The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One

They are cutting you out of me, these creatures in their sealed white suits. Piece by piece their knives and curiosity are divorcing the gifts you have given me from the gifts I have prepared for you. Gone is the eye that gazed out over the cyan–purple sunset on Taurus 4. Severed are the muscles of the forearm which sculpted your old flesh into masterpieces. A gap yawns where once was the tongue that tasted your rich adventures.

My lips are dry and cracked. I cannot lick them.

The younger one wields the knife today. His name is Marjan and his golden–toned flesh looks about 20 years old, in the way terrestrians count their age. My forearm, the same one they’ve excavated from, is back in the metal vice. Marjan stretches its split skin and wedges cold metal forceps into the work pit, where muscles glisten and blood pulses weakly in bluish cords. His heavily gloved fingers reach in, and pain spasms up the shackled arm as he presses down.

—Whoa. Come check this out.

—What is it? Have you found something significant?

—Yeah, you need to get over here and see for yourself.

His supervisor leaves the churning sequencer and comes across the sterile floor of the lab, white and cumulaic in her hazard suit, blending into her surroundings like the camouflage of terrestrian animals. Her name is Jae. She leans over and peers through the glass of her helmet at my immobilized limb.

—You see that?

—Hmm. Yes.

She takes the forceps from him and elicits more pain–spasms from the arm. With my remaining eye I observe the purse of her lips as she examines the feeble fightback of my flesh.

—That’s definitely new growth, right? The muscle is regenerating!

—Looks like it. Quite remarkable.

—You wanna test it too? We should take a sample.

—Just take one. As small as you can. I want to monitor the regeneration process.

—Sweet. Prof Liu is gonna be thrilled.

Marjan picks up his scalpel. They want more from me, but this time it doesn’t matter. I have not eaten. I am pinned down to a steel table in a box of unbreakable glass and plastic. The air here is irradiated to sterility, an artificial and flavourless concoction of nitrogen/oxygen/carbon dioxide. If my core has dredged matter from these meager surroundings for fleshcrafting, it is meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Take it all away.

The pain begins afresh. I close my remaining eye. I must, I must, I must: Hold on to the memories. Not let trauma erode them. Remember all that has passed since we last met. They can take all the organic extrusions they want but they cannot take this.

Start: A mirror to this butcher’s table, the last time we met: The point from which your memories and mine diverge: The point at which I killed you: The point at which the vault of your body was sealed: The point at which its inventory of treasures locked down and made immutable:

It goes like this:

You lie dead on the carving table, hands neutralised, mouth shuttered, ribs mere bone. Your eyes, although open, register nothing: Photons rolling through aqueous and vitreous humour fall upon inert retina. No ion cascade quivers through the optic nerve upon their arrival.

You lie dead, but not lifeless. For life resides in you still, its signature imprinted upon the architecture of your bones, in the webbings of your brain, in the atoms knitted into meat. Since we last met, your being has inhaled the world around it, spinning nitrogen flesh around bone moulded out of metal and dust. These atoms lie vibrating, locked into place, eager mouths waiting for my knife to set them free.

Knife, descend, do your duty. The first cut goes down furrow–straight, parting the layers over gristle and coils of gut. I peel away your yielding skin and cut fillets of tender flesh in beautiful portions, laying them upon a cold slab rimmed with frost. Tendons and tripe I save. Fat I cut into rinds for flavour. Blood runs into a bell jar, for pudding, for wine.

I slice your neck open, flaying it under the line of the chin. The viscera I dig out in a single lode.

The skull I chop away with a small saw, bent over double like an artist struggling with their limitations, sweat beading on my brow.

How crude and clumsy these forms we have adopted, these brittle fingers and their limited range of movement. I find them trembling as I lift the bone, edges sticky, to reveal the masterwork underneath. The sum of your experiences are written there, in the soft quiescent pink, imprinted still in the ghosts of paths once forded by chemicals.

I gently draw your brain out of its casing, trailing grey stem. I put it aside in the cold.

My fingers are wet with spinal fluid. I lick them, an early and errant treat. A rush of sensation then: A beach on Mars, sand between the toes, thin icy wind stinging eager cheeks. One small pearl sampled from among the treasures I have before me.

Again and again I mourn the constraints of these terrestrian forms we mimic, these weaknesses we constantly recreate. The reediness of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, the clumsiness of pressure, the reliance on frequencies of air compression. Such a narrow way to see the universe.

In my greed, in my hunger for more, I cut a small slice out of the brain. I will eat it raw. I will consume its contents in one burst of unprocessed joy. I hold the limp thing over my open mouth, and move my tongue to greet it—

Here the memory ends.

—Do you think it feels pain? Like, human pain.

—I find that kind of speculation pointless. We hardly know enough of its biology to grasp what a concept like pain might mean to it.

—Yeah, but it’s got human DNA, right? So it’s got to have biology like ours.

—It’s very good mimicry, but if Prof Liu’s theories are right it can imitate whatever lifeform it finds itself around. So that means very little.

—But look! If you touch the nerves there’s a pain response—

—Stop that.

—What? If it was hostile it would have attacked us a long time ago. Look, it doesn’t care. It’s not even—

—Have some professionalism, please. Get back to work.

It could be my imagination. It could be the encroachment of hope. But the lights are flickering, as though someone has come and tampered with the power supply in this place.

I watch the terrestrians. They seem to have noticed it too. The older one, Jae, appears upset by it, irritable.

Perhaps it’s not just my imagination. Perhaps something is happening.

Pain comes to me again. More knives. Almost reflexively, as if it were a survival tactic, I plunge back into slices of memory, back to the things that gave me joy:

A steak of your left shoulder, well–marinated in red wine and hothouse–grown herbs. The juices run thick, smelling of iron dust on Chryse Planitia, of the selenium gifted by a long–haul freighter on its exhausting journey between the stars. I chew slowly, savoring the taste of sweat, hope, and despair you absorbed on that three–hundred–day slog.

A terrestrian woman left part of herself in you. I taste of her, entwined in the ferocity of your actin and myosin. You shared things: Spit and blood and other fluids. There’s emotion there, elusive and formless as a deep–water creature. You fall for them, every single time, and I—

I inhale and hold the taste in my mouth a little longer.

—Did you ever think it was real?

—What was?

—The legends! The Xanthrian legends of the Eglwyswrw—ugh, I can’t even pronounce it. Eglwhensyrr? Egleyswer? The Ancient Ones! Oou–uh. Seriously, I thought they were just made–up stories, to scare their kids or sell tickets to musicals or something. Do you think the Xanthrians had musicals? Those mandibles. Clack clack clack clack. No?

—They were extinct by the time Xanthrian civilisation reached its peak. Or thought to be extinct, at least. This specimen has obviously proved that idea wrong.

—Why do you think it happened?

—Why do I think what happened?

—The extinction! Why do you think they went extinct?

—Earth’s history is littered with global extinction events. It’s not unthinkable that it would happen on a universal scale. Civilisations rise and fall.

—Yes, but how? If they’re immortal, endlessly regenerating cores of potentiality, how do they die? You can kill the organic parts, but do you kill them?

—Everything ends. It’s a law of the universe. Entropy is inescapable.

—That’s not an answer.

—No. If we had the answers, we wouldn’t have jobs.

The last of you has been consumed. All that we are is now the same. I release the core of you back to the potentiality of the void. A hopeful seed, sent back into the universe to germinate once again.

When you came back it was supposed to be your turn.

The terrestrians have a saying: The best–laid plans of mice and men.

—Where do you think the other one is? The one it… ate, I guess? It’s got to be off somewhere, growing a new body. Do you think it’ll be back?

—It’s hard to say.

—Why do you think they do it? Maybe it’s like a crab moult. The eating, though. That’s got a ritual feel to it. I’m sure it means something.

—You’re very sure of many things, Marjan. Perhaps you’re in the wrong field. You could be a great motivational speaker.

—Come on, Jae. Don’t you ever wonder? Damn, I wish Prof Liu would let us take the brain. “Oh, we might kill it!” We won’t be killing shit, I’ll tell you that.

—That’s enough. Did you check the electrics like I asked you to? Those lights have been flickering for an hour.

This is your fault. You and your love for terrestrian life, integrating with them, making friends, friends who noticed you went missing, friends who sent investigators to track down who took you away from them.

You know how weak these terrestrian bodies are, how indefensible. And how warlike their mortality has made them. Their softness and smallness makes them vicious to others, to one another.

In another epoch I might have escaped, in another epoch I might not have been pursued. In the years of rule of the triapsids, the klng’wcnh’g, the Δλ/λ = 0.314, our rituals might have gone unmolested, even with your indiscretions.

But expecting prudence is expecting too much of you. That is why you were an Outlaw, and I the Enforcer.

That is the why you were the one pursued and I the pursuer, into the maw of that black star, into our doom.

That was your fault, too.

That is the way our story has been since the universe was young with gases burning red and hot.

And yet I would change nothing.

—That’s strange.

—What is?

—Something’s interrupted the power supply to the spectrophotometer. Stay here and watch the specimen. I’m going to find out what happened.

—Okay. Don’t be too long. I might get hungry.

—It’s not funny.

It was a risk you took and we all paid for it.

There were three of us back then, I the Enforcer in pursuit of two Outlaws, chasing you and your partner across the universe in infra–dimensional form, as was the vogue in that time.

Two Outlaws in thrall of the greatest sin: Keeping what you had learned away from the mouths of our Mothers, away from the great commons of our people. Selfishly feeding your gathered lives to each other, back and forth in a closed loop excluding the rest of our race. Our Mothers knew what had been done. They demanded the flesh that they had been denied.

You led us to that black hole. You led us to the singularity that would be our doom.

When the gravity well took us, stripping away our outer shells, reducing us to our cores, did you know how it would end? Did you know that when your partner sacrificed themselves—the released energy tearing us free of the event horizon at last—did you know that we would re–emerge into a universe that had moved on a thousand generation of stars, a universe empty and unrecognisable, the mouths of our Mothers silenced forever?

I don’t know, and I never will. By the time you come to me, with your forest of pedipalps and mineralised sensory coating—by the time you come to me, begging me to consume you, please—by the time that happens your core has already been corrupted by your grief. The memories vague–edged and diluted by chafing from the trauma.

Eat me, you begged. Eat me before all that I hold is lost.

We’re the only ones left.

You are all I have.

—Well, guess it’s just the two of us now, buddy. Can you even understand me? We know the other one could talk, at least. Your friend. “Alice Rei Kawasaki.” Fancy pseudonym for a fake human, huh? Did she give you a name as well?

—God, I wish that I could just get into your brain. See that it’s made of.

—Well. Jae isn’t here, is she?

Please.

Please come for me soon.

When I cut into you for the first time, when my mandibles slice into your iridescent casing, I understand grief.

Your sense of loss, sharp and coppery, overwhelms all other flavours in your meat. It sinks deep into my core, now an indelible part of my being, preserved forever.

Gone: Your partner, the one who was your other half, the both of you forming a complete and private universe, a universe lost forever—

Gone too everything else we ever knew. Gone the mouths of our Mothers which you rejected, the welcoming subsuming maws you will never see again—

I burrow deep. I have never consumed another like this, taking the sum of another into myself, the core of being almost overwhelmed, the intensity, the purity of sensation, the seeking, subsuming, uniting—

Buried within the pulsing blue organs and crystallised rock I find my first taste of love, ichor–sweet passion, to be rolled between the jaws like a ripe bone–fruit.

And then I understand, immediate and heavy, what drew you to this selfishness,

Why all of this

was worth it

Matter is never destroyed, but passes from form to form to form, from the gases that whisper in between voids to the fires that blaze in the heart of stars to the blood that pulses in the veins of one in the first blush of love. So it has been since the dawn of the universe, thousands of star cycles before our kind came into being, thousands of star cycles before our kind became extinct. What ends begins again, what goes always comes back.

Again and again and again.

Marjan has almost finished cutting off the top of my skull when the bullet–crack comes, and with the thump of flesh against floor the pressure on my head is gone. It is likely—not absolutely certain, but likely—that the same fate has befallen Jae.

A stranger’s face breaches my field of vision, round and fresh and bright–eyed. But the smile, the look of unbounded joy, I would recognise anywhere.

Relief washes through me, and joy, and affection, and all the things that taste like honey and mead. My lips shape words that my missing tongue can no longer give form to.

—Hello, Enforcer. Still there? Can you hear me?

I blink my remaining eye twice to let you know I understand.

—Good good. They’ve made a mess of things, haven’t they? Silly. They seem to have left enough for me, though.

Your hands, deft and sure, examining the wounds they have left in me, the canals and quarries where what was yours has been taken away. There is regret in your expression, I am sure, but there is no need for regret. You came in time. They haven’t taken it all. They came close, but not close enough.

I can sense the sweetness of your skin, the sweat on bare epidermis, the dust and dirt it’s tracked into this sterile place. My core aches in hunger. Soon. Soon. Soon you will carve me up and set me free, an empty slate, back into the universe to accumulate flesh yet again.

—I wasn’t planning to come back so soon. I thought I’d give you more time to mature. I like a good vintage, you know? But I’ve made a hash of things, Enforcer, and for that I’m sorry.

I miss my tongue. But the memory of it remains, and the memories of all the things it has tasted.

—It’ll be easier to get you out of here if you’re dead. Okay?

I blink twice.

Your hands close around my skull and I relax into them, home at last, as they turn to snap my neck.

JY Yang

JY Yang is a queer, non-binary Singaporean author and editor of SF/F. They are the author of the upcoming Tensorate series of novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven), and they have over two dozen works of short fiction published in places such as Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Lackington’s. http://jyyang.com

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