Rhizomatic Diplomacy6 min read


Vajra Chandrasekera
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Body Modification, War
Originally published in An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables (Stone Bird Press, 2016)

Talpo lived in the past tense now, unable to maintain the traditional human pretense of a pilot consciousness operating in simultaneity with events. Only a memory, that sense of control and purpose—and not even his own memory, but Kvora’s, from when he was still Kvora. It was the difference, Talpo thought, between drive and being driven. This loss wasn’t an intended effect of his new phenotype—or if it was, Kvora had been unaware of it so Talpo didn’t know either. So too the other unfortunate side effects: the tiny, weak jaw; the curved cleft in the roof of his mouth; the way his tongue seemed set too far back, making him feel like he was about to choke; (persistent, intrusive thoughts that he kept hearing in Kvora’s voice, in what he used to think of as his own voice); chronic lymphocytopenia; the ominous promise of immunodeficiencies, and the fluid already gathering in his lungs.

Breathing was never going to get any easier, Kvora had told him when he was born complaining.

She told him again, twenty-eight minutes later, when she pulled the oxygen mask off and let him down into the marsh. Paniskoi bombers were coming in for another run on the west quadrant so Kvora’s helo lifted away fast, leaving Talpo with half an hour of life in the world and already alone.

Bog-poppers over the tree line puffed the rot of rotten eggs, but the marsh was out of the line of fire for now, temporary diplomatic/arable/adjudicatory ground. The marsh water was a sour curd slicked with oils that caught and pooled around his thighs.

“Bombers” being the wrong word, he knew that now. (Poor connotative fit, should be something like “soil rejuvenation initiatives.”) The in-vitro language training, imperfect and still settling into the twisty nooks of his new brain—paniskoi languages were so frustratingly close to human languages, with even the same triune configuration of pheromones, somatics, and speech, only ever just unspeakable, over the line that made misunderstandings likelier than incomprehension. (In hindsight, not even his Kvora-mind, his haphazard simulacrum of himself before his birth, would hazard a guess which of the two would have flowered finer casus belli. But what did it matter in all this fecundity? There was, in any case, no such thing as diplomacy uncomposted by the dead.)

Despite knowing the terms and conditions of his altered genotype and phenotype, since his (fraught) first breath outside the egg Talpo’s human memories still expected an easing, a longed-for regulation of the lungs, a breath that would finally catch and clear. He now saw (with the wisdom of forty-seven minutes of living) the wheezing horror of its lack, or the fragile efforts of his heart to pound, as like the waves he used to watch crash on the grim human pollution of Saliko City beach (memories not his own, but Kvora’s, that black water quietly transmuted in memory’s lazy eye into the dirty milk of the marsh water around him) as inevitable/historical events caused by forces that dwarfed in scale and scope the observer consciousness. Following along, never directing. Kvora had theorized this was how paniskoi saw the world, and made him in their image, or as close to their image as a human brain (and mind, or minds, if Talpo wanted to count himself a separate entity from Kvora, a distinction they had not had time to discuss in the haste of war) could achieve.

(This dissociation, she warned herself/him before he was even born, would be a brutal adjustment: the cessation of self-identifying as an agent. She had told herself this as firmly as she knew how, internalized it before they put her under for the procedure, prepared herself to wake up twice: once in terror and relief; once with purpose and in abandonment.)

It wasn’t clear if paniskoi even knew they were at war. It was not known if they meant to commit acts of war or agricultural engineering. Ends had merely revealed intentions irrelevant. It wasn’t clear if paniskoi understood intentions, either.

Kvora’s plan (she said “Let’s give it a go. I won’t make anybody volunteer, I’ll do it myself,” and meant it, because Talpo as Kvora remembered meaning it, and there was no way to tell at this range if that intent had included substrates of lies of second-order intent, or lies of fact, or lies of the unconscious variety for which blame could not be reasonably applied. There had been no ethics committee, no approval from Saliko City’s Fourth Junta, nothing but expenditure of accumulated credibility and frontline assumptions about language) depended on Talpo’s participation in his predestination, which he would have cared less about if only he could breathe easy. Blame came easier with the nearness of panic (and the risk of aborting himself in two feet of marsh water). The mission: find the paniskoi diplomat/farmer/soil quality assurance engineer/erosion control measure in this marsh and figure out how to say “we surrender” in paniskoi. Or “you surrender or else.” Kvora didn’t care what the message was, if this impossible communication could be initiated at all. There were other plans, contingencies, gambits, a choice of meanings to commit to that Talpo could no longer grasp, rapidly decaying into unintelligibility. Intentions have a short half-life and were instantly obsoleted in any case, by the undiscovered realities of what Talpo could or not articulate in paniskoi when the time came. (You’re in the army now, my son.)

The damp air in every raw breath tasted like milk gone bad, which Talpo had never tasted but Kvora had once when she was young on her homeworld (hometown childhood home warm red tiles river-smoothed stones, bad milk sick and slick on the tongue), long before the colonial navy bought her and brought her to Saliko City under the Third Junta. Promotion, honours, lives and territories gained and lost.

Straight lines from A to B. Don’t drink the bad milk because it will make you sick. Tiny unhappy cilia, an epithelium in revolt, formalized as the construct of disgust.

Overhead the bilious yellow overstory thick with alien xanthophylls and casting sunset at high noon. A jaundiced underworld with no void in it, all filled and entangled with leaf, branch, and root. Talpo clambered under and through (not to worry about scrapes and scratches, about infections and immunodeficiencies, since in any case always already too late given his predestination), splashing whenever distant explosions (not so distant) rippled the water around him. He kept his lips closed tight. Don’t drink the bad milk.

These foggy Kvora-memories from before his birth felt like a trick. Like Kvora had somehow betrayed him by not properly conceiving him as a separate person with his own history but only as a version of herself, a ragged continuation of her story, a brief subplot. Her genotype and her consciousness, her choices, her will: Talpo the product of her voluntarity, participant but not agent, behind the curve of will (of course this was quite sane from Kvora’s theorized paniskoi point-of-view), and Kvora, not his twin nor mother, but still a ghost-twin, a mother-dream. Call it his risk, his life, not hers, but her voice in his head (don’t drink the bad milk, but in the ghost of Talpo’s memory, Kvora drank the bad milk anyway this time, tilted her head back and kept swallowing spilling and splashing down her chin) directing the choices made over an hour ago, in another life.

He smelled strange to himself, alkaline and dying.

The clearing in the marsh-tangle was formed in the interface between great mater roots from which much of the tangle radiated. Talpo had arrived here by simply following the pattern of the roots, with no consciousness of doing so. Talpo knew which way Kvora would have seen it (a straight and intended line from birth to this predestination, a clearing in which a planned meeting could be had) but not which way he saw it himself. Intention and simulation lay all before him like the tangled roots themselves, a structure grown mysteriously with its roots in alien milk. The paniskoi smelled like nothing Talpo had an analogue for. When its emergences stellated, indicating awareness/airflow adjustment, he heard himself speak, and listened.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera

    Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has published over fifty short stories in magazines and anthologies including Analog,  Black Static, and Clarkesworld, among others, and his short fiction has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors will be out in July 2023. He blogs at  vajra.me  and is  @_vajra  on Twitter.

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