because the world beyond communicated nothing back, could make a factory deranged. They took to making defective objects or aggressive ones. They found ways to intoxicate their operating systems. They created communities with androids that were really just the factory talking to itself.

Taking apart a factory wasn’t pleasant work, because a factory was a kind of sentience, too. But it had to be done. In this case, an odd glint had attracted her attention while flying high above, she had dived to the roof and within an hour of coaxing had made the factory surrender. An understanding of the hopelessness. The proxy androids had stopped moving, fallen to the basement floor. But the factory hadn’t killed them, only suspended their motor functions. Ever since, even with the reclamation going smoothly, she had been concerned. Now this Old Person might be causing more trouble than he knew.

She thought that this time a more startling avatar might better make her point. So she appeared next to him not as centipede or bipedal, but instead erupted from the ground as a giant green curling fern with a human face. A face he would know from before. But with a burly thickness and a way of seeming to breathe through her fronds that she suspected he would find uncanny. The smell of a fundamental freshness meant to calm the man was just polite counterbalance.

When he didn’t react, she waited. She could speak a thousand words in a millisecond. But she could also be silent for a century, remain there photosynthesizing and drawing nutrients from the soil while he faded to a husk and then, should he choose to sit there that long, to nothing but bones, and then her sustenance would come from him and that would be a different conversation altogether.

The Old People had no concept of such control, though, and after a moment the man looked over at her and made a sound that she knew to be contemptuous.

“I create a problem for you, don’t I?” he said. “I am the wrench in your perfect system. I see through your ‘order.’ ”

She knew he meant “system” in the archaic sense. Dead. Inert. Lines on “paper.” Production and hierarchy. Not the kind of layering that occurred every moment she moved through the world, not the connection she allowed to overtake her as a kind of symphony composed of light and air.

“You do not create a problem for me,” she said. She chose a gruff, masculine voice, but to his credit this did not startle him, either.

“Oh no?” Was that a tinge of some disappointment?

“No,” she said. “On your own, you can’t create a problem.” Without tools. Without nostalgia.

He considered that. After a moment, he said, “I made you.”

“You here made this me?” The phrasing was meant as another of her jokes, in part because she found all temporary housings funny, like they were eccentric toys. The one she was using would return to a plant-like sentience after she had left it, but her link to it would never fade. It would join the pantheon in her mind.

“Yes. I-me built you-you,” he said, gruff again, and yet he’d had to participate in the joke, if only to be understood.

“So what?” she said. She liked diplomacy and politeness, but it was also in her nature to be blunt sometimes, and also to be raucous and to race the wind or jump off of cliffs, though he would never see that side of her.

“Not all of you,” he admitted. “But a part of you. The part that allows you, an animal, to photosynthesize. I built that, on a team. I made that. I wanted that. I didn’t want you, though.”

She paged through her library, saw no image of him, no mention of him, thought again: Is he delusional? And: Does it matter? She could feel the factory in front of them, deep below, beginning to wake up from its self-imposed hibernation. She could sense that the Old Person’s very presence might make the factory recant, and then she would have to put down a rebellion, in a sense, which would mean the whole process would take a year longer than a month.

“Do you know how contaminated this factory is?” she asked. “This factory is toxic—to you and to others. What you interrupted was a way of cleansing it. Did you mean to do that?”

He would not look at her. Instead, the Old Person asked, “How old are you?”

As questions went, she found it meaningless, but also harmless. “A century or so.”

I’m two centuries.”

“That’s young.”

“No, it’s not. That’s just a bit less than I’m going to get.”

“Then why not enjoy yourself? Why do this?”

“To bring back the world.”

“The world’s been brought back.”

“No, nature’s been brought back—and so what?”

It wasn’t that this comment was heresy. Heresy, blasphemy, meant very little to a wildflower or an otter or even to a New Person. But that it seemed to negate everything she’d seen in her library of what life had been like before.

“It’s difficult to give up control,” she said.

“The hell it is,” the man snapped. “What kind of control you have now—such control, you’re sitting next to me as a fucking fern with a human face. And yet you don’t bring us back. You don’t bring us back when you could.”

Such anguish, so rare she had to compare it to certain library files to be sure of what he was expressing. And still she had no answer for him.

“Anguish” for her was the idea of the factory starting up again and harming the life around it. Anguish for her was the negotiation that had led to her talking the factory into silence, despite the common good. Anguish that there still existed in lands beyond her own vast deserts of garbage yet to be reclaimed, everywhere the signs of a dead civilization; that no matter how the New People cleaned and reabsorbed, so much work remained to be done.

To allow so much incoming communication, such cross-pollination, was to allow in contamination as well. You could not live cut off, but you could feel too connected. Anguish in the Old Person sense was almost selfishness or without awareness.

When she returned to the moment, the Old Person was still talking, but she was no longer curious about what he might say.

“The grass will show you a path from this place,” she said. “You will let the grass lead you away. I will set guards here, and traps here. Some will cause paralysis. Others, an amount of pain. Don’t come back.”

“What does it feel like to have no name?” the living fossil said, gruff. Meaning to do harm.

The fern receded. The grass flattened. The factory fell back into slumber. The lichen resumed its work. She was miles away by then, consulting about the Old Person. She didn’t think he would leave for good.

There was a loose council for these matters, but “council” was a bad word because it was a kind of neural link between them and most meetings took only eight to ten seconds and it was hard to parse out the individual lines as images, thoughts, queries, emblazoned together from dozens of her companions until it all became a single point, either in agreement or, rarely, disagreement—and then winked out, leaving her again in her body, whatever form it took. Whatever weight it had. Day or night. In the trees or on the ground. Lazy or alert.

If it could have been parsed out, laid out like an autopsy of a neural system, it would have resembled a spine splayed all delicate and quivering. High above giant birds soared and never touched the land. In the seas what resembled killer whales but were a new, more resilient species, joined in with sonorous song. In deserts full of life scorpions massed and seethed in joyous celebration of an expanse of heat.

>>I have an Old Person, causing trouble. What should I do.

oo Never had one, never will.

ox I avoid them. Do not engage. Work around.

xxx Reason cuts not through their dreams and so they make do.

yyy I create a space for them and let them believe they are independent.

xxx They don’t live long. Wait.

ooo They cannot reproduce.

ox Once, I gave one access to all these minds; she collapsed from the weight.

>>He claims he made me.

Laughter, mirth, flurry of image of atoms and pebbles and hurtling dark stars, all chortling as if an atom could chortle. As if a star could laugh.

oo The sun made the grass.

xxx The grass made the stars.

Then they were lost to her again, as if so vital was their existence that five seconds of their lives yawned like an eternity spent on such a conversation, lost in their own missions, their own repairs.

She thanked them, in her head, left the connection open so she could sense their exertions and endeavors.

Did the threat mean another ten years of effort? Five? Thirty? That was how the council decided. Wait and see. Cause the least harm. Sometimes a problem would sort itself out. Sometimes you might circle back and nothing was the same as it had been.

For a time, she joined the killer whales, to feel the immersion of the waves and the sensation of being part of a pod. For a time that lasted long enough to return to the problem anew . . . she became something else.

There were fewer of her kind every year, a fatal attrition. The sea had claimed some of her kind, had a strange effect upon them. The whales and the dolphins in their inscrutable and glittering arrays remained moot on the subject of what if anything should happen next. Until they did, or the others of her kind cracked the code, things would remain as they were.

So many of their type had not reported in to these sessions for some time. They had gone out into the ocean and lived there for long stretches. In their search to understand . . . what? . . . they had lost their selves or purpose and learned to become whales, to become dolphins, fixed now in their form. Some also had taken on new shapes to inhabit the deepest depths, to withstand the pressure, and there had formed their own communities. No rescue needed or wanted. No depths too deep. Still others had created out of themselves reefs and let their consciousness become subsumed by the communities they fostered.

And nothing these strangers said on those rare occasions when they breached their own silence made sense to her.

Only that it sounded exuberant. It sounded like joy, and that was more than good enough.

I have a name, she thought pushing against deep water. I have a name, but your true name you should never share.

3.

Returned to herself, she placed the man on the edge of her awareness. He still would not go away, yet he stayed out of sight, out of trouble in her periodic remote surveillance, for some time, living off the land, seeming to avoid the factory, and no animal needed or cared to bother him. It was not that she had a hand in this, but more that none now recognized an Old Person as food anymore, or thought of them as an object made of flesh, if only because so many artificial things had gone into an Old Person that even their scent had changed from persons much more ancient still.

When she could not find the man in the usual places, she became curious and returned to the factory, although much had happened since her last visit. It was hard to tell, though, because sometimes Time didn’t work for her the straight way. Sometimes it was much more interesting. Sometimes it flew through her like the wind and other times clasped onto her fierce like a diving raptor.

But the vines alone told her that time had passed. The amount of regeneration in the polluted grounds around the factory, deep down in the earth where the voles and the earthworms sang together and apart. Where the sweet volume of the interthatched loam was like a thousand hands steepled into subterranean cathedrals.

But also: The agony of felled trees around the factory and a deep glow-hum from the center of the factory that spoke not of slumber or of stasis but of a premonition of growth. A thud and shriek she felt within her chosen form.

There, in a clearing beside the factory, again a tent and the fresh stumps of cedars and oaks. A pile of dead bones that were logs.

The man had stopped moving upon her approach into the clearing. He stood there leaning on his ax, a look of scorn on his face.

For this avatar, she had chosen the form of a giant avian called a cassowary. She loved the shape of their claws. But apparently he could no longer be fooled or frightened.

“You again,” the old man said. “You don’t belong here.”

“I belong everywhere,” she said, using the vocal cords of a monkey watching them from the canopy, as the cassowary could only shriek and squawk.

“You want me to belong nowhere. I’m lonely. I’m alone.”

She was not alone at all, did not really inhabit the term, even within her own one self.

“You must stop,” she said.

“I don’t know how to stop living,” he said.

She meant to show him what living was, to bring his mind up into the higher atmosphere, and into outer space, to latch onto an old failing bio-satellite and use its eyes. They’d always looked to the stars, the Old People, yet they’d never really seen them. She meant him to experience wonder.

But the old man had been joined by another. Someone she hadn’t registered, which concerned her. She read him to his lungs and found he was younger by a third. He also wasn’t human. He was one of the factory’s androids, reanimated.

“Who is this with you?” she asked, and felt a coldness inside she knew was a form of anger. She had not felt anger for such a long time, and whenever she did, it manifested around something human.

“My son,” the old man said, and the nod from the younger man told her the android believed this. Which meant the old man had more skills than she had known, and now everything registered as threat.

“I am his son,” said the not-son. “Who are you?”

“I am the one returning you to your true form,” she said—and launched herself at the “son,” ripping out his innards with one mighty taloned claw.

The son convulsed, fell to the ground and shattered into particles made of glass, which was the substance she had transformed him into. The most delicate glass, fine as sand, that began to disintegrate before ever he hit.

The grains of glass quivered more, like the residue of air bubbles, and then like nothing at all.

“I’m afraid this needs to end,” she said.

“You killed my son,” the man said, but not in a way that indicated he cared.

Which was how she knew she’d made a mistake.

“Would you like to be made of glass, too? Well, you will be soon.” Even as she could feel the fluid part of her locking in place. A trap, the android had been a trap, a kind of contamination. But now, the man registered as trap, too, just an extension of the factory. Factories were almost as ancient as people now, and craftier.

“I know what you’ve done,” she said, to have at least that satisfaction. Because she did, because the transfer occurred both ways now. The recognition, at least.

Why did intent occur without original intent? And yet it always did, in some form, as if a virus lying dormant that could never be snuffed out.

The factory wanted her dead, the factory had wooed the man, fitted him with the mythology she would recognize. Safe, not safe, never home. The gleam in the man’s eyes made that clear. She tried to morph her massive bulk into some organism that could fly, failed, then tried to morph into an organism that could dissipate into the air, the moisture of moss and loam. Failed. Felt even the satisfying fortress that was cassowary compromised at a cellular level.

The hum of the factory had changed into a mighty triumphant march, a blaring note of triumph. She could feel its influence at work in her compromised cells, and recognized that it meant to make her the energy that would bring all of it back to life, recognized how stealthily it could now reveal itself, undertake dread purpose once more.

All of this occurred in nanoseconds as she began to become brittle, fixed in place, the Old Person made new, leering at her like a demon and saying nothing now because what was there to say?

Parsed the contamination, set barriers and boundaries to fight it, turned her attention inward, while recognizing in just a minute or so she would have no control over her own thoughts or being. Downloaded a piece of herself somewhere safe, to have a fragment, even just as a copy, turned her attention to mass and velocity.

Rigid had its uses, too.

She imagined herself as the man, or what the factory intended the man to be, and stitched that into her cells, opened the barriers to the infection, let the surge finish the retrenchment into the opposite of who she had been.

A fleck, a dying flare rose from her form as camera to bear witness.

To the man mumbling phrases in rote routine, the factory focused on her, not the surrogate. Her, on one knee. The verdant green all around them, the cacophonous clacking and screech of the factory no longer cloaking its sound load—anxious to allow the gears to be heard. To tear up the forest and expand. To create clones to make products for, even if those products might simply be more fake people who thought they knew their own past.

In the limited version of her mind floating in the speck looking down on the scene, she hit a button, said, “Now,” and watched as her body broke through a hole in the trap, leapt outward in all directions, used the snuffing out of being fluid to become fixed in place and one type of form. The old man’s scheme lay embedded in the factory’s attack, or the factory had embedded itself in him, but it made no difference either way.

Her versions popped up out of nothing like the human-sized discarded shells of cicadas, all gaps and flopping plasticity, but lurching forward nonetheless. The multiplicity of her as one became hundreds of these shambling figures—mobbing the original, who began to run for the factory, even as his parodies kept pace, overtook him, soon to wander breathless and in disarray to the factory. To clog its pores. To in their rigid way gum the works. To slowly disintegrate over control panels and in their dust coat and suffocate the function and the form.

There had been Old People and New People, and there would be one day be newer people still.

The spark floating above was the last of her, navigating the wind by preprogrammed instinct, just a bit of nothing, a witness that would not witness the end.

Out at sea, the stranger versions of her, no longer caring about Old People or old ways, diving and surfacing in fast-churning profusion, would know nothing but wave and prey and the beauty of all things.

While the part the old man could not get to drifted above it all, would drift and drift until it settled, and was still.

>>Always home, always home, always home. 

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