by Elana Gomel
Valley of Hinnon near Jerusalem
Resi stood at the checkpoint, idly flicking his cellphone from hand to hand. He was sweating under his flak jacket and his Tavor was biting into his chafed shoulder.
He spotted the woman from afar and instantly tensed. Solitary women were the worst. Exiled from their homes and their villages for some minor transgression, they would often find redemption in blowing themselves up. He was especially suspicious of covered women, and the approaching figure was swathed from head to toe in dusty black fabric. He was ashamed of his prejudice but the last six months had cured him of his Californian innocence.
“Halt!” he yelled and the woman stopped obediently at a proper distance. But Resi was still uneasy.
She thrust an orange passbook at him and he noticed with surprise that her hands were pearly-white. He looked at the picture – a middle-aged doughy face – and motioned at her to lift the veil. She stood still.
Just his luck! He would have to call for a female soldier; the woman would kick up a ruckus; his shift would stretch on …He wanted to talk to his mother but by the time all was done, it would be too late to call.
“Show your face!” he commanded with all the sternness he could muster.
The woman lifted her veil and Resi screamed.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim swarmed up the redwood’s fissured bole. The giant tree gave off a pungent green odor which made his eyes water and his pheromonal glands throb.
The trick was not to look down as he probed the invisible cracks in the ruddy bark with his calloused fingers, clinging to every protrusion. Thin young branches with feathery needles offered a deceptive relief. But he knew better than to put his weight onto them. His fifty-pound body was light enough to carry him up into the canopy if he was careful. But gravity could splatter it against the hard earth as decisively as a Big carcass.
He finally reached the first reliable fork and straddled it. A juicy larva squirmed on the bark. Tiny Tim absentmindedly plopped it into his mouth, his attention riveted to what was in the small valley below.
A jesalem sprawled downslope. Visibility was good because the persistent drought had felled a lot of trees. It had also driven Tiny Tim and his family to the brink of starvation by depriving them of such staples as giant banana slugs and clustered colonial gofers. The banana slugs needed humidity to thrive; and the gofers were hibernating and would not emerge until they swelled into giant rolling balls of furry bodies, too big to tackle with sharpened branches. So the Small family subsisted on lizards and roots. And there was still one reliable waterhole. But recently a Big footprint had been spotted nearby.
This jesalem was new. But like all of them, it was untidy and ramshackle, haphazardly put together from scavenged odds and ends. The core of it was a square windowless structure surrounded by a high fence. Tiny Tim knew what was inside this structure, and a wave of fear and loathing floated away from him on a puff of charcoal odor.
Clinging to the fence was a jumble of outbuildings, a mess of jury-rigged huts, crazily leaning into each other. He did not expect much in the way of construction skills from the Ossy, but this was below even their usual low standards.
Perhaps they had simply exhausted the limited supply of building materials. The only available sources were piles of wood left from over from some of the big mansions that used to dot this stretch of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many of those mansions had been built of stone, cement, or plaster, and nothing was left of them. So the Ossy had to scavenge the remnants of wooden houses. The main nest, down by the shallow Bay, was so massive that it had literally swallowed up all the suburbia.
A large four-winged magpie flew close to Tiny Tim’s face and he flinched instinctively, almost falling off the branch but clinging for dear life. He was not really adapted to arboreal existence. But he loved heights and the heady sensation of swimming in the clear air above the grubby dangers of the land, king of all he surveyed. He envied birds as much as he feared them.
Tiny Tim looked superficially like Homo floresiensis – the extinct prehistoric “hobbit” from the island of Flores in Indonesia – but he was not. Despite his miniature size (he was only 3.5 feet tall), he had the proportions of an adult male. His pale skin was sunburnt and he even had a bit of potbelly despite his general emaciation. He wore an inexpertly folded loincloth made of a worn-out piece of cotton fabric with letters S and U still barely visible on the grey weave. Thanks to his Chinese ancestry, he had little body or facial hair. An oval patch of rough, scaly skin descended from his chest to his crotch. His name actually was Tiny Tim. His grandfather had suggested it to his mother as a joke and his mother, ignorant of the reference, had taken it in earnest.
A movement caught his eye. He tensed, thinking that an Ossy patrol was on its way out, but then he realized that the line of moving figures was coming into the jesalem rather than exiting it. He squinted into the glare of the setting sun.
First he discerned a clutch of Bigs, shambling toward their prolonged and painful death, their heads hanging low as the Ossy malignant spell worked its transformation. Tiny Tim looked away and released a slight whiff of lavender-perfumed sadness. There was no love lost between the Bigs and the Smalls, but their bond of common descent and likely common extinction tugged at his heartstrings. From up above they looked almost like his people: an exhausted column of half-naked, dirty, emaciated men and women. There were no children because the Ossy killed them on the spot.
The prisoners were herded by two Ossy, slipping through the tangle of vegetation with angelic grace. Tiny Tim’s hatred and fear were too strong to release upwind – Ossy had a weak sense of smell but some of their flying symbionts did not – so he compulsively clenched his pheromonal glands. The Bigs lacked the subtle language of odors and made do with clumsy verbal communications which reinforced Tiny Tim’s feelings of superiority toward them.
At least he had established that there were hunting parties scouring the mountains. The question was where to move now. The women in his family were in favor of going down to the ocean; the men countered that the shore was infested with strange creatures.
Perhaps the women were right. Tiny Tim was just about to start a cautious descent to the ground when he froze. A flicker of movement to the right of the Big herd caught his attention.
A solitary Ossa emerged from the trees. She was bigger and stockier than the rest of them, with heavy shoulders and very long arms. Her head looked disproportionately small. Seeing a singleton of a new kind was unusual enough, but it was what she carried that made his breath stop.
Slung over her slick, lard-colored shoulder was a huge sack made of an old blanket. The sack was heaving and as Tiny Tim watched, his tension and growing horror scenting the air with bitter lemon and crushed dandelion, it unwound and the Ossa’s prey rained upon the ground in an avalanche of small bodies. They scattered around, trying to escape into the underbrush. The Ossa leaped after them, her supple arms flailing and long flexible fingers grabbing one fugitive after another. The Ossa did not bother to retie her makeshift sack but simply carried the squirming heap into the enclosure in her arms.
Tiny Tim wanted to believe he had made a mistake but he could not. He knew what he had seen. The Ossa had caught a bunch of Smalls. And there was only one Small family around here: his own.
The Muir Woods State Park
Iris Marvin rolled down the window of her Prius and breathed in the heady smell of redwoods. The parking lot of the Muir Woods State Park was deserted on this weekday morning and the air was bracing and sweet. The candy-floss fog rolling down into San Francisco was lit up by the rising sun. Some flower must be in bloom: the green smell was overlaid with a honey sweetness resembling jasmine.
Iris was about to lock the car and go for a hike. But first she wanted to talk to her son.
She nervously fingered her WhatsApp. While Resi was on duty, he would not answer. But was his shift over? She tried to calculate the time difference between Northern California and Jerusalem and failed, out of the sheer reluctance to face the abyss of time and space that separated her from her baby.
Why had he done it, volunteered to serve in the army of the country he knew so little about? Iris was born in Jerusalem but grew up in Los Altos; Resi was born in the Palo Alto Medical Center. She had been aghast at his decision but could do little about it. There being only sixteen years of age difference between them, she could not exert the same kind of parental authority over him she had seen her older female colleagues wield over their kids. And her mother and grandmother did not want to put any pressure on him. Theirs was a tight knot of women, so close that the boundaries of their personalities blurred and seeped into each other. Resi was a single offshoot put out into the world, infinitely precious but impossible to control. So Iris, and her mother Nina, and Granny Rivka worried, and waited, and worried some more.
Had she injured him by not providing him with a strong male role model? Was his fascination with the military some sort of compensation? Iris sighed. It was too late to agonize over this. Her father had died before Resi was born and as for his father…
Her smartphone chimed and she jumped. But it was not a text message. Instead, a Breaking News banner: “A building collapses in downtown San Jose.”
There had been too many such collapses recently. Micro-earthquakes? The San Andreas Fault was overdue for some activity. But she felt no tremors. Still, it would not hurt to check on her family, even though both her mother and grandmother lived outside of San Jose. She speed-dilled her mother’s phone, glancing incuriously at the number of victims in the collapse.
The phone went to voice mail. Iris texted Nina and called the senior facility where Granny Rivka lived. Rivka refused to use a cell-phone and so, apart from weekly visits, their main channel of communication was the reception desk in the Silver Grove Seniors Home. But this time nobody answered.
Cursing under her breath, Iris sent another message to Nina and after some trepidation, to Resi as well. Like all mothers, she was superstitious; the longer he did not answer, the more likely something bad happened to him.
Now what? She had come here to go on a hike in the Muir Woods but now her mood was ruined by inchoate premonitions. And she did not want to drive back home to the other side of the Bay either. For the last two days she had attended a conference on high-tech investment, and her head felt stuffed with Power Points. She was the SFO of a start-up biotech company and felt it was her obligation to network as much as possible. Now she needed some downtime.
The phone buzzed again. Another Breaking News headline: some mass shooting somewhere. Iris sighed, her finger hovering over the phone, ready to turn it off. As long as her family was safe, nothing else mattered. The phone was her link to her family but unfortunately, it also connected her to the rest of the world. While she hesitated her sinuses flooded and she sneezed explosively as the jasmine smell intensified to the point of nausea. She looked up.
A face like a translucent postmortem mask was plastered to the outside of the window.
She screamed, frantically powered up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot. And even as the car fishtailed and she fought to keep it under control, her brain was trying and failing to process what she had seen.
The nude body, glistening as if oiled, as bloodless and smooth as porcelain. The tiny hairless head on a long neck. The slender legs and the protruding stomach. And worst of all: the blind, closed eyes.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim scrabbled in the remnants of his encampment, trying to find a memento to assuage his grief. But there was nothing. Manufactured things did not survive; and having learned this lesson his kind did not make them.
They were all gone: Mati, his wife; Dora and Doreen, his aunts; Rosario who was called a cousin, even though she was not; Johnnie and Gabriel, who actually were cousins but were called brothers. And most importantly, the single precious child that the family had produced, the golden baby, Isa. They had all been tied up in that horrible sack.
A cloud of pheromones enveloped him: the wormwood bitterness of despair; hopelessness, stinking of wet ashes; denial like the heaviness of stale clothes piled up in an empty room. Then it dissipated, carried off on the cool breeze, fruitlessly touching the nostrils and snouts of creatures who were too caught up in their own fight against the changing world to commiserate or even understand. Empathy and self-awareness were rare commodities and becoming even rarer.
The Ossy never sought out Smalls for the terrible purpose for which they hunted Bigs. Tiny Tim’s kind was useless to them. This was why they were never captured at all. They were killed and eaten on the spot. Sometimes pieces of their dismembered bodies would make it into the jesalem but in the lore of his kind, accumulated in the tumultuous timeline of their broken history, there was never a mention of Smalls being carried into a jesalem alive.
Without his family, Tiny Tim was nothing. He told himself that. He told himself there was no point in living. He ought to kill himself.
He repeated it several times and was not convinced.
But what else was there for him to live for? The memory of nations and tribes was lost. There were only kinds now.
But…there were other Smalls around, weren’t there? Perhaps if he tried to find them…
Tiny Tim released a whiff of acrid shame. He should follow his family into oblivion! And there were ways of doing it that would avoid the indignity and unpleasantness of being eaten. Just climb another redwood and let go…
Tiny Tim realized he was hungry and thirsty. He would not, could not, eat while his family… But thirst was something else. A fading memory of myth and ritual connected the idea of water to purity. He would purify himself before…well, before joining his family. And so, leaving behind an apricot-scented spoor of quiet dignity, he made his way to the familiar waterhole. He encountered a couple of rooted deer but their bloated carcasses were easy enough to avoid. Some manzanitas bled dangerously, sending a shower of crimson droplets into the air, but Tiny Tim told himself he no longer cared if he got splattered by their acidic juice. He was not.
More frog-nets covered the scummy surface of the hole but open water still glinted among them. Tiny Tim scooped up some in his miniature hands.
And then a Big emerged from the trees.
Jamming her phone into the car-holder, Iris barreled down Highway 1 toward San Francisco. Normally at this hour the highway would be clogged with the commuting traffic. But today the traffic was sparse. The Golden Gate Bridge loomed ahead, as dainty and insubstantial in the thin haze as a Japanese painting. The city floated on the silken water.
The radio blared a list of disasters. A flare-up in South Sudan. Something bad in Ukraine. Fortunately, nothing was said about the Middle East.
And another building collapse, this time in Fresno.
Iris tried to listen to the news but her brain was frozen by what she had seen in the parking lot. Was it a hallucination?
The start-up she worked for, Future Bio-Life, specialized in predicting evolutionary trends on micro-levels. Their goal was to keep ahead of the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the mutations of viruses such as flu. Iris was not a scientist. But she had picked enough biology to know that the creature she had seen could not be real. It looked vaguely like a naked hairless human being but that glassy skin and a dead face did not belong on any human being, no matter how diseased. And was it a woman? A man? If she was not sure of such a basic thing as gender, did it not indicate that she had suffered some sort of mental glitch?
She passed the turn-off to Fort Baker and slowed down. The traffic was getting heavy. Somehow this reassured Iris: this was the first sign of normalcy she had encountered this morning. And then she saw a thin line of smoke drift into the cloudless sky above the toothy skyline of the Financial District.
She stabbed at the phone and her eyes widened when she saw the headline. A part of BART transportation system caved in! Several fires had broken out in the vicinity.
Iris groaned. She had close friends in San Francisco!
And Resi had neither called nor responded to her messages!
The traffic crawled to a virtual standstill. She inched forward until she got to the second turn-off which led to a tourist viewing platform, now black with a restless crowd training their binoculars on the smoke above the city. Iris knew, though, that there was another way to get down to Fort Baker, a former military installation turned into a lodge and museum. From there she could drive along the shore of the East Bay until she hit the San Mateo Bridge. Then she could get to her mother’s place in San Carlos.
Or she could try to get into the city, check on her friends…
Iris made a sharp left turn, eliciting a chorus of indignant honking, pulled off to the shoulder, and called her mother again. This time she answered.
“Ima!’ she let out a sigh of relief. “Are you all right?”
Her mother breathed heavily. As the pause lengthened, Iris knew that she had been thrown off the precarious raft of her middle-class, sheltered existence. The world was catching up with her and her family.
“There is a checkpoint outside,” Nina said finally. “Like back home. A checkpoint!”
Santa Cruz Mountains
The Big was a woman. She towered above Tiny Tim, the crown of his head only reaching to her hipbone. She was gross, despite her thinness. Everything about her was ugly and exaggerated: her coarse dark skin; the lumps of poorly healed bone-fractures that beaded her spidery limbs; her pungent, salty smell. She wore a loincloth made of an old cotton rag but it was filthier and more torn than his. Her tender exposed belly above it made him shudder. But her face, though indecently large, was not very different from his own. He could read her expressions. She was, of course, at a disadvantage, because the smoky scent of wariness tinged with a green odor of disgust that he exuded was incomprehensible to her.
“What are you doing here, dwarf?” the Big woman barked but he could see that she was not so much angry as distressed.
“The Ossy took my family,” Tiny Tim replied.
The Big dropped down, folding herself into a sitting position, so her large head was level with his.
“They took my family too,” she said, her booming voice softening until it sounded Small. “My husband, my brother, my son. The Avispas took them all.”
They talked. The Big’s name was Alma. It was an inappropriately delicate name for somebody so clumsy, but it was familiar. Once Tiny Tim’s family had met another Small group out by the shore and there was a girl named Alma there who smiled at him.
His kind despised the Bigs because of their misfortune. It was a human trait to blame the victim, and the Smalls had inherited it. But both kinds knew they were close relatives. The wound of their separation was still tender and unhealed. And now Tiny Tim discovered that in the void of loneliness a Big was better than nothing. His pheromonal cloud became tinged with a delicate lilac scent of sympathy.
He asked Alma what she was doing at the waterhole. Suddenly he was afraid she would tell him she had come here to put an end to her solitary existence and shame him into following her example.
He realized he no longer wanted to die.
But Alma only shrugged as if the question was stupid.
“I need to drink,” she said. “Before I sneak in.”
“Sneak in where?”
Their languages were beginning to diverge, and Tiny Tim thought he had misunderstood.
“The nest? You don’t mean…the jesalem?”
“Why do you call it that?” Alma said disdainfully. “It’s a stupid Small word. It is a nest, that’s all it is.”
“They’ll kill you!” Tiny Tim cried and bit off his next sentence which was a description of what they would do to her before she died.
“They are just dumb insects. I can outwit them.”
Shocked, Tiny Tim released a whiff of rotten orange so potent that Alma wrinkled her nose. His first and rather irrelevant thought was that the Ossy were not insects. As if to prove him wrong, a low humming filled the air as a fat, segmented, yellow-striped body crawled through the desiccated meadow to their right. The two of them tensed, ready to flee or jump into the water. But the flightless hornet, bigger than Alma, was not an Ossy symbiont but a rare solitary variety, its nodding head adorned with an array of scything mouthparts. Solitaries were also dangerous, but in a different way from the inhabitants of a jesalem. Fortunately, it was either sated or dying, and passed them by without attacking.
“See?” Alma said as if it proved her point. “They’re bugs. I’m human.”
Tiny Tim had to admire her self-delusion. If there was any species whose dignity was permanently compromised, it was the Bigs. But then he remembered that Ossy had kidnapped, not killed, his family. Did it mean that they had found a way to utilize Smalls? Even though time was as malleable in Tiny Tim’s world as space used to be in the bygone world of fast transportation, he still had a dim notion of history. And he knew that history had a slant built into it, always going down, from the height of hope to the plateau of despair.
He had choices, of course. He could go down to the shore to seek another Small family, perhaps the one with that other Alma. But then he remembered that the last time they had been there, the ocean was infested with a giant fleet of hydrozoans, lacy by-the-wind-sailors that spread their stinging tentacles in a shiny blanket over the beach. He could eke out a lonely existence as a pitiful, low-on-the-food-chain creature grubbing in the middens of more successful species.
Tiny Tim puffed out his small chest.
“I’m a man,” he said aloud. This unfamiliar phrase smelled of something sharp and metal-shiny.
The Big woman scooped up a handful of water, shaking off the frog-nets whose tiny bright-green floats croaked indignantly. Then she got up and retied her worn-out loincloth the organic cotton of which had resisted the Checkpoint, but was about to fall apart from the accumulation of grime.
“I have to go,” she said. “Glad to have met you, Tim; you are not bad for a dwarf.”
“I’m coming with you,” he said.
The road hugged the shore between the sparkling water and green hills dotted with expensive homes. San Francisco on the other side of the Bay was an insubstantial mirage shimmering in the sunny glow of a perfect day. The radio was spewing body counts. Her phone remained silent.
Coming to the Berkeley Marina, Iris pulled in and staggered into a coffee-house. It was empty. A waitress with multiple piercing reluctantly peeled herself off her phone screen when Iris walked in. She looked Resi’s age.
Why had he left her? Brought up by three women, with the mother who was still in high school when he started pre-K…had she spoiled him rotten? Did she make a mistake by telling him his father was a fallen soldier when, in fact, he was her junior- high classmate whose parents pulled him out of school when they found out that his girlfriend was pregnant and intended to keep the baby? Politics, countries, war and peace…what did it matter when her family was torn apart?
Iris ordered a sandwich and coffee. Her phone vibrated; she snatched it up and saw, with acute disappointment, Dmitry’s icon blinking on the screen.
“Iris? Thank God! Are you all right?”
Should have she phoned him? Dmitry was her co-worker and her boyfriend. But he was not family.
“I’m fine,” she said with fake cheer.
“But…” he sounded genuinely distressed. For some reason, it irritated her.
“I’m fine,” she repeated. “But what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know. And we have new results that are totally mind-boggling, but I can’t make heads or tails of them…and Xiaoling is on the East Coast, and she does not answer, and the Internet is clogged…”
Iris mentally shrugged. This was hardly the time to worry about Future Bio-Life’s spreadsheets.
“What results?” she asked and moved her coffee-cup closer. The cup went through the plastic surface of the table, splashing coffee onto Iris’ jeans-clad legs. She did not even yelp. The thing was so unexpected, so absurd and ridiculous, that she just froze, Dmitry’s voice beating in her ear like a trapped insect.
“Lateral gene transfer,” it was saying. “Transduction and conjuration…”
Iris gingerly got up. The waitress followed her every move with her brightly-painted mouth hanging open. The plastic around the ragged hole where the cup had been bubbled as if burning but there was no fire and no heat.
“What the hell?” Iris whispered.
“Iris!” Dmitry’s voice was a distraction and she told him she would call back and cut him off.
The bubbling stopped. The plastic surface of the cheap table now had a big hole in the middle. The edges of the hole looked melted, sagging down in strings and flaps of discolored material. But whatever process was destroying the plastic had apparently stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The goo was already hardening back.
The whole thing had the vividness of a dream. Iris’s head swam as if she had just woken up. She gingerly touched the edge of the hole: it was cool and hard. She looked at her phone. Was it really as early as that? What time did she leave the Muir Woods? She could not remember. But surely she had driven for at least an hour to get here?
Iris glanced outside: the light was still morning-fresh.
The waitress gave a strangled squawk. She was looking at the large TV fixed above the bar. The screen was showing the red sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge wobble and seethe.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim and Alma huddled in the thicket of manzanitas above the new jesalem. These contorted trees with bright-red peeling trunks had not started the cycle of metamorphosis yet, though some showed the tell-tale swelling around the roots. In a couple of days, viscous tears of acidic sap would form on their raw flesh, burning anybody incautious enough to brush past them. And eventually they would pull out of the soil altogether and become lumbering red crawlers, scampering around on twig-legs, their gaping root-nets ready to snare any prey, be it Bigs, Smalls, sessile or mobile deer, colonial or single gofers, or even an occasional hornet symbiont. But there was one kind they would not touch.
The Ossy swarmed around their encampment in a flutter of pearly-white bodies. Their jasmine smell was overpowering. To Tiny Tim, it spelled sexual flirtation, creating an almost unbearable cognitive dissonance between his fear and hatred of his world’s overlords and their seductive pheromonal message. For his Big companion, relying on visual stimuli, a similar dissonance was produced by the creatures’ dainty grace.
Alma pointed at a chink in the slovenly fence the Ossy had erected around the central compound. A couple of splintered posts fell out and there was a space wide enough for Tiny Tim to slip through. But the courtyard swarmed with Ossy workers bringing in food: paralyzed deer, rolling their white eyes; some strange piles of gelatinous flesh, probably harvested on the shore where the speed of evolutionary change accelerated every day; clusters of grown-together gofers squirming like restless grapes. Tiny Tim almost hoped to see the dead bodies of his family. Then, at least, his suspicion that the Ossy had developed a way to use Smalls would be dispelled. But he saw no humans in the courtyard, Big or Small.
A couple of Ossy soldiers came out, hugging their tight drum-like bellies, their maws bigger and toothier than the rosebud mouths of the workers. They did not linger, disappearing back into the central building, but Alma became obviously agitated. Tiny Tim projected a cloud of calmness, trying to envelop them both in the smells of clover and camphor. He was not sure she would respond, but she did, visibly relaxing.
As the sun went down and the first tendrils of fog crawled upslope, the commotion in the jesalem died down. The rubbishy courtyard was deserted. This was the silent hour between the withdrawal of the day Ossy and the emergence of their night counterparts. The hornet symbionts did not fly at night, so Smalls, much like extinct chimps, sought shelter in in nests built high in tree canopies, where Tiny Tim would lie among his sleeping kin, and stare at the stars, and imagine he had wings. A sharp pang of loneliness went through his body when he remembered the shared warmth of his huddling family. But he looked at Alma, his comrade-in-arms, and told himself he was not alone.
Below their vantage point the sun sunk into the placid ocean, painting the sky with orange and pink. The black sprawling mass of the central jesalem marred the colors like a giant ink blot. Evolutionary eons ago the Bay would be sparkling with city lights. Tiny Tim’s grandfather had remembered those days, though he was not sure whether the memory was his own. Tiny Tim himself knew his kind had once ruled the Earth but the question of when was not part of his mental universe. Time was out of joint, violently wrenched apart by the Checkpoint.
When it got dark, Tiny Tim tugged at Alma’s hand, and together they slithered through the underbrush toward the chink in the fence. Tiny Tim winced at the noise the Big was making but there was no help for it.
The Ossy had once posted guards all around their nests but they did not seem to bother anymore, perhaps because nobody challenged their dominion. Tiny Tim easily slipped through the chink, and hid behind a large pile of rotting flesh and stripped bones. The stench was appalling and he fastidiously released a tiny puff of lavender-scented superiority: how primitive these creatures were compared to him, a true human! He was not afraid of his pheromones being detected since Ossy sense of smell was as dull as the rest of their senses.
Alma tried to follow him but got stuck. Wriggling to get free, she accidentally dislodged a chunk of wood. The jury-rigged construction wobbled and creaked and then an entire section of the fence collapsed,
Tiny Tim froze. This was bound to draw attention. And indeed, a solitary day worker emerged from the core building, unsteady on her feet, as if woken up from slumber. Her greasy white skin shone in the twilight with a sickly luminescence. She had the standard build of her kind: long slender legs joined at the unmarked crotch; thin arms; a small head on the long graceful neck. Her normally protruding belly was slack; and her doll-like face was smoothly white, the eyes closed. Tiny Tim breathed a sigh of relief.
The Ossa stood very close to the two hominines, her head turning from side to side with a hypnotic motion. The jasmine smell was overpowering.
There were rumors that some specialized night soldiers could see, but the majority of the Ossy were blind, and nobody knew for certain what senses they used to track their prey. Had science survived, somebody might have come up with a theory about infrared sensitivity. The theory would be wrong. Tiny Tim had his own opinion on the subject, which was, in fact, correct. Consequently, he was glad to see that the Ossa had recently given birth.
The Ossa cocked her head in an unnervingly human gesture. And then a low humming that set his teeth on edge vibrated in the air and several hornet symbionts, coming back from foraging in the forest, crawled into a hole in the ground. Their long segmented bodies wriggled energetically. A cloud of much smaller flying creatures the size of a sparrow followed. These had no mouths or stingers; they were scouts only. Emerging as the afterbirth of Ossy babies, they lived for just a couple of days.
The symbionts distracted the Ossa’s attention, and she ambled away. Tiny Tim crawled back to Alma stuck in the fence and pulled pieces of wood off her. She wriggled and he hissed at her to be still, zapping her with a cloud of peppery irritation. Finally, she was able to come through and the two of them ran toward the central building.
And then another Ossa rose up from the bushes like a white snake. Tiny Tim clapped his hands to his face, dropped onto the ground, and rolled himself into a tight ball, seeking the protection of thick, confusing shadows. Alma, though, Big, clumsy Alma, she stood no chance…
The Ossa was right in front of her. Tiny Tim did not look, of course, but he knew what was happening. The thick lids protecting the blind eyes were lifting.
Alma made a tiny, shy step toward the monster like a child called by the teacher. And though the whole thing was conducted in silence, Tiny Tim heard her intake of breath and a single word she whispered in the remnant of a language not spoken anymore: “Dios”. And something gave way, his glands exploding with a cloud so dense it blanketed the entire trio with the burning reek of rage and the sharp, acrid sting of defiance. The blend of odors was so heavy it made his own eyes water. Alma doubled up, coughing. But the Ossa…the Ossa stumbled around in circles, her arms flailing, her head twitching spasmodically. And the lids were back down, protecting the Ossa’s most potent weapon and her most vulnerable spot.
Tiny Tim tried to whip up more rage but he could no more control his pheromones than his emotions. The bitter scorching of rage was giving way to the cloacal stench of fear, which could lure more predators. With a final effort he did not know he was capable of, he called upon the memory of his family to exude another cloud of stinging defiance, tinted by the red chili-like odor of revenge. This worked. Flapping her arms, the Ossa tried to get away, stumbled into a tree-trunk, slipped and fell.
Tiny Tim’s pheromonal glands were painfully throbbing. But when he cleared his eyes, he saw, with the involuntary release of a saltwater-scented puff of awe, that the Ossa lay crumpled on the ground.
Tiny Tim stared at the body. He had never known an Ossa defeated by Small pheromones. Smalls used their pheromonal capacity for bonding and communication, not as a weapon. But could it be that they were just too timid? Could it be that evolution had given them a power they were too afraid to use?
But then he looked at Alma and his jubilation ebbed away. She must have glimpsed the eyes.
Her face was blank and slack; her own eyes were red, as if inflamed, bleeding an unending trickle of pink viscous tears. She swayed unsteadily on her feet. She was gone.
But the defiance which Tiny Tim believed had been exhausted in the confrontation with the Ossa, flared back. He would not leave his Big companion here to blunder around and cry until her formless grief was assuaged by the despicable use Ossy would make of her!
They came on this suicide mission together. At least he would witness her death.
He whispered to her to follow him and she obeyed.
Iris stood at the water margin, squinting into the glare of the Bay. To her left was the forest of gantries that marked the Oakland Port. They seemed to be untouched by whatever blight had felled the Golden Gate Bridge.
As opposed to all the apocalyptic movies, games and novels Resi devoured, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the accumulation of disasters. They did not proceed in a smooth arc of increasing mayhem. Instead time moved in uneven jerks. The plastic table momentarily liquefied; the Golden Gate Bridge collapsed; and then what? The rest of the tables in the café were reassuringly solid; the breathless coverage on all networks added nothing to the already known fact that collapse was due to some chemical or perhaps even biological agent, as the metal seemed to be eaten by an insanely speeded-up rusting; and the body count, while significant, was lower than expected because of the police cordon at the entrance to the bridge.
Surfing news sites, Iris felt as if she stood in the glare of innumerable eyes. She hated this feeling. It made her itchy. All she wanted was to be with her family, safely ensconced in their protective warmth. It was a primal, instinctual urge, immune to reason and rational calculation of odds. She had to be with her family and she would be, defying space and time.
The problem was that her family was scattered across the globe, mother and son on the opposite sides of the Earth. She called her mother again and Nina sounded distressed, telling Iris there were police in combat gear outside her suburban home. She tried to get through to Grandmother Rivka’s senior facility but, again, nobody picked up the phone.
There was more news of building collapses in various parts of the world, but Iris blanked them out. The only thing that concerned her now was the agonizing choice she had to make. The choice between her mother and her son.
She could try to drive across San Mateo Bridge to get to Nina. The traffic app showed an impassable obstruction there, cars standing still. This must be another checkpoint, the police – or the army – trying to regulate the human flood. But Iris was convinced she could get through, even if she had to walk.
Or she could try to get to SFO, hop on the first plane to Israel. There had been several plane crashes but flights were still on. She accessed the airport websites: many delays reported but few cancelations.
But whatever choice she made, Iris knew that it would be final. If she chose to be with her mother and grandmother, she would never see her son again. If she managed to reach Resi, her mother and grandmother would die alone. She did not know how she knew it but it was undeniable.
So she agonized and procrastinated, her innards twisted into a ball of pain. Nobody should have to make such a choice! Families were not to be torn apart, stretched on the rack of distance and delay!
She tried to be rational about it, to calculate how long each of her choices would take. But for some reason, it seemed totally meaningless. She was used to living across time zones but now, for the first time, she felt the fragility of clock synchronicity. Surely the real time was measured in birth and death, not in electronic pulses!
Her phone suddenly sang with Dmitry’s call. Iris stabbed at it irritably.
“Iris!” He sounded breathless. “Where are you?”
“On my way.”
“On your way where?”
She did not answer.
“I talked to Xiaoling,” he said.
Fu Xiaoling was their R&D person, a tiny Chinese woman who moved like a sparrow and had a passion for brand-name purses. In Dmitry’s estimation, she would get a Nobel before she was fifty.
“What does she say?”
“A lot of it was physics. Not my cup of tea. Anyway, she thinks that we misunderstand temporality. There are many different kinds of time. And one particular kind, evolutionary time, is out of whack.”
“Out of whack in what way? And how is evolutionary time different from any other kind?”
“It flows in both directions, that’s how. The future influences the past. This is how life arose in the first place – because it would arise in the future, so it reached back into the past and created the conditions for its own origin – despite the unlikeliness of the whole thing. I can’t really explain it any better – our language does not work this way because we think in linear terms. But time is not linear. It has…bottlenecks. Filters. That’s what we are experiencing now. When the future is trying to force itself onto the past and the past resists.”
Iris slowed down as the traffic grew heavier. Ahead she could see the immobile expanse of cars packed front-to-back.
“What kind of future?”
“I don’t know and neither does she. But it seems species barriers are being breached. DNA is traveling freely across phyla. Bacteria do it all the time, you know, exchange genes, snippets of DNA.”
She did know – this is what their start-up was based on.
“But you are saying it has something to do with time? I don’t understand.”
“It’s like…there is this particular future, and for some reason, it is so…unlikely, so contrary to the mainstream of history, that it has to force time to bend toward it. So it’s like…like a filter. The future filters out those elements of our present that it cannot let continue because they will prevent its coming into being. And these elements include our entire civilization or at least its material aspect. Xiaoling says she’s been following reports of unexplained plane crashes, metal fatigue, disintegration of buildings…that sort of things. It’s gaining speed. Evolutionary time does not flow at a uniform rate anyway. Extinction and speciation can occur in what to an external observer would seem to be a blink of an eye. But until now there had been some continuity, some causality. History repaired itself. But now…there is this filter.”
The big Toyota Tundra in front of her stopped suddenly and Iris hit on the brakes. A chorus of honks echoed across the packed lanes.
“A checkpoint,” she said. “There is a checkpoint ahead.”
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim and Alma crept through the garbage heaps at the back of the jesalem. The Ossy were messy eaters: the place stunk of rotten meat, the stench of death mixing with the pervasive jasmine sweetness into a barely breathable reek. There were fly larvae as big as mice, infesting the dump.
The central structure loomed ahead, black on black. It looked like an insanely enlarged ant-heap except that there were no ants left. Perhaps some of their DNA wound up in the eusocial posthuman species that now ruled the planet.
Suddenly a section of the wall swung out a pale luminescence spilled into the night. A troop of night Ossy filed out. They were smaller than their daytime sisters, dark-skinned, with elliptical heads slung low on gnarly necks. Instead of the dainty mouths of day Ossy, they had powerful toothy jaws. And all of them were heavily pregnant, their stomachs jutting aggressively. Tiny Tim repressed a spurt of acetic horror, when he saw this.
One of the night Ossy passed close where Alma and Tiny Tim crouched among rot and slime. Her head swerved in their direction and he almost passed out when he saw that her eyes were open. But they were not what he had dreaded: small, deep-set, and darkly glittering, they darted around as she scanned her surroundings.
So there were sighted Ossy, after all! That was an important discovery, worth risking his life for! If he could just transmit this information to others of his kind, even to the dwindling Bigs….
And then Alma stood up.
She stepped toward the night Ossa. Tiny Tim wanted to cry out to her but realized it was useless. She had seen the red eyes. She was doomed. It was surprising that her personhood had lasted as long as it had but now it was leaching out, replaced by a warm meaty readiness.
And yet she still stood tall and did not flinch when the night Ossa came close, her tiny nose almost touching the Big woman’s breastbone. Her long fingers palpated Alma’s soft, defenseless belly. And then her own protruding belly heaved, and a dripping, squirming package tethered by a bloody cord dropped from between her legs. The Ossa quickly lifted the neonate with one hand, severing the umbilical cord with a swipe of a clawed finger on the other, and clamped it to Alma’s midriff. The baby burrowed into the flesh, easily chewing through the muscle with her many-rowed teeth.
Now Alma screamed but, mercifully, the screams were cut short as the opiates that the baby exuded flooded her bloodstream. The night Ossa took her by the elbow in a parody of solicitude and walked her to the building.
The rest of the night Ossy troop continued toward the main gate. Alma and the Ossa mother disappeared into the big structure. But the door still remained ajar.
Tiny Tim was shaking. He should go away, go back to that redwood that promised an easy leap into nothingness, a clean death…His small hand compulsively stroked the rough patch of skin on his belly. That was a paltry adaptation, but it had worked for his kind – until now. The babies could not easily bite through. Or perhaps their mothers did not want to bother with creatures of such a small body mass. Until now…But of course, everything was in flux, changes rushing in every day. After the Checkpoint, time was no longer a flowing river but a broken surge of whitewater.
Tiny Tim almost turned back. But then he remembered a dignified way with which Alma stood up and stepped toward the night Ossa. What if she was not totally mindless? What if some remnant of her personhood survived the exposure?
Tiny Tim crawled through the yard and nudging the door open, slipped inside.
All the roads leading out of the East Bay were clogged. All the bridges were blocked with flashing police cars and yellow tape. There was no way for her to get across.
Iris drove up to the Tilden Park, a large expanse of greenery in the hills above Berkeley. The road was traffic-jammed in the opposite direction, as people were trying to get down to Berkeley and Oakland. But leading to the park, it was empty. And so was the parking lot.
She sat in her Prius, fatigue rolling over her in a tidal wave. She had not eaten anything for hours. Her water-bottle was empty. But her phone was fully charged.
It was getting late; the sun was setting over the Bay, the thin sheet of water glowing with the colors of a rose garden. Lights were coming on all around, San Francisco in the distance sparkling like another galaxy – as lovely and unattainable.
The park had bathrooms. Iris walked to the deserted hut, used the toilet, washed her hands, and refilled her water bottle. As she was doing it, she heard a buzz like a faulty lighting fixture.
She looked around. In the corner where the institutionally drab wall met the ceiling, a swollen paper bag hung from the rafters. It buzzed and vibrated; dark bodies as long as Iris’s finger crawled over it.
Wasps? But how could they be so big?
She beat a quick retreat. The wasps did not follow. They seemed to be simultaneously sluggish and agitated.
Her car was the only one left in the parking lot. The trees around had blended into a solid mass that seemed to twitch with hidden movement. Iris drank some water. Her phone rang.
Dmitry’s face on the tiny screen was cadaverous with fatigue but he spoke quickly.
“You must come here. Now!”
“Where are you?”
“The Future building. I’m the only one here. But I think I’m getting a handle on this thing. I just need help. Please, Iris, you must help me. The future of humanity may depend on it. I’m sorry, I know it sounds corny but it’s the truth. I need communication, somebody to set up networking. The web is clogged; I don’t know what the hell is going on but I can’t reach anybody. There are people in Germany, Belgium, Shanghai. I need help contacting them. You are the only one. You know our systems. Just network, pull us all together, let me talk to them. And there are other things you can do here. Please! I know you want to reach your folks, but it’s more important than one person or one family!”
Iris sighed. This was why they were on their way to a breakup. He did not understand what family meant. A man like him, estranged from his parents, with no children…he was not right for her. Not right for Resi, Nina and Rivka.
“I cannot,” she said. “I must get back to my family. No matter what it takes or how long it takes.”
“You don’t understand!” he cried in frustration. “It’s not about your family anymore! It’s about all of us! Listen, Xiaoling does not answer; something is happening in NYC, it’s spreading…And the rest of our guys, Jim, Ranesh and Orly, are either dead or I can’t reach them. You are not a biologist but you know enough about our technology. You can help me. We have something that can beat this thing. We can stop it. Now!”
He went on, talking about the physics of time and how, if one change was made before history reached that pivotal moment, something could be done, the future could be averted. He went on but Iris was not listening.
He had lost her. There was nothing more important than family. Nothing.
Santa Cruz Mountains
The inside of the building was as tumbledown as Tiny Tim had imagined it to be, but at least it was lit. Uneven strips of some bioluminescent material clung to the shaggy ceiling and the curving walls. There were crude wicker doors set into walls. They were all closed.
A cry rang through the hushed corridors and Tiny Tim shivered. It was a human cry, either of a Big or a Small. Ossy were voiceless.
A bloated creature dragged itself across the corridor ahead, disappearing through one of the doors that clinked shut behind it. If it was an Ossa, it was of a kind Tiny Tim was unfamiliar with.
He released a weak gust of the peppery courage and pushed a door at random.
Inside was a circular chamber littered with bodies. All the bodies were Big. All were gnawed down to little more than bloody skeletons. Ossa babies were done with them. Alma was not here, but he did not expect her to be dead yet. If the rumors circulating among his kind were correct, she would survive in her twilight state for days, maybe months, while the baby was wet-nursed with her dripping blood.
There were heavy footsteps in the corridor, different from the smooth, graceful Ossy glide. Overcoming his revulsion, he slipped down, cowering among the bones. His small build was, once again, his salvation.
The footsteps moved past the entrance, paused, and then doubled back. A shadow fell over him. He knew he should not do it but his curiosity was irresistible. He moved his head an inch, opened one eye, and peeked.
At first he thought that the creature looming over him was a Big male. It had the same beefy build, bulging muscles, and the tousled head of hair that the men of the Big tribe had.
He squinted and realized he was wrong.
The male – because it was a male, it had the sack of genitalia hanging slackly below his belly – was as gnarly and brown as a redwood stump. But his disproportionately small head set almost horizontally on a thin neck, was unmistakably an Ossa head: with doll-like features, a pursed-up mouth, and a tiny nose. What Tiny Tim mistook for hair was a nest of fine reddish filaments, tangling and stirring on top of his head. In his puffy arms, the male was holding a baby.
His eyes were open. Like the eyes of the night Ossa who had taken Alma they were small, glittering, and black. They restlessly flicked back and forth as the Ossa male surveyed the chamber.
The light was dim. Tiny Tim did not have a religion but the human need for worship was strong in him, and so he prayed to be overlooked.
The male turned around and stumbled to the exit. And then the baby he was holding stirred in his arms and spoke.
“There is a Small being here,” she said.
Her mother’s phone rang into the void.
She dialed again and again. She texted. She tried Granny Rivka’s landline. But the sick feeling inside told her nobody would answer. And nobody did.
She overcame her superstitious dread and called Resi. There was no answer. She texted him and waited for the returned call, which did not come.
She tried to surf the web. It was, as Dmitry had told her, clogged. Sites flickered on and off, seemingly at random. An occasional snatch of information would come through: more collapsed buildings and bridges; train derailments; planes falling out of the sky. The army was taking control of key areas, whatever these were. Facebook was frozen. Twitter was down.
Iris realized she could no longer stay here, camping out in the back of her car in the abandoned parking lot of Tilden, snacking on a stale pack of Doritos and drinking water out of a refilled bottle. She had to be down there, as close to her family as possible. Her rationality retreated, squeezed out by her overwhelming need not to be alone.
Painfully stretching her stiff limbs, Iris crawled over into the driver seat. And as she touched the ignition, the dark trees around the parking lot bent and swished in the non-existent wind. A sickly radiance like the corona of a dying star burst in the foggy sky and was quickly extinguished by a succession of colorless flares. There was a smell of a wet dog in the air. The wasps flowed out of the disintegrating hut in a smoky ribbon. The phone on the passenger seat lit up with multiple flashes of Breaking News.
London disappeared under the soft termite mounds that grew up in the middle of the city, taller than any skyscrapers.
New York was invaded by stinging vines.
Shanghai blinked out of existence with no fanfare.
Paris was flooded by waters coming out of nowhere.
And Jerusalem was destroyed by the collapse of the Temple Mount that buried the Old City under rubble.
The Checkpoint has arrived.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Even as he was hauled out of the chamber by the meaty fist of the Ossy male, Tiny Tim’s brain still struggled to come to terms with what had just happened.
The Ossy did not speak. This was the one unbreakable barrier between the new eusocial posthumans and the dwindling descendants of true humanity. The Bigs and the Smalls were exploited, hunted down, used for unspeakable purposes by the dominant kind, but they still retained the one badge of superiority that, in another evolutionary saltation, had enabled Homo sapiens to take charge of the planet. They could speak. To have this shared with the monsters was painful beyond endurance.
The baby, carried in the crook of the male’s other arm, burped. She was a typical Ossy baby of the daytime worker variety: pink and smooth, not yet having acquired the lardy sheen of an adult; her rosebud mouth bristling with multiple rows of tiny triangular teeth; her blind eyes protected by thick lids.
The male brought them into another chamber where more babies were ensconced in the laps of half-eaten Bigs. The Bigs were lined up against the wall of the chamber, seated in a cross-legged position that was meant to indicate repose and contentment. Some of them only retained the bare modicum of internal organs consistent with survival, their exposed hearts sluggishly contracting in the cavities of their bloody interior. Others were almost intact, nursing the infants at their breasts with their blood. All had a calm, beatific expression induced by the steady stream of opiates the babies released as they burrowed hungrily into their host’s flesh. The hosts were both males and females but all fully grown. Tiny Tim looked for Alma but did not see her.
The male dropped both of them onto the straw-covered floor and stood by the exit. The baby crawled toward her nurse, who was stripped almost to the bone, though her heart was still weakly beating in the exposed ribcage.
The baby clambered into her nurse’s bloody lap and positioned herself to face Tiny Tim who stood in the middle of the chamber, dazed. He was so exhausted that if she opened her eyes, as he expected her to do, he would not try to cover his face. But instead she addressed him. She spoke with a lisp but her syntax was good.
“What are you doing here, Small?”
“My name is Tiny Tim,” he threw back at her, together with a weak puff of acrid defiance. His depleted body would not allow more. “Do you have a name, you stupid insect?”
He expected her to take offence, but she tittered instead. It was rather horrible because all her teeth were revealed, spiraling down her pink throat. Ossy babies had teeth like extinct sharks’ – arranged in conveyor-belt rows, so as the first row wore down the next one came to the fore to replace it.
“If I’m an insect, what are you? We are the same, you know. Just look at us. We look the same. We are family.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Tiny Tim responded rebelliously. “And anyway, how come you speak? Ossys are stupid and mute.”
“It should be Ossy,” the baby corrected. “It’s already plural. And you are right, the adults are pretty dim. We have intelligence in utero and until we are weaned. Then it dissipates. We don’t need it anymore.”
“Stupid, just as I said!”
“Intelligence is an aberration. An evolutionary quirk. We use it and then we discard it. Just like our ancestors used tools.”
Tiny Tim remained silent.
The Smalls did not talk about it among themselves but they knew it to be the truth. The Ossy, the Bigs and the Smalls were essentially the same species. The hitch in evolutionary time that cleaved them into three distinct kinds had happened too recently to have generated real cladistics barriers.
“Whatever!” he growled. “But what do you want from me? Just kill me, eat me and be done with it. Just as you have killed and eaten my family.”
“Your family is still alive,” the baby said. “And they will stay alive if you do what I say. We need your help. The Queen was about to dispatch soldiers to capture some more of your kind but you are already here, so it’s even better. Saves time.”
“You need my help?” Tiny Tim said incredulously, weighing every word on his small pink tongue as if it were a sugar-coated pebble. “MY help?’ What do you mean?”
“Another Checkpoint is coming,” the baby said. “If we don’t stand together against it, all of us, it’ll destroy our kinds. And who knows what will come next?”
Iris staggered down the road, her clothes torn and dusty, leaving bloody footprints on the tarmac. Somewhere she had lost her left shoe. Her right shoe was still on and holding together: expensive Italian leather paying off. Her cotton shirt and loose black pants were also intact but her synthetic jacket had fallen apart. She would have considered it a punishment by the gods of ecological mindfulness were it not for the fact that her Prius was gone as well, reduced to a mound of bubbling sludge.
The world was green and fresh, basking in the crystal light of a perfect Californian day. She hobbled past what used to be the entrance to the Berkeley Botanical Gardens. But now a jungle wall fronted the narrowing road. A cornucopia of plants spilled out onto the crumbling tarmac: leaves toothed, fretted, elephant-ear-shaped; branches twisted, gnarled, corkscrewed; flowers green, red, yellow, and the color of spoiled meat. A giant spike with a single azure blossom on top jutted into the clear sky. Had she seen it on one of her visits to the Gardens? Or maybe it was as new as the rest of this indifferent Eden.
Some of the flora was more than strange. Iris glimpsed something that resembled a shaggy orange-and-purple mat suspended from a clutch of bulbous pillars. Its dripping surface seethed with the insects it had caught and was slowly digesting. At least one of the insects was the size of Iris’s head – or perhaps it was a featherless bird.
There were no people on the road. She surmised they had been caught in the evolutionary-time backflow and what…? Left behind? Incinerated? Shunted over into another time-stream? Perhaps she should have listened to Dmitry’s explanation more attentively. Perhaps she should have gone to him. But could they have done something to prevent this unimaginable catastrophe? It was insane even to think so. A single person at a checkpoint was of no consequence.
But small regrets and paltry might-have-beens were drowned in the overwhelming sense of bereavement that swept over her again and again with the cruel regularity of the ocean surf.
Her family was gone. She was never going to see Resi, or her mother, or Granny Rivka again. Compared to this loss, the millions, perhaps billions, of lives that had evaporated were of no significance to her.
Dehydration and hunger made her light-headed. Hobbling over to the curb, she plopped down, staring dully at the disintegrating tarmac. Her hand sunk into the softening mass of the surfacing that was crumbling as she watched. She crawled over to a patch of earth sprinkled with something that looked like forget-me-nots, incongruously blooming in the middle of August. But the texture of petals was all wrong and what she had taken for blue flowers were sky-colored butterflies tethered to grass stalks.
The deprivation she felt most keenly was the loss of her phone. It had literally liquefied and ran through her fingers as she desperately cried “Resi!” as if her need could hold the metal and plastic together.
She considered her options. Actually only one was left and realizing this, she felt profound relief. She did not need to go anywhere. She could just stay here, fall asleep, and never wake up. Hunger and exhaustion would gently lull her and take her where she wanted to be – with her family.
But as Iris sagged onto the warm ground, something streaked within the green mass of the jungle. Something white.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim padded on his calloused feet through the nest, following the male who carried the chatty Ossa baby.
“You see,” she was saying, “at the Checkpoint one individual can make an enormous difference. This is how it works. When evolutionary time lashes back, it wraps itself around the most developed mind that happens to be at the modal point of transition. And the next segment of time is shaped by this mind. Of course, ‘developed’ is relative…but if your smartest specimen is a fish, you may be sure that in the next epoch lung-fish are going to crawl onto the land. And if it happens to be a small furry mammal…well, dinosaurs had a good run but everything comes to an end eventually.”
Tiny Tim understood only half of what the baby was saying – and not just because though highly intelligent, his kind had to make do with oral tales in lieu of cultural inheritance. Nor was it because of hunger and thirst: the baby had ordered her drone to fetch him a folded leaf of water with juicy larvae floating inside and he did it justice, even though the sight of the half-eaten Big nursemaids depressed his appetite. No, the reason he was paying only partial attention to the baby’s chatter was because he was trying to learn as much of the jesalem layout as he could.
Something had happened to him, something that had upended his entire understanding of what he was and what he lived for. The grief for his family still sat like a shard of broken glass in his chest, sending out occasional puffs of ashen pain when he remembered his mate’s sweet smile, his daughter’s laughter, or his cousins’ easy chatter. But now, for the first time, he felt that he was more than a small mammal hiding from his predators to survive another day and to pass on his genes. He was human. And these, these grotesque creatures – what were they? They could not even build a decent shelter! His kind’s sleeping nests, abandoned every morning, were better made than this giant hut infested with parasites and smeared with sticky secretions! How barbaric, how undignified! He had to tamp down a puff of musky indignation seeping out from his glands for fear that the baby could smell it. Her eyes were lidded but what if…
No, he reminded himself, she needs me! He still could not understand why, but there was some possibility of trade here! In a world with no money, bargaining still retained its importance as humanity’s defining feature. And so did cunning, resilience, and hatred for the enemy.
More Ossy were coming their way: night workers with seeing eyes. But how were they defended? They had strong jaws and clawed fingers but even a giant raccoon would be a match for them. And Bigs could easily take them on, especially if they made clubs out of living branches that were not subject to the speeded-up decay that struck other made things…Tiny Tim’s pheromonal glands throbbed with excitement as he marched deeper into the eusocial posthumans’ nest, inventing war.
The drone squeezed through a narrow opening draped with a curtain of living skin that twitched as it let them in. And Tiny Tim found himself in the presence of a creature whose existence his people had long surmised but never actually witnessed: the Ossy Queen.
The sun shining straight into her eyes woke Iris up. She groaned. Why was it that people who clung to life could be snuffed out in seconds, while she, having given up on her meaningless solitary existence, still survived? She wanted to die, but body was hungry, and thirsty, and uncomfortable, and not willing to let go.
She sat up and looks straight into the porcelain faces of a ring of nude women surrounding her.
As her head cleared, she realized that while indeed nude, these were not women. Or at least, not exactly.
They were like the creature she had glimpsed in the Muir Woods but they seemed smaller, more fragile, as petite as preteens. They twitched and fidgeted with the abrupt grace of a flock of starlings. Their bodies shone as if oiled and their skin was thick and smooth. There were no genitals and no breasts but the bodies were female-shaped with wide hips made for carrying babies. And their eyes in generic doll-like faces were closed. Nevertheless, she believed they saw her because as she got to her feet, they fell back a little and swiveled their heads, following her every move. An intoxicating smell of jasmine came off them in heavy waves.
Iris knew that she should be frightened or creeped out – these creatures were not human – but she was not. A faint interest stirred in her as she realized that all of them had slightly bulging bellies of early pregnancy.
“What do you want from me?” she asked but they did not react at all. She did not think they understood language. And then one of them offered her something – a folded leathery leaf filled with fresh water.
“Thank you!” she said, smiling, and let the cool freshness trickle down her throat. Another female gave her a handful of grapes.
She ate. The feeling of satiety spread through her and made her feel grateful toward her rescuers who sat around her in a semicircle.
Where did they come from? Iris did not know and did not care. She was not naturally a curious woman. She responded emotionally, not rationally, despite being an accountant by training. Her friends teased her about her dry, number-crunching profession being such a poor fit for her warm, nurturing personality. But she was very good at it; perhaps because she did not really care for her own professional success. Everything she had done was for somebody else: her mother; her late father who had died prematurely; and most of all, her son. The worst hell she could imagine was being unneeded.
But now she might be needed again. The gentle humanoid creatures who surrounded her tugged at her maternal feelings. They were so graceful, so dainty; rather like the daughter she had never had. And like herself as a teenager, they were pregnant. Little daughters, little mothers…She breathed in the flower smell coming off their porcelain bodies.
She should help them. The decision arrived with the same sense of inevitability as her decision not to terminate her pregnancy. There was, in fact, no deliberative process, just as there had not been one when she had kept her baby. There was just that overwhelming sense of rightness.
The little mothers seemed to be lost. Iris decided they needed shelter. She would find one for them.
But where to go? Iris considered where they were. She could not see Berkeley because of the wall of greenery that grew as quickly as an animation movie and yet did not seem to move at all. Something was happening to her sense of time; it was broken into uneven fragments, advancing in leaps and bounds. She did not find it frightening or bizarre.
The road was still passable and she knew the highway would bring them into downtown Berkeley, close to Shattuck Avenue. Perhaps there were houses still standing. Perhaps they could find food. And the ocean was there, sparkling in the pristine sunshine of the new beginning.
“Let’s go!” she said to the little mothers and started down the road. The tarmac was all but gone but the ribbon of bare earth offered an easy descent. Iris kicked off her remaining shoe and wriggled her toes. It felt good being barefoot.
They followed in a single file. As she rounded a corner, she heard a loud drilling sound. She looked back and saw a dense cloud of large buzzing insects flying over the heads of her troop – she was already beginning to think of them as hers. The insects were the size of her palm, some even bigger, and their yellow-and-black bodies flashed in the sunlight. The little mothers reached out, blindly groping in the air, and some of the insects alighted upon their shoulders and arms.
Iris was not afraid of stinging insects. As a child, she wanted to be a beekeeper. She was almost immune to the bee venom, regarding a bee sting as no worse than a mosquito’s.
These were not bees; but what were they? Iris tried to remember the English word and could not. She suddenly realized that language was being leached out of her. She was bleeding words. Every flicker of time erased part of her bilingual memory. But it was not painful, this process, in a strange way, it was pleasurable, almost like a gentle unstoppable trickle of breast milk.
Some remnant of her humanity still demanded a name. She could not remember the Hebrew word either. But suddenly a word in a language she did not actually speak popped into her head. Dmitry had tried to teach her Russian.
“Ossy!” she said to the buzzing whirlpool that was now settling down, the giant insects falling onto the females as gently as autumn leaves. “You are Ossy!”
And having used up her power of naming, Iris and her little mothers went down to where Berkeley stood no more.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Tiny Tim stared in consternation at the ruler of the jesalem. He had imagined something like an enormous slug spawning an endless procession of Ossy babies, but of course, as opposed to other eusocial organisms, the Ossy procreated individually, every female member of the community perpetually gravid. Since intelligence in this species was pre- and neonatal, their Queen had to be pregnant all the time, but there was no need for her to actually give birth. And because of the peculiar mind that had stamped itself on the Ossy evolutionary trajectory, the queen never wanted to let go of her offspring.
So what confronted Tiny Tim in the large domed room, grander than the rest of the nest but as untidy, was an emaciated female reclining on a pile of rushes and surrounded by clusters of baby heads. These clusters looked like Renaissance cherubim but without the wings. The heads grew out of her body in dense clumps and bundles, head on top of head, all chattering happily to each other, their infant eyes firmly closed. The queen’s eyes, though, were open and to Tiny Tim’s discomfort, they were just as human as his own, with a grey iris surrounded by the rim of white. The rest of the queen’s face was wrinkled and sagging, as if she were an ordinary Big rather than the ruler of a species who never showed any sign of aging (older Ossy were simply recycled, devoured by their kin). Indeed, sans the baby heads, she looked just like any Big female.
Her toothless mouth worked but it was the largest cluster of baby heads, hanging from her shoulder like a bunch of monstrous grapes that spoke in unison.
“A dwarf?” they sung in sweet dulcet tones. “A smart dwarf?”
“I’m no dwarf!” Tiny Tim yelled. “What do you want from me, insects?”
“We need you to greet the next Checkpoint. To make sure it won’t foul things up. Evolutionary time is rolling back again, something in the future wants to be born, forcing a change. We don’t want any change. We are perfect. This world is perfect. We have reached an equilibrium.”
“Perfect?” Tiny Tim’s glands flooded the room with a smoky reek of disgust. “Look at yourself, insects! You are stupid! You don’t know how to build! Look at this place – a gofers’ burrow is better than this! What good are you?”
The baby heads fluttered indignantly but it was the queen herself who spoke, her sunken mouth squirming as she squeezed out agitated words:
“No…no violence. No pollution…war…children don’t die…my children are alive…”
“What about my children?” Tiny Tim yelled back.
There was a commotion at the back of the room as a large male drone ushered in a huddle of small figures.
Tiny Tim’s rushed toward them but another drone stopped him. He strained against the creature’s gross hands, as his mate Mati and his cousins waved back at him. Mati was holding his daughter Isa.
“They are safe,” another voice piped up; this time it was the baby who had first spotted him. “If you do what we tell you, you’ll have them back.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?” Tiny Tim asked suspiciously but he knew the answer.
Intelligence in the Ossy was a dying trait, an evolutionary atavism. And only the most intelligent creature in every segment of evolutionary time could leave its imprint on the backlash wave of change. The most intelligent creature in his world was himself – a tiny, shrunken, hobbit-like descendant of humanity.
He looked at his family, looked back at the queen ensconced in the bubble mass of nodding, twitching, babbling heads.
Humans built. Humans made tools. Humans bargained.
“I want my Big companion too,” he said. “Her name is Alma. Throw her in, and I’ll do it.”
The heads twitched uncertainly and then another drone walked in, dragging Alma behind.
At first he thought she was wearing a new piece of clothing and then he realized that the red bib that covered her from chest to hips was blood. A steady trickle of blood flowed from the wound between her breasts where an Ossa baby clung with her rosy fingers and her sharp teeth. He called her by name and she lifted her head; and he saw that they had gouged out her eyes.
The emotion which his ancestors called defiance burst out of him in waves of bitter almond and black smoke.
“You bastards!” he yelled. “Never! I’ll never do it! Go to hell, you bugs! I won’t help you!”
In unison, all the baby heads opened their wet red eyes.
Berkeley was gone. Where students had walked, engrossed in their smartphones and Macs, were now avenues of raw earth peppered with yellow and red flowers. Where the sari shops and cheap eateries of Telegraph Avenue flaunted their colorful wares, plants shaped like agave but with purple sword-sharp leaves grew in dense thickets. Where homes had stood, there were heaps of broken timber. Only organic materials, such as wood and leather, had made it through the Checkpoint.
Iris could not believe this monumental change could have taken place in a single night. But then, it hadn’t been a single night, had it? Dmitry had said time itself was bent into a whirlpool when an evolutionary Checkpoint came about. She was in the future. And all she wanted to do was be back in the past, in her kitchen, with her mother cooking chicken noodle soup and her granny knitting, and Resi in her arms, a baby, feeding at her breast. She could not think of her son as a man. He was her baby. And even a baby was too grown. Her memory persisted in throwing her back to the time when he was a warm presence inside her body; a moving, sentient creature safely ensconced in her womb; separate but not apart; hers but not her.
They all said she should not carry the baby to term when she got pregnant at the age of fifteen. But for her there was never any question. She was glad to continue her family, to be a link in the unbroken chain of motherhood. She should have had more kids, of course; she had let herself be led astray by the demands of a vanished world: career, relationships, finances, travel. And now it was too late.
She stopped in the middle of the green devastation, unsure what to do. She and her companions needed shelter, needed food. But there was no house or shed left intact and no food that she could see. She felt bitter tears rising in her throat. She had not protected her family; would she let her little mothers down as well? Useless, she was useless.
But while she indulged in self-recriminations, the females and their insect companions were not idle. The insects rose into the air in a perfectly shaped arrowhead and plunged into a tangle of bushes. A furry body thrashed under their onslaught and a big white-and-brown dog leaped out into the open. The dog looked wild, with dirty, matted fur and rolling eyes. Iris who was not fond of dogs, backed off. She expected the insects to start stinging but they did not. Instead they hovered in the air in a dense, buzzing cloud above the dog’s head, while the females turned around in unison and faced the animal.
They seemed to do nothing at all. But the dog whimpered and then howled, throwing its head back, as if in mortal agony. And then its burrs-studded legs gave way and it flopped on the ground, still howling, its eyes rolling back in its head, its plumed tail drumming on the ground. And then it was still.
Standing behind the females Iris did not see what they had done but when they fell upon the carcass, tearing it apart with their dainty hands, she fought off a wave of nausea. She was even tempted to walk away. But why? Everything living had to eat to survive. The females were pregnant; they had to feed their babies.
And all in all, they were quite efficient. They butchered the body as cleanly as possible and in a very short time. She noted that they had razor-sharp edges along the sides of their palms and some had curving claws on a couple of fingers. They ate the meat raw and she was secretly relieved; what if they asked her to produce fire? The insect symbionts hovered above their heads but did not touch the meat until a stripped-down carcass was laid aside and then they descended on it in an orderly swarm. One of the females chose a fat-marbled cut and presented it to Iris.
She hesitated – but only for a moment. The hunger she had held in abeyance all these long days and nights – or was it centuries – reasserted itself with a brutal authority she had neither the strength nor desire to countermand. She accepted the meat and bit into it. It was tender and tasty. It tasted natural.
She ate until she was full. Meat juices ran down her neck and stained her clothes. The females were clean, though, because the insect symbionts alighted upon them when they finished eating and quickly sucked off blood and fat without a single sting. Iris motioned to them but they refused to come to her.
Why? Why wouldn’t they accept her? Panic rose in her. She had lost her family, her country, her world. These creatures, these little mothers, were the only thing left to her; the only family she still had.
And now the females were regrouping, rearranging themselves in a tight knot, with one of them in the lead, and they were…they were walking away, leaving her alone!
“No!” Iris cried and ran after them. “No, no, no! Don’t leave me! Kill me if you want but don’t leave me alone!”
She was not sure they could even hear her, let alone understand. But they stopped all together, turned around, and faced her.
The thick lash-less lids flew open.
Their eyes were big, and scarlet, and wet, weeping tears of blood. They had no pupil and no white: just the raw wound of sightless, peeled flesh. But this blind gaze penetrated her like a bullet, tearing apart the layers of her psyche, discarding them like so much wrapping tissue, laying bare the defenseless core of her being.
Any creature with a sufficiently developed brain was vulnerable to the Ossa gaze. The ancient and forgotten myth of the Medusa was true – but only half so. The Ossa gaze did not turn you to stone. It turned you to meat. It reduced you to a bare kernel of blind, pulsating life, easily snuffed out by the brain’s horrified recoil from what it was becoming. The Ossa gaze was useless against insects, fish and plants – but deadly to mammals, bigger reptiles, and the new sentient kinds developing in the post-Checkpoint world. And of course, it was deadly to humans and their descendants.
Iris knew nothing of this. In a blink of an eye, the woman she had been was no more. But something survived. At the core of her lay voracious and unstoppable motherhood, an ancient urge to procreate, that obeys no law and knows no reason. And it expanded and filled the hollowed-out shell of humanity.
She cowered on the ground and whimpered. She rolled in the dust. She tore off her clothes. But she did not die.
The new creatures that would henceforth be known by the name their sentient fetuses heard in their mothers’ wombs – Ossy – watched her and did not try to help. But they did not walk away either.
And finally a new being rose from the ground. Her body was still the body of a thirty-eight-years-old woman. But her mind – whatever was left of it – was no longer human. And her eyes had bled out, run down her cheeks in rusty rivulets.
Without a word – for no more words were needed – the Queen of the Human Wasps led her family into the green and pleasant land to build her New Jerusalem.
The New World
The scarlet wounds of the babies’ eyes drilled into Tiny Tim’s brain, stripping away layers of his individuality, brutally tearing apart his mind, shredding his personhood. He howled and beat his head on the ground. His family crouched on the floor, covering their eyes, Isa’s tiny head tucked into her mother’s breast. Once you locked your eyes with the Ossy gaze, there was no looking away. But if the victim foresaw what was coming and covered its eyes it could survive for a while – even though Ossy had efficient means of persuasion to force a look, including their stinging insect symbionts.
Tiny Tim should have been insane in a couple of seconds, mindless in a minute, dead in two. But he fought back.
The Checkpoint had scrambled all the rules of evolution, tied time into a cat’s cradle, and created a world in which speciation occurred almost instantly and old rules of gradual development no longer applied. But some things were too basic to the nature of life to be abolished. One of them was that every rule has an exception; every disease encounters random immunity; every predator sooner or later runs out of prey.
And in addition to the waywardness of evolution, humanity had another weapon that once upon a time enabled them to rise to the top of the ecological chain. It was perversity. Human beings were different because they did not care for the biological imperatives of survival and procreation. They blew themselves up in the name of an invented God; they sacrificed their children to an invisible father; they exiled their kin and died protecting strangers. And because of their perversity, they flourished.
Tiny Tim had just broken the cardinal law of evolution: survive and reproduce. And because his mind was like nothing else in the eusocial world, the Ossy gaze broke off its surface like a wasp sting unable to penetrate the thick skin of a rhino.
Tiny Tim lay on the ground for what seemed like an eternity, sobbing his heart out, remembering all the times he had been a bad mate, a bad father, a bad provider. He thought of all the stupid mistakes he had made. He thought he was just an insignificant tiny mammal in a world of predators. He thought his life had no meaning. He wallowed in self-pity.
And after a while he got tired of it and got up.
The queen stared at him with her frightened human eyes. Parasitized by fetuses, she had no real influence over the colony. In addition to her own offspring, she carried other females’ babies who burrowed into her flesh and nested there, until they used her up and another one was born to take her place. The real brain center was the clustering brains of neonates but even these human grapes were only the central relay in the structure of the jesalem. The Ossy had no use for leadership.
Tiny Tim, however, had.
“Get out!” he commanded his family. “Cover your eyes, don’t look up! Exit to your right!”
They obeyed. When they were safely out, Tiny Tim turned to the queen and her brood.
“When is the next Checkpoint coming?” he demanded.
The bubbling foam of baby heads trembled and roiled. There was no answer – but no answer was needed. It came.
The flimsy structure of the wasp nest around Tiny Tim fell apart, showering him with wood, twigs, and bones. Flares of blue light, shading into ultraviolet, burnt his retinas. Reality swayed and folded in. He rolled into a ball, shielding his head, even though the shaking was as much inside him as outside. A hurricane of smells swirled around him, his pheromonal glands perfuming the air with a combination of peppery anger, stinging indignation, and burning courage. But the predominant scent was the acrid aroma of defiance mixed with the sage odor of pride.
And when the Checkpoint was over, Tiny Tim found himself on the other side of it, in a world where Ossy were, once again, eusocial insects, low on the evolutionary chain. But this world was not ruled by humans either. Shaped in the image of Tiny Tim’s innermost self, it had a new dominant species.
Standing under the naked sky, the tiny hominine shivered as a shadow fell upon him. A giant golden-eyed eagle hovered above, the fringed wings outstretched, surveying his domain.
Elana Gomel is an Associate Professor at Tel-Aviv University and the author of six books and of numerous articles on subjects ranging from science fiction and fantasy to posthumanism and Victorian literature. Her fantasy stories appeared in New Horizons, Bewildering Stories, Timeless Tales, The Singularity and several anthologies, including the Apex Book of World SF. Her fantasy novel A Tale of Three Cities was published in 2013. She can be found on Facebook and on Twitter.