THE AHEARA’S HULL GROANED and folded. It burst up with licking flames as we escaped in the lifeboat with my thumb dead-stopping the outboard’s throttle. I clutched the flare gun in my other hand. The Aheara’s bow upturned, sinking in a vortex of the midnight Pacific.
Part of the pulsing redness that ringed the research vessel broke off and followed us. It skimmed waves, closing the gap.
“Majaar!” I screamed through the wind and the waves. He huddled and shook in the bouncing bow and clutched his fifth of whisky. “Majaar!”
He didn’t answer.
“Everything cool, Samples?” he asked in some distracted malaise. He shivered with that fishy skin respiring near his horned cheeks. He was losing it. But I was still just Samples to him—still just the human technician.
“I feel sick,” Majaar said. “My memory’s blurry.”
“Part of it broke free,” I said. “It’s following us.”
“It needs heat. It must be some form of virulent wasteform.”
“What?” I yelled. “That’s what this is? Our plastic and your—Veronian-bio-engineering?”
“SK5,”—the lifeboat crested and Majaar clenched the side lip—“I told the chairman we had to monitor the Veronian and the terrestrial waste streams sooner.”
“SK5?” I yelled.
Old memories surfaced.
“SK5,” I mumbled. “The building blocks of your smart plastics? But,”—I aimed the outboard motor away from a breaker—“SK5 is harmless as long as it deactivated before it’s released.”
The pulsing mass skimmed and broke out behind us, revving like an engine.
Majaar shivered. He cowered in the boat and drank. “On normal scales, sure. On mass scales—here in the Pacific’s gyre with the native plastics… We—we knew this would happen. I told the chairman. It’s not my fault.” He looked over my shoulder at the approaching mass. “It goes haywire when it coalesces at mass scales.”
“This happened before.”
I remembered all the knowing looks I’d seen. Not just Dimension Jumpers—humans also.
“It gets hungry. It turns on us. But we’re so dependent on the technology. We just find new worlds.”
“You colonized other worlds and had your garbage use the native plastics like—like shapeless hermit crabs.”
“A thousand times,” he admitted. “We’re so smart.” He took a drink. “We never learn a thing.”
“How many strains of the fluid-based AIs do you think were floating out there in the gyre?” I asked.
“Hundreds—thousands.” He closed his eyes tight. “We grew them all for backwards-compatibility. The syntho-neurons are viscous—you’ve seen the magnifications of how they flow over each other; right? for greater interconnectivity. The hotter it gets, the smarter it becomes. That thing’s burning up from the heat of the Aheara’s fire! We’re both dead.”
My heart pounded and my thumb was numb against the throttle with the ocean mist blinding me as I searched out the black horizon. The thing couldn’t have been more than two hundred feet back there—
“I’m gonna be sick,” Majaar said.
The red mass surfaced through black waves. It dimmed and sunk beneath.
I slid the satellite transponder across the hull to him. “Call in our position.”
He stared at the transponder and looked dizzy for a moment.
The fuel gauge on the outboard was moving to red. “We didn’t leave the ship with much fuel. We’re running out of time. Call in our position.” I stabbed toward the transponder.
He stared up at me, vomiting milky chunks over himself and the transponder. “Where are we? Where are we?”
The wind died. The outboard bucked and sputtered. We were slowing down. I looked back and let the throttle loose. “I—I lost it.” I turned to him. “Majaar, it isn’t behind us! I lost it. I can’t hear it. Where is it?”
He pulled off his fifth with the vomit all over himself and looked distractedly out toward the distant, flaming Aheara. “Probably diving beneath us. Then it surfaces in a ring, trapping us like it did the Aheara.”
“I don’t know if anyone else had time to call in our position,” I said. “Quick!”
Majaar stood. He picked up the transponder and scraped idiotically across it with the neck of his whisky bottle.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Call in the position.”
I rubbed my sore hand, unbreached the flare gun and loaded in one of the cartridges from my pocket.
He threw the transponder overboard. He looked over at me:
“What are you doing with that device?”
“It’s a flare gun, Majaar.” I trained it on him. “You know what a flare gun is, don’t you?”
“How did you operate it?”
“You’re becoming one of them; aren’t you? You’re forgetting the little things. Just like the captain before he drank… What’s inside the bottle?”
“What happened to the device in your hand?” he asked. “I need to know. It’s important for me.”
“What’s in the bottle, Majaar?
“That’s how it spreads; isn’t it? The alcohol keeps it sterile before it reaches the bloodstream. The captain drank from Nikolay’s flask. Then they went nuts and torched the engine room.
“Why? Why torch the engine room? For the heat?”
“How did you change it?” Majaar asked. “That thing you hold—how did you change it. It’s important you tell me.”
“Pour out the bottle over the side.”
He looked into me and smiled. “I’ll pour it—”
He turned the fifth upside down. Grey slime oozed onto the floor with plopping sizzles. It flashed in specks before pulsing red. The thing hesitated and fanned out. Then it stopped and coalesced in a blob. It headed toward me.
“Stop, Majaar. Call it back.”
He looked back up and laughed. “It’s been growing inside me. I’ve watched it destroy so many times on so many different worlds. Now, it’s inside me and I know what it feels like to be part of the burning redness. It feels like home.”
“Stop it. Call it back!” I pressed into the aft lip of the lifeboat and thought about jumping overboard. The mass was below us now, waiting to encircle.
The glowing sludge scorched the steel beneath it in a thin, black streak. It burned and slid with stuttering back and forth hesitations like a taunting dog.
“How many cartridges do you have for the device? How many does it take to activate it?”
“The device?” I asked. I held the flare gun overboard. “I’ll drop it.”
“No,” Majaar said. “We need it. Give the heat. Be careful, Samples.”
The glowing slug stopped, inches from my foot. Its throbbing glow warmed through my steel toed boots.
“That’s why you followed me to the lifeboat—the flare gun?”
“The heat,” he said. “Tells us more of the heat. Tell us: how hot is the device? How long will it keep us warm? How long will it keep us flexible—keep us pliant?”
“Forever,” I blurted. “You’ll be warm and flexible—you’ll be pliant forever. I swear.” I looked down. “Call it back!”
He made clicking noises and it moved toward him. It slid up his leg and over his chest, burning his clothes and charring his smoking flesh on its way. “Come home. Come home,” he said and it turned grey and slipped into his mouth.
“Now,” he edged forward, crouching low. “Give the device.”
I looked at the flare gun, then at the distant, burning Aheara and the black horizon. “Okay.” I pointed it at him.
The flare imbedded into his chest and his ribs ballooned outward before the grey slime pulled him back together. It seeped out of his skin and his whole body gleamed a blinding red. “It’s magical,” he said, wobbling and struggling to stand. “Each sector I’ve visited—all the pleasures I’ve experienced. This is the center point, Samples. This is what I’ve always been waiting for and what I knew I deserved. It loves me.”
The red ring rose out of the water. It revved and tightened around us.
He turned on me: “Now—you burn for heat.”
I picked up an oar and jabbed him off balance and the oar caught fire.
He wobbled and looked over at the icy black waters.
I jabbed him again and the boat rocked.
“No,” he said. “It’s mine,”—he looked over at the icy waters—“The heat wants to stay with me.” He hunched himself lower in a defensive stance, preparing to lunge. “You can’t hate me; can you, Samples? You can’t hate the spark for wanting to live.”
I jumped on the left lip of the hull just as a wave struck. The lifeboat capsized and I was sucked under into the cold blackness. As the waters swirled and shook me I managed to open my eyes long enough to see a flailing red ember sinking down. It sputtered out in a storm of steam geysers. I groped around and found the edge of the lifeboat and slowly pulled myself out flat over the top of the overturned hull. Up above, the rescue copters lit up the waters and the lifeboat. The red slime oozed up the boat, burning my leg and my clothes. It was a slow burn. It was tired. The size of its catch had been overestimated.
It shared so many secrets—secrets I didn’t deserve: every love, every ambition, every shiny new product and toy—all heat. And the source of it all touched me, giving itself freely, unselfishly. “So warm,” I muttered, “so warm—so warm.”
The liquid nitrogen cannons went off from the copter’s decks. I felt it shiver and die. It asked why it had been betrayed after giving its love so freely.
I laughed and muttered, “All my desires: All heat.”