Caitlin R. Kiernan

She had lain once, as a child, under the dead summer Atlanta sky, and pressed her face into the soil. Lin's father had been a professor in the city and so they'd had the little shit-brown yard and its cancerous dandelions, hearty clumps of deathwhisper weeds. After the rain, iridescent petrol shimmer and wet smell of a crankshaft, oilpan shower, with her hands she had dug through the softened crust of sun-baked earth. Had closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and pressed her face into the shallow dirt scrape, arms spread wide in the unexpected mud.

Her mother had been busy. The summer the city's water supply had made the black list and her mother was always busy with ration stamps and plastic jugs. So no one had watched or reminded or screamed at her to stop.

There had been no smell of fungus, no ripe decay, no slither of earthworms or black beetle scurry. Only the muddy chemical reek and then the pain, and quickly after, nothing else until she'd come awake in the toxi-ward of Grady Memorial, oxygen mask strapped across her swollen face.

Her mother had said that she was lucky. She wouldn't have scars.

Gently, pain-wincing, Lin slowly removed the bandage from the thumb of her left hand. Slowly. Hoping that Deme would stay in the crapper long enough, another few minutes at least. The sterile foam patch from the surfaid kit came away in a wad of fibers pus-glued to the puncture, angry red, bloody dark at the puckered center. Hearing her heart, Lin realized that she'd been holding her breath, exhaled a long, nerve-ragged sigh.

"Unhhh," hissed between teeth clenched against anger and pain, folding the pad farther back, held in place now by only one alarm-yellow adhesive strip.

Mentally, she tallied her violations of the Exxon-Sumatra's MedSec codes over the past twelve hours, cursed herself, and pressed the spongy patch back into place just as the door to the toilet whooshed open, hint of steam from the leaky hydraulics, soft pad of Deme's bare feet on the plastic floor of their cabin. Swallowing the throb in her thumb, Lin pulled on her black gloves, smiled, patted the mattress with her good hand.

Deme smiled back, too tired, eyes red and bruise-dark bags. She was almost a foot shorter than Lin, parents Chinese and Indian, her skin balanced somewhere unlikely between saffron and burnt umber. Deme's eyes flashed wearily, dark pools caught for a long moment in the glow of the cabin's halogen strips, and Lin almost forgot her pricked thumb, so glad not to be alone. She ignored the pleasurably faint tingle between her legs.

"You look pleased with yourself," Deme said, and then in Chinese, "The cat that swallowed the canary."

"Speak English." The old joke and Deme smiled again, the corners of her mouth straining against exhaustion.

Lin sat cross-legged on the bed, her laptop link to the Sumatra's mainframe open and running, humming softly, barely audible above the thrumming contralto of the ship's engines.

Deme's smile faded as she sat, pushing back the thin, rumpled sheets. "Enough work, little girl."

Lin wasn't looking at her now, was gazing instead at the wash of colors and numbers on the monitor. Downloading pre-liminary genetic assessments of her samples. She pressed an index finger to one corner of the screen and the microimager in the console clicked, hummed a moment, and projected a slowly spiraling hologram of a single DNA strand, floating at the intersection of an angle between screen and keyboard. Five full rotations and she touched "SHIFT" and "T" on the keyboard, waited as the image began to fragment, nitrogen-rich cross-struts pulled apart, adenine from thymine, guanine from cytosine, dividing the double helix.

Without asking, Deme switched off the cabin lights, and Lin's face glowed in the kaleidoscope flicker of the monitor. "Go to sleep, Lin."

"I thought you'd be on the pad to greet me." Lin's voice was blameless, her eyes darting from hologram to screen and back as the computer decoded the intricate polynucleotide chains, finished the helicase operation and began running its replication program.

"Yeah, well, so did I." Facing away from Lin, already curling into her characteristic fetal sleep, voice thickening, drowsy. "Then Alex started pulling headcovers off the bloody-fuck aft turbines, 'cause she said something sounded funny, and we were three hours up to our bums in grease running curvature diags on every bloody runner blade under F-Block."

"Oh," but Lin was barely listening, her attention divided evenly between the hot pulse in her thumb and the computer's analyses.

"Alex is convinced that the gravity of your little blue ball out there is warping all her drive shafts to fuck," and then something else, muttered, about the generators and what she'd like to tell her foreman to do with the shafts, mumbling down toward sleep.

"Breakfast, then," Lin replied, but her lover was already snoring, and she turned back to the spectral hologram, back to the poetry of biochemistry, marveling, trying not to think about her hand, about how scatty she was starting to feel.

Only a thorn, and she waited for the computer to tell her something new. Hardly even broke the skin. Hardly even bled.

Almost forty-eight hours earlier.

Three weeks after the Sumatra had established stable orbit around the planet, three weeks of recovery from cold sleep and the random instrument damage of deep space, three weeks of preparation.

Lin had weathered the necessary delays anxious, impatient, her anxiety swelling to a stunned euphoria as advance probes had begun to relay the first reports from the surface. That the fourth planet in the Barnard System was everything that the mission and the thousands back on earth who'd made it possible had theorized and gambled, hoped and doubted and finally simply prayed.

That the planet was alive.

April back home, she'd thought, riding the lift down from the biolabs to the shuttle pad, moving like mercury along the outer hull of the ship's central derrick. Passing swiftly by the daylit world, numbered but still nameless. Glittering blues and blue-greens of its seemingly boundless oceans, swirled with cloud banks, a vast and perfect-eyed hurricane in the northern hemisphere, the small, stingy archipelagos, emerald streaks near the equator.

Back home it was spring, as dead and gray as winter. She'd watched Earth from dry dock; days had dragged by between her departure from Cape Canaveral and the starship's final clearance for launch. Hanging helpless above the raw brown and steel, senseless carpet of lights and industrial cloud cover, the ugly corpse of a world. Lin had known that there was nothing for her to come back to, despite the plans she'd made with Deme, the house in Spain, the children they'd both said they wanted.

She had leaned into the elevator's observation portal, face and hands pressed in desperate wonder against the glass. Here, eight years out and she always forgot how many miles, how many light years, the ghost of Earth, an Earth more pristine than even that photographed by the Apollo missions half a century before her birth. Earth as it might have looked from Paleozoic heavens.

And then the lift had slid behind a neat row of bone- white hydrogen tanks, and then back inside the thrumming hull of the Exxon-Sumatra.

Lin opened her dream-sticky eyes, blinked. Red-orange LED readout in the wall, a foot from her face, 0300:20:04 hours. She blinked again, shifted, rolling over onto her injured hand, crushing it between her ribs and the hard bedding.

Searing hurt. Too much to speak, to cry out, even to breathe.

She reached the door to the toilet, palm-slapped the square, green "unoccupied" signal. Gears grumbled, spit and whine of pistons, but the door remained closed. She slapped the button again, with no better results.

"Fuck," loud, loud enough to wake Deme, and then she had fallen, or was falling

"Lin?" Deme's voice distant, sleep-choked.

smacking the vaguely warm floor with her knees, dull, meaty thud on plastic

"Lin?" Murky hints of confusion now, of concern. "Lin, are you all right?"

and she wanted to answer, to keep Deme from getting up, reached out to hit the entry button again, parted her lips to speak.

"Lin! Christ, Lin, are you sick?"

She missed the button, struck the wall instead. She could hear the croaking sounds where words should have been, as removed as Deme's alarm. Her mouth had gone suddenly dry, her tongue puffy, useless.

And then she heard the creak of the shitty mattress, the rustle of sheets and Deme's feet coming, the vibrations through air and solid floor, so clear she almost saw the sounds. Futiley squeezed her lips together against the sudden hot rush from her stomach, spilled her half-digested dinner across the unyielding door anyway. Lin closed her eyes, curling in upon herself, trying to shut herself away from the pain and nausea, the sight of her vomit succumbing to the ship's grav-field, running down the smoky lucite door.

And now Deme had her, hard-muscled arms wrapped tight around, genuine fright in the unshakable voice. A callused hand wiped cold, dripping sweat from her forehead.

"Jesus, Lin. You're like a bloody kiln."

Helpless, she vomited again, this time directly into Deme's lap, smelling bile and something coppery. Tasting blood and the beef and potato paste from the Sumatra's mess. As the chills hit, Deme was lifting her, carrying her back to the bed, and she had begun to cry.

"I'm ringing for MedSec, Lin."

With effort, Lin understood, shook her head violently, held onto Deme.

"No way, babe. You're burning up and puking like..."

"No," a broken, watery sound, bile for saliva. And she lifted her hand, thumb out, still bound in her black rubber flight glove.

Deme opened her mouth to protest and saw the unnatural bulge of the thumb beneath the latex. Her hand, already resting on the com toggle over the bed, slid back to her puke and sweat damp underclothes.

"Lin, what the bloody hell's going on?"

Lin moved her lips soundlessly, still shaking her head, bleeding tears from the corners of her fear brightened eyes.

In a few minutes, after Deme had used her pocket knife to cut the glove away, she'd begun to understand.

Waiting with the others, for most of them.

The red and green hoverlights floating just above the deck of the pad, green cycling clockwise, red counter, meeting each other at either end of the long, lozenge-shaped shuttle bay. She had been almost an hour early, had finished checking out and double-checking the case of biopsy darts and the vacuum-sealed specimen canisters, had said her goodbyes to Deme at breakfast, and so had been left with nothing else but the wait. Watching the maintenance crew scramble about, smiling at Levesque from geophysics, also too eager, trying not to notice Alice, the nervous redhead from MedSec.

One by one, and then the last few all at once, had entered the bay. Had taken their positions, and had answered in their turn when the Major had read the crew manifest over the intercom.

The landing lights had switched off, one, two of her fast heartbeats, then switched back on, reversing their earlier directions, warning maintenance to leave the pad, giving the pilot the all-clear to begin final instrument check. And then they'd filed up the ramp, a bunch of civi scientists and techs pretending military discipline, and through the hatch of the shuttle Eleusis.

Lin's thumb had burst from the distended glove as Deme had carefully drawn the blade of her red Swiss army knife across and through the strained rubber. Her skin, what was left of the nail, had come away with the glove, squirting fluid, exposing pulpy black flesh beneath. Deme had seen the wet white of bone.

A heavy, gassy smell had filled the cabin, like old vegetables, bad peaches, faint odor of fresh earth.

A moan from Deme, gagging, covering her mouth.

Lin had bitten her lip, pushing down the scream, had bitten through, tasted fresh blood. Seen her ruined thumb and squeezed her eyes shut again, caught in the undertow of a fresh wave of nausea. Absurd memory then, her father, dead man, kissing a childhood scratch, and she'd laughed, and thrown up on the bed.

Kiss this, Daddy. Kiss this and make it better.

"Mother of God, Lin, what...?" Deme's voice, very frightened now, panic playing tug-of-war with her usual calm.

But Lin was laughing again, laughing around the vomit in her mouth and a tongue that felt swollen.

"Fuck this, Lin. I'm ringing for a medic."

With her good hand, Lin had caught Deme's arm, held it until the laughter had passed, until she'd spit up the last yellow bile onto the sheets.

"No," croaked, her throat burning, and she tightened her grasp on Deme's arm. "No."

Deme, speechless, looking across the room, anywhere but the oozing thing sticking out of its black latex cradle.

"Gangrene?" she asked, brittle, panic pulling calm across the fine chalk line.

Lin shrugged, releasing Deme, and then another glance at her hand. A stringy glob of blackened fat and tendon dropped away, lay beside her leg. A small, greasy stain spread quickly out from it.

"Oh God," Deme whispered, taking an involuntary step away from the bed.

The bit of flesh, freed from the hand, twisted on the sheet, writhed, and then lay still.

The island, selected by the mainframe from one of the larger archipelagos; optimum biodiversity, widest range of geologic features, offshore currents suitable for landing.

The Eleusis had fallen, hurtling through crystal blues and faint cirrus brush strokes, had banked above the middle clouds, and dropped into an opening in the dense cumulonimbus cover. Fighting airsickness, Lin had watched the succession of video monitors set up between the cockpit and the four rows of somaform flight seats. Down, billowing, roiling white, into a thousand shades of gray, deepening finally to the angry indigo of the storm's heart. Her teeth rattling, the turbulence pounding the shuttle, rattling into her bones. Complete darkness, and clean sunlight again. The video had blinked for a moment, crisp static crackle, and then, stretching out beneath, the roughly sickle-shaped curl of green, the ebon fringe of volcanic beaches.

And Lin had realized that she was crying. And that she wasn't the only one.

From the intercom, messages relayed back to the Sumatra, the pilot's voice had sounded strained, and she'd wondered, fleeting, how much danger the storm had put them in. And after the stats she'd only half-understood, after the Sumatra's response, reassurances, congratulations for them. They had cheered, weak with fallshock and excitement, and someone had jangled a noisemaker behind her.

Four kilometers above the glittering sea.

Minutes, and then the seat had tightened about her shoulders and thighs, gentle, automatic strength of the somaform, reminding her of Deme, four hundred miles overhead. Lin had gripped the restraining bar locked across her chest and they had banked again, and rushed over basalt jagged headlands, towering cliffs, a wide, still lagoon, and then the lush canopy of the rain forest. More green than she'd ever dared imagine.

Distant whumph as the maneuvering engines had shut off, sailing above the lava flats, and then more jungle, finally passing over the northern shore of the island and back out to sea. Chutes open and the shuttle had splashed down, hydroplaning, finally nosing in, throwing a wave over the flight deck, drowning a momentary glimpse of sky and sea on the flickering video screens.

Deme raised the tumbler of water to Lin's lips, hand shaking, spilling a little. Lin accepted a sip, tang of chlorine and plastic cutting through the rancid taste in her mouth. She swallowed, opening her eyes, trying to focus on Deme's sweat-streaked face. Deme's broad hand, stubby mechanic's fingers, cradled her head.

When Lin spoke, the sound made her think of rice paper, something crisp and crumbling to dust between careless fingers. If she'd ever heard autumn dry leaves underfoot, she thought, maybe that was the sound.

"Get out of here, Deme." Ground glass swallow. "Get out and seal the cabin. Go to Gorman...tell them to start quarantine."

Deme's dark eyes didn't seem to register what she was saying, looked so scared. She'd never seen her afraid, and it was as wrong as everything else had suddenly become. Behind the fever-muddle, she felt the bond that had held them together for ten years still intact. That, at least.

Deme was shaking her head. "I'm not leaving you here, Lin. I'm gonna call Gorman and get someone in here to help you."

Last strength, last will against the sheen of pain leeching away the world.

"Please, Deme. Please..."

She didn't want to be alone, abandoned to the acid sting coursing through her veins, to the soft buzz digging its way into her mind. And the numbing sense of comfort, of belonging, settling over her like soft, misting rain.

"Please do it, Deme. Just do it."

And she felt her eyes close, no choice, Deme's fear and determination dissolving to the not-quite black behind her lids. She lay still, felt Deme release her head, impossible care, to the pillow, and listened to her lover's footsteps, around and past the bed, to the cabin door.

Sudden whoosh and metal thunk, the secondary door closed and sealed. Airlock activated, internal life support kicking in. Footsteps back, and Deme's voice somewhere in the nothingness, disconnected.

"I'm sorry, Lin. But I couldn't just leave you."

And then Lin let go, dropping like the shuttle, plummeting through her insubstantial despair and anger, into the cold and constant embrace of the pain.

She wondered, now, if she was dreaming, or awake and just remembering in delirium.

The Eleusis rolled gently on the sea.

Gazing up, through the shuttle's observation window at blue sky and something alabaster with gray-tipped wings passing overhead; the burr and clank and clatter as the doors to the payload bay opened, parting its hull and laying bare the ship's heart.

"Deme?" but no one answered her, even though she was sure that Deme was still in the cabin with her somewhere. The others were filing through the hatch into the long tube that ran down to the payload bay and the hydrosail. She thought she could hear, beneath the whir of the doors, the splash and slap of waves. She waited as someone whose name she couldn't recall stepped past, then followed smiling Peter Levesque to the hatch. Last in line.

Peter, over his shoulder, his voice trembling with excitement. "Merveilleux, Lin, completement merveilleux!"

Gazing past him, still hoping to catch sight of Deme in the line.

"Speak English, you dumb frog." And he looked suddenly puzzled, confused by the tone of her voice, not getting the joke. >So fuck him, and she felt angry now, tricked. Peter turned silently away and the line moved forward,

I'm so thirsty, Deme, so thirsty.

into the silver tube and

the splash and slap

She despised the clumsy suits. The tight rubber, the awkward bubble-faced helmets. Levesque was still beside her, checking his suit over as obsessively as the rest, the dials and sensors and pressure acuators.

The hatch to the payload bay, black and red checkerboard diaphragm spiraling open,

splash and

Deme? but she knew it was useless now, her words just clamor inside the helmet, her breath fogging the face plate a little before the dehumidifier clicked on and caught the water vapor, sucked it away into some recess of the suit.

spiraling open and the warm, yellowish mid-morning light washing into the tube,

slap and splash and

and Lin felt immediately cheated, that Deme wasn't here to see, that she was stuck inside this fucking suit. That the air in her helmet had the same sterile, flat taste, as odorless, as the air in the shuttle, the air on the Sumatra. She wanted to smell the salt of this ocean, taste the air.

She stepped out, boots clunking against the deck grill, into the sunlight. Felt its warmth, even through the suit. And stared up at the blazing white disc, arcing toward noon.

To the south, the island, greens and dark shoreline, hint of breakers. North and east and west, the white-capped waves seemed to go on forever. Thunderheads towered above the island.

The crane unfolded itself, swung about, positioning above the hydrosail. FlexSteel pinchers locked into place, lifting the boat up, over the side, lowering it into the choppy water. Peter was still smiling, but now the helmet made his head look like a bulbous skull. He said something else in French, filtered tinny through his audio unit.

She found the switch for her own headset on the back of her right hand, flipped it on, and asked him if he'd seen Deme, if he knew where she was. Peter only grinned and handed her an aluminum and fiberglass case (the biopsy darts, she remembered). She cursed the stupid geologist and turned back to stare at the island.

Eight years and Deme was pissing it away, off fucking around with gears and cogs and Alexis Ullman's goddamned turbine shafts.

The crane released the hydrosail, swung slowly back toward the crew, began loading the larger containers onto the boat. Someone had raised the tall sails, bright as insect wings, and others ran about, testing struts and the shining masts.

I don't want to go, not without Deme. "I'm here, love. I'm right here," and someone was holding her hand, stroking her face, and

I don't ever want to leave.

A narrow gangplank had been lowered, locked into place, and for a moment she was standing between the ships, over the water.

she tried to turn around, see who had spoken

Beneath the waves, silver bodies flashed and darted.

with Deme's firm, soothing voice, but she was being hurried, all but pushed across the gangplank, onto the unsteady deck of the hydrosail. She stood beside the fluttering jib, looking back to the Eleusis, as the boat began to pull away from the shuttle and the payload bay's doors slowly closed themselves up, beetle wings, sealing the fuselage shut again.

Why can't I see you? What's wrong with my eyes?

"Shhh, everything's gonna be jiff. Rest now."

I don't ever want to go back.

Released, the hydrosail began to gain speed, rose up onto its foils, and turned toward the island.

Deme sat, exhaustion and rigid terror, her back against the sealed door. Smoking, watching Lin sleep (coma, is it that, and pushing back the fear), listening to Paganini from the ship's files. She'd asked for Beethoven. There were two guards outside now, and the cabin had been sealed from the corridor.

Gorman, grim (afraid) with his duties, his orders, his gray eyes, had come and gone and would be back. The glass black pupil of the video unit at the other end of the cabin made her unaccountably angry. She considered finding something to drape over the lens, or smashing it to fuck, but then he'd just be back to bitch. He'd be back soon anyway.

She pulled the last drag from her cigarette and stubbed it out on the cabin floor. A few minutes ago (Look at the clock, Deme. It's almost an hour, now.) she'd heard a sound and had imagined that Lin had spoken, but it'd only been the guards outside.

She wouldn't go back to the bed again.

Unless Lin woke up. Maybe then she could.

There was movement beneath the sheets, mattress creak, what might have been a sigh. The air stank, flatulent, something animal gone over and a deeper, verdant rot, mocking the whirring air filters. A ripping sound, like fingers roughly tearing styroglass, like one of Lin's small, sad heads of hydroponic lettuce.

Deme lit another cigarette, pretending that the taste of stale tobacco could mask the truth.

In the dream, in the forest, moving soundlessly beneath the canopy, slipping through the leaf shadow and sun dapple maze. Floating five feet above the softly humming fungal mat that seemed to cover every inch of the forest floor.

It had been a dream, and now, in the fever, it could be real again.

Lin was alone, had silently, at once purposefully and without thought, coasted away from the others in her survey team. Gloved fingers tapped instructions into the directional panels on the armrests of the skidchair, and she tilted a few degrees forward, gaining speed. The boles of trees, like Gothic columns rising up to accept the vaults of some impossible cathedral, built not of stone and mortar but living tissue. Exposed root networks, like flying buttresses.

Like Chartres before the war.

The skidchair purred and vibrated softly.

I never want to go back.

Miles from the black sand shore, deep in the jungle, she found the great tree, the mother of all trees, she thought. Hint of glinting bark, silver and green in the half light, wood skin wrapped almost entirely in the clutch of creepers, violet serpent vines with scarlet thorns the size of hull tacks.

She braked and hovered, letting the chair drift beneath the root arcade. The vines twitched when she passed close, seemed to draw in upon themselves, hugging tightly to the trunk of the tree for protection.

Parasite or symbiote? she absently debated. Perhaps the vines were even seedlings sprouting out of the tree.

Thumb against the pressure tab at her wrist and the glove that protected her hand from the microbes of the new world, protected it from the microbes that had ridden on and inside her body from the old world, popped loose with a faint suck and wheeze as pressure equalized.

And she'd reached out and

never go

stroked the recurved spine of one of the thorns,


her finger moving carelessly up and towards the fish-hooked tip


and the soft pad of her skin snagging, tearing, and a gentle sort of panic as she reflexively jerked her hand away. The thorn had leaked (injected) something oily and green and a drop of it clung to her thumb, mixing with her blood.

Red and green, like Christmas.

And Lin was swallowed in a cold rush of sudden shame and fear and guilt, realizing (stupid, stupid, stupid fucking), watching the blood bead and begin the dribble down her thumb, across her palm. The sticky green sap clung to the wound and her thumb began to itch.

In the bed, wrapped in the sheets, as good as loam, Lin listened. The cabin's ventilators, pumping in fresh air, maintaining a buffer between them and the rest of the ship. Drip and trickle of rain from fat leaves after the brief, violent cloudburst. The endless hum of the Sumatra's engines and the retreating rumble of thunder, all the same now. And all muffled, as though the sound waves were slogging their way through water and blood and rich green sap.


She tried to turn toward the sound of Deme's voice, but her head was heavy, seemed stuck to the pillow.

"What happened down there?"

...and he said that you were a very lucky girl, Lindsey.

Deme was standing by the foot of the bed, staring nowhere, anywhere but at her.

never have to go back, now

When Lin tried to answer, her voice made her think of water again, sound slowed, gurgled. Nothing anyone could have understood.

Deme looked lost, alarm and the need for sleep.

By the pricking of my thumb

And Lin laughed then, a thick, mucky sound, boots sucking against heavy mud.

And Deme asked, "What?"

Shakespeare, Daddy reading, after the hospital and he said that I never had to go back.

She wanted to stop laughing. The sound was ugly and made Deme cringe, the way the vines had at her approach.

It doesn't hurt too much, Deme. It almost doesn't hurt that much at all.

Deme almost turned then, almost looked.

"I'm going back to sit by the door."

That time, she hadn't waited for Lin's response.

Her back still straight against the cabin door, Deme woke up, startled, disoriented, unsure how long she'd dozed. She'd slept with her mouth open and her chin, the collar of her t-shirt, drool soaked.

Something on the bed, and at first she thought that Lin was sitting up, arms wrapped tight around knees, and Deme had blinked, clearing her eyes. On the bed, glistening, slick, bulbous, almost black in the near darkness. The faintest outlines of a human body, half-formed, embryonic trace.

Smooth as simulsilk, cool, a rubbery cable snaking over her hand and she looked down and saw the vines, the writhing purple-green vines covering the floor, wrapping themselves about every fixture, cautiously scaling the walls. Exploring like a blind and desperate women's fingers in an unfamiliar room. And the thorns, the sharp red thorns. Rustle and scrape against the plastic cabin floor.

Deme opened her mouth, but didn't scream. She shook away the vine slithering across her wrist.

The vines had erupted, were growing, from a dozen weeping ruptures in the taut skin of the thing on the bed.

"Lin," and one of the vines twined itself around her bare ankle, digging thorn teeth into her flesh. And the pain, the fire and acid spilling up her leg, and finally, she could scream. The vines recoiled at the sound, flinched, and then tighted their grip.

On the bed, the thing that had been Lin shivered and, chrysalis shell crackling, tearing, ripped itself open, spreading her fibrous arms wide, raising the smooth and faceless head. A spiraling umbilcus, sprouting from between lost shoulder blades to the dripping ceiling, pulled free and flopped loudly to the floor, spurting curdled olive. A fresh growth of vines exploded, spray of blood-green liquid across the wall, from her right shoulder, wriggled toward Deme.

And Deme screamed again.

On the bed, Lin spread her arms, her legs, inviting. Inside she was hollow, and Deme, turning away, clawing for the door, helplessly thought of overripe fruit, pomegranates. Hollow and filled with clinging seeds. Soft, red quivering hairs and seeds and ripe.

She was being pulled back across the floor, the hooks filling her with their poison, their fertile toxins. Deme clawed the floor, caught the leg of the nightstand and flipped it over; muffled clatter of junk across the vine-covered floor.

Hauled up, then, legs first, then hips, onto the slime damp mattress, and Lin was taking her in her arms, taking her inside. Deme heard the voice, like hot Atlantic wind through the expensive artificial palm trees that stood outside their Miami apartment,

never have to leave

whispering inside her head,

love, never

and Deme shut her eyes, as her lover folded itself around her. And the embrace was not cold, not the gelid thing that Deme had expected, brush of those magenta hairs against her cheeks gentle as Lin's touch had ever been.

When the time came, and where the bed had been, restless mass of vines and secretions of restless vines, the thing began to ripple and another papery layer of epidermis sloughed away, fresher blackness underneath, smoother hide or skin or cuticle, scale leaf, and nothing external that could be human now, that ever might have been human. Loud split along the subtle indentation that ran its longitude, labial meridian and faint, uneven hiss as gases inside seeped through the breach. Those lips folding back, and it spilled her out, what had been Deme and still remembered Deme, still felt loss and fear despite her time inside, germination, and for a moment she lay gasping still on the bed of thorns, thorns too dull to tear this new flesh; when she sensed watching eyes and remembered what that meant, she turned all that was left of her head, all that was there now instead, and the spongy honeycomb where her face had been made something legible of reflected light until she understood.

And she who still remembered being Deme pulled herself away from the yawning husk, slipped in cooling uterine slime, thickening juice afterbirth, and plop, heavy to the cabin floor; the voice still inside her, no, please, no , nothing to be shut out or ignored, but dim volition, so she could still act against it. About the unripe swelling of her abdomen the vines, and where legs had been a thousand greedy tendrils noisily drinking in the precious liquids draining from her lovermother, and the cord trailing back inside. you will come back Still something enough like arms, like hands, and she tore herself free, fibrous rip and dark fluid leaking sluggish from the pulpy scar left behind, new omphalos. And the voice was gone. And just the sharp new pain that meant she was alone.

The vines about her waist twining involuntarily, involuntary reaching back, and so she could not drag herself closer to the faces at the cabin window, wide eyes, wide, frightened human eyes, could only struggle against herself. The vines knotting tighter, holding her there fast and the smooth gray domes that had been her breasts strained and burst and more vines rushed back towards the bed, instinctive grasp and the floor too slick to hold onto with nubs that weren't really fingers anymore.

Static crackle somewhere overhead and she realized there had been voices, too, outside voices, like the outside eyes, all along, one man speaking low and steady, reading monotone and forgive us , he said, and amen .

And she heard the pipe metal pop and spray whoosh from the ventilator shafts, spray of liquid hydrogen diverted from the Sumatra's fuel tanks, siphoned mercy, and something Lin had explained once, contingency, extreme contingency against biocontamination. She let the vines have their way, drawing her back inside as winter fell like fog around her, killing winter, and she seeped her sticky resin tears.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer."

--Dylan Thomas

"Persephone" originally appeared in ABERRATIONS #27, March 1995.
Copyright 1995 by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Reprinted by permission.
PROSERPINE by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873-7); DNA graphic by James Blinn and Pat Cole, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Adobe Photoshop montage by Caitlin R. Kiernan (c) 1995

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