cw: some mild disturbing imagery, discussion of death.
The Meatball, as some would come to refer to it, had contracted the disease. It could no longer be denied. The electrical readings from its surface were wholly conclusive – at least, as ‘wholly’ as the Partials would ever acknowledge. Worse; its pulsating, rippling surface was responding to the researchers in an increasingly hostile manner. Providing it with such frequent stimuli – Part Croni often speculated – might have even accelerated its process of evolution. Where once the orb of heaving flesh greeted their probes with gentle shimmers, it now more often shrank back, bulged forth, and attempted to swallow the instruments outright (exhibiting unseemly levels of strategy and precision). This, too, was likely a symptom of the disease’s inevitable onset.
From the open-air meeting room that housed the Partials’ rotational council, five of them stood silently, watching the pale red blob in the sky through their vertical half-masks. Part Croni, currently in Head Position, made the call.
“Part One’s defences are–”
“Inadequate for,” came the murmured responses, with an “Inadequate to” mixed in.
“Protection from the Fleshmorph in,” Croni continued, exploiting their traditional Head Position privilege to chain a slightly longer segment.
“The event of…”
“Its approach to the city.”
Another dense silence fell over the council. They looked to each other, seeking agreement and assent in the visible portions of their colleagues’ faces, ignoring the frozen silver frown of the half-masks. The Fleshmorph loomed just beyond the upper atmosphere, ever more urgent, a sniper’s dot suspended in space.
Croni re-initiated. “The cure must–”
“Be administered,” the others intoned.
“With immediacy, and a sealed motion.” A couple of the less experienced councillors swallowed, but none dissented. One, however – Part Nade, the stately old figure currently in Vice Position – muttered their usual grave prayer. “May the Void…”
A couple of nervous voices added, “Have mercy.”
“Have mercy on us all,” Croni firmly concluded. It was never easy, going against everything you believed in, but – as all councillors quickly learnt – the time frequently came when it had to be done. Part One’s exposed position, the disc suspended high above the surface of Phusis, simply made it too vulnerable to not have some kind of arrangement in place.
It would be far worse if they actually had to carry out the sad business themselves. Fortunately, the segment wasn’t without a few free hands. People who, unlike the Partials, were more than happy to cure anyone or anything of sentience.
An eyepiece stared at them. A central circular lens, rimmed with steel, was exposed at the front; lurking spectrally in the dark behind the glass was a stereoscopic framework of further lenses, which fed visual information directly to the eyeholes of the wearer. All of this was housed in a dull rectangular case akin to a particularly thick diving mask. The frontal lens, protruding telescopically, twitched.
Thus did the council’s guest regard them each, one-by-one, as they sat along the flat edge of the semicircular chamber. She herself was perched at the apex of its arc – directly opposite the chair of the Head Position, and marginally closer to it than to the other four – in the visitor’s seat, a featureless silver mound which leant backwards as if urging its occupant to look up at her conversational partners.
Kavayanna ‘Voideye’ Thorne was not in the habit of being prompted to look at anyone. She would look when she pleased, and when she did, it would be more closely than anybody else felt comfortable with.
Nor was she in the habit of being looked at. Her bulky eye gear had the desired effect of obscuring her own features, making her read less as human and more as scenery. Rooms like this one suited her aesthetic. The shadow-muffled walls were blacker than her shirt, which itself was a slight shade blacker than her own skin, and Voideye’s piloting career had often attested to the maxim that invisibility was a form of power – as much in combat as in getting a price.
The council, all facing sideways so that only their half-masks were on display, ceased their shuffling. In the stillness, the Head finally opened the discussion.
“See you the Fleshmorph?”
Voideye gritted her teeth. She’d momentarily forgotten they had this obnoxious way of talking. “That’s the blob thing, right?”
“Know you its nature?”
“Looks like someone emptied a morgue into a giant blender.”
The councillors fidgeted again, possibly out of discomfort, or possibly because they were trying to co-ordinate one of their group sentences.
“Over many years…” began the Head. The others started to chime in, batting the message around in a somewhat rehearsed fashion. “Discarded organic material.” – “Products of experiments.” – “From old worlds.” – “Floating in space.” The sentence flew back over to the Head. “Amid the Dead Wastes.”
The name of the legendary corpse-dumping field caught Voideye’s attention. The area of rock-dotted space, some eight cubic megametres in size, tended to only contain waves upon drifting waves of discarded bodies. People generally didn’t pass through unless they dearly wished to witness the slow dance of a cadaver in zero-gravity, or of course if they dearly wished to dispose of one.
Still, following the council’s fragmented mode of delivery proved distractingly difficult. “Snowballing,” they continued. “Accumulating.” – “Feeding on the substances.” – “A growing entity.” – “Erosion and radiation.” – “Slowly evolving.”
“Wait up,” Voideye cut in. “You telling me that thing’s alive?”
It took a moment for a response to arrive, which threw her off. The half-masks – happy ones, donned for the sake of guests – stared in grinning, empty-eyed silence. One of the side councillors eventually spoke, not without a slight tremble in the tones. “Worse.”
“Studies have been in progress,” intervened the Head.
“Analysing its development.”
“It grows hostile.”
“Worse,” said the one councillor again.
A weary in-drawing of breath sounded from behind the Head’s mask. “It grows self-aware.”
“Oh. Now I get it,” realised Voideye, not without amusement. “That’s the part you guys don’t like.” The Partials’ idiosyncrasies were common knowledge, but not always easy to fully comprehend. This was the third time they’d called on her services now, and she was still picking it up as she went along.
The council was unruffled. “Do you understand?”
“…I guess. Is it dangerous?”
“Shortly.” – “Can you provide?”
“I can kill it.”
That did the trick. An orchestra tuning session of indignant huffs, rustling robes and even a whimper of horror filled the air. The Head shot up a silencing hand, and when quiet had finally fallen, patiently resumed. “Can you cure it?”
“Of what? Being alive?”
“Not of what we treasure.” – “Of that which plagues us.”
“So…” Voideye sucked at her lower lip. “Just braindead.”
The Head straightened in their seat, belying no hesitancy. The reply was businesslike. “Nearest possible equivalent.”
Making it look casual, Voideye leaned forward in her chair, surreptitiously fixing her zoom lens on the Head to study their body language. “Wouldn’t it be safer if we just obliterated the whole thing?”
“We seek to minimise…” – “Violations of our creed.”
It still occasionally stunned her that these guys were actually serious. “That’s how you live with yourselves, huh?”
The snark bounced off, repelled by the masks. “Can you provide?”
Minimise wasn’t her favourite word, since it reduced the potential amount she could get for her and Sil’s services, but Voideye wasn’t about to let them off easily. “We’re talking fifty-plus percent tissue destruction.” Now she leant back in the seat again, crossing her arms just to ram home how indulgently she was mulling this over. “That’s one thick bitch up there. Might take us through at least five fuel tanks…depending on surface density, it may need a missile…” She reckoned they’d cave in another moment or two. “Hmmm.”
The offer came. “5 billion glyphs.”
Automatically she sucked in a pitying breath, though behind her eyepiece she was beaming. Without missing a beat that might betray her bullshit, she shot back, “Gonna need 7.”
“Maintenance.” – “Accommodation.” – “Free of charge.” – “5 billion.”
Voideye wouldn’t usually try to milk anyone quite this gratuitously, but she knew the Partials were a pretty desperate lot when it came to maintaining their belief system. Time to bring out the stick. “You want a more affordable service, there’s always the Fays.”
Not even the Head could entirely stifle a full-body grimace at the name of the infamous crime family. Nobody wanted to become another of their horror stories. Of course, there probably were other removal outfits in the segment who would provide a better rate than Voideye and Sil, but strategically mentioning the Fays helped blot that out of the consciousness.
After another moment of curmudgeonly shuffling, the offer returned. “All stated expenses plus usage…” – “Of the–” One of the councillors was clearly too galled by the direction of this sentence to continue, so another picked it up. “Part One proxy…” – “For positional masking.” – “5.5 billion,” rounded off the Head.
“Hmmmm…” Voideye crossed one leg over the other. She was now fully folded.
“Accept you the offer?”
She was hoping for 6, but access to a colony proxy service was a gift horse Voideye wasn’t about to inspect the mouth of. “Friends.” A smile finally curled its way onto her face. “5.5 billion. Consider it a loyalty discount for sticking with Ghostpoint Removals.”
One of the side councillors suddenly piped up. “We were warned.”
“By past members,” added another.
Voideye blinked, though nobody saw it. Her telescopic lens swivelled round to look at the speakers in high definition. “About the meatball?”
The half-masks smiled bitterly.
The Meatball hung directly above the disc, insistently approaching at one metre per second. It briefly crossed the line of light from the nearest sun.
Below, the citizens of Part One continued in conscious ignorance – a society forever aware, by design, that it lacked the full picture. In the skies, a flesh meteor sought them out.
It was sought out in turn by the Remnant‘s on-board computer, constantly orienting Ghostpoint Removals’ tiny, brutalist vessel to stay trained on its target. The navigation headset hung empty at the cockpit end, at the centre of a moveable framework, waiting for its user to float up and attach her face to it. They were pointed directly at the Meatball, dead centre in the frame of the frontal window.
Over at the tail end of the ship, past thickly wound pipes and furious engines, Voideye and the metallic spider named Silt Gajjar (though she preferred ‘Sil’) finished loading supplementary fuel tanks. With the spare legs on her eight-limbed mobility frame, Sil dangled several towels and fans for the both of them.
“Please, Kav,” she purred. “One more barrel.”
“I’m not gonna say yes just ’cause you ask nicely.”
“But it’s such a waste! Why would you only half-kill something?” Still antsy, Sil angled her upper body into the path of the nearest fan, letting the cool air flap through her vest and skim her scalp. “Especially something so bloody ugly. Imagine how satisfying it would feel to eviscerate that monstrosity, pop that pimple–”
“–watch it disintegrate into a hundred-thousand crisping fragments–”
“Sil, honey, I get it–”
“–and if we’re going to use this many tanks anyway, I mean, why not just go the whole–”
“Sil, think about what we can do with a free proxy. If you can get through this one job – just stay perched for like 20 minutes – I promise, first thing we do when we get out of here is go shoot down some tax havens.”
Derailed mid-fantasy, Sil’s thoughts regained track upon this new idea. The notion of reducing some of the ruling class’s floating, extraterratorial glyph servers to rings of scorched space junk – free of consequence – tickled her, as a rub under the chin might a vain feline, and her expression softened likewise. “You mean it?”
“Swear on the void.”
Sil closed the fuel hatch.
No point in delaying any further. Smartly, Voideye propelled herself missile-like up to the head of the Remnant, floating through the microgravity until her face was almost level with the navigation headset. She reached up and pulled it firmly onto her face, where it attached itself in a similar way to her other eyepieces – like each of them, refocusing the often fuzzy world around her into a heightened, searing clarity.
The heads-up display slid in to crowd the edges of her vision, and the targeting systems of the ship became attuned to the movements of her eyeballs.
As she sank towards the ship’s floor, into the reclining pilot’s seat, she re-entered the same mental zone in which she’d once flown straight through Mount Crepuscula mid-eruption; in which she’d once sniped the engines off a battalion of false memory-ships in the closing salvos of the Third History War. All that existed was the mutable space between her target and the tiny point of consciousness peering out from the fortress of her skull.
The target itself, the falling orb of greyish-red viscera, didn’t make for a particularly engaging opponent. But then, none of Ghostpoint’s jobs were pushing Voideye to the extent of her abilities. This was a peacetime operation, a way of prodding the psychological embers of past glories. The last couple of times they’d been requested by the weaponless Partials, it was for clearing out a few hunks of space debris on uncomfortable trajectories. This was fundamentally no different.
She lined the Meatball up with a tiny twitch of her eyes, lost in saccadic masking. The ship’s military-strength and technically-illegal laser trained itself, simultaneously, on the plump sphere.
The sound of Sil’s spider frame clanking on the walls and floor as it carried her up the interior of the ship, leg by jointed leg, signalled that preparations were complete and she was now up here to watch. “It’s all yours, Kav. Unleash hell.”
“‘S not like it’s gonna feel anything.” Beneath the mask occupying the better part of Voideye’s face, a frown formed. “They made out like it was alive but, girl, fucking look at it.”
“It is rather taciturn.”
“Serving severed appendix.”
“All the more reason to watch it burn. So have at it.”
The plan was, more or less, to destroy enough of the sphere so that its evolved higher functions would cease – and it would be reduced to its earlier alive-but-unthinking state. It was all very simple.
In which case, why wasn’t she firing?
Her left hand gripped a wireless remote, the fire trigger fitted with a reflex cancel notch in case of misfires. One firm press and the laser would begin boiling away the layers of meat.
“Kav? Shoot it.”
The rippling, raw skinless flesh. Across its surfaces, throbs of what might have been blood could almost be seen tracking erratic journeys beneath the outermost layer.
“Come on, vaporise that giant turd!”
“I’m just about to.”
It was as though the sphere was physically entering her perception itself. The shape of it. Filtered through the normalising lenses of the navigation headset, space began to deform, curving itself around the edges of the orb, until the object itself reached a perfect stillness in the centre of time—
“What the hell are you waiting for? I want to see fireworks.”
Dread, sheer dread, clambered from the base of Voideye’s guts all the way up her oesophagus with the thrashing limbs of a swamp beast. As she stared into the depths of the Meatball, a shotgun spray of hideous thoughts from the subconscious pierced the curtain of her waking mind. Words falling over themselves in a stampede to escape the furnace. Cut-up images – from the war; a wall of faces, a man torn inside out, the numb hand emerging from the remains, the ones ejected from the airlock–
“More to the point, it’s just ugly, and I’m ready for it to be removed from existence.”
“Silt. Stop talking.”
“Just- just wait. I’m–”
For every second longer she looked at the Meatball, the dread invaded her brain more deeply. Something was wrong. Something was unfixably wrong, broken to such a extent that it broke everything else by association.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t panic. She didn’t suffer on the job.
Voideye blinked. Her finger had pushed the trigger to the cancel notch.
“Kav…it’s going to get out of range. Any longer and we’ll have to reposition.” Sil’s voice was soft now, if not entirely stripped of bloodlust. “Are you…are you okay?”
Get rid of it. Get rid of it now.
The laser was immediately visible as a spot of furious light on the surface of the Meatball. Its destructive effect was apparent after roughly twenty seconds; the flesh began to blacken, a burn spreading slowly outwards.
Inside the Remnant, the heat generated by the power use was steadily cooking its two inhabitants, though that was normal and the inhabitants were already dressed for it. The fire danced on the film of Silt Gajjar’s eyes, the pleasure of the purge alive in her carnivorous centres.
Sweat threaded itself between Kavayanna’s eyes and nose, racing to her chin. It wasn’t enough. It still wasn’t gone. Time was shrinking, there in the cockpit; stretching out, blending into a viscous soup; but the Meatball still lay in space, its outer layers softened now, then becoming brittle – burning but not quickly enough.
For Sil, this brought only further excitement. “Time for the missile?” she called above the unrepentant buzz of the laser.
Voideye swallowed, pulled back to reality by her partner’s voice. “Load it up.” Her vision was still occupied entirely by the burning Meatball, the icon of anxiety that shriveled before her. A missile. Yes. That would finish this.
Her ears intercepted the clicks of Sil’s fingers on control panels, and the rhythmic tap of her metallic legs as she moved across to engage the firing mechanism. “Sil, you ready?”
“Now who’s impatient? Just three more seconds…”
Burn. Burn. Please burn.
The thud of the missile locking into place at the side of the ship gave Voideye the signal. Immediately she thumbed open the cover on a small, stiff button at the top of the remote, and slammed the button down.
The missile, a Shaman-924, was designed to avoid the hazards of shrapnel inertia in a vacuum blast by incinerating itself entirely upon impact. It did so. A dome of fire ballooned out from the point of impact, briefly masking the Meatball altogether.
Voideye disengaged the laser, and there was quiet. Too hurriedly she yanked her head out of the headset, her everyday damaged vision returning, in a manner that felt like a relief from having to watch.
Sil hovered at her shoulder, waiting eagerly for the blast to clear. “Still kind of a shame we can’t totally wipe it,” she mused, “but I bet we’ve left one motherfucker of a wreckage.”
No answer came. Voideye looked at the blurry image beyond the frontal window, and realised that something wasn’t in order.
Around the radius of the explosion, weren’t there more tiny fragments spread around than there really ought to have been? Weren’t they moving in the wrong way?
Sil’s hand on Voideye’s shoulder suddenly tensed up. “Wait…what?”
Against her desires but to the tune of her instincts, Voideye thrust herself back into the navigation headset just in time to see the remainder of the explosion dissipate entirely, revealing what their missile had made of the Meatball. “Hell’s fucking teeth,” she breathed.
An enormous hole had been carved into the surface, but that wasn’t the important detail. Spread out through the space, flying in many directions – some falling towards Phusis, some soaring away with the momentum of their detachment from the main organism – were small, independent blobs of flesh. Each one looked like a miniature Meatball in itself.
And more of them were coming. Many.
They were spilling out of the hole where the missile had impacted.
She’d done this? She’d set this loose? “No. No, no. This ain’t happening.”
“Kav,” urged Sil, “we need to move. Now.”
There was a thump. Voideye yanked her head free again and fumbled at the wall for one of her other eyepieces, slapping on the nearest one to examine the source of the sound.
One of the smaller entities, perhaps four feet in diameter, had attached itself to the front window of the Remnant. It was affixed there by its own ooze, an enormous gory obstruction.
Sil wandered, transfixed, towards the quartz glass. “Now what in history’s name could you be?”
Voideye stared at it for three seconds, then launched herself down to the middle of the ship for a bag of whatever was currently the strongest drink in the cooler.
Before she could bring the straw to her lips, a sound came from the window.
A vibration transmitted through the glass.
Meanwhile, the rotational council looked on as the tiny, subordinate Fleshmorphs rained down on the city of Part One. Even their half-masks failed to suppress their looks of horror, enough for two faces in each case.
Part Nade – moved beyond adherence to the partial-sentence rule – wheezed an old, forgotten plea to long-ignored gods. “Forgive us, Umylxlymu, for taking too greedily of your strength. Forgive us, Fl’Nurgath, for forgetting that destruction is also creation. Spare us, Glrreag’gh, in the wings of your endless entropic spread. Redeem us, Ashkzt, in the final state of equality.” Nobody reacted to this heresy.
“What…” someone began.
“…What…” someone else began again, sentence fragments lost in midair without continuation.
One of the growths fell through the open roof and smacked down directly onto the carpeted floor of the meeting-room. The councillors backed away, yelping.
For a long moment it stayed in place, like some beached sea creature. No-one moved, fearing that even the slightest disturbance might provoke some unknown, beastly response from the thing. Its rippling surface was all that stirred.
Finally – and it did indeed, feel final – from somewhere within the blob, there was a deep, slow, but unmistakable whine. Not quite mammalian, it sounded more akin to the whistle of air pumped carelessly through greasy tubes. The councillors looked to each other, dreading the worst.
And the worst did come.
The whine began to modulate, vary, elongate and contract.
Not simply sounds.
“We’re too late,” Part Croni tersely declared.
The others were silent.
“It’s gone terminal.”
Voideye, like anybody who’d had enough cause to interact with the Partials, grasped their ideology to a certain extent. She could offer a potted summary of the basics – they believed that the human tendency to construct an internal reality was a dangerous foible, and most crucially, that sentience itself was a curse. In the pursuit of mitigating the effects of that enchantment, they built their society around a religious worship of incompleteness – the idea that no one person could ever contain a whole truth, and that they needed to forever be reaching out for connection.
It informed how they talked to each other; a call-and-response game resulting in mutually zig-zagging conversations. It dictated how they dressed – while each citizen was free to do it in their own way, everyone was expected to cover up part of their face (the tendency for face-reading in the old worlds was, according to the Partials, the source of much needless suffering). It manifested in how they structured their buildings, how they designed their cities, how they created their art (it was generally looked down upon for a book to have fewer than three authors).
But it still wasn’t quite clear to her what they meant by this newest piece of terminology. “Sorry, did you just say terminal sentience?”
The scientist, shifting his weight from foot to foot, peered at her nervously from behind enormous glass goggles. The lower half of his face was wrapped entirely in a black surgical mask, but his eyes told enough of a story. “Need you an explanation?”
“Uh, yeah, if that’s not a problem.”
Voideye and Sil faced their host in the middle of a wide, pale corridor in the Part One Thought Laboratory. The ceiling was glass, and the view of space gave the whole building an uneasy sense of being ready to fling itself into orbit.
They were waiting to hear about these blobs – the Lesser Flesh, as they were being called – and if there was any easy way to get rid of the several which had attached themselves to the ship.
The scientist was clearly struggling to figure out how to steer the conversation without a fellow Partial to back him up. “Know you language?”
“More or less, yes,” answered Sil, who’d switched to a less threatening out-and-about frame with only four legs.
“Sil, you’re supposed to give them something back.” Voideye was more accustomed to this than her partner. “We do speak internally, if you mean like an inner monologue.”
That seemed to relax the scientist a little. “But before language…what?”
“Before language…? You mean when we were babies? I dunno, I guess we just didn’t think that much.”
“But still sentient?”
“As sentient as a shitting, screaming bag of bones is ever gonna be.”
“So after language…” The scientist made a little gesture, slightly patronising, as if encouraging Voideye to complete the chain of logic.
She did. Again her eyepiece masked the surprise. “Huh. Okay, I get it. Like the difference between cancer and terminal cancer. We start out with sentience…and then we get language, and I guess that’s terminal sentience?”
A faint trace of a smile was evident in the curving beneath the Partial’s eyes, and he nodded politely. “Linguistic reconstruction underway.”
Eventually two figures emerged from a door a few metres along the corridor, both appearing extremely troubled. One was the current council Head Position, Part Croni, and the other wore an elaborate piece of wire-draped headgear marking them out as the Linguistic Reconstruction Operative.
Voideye wasted no time, and strode up to confront them immediately. “Alright, we’ve been waiting here for two hours. What do these freaks want?”
The Head and the LRO looked to each other, without much confidence. Through her eyepiece, Voideye studied the elaborate arrangement of equipment on the LRO’s cranium – part of a set of devices which, she’d surmised, the Partials had developed to help them map and translate the linguistic patterns of other life forms. That was what all this rigmarole was for.
“We have identified,” began the Head.
The LRO picked up immediately. “Evidence of terminality.”
“We have mapped…”
“Basic conceptual range.”
“A simplistic vocabulary form.”
Even the words made Voideye’s insides heave slightly. In her mind, there was an image of the Meatball as an inanimate, dead thing, a nameless mass. It was being violently intercut with a new image, that of the mass teeming with language – infected by it; an active, hellish brain. She felt, in her bones, that concepts and meaning did not belong in that corpse-like pustule. But then, what made it any different from a human brain in that regard? (Ugly thought. She suppressed it.) “So, what…is this some kind of endangered new species now? Do we have to fill in a form? Am I gonna be in trouble if I just go at the little shits with a flamethrower?”
“Let’s not jump the gun here,” Sil interjected, trying and failing to mask her unease with breeziness. “Plants, insects, they have languages of a kind, and nobody loses sleep over a few of those getting smushed. These beings are just balls of garbage that’ve been left to cook for a very long time. The last thing I expect to come out of this is any paperwork.”
The Head was eyeing her with some bemusement. “You speak much.”
“Without listening,” added the LRO.
“Thus stay lost longer.”
Sil’s mouth opened and closed, struck silent by the sudden sass. She shot Voideye an incredulous look of do something but her friend, business partner, and sometime-lover didn’t have the usual saving throw in her verbal arsenal today – she looked, indeed, lost. Most wouldn’t be able to tell, but Sil had long learnt to spot all of Voideye’s expressions from behind her various masks. She’d only ever witnessed this particular one twice before.
The two Partials took the silence as an opportunity to continue, with the Head in the lead. “The mystery of sentience.” – “Reproduced in miniature.” – “Few in influences.” – “A scientific miracle.” – “A chance to study…” – “The nature…” – “Of our condition. You see?”
Both unsettled now, the two women just nodded.
“The designs,” – “and possibly desires,” – “of the Lesser Flesh,” – “may provide insight,” – “into the diseases,” – “which afflict,” – “all of us. Tainted,” – “though it may be,” – “in a sense, it is also pure.”
“That’s…poetic,” Voideye just about managed. “So what, you going to keep them as pets? Lab rats?”
The Head’s expression tightened a fraction. “Our findings suggest,” – “perhaps not.”
Echoes of that moment in the ship, that radiation of dread from the Meatball, were pawing to escape from her lips. “So you can tell too, right? There’s something that feels wrong about all this, like they’ve gotta be a…health hazard, or something.”
“Nothing quite so abstract, but…” – “they do pose,” – “a certain problem.”
“A certain problem?” Sil was agape. “They’re oozing all over your city. Even if they don’t try and kill you, realistically you’ll have to destroy them.”
The Head issued a relatively rare one-phrase, full-stopped sentence. “Out of the question.”
“Oh, excuse me – you’ll secretly hire somebody else to destroy them and then pretend it didn’t happen, yes?”
“To extinguish the life,” – “of a sentient being…” – “a new life form, no less,” – “would be…” – “unforgivable.”
“Okay, this is what I don’t get about you people.” She advanced on the two Partials, arms folded, spider-limbs clicking. “You hate consciousness. You hate the bit of us that’s actually alive, you think it’s broken or whatever – how can you be squeamish about hurting and killing? Wouldn’t you prefer it if things died? Hell, what’s stopping you killing yourselves?”
“You should understand,” began the Head, although the LRO seemed stumped for a continuation, so the Head had to pick up their own sentence. “You both adapt your bodies…”
At this, the LRO caught the gist, and gestured to both Sil’s frame and Voideye’s eyewear. “With tools.”
“You neither destroy nor replace…” – “your own bodies,” – “nor would you have others…” – “remove your choice.”
Sil squinted at their obviously non-augmented figures. “I don’t think you’re really qualified to comment.”
“Our blemishes are sacred,” – “are they not?” – “For being part of us.”
Voideye could tell that Sil was more bitter about not getting to roast the entire Meatball than anything else. For her own part, she had deeper concerns. It’d been her finger on that trigger. “If you’d told us to totally destroy it, this would never have happened. You already ‘violated your creed’, you just couldn’t commit to doing it right. You hired us in the first place because you didn’t want that thing to kill you; what’s the point if you all drown under its…I dunno, its babies?”
“Terminal sentience allows,” – “for attempts,” – “at communication.” – “Reasoning.”
She could feel her breaths getting gradually shallower. A tension rising near her heart. “And what’s it saying?”
The two Partials exchanged another furtive glance.
“Go on. These lesser meatballs, growing in there for – shit, however long – what’re their bright ideas now they’re facing the outside world, hmm?” Only one thing might have given away the wideness with which Voideye’s eyes now stared at the masked figures – the automatic lengthening of the frontal telescopic lens, reaching out to its limit as her eyelids strained away from each other.
This time, the LRO spoke up first, grim-faced. “One word so far.”
“Repeatedly,” added the Head.
“Over and over.”
“Screamed, with some force.”
“At our every stimulus.”
Sil had felt, for most of this conversation, as if there was something going on that everyone but herself was party to. Only now, at this new information, did she begin to feel herself being infected by Kavayanna’s peculiar unspoken fear, transmitted in waves of body language like the tiniest vibrations.
Ever since they were about to shoot the Meatball, something had been off about Kav. The infamous Voideye was not one to discuss her vulnerabilities, but she appeared plagued by something she’d seen, or felt. As if merely staring down that entity had caused her to make some connection, or access some strand of meaning, that she didn’t want to face. All of a sudden, Sil felt that whatever it might have been, they were quite possibly about to face it now.
The limbs of her frame folded, lowering her enough so that she could brusquely take Kav’s hand in her own without seeming too sentimental. “What was the word?”
The Head’s half-face smiled to match their half-mask, sadly yet smugly, as though every painful expectation they’d ever had was confirmed.