DOWN IN THE DEEPFLUX         

 

       Jake West       

 

 

The Caterwaul hatched out into a torrential downpour of stones and began feeding on the many dead variforms born in wrongshapes. Its brood-mates would never feel the pulse/pleasure of rightshape like this lone survivor did, matching its flux to the light-dance of the sun, emerging from the egg armored but non-motile — in this case, the right choice. The warm masses made possible new, more complex rightshapes.

But hurry! Already five, maybe six, seconds in the past, the rockrain dimmed into distant memory. Boulders tumbled, shattered, sank. Almost too late, the creature extruded clawed legs and escaped the lava flow that ended its birthplace. Landmarks vanished as lowlands ran like the free water that rarely existed on the planet.

The Caterwaul rippled through a series of metamorphoses, from carapace to tentacle to wing. All survival reflexes. All body rhythms that generated ecstasy as they matched the sun’s flickering. Its easy childhood ended, the predator set off in search of new prey in its rich, hour-long life under the galaxy’s fiercest Cepheid variable.

 

Not far away, two men in mutable-suits clutched at a sheer cliff and climbed for their lives, a hand-over-hand struggle up a vertical wall that had started as a hike up a steep slope –until it tilted under their feet.

The suits compensated, but Paxton, with his long experience as a Ranger, knew it could take a heavy toll on those unused to it. Through the comm links he could hear his high-profile client panting hard enough to strain his oxygen reserves. He called down. “Still with me, Lu?”

“With you? I could go twice your speed.” Stivender’s arrogance was exceeded only by his wealth, but so far he’d kept up, justifying his reputation as a successful risk-taker.

Paxton just shook his head and reached for the next hand-hold. The suit’s muscle-augments whined in sympathy with the strain, creating a curious duet of pain.

The sky cleared to reveal the erratic star of the system, directly over their position on the equator, the region of highest energy-input and greatest instability — the Deepflux. The Cepheid variable burned furiously enough to raise sweat on Paxton’s forehead through the faceplate of his mutable-suit, but he knew within minutes or seconds it would drop, plunging temperatures as the star dimmed to a feeble ember, only to flare up again with oven-like intensity. The over-stressed surface could never keep up with the intense and rapid fluctuations and over eons, chaos had become the planet’s steady state.

The only constancy was the noise. The unceasing crescendos soaked through the armor of Paxton’s mutable-suit to attack his nerve-endings and stir his blood with a singular fire.

With the benefit of years as a Lethal Environment Specialist, Paxton followed his suit’s movements as its AI sent him suddenly scuttling sideways along the cliff. He heard a muffled yelp as Stivender’s suit did the same.. Within seconds, he felt a tremendous convulsion in the rock and looked up.

A fissure burst open, and a ruddy cascade of magma spilled out, beside them. It would have swept them away without their suits’ deep-radar tracking magma-flow. Mutable-suits ate a horrendous bite from Wild-World Bureau’s budget, but, once again, they had paid for themselves. And they were one technology, one advantage, poachers didn’t yet have.

Then the whole cliff began to slide downward.

Paxton glanced back to check on Stivender and saw the ridge subsiding into the lava below, “Cliff’s sinking faster than we can climb!” He triggered a STATUS cycle and digested the feedback with intense professional calm.

“Can’t we fly?” Stivender’s voice was shaky.

“AI’s blocking it — too much airborn debris. I’m overriding.”

Paxton slaved their suits together and launched. Acceleration from the engine-burn slammed him into the interior padding. Behind him, Stivender’s war-whoop sounded more terror than exuberance. Paxton gritted his teeth and rode out the vicious corkscrew maneuvers, poised to take manual control if need be, but they cleared the danger zone without incident, and he felt a satisfying jolt as the airfoils deployed.

An incoming signal. “Trap located!” he yelled over the roar of engines and the wind.

“Damn time!” Stivender screamed back.

The suits plotted a minimum-angle glidepath to their target, about fifteen kilometers southeast of the cliff-that-no-longer-existed. The stasis-trap’s signal indicated it should have caught a variform, and it had only moved a few klicks since they had detected it from the orbiting Ranger Station.

 

The Caterwaul was twenty-three minutes old and entering the prime of its life. Five times it had successfully fought other variforms and feasted on their mass, becoming ever more vigorous and innovative in its shapeshifting. Once it grew a tail-sting to poison a grappleform that tangled all its limbs. As an airtight bladderform, it suffocated a rotary-grinding bonemouth. Mirrorskin camouflage confused a charging razorhorn.

But still the hunger burned relentlessly, and time fled swifter than any prey. As it paused for a quarter-second on the brink of a cliff, a sand-skater caught its attention on the desert plain below.

The Caterwaul felt the ancient Reflex take control, the ultimate survival trait, honed over a billion generations of its kind. It surrendered to the ecstatic sensation as it leaped from the precipice. Its mass twisted, formed into a thin membrane with heavy claws around the rim. It had never seen a parachute but now invented one instinctively.

A rewarding surge of physical pleasure accompanied the new rightshape. Hatched strong with the Reflex, this Caterwaul’s life had so far been a continuous series of orgasms.

Now it focused its attention on the sand-skater, which was itself both hunter and prey: commonplace on a world where only one species filled every ecological niche. The level pocket of sand below vibrated in complex moiré patterns, driven by local tectonics. The skater let the waves carry it randomly while it trolled for subsurface variforms. Its strategy also made it difficult to anticipate.

The Caterwaul let the Reflex adjust its body’s shape to catch the right air-currents, to take it where the sand-skater would be when the Caterwaul landed.

Twenty seconds passed in relative calm, the longest period the Caterwaul had ever known without danger. Feeling trapped in the rigid flesh of a single shape, a rudimentary self-awareness developed. Then the surface rushed up and the sand-skater was directly underneath its outstretched claws.

Oblivious to the death falling from above, the skater shifted into a tripod shape with hooked tentacles that dangled from the juncture of its three legs. It dropped the hooks deep into the sand and winched a burrow-snout from its lair.

The descending Caterwaul exulted. Its claws sank into the wrongshape. Then it felt another spontaneous Reflex, and instantly grew wings. A hot wind slammed it skyward, clutching its tripod prey. The burrow-snout launched itself after them, its snapping jaws just missing them before it fell back to the surface.

The updraft carried them into furious thermals that flung them ever higher. The tripod squirmed and became birdlike. They slashed and clawed, tumbling through the roaring gulf.

With a small part of its awareness, the Caterwaul noticed two other flyers at a lower altitude, like nothing it had seen before. They were flying together, but not fighting or mating, and, more strange, seemed to be unchangingly hard-shelled. The appearance of something not-variform shocked it. Its opponent took advantage and stabbed deeply with its delta-shaped head, probing for the cluster-node that was the Caterwaul’s single vulnerable organ, both heart and brain.

The Caterwaul transformed into a slender, bone-hard spear, sensing a change in the environment. Its enemy was still in birdshape a second later when they hit the dead air pocket, and its wings became useless. They fell. The Caterwaul maneuvered itself into a killing position, and when the dust settled from their impact, it stood upright from the birdform’s chest, impaling it through its cluster-node.

Quickly, quickly, the victor flowed around its kill and devoured the hot mass before any other variform could steal it or the planet did something to take it away.

The biological imperative of any variform was to gain enough mass to undergo Mating and Fission. But this Caterwaul, having evolved self-awareness, was discovering a state of mind to go with it –curiosity.

Driven by the urge to hunt but torn by this new sensation, the Caterwaul set off in search of the intriguing and inexplicable hard-shells.

 

To Paxton’s dismay, the stasis-trap had company: a fully loaded omnijeep sitting intact on the surface — with no life in sight.

Aftermath of a fatal accident, or an ambush?

“Poachers!” Stivender yelled.

Still in control of both suits, Paxton changed course. Radio-silence for the final approach gave him a moment to savor the frenzied beauty rampant around him. In the seconds that followed sudden twilight fell as the Cepheid variable died again, the closest thing to darkness the tidally locked dayside ever knew. In the gloom, he spotted highlights reflecting off a river of cold-fluid rock, unique to Caterwaul. As it ran, the river cut new forms through the landscape. His peripheral vision caught a blur of movement in the sky: two variforms locked in a shapeshifting battle, gone before he could turn to look at them, living out their furious lives too quickly for any human to follow. The star flared. In the distance, Jovian lightning backlit the funnel of a vacuum-storm that stabbed repeatedly groundward.

Then they landed and Paxton disengaged their suits.

They found themselves in a shallow, remarkably stable canyon, the omnijeep and the globular black sphere of the stasis-trap resting near its center. A hundred meters around them in all directions the planet’s fury raged and swirled as if held back by invisible walls.

An eerily quiet eye in the storm.

“My God, that’s a relief,” Stivender said. “I can hear myself talk.”

“It’s a Caterwaulian Calm Spot.” Paxton didn’t berate his client for breaking radio silence: there was no sign of life from the ‘jeep. “Could last minutes or hours. Probably minutes. Let’s get busy. First the ‘jeep–”

“No, the trap!”

“Poachers are always the protocol, and it’s my rules down here, Lu. You agreed.”

But as Stivender followed him down the slope, Paxton surreptitiously broke his own protocol, signaling the Ranger Station for a pick-up. Normally, they’d open the trap before committing the drop-ship to its descent from orbit. But Paxton wanted a quick retrieval on the way, in case the poachers came back — but from where?

Their luck held. The ‘jeep was empty.

Stivender waved his shock-rifle about as they explored the site, though the weapon was useless against mutable-suits. It fired an electric charge that drove off aggressive variforms. Paxton had pointed out that Caterwauls only attack humans if provoked, since they don’t recognize suits as food and no human could move fast enough to shoot a Caterwaul if it did attack.

With Stivender’s huge donation to the Bureau for this private junket, Paxton was overridden on this point. His Ranger-issue sidearm, though, would punch holes in mutable-suits, if not Caterwauls, making it proof against the real predators, who often raided the legal trapping operations of private companies.

“No wreckage, no bodies, no blood,” Stivender sounded faintly disappointed. “Like they just walked away.”

“And left this.” Behind the vehicle, Paxton found an abandoned weapon, a Mauler portable railgun with a long, spidery barrel and a magazine fully-loaded with spent-uranium rounds. Paxton felt a chill.

It was Stivender who found the footprint.

“What are these, Paxton? Toes?”

He was right. The track not only looked human–it looked like the person had been barefoot.

Paxton’s chill intensified.

“Their mission logs may tell us.” He bent to push through the ‘jeeps’s hatch, a tight fit in a bulky mutable-suit. Stivender caught his arm, and equally powerful servo-motors strained against each other in a deadlock.

“The trap’s over there,” Stivender said emphatically.

“And it’s not going anywhere. We’re in good shape. My God, man, only a handful of people have ever seen this place. Savor the moment! You paid enough for it!”

Reluctantly, Stivender released him. “It wasn’t for the view. But, yeah, this has been a hell of a ride, I’ll give you that.”

Wedged inside the cabin, Paxton extruded a data-cable and jacked it into the ‘jeep’s console. His suit’s AI quickly broke the outlaw encryption.

His back turned, Stivender was watching the stasis-trap and fingering his rifle.

Paxton kept him distracted. “So for you, it’s the thrill, not the wonder.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I understand the rush you get from risking your life.” The transfer was almost 25% done. “But while you’re risking yourself on dangerous planets what about trying to solve their mysteries? I’ve gone after my share — Aldebaran Wind-Haunts, the Face-In-The-Stars the Llangans fear…”

“Fairy tales.” There was contempt in his voice. “You done yet?”

“Legends,” Paxton corrected. “And seventy per cent.” Paxton could never explain to a man like this how these stories gave him renewed hope that some aspect of the universe resided aloof from human tampering. These myths reminded him of the uncertainty of existence, that the universe was not just cut-and-dried fact, but a source of inexhaustible experience.

All he said though was, “Come on, Lu — what fun would life be without a few whopping tall-tales?” With that, he snatched out the plug. “And I’m done.”

“Good. Let’s get my trophy and get out of here before what happened to those poachers happens to us… ”

Paxton squeezed through the hatch, and clipped the Mauler to his hip while he reviewed some of the captured data on his helmet display. Then he froze.

A suit-cam image showed a poacher opening his own suit — and laughing while he did so.

With what appeared to be a woman’s bare arm and hand on his shoulder.

Paxton forced himself to move. But these captured logs were a prize infinitely more valuable than a captive variform. Caterwaul had mysteries of its own: claims of encounters with Deepwalkers, living unprotected in Carewaul’s deadly atmosphere, and Lurelings, unclothed, seducing victims with an inhuman sexuality and physical beauty. Survivors spoke of an unfulfilled yearning, sadness after resisting them.

A product of oxygen deprivation? Lost souls that died in the Deepflux? Descendants of the first crew, whose ship crashed a century ago? Caterwauls imitating humans?

Paxton knew he might be carrying the answers, but he forced himself to calmness. Rushing now might cost him everything.

He led Stivender the short distance to the stasis-trap. They took up positions facing each other across the dead-black, two-meter sphere. “By the book. Just like we practiced.”

For the first time in minutes, the ground shook. The suits balanced themselves, but the ‘jeep danced back and forth. The moment of stability was fading. And no reply yet to his query for ETA; the drop-ship must be in re-entry blackout by now.

He scanned the stasis-trap. Its battery was active, its integrity unbroken. He admired the elegance of its design, if not its purpose. Open and baited, it was two collapsed hemispheres with a transmitter, broadcasting an EM signal that mimicked a mating-call irresistible to variforms. When one was lured into the trap, the two halves snapped together with electronic speed. Its nanofiber insulation powered into a superstiff lattice and blocked information or sensation from either direction. The seam fused, creating a timeless internal environment where the Caterwaul went inert. Nearly indestructible, it would hold a Caterwaul until the battery died or the correct, coded frequency impinged on its surface.

The Caterwaul’s short lifespan could be parceled out indefinitely. Private companies harvested them for research. Lucrative, distasteful, and beyond Paxton’s control. Like his obligation to help Stivender “bring-‘em-back-alive.”

But sometimes the traps were triggered in error. Sometimes a wily variform escaped in those critical picoseconds before capture. Paxton would be relieved to find the trap empty.

Stivender impatiently opened the lid of his capture-canister. Paxton unsealed his, too, but left it secured to his harness. There was a fifty-fifty chance which of them the angry Caterwaul would attack.

“Remember, it’ll be slow at first.” Paxton lifted his right hand, held it over the non-reflective surface like a benediction. “Slow for a Caterwaul, that is.” The emitter in his palm touched the globe and the two halves fell open.

The Caterwaul erupted, a violent geyser of multiple legs, claws and teeth –lots of teeth– that landed on Stivender. It pressed itself against his faceplate, and Paxton saw it scrambling with hands –hands!– at the release-locks on Stivender’s helmet.

Paxton was tempted to let the Caterwaul have its prey and go free. But he couldn’t quite leave Stivender to an horrific death. He charged his suit gauntlets and reached out.

But Stivender was backing away, flailing at the variform. It writhed into a new shape. From what Paxton could see reflected in Stivender’s helmet, it looked like a human face.

Stivender screamed. Paxton gripped the variform and stunned it. The chance to release it had passed; it would kill them both if he let it recover. He sealed the groggy predator, an amorphous mass of muscle heavier than a human head, in his capture-canister. The tell-tales lit, verifying containment. An electric current would keep the animal torpid until they put it back in stasis on the drop-ship.

Stivender was shaking inside his suit, his face a mix of shock and rage. “That face – his face…”

“Whose face?”

“Somebody I killed,” Stivender grated. “In a knife-fight when I was a kid, in Under-New York…” He looked at Paxton with horror. “How did it know?”

“Variforms don’t ‘know’ anything.” Paxton said. “They sense changes coming and take the best possible shape to survive.”

“That doesn’t explain growing a dead man’s face.”

“They access broad-spectrum organic EM.” Paxton tried again to ping the drop-ship. “When it was wrapped around your helmet, maybe it read the electrical field of your brain and copied a memory that would paralyze you.”

“I’ve had enough of this place.” Stivender was recovering but subdued, embarrassed by his outburst. “Didn’t you call for our ride?”

“A while ago. It’s overdue.” He turned. “Maybe I can punch through a stronger signal from the ‘jeep.”

“Hey–you’re okay, Paxton, you know that?” Stivender called after him. “Come work for me.”

“Doing what?”   Paxton found the sudden friendliness more distasteful than Stivender’s honest arrogance.

“I need a handler for the Caterwaul.”

Achill ran through Paxton. “You’re not selling it?”

“God, no, what a waste.” Stivender laughed. “It’ll eat any other animal in existence, right? Even an Eridani Iron-Maiden. I’m betting it can swallow one whole and crap out the spikes. That idiot NeoArab Prince will crap, too, when he sees it!” He clapped his metal-shod hands with delight at the prospect.

Bloodsports. Paxton knew the rumors about alien animal fights broadcast on closed hologrid channels, where players who were above the law bet stakes higher than the Gross Planetary Products of small colonies. They gambled on spectacular battles and unpredictable outcomes between killers that would never meet in nature. And he had just supplied them another victim.

“A guaranteed cut for you,” Stivender said when Paxton remained silent. “Personal interstellar travel, anywhere you want, to find me new animals. Think about it.”

Paxton thought about it.

He thought about the incomparable sight of spider-cats prowling up and down the vertical habitats on Fracture; the thundering herds of huge taumagryphs racing across the multi-layered fields of the four gravities on Heavyheart; the sentient Cant’Bee swarms farming the acidsap jungles of Tau Ceti II; the living-crystal buzzsaws slicing furrows in the horizon-wide plains of Whelm; the gas-whales spinning gracefully in the upper atmosphere of New Jupiter. Paxton had savored such glorious diversity of life in his career. And helped save environments and species from extinction or the threat of lawless human interference.

The Wild-World Bureau and its Rangers had come into existence because of early disasters. And today, they fought crimes like the black-market mockman hunts on Meta-Rigel that still happened despite the sentience debate.

There was even a hologrid star–or was it a Sol Senator?– who had mounted his trophy on a robotic armature, a stuffed mockman that served drinks at his private parties until the secret leaked and public outrage took him down.

But Paxton never forgot that image. For him, it crystallized his own commitment. And now, standing with the perilous surface of Caterwaul waking up around him, he knew what he had to do. Even if it cost him his job.

He unclipped the canister holding the variform and punched a code into the keypad.

“What are you doing?” Stivender shouted.

“Setting a delayed timer to open the tube.” Paxton eyed the rim of the canyon, where the perpetual storm of the planet was starting to spill over, swirling inexorably closer. “With the suit, I can throw it far enough the Caterwaul won’t bother us when it gets out.” He lifted the canister.

“Don’t do it!” Stivender pointed his shock-rifle.

Paxton shook his head. “You can’t stop me with that, Lu.” He cocked his arm for the pitch

Stivender fired and Paxton’s comm-channels roared with static, then cut off as all his systems failed. Contorting with pain inside the dead suit, Paxton toppled over.

Stivender knelt beside him to retrieve the canister and stop the timer. He touched helmets. Carried by conduction, his muffled voice came through.. “I thought you might refuse.” He brandished the shock-rifle, which must have been boosted far above legal specs if it could disable a mutable-suit.

No wonder he insisted on bringing it, flashed through Paxton’s stunned awareness.

“Stay down and keep quiet. When the ship comes, say your suit failed.”

“Like hell.” Paxton knew that, whether or not he cooperated, he would have a fatal ‘accident’, easily blamed on the Deepflux.

“Your choice.” Stivender fumbled with the manual helmet-locks, clumsy as the Caterwaul had been, and evidently suffering no guilt that Paxton had just saved him from the same fate — a lungful of toxic atmosphere.

A fitting reward, Paxton thought, for always doing my job.

Then the trailing edge of the Calm Spot passed over them like a curtain, and pandemonium struck. The two men were tossed apart by wind-slam, saturated static charges, and sheer-stress fault-lines below them detonating in a series of violent dry heaves.

Paxton spun away in a current of cold-fluid rock, and was slammed against a solid outcrop, dazed inside his dead armor.  Without power, he knew he’d soon be dead.  Lying there, he listened to the rising wind, Caterwaul’s namesake, enjoying, in his last minutes, the endless banshee-on-steroids scream.

Chaos theory given a voice — a new insight into an old phenomenon, he thought, grateful for one last chance to experience it and humbled by a lifetime of wonder. All worth it. Even this.

Lightning flashed — no, a display in his helmet flickered to life, the mutable-suit struggling to re-boot itself. Already, a whole panel lit up, and Paxton could slide his left arm toward the Mauler railgun at his side. He had a chance, given a little time and a few more centimeters…

Stivender’s foot came down on his wrist.  He leveled the shock-rifle at Paxton and reached for the Mauler.

In the sky behind him Paxton saw a dark wedge-shape emerge from the murk, its massive thrusters inaudible over the roar of Caterwaul–

–and there was no transponder beacon. No ID code, no Bureau insignia on the hull.

“It’s not ours! Somebody took out our ship!” Paxton shouted, automatically protecting the civilian. “Get out of range!” Was this the pick-up for those missing poachers?

The ship fired a targeting burst of depleted-uranium slugs. Stivender dropped the canister and Mauler, kicked his muscle-augments on FULL and leaped away. The mid-air predictable arc made him an easy target, and a second stream of Gutshredders intersected with the apex of his leap, reducing him to a cloud of metal and flesh.

But Paxton’s suit-arms were now on-line. He put the Mauler to his shoulder knowing, even as he fired, that his chances of bringing down a multi-ton, surface-to-orbit spacecraft were about equal to a zero-g lifeform learning to tap-dance.

The next burst of Gutshredders found him.

The caustic atmosphere added burning corrosion to every wound before the suit’s skin managed to partly self-seal. Roaring pain was soon subsumed by numbness. In a nightmare-like glaze, he could only lie there as the ship maneuvered for landing against the gale-force winds.

From behind him came the thud of a pressure wave. He turned his eyes. Up the slope, dust clouds parted like a theater curtain for a woman clothed only in an inhuman aspect of grace.

His heart, dying, still surged. A Deepwalker? No, a Lureling!

She raised her arms, fists clenched to the sky. Paxton’s gaze drifted back to the ship. The tip of a vacuum-storm slammed into the lander, shredded it, and swept the twisted spiral of wreckage away.

Safely away from him. As if she had a Caterwaul’s powers to sense changes and could also control them.

Paxton looked back – one more glimpse of the Lureling would be a good way to die, but only smoke and ash rolled across the slope.

Regret ran through him, and he could feel his suit filling with blood, but a task remained undone. With great difficulty, for a failing mutable-suit is a massive and unresponsive prison, slowly he reached for the canister.  He placed his glove on it. The proper frequency went forth; the lid popped open; the Caterwaul shot skyward in freedom.

Paxton watched it go, the last thing he saw before he died.

And the thing that ultimately saved his life.

 

The Caterwaul was fifty-two minutes old and approaching the limits of its mass. It had made a life’s work of tracking the hard-shells but still had not solved their mystery. Too many distractions intervened, too much necessity: to defend, to fight, to consume. To survive.

It knew where the hard-shells were though and was traveling again in their direction when the final necessity occurred:

The overwhelming need to Mate, a biological directive even more powerful than the survival Reflex

Its voracious appetite strangely fading, the Caterwaul consumed a clutch of hatchlings. Normally beneath notice, they became the Caterwaul’s last meal, imparting enough mass for Fission.

The Caterwaul burned with the need to expend its mass to a new generation. Succeed or fail, death approached. Make it count! To live so long! To come so close!

Underground sine-wave explosions tore a furrow in the crust where the Caterwaul fell. It made no effort to protect itself; rightshape and wrongshape were now meaningless.

Writhing in meta-pain and para-sexual desire, the Caterwaul reverted to its primordial, formless self and raised its voice in an irresistible cry. Its cluster-node vibrated as it broadcast its mating-call across a broad spectrum of electromagnetic energies.

The pressure of its mass grew. Its cluster-node split again and again, forming the embryos of potential offspring.

But only with a mate to receive them.

Soon the mating-cry would become a death-cry.

And no mate came. The long, final seconds passed the point of no return. Any other variform that heard the signal now could not arrive in time.

Though despair lanced through the Caterwaul, it began a dignified death-dance. And half-way through the performance montage of all its past shapes, it heard a miraculous reply. Another variform appeared in the sky over a nearby canyon and arrowed down. With its unique, invented self-awareness, the Caterwaul understood that this was impossible. Its mating-cry was irresistible. How could any variform be so close and not respond until now? The two collided, and curiosity ended as their separate masses became One.

Their nerve-threads intertwined; their cluster-nodes meshed, and in their epiphany, they became every Caterwaul that had lived before them and every descendant that stretched after them. On some unthinking cellular level, they tapped into a genetic stream whose every sip carried the sum of its parts, stability through constant instability, consistency through constant change, species without end, amen.

The chain-reaction accelerated. The Caterwaul expelled its seedling cluster-nodes deep into the body of the other variform; the mate greedily sucked at the other’s excess mass to create a hundred infant bodies around them. The exchange became a frenzy–glorious, violent, spiraling uncontrollably toward an ultimate–

EXPLOSION!

Drained of all but its original birth-mass, the Caterwaul was tossed skyward by the force. Below, all its mate mass had gone to create the clutch of eggs that lay like a ring of shrapnel around the detonation-point of their sex.

Exhausted and depleted, all its senses failing, the Caterwaul rode the arc of its helpless trajectory, searching for a good place to die.

Then it saw the hard-shell lying in the canyon from which its mate had appeared. Elation filled it: the chance to solve the final mystery in its dying seconds. Feebly, it angled itself to ride the wind-currents and fluttered to a landing.

In the grip of the Reflex washing over it in waves ever more powerful and compelling, the Caterwaul sensed that the motionless hard-shell offered survival on a scale never before imagined.

Trembling with fear and excitement, it assumed a snakeform and crawled through the incompletely sealed puncture in the suit, then into the gaping wounds, on the brink of something momentous. The Reflex controlled it completely now, guiding it into the most difficult and complex transformation of its life.

The Reflex knew how to fix the still-warm body. The Caterwaul flowed and merged with the flesh, becoming a severed spinal column and ruptured vessels, Becoming ligaments, torn skin, damaged nerves, lost blood. As it repaired, it sent out exploratory tendrils into the farther reaches of this immutable but amazingly versatile lifeform, and one of those tendrils reached the brain.

 

A moment later, Paxton struggled to sit up. He took a breath. His mind throbbed with dual memories — all his human life, and all his headlong adventures as a variform up to Mating with the variform he’d released from captivity. Profoundly dizzy, he tried to hold his head, but the helmet got in the way.

Looking down at his riddled armor, he felt again the pain of high-velocity slugs passing through him. He remembered the abrupt brutality of Stivender’s death.

All of it.

He tried to move, but the last systems failed. A new part of him knew exactly what to do, and before the old Paxton could protest, he tripped his emergency-release. The suit opened like a clamshell. Clad only in his thin undersuit, Paxton stood up and stepped onto the soil of his new home as a true native for the first time. He looked on Caterwaul’s stern beauty with remade eyes and an entirely new sense.

Like the variforms, he could now sense changes before they occurred, in time to avoid or adapt. His hybrid body continued altering itself, tissues toughening, cells changing chemically to use the caustic air, his whole metabolism in flux. The temperature felt mild, the air breathable, the wind merely brisk, the violence predictable, and the noise tolerable, so diminished he could hear a gentle voice say his name. Except no, it didn’t come as sound waves but brain waves. Slowly, he turned.

The Lureling held her hand out to him.

An escort flanked her, almost hidden –almost human?–i n the gloom. Deep inside, Paxton felt their EM communication-field, heard that the Deepwalkers offered him dignity and friendship, respect and gratitude, sorrow over his death but the offer of a new kind of life.

And a chance to fight for the mysteries and beauties of the universe.

In answer to the Lureling’s invitation, Paxton took his first, tentative step toward her and in doing so felt himself walk across that indefinable line between mortality and legend.

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

“Down in the Deepflux” © Jake West.  This story first appeared in the January 2005 issue of Rogue Worlds online magazine, edited by Doyle Wilmoth Jr., who also ran the SpecFicWorld.com website.
Jake West is that rarity, a native-born Californian, married to his wife Janet for 30 years. Retired from teaching Special Education due to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, he divides his time between digital painting and writing. His stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, an original anthology edited by Orson Scott Card, various small-press markets, and The SFWA Bulletin with a non-fiction lead article on the Hollywood pitch, based on his experiences writing for TV shows like AIRWOLF and the George Romero syndicated anthology MONSTERS, as well as original screenplays that didn’t survive the fires of Development Hell.

 

Illustration by Fran Eisemann

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