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Weird Flotsam
A short story from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
Weird Flotsam, a science-fiction short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

On the edge of a small town on a small planet orbiting two small stars, three small boys stumbled on to something big.

Everyone knew about the medium-sized collection of flotsam that had recently been ensnared around the little planet, and most everyone had watched wee bits fizzle and burn as they slipped around the gravity well and impacted with the surface. What only the three small boys knew was this: one of the wee bits had not been so wee, and much of it had remained intact despite its fiery descent.

Boys love flotsam; boys love fire.

* * *

The boy who spotted the not-so-wee flotsam come down didn't have a name so as you would recognize, but I'll give him one for the sake of clarity. I'll call him Peter.

Peter saw the flotsam fall because he with bored by his companions, engaged as they were in a mock-duel. Peter was watching the sky, and wondering if the adults sent up to perceive the flotsam up-close had found anything interesting. He wondered how long his parents would stay at the launch site; in a way he found it disquieting that they hadn't been bombarding him from comm with advice and status checks. Could it be they were beginning to understand that he was no mere tiny tot any longer, that he was a young adult who could spend a day or two managing himself? At the same time, he wondered at their silence.

Peter stood almost two metres tall.
He had an absolute mass of eighty-two kilograms.
His complexion was dark, his hair short and nondescript.
He did okay in school.
He was forty-three years old.

* * *

When the flotsam fell, Peter called, "Perceive!"

His friends (I'll call them Tim and Imad) turned from their playful squabble in time to see the impact. A moment later, the colossal whomp! of sound struck them. Tim and Imad seemed stunned.

"It's some of the flotsam," said Peter. "And I don't think it was so wee as all that."

"They've all been wee," complained Tim, who did not enjoy tromping around after fallen flotsam, peering into one small smoky crater after another in search of space treasure. Tim has been experimenting with erections, and found himself interested in little else lately.

"Only the wee stuff's falling," Imad piped in. Imad believed that he could best service society by echoing any sentiment put forth by Tim. Sometimes Peter wondered whether Imad was fully human or in fact partly staff, for he seemed to have no mind of his own.

Peter looked far and broad into the distance where the ejecta still glowed. "I think it may be medium-sized," he confirmed. "I think we should locomote, in order to perceive at close range."

"No, I think we should send out staff," said Tim. "Let's vote."

* * *

Tim and Imad were climbing on top of large rocks and attacking one another with glee.

Peter listened to the staff as they made their ponderous journey across the plains to where the medium-sized flotsam had fallen. His father let him use spare staff to pursue his own interests, as long as he was responsible. Peter was always responsible. He knew that if he wanted staff early -- for his forty-fifth birthday -- he would need to impress.

None the less, he hesitated to use staff as casually as Tim usually did. He preferred to locomote personally, and to perceive directly. As his grandfather used to say, "It'd be a dadburned shame to have no one show up to your funeral but staffers." By this he meant, "live life as directly as possible." It had been this and similar philosophies that had prompted Peter's grandfather to move his family out here past Sirius, to live life more directly, to perceive one's neighbourhood personally.

Grandfather's initial goal had been to found a colony without staff at all. It hadn't taken long for the colonists to discover that this goal was too lofty -- for generations upon generations human beings have held their staff as their symbols of adulthood, of status, and of success. They could not be disposed of quickly, or easily, no matter how determined the forebrain was to outwit the guts. The use and development of staff had been officially incorporated into the genome source tree over eleven million years ago.

Peter watched what the staff saw, and listened to what they heard.
He felt their footfalls march relentlessly, mindlessly, forward.

* * *

Tim and Imad tuned in when the staffers were standing on the edge of the smoking crater, looking in at the middle of the blackened dirt and fused, shiny sand. At the centre lay a twisted, burnt wreckage of something of unmistakably intelligent origin.

"It's a craft!" gasped Peter.

He quickly set the staff to work peeling back the layers of hot debris. They smelled the dust, they licked the wreckage. Peter analyzed their perceptions and coordinated their efforts. Tim insisted on commanding one staffer to repeatedly kick another one in the behind. Imad thought this was pretty funny.

One by one, the narrow little staffers dropped into the interior cavity of the craft, their faces and hands coming aglow to light the way. All around them were dark cylinders a few metres long, entangled in ridiculous, awkward machinery of giant proportions. Tim's staff, which had sub-staff, now dispatched them to crawl among the nooks and crannies, to explore and to map.

Peter had his staff perceive as broadly as they could. He was startled by what they saw, beyond radio. Human forms! Unmistakable!

In a flash, the staffers were pulling apart the nearest cylinder, deftly slicing its metal hide with hot fingertips. They reported no radiation, no comm, no hint of life. With a final incision, a staffer peeled back a knitted polymer layer to look upon the cylinder's cargo: a frightful and horrible apparition.

Imad screamed.
Tim gulped.
Peter was simply astounded.

It wasn't a human being inside at all! Instead, some grotesque mockery of the human form -- a twisted artwork, perhaps? Peter couldn't fathom any natural process that would turn a human being to such a state as he saw before him, through the eyes of the distant staff.

* * *

What the small boys and the lithe staff saw was this:

A brown assemblage of cords pulled together at odd angles to create the rough outline of a human being, the head disproportionately large and the limbs obscenely thin. The brown skin, if it could be called skin, knotted and curled around the underlying structure with no apparent rhyme or reason. Most startling were the eye sockets, for in the place of eyes were pale, shrivelled sacs, discoloured and run-through with rusty threads. The nose had more or less collapsed into the face, and the open mouth was bizarrely ornamented with irregular pebbles of calcium deposits. The gruesome figure's hair was a massive coil of crusty filaments.

Peter directed the staff to look at the torso, which was corrupted and broken open. Ribs and sternum were replaced with calcium facsimiles, but the shapes beneath them were wholly unfamiliar to the boys, who, like all boys their age, were encouraged to open themselves up and have a look around from time to time. (This was how Tim has discovered his erection ability.)

The staffers' hands picked into the dehydrated mush, and much of it dissolved on contact. In place of a heart, Peter saw, the chest housed another knotting of carbon cords behind the solar plexus. "It looks like a simple pump," Tim commented.

"Shut up," said Peter.

As Peter felt the cool heat of his own heart within his breast quietly fusing light elements all day and all night, he commanded the staff to look wide and shallow, to see into the cords that constructed the mock-heart. He saw that each sinewy strand was composed of cavities and membranes, within each the shrunken remains of intricate molecular engines -- the engineering was of a kind he had never before seen, or imagined. He saw that some seemed to have frozen in a state of discharge, while others were in a state of charging (charging from what heart? he wondered again). "I think you're right, Tim. It's a pump."

He followed the narrow channels that connected the cords, and saw them join other channels in the calcium-encrusted spine. "I don't understand," he said aloud; "they look like nerves, in a way. I bet they all lead up to the brain." That was the answer: the brain!

It only took the staff a matter of moments to crack the soft calcium exterior and extract the brain. It was shrunken and brown, another clump of long, strange molecules full of the nerve-like strands. The surface folded upon itself in crazy patterns.

"The whole thing looks like a human being put together by a tiny tot," said Peter, and Tim agreed. "Everything is too big, too awkward by half."

"What if it's artificial life?" Imad asked.

"Artificial life?" Tim echoed.

Peter blinked. "What kind of a coo-coo would want to make an artificial human being out of complex carbons? It's insane."

"Let's turn it on," said Tim.

* * *

It was Tim, sharp in complex systems analysis, who first figured out that the tiny mechanisms inside the cells could be powered by unwinding adenosine triphosphate molecules. "Cool!" said Imad.

Peter found himself considering his own insides, filled as they were with intricate tapestries of diamond-hard polymers, set in motion by autocatalytical masterworks of sub-atomic science; his thoughts were but oscillating harmonics written into the lies of quarks...

What makes a man? Peter wondered as the staff explored the inspired madness of the soft, melted-looking brain. Could consciousness somehow reside in that muck?

* * *

That's pretty much when comm lit up with everybody's parents calling at once for supper and communion. Peter jumped, startled. Tim and Imad just groaned. "Aw, scat," said Tim as he called his staff back. Peter's were already on their way, still instructed to pay strict heed to parental directives.

"I guess we'll have to come back tomorrow," said Peter, reluctantly watching through staff eyes as they retreated from the impact site.

Presently there were greater concerns. As soon as the boys touched the meta-library with their minds they were deluged by a wash of angry red warnings: chunks of burning debris were falling from the sky, and their location was a high probability target. "We're going to be in some dutch when we get central," whined Imad as they scampered over the rocks.

The staff caught up to the boys at the shining edge of the mercury lake that ran along the coast of the central district, the towers and lights and gems of humankind reflecting on its smooth, silvery surface. The meta-library was filled with details of further impacts, and it was not long before the boys heard their distant reports, rumbling thunders that rolled and echoed across the long, rocky plains. They saw the streaks in the darkening sky. Even before the reports were posted the boys had triangulated the impact, and divined that their playground of human-shaped puppets had been immolated.

"Oh well," sighed Tim. With a shrug he turned and walked into the lake, his easy stride taking him quickly below the glassy waves and away. Imad followed.

Peter paused, casting a long look back at the burning horizon. He thought about little machines running on adenosine triphosphate, and ran his mind over the repeated signatures in the chemical helices he had glimpsed inside of the thing's cells -- they had to be a kind of simplified genome. Perhaps, given the right materials and some good will on the part of his mentors, Peter just might be able to pull it off: to build a thing like he had seen through his staff's eyes, to build an artificial human being! He commanded his staff to memorize the ancient genome, and then purged it from the meta-library cache.

Finally, he had found a science fair project that was guaranteed to hold his interest! Contentedly, Peter turned heel and walked across the bottom of the lake, hurrying home for supper.


Felix and the Frontier | The Rich Dance

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