‘Everything That Promised Glory Became Gory’: An Exclusive Excerpt From Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Dead Astronauts’
The author of ‘Annihilation’ returns to the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Borne’
This is an exclusive excerpt of Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, a surreal and speculative novel to be published on December 3. VanderMeer is the author of the Southern Reach trilogy, which began with Annihilation, and has long led the vanguard of the New Weird movement. Dead Astronauts takes place in the world of Borne, a world degraded and collapsed, a world dominated by the Company. Here, three beings — Chen, Moss, and Grayson — enter the outer limits of the City the Company once held.
Chen could see bits and pieces of the future, “but only in equations.” A frequent lament. Numbers could attack the flesh, the will, but rarely built it up. Morale for them never lay in the numbers. He made poetry out of his premonitions, his equations, because they’d proven useless to him as fact, because he was never sure whether he was actually seeing the past. A past.
Chen liked to play the piano and to down a hearty meal with a beer. Meals because he spent prodigious energy keeping his form. The piano because it made him remember to be careful — how watchful he must be of his own thick fingers. Or this is what he said, “It makes me limber-er,” when mostly it was a link to his history. Or what had been implanted in him as history.
There had been little enough of either lately. Pianos and hearty meals. He must take his sustenance from the molecules of the air with which he often felt interchangeable, and he compared notes with Moss, because their moves through fluid states were similar, even if his was a kind of fight against evaporation or ejection and hers an overabundance of accretion, a building up.
Flesh was quantum. Flesh was contaminated, body and mind.
Chen dealt in probabilities on one side of his brain and impossibilities on the other. Because the probability was always that he would disintegrate into his constituent parts sooner rather than later. He had come to think of himself as a complex equation and a symphony both, and, really, what was the difference?
The equation of the Company eluded Chen, perhaps because he had been lost within it once upon a time. Or as he said sometimes, the system abhors source, makes its mapping into a maze, a mockery, and the more you think you understand it, the more you are colonized by it. And lost.
As they walked, suspicious of the shadows within every husked building:
“It was never real.”
“It was real.”
“Not real in the sense of lasting.”
“Nothing is real, then.”
“Real enough.” Real enough was the anchor that kept them from falling apart. Through all the versions.
The City and the Company went by many different names in the Splinters, as Chen put it. In the Mains, it was just City and Company, as the Company preferred, the edges rounded off; no purchase. In the Mains, the risks were greater, but so were the rewards. Splinters could sting, distract, and that was all.
But versions of the City weren’t the only variable that Chen calculated, that Moss embodied. Time was a second variable, and time was not inexorable. Some Times it seemed as if they sped forward into their own future, and those were the worst moments.
The City glittering upon the plain inviolate — and terrible for it, the Company building grown so fat and thick and all tributaries leading into it, with no wastelands or outliers. Smell of blood. Just the Company and no City at all. These maze-versions they turned their backs on in haste, turned their backs on their own mortality and uselessness. For nothing could be gained, only lost.
The City, smoldering upon the plain violate — and terrible for it, the Company building dead husk and the tributaries dried up, all wasteland and outliers. Just the City and no Company at all. While shape-shifting creatures with camouflage like cuttlefish and chameleons expressed as enormous wildflowers transformed whatever raised its head from refuge. The smell of death as a rich, velvety sigh.
These versions they turned their backs on slowly, after days in their contamination suits, careful not to breathe the air. You could regroup in such a place, but you would find no sanctuary, nor an adversary. You could be lulled, or culled, and a lull was like death in the end. Woken from a dream of blossoms into a swaying disintegration.
For that was what bodies wanted: To come to rest. To know no more.
This City was like all the Cities: the observatory to the northwest, the factories to the northeast, against the polluted sludge path that was the river; the vast complex of pockmarked half derelict apartments to the south of the factories, where the Company housed the workers; and to the southwest the white smudge of the Company building.
Everything the Company did destroyed someone, killed someone, even if it helped someone else.
What varied most was the expanse between factories and Company, across the diagonal, the ancient seabed. Sometimes this was an utter ruin. Sometimes an estuary rich with holding ponds that led to the encircling river. Sometimes it served as satellite to the Company and, at least at first, industrious if not prosperous. People in numbers, making a sort of living, perhaps even selling food they’d grown to those who came out from the Company.
Grayson in particular distrusted those visions. Everything the Company did destroyed someone, killed someone, even if it helped someone else. All the rest was subterfuge, and no suit to protect against it.
“That wasn’t there in mine.”
“Was in mine.”
“In mine there were only mines. There.”
And there and there and there.
Not mines that could blow you up. Mines that could destroy your mind, change your body. Make even the thought of you never exist. A dark joke. An old joke. Useful to remember, until you could no longer remember . . . anything.
Other times, they moved backward and the Company appeared in stages of construction, with such activity and so many guards that they could not even comprehend the depth of the danger and challenge before them. In that false promise you could lose your self, could be convinced the futures were glorious . . . if you hadn’t already seen the futures.
Everything that promised glory became gory, spreading death underneath, death preferring to dive before erupting back up at the end of days.
Moss had put forth the rules to govern Chen’s more useful equations. Moss’s “tidal pool rules,” which included: Stay still, be small, bring the right camouflage, know good hiding places, become a symbiote or parasite, be poisonous or venomous, be able to regenerate body parts.
If you wanted to survive, reduce all motion to zero over long stretches of time. Trust the current. The current. The current. The species already there. How at high tide the water rippled across all of the tidal pools, even those that had been inviolate, their own tiny kingdoms, before.
If this were the purest City. The one that most rippled through all the others and the Source. If this was the one, then the effect would be greatest here.
But: Be tiny, be motionless. Take your time. Perhaps it would not be the first wave or even the thousandth. Because direct was defended. You contaminated the wall of globes inside the Company, then went to the Source. The portal wall, the magic mirror that led back to where the Company came from. You let it trickle in, like a slow-acting poison that was actually:
She could feel herself, sometimes, using the tidal pool rules to do the things she wasn’t doing here. Phantom sensations. Of standing in the ravine. Of watching her doppelgänger set off, with Chen by her side.
Memory of Grayson turning to her and saying one of these three things:
“This time. This time. I feel it.”
“Someday. We’ll go back to your tidal pools.”
“How many times has it been now?”
Say a number that felt low. That felt hollow.
Like one of Chen’s equations was screaming to get out.
Like one of Chen’s creatures, trapped in the wall of globes.