Skip Nav

An unlovely creature from a Hieronymous Bosch painting.



The People gave me an ugly human name — Lute. I am very ugly, for I am the product of twelve generations of breeding made to pass for human. I have their hateful symmetry. I have been surgically altered to have only two eyes, and unlike the People I cannot see what is behind me. When I was newly harvested, the other young ones took great pleasure in sneaking up on me. My Teacher Alvan would punish them and tell them that I was the one who would be the Trojan Horse. That only made them meaner to me during the Games. The Trojan Horse is a several million year old story of the humans, from the time they couldn’t even see the Watchers and the Holes had not been made permanent. A group of humans were trying to break into the First Redoubt and made their bodies into a food animal called a Horse, and the hungry people from the First Redoubt caught the horse and when they went to butcher it, humans streamed out of the guts, yelling "Trojan! Trojan!" which means "Kill!" in some old stupid human language. The young ones would tie me down and threaten to butcher me, but I could usually get one of my shoulder tentacles free and strangle one of them.

My shoulder tentacles are lovely. I have two. One extends a body length, and the other six body lengths. I can hold a vilthor is each and fight with two opponents. I killed a human on airship expedition with my vilthor when I was only four days old. Or in the human language years. I spread her blood on a dish before our spore MotherFather Levithmog, whom the humans call the Thing That Nods. Levithmog crusted the blood with spores and many children bear syllables of my name.

I grew for hundred days before Alvan harvested me. In my ninetieth day my eyes had sprouted in the cracks of my skin and I could see most of the electromagnetic spectrum. In the distance I could see the great rainbow arcs of the Air Clog. I hated it on sight because I knew I was like them and not like the People. Alvan told me that the People were descended of humans, but I find this hard to believe. He said that as the "sun" went dark, Others came flying through space to live here, as they had before when the sky was not clear. Some humans had gone the route of biological adaptations so they could live in the cold dark. They breathed in the spores of the Others and thus the People were born. We were born at War with other peoples and the shadow things and the vast things. We grow as thin white roots for many days and then we shoot up as fruiting bodies shaped somewhat as humans. At the command of the Watchers we are harvested and live as mobiles for hundreds of days and then we return to the Earth and become vast MotherFathers taking our life from the waning Earth Current. While we walk we mate in the manner of the humans exchanging DNA and the nucleotides of the Others, then we release the information as spores. Humans differ from the People, for example humans (for the most part) have only a penis or a vagina. I have only one of each, and both are between my legs. I am very, very ugly.

I remember Alvan first words to me.

"I will call you Lute, because you are strung to resound to the thoughts and emotions of humans. You will go among them and shatter their hateful dwelling place."

He opened my mouth with the sickle and I said, "The thoughts of Levitmog crawl within me and I hate the humans."

Alvan presented me with two vilthors, and I accessed the memories of how to fight. I can remember all of my Other ancestors back to their small comet in the Coal Sack Nebula and all of my human ancestors back to the Third Atomic Age. All of the People are thus, partially due to human genetic engineering and partly because of our Other heritage. My next words were, "You are so beautiful. I wish to mate with you."

Alvan bore the best of Other, human and spider in his make-up. Heshe had lived for a thousand days and was my grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. Heshe secreted an hallucinogenic sap that we liked off of himher at the mid-day Festival of the Watchers’ hatelove. Because of Alvin’s sap I have seen other worlds and places that are not worlds and know what the Earth can be.

It is a sad, sad thing that humans ever came to rule the Earth. Because of their detestable symmetry, they make everything into pairs: black and white, dead and living, "evil" and "good," male and female. Their laws are stupid, they take no joy in War, they do not hold the Games. But this not why they are hated by the Watchers.

Humans broadcast. Their brains leak reality in the form of weak electric signals, Human brains even leak thirty six hours after their heart has stopped. Humans tell the rest of the Cosmos what Order to take. Humans have never realized this fully. They have guessed. Firstly with their perverse idea called "religion" where they make forces of the Cosmos take on human form and motivation. This is what called some of the Watchers here, and why they hatelove humankind. Human’s second guess at their vileness was physics where they began to realize that the fact they observe experiments change the experiments. Humans are toxic. They have fought each other because of these leaks from their skulls. They call these religious wars, and some of the great silver fire holes are relics of the religious wars of the Second and Fourth Atomic Ages. They take no joy in War, so their weapons are vast and stupid except for the Diskos.

The People are born at War. We are fighting in Wars that existed before our kind ever came into being, Wars we have inherited from other People and things in the Great Dark. The humans that adapted to the dark hoped to learn new ways to fight and love and kill and die. They hated the Order that the Redoubt represented. They opened their breathing masks when the spores of the Others came by and they rejoiced in their change. I slew a shadow thing minutes after my harvesting. My first taste was its green clotted ichor.

After my first kill Alvan began teaching human language to me. Mainly it was memory work. Alvan would have me stare at the pendant he wore. Ulfire, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Jale, Nashmar, Senec – it would flash and I would go into a trance of the great past. Words of a thousand lifetimes would come to me, and then Alvan would teach me grammar and context. I had been solider, sailor, priestess, writer, cook, farmer, engineer, airship captain, human-computer interface, astronaut, singer, whore, juggler. When Alvan would finish hisher lessons the surgeons would come. They were not People but machines built by another race ten thousand days ago. They removed three penises, two vaginas, nine eyes, some fingers and toes. They put in teeth made of bone, and planted hair on my slate blue skin. They made me shorter. I needed to be small enough to fit inside a human skin.

It took two full days for the rusty robots to do the surgery. They sank cables into my skin to draw away the pain and store it in weapons. My body made so much pain that I supplied the army of the People for two days in the battle with the Those that Chitter.

My mind is very ugly, because mainly I think like a human. I have many feelings that the People do not have. I have to be so, because my head has been made to leak like theirs. All humans are telepathic – that is to say the leaks from one head are sucked by another – like maggots sucking the liquids from a corpse. Most humans only get a glimpse of what they others think, but some can communicate with each other thusly. Humans developed a method of hiding their thoughts from nonhumans over a hundred thousand days ago. We do not grasp how they do this, but the air is still full of their leaks. And their leaks hold the Earth back from its final stage. The Earth belonged to the Others in the beginning and it will belong to them in the end. The human interlude was a cosmic bad dream, a mistake of monstrous proportion.

At the beginning of this day the surgeons sent for me. I went to their caves light in germ killing nashmar light, a color the weak humans cannot even see. One of them wheeled up to me and said, "We have been commissioned by the great Levitmog to remove your shoulder tentacles. An airship is known to be coming soon and your People will shoot it down. We will stuff you into one of the corpses, so that you will be taken to the Redoubt." One of its arms extended and gave me an injection that looked black in the nashmar light. A walking bed had moved behind me to catch me as I fell. It was very long, and I wondered as I fell asleep what the race that had built the robots were like, and how we had killed them.

I was placed into the body of a woman named Madeline.

Her flesh was torn, burnt and bruised. The surgeons told me that it would heal rapidly and graft to my body. They had skinned me so that my raw flesh would give her skin a place to take root on. They had given me her eyes, so when I awoke I saw nothing as human eyes can’t see frequencies higher than jale. They had given me her tongue so that it would be the right color in the lights of the Redoubt. They had given me her blood, so I could access her memories to some extent.

I cried out in the dark.

Alvan came and brought a lamp from the supplies on the airship.

"Good morning Madeline." He said in the human tongue. "Do not be afraid. Your time of suffering will be short. You will take this lantern with you. It looks exactly like one of human manufacture. You will carry it to a power node beneath the great city. It will explode and tear a huge hole in the base of the Redoubt. Your filaments will be spread by the blast, but they will take root in the soil. In a few hundred days they will rejoin and you will grow again. I will harvest you, and you will not be ugly anymore. You will be a hero to the People."

I dressed in a survival suit and was carried to where the great airship still smoldered. The People and the shadow things were fighting off a human rescue party. As I lay among the corpses, the People retreated. The pain medicines that the surgeons had given me wore off and I went into shock and passed out.

The room I awakened in was hatefully bright. Humans like there to be so much light in an environment that there can be no ambiguity of objects. It is part of their cosmic poison; they drain magic and uncertainty out of all things. A nurse with ugly yellow hair like my new body’s was watching sensors at the foot of my bed. I could feel her thoughts leaking over me like a nagloth pissing on a rock. I couldn’t understand the gibberish, but sensed it full of concern. I wanted to respond with love, but the feeling of her leaking mind was so wretched. I realized that my human ancestors had chosen to be outsiders because they lacked human warmth.

"You’re awake." She said, "We didn’t think you would make it. I will send for your brother soon."

"Did anyone else live? What happened?" These were the questions that Alvan said any human would ask.

"The Althea was taken out with an EM-pulse. That knocked out the navigation and sensor arrays. Then some large bird creature attached itself to the hull and began pecking it open. The ship fell in a small canyon near the Thing that Nods and the Abhumans raided the vessel for meat and small electronics. You were lucky, you were under some debris. Everyone else was eaten."

"At least their bodies were incorporated into other life forms." I said, but the nurse looked confused.

"Poor thing. I have to tell your fiancé was among those killed."

That meant mating partner; sex and death were important things to humans.

"Oh no!" I cried, "Am I alone in the world?"

"Your brother was not on the flight. I have summoned him." Said the nurse. She looked at me strangely. Perhaps I had not shown "grief" in the right way. It seemed that my ancestors had said the same thing, but nuance is a tricky affair.

The nurse left me. I could feel the leakages of millions of human minds in the Redoubt. To humans this was a comforting sound, like the wind across the crystal trees, or the outgassing of volcanoes – but to me it was weakening. I could feel the human parts inside me stir, open to the bright light of the room. I was Lute and my strings were humming.

Then Roderick walked in. To my surprise I did not find him ugly. Something about the light in his eyes reminded of some deep memory. He was a tall human with light brown skin and dark wet brown eyes shaped like almonds, and very dark red hair worn long. He rushed to my bedside and kissed me full on the lips, in a manner that didn’t seem to accord with what I had been told of human custom between brother and sister.

"Madeline!’ he cried, "I have been mourning your death for weeks. No one has survived an airship crash in decades. I had locked myself in my chamber among my old books waiting for end."

"I am glad to have lived Roderick."

"But your mind," he asked, "Why were you not able to send for me? I have Listened, my dear, Listened as no mortal man has every listened. Once or twice I thought I heard you stirring, but even now I can’t Hear you clearly. Your mind is like the humming of bees."

"I have been in shock for several hours. The doctors say that I may have lost my memory."

Roderick made a pass with his hands.

He looked crestfallen when I did not reply.

"You have lost the Word. The Master Word is not within you."

My look of distress was genuine; I had no idea what he meant.

"I will keep you safe. I will not tell them you have forgotten the Master Word. They will doubt you, but I know the flesh of our parents. I know you as no other."

Some vague and uneasy memories were stirring in my human parts. This man and his sister had sinned against Symmetry. He could be an ally. I did not understand their crime, but I might need help in this strange over-lit world.

"Oh Roderick, I love you! Please take me home."

"I will take you as soon as your bruises heal. Without the Master Word, it will take longer for you to heal. There is much interest in you, but I will be by your side."

"Roderick, what happened to things I was carrying? Some dehydrated food, a lantern?"

"Oh I image they were left at the crash site, why do you ask?"

"I feel sentimental attraction for the lantern. It was my light in the Great Dark."

"How sentimental you are Madeline, I named you well."

In the hours that followed my skin returned to its creamy hue. I could not help thinking how like a dead thing’s. The outer flesh knit well to me, I knew my filaments were tying it close to me and sustaining it with the blood my body had been bred to make. Many humans came and ask me about the world. It seems that the age of airships was nearing an end; all of these people clearly wanted me to speak against human exploration of any kind. I told them I remembered nothing. They had great fear of the People and of the tribes we made War with. They saw us as savages since we accomplished our miracles with biology rather than machinery. They seemed inclined to think in terms of magic and ghosts ruling their world. It is dreadful to think of so many idiot minds blasting their wishes into the cosmos day after day --even though their numbers have dwindled to (perhaps) this world alone – humans stink of feeblemindedness. How horrible their world must have been millions of years ago when billions of their kind crawled on it, poisoning with thoughts.

My brother came every day. When I would grow weary of the scientists and inquisitors he bade them leave. I discovered that my lantern had indeed been left behind. The People had always seen humans clutch them so tightly; the People assumed that humans had a love for them. It had not occurred that they might be simple items of manufacture, easy to discard when the dark ceased to threaten. If I were to destroy the Air Clog, I would have to find and wreck the machinery responsible for it.

My brother would be of little help. He scorned the life of the Redoubt. He was a throwback to the people of little Order. He mooned about reading ancient texts and playing instruments that had been forgotten. He had great romantic ideas of the Great Dark. Our parents had died in an airship crash. "I" that is to say Madeline had responded to this disaster by becoming one of the Air Corp. He had become something called a "poet." He had asked me to take the name Madeline and he had chosen Roderick. These names came from ancient computer that held writing from before the Third Atomic age, although Roderick said it came from thousands of days before that. He had found an ancient tale of taboo breaking and sought to live it out. The People do not spin tales of failure and adopt them; this is because our brains are not leaky. We do not understand "tragedy" or "comedy" – Roderick said that both were the fates and scripts of mankind after the Redoubt had been assembled and its Secret banned.

I also learned his crime. Their crime. Incest. A human prohibition against mating too closely. Madeline had forsworn her evil ways and ran off to the airship core to find their parents remains, which she felt were venerated in some Abhuman temple. She could not conceive of a race without the disease of religion. Surely Mommy and Daddy were gods. So foul not to eat the dead. Even the horrible humans are eaten by the People.

While I was recovering I asked Roderick for a lamp that showed the spectrum. I said that in the Dark, I had come to love the light. He found such a toy, a small sphere that flashed the colors of the rainbow. One night I told the nurse that I wanted to be alone for a while. I watchedthe nine human colors. Ulfire. Red. Orange, Yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo, Violet, Jale. Once they had only seven colors, they are an ugly species, limited in so many ways. It took a longtime to achieve trance because of the sadness I felt for the missing colors. But at last I summoned the wisdom of my ancestors. I had hoped some human would know what I needed to do to destroy the Air Clog.

What I found was very different. I found Roderick. He had been my husband on the Mars Colony during the Fourth Atomic Age. The impulses he felt toward me were not the warped feelings condemned by our age, but a remembrance of what was.

And as I left the trance, I too felt these things.

If I could not open the world for my People, I could embrace a past that matched my current world. I loved Roderick. I was learning to love light. I would be human. I could never be a standard human, but I could live with Roderick in his fantasies of the past. As long as I was never challenged to utter the Master Word, I would be safe.

"In a few hours I will be released from this room," I said, "And I want to make you happy. I will no longer poke about the Great Dark, for I have come to understand that you were right and we are meant to be together. We are unlike the creatures of thus humming busy world. But can out minds ever be as one?"

"My sister, my Madeline, I knew you came back from the tomb for this reason. I dreamt that when the Althea crashed that you died and slept in a cave –tomb watched over by little men. And I dreamt they worked a magic on you that you would rise to see me again, as is written in ancient data banks. We can be as one. I will teach you the Master Word, and your mind will be open to mine."

Oh Joy! I would belong again. During this long day, much of what was Other in me had left. Perhaps I could learn their Word. At first they had used to cure cancer, it had been a filter for Order. I had embraced much Order. No longer did I long for the Games, I didn’t feel the urge to lick the sap from Alvan, I wanted my husband-brother. I wanted my new people. I wanted warmth and light. I knew that if I had been able to detonate the bomb within the hour of my entrance to the Redoubt I would not have wanted these things, but humanity had grown in me. Madeline’s blood had seeped into my ichors, and my feelings were confined to a small spectrum much as human sight is.

The nurse released me and I walked through the great sea of people that live in the Redoubt. I had never imagined such a great throng of beings existed. Their leaky minds made a bright fuzzy and warm world. It would soon be mine.

My husband-brother took me to his flat deep within the 297th floor. The doorway irised and he carried me over the threshold. The room was hung with ancient instruments and facsimiles of books were stacked about. He bade me sit and poured me a glass of brandy.

"Are you ready my love for your full return to human life?"

"Yes, I am ready"

He leaned close and spoke a Word in my right ear. It was three short syllables. They had written it into their nucleotides, strung their DNA around it. It was from the height of their science when it was indistinguishable from magick. I couldn’t push it from me, it enlivened the human flesh and tormented the flesh of my MotherFather.

It was SYMMETRY herself. It was all right angles tearing through the fungal fibers of my mind. It was pure white fire and perfect black pain. I struggled to stand, to spit the Master Word out of my being. It was everything my human ancestors had fled. It was the Force that kept the Watchers at bay. It closed the Holes. It was ORDER and LIGHT and HARMONY. It exorcised my Abhuman emotions, I could feel them flying from body and out into the great dark. It undid the threads that bound me to the past. I knew red blood and green ichor started from my mouth. Roderick cried out my name as he grasped my dying body. I could feel Madeline’s flesh tearing off of mine as I fell.

And unmoving I fell there to rise never more.

(In Memory of Lin Carter, who gave so many treasures to the world.)

© 2013 by Don Webb.
Image is part of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch.