Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 42
A Dragon's Doula
by M.K. Hutchins
Fire Born, Water Made
by Adria Laycraft
The Burden of Triumph
by Samuel Marzioli
IGMS Audio
Orson Scott Card - Bonus
Visitors, Chapter 1
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Small Offerings
by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Burden of Triumph
    by Samuel Marzioli

  Listen to the audio version


My predecessor's genetic memory strands decode and transfer into me. A thousand generations' worth of experiences, memories and instincts all cram into my mind during the brief span of my gestation. Thoughts come, spinning tapestries from the chaos, slowly forming meaning out of the incoherence. I open my eyes and, for a moment, the past merges with the present.

I see the home world, Des Ar Kreon. I see the colonies of my kind living within the technologized cracks and crevices on the planet's rocky surface, gazing toward the stars. I see my ancient predecessor and his kin. They board our first starships, risking their ancestral lines to extend our hunting grounds and birthplaces into the distant recesses of space.

And then . . . there's nothing.

Though there is much to learn, my body is too weak to contend with it now. As my eyes close, the words of my immediate predecessor echo in my mind: Beware the bipedal meats, my spawn. Though their bodies are soft and their movements slow, they're more dangerous than they appear.

I arch my head in acceptance of his words, settling into a deep and restful sleep.

My eyes open again, but there's only darkness, wet, soft and embracing. My muscles loosen and my limbs spread that I may get a better sense of my surroundings. With the receptors on the tips of my teeth, I probe the surface of my holding place until its sweet scent rushes in.

Sustenance. Intoxicating meat.

I clack it up, swallow every inch, every barrier and rise up through the shredded remnants into an artificial light. The light punches into the still-delicate surface of my retinas, inducing a blur that renders the room around me a mystery. There is no pain inside, but I scream. Scream to release the blood from my lungs. Scream to stretch my larynx, to hear the sound of it quaver in my ears. Scream to announce my ascendency into life like my every predecessor has done before me. For a second, I see our unbroken line of birth and rebirth extending back to our origins on Des Ar Kreon, and I scream again to celebrate our triumph.

A bloated-throat noise erupts from behind me, some undulating bellow that I cannot comprehend. I turn to confront the sound. Bodies clarify, revealing twin-set eyes; jaws hang wide, exposing stunted teeth, flat and harmless; and all of it rests upon the bodies of six endomorphic bipeds. All of them meat. All of them sustenance.

My insides expand and I slaver because of the growing hunger. Though the flesh of my birthplace weighs heavy on my stomach, my every cell cries out for more.

One of the meats detaches a sleek protrusion from its hip and points it in my direction. Its mouth opens wide and it bellows again, the sound of threats, of raging parent stock anxious for the safety of their younglings. The meat's finger twitches and a projectile bursts free from the protrusion's tip. I dodge, turning briefly to examine the smoldering mark on the floor beside me. Before the meat has a chance to aim again, I rise up on my hind legs, slither-leap and land upon its shoulders.

First, I clack up its eyes to honor its bravery. It screeches as my body coils around its neck, tearing skin, ripping cartilage, and finally shattering its spine in my embrace. The remaining meats try to run. Using my tail for leverage, I stretch my legs, release my claws and slack every inch of them within my reach. One escapes, but the remainder keel in place, clutching their wounds until their cries slide into a hush.

I sample them all in turns. As soon as the sustenance meets my stomach, energy surges through my veins and the synapses within my brain flare into a nova. But the meal is soon interrupted when more meats rush into the room. In unison, they aim larger protrusions and blazing light erupts from each hollow tip.

Another warning from my immediate predecessor emerges. Beware their weapons, my spawn, with projectiles that clack and slack and rip our flesh, and fires that roast our skin and scales.

I arch my head in acceptance of his words and scurry away for cover.

Waves of orange bloom all around me. One almost finds my hide. Its heat gathers against my hind side, and a warning tingle sweeps up my spine. Flattening against the ground, I wait for it to pass and then bound and burrow into the clutter stacked beside the closest wall. Behind it, there's an opening covered by a thin metal grate. A quick slack from my claws and I burst through the flimsy strands remaining.

They fire their weapons again. Another warning tingles. I race into the ducts and keep running until I'm absorbed into the darkness.

My legs skitter, frantic as my heartbeat. It's only when the meats' garble-noise lowers to a whisper that I deem it safe enough to slow my pace. My eyelids shut for the first time. A thin crackle and crust breaks free from my eyes. Immediately, the black recedes into a spectrum of grays and a familiar sight unfolds.

These ducts, they weave around the edges of this starship, from one end to the other. Though I've never been here before, I know this from my predecessor's memories -- quick bursts of images overlaying my own sight. More memories come, this time something distant, something further past.

I see my ancient predecessor and his kin aboard one of our starships, encoding their experiences into genetic memory strands so they might plant them into the seeds of rebirth. By then, they are at the edge of our solar system; the journey has barely begun. But with no meat for sustenance or merging, they die, leaving their future spawn within their withering husks and the fate of our lines up to the cosmos -- whether to roast in suns, crash on planets, or drift aimlessly across the black face of eternity. They scream once, a promise and a hope, and then release their essence.

For a time, there's only the murk of a sensory deprived spawn seed. Later, whether days or centuries, I feel the gestation sac of my ancient predecessor's spawn blooming in the ripeness of a new host. I see him bursting in triumph into the sunlight of a new planet, a world that abounds with quadrupedal meat -- the same species as that from which he has risen. Centuries of propagation pass, with spawn and kin-spawn transitioning into another, until the new planet teems with our kind as well as the screams of our triumph.

The memories fade. I keep my senses open and alert, letting the past bleed into my conscious mind.

Time passes like a message with no words, each unchanging moment streaming one into another. The farther I go, the more the hunger inside me lessens. Soon the ache is gone and all that is left is a formless void. And yet I feel just as compelled to carry on, to search, even if I cannot identify a purpose.

Eventually, the ducts open with sporadic grates. Through them, the ship's interior lies exposed. To my left, a column of meats march down a wide and lengthy corridor. Below me, meats sit along the beeps, whirls and glow of wall spanning machines. And farther on, a room where meats twist, stretch and foam beneath water cascading from the underside of orbs and a fretwork of pipes that spirals toward the ceiling.

Here, they've shed their outer skin, exposing plain the morphological variance of their species. While body size and height falls into a spectrum, an obvious disparity asserts itself. One stock tends to be smaller, higher pitched, dripping bulbous mounds of flesh from the center of their thorax. The other stock tends to be larger, lower pitched, bearing a drooping proboscis from their lower pelvis. My insides warm at the sight of them, an instinct which I cannot yet discern. But with my hunger gone there's no meaning to the sensation.

I press on.

After slinking down a vertical duct, and running a great distance, I spot a meat lying alone in a narrow hexagonal room. From its ample reserves of sustenance, I gather it's a member of the proboscis stock. It gently taps fingers against a metal board upon its lap, causing erratic images to appear on the board's inset glass surface. The void inside me finally takes a new shape, and I know I have to slack it and enter the shredded flesh that I may propagate.

I slack the grate and fall to greet it, wiggling along the ground to display the luster of my scales. As I rise to my hind legs, we watch each other, unmoving. The meat doesn't shout or scream like I feared it would. It simply taps the board a few more times and then curls its fingers in a tight grip, as if intending to use the board as a weapon.

This response is acceptable, although a useless gesture. For the courage it shows, I will make the slacking more precise, inducing less pain. Even if it hasn't earned the honor of having its eyes clacked up and swallowed.

I slither, but do not leap. Because the door slides aside, revealing a multitude of meats standing in the corridor. Did they know I would be drawn here? Have they guessed I intend to propagate, the same as my predecessor before me? Or did this meat simply warn its kin stock somehow?

It's pointless to speculate. If the answer is encoded somewhere inside me I haven't found it yet -- and there's no time to waste. With the grate so far above me now, a suitable plan must be made if I am to escape.

The idea comes at once. One quick slack and my intended propagation-meat's stomach opens into strands. It screams as I enter through the gash, tucking my tail in after me. Just in case, I end its life by slacking its heart. While it deserves better, deserves merging, I cannot risk it crawling toward the hallway with me stuffed inside.

The meats howl as one, an undulating chorus that's all but smothered by the roar of orange fire erupting from their weapons. The intended propagation-meat's moist innards keep me safe. I slack out my legs through the cover of its flesh, using it as a shield while I climb. The extra weight makes movement difficult, and anchoring my claws into the scale-thin alloy walls are all that keeps me from falling. When I reach the grate again, I disengage from my flesh-shell, exploding from the initial stomach wound into the duct beyond.

Again, through the distance, their garble-noise drifts into a stalking quiet. I resume a slower pace, this time not by choice. My muscles seize and my heartbeat labors, forcing a dulling pain to course throughout my body. For a second, all I can do is slack the floor and hold on.

The memories have already revealed the succinctness of my kind's lifespan, the flicker of time that separates a spawn from his predecessor and a predecessor from his spawn. But instead of despair, I feel peace. A life spent in darkness and shadows, and fleeing to survive is no life at all.

I only hope my spawn will fare better. But before I can concern myself with him, I still need to find a suitable casing. A meat ripe with sustenance to ensure the cycle of rebirth repeats again.

The meats are alerted to me; no one remains alone. They wait, armed and ready for my passing. A few of them fire into the ducts -- perhaps hoping to catch me by surprise. It works, to a degree. My skin warms from a few lucky bursts, but none are concentrated enough to pass damage to my dermis.

It isn't long before I feel my bio-systems struggling to maintain, my strength draining away. Memories converge on me, like hunters on a helpless prey.

I see the coming of the bipedal meats, the descent of their ship into a plain on our new world. They capture my immediate predecessor and a few of his kin, bringing them aboard a ship and stuffing them into cages. But the meats don't realize the strength of our clack or the power of our slacking.

My predecessor and his kin escape into the ducts. The hunt begins anew -- this time not as a race for prey through plains and forests in the full embrace of sunlight, but stalking them from the cover of darkness. Except, they are greatly outnumbered and become the hunted instead. Each kin-line is cornered and killed, leaving my immediate predecessor alone.

I sense his solitude, feel his grief. And then I hear the last of his words before his life force is snuffed completely, before he released his essence as well as the seed of my rebirth. When you rise, they will come for you. You must be strong. You must be ready.

I arch my head; the pride wells up within me. Though my body weakens and my life force slips away, I will not give up. For the sake of my predecessor, for the sake of my spawn and the continuance of our line, somehow I will struggle on.

In a room of humming machines and dim lights, I see another meat with absent outer skin, pacing before a hemispherical console. This one is different than the rest, having neither mounds of flesh nor limp proboscis. I slack and drop to the floor, wiggle up beside it and rise to my hind legs.

Like with the first intended propagation-meat, this one doesn't scream. It considers me in silence, eyes wide and unblinking. It holds itself with elegant composure -- standing tall, shoulders and arms framing a clear pathway to its insides -- and opens its mouth into a perfect O. At once, a hollow sound emanates from several black boxes mounted to the corners of the walls.

Though the meaning of their language continues to escape me, the supplicatory tone relates enough of its intentions: it means to send a warning to its kin stock to give us privacy until our merging is complete. This one truly understands its place, and for that profound perception I'll clack its eyes and savor the flavor on my tongue. No greater honor can I bestow.

I gather my remaining strength and slither-leap for the last time. My teeth clack its eyes, even as my claws slack its stomach. Then I squeeze through the skin fragments to rest inside the comfort of its belly.

But there's something off, something wrong. The eyes in my mouth have a hard metal core and, while the entrails around me are moist, the flesh is cool and its blood a bitter chemical concoction. It's only a machine with meat semblance alone.

The time to choose another meat for merging has passed. My body has all but shut down. I have failed. My ascendency is worthless and my triumph unrealized. I beg forgiveness from my spawn and hope he will survive in the stasis of the seed until, by fate or chance, he's planted into a genuine, fertile host.

Outside, the metallic grind of the door announces it has opened and stomps against the floor reveal the meats have entered in. I listen, trying to hold on as long as I can, encoding as much as possible so that -- if rebirth comes again -- my spawn will know his fate.

I hear both proboscis stock and mound stock volley incoherent bellows back and forth and, for a moment, the roar of fire licks through the entrance to my resting place. A meat barks in fury and the fire dies, restoring coolness to my flank. Then the meat-machine jolts and vibrates, as if it's moving, as if it's carrying me away. I can imagine the many corridors it marches down, prodded from behind by the taunting garble-noise of sustenance my spawn will never clack.

Another door grinds apart and, soon, I feel the meat-machine dip before falling still upon its back. A hiss descends all around us, smothering us in silence. The air grows stale and I'm enveloped in a cloud of cold so sharp it penetrates and dulls my senses. It's hard to think. My limbs go stiff and, when my body locks in place, I know the end has come at last.

If you ever rise, my spawn, the bipedal meats will have you outnumbered. Beware their meat machines, bearing an edifice of life, but possessing no sustenance. And always remember: the darkness is your strength. Make it your domain, your shelter so that you can survive and so that our line will endure through you.

May you find triumph one day, absent merging, just as our ancient predecessors found on each new world that became our home.


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