Alex screamed for the earthworms. She screamed for the brown promise of their spring wriggling. Once, when she was about ten years old, she had walked into the forests not far from the house she shared with her grandparents, parents and sister. She could still feel the suck of the earth on her rubber boots, the ever-present grind deep inside her knees, the clammy feel of rotten wood as she tore at the earth. She remembered the plank that had locked like a vacuum seal in the dark moor soil. It came up with a sigh, with a stink, and there were brown earthworms between the ghost white root fingers. Earth undulated, like a dragon’s spine, hidden nostrils behind tree stumps. The path was a muddy snake. Dripping leaves glued to branches like vines in Tarzan movies.
The ghost fingers reached out for years, cool and hot, cauldron breath in her bones. She saw snake cousins in the poor worms, the sideways sway, the desire to crawl back undisturbed into the winter soil. Eventually, the plank lid lay discarded. A tremor had rushed up her legs. And there were more eyes. Simon’s eyes. Judgment, dare, and question. Had she been found wanting? That’s how it felt, at least now, in sepia-toned view. She longed, she screamed, she reached for the worms.
Alex awoke, the skin of her legs pricking in the regenerator beam. Pink pajamas cloaked electrodes that lay along the smarting bones. Electricity tickled the creaky globes of knee joints. The capsule of her bed pod rested on quakeproof runners, ready to respond to any seismic activity by dropping a large metal frame around her. If that should happen, she would wake up inside a cage, unharmed, with access to communications and emergency food. Her pod was large enough for two, or for a human and a number of companion animals. Alex had chosen to sleep alone, though, and her occasional human bed companions dreamed in their own pods, far away.
Simon had never been among them. A childhood crush hardly ever survived hormones, puberty and adulthood. But strangely, Alex thought to herself as another jolt of regeneration undulated her leg muscles, Simon kept intruding in her thoughts.
The night lay heavy on the desert, and on the newmetal adobe hut that housed Alex’s pod. Stars rose and fell, and a moon crept bloody on her spherical path.
In the spaceship far above, cruising past Jupiter, Simon laid hands on the joystick, more a remnant of childhood joys than a necessity. Any real course corrections would be done via control, and there really was hardly any way that a pilot could operate the complex array of systems required to escape planetary velocity. Psychological tests had decreed that these old forms of control hardware soothed long-distance pilots and their crews. They were memory objects, honoring old forms of being connected to the world through technology.
His fingertips nuzzled the folds of leather covering the semi-spherical object. He remembered caresses: the loving touch of David, Jason, Dwayne. So many others. Names he did not know. Hands that were not hands, but appendages of other kinds. Simon remembered alien drinking holes on distant planets, the queer nod that set up scenes that went far beyond gender, but ended in the same place: shudder, release, an opening. A moment of his childhood rose up again, insistent for days, ever since he had firmly decided to leave. There had been a girl, a different kind of iris opening, and the world had changed.
Alex stirred into the morning. Fake desert air drifted into the pod as she released the locks. She activated the com unit and checked in on her messages. Coffee hummed soon into completion, vitamin capsules, her exoskeleton clicking into place around her midriff, hips, leg bones. She moved over to the old-fashioned table on the patio and started work.
One e-com was intriguing. Alex stared at the picture that had arrived, no subject line, no written or recorded content, but not spam. It was a worm, brown-red, an alien creature in macro-view, round sucking organ mouth open and grasping, sensory hairs around the opening erect and alert.
Simon willed Alex to understand, to ping back, to find a way. He could not think of another ally, only this childhood friend. Each night for weeks now it had come back to him: the moment in the woods, Alex lost to the edge, him afraid, nearly pissing himself, aware of powers circling around the forest glade with its spring melt. There had been Alex, her hands rubbing, legs in wide trembling stance, eyes wide. Beneath her, the tangle of white and brown, moving, escape velocity. The triumph. Release. The image of her wide mouth was burned into him. If only he could reach her now.
The e-com tracked bizarrely, with way-laying stations all over the galaxy. Alex put her best tracker skills to the task, and lost herself as the graphics began their elaborate dance between stars, fields, amplifier ships and relay drones. Then the computer interface blinked and belled.
She had initiated a crawl of the image’s data itself, to see if there was any other information encoded in the worm image. Now the image scrolled over her com interface, with little squiggles shadowing the previously smooth picture. There were messages, hairline code tangling into the color commands. The computer had already executed the commands necessary to assemble and translate the binary data. A new message assembled, on top of the straining worm head.
“Please come. Earth worm. Remember the plank.”
Alex remembered. The night’s dream rose up again, already plowed under in the sequences of everyday life, but now reinstalled in its vivid colors, smell of fecund earth, crisp air, and Simon’s stare. He had been initiated. That’s what the plank meant here. But what about the worms?
She blinked, and the display shifted back to the tracking software, still tracing the e-com’s parabola across known space. Then it stopped. Alex stared at the read-out. Solar system, Explorer class emigration ship Tiresias, Sender ID: Simon Herflug. Simon from the old forest, on a trajectory far away from poisoned Earth. What did he want from her? She began composing a reply, careful to match the level of security protocols Simon had used – not exactly hard to crack, but requiring specialist tools, enough to escape casual attention. No one was watching too hard.
Simon opened his morning e-coms and bounced on his cot. She had seen it, and replied! With some luck, he could leave knowing that the news was in good hands, and that he could go out with something more like a clear conscience. It might suffice. So he wrote.
Alex, forgive me for disturbing you, after all these years. I am leaving Earth. It’s the final time for me. And on the journey, I recognized what I had been amiss to not lay to rest. The worm and the roots, they are becoming one. I have seen them climb up your legs. I have seen them sink into your limbs. They are moving, now, connecting new orifices in bodies all over old Earth. I don’t know if you ever plan to go back to old Earth. But if you do, look for the worm roots. They are still searching for you. I know: they spoke to me, they called me often, and I was afraid to go back. So it’s my message to you, a coward’s message: you did it then. Can you do it again?
Stunned. Simon, what did you do to me? Alex’s hands kneaded, touched the barely responsive flesh of her legs, then the reassuring cool of the wheelchair’s titanium. Going back to Earth. Back to the last smells of soil and real water, open water, not the red desert of Mars and its rebreather packs. Would she do it? Was it possible? Of course it was.
Alex had already initiated a credit search, measured against current commonly available transport links back to Earth – a rarely used route direction, but one that was being traversed all the time, by the ships that brought fleeing Earth people to the new pod cities on the planets. She could do it. Credits were fine – it was cheaper than she thought. At least one star glider transport company had their hub not far from her childhood home. Alex had no idea what Simon expected her to do – but she had felt the flower of brown-white tendrils tangle like snakes in her mind, itching to get out.
Alex composed an e-com to the chief of the planetary planning committee, as it was to be her turn to present new hydration plans in group tomorrow. The reports were all done and uploaded. Her physical presence was not an absolute necessity. It rarely was, which was good, given that she often wasn’t able to leave her pod at all. She looked at her calendar and dealt with similar smaller issues. All clear. The e-com with the ticket came through just as she finished a message to her sobriety sister, explaining why she wouldn’t be at group, but that she was ok, fine, actually, better than fine for the first time in a long time, with a goal, with a place to go, with a ridiculous but pressing quest. Her side ached, and her toes were frozen like blue ice veins, but she started packing for the 1700 shuttle to the currently deplaning star glider.
Aboard the glider, it was dark and obsidian luster, cushy, but with glints of sharp edges. The authorities had worked out that a journey that evoked womb embrace would lead to a better take-up of new world sensoria upon arrival. Wombs were hardly ever bitingly sharp, of course – but there were also dwindling resources and credit inflation to adjust to.
Wheeling to her belt station on a return journey, rather than an outward journey to the next place, was a weird sensation, and ran counter to all design elements of the glider. Never mind. Alex clicked herself in, initiated the lay-flat feature of her chair, and curled as far as the metal frame would permit. Most of the journey would happen in cyro-sleep. She scooped up the tablet lying ready by her console and adjusted the monitoring cap on her head. Within minutes, she was gone, and didn’t even notice when the back end of the glider closed, shutting out the last remnant of red Mars light. They took off.
Earth light. To Alex, it just felt like the next morning. She was stiff, needed to both piss and drink copious amounts within seconds of waking. She pissed in her chair pod, knowing that the cleansing routine would take care of it. She had no time to get her wheelchair upright and into the bathroom. The electrolyte-balanced drink helped clear her. At the far end of the glider, the ramp had descended, and morning dawn light broke across the metal. No one was around. The crew might still be asleep, apart from the lonely pilot in their capsule. It was a full Earth day before the glider needed to be got ready for the return journey, full with weather emigrants. So Alex collected her stuff, initiated a quick cleanse, and, still dripping, rolled down.
The light broadened, opened. Her childhood light, her dream light, lumens that were unmatched on exo-planets. She started to cry as the light touched her, air touched her, fabric whistling in the wind. There was a copper tang to the air. Something was off, though – as if a hurricane was coming, a light red-shift, barely noticeable.
Alex rolled across the tarmac, through the station, and out the other end toward ground transport. The tenth self-driving taxi was accessible, so she waited patiently till it was her turn. She gave the address. This was the nearest street address she could remember. The small forest itself had no address, no coordinates that she could conjure up. Alex felt silly, impulsive, gliding noiselessly over half-drowned villages, encroachments of salt-laden seas far into the plains of middle Europe. She felt reasonably confident that her childhood village was still on maps, otherwise the sat nav would have informed her otherwise. About 60 feet above the water-logged strata of old Germany and old Netherland, her taxi flew at medium speed. ETA 24 minutes. Alex stretched, and gazed out at the level horizon.
Eventually, the taxi glided to a halt, opened. The red laser light played across her fingertips as she paid up, then left. She was on solid land, on a road. Around her, houses stood alert and awake, even though it wasn’t yet 7am local time. Windows blazed over soggy front gardens, lawns long replaced by rain gardens or sandscapes. To her left, Alex saw the dark fringe of the old forest. It was still there. She wheeled forward.
“Alex. I knew you’d come back.”
Alex stopped, wheeled about. She stared. “Foerster.” She needn’t say more, the tone full of repulse as well as nostalgia. Forester, gatekeeper, old man, leech.
“I know, I know. Water under the bridge, Alex. Sorry for the old days. I got a bit slower.”
Alex remembered. It had been normal then, the casual violence, sexual harassment, locker-room talk. Those days were gone, and Foerster must have gone through re-education, given that he was still around and walking freely. She looked for the bulge of an electronic collar around his ankles, found no sign. He stood firm, a walking stick by his side.
“Hey. How is the neighborhood?”
“The same. More and more are leaving. The sun hasn’t really been out for 12 years now. Waterlogged. Berlin and Bonn are no help, nor is Strasbourg. It’s gone to hell. Where do you live now?”
Alex talked briefly about Mars. They described the land changes they’ve lived through: a red sun-up on desert land. The shimmering line of a horizon that is water in water. Heat. Drizzle. Decay, in their different forms. They enjoyed the exchange, an old anchor. Long old stories not exactly forgotten, but laid aside for the sake of finding a spindle, a single sharp moment in the past with which to spear the present.
“How did you know I’d come back?”
“Didn’t Simon tell you? The worms are calling for you. Can’t you hear them? They are calling you now. We, the old ones, are no good to them.”
Foerster stood silent. Alex stared. The edges of the man began to swim, to shift. Was he really there? The light crept up, still not really sunlight, oyster color, luminous grey. It shone through the old man. A breath. He was gone.
Alex’s fingers were icy on the wheelchair controllers. She wheeled away toward the forest’s dark edges, and their black watercolor light.
It was near noon when she arrived. The forest was thinner and smaller than she remembered. She had to navigate multiple pools and small streams, find ways to measure for depth to ensure that her wheels wouldn’t wet to the electronic hubs. So it took a while, even with the rugged all-terrain wheel set. She nearly got stuck on the path’s grave-dark soil. The frangible stuff first clung lightly, then packed and caked to everything.
Eventually she found what she thought was the old plank: a rectangular ghost of matter, fungoid silver.
She could hear them now. There was singing here. There was movement, shifting, delay and echo. She wedged one nerveless foot under the edge of what was left, and heaved with her arms and upper back.
The worm was a river in the earth. Its back looked like what she imagined an alligator’s skin would look like up close: dikes and canals, patches, all glowing orange and white in the wet afternoon light. Its girth was larger than her waist. It moved, gently, as it pulsed earth through its innards, winnowing and conditioning. The hint of translucency brought her an image of a dark vein of soil.
The worm didn’t seem to notice her. It was alive, despite the earth’s poison. Her titanium wheels felt clumsy next to the articulating segments of its broad length. She contemplated touching it, but decided against it, didn’t wish to become aware of its temperature, the cold-blooded lack of differential. This had never been her, even as the worm’s ancestors, or maybe sisters, had found their way in. The worm was transforming the metal poisons, Alex knew in her bones.
What was she to do here? What did this massive worm want from her – guarding a golden, lead, or mercury horde deep by the river’s bottom? Was it inviting her to dance in attendance in dark wells? All very unlikely, laughable, no good to a drowning world.
Alex was cold. But she wasn’t giving up. Simon might have been a dreamer, but he was no fool. She couldn’t think about Foerster. So she investigated around the worm’s pulsing presence. Soon, she found a second weaving, another source of movement, less strong, less grand. It had escaped her, at first, in the giant swelling worm dance. At the edges of the worm’s embedment in the earth, white-brown roots formed their own rhythm, a dance that was half complex weft, and half actual movement, an ultra-slow breathing, plant triple-time.
This was her interlocutor, the plant worm that had called, not the ancient giant sucker. Alex stemmed herself up from her chair and then lowered down to the soil. The sucking pipeline didn’t shift rhythm or otherwise indicated interest. The root worms, though, they knew. They hove up. One rootlet at a time. A worm’s sensory organ’s grasp upward. A dance in the pattern of a mimosa’s leaf uncurling. It came. They came. Alex lay, arranged her legs next to the gap in the earth, her torso outstretched so her face was near the root strands.
She welcomed them. Opening. Mouth open, zippers undone. Cool. Moisture. A squelch as she shifted into a more comfortable position. Around her, skin breathed. Her own skin shifted spectral color, darker, lighter, violet spectrum, brown, purple. Mushrooms drifted spores, spores so long extinct in so many sites of Old Earth. The waiting rootworms had held on to these tiny black dots, and unclasped the spores from thin mantles wrapped around their writhing lengths. The spores entered Alex, in multiple sites, and her eyes color-shifted, too, a deep blue shining upward.
The giant worm next to her in the earth felt it, shifted infinitesimally. It unleashed new young ones, new root graspers that melded with and opened Alex. Code flowed. Nerve and metal knit, blood and plasma. New sensations climbed up from blue toes. The back of knees signaled in. The back of a mountain range answered. The moon sent Morse-codes full of gravitational pulls. Alex’s liver felt them, and responded, giving up its meld-information, beeping back secrets to plant mitochondria. She noted ice under her soles, individual crystals first burrowing toward, then breaking into her flesh. They rocked themselves into her, she into them. She breathed with them.
Slow, equalizing, ice and heat and rain and the slow tilt of a sun’s axis. They laid there, entwined, till the sun broke through above Alex, the worm, the nest of weaving tendrils, creatures, rootworms. The sun warmed her, offered a new surface against which to assemble. Eventually, seeds safely deposited, the rootlets withdrew from orifices they had so tenderly explored.
Alex sat up, hand reaching for her wheelchair. The metal had warmed under the late afternoon sun, an orange-red ball so long unseen in these latitudes. She used a combination of strong hands and numb feet to find enough leverage to pull the plank back over the forest worm bed. The sun might do damage, withdraw too much water. This was better.
Alex shifted back in her seat, turned her chariot, and wheeled downward, her nose open to the mold smell of fertile soils and decaying leaves. What had been unraveled was knitting together again. The sun kissed her face, and a mercury tear ran down her cheek.
This story was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 16.