Gact had magnificent podii. Everybody said so, and everybody knew it, including Gact.
You couldn’t help but notice them. They were large and bulbous, and even if you tried to politely avert your eyes, they were just there , undulating powerfully and invitingly, rippling all over their rotund corpus as they moved with you around the chamber. Eventually your eyes would naturally settle on the primary podus at their base and you’d think “wow, that’s a beautiful podus,” and Gact would notice and feel a thrill of pride.
Gact took great care of their podii. They were crucial to their work as a Carrier - “you can’t get anywhere without a podus” they’d always said, and with so many strong ancillary exopod clusters they were able to Carry further and faster than most. That’d earned them a reputation, and now whenever the Nodes needed something Carried far and fast, it was Gact that they called to Carry it.
But Gact’s podii were off the clock right now, and it was time for them to enjoy themselves. As they waited for their companion to play their turn Gact reflected, not for the first time, on how it was a shame that Taccat had never really shown any interest in their exceptional podii, despite otherwise seeming to like the rest of Gact just fine. Although, they considered, perhaps that disinterest had helped them to maintain a companionship for so long? After all, hadn’t all of their closest bondings disintegrated through lack of a deeper blending of selves? You can’t really get to know somebody when all you see is a nice set of podipules.
Taccat dipped an appendage into one of the vessels between them and sucked up liquid inside, turning the tip of the appendage the same vivid purple as the vessel’s contents. They swilled their choice around for a moment, then with a scent of smug satisfaction, gently squirted their selection into the far-left quadrant of the game pool embedded in the floor. In response, a ring of dull blobs burst into tumescent splendour, each pulsing strongly with a slow, compelling rhythm.
Gact’s own blobs pulsed too, with a faster but now decidedly weaker rhythm. “Ugh!” they uttered, exasperated. “What am I thinking? I left that completely unsealed.”
“Too busy thinking about yourself, I suspect!” the fibrous being responded. As they spoke, electricity coruscated through Taccat’s network of limbs, running from the power cells in their center to the phero-sonic emitters at their extremities. The Transmitter was characteristically unconcerned how tangible they were to anybody with a full-spectrum sensory organ - that carefree (some would say careless) advertisement of their internal state was charming to those who, like Gact, were afraid to reveal their inner workings to others. “What’s up with you anyway, something happen on the job?”
“No no, just tired. I should head to the baths soon, I suppose.” It was true, in a way - nothing had happened - not really - but Gact was worried, regardless. Something the Node had said - no, not what it had said, they realized. It had been perfectly complimentary about Gact’s performance, and politely wished them a nice bath. It was its tone that was off, an unusual finality in the parting exchange of communication pulses.
Was Gact going to be replaced? They realized all at once that they were worried they might be. It was a weird feeling - fear and bewilderment, mixed with absurdity. Gact had centuries of regrowth remaining, there was no need or sense in replacing them - but still the worry remained.
What else could a Carrier with powerful podii do with themselves, other than Carry? It wasn’t a matter of survival - Gact owned their own bath, and in the absence of Carrying, Gact could simply spend their time bathing, playing with Taccat and… well, Gact didn’t really know what else they’d like to do, but they knew they could find something if it came to that. But… they depended on having a purpose.
Bringing themselves back to the present, Gact realized that their companion was watching them with a patient amusement. Gact rippled their membrane as they made themselves preset, and Taccat gave a delighted rainbow chuckle. “You really do need that bath! I’ve as good as won this game; get going, you.”
Gact sighed and plumped up their primary podus. “I suppose you’re right, you old power cell. I’ll see you next rec session.” Leaving their companion to separate the fluids back into their vessels, Gact transported out of the rec cell through the porous wall, to the street below.
They’d chosen the perfect time to leave - the nutrient washes were beginning to ooze from the large structures, flooding the soft-floored streets with a warm, shimmering liquid. As they extended the villi on the underside of their primary podus, Gact shuddered with delight - the washes were extra salty this time, and the electrolytes rushing into their internal solution felt wonderful. To their delight a gurgling giggle even escaped their gas pores, and the Carrier quickly inched onto the carpet of transport flagella, whisked away towards the osmosis baths before anyone could waggle any of their appendages in disapproval.
Around the transport carpet, the warmth of the the Great Conduit’s walls rippled slowly, readjusting the soft structures of the settlement constantly. Riding a ripple, a giant fleshy mass rolled lazily, until it came to rest in a nest of springy hairs. Gact felt a wash of nostalgia as they recognized it as their education pod. They wondered what the others from their layer were doing now. Probably most of them had important jobs, they thought, and squinted at some of the newer structures, trying to pick out any memorable or distinctive features.
Noticing a sharp increase in the distinct musky odor of the baths, Gact expelled a puff of pheromones around their podus. The flagella below immediately changed the direction of their frantic, ceaseless waggling, and conveyed Gact over to the immersion chute, into which they flopped with a familiar ease, before sliding gently through, lubricated by their healthy mucous emissions.
Expelled into their own personal bath, the Carrier began to relax, allowing the precious nutrients to nourish their primary podus, but an instant later they froze. A figure squatted beside the surface of the bath, a sensory appendage dangled into the water, watching Gact with apparent interest.
“Excuse me, may I help you?” Gact puffed indignantly. The appendage retracted, then a communication appendage replaced it and secreted a clear hormonal signal: “Come and join me up here.”
Gact floated to the top of the tank and hauled themselves onto the divider wall. From here you could see all of the baths, each deep pool somebody’s home whether macrocell or squatterbug or cultureball.
Beside Gact, dangling from the base of the next layer of baths, dangled the unmistakeable tendrils of a Nodule. Gact convulsed nervously - they hadn’t stood front-to-bottom with a nodule since they were young, still living in the spawning bladder, before their adult podii had begun to manifest. The Nodule at the spawning bladder had been very strict, and Gact didn’t care to receive a pheromone-lashing today if at all possible.
“GOOD TO MEET YOU, GACT.” The Nodule’s tone was deep and compelling, as they all were, but Gact was surprised to find that this one had a cheerful lilt to it, almost friendly. “HAVE YOU BEEN HAVING A PLEASANT TIME?”
“Er, yes, very pleasant I suppose.” Gact ventured, unsure of what they should be doing. “Keeping busy… not too busy though, can’t complain” they added, in case they seemed ungrateful.
“GLAD TO HEAR IT, WE’VE HEARD GREAT THINGS.” The Nodule paused for a moment, as if expecting a response.
After a moment Gact ventured “Y...es?” The Nodule seemed satisfied. “YES INDEED. GREAT THINGS. WE HAVE COME TO OFFER YOU FURTHER GREAT THINGS TO DO.”
“What kind of... ‘great things’...?”
“OH, ALL IN GOOD TIME. FOLLOW ME, IT WILL EXPLAIN ON THE WAY.” The tendrils began to drag along the top of the divider wall, following whatever anchored them to the ceiling.
“THEY HAVE NEED OF A CARRIER WHO IS GREAT THINGS, TO CARRY IN SECRET FROM FAR PLACES.” Whenever it navigated over part of a pool, the Nodule’s appendages dipped into the surface, barely causing a ripple. None of the inhabitants seemed to notice. Gact wondered how many times those appendages had tasted what was happening in their own nutrient bath. “IF YOU ACCEPT, YOU WILL BE MODIFIED TO SERVE YOUR NEW PURPOSE AND THEY WILL TEST YOU.”
They had come to an opaque column with low openings, the central transport for the nutrient baths. The Nodule wrapped its arms around the column and began to tickle it, not stopping until the transporter platform had arrived. Gact stepped through an opening and the Nodule slithered through the top of another, perching somehow on the inner wall. The platform began to ascend.
“DO… YOU…” the Nodule huffed, climbing furiously to keep pace ahead of the platform. “ACCEPT THE PURPOSE?”
Gact thought about it. Purpose, purpose… a great purpose, for Gact. It sounded wonderful. What did they have to lose? “I guess I do.”
“ACK… NOWLEDGE… D”. Gact realized that they’d been ascending for rather a long time at this point, far higher than he’d realized the bath structure extended. There hadn’t been any openings for a while either. And yet still they rose, and still the module climbed, until the column widened out into a large fleshy chamber with a muscular floor. The platform settled in the middle, then dropped away as Gact stepped off. The Nodule had already settled onto the domed ceiling of the chamber, and its appendages ushered Gact towards a round portal, which unclenched as they approached. Stepping out, Gact was mesmerized.
Outside - for they were, for the first time in their life, truly outside - the gases felt thin and dry. The muscles they stood on flexed gently, and led them towards a great circle nearby. Hairs grew in wiry thickets and soft piles around them, lying clumped and limp. Arriving at the circle, they could see it was formed of suppurating muscular tissues, woven with hair in meticulous intricate designs. Even more bizarrely, around the edge of the circle stood a number of humans, clad in their bizarre fabric coverings, swaying and chanting little songs.
Humans were not unknown inside - there had been a particularly nasty infestation in the rec chamber one time, and Taccat and Gact hadn’t been able to play, and had gone instead to sit and watch the bile flow from the protein sac. They’d talked a lot in those times, and while Gact had thought it all rather romantic, neither of them had ever leaned close or “accidentally” brushed dendrites on membranes, though Gact had yearned for it.
The chanting was getting rather loud now, and smelly. Gact felt a cold blackness welling up beneath them, and realized that an ichor was oozing up from between the muscle tissues and hair, and seeping into their corpus through the absorbent surface of their primary podus. As the humans wailed and waved, the ichor twirled frantically inside them, forming into a pointed circle, and all of a sudden, Gact was somewhere else .
“What’s going on down there, Doc?”
“What do you mean?”
The doc didn’t even look up from the same damn bas-relief she’d been staring at for the past six hours. Bodyguarding an archaeologist on an expedition to find a lost city had sounded exciting, but it was turning out to be days of playing Neko Atsume while the lass looked at boring things for interminable periods of time. Still, she was paying well and I had a massive crush on her, so I couldn’t really complain.
I looked down at the central courtyard, the one with the basketball hoops or whatever. There was definitely something happening - a red-orange glow, and rather a lot of yelling. Were the laborers up to something?
“I don’t really know, something going on in the courtyard.” I got up and adusted my holster where it always caught on my bra, then slipped on my jacket. “Should we go and check?”
The doc sighed and stood up, stretching up tall. “I guess we’d better, though I must say I don’t relish finding out what they can be about this-” She trailed off and I followed her gaze, up to the main temple, where several figures in ornate white robes were engaged in some kind of synchronized dancing. We started running.
Up at the temple, the doc ran straight up to a little one with the biggest hat you’ve ever seen and grabbed them by the shoulder. “What do you think you’re doing? Nobody is supposed to be here!” She made a short, gasping sound, then spun and fell, an ornate hilt protruding from her chest.
“Oh shit!” I heard myself shout as I pulled my pistol free, but then everything went to shit. It was horrific. I don’t even know how to start describing it. A giant, translucent amorphous blob just appeared on the temple steps. Most of the people in robes were sucked into it, but the big-hat-kid waved its arms and screeched and the thing scooped it up on top of itself and started to ooze down the temple steps toward the courtyard. I ran after them, taking the steps three, four, five at a time, until I slipped and tumbled. The gun flew from my fingers as I landed right on my forearm, my hand bending back with a snap and a bloody spurt as a bone protruded through. I think I screamed but I can’t be sure.
I staggered to my feet. From up here I could see everything - the courtyard full of molten lava, the horses shrieking and frothing and throwing themselves into the glowing pit, and more of the weird chanters coercing our laborers to do the same, at gunpoint, before clearing the way for the blob.
Arm throbbing, I ran back to the chamber. With my remaining arm I propped up the tube of my pride and joy, a GROM surface-to-air missile launcher I’d bought from a sketchy guy back home in Lima, and armed the charge inside. The doc had argued hard against me bringing it but I told her “no deal, this goes where I go.” I hadn’t told her that I only brought it around with me because I’d never had an excuse to fire the damned thing.
I dragged it outside by the strap and propped it up against one of the creepy cat statues. That thing was drinking up the lava now, sucking it up inside of itself. The kid sitting on the top was screaming now. I think his hat was on fire. I leaned my shoulder into the GROM, squashing it against the statue, squinted down the sight and slammed my good hand against the firing mechanism.
The shot was a bit off but it exploded right next to the blob and the lava pool. As the fire and smoke cleared, I thought that the thing was charred right up, but no - it’d thrown out some kind of black armor to soak up the blast, and it just went right on slurping up the spilled lava. It wobbled around in front of the big carvings for a bit, while those weirdos went on singing around it, then that black goop sucked up back inside of it, made a shape just like one of those carvings, and the whole thing just vanished.
What did I do next? I got the fuck out of there, that’s what I did. Jumped in the jeep, left the rest of the gear and whatever, and just drove, with my one hand all flopping around. Look, it’s still not right. They had to put a bunch of pins in it. That’s why I drink with my left one.
Gact staggered from the circle into the dome, steam rising from their mucus. “BACK ALREADY?” the Nodule exclaimed. “WELL DONE! YOU CAN DEPOSIT THAT JUST HERE.” The appendages ushered him over to a reinforced chute, with black silicate residue clearly clinging to its sides. Gact sloughed the hot sludge of superheated silicates and charred calcium out of themselves, never more relieved to egest something in their life. “EXCELLENT WORK, TIME FOR A WELL-DESERVED BREAK.”
Riding the platform down, Gact was so stunned that they forgot to get off near their bath, and was unceremoniously deposited onto the transport carpet, which immediately began to waft them along.
What had even happened? The shapes in that place were so wrong, those impossibly sharp angles and flat images and the hideous, four-legged creatures that the humans rode… Gact’s mind ran in circles. The beast, the shapes, the heat, the blast, the ichor- just to be sure, Gact extruded a sharp claw, then quickly withdrew it, hoping that nobody had seen. They realized that they had no idea where they were, and took their bearings. Their subconscious secretions had directed the flagella to carry them to a foamy multicoloured structure, unremarkable to most but remarkable to Gact, because Taccat lived here.
They’d never dared to call on Taccat at home, but they were suddenly overwhelmed by the need to see a friendly feature. They puffed a pheromone message into the structure’s reception organ, and a few minutes later Taccat’s yellow bubble surfaced nearby, the walls thinning to allow Gact to pass inside.
“Gact! What are you doing here, is everything alright? You look collapsed, here, let’s get you into some fluids.” Still overwhelmed, Gact allowed themselves to be steered them over to a shallow guest bath, and Taccat slouched out nearby as Gact started to soak in the atmosphere. “What happened?” Taccat asked firmly.
“I… er…” Gact couldn’t tell her the truth, who knows what they’d do it them. “Nutrient thieves. The hypodermic probosci - it was all I could do to get away.”
“Well thank the flows that you did, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Nobody else at the rec pod is a challenge.”
Gact realized that Taccat was very relaxed now, their fibrous casings slipping loosely against each other. Gact fancied that they could see a dendrite peeping out from behind one, though they stoically tried not to deliberately sense it.
“You know, Gact, I’ve wanted to invite you here for a long time.”
Taccat’s dendrites were definitely exposed now, in a way that was frankly indecent. Gact flexed their core membranes nervously, trying to regain some composure. If they were to brush up against each other, those sensitive dentrites would carry an electrical signal straight to Taccat’s neurode clusters, triggering all sorts of pleasant, involuntary sensual reflexes in their body. Gact’s own internal transmission system was largely fluid-based, and there were certain hidden bulges filled with delicate vesicles, which would rupture when prodded just so , releasing a rapturous-
Taccat slumped against them gently but forcefully, interrupting their thoughts and giving off a hiss of pleasure as their dentrites stroked Gact’s membranes. Taccat’s closest appendage caressed one of Gact’s outer bulges and the Carrier stiffened, releasing a flood of thin juices from pores all over their corpus, moisturising and lubricating their nervous dry membranes. They relaxed into Taccat, rippling their membranes against the exposed dendrites, and began to caress the Transmitter’s chalky ridges.
Embracing each other, their outer membranes fused and they began exchanging their internal solutions, each accepting the mixture and infusing gases, pheromones and other reactants, tailoring the mixture to enhance the pleasure of their partner, before passing the rich, soupy substance back, and forth, the rhythm building and building until finally, saturates with neurotransmitters, they each opened the pores all over their own corpus. The perfect fluid flooding over the chamber, and they sank to the floor, shrunken, dehydrated and still partially intermingled, and began slowly resorbing fluids.
Taccat smiled wearily at Gact before going peacefully dormant. The Carrier watched their companion for a while, sensors tracing the heat outlines of their various organs, indulging their long-held curiosity for their friend’s biology. As they ran their sensors over a digestive sac, they paused for a moment; the sac, shrunken by dehydration, was deformed by its contents, poking out at weird, elongated angles.
Gact recoiled in horror - the shape, complete with wings and beak, was of one of the four-legged beasts from the human planet.
Stunned, they slithered limply out of the chamber, idly letting the comfortable flagella of the street waft them along. Where could Taccat have encountered that beast? It didn’t make any sense.
A heave rippled through them, and Gact’s digestives tried to expel… everything. The remnants of the fluids that they’d shared with Taccat, the hateful knowing that they’d gained and, more than either, the ichor swirling within them. Already dehydrated, the corpus refused to release a drop, the black substance still gently forming whichever shapes the Carrier happened to call to mind.
Curious despite their revulsion, they tried to form the sigil that had brought them home. Immediately they found themselves on the surface, standing on the firm, muscular altar. The breeze was blowing through the hair and it streamed skywards, as if trying itself to grow as tall as the endless tower.
The entrance to the surface loosened and the same humans from before ran out, shouting. Surprised, Gact tried one of the other sigils that they’d seen from the slabs.
This time, they found themselves atop a silicate structure, barely wide enough to balance on. Below, a grid of oil substrates was arrayed, and humans were everywhere - within the silicate, atop the tarry grid, in mobile metal containers. An infestation this large was catastrophic, how would this planet tolerate it?
Had they… created the grid? It was so regular, so unnatural. What being would form things in this way? And yet, Gact could see the similarity between the structures here and those at the lava pit. Scanning the air, Gact could sense other silicate structures, in forms natural and artistic as well as angular. Their membranes reverberated with the vibrations of shrieks and yells, and then, with the impact of tiny metal pellets. Gact extended an ichorous talon and swatted aside a ponderous, buzzing mechanical insect, and wondered at how all of this could have come to be. Bewildered, they pulled the ichor inside once more, and tried creating a sigil of their own..
After a few failed tries they found themselves… nowhere. Cold and numb, no air or pheromones, only the faintest wash of invisible light and the incredible pull of an enveloping vacuum. Gact’s fluids began to stream out of them, diffusing across their membranes, but the ichor flowed over their surface and hardened, leaving Gact a glossy black marble. With no other senses to read, Gact tried to form an idea of their surroundings from the feeble lights, and after a while of trying, they began to “see” the void in which they found themselves.
Far, far away, a reddish globe hung from a microscopic thread. Following the thread, Gact saw that it connected to another, closer globe, connected by yet more threads to yet more globes, a network of thousands surrounding Gact. By the taste of the light, each was so far away that the light must have spent tens to hundreds of years wriggling its way across the space between - these vast globes must be planets. As Gact watched, the planets each shifted, tightening and slackening the threads, but they seemed to stretch and grow, maintaining the web. And nearby, in the center, the threads entangled, winding and writhing in an incredible ball, unknowably large, Thinking. Pulsing with Ideas and Opinions and Desires and Songs, each of which spread throughout the network and was transformed by it and then returned to be Thought anew.
The nearest thread split and began to grow, winding toward them like a plant’s grasping tendril, trying to find the sun. In minutes it swayed and extended across a light year, bringing the tip, swaying and searching, towards Gact. As it approached, they began to see that the thread itself was a great chain of Transmitters, connected end to end, each peacefully, serenely dormant, and upon the great head of the closest, largest one stood a human. But no, it wasn’t a humanoid, but a four-legged furry being, larger even than Gact, standing impossibly atop a person smaller than itself. Or instead it was a writhing mass of pseudopods, or a hundred different humanoids, or an indistinct figure with a large, 3-lobed eye. But as it drifted away from its conveyance Gact could clearly see that it was a multipod like themself, but in an impossible crimson color, opaque and glossy where Gact was, usually, translucent and moist, and behind them an electrical pulse ran the length of the chain of transmitters in an instant, and in turn each screamed an unconscious scream, hauntingly compelling, like the music of gas-bladder pipers.
The Crimson Multipod said not a word, but Gact new that they were again being offered a chance to serve. To add a connection to the vast network, to bring the humans, the birds and everything else on the human planet under the protection and tutelage of that great mass of living wiring.
What choice did they have? To go back to the life they lived before, pretending that all was well, playing games with Taccat and pretending that there was something more they wanted from life? Living in the fear that at any time they could be consumed, or disconnected? No, it was no choice at all, such a life would truly be one of madness.
But madness it was that rose within them, madness and fear, for as they reached out to the Crimson Multipod they saw within it the years and the alienness of it, and they recoiled from it, unable to accept something so foreign to them. And in their fear and panic and flight they formed a sigil once more - the sigil from the slab, and they found themselves again on that muscular plain, surrounded by the meat and hair and pustules and pheromone clouds of home.
The humans tried to stop them, but Gact was moving in a terror now, and they barely registered the crunch of bones and gush of saline as their primary podus carried them over the small, frantic beings. They oozed down the column without waiting for the platform and found themselves back in the settlement, the idiot dwellers milling between their idiot dwellings, and even here they knew they could not be sane. They ran and ran, as they’d never run before on the most urgent of carryings, podus after podus striking the meaty ground caring not if they struck flesh nor flagellum. They passed the nutrient baths, and the passed the grey masses, and they passed the rec chamber, and event the spawning bladder, heaviest and last of the great cellular chambers, forever rolling down the endless slope. Not even then did they look back at the path they’d taken, but for an instant they saw that Taccat was running with them, coruscating with the most beautiful, delighted arcs of electricity, delighted by their return and their mad, carefree run except...
Except they were not delighted, but amused - the crackles were a condescending chuckle, not an elated giggle, and Gact realized that even their old companion knew that their flight was in vain. Yet even then, they did not stop; they reached the crest of the rippling contraction and continued to place podus after podus, a blurring frenzied whirl blazing a new path, down the far side of the ripple, away from their false friend and away from all they knew.
Then they had to stop. A speck of something landed on them and it burned , and Gact’s carapace formed reflexively at the spot as they stumbled and fell in front of a large pool with an unmistakable acidic odor. Great gobs of liquid splashed in front of them. Gact’s internal color paled despite their black exterior, as they saw ahead of them a vast sea of acid, a sea approaching too fast for Gact, exhausted from running, to escape. Limping on their raw primary podus they tumbled into a crevice between bulges as the sea washed over them.
Gact shrieked as all of their membranes began to dissolve at once, and then the ichor poured out of them, smoking but holding firm and Gact began to slice away the flesh beneath themselves, digging into the floor which squirmed and rippled indignantly but yielded enough for Gact to nestle down into it.
Here, buried in lacerated, inflamed flesh, cowered Gact. Afraid to move, afraid to stay still, exhausted and hungry and maddened, Gact knew only this place and that, when the endless sea had passed, it would pull that ichor back inside, and that despite everything, it would serve .