Editor’s Note: This story is by John. Do you know John? You should know John. In fact, you probably already know John. When the shadows linger on the windowsill as you make your morning breakfast, John is there. John is in the incessant beep of your alarm clock, the slight chill of winter mornings, and he is responsible for all those missing socks from your dryer. John is there. John is everywhere.
And he might just be plotting your death.
by John Murphy
It sank through methane-ammonia skies and seas, dead at last and blotting out the sun. It was a whale of a thing, a continent of flesh. It had swum the seas and flown the skies for thousands of years. If other whales marked its passing, they showed no sign. If they mourned or had ceremonies for their dead, there was no indication from below.
The whale sank slowly, decomposing as it went. Its enormous swim bladders leaked their last breaths out slowly into the greater seas. Its coppery blood leaked in streams while the more daring among the scavengers leaped for it from their accustomed pressure zones.
The silvery scavengers were kilometers long, slivers of light in the darkness. They flashed reflected brilliance as they leapt, flew, and swam. The whale had consumed them by the thousands in life; in its death their payback would be swift. The bravest and strongest among them leapt first and highest. A few of them caught hold and attached to the great dead beast. Their flesh split to expose teeth like icebergs along their four-lobed jaws. They gobbled whole chunks, burrowed into its sides.
As the whale descended it hit the first pressure boundary, a phase change, and its descent slowed. Its surface writhed and flashed with silvery snakes that whipped their tails as they burrowed tunnels into the mountain of decaying flesh. Though they feasted for ages, their ravenous hunger still left the enormous whale nearly whole.
The snakes’ burrows provided escape to the gases building within the beast. Its last meal fermented, feeding generation upon generation of microbe. The warm gases within blew out of the holes in the carcass, great rank blasts that boiled the cold liquid methane. As the whale sank and the pressure grew, the fat silvery snakes abandoned the body to began their search for new dinners, for live whales beginning to slow and stink of death.
Down deep where the light got dim, carbonaceous cysts attached themselves to the whale’s flapping skin where the snakes had torn it open. They settled into torn green flesh and took root. The soft creatures inside put out their violet tongues to feed on the warm fluids still seeping out, and they multiplied. They drew calcium from the ocean, copper from the blood, and iron from the skin. They constructed hard shells like bubbles, constructed scaffolding like threads. Descendants built on the remains of their ancestors, painting stripes as their pigmentation changed over generations. Layers of blood green and bone brown and fang white fanned out from those first few cells.
The torn flesh mineralized and became hard. The blue skin became pale shingles. The colonizing cysts grew like frost crystals across its surface. Food and waste filtered down from above, settling on the corpse like snow. It weighed the beast down to where the pressure wrung it out, and the great body grew dense.
The whale continued to sink, but slowed. Even encrusted with calcium and iron, carbon and copper, even armored like a machine of war, it eventually came to a rest at an equilibrium depth. There was black frigid sea above, and blacker sea below. The body was warm still. Colonies of microbes burned through centuries of energy stored in the whale’s cells, and this furnace produced warm methane, butane, and acetylene. To the denizens of the middle deep, sensitive to infrared or more sluggardly wavelengths still, the whale shone like a sun.
On this shining warm thing landed stranger things still, ancient spores among whose descendants numbered the whale itself. These silicate-encrusted cells found purchase in the warm soft bed that had grown over the corals that had grown over the whale’s blue skin, and after a time they began to hatch.
These new cells basked in the warmth and the flow of nutrients. They divided again and again. They began as their descendants had long ago to cluster together for protection or structure. They called upon distant genetic memories to once again grow whip tails and oars like hairs. They rooted themselves to their home flesh, or they grew limbs and made themselves motile. They became as numerous and varied as the stars, and they spread across the surface of their new home on the flesh of their long-lost cousin.
The whale was not motionless, despite its buoyancy. It turned and twisted so that cold methane washed over its extremities. The creatures calling the whale home adapted, or died. They partook of the flesh or the nutrient snow, or they partook of each other. They became big or they became small. They became dangerous or they became numerous.
Some of them became clever. Not many of them, but in a furrow in the whale’s ruined flank arose a small colony of creatures that became aware of their surroundings and of themselves. They saw each other in the dim glow of the whale’s putrefaction. They learned to start chemical reactions to warm themselves. The learned to armor themselves when they swam high and could be seen by hungry things. They disturbed the icy methane and in the pressure waves they named themselves. They spoke the names together, telling each other stories about themselves.
They worked together, these creatures, when they did not work against each other. They slew the big, the small, the dangerous, and the numerous, until they considered themselves safe. They spread across the whale, learned to eat new things, and to speak of new things. They spent less of their time staying alive and more of their time exploring the contours of their great dead home. They explored their thoughts and told each other stories about being alive.
They learned that their surroundings offered things of permanence: below the soft mat of dead things were the calcium and copper shells of the corals that had suffocated long ago. They learned to chip this hard stuff to build tools and homes and empires. They fought over the choicest bits. The losers went away only to find choicer bits still. Some stayed and were content a little while. Some returned for revenge. They told each other stories about revenge and victory and justice.
They dug beneath the corals. They found flesh and eventually bone. They found cavernous ruins of powerful muscle cut ragged by the silvery snakes, and smooth veins and wide open buoyancy bladders full of bizarre creatures, descendants of microbes from higher altitudes and of the survivors of the whale’s last meal. They told each other stories of discoveries and riches and brave explorers.
The clever creatures mapped their world and began to see symmetries, analogies between the whale and themselves. They began to look away into the great dark ocean and to wonder whether there were other whales out there, infested with clever creatures like themselves. They told each other stories about those creatures.
They took great pieces of bone and coral and built great structures. They captured the warmth and the nutrients streaming from the body of the whale through apertures old and new, and they put these things to use making themselves strong and happy and rich. They told each other stories of their accomplishments, and that drove them to accomplish greater things still. They wrote down their stories and thought about their stories and wondered what other stories were told inside the stories, about the tellers themselves.
Generations passed. The clever creatures came to understand that there was more to see than what they could see. They learned what light was, and learned to see what they could not. They looked up and saw dimly through the sea and sky, a sun. They looked down over the edge of the whale and saw nothing. They looked hard, but still saw nothing except faint flashes of light. They told each other stories about those flashes. It did not escape their attention that falling things fell down.
Some of the clever creatures built cages of copper and calcium and iron and plastic, and they stocked their cages with nutrients and they swam from their home. The creatures that did that saw wonderful views of their home, but they either came home after finding nothing, or did not come home at all. The cages became comfortable and the excitement gave way to amusement, and they never seemed to go as far anymore.
The nutrients in the whale could not last forever. Thousands of thousands of generations had lived and died in its belly since its death, feeding upon the whale and each other. What streamed out through the holes that the silver snakes made and the holes that the clever creatures made, went out into the cold methane sea for other creatures to consume. The whale’s body began to cool.
As the whale cooled it lost buoyancy, and began again to sink. The clever creatures sank with it, and they understood that they sank. Their little bodies were not suited to too much cold or too much pressure. They became frustrated with their situation and with each other. And they disagreed what to do about it.
Some of them saw hope in the little bone cages. They built cages larger than ever before, learned to make them not just buoyant, but learned to heat them or to evacuate cavities and make them float. Many of the clever creatures died learning to do this, because their bodies were not suited to too much heat or too little pressure. They reinforced the little bone cages, separated the cavities. They built bigger and bigger, built cities that floated up to where the whale had been. They hewed great chunks of the flesh of their home and brought it along. Some of the creatures — they argued themselves whether these among them were clever or not — built enormous cages the span of the whale’s sharp teeth. They stocked their cages with flesh and coral and reminders of home, and they went off and away.
The clever creatures that remained tried many things. The whale sank slowly, after all, and truly clever creatures could adapt. They made themselves warm and protected themselves with their tools, or they played with their genes so they would enjoy the cold and withstand the pressure. Some of them dug down into the flesh where it was warmer. They too adapted. Over the generations, some of them changed their minds and tried one idea or another. Some refused to believe that the whale — their whale — was sinking, that it had ever been anywhere other than where it was just then. Life became hard for the clever creatures. Some of them left in even fancier cages than the earlier travelers made, and wondered whether they might meet up again. They told each other stories about dying, and what comes after.
Generations passed among the clever creatures, and the whale still sank. The pressure slowly grew, the temperature slowly fell. The clever creatures would not have been recognized by their ancestors, but they had good lives by their own reckoning, and sometimes found meaning in their lives and their passing. Eventually, there were no more of the clever creatures at all.
The pressure grew and cracked the coral plates. The whale’s flesh froze. All of the cities the clever creatures built crumbled and washed away as the whale’s great body turned and twisted. New things came to nibble at it, armored things, like the cages made by the clever creatures. They had eyes as wide as flippers. They made light in bursts and flashes and saw the reflections. With each flash they tore a tiny piece from the whale, tore away flesh and coral and the detritus and monuments of the long-dead clever creatures.
The whale’s pitted bones were exposed to the ocean and began to dissolve. With a great shuddering, the body twisted in a powerful current. Its spines broke and its body was rent in two. The exposed flesh and bone flowered in the dark. New things took root in the receding flesh, things of magnificent hidden beauty and horror.
At long last, the whale came to rest on the floor of the sea. It was eaten by and became home to new things, old things that long had lived in the basement of the world, undreamed of by whale or snake or clever creature, things with claws and tongues and pinching teeth. Some of these things were in their own way clever as well.
The mountainous body of the whale grew over with living things. It lay among similar mounds at the Stygian depths of a planet-wide methane sea. It sighed out the last of its warmth, and never moved again.
At the top of the world, where the seas turned to skies, a whale made its last leap of joy and became still. After a time, it began to sink.
Originally published in After Ever After
John Murphy is the nom de plume of a swarm of small fast robots. They are completely and utterly harmless — nothing to worry about at all.