My mouth is full of blood and dirt and rock. I move my jaw, and it pops. Jagged shards of pain lance up my neck and burrow into my skull, into the shaken grey matter that throbs beneath that bone plating. The pain stays in the space between my ears, a bolt of lightning that grows roots, digging deep, until I have to question who I am. Where I am. What I’ve become. There is no part of my head that doesn’t feel like it isn’t on fire.
I am not dead. I wish I was.
The pain overwhelms and forces me back to blackness, and I go without a fight. When I feel again, the pain is duller. The blood is no longer fresh. The dirt is a thick paste on the roof of my mouth.
Pus tries to keep my eyelashes glued together. But I force them apart, and a pale lilac sky peers back between the broken shards of my visor. My suit has been shorn apart. I gasp for breath, inhale dirt and bits of teeth, cough. Exhale, expel, inhale, repeat.
The atmosphere is breathable. It shouldn’t be, and every breath comes with effort. There should be nothing here at all. And yet it’s a planet beneath my feet, an alien sky above my head, strange dirt between my teeth. It exists where radars read empty space, interrupted only by meteors, dust, and radiation.
I hadn’t even been at the controls. The ship flew on autopilot while I pored over the letters of the woman I loved. Missives that told me she loved me but hated what I’d done. That by the time I came back she’d be old, and I’d still be the woman she met by chance in a bar only to sweep her off her feet.
But I’d left, anyway. Not to be cruel. But because the pull of the stars had always been stronger than any Earth’s delight, than even the promise of soulmates. And now here I was, stranded. My ship nowhere to be seen, the surrounding land unmarred by the destruction of a crash landing. But it must have crashed, because my visor is broken, and my teeth are shattered, and my head aches. I can’t even recall why I am wearing a spacesuit. It doesn’t fit; it isn’t mine.
It takes me an hour to pull myself into a sitting position. Another twenty to peel off the layers of protective gear until only the thin, synthetic skinsuit clings to me.
With trembling fingers and split nails, I pluck bits of metal from my skin. It pockmarks my shins, my thighs, my stomach. There is more in my shoulder and face, I am certain of it. I can feel it every time I breathe, every time I instinctively work my jaw back and forth, just to hear it click.
Finally, I gather my courage. I take stake of my surroundings.
There is something akin to trees that stab into the lavender skies, dotting the landscape by the dozens. Their trunks are pale white obelisks. Segmented and geometric, tapering into a soft, pliant webbing that pushes into the earth like roots. The higher the obelisks go, the more they thin and then branch off, creating bismuth-like growths that spread out like plantain leaves.
There is smaller, not precisely organic, life scattered here and there at the base of these pillars. They are bulbous and bowl-like, the inside of them full of thin razor-sharp gills, like the belly beneath a mushroom cap. The gills move in a wavelike formation, elegant and in synch.
I touch nothing. My mouth is still coated in dirt. It is a well of sand, my tongue a dried slab of meat. Hunger grows in the bottom of my stomach, but worst is the dehydration. I can almost feel my skin thinning, tightening, becoming a husk in the dry air. In this place without vegetation or water, where everything springs from hard-packed rock.
I wander. The sky stretches above me, lavender, touched with pale blue mists. The mist coils and unfurls, dissipates and gathers, until it’s almost opaque as clouds. It does so in random intervals, so that it’s impossible to determine a pattern or motive.
I trained for this my entire life. Since they told us Earth’s extinction was years, not decades away. When the water supply ran out, and the fish died in their beds, and the people turned on their own, and the last best hope was amongst the stars.
We had discovered countless planets before, landed and gotten our feet dirty. But the life there was minimal. Great expanses of dust, or gas, or liquid so hot or cold as to be inhospitable. But this is something else entirely. There is no field guide for this, beyond touch nothing. Breathe nothing.
My lungs filled with its air. My stomach, its dirt. I wasn’t certain that it was even my ship that had embedded its metal into me.
I wander. The great star above does not move. The day does not set. There is no night, no passage of time. But the hunger grows. I stumble amongst the obelisks, searching for the remnants of my ship. For some semblance of the familiar, of something that might pass for home.
Countless times I stumble, my knees hitting the ground until the skinsuit breaches. Until the skin beneath wears away. Until I am dripping blood. In desperation I cut at the gills of the strange growths beneath the obelisks, only for them to crumble away into a dust. Delirious, half-mad, I stagger and crawl. Perhaps I have walked the entire length of this planet. Perhaps the planet rolls backward, so I have not moved at all.
On the horizon, something glimmers. The soft mists settle onto the hills. In it, a glow undulates, flickering and beckoning. Beckoning, I know, for me.
There is no other sound than my own exhausted, rasping breath and my dragging feet as I force my body forward. As if the glow is a lodestar. My last chance of survival or purpose.
The soft blue leans towards me, its glow dancing between the gray. Each step takes me closer, and the air grows denser, until the mist wraps itself around me. It’s like walking into the fogs that filled the valleys outside of my hometown. The air is thick and sticky. It fills my nose, my mouth, and the taste is morning dew. Nothing like the acrid taste of burning plastic I’d grown up with.
No, this is clean and pure.
My tongue extends, and I breathe deep, desperate to drown in it. It fills me, slipping deeper into the cavern of my throat, until all I can think of is its taste. But it withdraws from me. The mist sweeps back. My eyes flutter open, my lips already forming a protest.
But words die because she is here.
She looks like Cassandra if she’d been carved from galaxies. Her skin is incandescent, almost the same lavender as the sky. The mist pools into her, then out, as if it is her breath. I take a hesitant step towards her, the way you might approach a deer dappled in moonlight, in awe of its natural beauty, in fear that you might ruin the moment. But drawn forward, nonetheless.
I say her name, though of course it’s not her. The closer I come, the more apparent it is. She does not have Cassandra’s lilting smile, the cocky lift of a brow, as if she knows something you don’t. The face of the creature or thing before me is a series of flickering projections over what I now see is a smooth caprice, something that approximates a woman’s body. But what pretty lights they are. How close to her image they are.
Cassandra beckons, and her hands are human enough. They are missing fingers, there are no fingers at all. Just a sort of rectangular webbing, stretched across two prongs. I reach back, and faster than I know it, I am in her embrace again. Her blue mists expel outwards from the vents in her caprice, probing at my lips. And again I let her in, this time leaning towards her, towards the smooth neck that could have been Cassandra’s.
The earth slopes away beneath our feet. I see now that her own legs extend deep into the crust. She is like an obelisk, a pillar of stone, whose roots might reach the center of the planet. But as the ground gives way, she holds onto me. Her arms are strong and unrelenting, and I know we are safe as we descend, intertwined, into the earth. Into a network of roots that extends just below the surface, sticky and thick, vibrating with a life-force that I know will be mine.
The earth buries me, inch by inch, and the roots crawl upward, engulfing us.
Those closest to me begin to peel until they are covered with something like trichobothria: the fine hairs on a spider’s arm. And then those razor-sharp hairs are in me. Pricking me at every surface. My throat tries a scream, but the mouth has piled too high onto my tongue, between my teeth. Even a muffled groan is beyond me.
The hairs of the root drill fine holes and work their way into my skin, into my bloodstream and bone.
Cassandra hums inside my veins.
Her song has no words.
We’ve gone so far beyond that.
There is no separation between what she thinks and what I think. We are two shades of gray, two breaths of strange, foreign air, intermingling together in the mists that were built in this soil, in the atmosphere that had been tailor made for the body I had once been.
My hunger becomes her hunger, and we are insatiable. Delicate synapses, marrow, a menagerie of hormones and liquids and flesh. We devour ourselves, morsel by morsel. Milligram by milligram because there is no sating this emptiness and there is no telling when the next meal will come. So, we may as well take our time.
Thin filaments run the length of our body. We become the exoskeleton, the brain, the neurons from which its malignant intelligence alight. It stretches arms thin; it pulls skintight. In the eons to come, this body will become an obelisk, like those who came before it. An unmarked tombstone for the unremembered and unmourned.
We—It—will forget that there was ever a life before this everlasting pain of slow devouring. But until then, we dig into this new brain, pulling forth memories of places it wished it had known, before the great cataclysm reduced what had been a beautiful country to dust. The dense jungles of the Philippines, its rolling hills, its vast oceans.
Then, next, even more succulent than dreams come the memories. The sweet and the bitter and the mundane. Each more tender than the last.
Cassandra in a dive bar. Cassandra in a bed. Cassandra on a doorstep of a house that We—She—It refused to call home. A compendium of other faces. Coworkers and family and friends.
For the next human, we will be able to replicate a perfect copy. A lure to mingle with our cerulean breath, until they are pliant in our mouth. But for now, our crust contracts. Our purple skies give way to an airless vacuum of space. We pull ourselves tight and small, until we are an asteroid, hurtling through space amongst one hundred thousand others.
We cast wide a net that can’t be perceived with light. Strange, vibrating threads of a web that anchor to the nearby stars, which are younger still than We.
Another ship will come. Maybe not for another millennium. But we will exist long after the sun bursts and a new one is born in its place. Until new life comes to seek something in the void.