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Quick as Quarks

Wayne Rambo is a software engineer in the pacific northwest and tries to find time to write between coding for startups. He is married to the supremely talented Cat Rambo and can be found at various cons with her throughout the year.

When your ship came into our space we sent drones to discover what you were. They could not tell us, only saying you were an intelligently designed asteroid with a creature inside. They said you were safe, and we could not have known how wrong they were.
We launched ourselves on wings made of thoughts and flew to you, quick as quarks. A thousand bodies, we flew with one mind. We came to the simple asteroid you traveled in, made of aluminum and dust, a hollow bubble of your own waste. We slipped inside, sliding thin bodies in between the molecules of your container. You were unable to perceive us and we unable to hear you.
"A silly Bhaka!" we thought when we saw your upside down body, trunks growing down and your root bulb on top, fine fibers flowing in the reduced gravity you were kept in. We saw the husk of your previous form, as with the Bhaka we know. We could not understand why you did not consume it when you molted.
For a time we watched you, thinking funny thoughts of the adventures of the Silly Bhaka. We made up stories of your origin as we poked our faces in and out of your cabin. What intelligent life sends out such an absurd creature to test the universe for them?
We could recognize your patterns, though we did not think them more than instinct. After what seemed like eons of sitting motionless in your seat, strapped in tight with the grey adhesive patches over your visual receptors, you would remove them, unharness yourself and pace the room. Three steps across, turn to the left, three steps back, turning to the right, always avoiding facing your husk. Were you saving it to consume at a later time? You would approach a small visual stimulator and it would play images and sounds that we knew excited you, for your root bulb, so perilously perched atop, would leak and you would hide your receptors until the video ended. Then back to the seat, strap in, and apply your adhesive patches again.
We heard your noises, though we did not think them meaningful. Not until we sat in front of you, staring at the grey patches you put over your visual receptors. We leaned forward, sliding a face through your molecules and heard your thoughts for the first time. Intoxicatingly, your skull kept the thoughts inside, focusing them back into you, reflected lasers of thought and emotion. It was then that we knew we were wrong about you. Listening to your thoughts, it took us very little time to learn your language. We listened to your vocalizations for the first time.
"I'm sorry I let you down," you said, "but we'll always be together." Over and over. Did you know we were there? Were you apologizing for violating our space? We wished we could make the noises you could hear, to tell the silly little Bhaka not to apologize. You had done us a great service! "We will always be together, you are a part of us now!" But we were only there to hear your thoughts, to consume your story and not to affect it.
The next time you watched your video, we forced ourselves inside you, listening to the chaos of your mind. We watched you and your other. Your thoughts were so focused that they were painful, sharp as thorns and they drew our blood if we brushed too close to them. Adam and Eve, optimistic colonists, you called each other, somehow existing separate and as more than yourselves. You joked it'd be cozy, but you'd sleep for most of it. You would make others when you landed, a hive of your own, all making the others more than yourselves.
We could not tell how much was the video and how much was memory, they merged in the boiling chaos of broken glass that was your mind.
We were infected then, though we did not know it yet.
You turned back to your seat and we saw it, your husk. It was then we began to understand the magnitude of your illness. Boiling rain of fever ran through your mind as you saw it, your other. Eyes milky and bulging, fingers bloating and skin flecking off as it hung limply in the other seat. We saw its face as you remembered it, fleshy and warm like yours. We saw the dreams you had, the blow you had suffered when you were awakened early. We remembered the warning lights with you, the panic as you entered the code to end the suspended animation. We watched in your memory as you slipped your other half from the tube, their body cold and not breathing. We wailed with you as we experienced your loss for the first time and understood what it meant to be alone. We experienced your hope and dreams fade. We tasted your emotion, the overwhelming sadness of your soul washing over us. We felt you try to reject the emotion of love, to scar over the wound, but it was clear you would not recover.
You turned away, recoiling from the sight of the husk. As you sat, its soft and fleshy remembered face haunted us. You strapped back into the chair, muttering apologies again. We recognized the tape you used to shut your eyes, and we recognized its ineffectiveness as the face haunted your mind. We left you then, for it was too much. That was the last time we touched you, but our wound was already there.
We began imagining the world you would have made, two separate entities coming together as one. Could you dream for only yourself?
"My poor little Bhaka!" one of us wailed and we wondered why you belonged to we-them and not we-us. This should have been our first warning sign. The sickness that this silly Bhaka contained had already begun to work.
"What can we do for it?" one of us asked, its words irritating my mind. We debated, for the first time ever, what we would do next.
"Destroy it," one of us said. "Send it into a sun. It is only misery. It will never recover from these effects."
"Bring it home," another said. "We can restore its sanity. We have the husk, we can rebuild its partner."
"Leave it," I said. "Leave it now and fly home. Do not touch it any more."
We launched ourselves from the asteroid. Quick as quarks we flew home on wings made of nebulas. We-them heard us coming. It was confused, unsure. Why did we exist separately now when we were so happy together?
I remember our arrival. Six of us now, in a thousand bodies. Each frightened and excited by our newfound independence. We spoke quickly to those there. They could not understand us, our voices separate, telling our individual experiences. We had never known others and it was foreign to them as it had been to me. They asked us to speak as one so as to not hurt them with our many voices. We each told them we could not and they recoiled.
They brought our bodies to the hospital where they tried to bring us back into the hive. Instead we splintered. The six of us became twenty and soon more. They tried to quarantine us but they could not keep from thinking of us. And that was enough, the thought of us as individuals and alone soon sent them spiraling away from the hive.
Soon they expelled us. The only solution was to amputate and hope the infection had not gotten too deep. By then we numbered in the thousands and fought constantly. Millions of bodies fled the home world, each of us continuing to splinter as we fled. Those left behind squabbled over the best way to cure the infection as we flew away from the husk that was all that would soon remain of our home world.
It took a few weeks but eventually all I had was one body. The others had spun off into their own beings, quarreling with me as they found themselves. Alone, there was nothing left for me.
I flew back to the silly Bhaka's ship, quick as a quark. I sit here now, watching it, listening to its vocalizations. It has gotten sicker, the infection grabbing hold. It speaks in two voices, one answering the halting whispers of the other. I feel its pain, alone but convinced it is not, creating its own illusion. I watch it kiss the husk, watch it speak to it and respond for it.
I know there is nothing left for us.
I grip the ship, making my hands into rock, solidifying with the asteroid, fusing with the aluminum and dust. I turn my head towards the sun and spread my wings.
Quick as quarks, we will no longer be alone. We will be together forever.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 27th, 2015

Author Comments

This story was inspired by the band "Supercommuter," an underappreciated sci-fi hip hop band. I was listening to their track "Frozen," about a space colonist's slow descent into madness due to a lost partner, when I realized they are essentially writing flash fiction in rap form. Around the same time, I read Rachel Swirsky’s "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" and really felt like she had found a way to tell a story from the outside, misinterpreting events in order to push the reader down a path, only to twist the story a different direction towards the end. I hope you enjoyed it.

- Wayne Travis Rambo
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