Story written and read by Margaret Killjoy. This story first appeared in Fireside Fiction in 2016.
Her ship thundered into the ground, and Caroline stumbled out from the wreckage into a bright haze of ivy and trees. No one had set foot on Earth since the terraforming team had arrived thirty years prior. Before them, a century. Humanity had escaped its ruined cradle and scarcely looked back. All around her, the sunlight was unnatural and soft, filtered through ozone and clouds and canopy. She blinked, blinked again, then rubbed her eyes.
Where she came from, light was harsh and honest and undiluted by atmosphere.
There’d barely been life left at all on Earth before the terraforming team, yet everything around her was green and gray and brown. The colors were more than she could handle. The world smelled too strongly of everything that wasn’t chemicals and plastics and oils and metals. She sat down, her back against the dented hull of her ship, as her head spun and the wind cast her hair about.
It was a shitty fucking mission. It was a volunteer mission that hadn’t had a single volunteer until Caroline. But on a backwater like Earth, she had a chance to make a name for herself and be left alone. All she had to do was try not to die on entry, find the terraforming team. Find a way to report back. If she wanted, find a way home.
She looked at her watch. Its digital face was blank, destroyed by the electromagnetic storm that had wiped out her ship’s computer — the worldwide, unceasing, interference storm in the upper atmosphere she’d been sent to the ground to investigate.
Caroline surveyed the wreck of her ship. It was salvageable, if she could find a computer to replace her navigation system and discover a way back up through the interference. She found the crash case, shatterproof — waterproof, radiationproof, everythingproof — and sorted out supplies. The Earth’s air was breathable, and she didn’t need a pressure suit.
She got out a laminated topo map, a sun chart, and a sextant. She poured a dish of water and held it to her eyes. With the horizon shrouded by forest, she had to measure its location by finding the halfway point between the sun in the sky and the sun’s reflection in the dish. That done, she checked and re-checked her bearings.
“I can’t believe bullshit like this actually works.”
Caroline started north, along the open wound that her entry had cut through the forest. Leaves were singed to silver, tree limbs were broken and burned. The noises were wrong. Her boots scraped across bark and snapped twigs, and birds screeched and sang — if you can call what those beasts do singing.
She made it a hundred meters before she ran out of scar and was left staring into the forest itself. Something in the shadows was staring back at her, something with wide-set eyes and the glint of horns.
“Fuck you, I’m going to keep walking anyway,” Caroline said, pulling her gun. She was clumsy with the weapon. Gunpowder-propelled ballistics made no sense on space stations, but she knew from history that a gun was better than a sword on Earth.
The creature grunted, inhuman, and crashed out from the trees.
“Die!” Caroline said, emptying her clip into the beast. “Die die die!” It crumpled to its knees, then fell to its belly, bellowing out its death.
A bison. A prey animal.
In the shadows, another pair of identical eyes replaced the one she’d shut forever, another pair of horns caught the strange light. She took her gun in a two-handed grip, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.
As Caroline made her way through the forest, the second bison kept pace. It was black and brown and had more hair than any animal ought to. Its eyes were like a child’s. Every time it approached, she pointed her gun at it, and it backed off. She should have brought more ammo, but hadn’t really expected to have to murder much megafauna.
The bison followed her through a mire, it followed her across meadows. It followed her past three scrubbing towers. Each was a silent, gleaming monolith, tall as the trees, surrounded by thirty meters of desolation. Each smelled of ozone, each suffused the air with static.
Caroline reached a steep-banked creek. “Fuck off, bison,” she said, as she crossed a fallen log too narrow for the beast.
The bison leapt from one bank to the other.
“We’re not going to be friends,” Caroline said.
Dozens of times over the course of hours, she caught brief glimpses of other animals staring from branches, from behind trees and ferns and bushes.
She stopped on an outcropping of rock, took off her boots, and stared in minor horror at the blisters on her feet — walking ten kilometers on Earth was nothing like walking ten kilometers around the circumference of an observatory in space.
She took out her map, showed it to the bison that stood five meters distant.
“Almost there,” she said to the creature. “Another kilometer, if that.”
The bison stared at her. She didn’t like how slowly it blinked.
“Maybe I shouldn’t talk to you. Maybe I should only talk to me.”
The corpse was propped against the bunker door, and bees wove their way in and out through holes in the dead man’s pressure suit as a skull looked out of his helmet. The Terraform logo — an oak tree with roots as wide as its branches — was stitched to the suit’s sleeve and etched into the door.
The hum of the bees was louder than the sound of the birds nested in the black alder and ash, louder even than the breathing of the bison that she still kept at bay with the empty pistol.
Caroline knocked the corpse to the ground with a large stick and reached for the door. Locked.
The sound of her thermite torch drowned out the bees, and Caroline started into the hinges with the flame. The smell was chemical and reassuring.
She didn’t hear the bees approach, but she felt them sting her. One got her in the arm and she dropped the torch just as the door fell off its hinges, and she ran into the building as bees stung her arms, legs, and throat. At the end of the hall, she flung open a fire door and slammed it shut behind her. Stairs went down into the earth, and so did Caroline. Adrenaline and will gave her the strength to overcome the pain, but she clung to the banister for balance.
Soft blue light filtered up the stairwell, and after three floors, she was bathed in the glow of LEDs. Underground, she realized, the electronics still worked. Underground, the world still made some sense.
The next floor down, there was another suit with another skeleton, the textured metal floor nearby littered with the bodies of thousands of dead bees. She went another floor, and there were three more skulls grinning out of three more suits. More dead bees, as thick on the ground as Martian dust. The pain in her limbs surged, and she steadied herself on the wall before continuing. The next landing held another fifteen corpses, these gathered by a hatch in the floor. They’d been trying to get through.
“It’s cool, who cares if everyone was eaten by bees.”
She shivered, letting the fear course its way through her, let it run through its biochemical cycle. She reached for the hatch, found it unlocked, and continued her descent.
The stairs ended in the center of a vast hall. A beam of sunlight fell out of a mirror-sided skylight and cut shadows across the floor, overwhelming the dim overhead lights and their comforting blue glow. An assortment of terminals and lab equipment lined every wall, while, in the far distance, a single figure sat in a single office chair. The figure wasn’t in a pressure suit, but it wasn’t moving and Caroline presumed the obvious.
“Hey, dead man, what’s up with your project? Why’d you all get eaten by bees?”
“We ran into complications.” The baritone voice boomed down the hall.
The figure stood and turned, pacing toward her. He stepped through the ray of sunlight. He was tall, unaccountably tall, and white like more people used to be. He wore a dead man’s smile and loose black clothes that hung off his skeletal frame. As quickly as he’d passed into the light, he passed out of it.
“What uh, what complications?” Caroline was sweating, her empty gun gripped tight in her hand.
“You’re from space?” he asked. He was close enough she could smell his rotten breath.
“You came to check on us?”
“Are you stuck on Earth now?” he asked.
“So it goes,” he said.
“The success of the mission—” she started.
“—is more important than the survival of its agent,” he finished.
“Do you know,” the man said, “in everything I’ve read, everything I’ve found and studied, in my thirty years on the surface of the Earth… do you know people here used to believe the reverse? Can you imagine a world so forgiving that a species could survive such cavalier individualism?”
With the daylight behind him, Caroline’s eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark. The man remained bathed in shadow.
“The Earth forgave and it forgave again, time after time,” he continued, “until the day it didn’t.”
“What’s gone wrong with the project?”
“Nothing’s gone wrong,” the man said. “There were complications. You’ve seen the complications.”
“But there’s the storm now, since you got here. Wipes out electronics, means no one can really live here.”
“It was rocks and sand when we got here,” the man said. “All over the planet, rocks and sand. Amoebas. I suspect multicellular life may have continued in the ocean, but I don’t know. We got here and the planet was too hot for complex life — too much garbage in the atmosphere — so we designed and built the towers. They don’t just scrape carbon and methane from the air, they attract it. From every corner of the globe.”
“But they fuck up the atmosphere in the process?”
“Our original mission parameters were… short-sighted. When your goal is to terraform the Earth, you can’t ignore variables. You can’t ignore what caused the problem in the first place.”
“How soon do you think we can turn them off?”
“The towers solve two problems at once. They sequester carbon and they hinder technological civilization. We did something similar with our reintroduction of flora and fauna. We’ve engineered life to propagate quickly — and to have that rapid propagation taper off after a few generations. But that’s only the half of it.”
Caroline took a half-step away from the man, almost collapsed from the pain in her legs.
“Consider the Portuguese man o’war. It’s not a jellyfish. It’s not a single animal at all. It’s a colony of animals specialized to their individual tasks, comparable to the cells in a body. If life on Earth is to survive, the entire biome needs to work in a similar fashion. Thus, we’re engineering the Earth itself to act in its own self-interest.”
“You trained the fucking bees to kill people?”
“We’ve altered the genetics of every element of the planet’s fauna to make it recognize and confront essential ills. Humanity is a cancer. It has always been a cancer.”
“Everyone else tried to stop you, didn’t they? So you killed them?”
“It will take millennia, but the seeds are sewn and the wild will retake the Earth. God’s creatures will stand sentinel. Only one mission remains to us.”
“Jesus, what else? Blow up all the space habitats?”
“Man is a cancer. We cannot allow its recurrence.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Caroline said. She raised the gun, pulled the trigger. Still empty.
His open hand shot out, his fingers slammed into her throat, and she collapsed.
Caroline was pleasantly surprised when, upon rousing, there were no bees in the cage with her. The cage itself, like every cage ever built, was a disappointment. But there were no bees. Furthermore, her welts from the stings had gone down. She crossed “genetically engineered super-venomous bees” off her list of immediate fears.
The cage was too low for her to stand, just large enough to for her to lie down. About the size of her room on the station, which wasn’t so bad. She was at the far end of the hall, in a faintly lit corner. She had her clothes, but nothing else. The man paced the perimeter of the hall, almost five minutes to a lap, walking with an unnatural gait. The skylight was dark, the room lit only by LED.
The inside of her elbow itched, but she found no relief in scratching. She kicked at the cage instead. “I don’t want to fucking die here,” she said. “This is fucking stupid.”
On his next lap around the hall, the man stopped outside her cage.
“Are you going to kill me?” Caroline asked.
“It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to.”
“Is this some Adam and Eve shit?”
“We won’t be the first two of our species,” the man said. “We’ll be the last.”
“How are you going to attack the colonies? You can’t leave the Earth.”
“I’m afraid this is rude, nearly so rude as locking you up, but I can’t divulge that information to you.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Once, my name was Dr. Filip Żaden. But names are signifiers, and I’ve spent quite some time alone. There has been no one to do the signifying, and I’ve definitely grown used to that. Call me Nobody.”
“You’re teasing me.”
“You don’t think well of me.”
“So it will be.”
On the second day, Caroline trimmed down her fingernails and toenails with her teeth, arranging the pieces on the floor of her cell and designing a game of solitaire. She assigned each nail a role and corresponding statistics, representing different spacecraft with different weaponry. She spent most of the day as a space station fighting for survival against the invasion of alien dust mites. She usually lost.
She’d taken inventory of the situation, discovered no immediately identifiable way out of her situation. She’d get a chance, at some point. Conditions would change. She just needed to keep her mind busy until then.
When she got bored of losing, Caroline rewrote her game for two players and competed against herself, space station against space station. She still managed to lose.
Dr. Nobody worked at various terminals during the nights, paced the hall during the day. He left for hours at a time, up through the hatch. He rarely ate, but he fed her honeyed jerky and water and he gave her crappy books she didn’t want to read. The first time he came for her shit pail, she threw its contents at him.
On the third day, Caroline woke up crampy and itchy from dreams about cramps and itching. She tried to read some pretentious novel, gave up. Her left arm, a minefield of still-healing welts, itched too much for her to concentrate on the words on the page.
She invited the man to play a few games of toenail spaceships. She lost, every time. She redesigned the game for three players and took two of the roles herself. Though she’d written the rules, he paid scrupulous attention, had studied every move and countermove, and she still lost.
“I’m more the creative type,” she said. “Big picture type. Grand strategy. Shit at actual tactics.”
He said nothing.
“I shouldn’t have signed up for this,” Caroline said. “I should have been a lighthouse keeper. Just me and my beacon somewhere in the asteroid belt. We’ve got like, automated supply delivery now. I’d only have had to talk to people every couple of years.”
“You like being alone,” the man said. “We have a lot in common.”
“Yeah, we both spend our time furthering the eradication of the entire human race,” Caroline said.
“True,” the man said.
“No, you fuck-louse, I’m making fun of you.”
“Of course,” the man said. He was smiling that piece-of-shit skull smile.
“I like being alone,” Caroline said, “and I took this mission because I like going to new places and I’m not afraid of one-way tickets and who hasn’t had dreams about the Earth, though honestly it’s kind of a shit place to live I think. You’re all wrong, and I think you know you’re all wrong. If the biome is a single collective organism, like you keep saying and maybe you’re right about that one specific thing, then humanity is like one organ in that collective. Lets say we’re the skin.”
“The forest is the skin.”
“Fine, whatever,” Caroline said. “Even though the forest isn’t a damn species and you’re fucking up my metaphor. Let’s say we’re the brain. Brains can get cancer. But they aren’t themselves cancer. The Earth didn’t die of humanity, it died of something cancerous that had corrupted the brain.”
“You’re much better at rationalizing away your cancerous nature than you are at playing this game with your toenails.”
On the fifth day, Dr. Nobody seemed distracted, maybe sick. He emptied Caroline’s shit pail and walked away without locking her cage. Not long after, he fell asleep in his chair, a wraith lit up in the sharp sunlight.
She opened the cage door, quickly to keep it from squeaking, then crawled out into the hall and stood up. Her muscles rebelled, but she fought them and won.
She had to get past him to reach the stairs, but getting away wasn’t enough. She went to the wall, unhooked a fire extinguisher. The concrete floor sapped the warmth from her bare feet as she crept towards the man.
His eyes were closed, his head lolled back, his mouth gaped open. His remaining teeth were withered and yellow.
Her mind floated through clever things to say. Instead, she raised the extinguisher’s nozzle, depressed the lever, and shot his face with foam. He began to choke. She stepped in, brought the base of the extinguisher down on his temple, and he rolled out of the chair, coughing.
She knelt over him, took the extinguisher in both hands, and exposed his brain to the air.
The foam mixed with blood as it slid off his face. The sun caught his dead eyes, so many stories underground, and glinted bright.
Caroline staggered to her feet.
“Well, that solved almost nothing.”
His blood was warm, thinner than she’d expected, and it was all over her. She took a few breaths, tried to let revulsion work its way through her system. It didn’t work like fear. She couldn’t clear it with shivers.
She threw up on the corpse.
It wasn’t hard to fix her ship. Her torch was waiting where she’d dropped it, and she had her pick of computers from the hall. Even shutting off the towers and the electromagnetism was dead simple, involving software clearly designed for the layperson. It didn’t let her disable them completely, but she managed to set them to a two-week self-cleaning cycle.
Two days of work, and the hull was repaired and the navigational systems operational. Both nights, Caroline had slept in her hammock in the ship. Both nights, she’d woken from nightmares of Dr. Żaden, of him pacing around the outside of her ship, of him pacing around her hammock. During the day, as she worked, some bison or another, maybe her bison, kept watch from the forest. There’d been no sign of bees.
Caroline stood atop the ship, looked out into the forest.
“Almost don’t want to leave,” she said.
She scratched at her arm.
“It’s fucking itchy here though.”
She looked down. At the inside of her elbow, along with the rash she’d raised there, was a puncture. She knew it was a puncture because the bee stings had healed, and because the wound inside her elbow cascaded infection and darkness into the surrounding veins.
“Motherfuck.” She kicked the hull of her ship, hard. Again. Again. “Fuck fuck fuck.”
The next kick, she stubbed her toe, but scarcely registered the pain.
“Oh, look at me, I’m Dr. Nobody. I’m just going to fucking leave the cell door open by accident. Oh look at me I’m just taking a nap. Totally just taking a nap in this chair. Totally not just waiting for the stupid space girl to fucking murder me as part of my fucking plan to fucking convince her she’s escaped so she flies off into space with some kind of readily communicable disease I shot her up with that’s engineered to fucking kill the entire human race. TOTALLY NOT DOING THAT AT ALL.”
She ripped at her skin, but she had no nails. She went at the wound with a screwdriver, until the blood ran up onto her fingers, until it dripped down onto the hull. But the infection remained. She wouldn’t be going home.
She heard a rustle behind her and turned around. The bison wandered into the burned radius.
“Fuck you, bison.”
The bison just looked up at her with its big dumb eyes.
“Fucking stuck here with you now.”
She climbed down. The sun was a fever, high overhead, and the bison walked up to her ship.
“Hey, Mr. or Ms. Bison, I shouldn’t have shot that other one of you. That was fucking stupid. That was human-as-cancer stupid.”
The bison lowered its head, and Caroline reached out a hand in comfort.
She didn’t see the horn enter her side, but she felt it pierce her skin and sunder her veins and wreck her organs. She fell supine to the earth as the heat and blood ran out of her. She stared into the sun with open eyes.
“I guess we all do what we’ve been made to do,” she said.
Her vision grew dark.
“But still, fuck you.”