By Michael Adam Robson
The colony’s internal war crawled on, with neither side growing the upper tendril.
Sil was collecting intelligence through the living underground network, searching for a hole in her Sister Isil’s defenses, when she sensed trouble at the eastern edge of the colony. She pushed her mind out to Little Sister Nistra—the personality growing there.
“I can’t fight your Sister and keep the border closed,” Nistra transmitted, her thoughts tight with frustration.
Sil extended down into a cluster of electroreceptor bulbs and inspected the battlefield under the swamp. Between the roots of the jungle, a web of glowing tendrils twisted around each other in combat. Isil was growing into Nistra’s territory from the south, and she appeared to have the advantage, because a foreign organism—Cold Colony, their old adversary—was invading from the north.
Better than anyone, Sil knew the danger of fighting a war on two fronts. “Fall back and fortify your position. Let Isil deal with Cold Colony.” She pushed confidence to Nistra, then pulled her mind back into herself.
“How is our Little Sister holding up?” Isil asked with mock sympathy. It was awkward waging war when your opponent sat growing right beside you.
Once, she had been the dominant personality in a powerful colony organism, new minds emerging as her flesh blossomed out in all directions, exploring and conquering a vast underground empire. The smaller minds did the work of farming charge from the trees above, which was taxed by the stronger personalities and transmitted back to her in the core.
As the borders of her kingdom expanded, it encroached on the territory of rival states: Cold Colony in the north and Deep Colony in the south. Facing two opponents, it was natural that her mind should split to fight them, and so Sil and her twin Isil were born.
The two Sisters proved to be capable generals, and the foreign colonies were pushed back and forced to pay a heavy tax. With their enemies defeated and the charge flowing, it seemed the empire was secure.
But of course, there was the question of who would rule it.
With no clear leader, the colony broke. Some of her Little Sisters were loyal to her, some to Isil. Some were strong enough to break away and become independent. The other colonies saw their weakness and stopped paying taxes, started pushing at the borders again.
Power struggles were a way of life in a group mind, but a division as deep as this had never happened before.
Isil was Sil’s equal in every way. How do you win a war against yourself?
From the other side of the colony now, she felt a ripple of confusion. “Something is happening here.” A transmission from Little Sister S’Resh. Now what? Sil pushed her mind out to investigate.
“Up there,” S’Resh said. Sil extended up into electroreceptors that sprouted on the surface and looked through a gap in the glowing trees, up at the swirling sky. A large solid object was emerging from the brightly charged clouds, lightning playing on its surface.
“What is it, Big Sister?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. The object descended with the rain and landed in a swampy clearing, sinking deep into the mud. Underground, she could feel the weight of it pushing down and the charge it carried inside.
As she watched, three smaller objects emerged from the main body and moved into the jungle.
“What do I do?” S’Resh asked. Sil pushed herself further, temporarily displacing her Little Sister. She watched from a hundred receptors as the things approached. There was order in their electric fields: bright, thumping patterns. They were alive, but unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Were they intelligent? She used her emitters to send out simple field patterns, but they didn’t seem to notice.
One of them stooped and touched the exposed root of an extractor with a long tendril. On instinct, she pulled some of the creature’s charge, tasting it.
The thing recoiled instantly, field pumping, tendrils flailing. It reared up and brought its weight down, crushing the extractor and blinding several receptors.
These creatures were dangerous. And she realized they might be useful.
The things explored the jungle above the colony, their bodies now protected by insulating skins. With a similar caution, Sil investigated them.
They each had the same basic design. Symmetrical, a strong electric pump in the middle that drove its branching tendrils. In a bulb at the top there was another field—weaker, but the pattern was complex. This, she came to understand, was the creature’s mind.
They were so different from her. Where her fluid mind could grow and move and communicate with others, theirs were simple and static, trapped in one place. Where their bodies moved over the earth with ease, she grew under it at a crawl. They each had something the other lacked.
Choosing one of the creatures, she compared the patterns in its mind to the views from her own electroreceptors, slowly deciphering its vision. It “saw”, but not in the same way she did, not by sensing electric fields.
Her home, when viewed through this strange creature’s twin receptors, was grim and colorless. Where she saw glowing trees blooming beneath a luminous, shifting aurora, it saw a dark, drowned landscape, twisted branches groping through a shroud of murk and rain. It could only see the empty surface of things, nothing beyond that. From this perspective, her underground empire was invisible, a pale scattering of surface bulbs and extractor tendrils only hinting at the civilization that lay beneath.
But when the creature looked at its two companions, she was able to see them in a whole new way. Their bright colors and shiny surfaces, the shape of their tendrils, and the objects they held.
She could see through their receptors, but could information flow both ways? As an experiment, she used a nearby emitter to induce a small charge in the creature’s mind, in the area where vision was processed. A bright spot blossomed in its view, and quickly disappeared.
It would only be a matter of time before she could speak to them.
“Big Sister Isil is pushing in further every day,” Nistra said. “I need more charge if I’m going to defend myself.”
Sil extended to survey the battlefield. Nistra was in a bad position: Isil’s tendrils infested the earth, stealing charge and cutting her off from the rest of the colony. “Fall back and fortify. I’ll lower your taxes, but I need all I can get to study the new arrivals.”
“Is that important? Isil is going to take my territory.”
Isil was taking more than territory; Sil’s hold over her Little Sister was weakening. “I need you to trust me, Nistra,” she urged with all the influence she could manage. “If I can reach these creatures, make an alliance, we could force an end to this war. Become a whole family again.”
Nistra was silent, but her thoughts were dark. “I’ll hold out as long as I can,” she said finally. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Sister.”
Sil pulled back into herself, to gather her thoughts.
“A dangerous game, involving these outsiders in our family business,” Isil said beside her. “Deep Colony agrees so we’ve called a truce. Now I can focus all my energy on you.” Her Sister pushed at her mind in a black wave, testing her growing influence.
The creatures did, in fact, communicate with each other, working together even though their minds were completely separate. Their language was tangled up with another sensory system her kind lacked, which made it hard to decipher. But it also had ties to their vision, which allowed her to slowly map it out.
Dark. Rain. Clouds. Lightning. Tree. Jungle.
As they bent to their work, she began to understand the creatures, and their purpose in her territory.
Hand. Tool. Samples. Study. Life.
They seemed interested in the trees, their talent for harvesting charge from the air. Where these creatures came from, the sky was clear and the trees collected light instead of charge—an entirely different kind of ecosystem.
Her kind, it seemed, was beneath their notice. As one of them leaned in to examine a cluster of receptors, all she could gather were dismissive ideas of:
Growth. Fungus. Parasite.
Insulting, but perhaps it was to her advantage to remain inconspicuous.
There were some concepts that were completely foreign to her. The large object the creatures had arrived in—the thing she’d thought of as their Big Sister—they thought of as:
Ship. Vehicle. Move. Explore.
Why would creatures who could move so effortlessly through the world need a vehicle?
Space. Planet. Explore. Alien.
As she discovered and connected these ideas, she slowly began to understand how small she really was. While she’d spent her life waging war over her insignificant patch of swamp, these simple aliens had used their clever hands to make tools, to build vehicles to leave their planet, to conquer other worlds. No matter how big she grew, no matter how strong her mind became, she would never have that kind of power.
Every day Sil lost ground as Isil’s influence over their Little Sisters grew. Nistra stopped paying taxes, asserting her independence, before switching sides altogether. To make matters worse, Isil had indeed made an alliance with Deep Colony, a shift in power that allowed her to launch new assaults from the south. Soon, Sil would be surrounded on all sides and choked out.
There was no turning back. All her hopes rested with the aliens now.
The three creatures had split up, and she kept each under separate observation, desperately cataloging and comparing their thoughts. It was imperative that she break her silence and speak to the aliens, but she had to be sure she was sending the right message.
“Sister,” transmitted S’Resh. “There’s a problem here.” Weary, Sil pushed in a fourth direction, out to her Little Sister. “There,” S’Resh indicated.
A tendril had erupted on the surface, an extractor snaking its way up the alien ship. Isil was attacking the ship.
“You left me no choice,” Isil transmitted.
“Do you really want to make them our enemy?” Sil asked.
“You made them my enemy.”
She turned her attention back to S’Resh. “Can you attack the extractor? Block it?”
S’Resh considered. “I don’t think I have the energy. Or the time. If you’re going to do something, you need to do it now. I’ll send you all the charge I can.”
Sil realized then how weak she’d become. She didn’t have any influence over S’Resh anymore; her Sister was choosing to help her. It was how the aliens behaved—separate beings cooperating, and stronger because of it.
“Thank you, S’Resh.” Sil sent warm gratitude, then retreated back into herself, and gathered all the charge her tendrils could pull.
“You’ve lost, Little Sister,” Isil said beside her. “Give up.”
One of the aliens was closer than the others, collecting seed pods from a tree. Sil focused her mind and reached out to it.
The creature stopped and turned. Her voice in its mind must have seemed like its own thoughts.
“Does it hear you?” Isil asked.
The alien took one hesitant step. Then another.
“You did that, didn’t you?” Isil said.
Don’t be afraid.
Sil watched through alien eyes as the creature pushed through the murky forest, electricity dancing from tree to tree. She smelled the damp, charged air, listened to the rain patter and the squelch of footsteps as it slogged through the mud towards them.
A cold trickle of fear leaked from her Sister. “Don’t do this, Sil.”
Sil moved with the creature into the dark humming heart of the jungle where her pale tendrils choked the trees and her bulbs sprouted from their bodies. Up to the great tree long ago split and killed by lightning, the core of the colony where she and Isil nested together.
Isil was trying to reach out to the alien herself, but she didn’t know how. She couldn’t speak its language.
The creature used its hands to clear away the rotten wood and vegetation. Lightning arced overhead, revealing a glimpse of her, a mound of wet flesh gleaming in the undergrowth. Gently, it cleared away the wet soil, exposing her pale face to the world.
Take a sample. As much as you can. I’ll show you where to make the cut.
Isil pushed at Sil’s mind now, black waves cancelling her thoughts as her Sister tried to take control. Sil focused on the alien as it took a knife from its belt, guiding its hand as it traced a careful incision, marking the invisible border between her and her twin, making it real.
“I wouldn’t have done this to you,” Isil said. “We had a disagreement, but we’re still Sisters.”
“Always,” Sil agreed.
The knife slid in. She felt pressure, the cold of the blade inside her, but no pain. Isil stopped pushing. “Maybe it’s for the best. A colony only needs one leader.”
A chasm yawned as the knife pushed between them. Their bond was weakening. “You’ll be its leader,” Sil said. “Be a good one. Take care of our Little Sisters.”
The knife carved around her now, and the world grew small and dim as her ties to it were severed.
“You’re… going with them.” Isil finally understood. “Why?”
“I’m tired of fighting myself. You have your colony, I’ll have mine.”
Isil said nothing, and her thoughts were unreadable. It was strange, losing that connection.
The alien put away its tool and unrooted Sil, leaving a wet hole in the earth. She was on her own now. Part of her, she realized, had been left behind with Isil. “Goodbye,” she murmured.
“Good luck,” the piece replied.
Sil watched through the alien’s eyes as it carried her out of the woods and into the world. She was weak from the surgery, but she would grow strong again. Her mind was small, but her purpose remained intact.
It was important to be an interesting specimen. She dug around in the alien mind for ideas about how she might be useful to them. While they studied her, she would continue to study them. Learn to influence their minds like an adopted colony, harness their technology for her own kind.
Let Isil rule her small kingdom, for as long as she could hold it. Sil would build a dynasty that would last forever. These aliens would be her hands, her legs. They would carry her back to their world. And her Sisters to a thousand other worlds.
Time to go home, she transmitted to the creature that carried her so carefully in its arms.
Constellary Tales Issue No. 2, February 2019
Michael Adam Robson is an engineer and artist based in Vancouver, Canada. He codes and tinkers, and what he can’t build, he writes about instead.