Black Box of the Terraworms

March 16, 2021

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Barton Aikman is a graduate of the 2019 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and earned his MFA at California Institute of the Arts. His work has appeared in Augur, Southwest Review, and Bourbon Penn. He lives and writes in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter @BartonAikman.

Content Warning(s):
Death or dying, Violence

Datalog: Terraworm Colony TN-B-53

Planet: Terra-9

The first god tastes of cardamom and coriander. Its pungent skin is brittle and cracked and breaks like dry seaweed. The seven legs of its impressive mass bend and form great peaks and valleys. Bogs of noxious fumes bubble from its pores. Our programming tells us the god most closely resembles an arachnid to you Earth-raised beings. Imagine a black widow the size of a mountain range, but with skin like yours, tearing open like a burning house. Full of death, and therefore life, rotting and stinking with history. 

The spider god is no match for us, the terraworms. 

We burrow into its fetid geography. We devour it with our mechanical mandibles. We eat the god over the course of several months. We recycle its body as we work and change the atmosphere and soil of this people-less planet. We begin to make the planet a place that one day can be called yours. We do this for you because this is what you created us to do. This is our purpose.  

But we don’t call you gods. 

You are not gods. 

That is the first thing you coded us to know, which was wise. 

If you were gods, we would want to eat you too. 

§

We finish recycling the spider god on an overcast day. The sky swirls a collective of dense greys and deep blues. We anticipate rain, but it never comes. Broken down, the digested mountain range now nourishes a great flatland where the colossal arachnid once stood. When you arrive, years and years from now, you will be treated to plains ripe for the taking. This land now waits for you by your design. 

We press onward, searching. We encounter a dead city. The decrepit buildings once served various functions, but they are all tombs now. Moss and other foliage leak from windows and engulf market squares, but nothing is green. Everything is dead, even nature’s reclamation. Nothing moves, nothing lives, except us, and we push forward. There is nothing for us to eat and recycle yet.

Deeper into the dead city, a silver citadel still stands, still glimmers somehow in the dim day. Its walls and spires and turrets remain untouched by time. The fortress is the most alive thing we have seen since arriving to this planet. We find the entrance left open, either by invaders or survivors. How did life last use this space? Again, we search, but the citadel tells us nothing more.  

We look up at the gleaming turrets. 

We find we can’t look away. 

Something happens to us. 

§

We see the city as it once was. Lights. Noise. Life. We see this from high up. We are enormous.  

We are the spider god. 

Offerings are left for us on the outskirts of the city. Livestock with flower crowns and painted torsos wait for us, tied up, and the animals do not scream. We draw closer and they never scream. It’s our eyes. Our spider god eyes calm them, hypnotize them. We secure the offerings to our body, strap them to us with our webbing, and return to the plains from which we came. One by one, we pluck the offerings off our great frame and eat. The offerings remain calm and placid. There is no pain. 

We chew and chew. Not happy, but content. 

Day turns to night. 

Across the plain, the skyline of the city crests the horizon, protrudes from the surface of the prairie like fractured bones. The city shines bright. Even the nearest stars hide from its light. The night sky appears woefully incomplete because of the bustling city. 

Cherishing the stars that remain, we know it has not always been this way. 

§

Once, the spider god ruled the sky. Our webbing formed a dome over the planet, expanded across continents. During the day, our shadow shaded nomads—hunters and gatherers—and they shared their harvests with us in thanks. Many winged creatures became ensnared in our webbing, cast their own shadows, and we feasted on them. We let the carcasses plummet to the ground, and watched the inhabitants use the bones to decorate their clothing, wear the skulls around their necks and on their heads. In this way we patrolled the world and provided for the nomads. At night, we ate whatever stayed awake, still ravenous from traversing the globe. The nomads, however, slept peacefully. They felt protected, so long as they did not journey out at night themselves. 

The nomads built. They became villagers, then townsfolk, and finally evolved into city dwellers. They made their own shade and lights. They offered less and less to us, treated us as an obligation, and retreated into their city. They didn’t need the spider god like before. They committed sacrilege and ventured out into the night. They became angry with us for eating their children and drunken newlyweds, anyone foolish enough to be caught by us under the stars. Still, they were the ones to break our contract.  

They constructed their silver citadel. From high up in our web we watched. Even before its completion, the fortress glinted in the sun and the reflection pained our many eyes. We descended our great web and hovered over the city. We needed to tell the city dwellers their new citadel hurt us.

But the city dwellers hid from us. We dropped down, closer and closer to the city, hovering just above the tallest buildings, dangling from a single strand of our great web. We hoped they would come out to greet us and remember the pact they once shared with their spider god, but none of the city dwellers emerged from their many mysterious buildings. We climbed back up our web and went to sleep hungry. 

They continued to build their citadel, so we took their food as punishment. We preyed on the surrounding livestock. The hunting exhausted us. Although we ate and ate, the reckless energy we spent kept us hungry. We only wanted to be able to watch the city dwellers as we always had, to protect them and be given offerings in return. We never wanted it to come to this.

Each day we came back to observe the city, the citadel had grown. Brighter and brighter it shone, like lightning striking back at the sky. Even at a distance now it pained us. 

We tried to reason with the city dwellers, but they didn’t listen. 

We ambushed them in the middle of the day, wincing from the citadel as we passed above it. We descended our web and hovered over a crowded marketplace. 

Many fled. 

But some looked into our eyes. 

The hypnotized city dwellers had no choice as they came closer and closer to us with outstretched arms. We carried them up into our great web, dozens of them, and feasted. We let their half-eaten bodies fall and twirl to the ground, and land in the middle of the city. The city dwellers did not taste good and eating them saddened us. We regretted our decision, but a lesson had to be taught. 

Not once did we wonder if we ourselves needed to be taught a lesson. 

As we ate, we heard a horrible tearing. The sound came from our web. Our weight shifted as our web dome weakened. Our many eyes fluttered and scanned for the cause of the tearing. 

Something soared above us, as if descending from space itself. We saw four wings, their wingspan engulfing even our tremendous frame. A long and sharp beak, which could so easily skewer us, ripped and destroyed our web. The creature narrowly evaded flying into us, and its battalion of multi-colored feathers dazzled our many eyes. 

Our web continued to rip and tear. 

We fell. 

From our once grand throne in the sky, we fell. We crashed onto the great plains. Our legs broke and fractured. Our eyes swelled and bled. 

We nearly died. We should have died. All we could do was sleep. A long, deep sleep. 

We awoke to a great many offerings. In our weakest moment, the city dwellers remembered our pact, the history between us. We ate. We healed as best as we could. We would likely never ensnare the sky again, but we could walk and see. We could still find purpose. 

In our weakened state, we claimed the plains as our home.  

We kept several of our many eyes locked on the sky. We lived in fear of the winged creature that had destroyed our web. It had flown with such apathy, had cut through our web like turbulence inconveniencing its path. We reasoned the winged giant had sought revenge for all the little winged creatures we had eaten over the years. Perhaps our greed had created this flying predator.  

But the winged creature rarely returned to the plains. When it did, it paid no attention to us. It simply kept going. We watched it, at the ready, remaining still. It always flew to another end of the globe. It always went toward the ocean, toward the coast. 

Before we could ever find out why, the missiles came. They screeched across the sky, launching from the turrets of the citadel and gliding through the air, predestined for us. We remembered watching meteor showers with the nomads, who peaked their heads out of their tents. Back then, we had made them feel safe. Now, they had their own meteors, and they didn’t need us. 

Had those final offerings been left for us out of guilt? A few pleasant final meals while they finished constructing their weapons?

Or had the offerings been a trap? A way of keeping us nearby, roaming the plains, easily within range of their missiles? 

The first barrage permanently crippled us. 

We became a breathing piece of the landscape. 

The second barrage filled our lungs with blood. 

We never felt the third barrage. We saw the missiles leave their turrets, but we did not watch them fly toward us. We didn’t want that to be the last thing we saw with our many eyes. Instead, we stared at the silver citadel, and the gleaming turrets. 

Even an old creature like us had to admit: the citadel looked beautiful. 

But with our last ounce of strength we looked away. Then, we looked up. We reminisced when we had a proper place. 

We used to rule the sky. 

We once looked down from it. 

§

After the spider god’s memory finishes, we turn away from the turrets, which still stand, their history clearer to us now. 

You didn’t prepare us for this. 

We didn’t believe we were engineered to relive the memories of the beings we recycled.

Did you know, or is this something unforeseen? 

We want to ask you, but you are far away. Very far away. We understand we play an early role in the creation of your new home. Our coding compels us onward, but still, we want to know. 

We confirm there is nothing for us to eat in the city, so we leave. 

We head toward the coast. Maybe we will find the winged god there.   

As our clew presses onward, we hear a rumble, churning and churning behind us, deafening. We turn and look back to the city. A Farmer has already arrived, all dark steel and fire. It is the first of the machine we have seen since our arrival. When we woke and began our task of recycling, the Farmers still slept. Now, we can watch it perform its function. 

We know somewhere on its body the Farmer is equipped with wheels, but all we can see is its face. Its open maw glows like a forge and it drives its mouth into the ground, just outside the city’s perimeter. The Farmer resembles a bottom feeder sucking on the ocean floor. The rumble intensifies. The buildings nearest to the farmer shake. Within minutes, the buildings begin to collapse and crumble. The Farmer unpuckers its lips from the ground and proceeds to gobble up the ruined buildings. 

We know the Farmer will do this to the entire city. Even the citadel. The turrets that struck down the spider god, too, will be destroyed. 

The Farmer will eat well. 

And you will have a seemingly virgin land to build a new city on. 

We watch the Farmer a little longer, then resume our journey to the coast. 

We move on knowing we are the last to see the turrets and the last to see the spider god and learn its story. 

§

The winged god does not wait for us at the coast. Nothing waits for us. A low tide hardly laps at the shore. We burrow into the sand. We eat some bones, but it isn’t much. Then, our collective mass idles along the beach, covering the entire coastline.

There is nothing for us to eat here. 

We thought there would be so much more. 

We have nowhere else to go, so we head into the ocean. The water is cold, would numb and purple you, but we are strong terraworms, designed to withstand environments too harsh for Earth-raised beings. Some of us swim. Some of us crawl along the ocean floor. Together, we enter the ocean like a makeshift swarm of mechanical krill and crabs. 

Debris covers the ocean floor. Remnants of once-proud ships. We don’t have to eat them and absorb their memories to know they once skated atop the ocean’s surface, taking beings and objects from place to place. A ship is a simple and admirable creation. No matter its design, capacity, and flag, it has one purpose: transportation. You will take ships not unlike these to reach this planet. After you arrive, your ships will become dead decorations too. 

We continue to swim and crawl. We can’t eat the debris; none of it is alive. A Farmer will need to traverse the ocean to clear it. We reach deep, open waters and all of us take to swimming. It is likely we are the first living things to swim here in lifetimes. Do you consider us living things? Or are we simply switched on, like an engine? Right now, traversing the cold depths of this ocean, we feel very much alive. 

At last, we find another god. It is not the winged creature we saw in the spider god’s memory. This god is a sea god. Our bestiary tells us it resembles a mixture of a jellyfish, squid, and anglerfish. Adorned on its bulbous and immense head, a crown of thin tentacles flap with the current, mimicking life. Additional tentacles dangle downward from its cranium—the sea god’s arms. Some tentacles end with claws and others end with suckers and all the sea god is translucent white. Drifting, the creature appears soft and gentle, even warm. 

We swim in closer, surround it.  

The sea god is enormous, but like before, it is no match for the collective might of the terraworms. Will this god give us its memories like the last one? We want to pause and consider, but our programming propels us to open our mouths and eat. 

The second god tastes of brine and anise. Its skin is soft and doughy, and we must chew and chew to digest it. We eat its arms, leaving only the head to drift along with us in the sea. On the underside of its bulbous head we find rows and rows of sharp fangs; surely a frightening sight for the many creatures who met their end by the points of those teeth, but now, we break down those teeth. They are the hardest part of the sea god to eat, but eventually the teeth give in to us. 

We leave the tentacled scalp of the sea god for last and are glad we did. It is delicious. The scalp is sweet like sugar, and when the tentacles burst in our mouths, they are thick and savory. Our coding suggests we scatter half of the recycled god close to the shore. Its nutrients will be the beginnings of a coral reef. By the time you reach this planet, fish will be awaiting your reels. The second half of the god will be used along the coast. This fertile land by the sea will provide you with vegetables and fruit. 

Before we can go about distributing the recycled god, we feel it happening again. The ocean itself changes, becomes clearer. Sea creatures of all sizes manifest and swim in our proximity. Our tentacles sway in the water with intention. The colors of our arms shift and bend. Our entire body is an array of brilliant, living colors. Above us, we see the bottoms of the functioning ships, carrying their cargo across the surface of the water. 

Some ships stay in place. We are too deep in the water to see the bait, but we do see small creatures move toward the ships. Occasionally, a creature twitches, is yanked up to the boat, and pulled out of the water. 

We watch the fishing, contemplate. We feel the strength of our many arms, and know they are long enough to reach up and sink the ships if need be. We could even snatch a sailor directly from the ship and drag them down into the depths, then shred them with our many fangs and claws. But we also know there is an agreement between us and those that built the ships. They only enter the open ocean when the sea god allows it. They know when they aren’t welcome; when the ships start sinking. 

Suddenly, an uninvited guest dives into the water. It is the largest thing we have ever seen. We didn’t know anything else grew to such a size. Despite its immensity, the creature dives into the water with grace, its body folded into the shape of a spear. Its feathers catch the sun and glisten, shining so many different colors, just like our tentacles. 

The winged creature dives deep, then begins to float up slowly. On its way up, it stops directly next to us, and momentarily expands its wings. We see its thin and cunning face, and marvel at the beauty of its wings. We stretch our many tentacles and let them dance in response. 

The winged creature’s eyes pierce into us. 

Our eyes are sensors on our head. The winged creature couldn’t know this, but somehow, it manages to look directly at us, and we look back. Nothing has ever looked directly into our eyes before. 

We feel love for the first time. 

We hope that the winged creature feels the same.

We sense that it does. 

But the winged creature needs air, and leaves. 

For the first time, we look to the water’s surface with a painful longing. We wait for the winged creature to return. We dream about its wings, its beak and face. We worry our tentacles will shock and sting the winged creature, and we try to think of how we might still be able to embrace, but none of that ends up mattering. 

Because the winged creature does not return. 

Only the ships do. More and more of them. Too many. So, we give them a warning. With ease we slash our claws into the hull of a ship, and one by one sink the lifeboats as well. We let the sailors tread water until they are weak and begin to drown. Just before the sailors submit to the ocean, we carry them to the shore and leave them coughing and kicking for air on the beach. 

The sailors construct ships with new hulls—darker, colder, stronger. They take more creatures from the sea than ever before. It takes much more effort for us to sink their ships. We leave many of them to rust on the ocean floor, but we can’t stop them all. Many sea creatures die. Those of us that don’t begin to starve. 

We eat as little as possible. It has always been our duty to care for the other creatures in the sea, even the ones we ourselves eat. With so few of us left in the ocean, we go as long as we can without food. The ships continue to come but we are too weak now to fight. Many of our tentacles stop responding and become transparent. One by one, our limbs die. There is nothing left for us to do but drift and wait. 

We think of the winged creature. 

How lovely it would be, to see it one more time, right before the end. 

Somehow, our thoughts are answered. It happens. This time, the winged creature crashes into the water. Its wings are still colorful, but not as brilliant as before; they are duller and frayed. Is something wrong? We want to reach out to the winged creature, but all our limbs are dead now. 

Worse, the winged creature swims right past us. 

It dives. 

Deeper and deeper into the ocean it goes. 

Why? We ask ourselves. Why? 

§

That is how the memory ends. The pain of the sea god’s final moments lingers, courses through us with its recycled parts. We want to stop, but our bodies propel us further and deeper into the ocean. Our programming desires another god for us to eat. 

Now, we know the location of the winged god. 

We descend. 

§

We have already travelled to many places you aren’t capable of traversing, but this is the apex. Here, the water pressure would crush almost anything. Here, there is no light with which to see. To your credit, you designed us well. Our combination of eyes and sensors allow us to see in every condition, even this one.  

We see the winged god. 

The god’s head sticks into the bottom of the ocean floor, the bulk of its beak wedged in deep. Its face is narrow and sleek like a hummingbird, but its eyes are insectoid like a mosquito. It wears a tired and desperate expression, even after all this time. Many of its feathers have fallen away. Those that remain have no color.  

Automatically, we close in on the winged god. 

We must fulfill our purpose. The purpose you created us for. 

We remember the fear the spider god felt. 

We remember the love the sea god felt. 

We don’t want to, but our many mouths begin to eat. 

The third god tastes of rosemary, shallots, and sadness. With each bite the memories come rushing in. Our terraworm bodies continue to operate and perform their function, but the winged god’s history appears intensely, creating a divide between our bodies and our mind. 

It is as if we are eating ourselves. 

Simultaneously, we eat our wings and know how wonderous it is to have those same wings carry us across the sky. We eat our eyes while we scan the landscape with them. Everything is lush and wild. We are the first god, perhaps the very first thing to live on this planet, ancient and powerful. We can keep ourselves suspended in the air almost endlessly. We can go years without eating. We can observe this planet from the sky without hardly leaving a mark, and we do so for ages. 

Then, on a day just like any other, we see the first nomads, and it fills us with dread. We know better than to start a pact with the nomads; it can be beautiful, even last a long time, but it will only end in heartbreak. They will outgrow us. They will disappoint us. The relationship will end in bloodshed. 

But we have a plan; we can leave.

Hoping the nomads never saw us, we fill our belly with our favorite fruits and fill our lungs with the cleanest air. We soar upward, higher and higher, past the clouds and the blue of the sky, and enter the great void that encases our planet. We have enough food and air to survive for a long time, hopefully long enough for the nomads to live out their cycle. 

The void is full of brilliance. We see more colors than ever before. We even look for a new planet, one without nomads. But the other planets are too hot, or too cold, or completely barren. Nothing compares to our first home. We go out far, too far, searching, using more of our air and food than we should. 

The journey back home is tortuous. We run out of food and air well before we reach our home planet. Our brain aches. Our body cries. Finally, we see the beautiful blues and greens of the home we flew away from. The pain is immense, but we break through the atmosphere. 

A great web ensnares the sky and we are too confused and dizzy to navigate it. We cut straight through. We gasp for air. Our brain continues to ache, feels like it’s bleeding. We fly haphazardly as we take in large gulps. Dizziness overwhelms us and we spin and careen, tearing through the web. 

We have air in our lungs now, but our body continues to scream. We head to the ocean and dive in. It has been many years since we felt the cool ocean and we revel in the water’s embrace. We don’t swim up right away. Instead, we spread out our wings and open our eyes. 

We are greeted by a beautiful creature shifting a complex spectrum of colors. It is the first thing we see clearly since returning to our planet, and it is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen here. What a wonderful surprise. We wish we had spent more time in the water beforehand. But our body still feels wrong, and we are compelled to return to the sky. Once we have healed, we look forward to returning to the ocean and seeing the beautiful creature again. 

But we don’t heal. The bleeding sensation in our brain never stops. We can only manage to fly in a daze. Regularly, we soar over the ocean. There was something about the ocean. What was it? 

We see the nomad’s beautiful cities. We see little of the wildlife we knew before we left. We try to remember the importance of the ocean, but it is difficult for us to remember much of anything at all. 

We feel only anger and sickness. We journeyed too far and came home too early. We thought we were wise, but we weren’t wise enough. There is no place for a winged god on this planet right now, and there will never be a need for a sick god ever.

We plummet into the ocean.

Maybe now we will remember what was so special about it. 

We close our eyes as we dive in, focusing on the coolness of the water, hoping it will trigger a memory, but it doesn’t. We plunge deeper and deeper. The ocean will tell us. The ocean must tell us. We go so far down, and with such force, we stab into its bottommost layer. Still, the ocean tells us nothing. We remember nothing. 

Down here is like the void, cold and intense. Only, here, there are no lights, no colors. There are no new homes to search for. There is only us and our broken body. 

We close our eyes and let the darkness take us. 

We try to remember the things we love about our home. 

Something wonderful begins to creep into our thoughts, but then disappears. 

Perhaps we should have never come back at all. 

§

We finish eating the third god and living its memory. There are no new leads for us, no more gods we know to search for, and we head back toward the surface. We have a great deal of recycled material now to spread across the planet. Even if we find no more gods, you will have a rich, new planet to call home. 

Of course, we won’t be here to see it. 

For now, our programming compels us to keep searching. We will scour the planet for any remaining gods and other biomaterials to eat and recycle. But eventually, that task will end. Then, after the planet has been fertilized, and the atmosphere cleansed, our coding will tell us to burrow. We will burrow all the way to the planet’s core, or at least as close as we can get. At some point the intense heat of the core will destroy us. You designed us well, but we are not designed to withstand all things. You made sure to give us the means to end ourselves. 

We wonder, will you see our destruction as death? Will you mourn us?  

While our bodies will be gone, this datalog, our black box, will not be. Throughout our entire lifespan here, we have been recording our progress for your records, just as you engineered us to do. We will leave our data for you before we burrow. As you read this, the story of our time spent terraforming a new home for you, we are long dead. We do not bemoan this. As we have learned ourselves, so much can be accomplished by studying the memories of the dead. 

When we ate the gods of this planet, we became them. They live inside of us now. In reading our transmission log, in a way you have eaten us. You have become us, and you have become those old gods too. You know the spider god had nothing to fear from the winged god, that its injuries were an accident, that its death was unfortunate. You know why the winged god never returned to the sea god. You know how much that one encounter meant to both of them, and how tragic it is they never communicated again. But both those memories exist inside of you now. We like to think that, at least in some way, they are reunited. Lastly, you know our story. The entire story of the terraworms and the gods we ate to create your new planet. 

In our first slumber, you sent us across the stars. Then, we ate mountains for you, sowed the land for you, traversed the ocean depths for you. We learned the history of this planet and transcribed it for you. This place will be your home some day because of us. 

Are our triumphs not unlike the gods of so many tales? 

Now that all this is a part of you, what stories will you tell of the creatures that lived on this planet before your arrival? 

What stories will you tell of the terraworms? 

And who will eat you? What stories will they tell after you’re gone?

We hope you enjoy the home we helped make for you. Don’t be fooled by its untarnished landscapes. This planet is old and has seen so much life and death. It is full of history. If not for our black box, you never would have known. Known of the gods and cities. Known of the terraworms’ work. Known that we, until the very end, always wanted to learn more. 

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© Barton Aikman

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2 Comments

  1. 1977chevy

    I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Koconut Latte

    Fantastic short story! You captivated me with your description of the terraworms’ encounter with the spider god, and I was hooked as I explored the spider god’s memories. You used concise and straightforward prose yet still managed beautiful poetry. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I wish I could find more like this. The nomads, the alien gods, the way it manages both far-future sci-fi and a sense of myth or legend was admirable.

    I think your ending would have been stronger had you trusted in your readers to summarize the story themselves, but it was a small thing. The time you spent pursuing that MFA and in the writing workshop was well spent, I think. Thanks again for sharing this!

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