Corpus

Corpus

I have three memories of my parents. I remember my mother praising me for something, calling me smart, or handsome, or whatever else you say to a four-year-old to make sure he grows up with some self-esteem. I remember my father comforting me when I was afraid of some intangible shadow of night. But mostly, I remember both of them dissolving in a beam of bubbling discharge that seared across the landscape and evaporated seconds later.

I had no concept of what had happened at the time. No one in our tribe had ever witnessed such an event, and it came without any of the usual warning signs. It wasn’t until additional beams shot into the distant sky that we realized the danger and evacuated.

That was years ago now. Those that raised me in my parents’ stead have since died themselves, by equally unavoidable methods. There’s no grief anymore; child-rearing is a somewhat communal practice for us, but more importantly, most of us are simply numb to this sort of thing. Everyone has a similar story. After you’ve heard enough of them, you forget who’s lost which relatives.

I know that my wife lost her previous husband and one of their two daughters. As I approach our ramshackle house in the late afternoon, I see the surviving daughter, now considered our oldest. She’s sitting at an outdoor table thrown together from thin metal, feeding my youngest son of two years.

“Anything exciting at the Plant today?” she inquires as I gently rest my hand on her shoulder and pull up a log stool.

“Have I ever answered yes to that question?” I respond. “This is where the excitement is.”

“You’re telling me. You missed four poops today.”

Four?” I cry with a mock gasp toward my son. He lets out a whispered “Yeah” with apparent pride, eliciting laughs from both my daughter and I, which he mirrors. I ask about others in the tribe, and the two of us chat for a while, but she soon looks dejected.

“A couple of friends invited me for a game over by the gammas,” she tells me. “Told them I couldn’t go, obviously.”

I have no idea what the gammas are. I take a moment to wonder if I’ve missed something from a previous conversation, or if the tribe has gotten large enough to support generational slang. Ultimately, I decide it doesn’t matter and tell her she should go.

“What about this one?” she asks, indicating my son, who has now abandoned his food in favour of a particularly interesting piece of bark on his stool.

“We can take him for a while. We won’t be able to for much longer, though.”

“Thanks, Dad,” she sighs, picking herself up and kissing her brother on the forehead before heading off across the settlement.

Dad. It took some time to earn that title from her, but I’m almost glad for the delay. It feels normal – a social process that would have existed in the Old World just the same, as opposed to our own customs, pieced together out of practicality. The part of my reasoning that I neglected to mention to her was that it’s rare for a single tribe to have so many members of the same age and sex. She’s been given the opportunity to have friends, plural, and she has to be able to take it.

I finish giving my son his meal before taking him in my arms and heading inside through the thick flap of fabric that functions as our front door. The common room greets me beyond, with all five of my remaining family members inside.

The first to catch my eye is my oldest son, teaching his immediate younger brother how to stitch together scavenged cloth into usable sheets. Across the room from them, my wife sits on an unusually heavy chair with thick, sturdy armrests specifically constructed to support our young twin daughters. They’re both currently in these spots, looking over their mother’s shoulders at the pages of a torn but vibrantly coloured picture book. All of them register my presence simultaneously, and there’s a flurry of motion as they all rush to greet me, except for my wife, who remains in her seat.

I suddenly feel like my eyes and ears are on separate swivels as I try to absorb and react to the deluge of words from my children. The twins’ stories weave in and out of each other as they describe the contents of their newly found book, while my sons list off the crafting projects they’ve worked on during the day. One of them asks if he can go scavenging tomorrow instead, while the other wants to accompany me to the Plant, although I’m unsure which request was whose.

“Okay,” comes my wife’s firm voice, drawing out each syllable to smother the ends of the children’s sentences. “He just got home. Let him breathe. You two,” she adds, indicating the two brothers, “If the baby’s here, then the table outside is free. Why don’t you finish your work out there, and we’ll have dinner ready when you’re done?”

“Can we go outside too?” ask the girls, each targeting a different parent.

“Yes, but stay where we can see you,” I tell them both, and the flux of bodies through the door resolves itself, leaving just the two parents and the toddler inside.

“Should I tell them they didn’t finish their book?” I ask.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” she quickly responds, silently mouthing the swear for the child’s benefit. “Seven times is enough for one day.”

“You’re not getting burned out now, are you?”

“No, but I’m getting worried about whether we’re doing this right. We shouldn’t have to dump our youngest kids onto our oldest kids.” She pauses and frowns for a moment. “Where is our oldest kid, anyway?”

“I told her she could take off. Her friends are playing a game by the gammas.”

“The gammas?”

“Yeah, you know, the gammas.”

“I don’t know the gammas. And I’m pretty sure neither do you.”

I smile at her, and my son begins to squirm in my arms, so I let him down onto a small rug that denotes the play area. As I do so, she stands with slight exertion and moves toward the pantry.

“It’s a bizarre situation,” I tell her. “You’re told to have as many as possible in case the worst happens, but if it never does, then you’ve got an army of kids and no idea how to handle them all. Do you need some help?”

“Just keep an eye on him and the girls,” she responds, barely reaching something from the top shelf.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s just Plantmeat. I’m pregnant, not dying.”

The overcast of the afternoon hides the sun as it begins to descend. I have to corral the twins once when they inevitably try to wander off, but otherwise, the moment is almost eerily serene. Our oldest daughter returns from her game midway through dinner, and afterwards, the entire family shifts outside to take advantage of the remaining hours of light.

Those of us that are able and old enough set to work on our projects – mostly things for the new baby. Neighbours from throughout the tribe pass, most with their own children, exchanging talk and either offering help or requesting it. One of my sons leaves with a friend of my wife’s. At least one person whom I don’t recognize passes by, and I wonder how that’s possible.

Eventually, a friend of mine approaches. He’s a liaison between our tribe and another nearby, officially part of the other, but here so often that he’s practically an honorary member. He hands me a neatly rolled cigarette as he greets us all.

“Anyone up for a walk?” I ask the congregation. The twins jump at the invitation, and our oldest agrees. Our remaining son shakes his head and doesn’t look up from his woodwork, and my wife remains seated with the toddler on her knee.

“I don’t want to see you smoke that,” she says. “I’m jealous enough just knowing it’s happening.”

“Shouldn’t be too much longer, right?” asks my friend.

“Any day now.”

My friend and I light our cigarettes at a communal firepit and set off with the girls. We walk slowly between the other dwellings, all similar to ours but none identical, updating each other on the status of our tribes. My oldest recounts the events of her game hours earlier. I take a drag and groan.

“Sorry. This batch is pretty bad,” I tell my friend.

“Eh, the Plant giveth, and the Plant…sometimes giveth poorly. You’re lucky it doesn’t make you see shit. Some idiot on my side decided not to waste food and smoked something growing on one of the trees. Took him hours to quit freaking out.”

“We have been really lucky recently.”

“I’ll say. Seven kids? I’ve never known anyone who reached six.”

“Not just us. The whole tribe is expanding. It’s definitely the largest it’s ever been. I’m wondering if we’ll have split up s—”

All of our faces are suddenly illuminated an angry red. We stand in stunned silence for a moment, my mouth still agape with choked-off words. As the flare fizzles out, the three older members of our party lock eyes for a split second before grabbing the hands of the nearest young ones and bolting toward the tribe’s central forum.

“From the west! Fast but no range,” a scout tells us as we arrive. We toss the remains of our cigarettes in the mound of dirt under the flare tubing.

“We’ll go south,” suggests my friend. “Meet up with my guys. We can help you out after.”

“The tribe’s getting too big to manage as it is,” the scout insists. “If we add that many people and have to move again, we’re screwed.”

“It’s just temporary,” my daughter argues. “And we might be able to recover more this way,” she adds. I can see her glance at the twins as she does so.

I agree, followed by the scout, and all of us disperse through the tribe, the word “south” spreading like a virus. There’s a torrent of movement. Bodies flood out of doors and converge into a hurried, staggering stream. Many of the adults are clutching children. Many of the children are clutching meager possessions. When we reach the area of our own house, my wife has already collected two of our three remaining children and is ushering them into the throng.

“Where’s—” I begin, but she assures me that our missing son is travelling with her friend.

The tribe now moves through the surrounding forest nearly as one. Despite the numerous nearby footfalls, heavy vibrations are becoming more and more audible. Progress is slow with such a crowd. People young and old trip on roots and struggle to clamber over boulders on our pathless route. Many that grabbed items upon their exodus quickly drop them to make travel easier.

The vibrations’ volume suddenly erupts into a rhythmless cacophony. Several tribespeople freeze with shock at the abrupt outburst. No one moves even when it subsides moments later, as a realization dawns on them: the original vibrations haven’t ceased. The outburst was caused by something else.

I shake myself from the stupor faster than those around me and push forward to the front of the group, where a handful of tribespeople are bickering. I’m about to tell them to keep moving when I discover what is undoubtedly the source of the commotion.

To the south, almost directly in front of us, an enormous slice of the sky is no longer visible through the trees. The change was imperceptible amid the earlier noise and panic, but as we attempt to continue forward, it now looms over us like a gallows. Between the small gaps in foliage and the fading evening light, it’s impossible to assign even a silhouette to whatever blocks our view. It’s simply a formless black spire devouring our destination and stretching beyond the clouds.

“It can’t be one of them! They’re not that big!” comes the voice of one of the arguing tribespeople.

“What the fuck else is it going to be?” argues another. “We can’t go this way.”

“We’ve gone too far south now. Any other direction will just take us right into the first one’s path.”

“At least we’ve seen something like that before! This one is…” His indignant voice trails off as he gestures defeatedly at the presence in front of us. Its shadow seems to grow darker as he does so.

“It’s not moving,” suggests a third voice, that of my wife. She must have followed me up to the front. “We don’t know much about it, but we know it’s not moving. That’s more than we can say about the other one. If we keep going and lean east, we can skirt around it.”

“Going east will pin us against the ocean.”

“With the best wall we could ask for protecting our other side.”

Glances and nods are exchanged all around, and the tribe sets off again with my wife’s instructions in mind, the distant vibrations still getting audibly closer. We’ve only just started to change course when I notice my friend from the nearby tribe split from the group and continue in our original direction. I call to him but receive no response, so I break from the group myself and hurry after him.

“We need to go east a bit to get around that thing,” I say when he’s back within earshot. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”

Without looking back or breaking his stride, he responds, “Remember why we were going south? My tribe is right where that thing is standing. I need to help them.”

“What are you gonna do, kick its fucking shins?”

His pace doesn’t change. I race up to him and grab his shoulder to turn him around. He swats my arm away.

“You’re not the only one in the world who has family, okay?” he shouts.

“You can’t help your family right now! No one can!” My words hang in the air for an excruciating moment. “The only way you can help them is by being alive for them tomorrow, and walking straight in there will not accomplish that!”

He looks as if he’s weighing the pros and cons of striking me, but then his shoulders relax, and he emits a heavy sigh and wordlessly turns back in the direction of my tribe’s movement. I’m certain the deciding factor in his thought process was the knowledge that everything I said applied to myself as much as to him.

The exodus continues for another minute, slowing as the ground underneath begins to slope. Then, one by one, every member of the tribe stops in their tracks as they realize what lay in front of them. A sheer cliff covered in moss and vines juts out of the ground and wraps around to the west. From a distance, the greenery blends with its surroundings and obscures the rocky impasse perfectly.

People are arguing again, furious with the scouts for not noticing this feature of the land. I can barely hear them. My head is swimming with unsatisfactory options. The cliff blocks us on two sides. To the east is endless, exposed ocean. Searching north for a dip in the cliffs will take us dangerously close to where we escaped from.

I can feel my wife pulling me by the hand toward the rear of the group; evidently, she has decided to search for a way around. My other hand is now grasping that of one of the twins. Our entire family has gathered now, prepared to lead the tribe north and circle around. Before we can take a step, however, another scout drops from the boughs of a tree.

“It’s turned!” she shouts over the whole ensemble. “It’s coming this way!”

Panic immediately grips the tribe. Some begin to desperately scrabble up the cliff face. Others merely collapse to the ground, cursing their misfortune. One voice of unknown source booms above the rest, “Get in the water! Get as far away from the land as you can!” The remaining tribespeople comply. Those with young children, myself included, pray that they can cooperate to keep every head above the waves.

We soon emerge from the trees, expecting to breathe salty air, but instead, our lungs are filled with a glassy mist, and our eyes are met with a bizarre image. Piercing the ocean surface perhaps a hundred metres out is a shallow but enormously wide avian beak. It opens and closes without pattern, spewing out the mist that hovers over the shore as it does so.

The body that supports the beak roils underneath and begins to rise. It’s covered in sopping, knotted fur. A second beak becomes visible as it rises higher than the trees. Irregular appendages like muscular antlers further expand the body’s apparent size, first as individual shoots, then by forming a labyrinthine skeletal web around it. More colossal beaks reveal themselves, their expelled mist mixing with the water sliding off the body to form a ghostly robe around its lower visible half.

It’s impossibly tall now. As I crane my neck to take in its entirety, a few spots of its fur, likely the size of an adult human but barely freckles on this monstrosity, appear to be sucked inward, the resulting gap filled with a vivid green glow. After a few seconds, the spots rebound outward, launching beams of bubbling discharge across the sky and into the earth, like sickly fireworks announcing the creature’s arrival.

All resolve in the tribe is broken. People scatter everywhere, attention to familial connections no longer considered. I must have turned north, because I have a view parallel to the shore and treeline, and from it, I see another churning mass towering above the trees. It knocks over the last few trunks that separate it from the open air as it emerges a kilometre away.

Its body spews forth from the forest. Through the thickening darkness and mist, its shape is best described as that of a gargantuan centipede. Its innumerable legs end in erratically grasping humanoid hands, and its twisted, eyeless facsimile of a head leads them all in our direction. The vibrations that have haunted us all evening swell as it approaches.

I have no sense of time or location anymore. My senses are entirely transfixed on these two horrors. As the terrestrial one continues its rush towards us, the full extent of its body still hidden by trees and the horizon, its features become clearer. I count twelve gnashing mouths, but the teeth, lips, and tongues overlap so much that there could be half or double that. Instead of further dread, however, this vision breeds a miraculous revelation: neither creature is interested in us. They’re targeting each other.

The haze in my mind disperses with what I swear is an audible click. I grab the nearest panicking tribesperson and desperately explain what I’ve realized. The word spreads from there. The steady vibrations merge with the crashing of waves as the rushing creature stomps into the water. Several tribespeople are sedated by the news now, and many others are drawn to their unified movement even though they don’t understand the reason for it. We dash back to the relative safety of the trees.

Behind us, the two abominations collide in a titanic crash. Ocean water sprays us even as we distance ourselves from its source. The cacophony continues for minutes, an explosion of powerful cracks, earthly tremors, and indescribable organic noises. A swath of branches overhead is disintegrated by a beam of green, nearly scattering the reunited tribe once more, but we manage to keep our wits and press onward.

When the noise finally dies, the ordinary silence of night is almost as jarring. Looking around, the cloudy sky is only host to one gigantic shadow: that of the immobile colossus that previously redirected us. We travel on in near silence for what must be an hour, with no direction in mind besides “away.” Our adrenaline gradually drains, replaced by overwhelming fatigue, and the tribe unanimously decides to settle on the forest floor for the night.

Streaks of corrosive green fill my subsequent dreams, burning away my lifetime of memories until I’m four years old once more. I’m talking to the man who pulled me safely away from the place of my parents’ death. He would join them very soon afterwards. I don’t think I was ever told his name, but he was the first to explain to me the reality that everyone learns eventually.

“Most tribes have different names for them,” he says. “I’ve heard ‘Corvus,’ ‘Corups,’ ‘Gorups…’” He’s planning on continuing the list but trails off when he realizes I’m aware of his stalling. “We call them Corpus,” he finally states grimly. “You probably haven’t heard that before. People don’t like to say the word. They think it calls them up.”

“Calls them up?” I repeat.

“From under the ground. We think they hibernate there – that means they sleep for a long time. Whenever you hear those rumblings, that’s one of them coming up. But if we’re lucky, they come up far away, and we can get out of their way if they come towards us. That’s why we send the scouts up in the trees.”

“Why don’t we get rid of the trees?”

“We’ve tried. They grow back too fast.”

“Why don’t we get away from the trees?

“We’ve tried that too. We’re always trying that. But we’ve never found anywhere that they don’t grow.”

“Why—”

“I promise you, we’ve tried.” He looks away, exhales, and then turns back. “This is very important for you to understand: everyone here did everything they could, including you. It’s been like this for a long time, and this is the best way we’ve found to deal with it. Those things are a lot bigger than us, so sometimes we lose people, and we can’t do anything about it. But as long as we keep going, those people are never really lost, because the tribe they were a part of will last forever.”

A long, defeated silence follows these words. A hundred questions still linger on my tongue, fighting for dominance. There never is a victor, but the man appears to recognize the expression on my face.

“We don’t know,” he admits. “If you’re asking about the Corpus, that’s the answer.”

I think that conclusion frustrated me more than anything about the situation. To suffer for reasons beyond your control is demoralizing, but to do so for reasons beyond anyone’s control is maddening.

I insisted for some time that I would break the pattern and discover the logic of the Corpus, but the years steadily crushed that ambition. Decades passed, and neither I nor anyone I met could claim to have ever seen one eat, sleep, defecate, give birth, or act in any way resembling rational thought. Debates regularly erupt over whether or not they even need to breathe. They’ve been known to viciously charge towards a tribe for miles, while other times, they don’t even register our presence, even when their bodies are endlessly coated in eyes.

The animosity between these most recent two is the first anomaly I’ve ever witnessed in their behaviour. But without any way of directly influencing them, it may be another lifetime before such an event is duplicated. For all we know, it was pure coincidence that their trajectories collided.

The burning green that still clouds the edges of my mind recedes at the first glimmers of daylight. It relinquishes my memories as it does so, propelling me back to adulthood as I lay with my eyes open on a bed of thick grass next to a mix of my own family members and assorted other tribespeople. There are hushed murmurs nearby. I follow them to a group that includes my second son and my friend from the nearby tribe.

“The entire tribe’s accounted for,” he tells me. “You were right; you guys are really lucky.” I can’t determine whether his tone is bitter or merely exhausted. “That big one’s gone. Must’ve gone down during the night. I need to get going, to see if anyone’s…”

“I’ll go with you,” I declare, interrupting the inevitable uncomfortable pause. My son begins to speak, but stops himself. “What?” I ask the entire group, as they all suddenly carry a knowing expression in their eyes.

One of them answers me. “We found a growth of the Plant nearby. We’ll need all available hands to work it if we’re going to feed everyone.”

“Don’t worry about me,” my friend says. “You’re needed here. And it’s not like safety in numbers means anything to us.”

“We’ll send up the recovery flares as soon as we find the ingredients,” I tell him. I almost add, “Good luck,” but I worry how it will sound given the previous conversation. He nods appreciatively and strides past me into the trees.

Another in the group speaks. “We found an Old World structure on the way, so we’ll probably start settling there.”

“That’s great! Any idea what it used to be?”

“No, too overgrown and dilapidated. There’s nothing to salvage, really, but it’s got cement walls and most of a roof, so it’s better than nothing.”

As the remainder of the tribe wakes, the situation is explained to all, and duties are assigned. Save for the scouts, everyone moves in one direction initially. When we reach the devastated structure, half of us stay behind to build or forage, while the rest continue towards the Plant.

We walk mostly in silence, our thoughts torn between dreading the likely fate of the other tribe and appreciating our own relative fortune. My son, on the other hand, is visibly excited. Fulfilling a lifetime of curiosity regarding the Plant has apparently decided his emotional dilemma for him.

When we reach the site, it’s as bizarre as every other growth I’ve encountered. Hundreds of thousands of tendrils lay before us, snaking along the ground or twisting down into it without apparent reason. They interact with the conventional vegetation the way an ant colony interacts with a mound of soil, weaving their way over and through it without difficulty. Every imaginable colour is visible within the mass. The image is simultaneously repulsive and captivating.

Our own menagerie of men and women approach the edges and begin to cautiously test certain spots with their feet. Some spots seem to dissolve at their touch. Others fold inward and attempt to snare anything that approaches. Some tense and become solid beneath the weight; those are used as stepping stones, allowing a worker to advance deeper into the growth. My son watches all of this with a totally unreadable expression that I can’t help but grin at.

“Their general appearance is always the same,” I tell him. “But you can never be sure how a given section will behave. I’ll do the testing, okay? Just follow in my path. Watch there, that part’s got thorns.”

“We eat this stuff?” he asks, matching my footsteps.

“No, not this part. This stuff’s about as edible as a tree stump. What we eat comes from those.”

I point ahead to a series of shimmering spheres, two or three metres in diameter, resting on top of the Plant. They were invisible at a distance, but now that we’ve approached, their gossamer exteriors capture the light in such a way that they appear to be made of it. Each is cradled by the now-sealed orifice that expelled it.

One woman near us walks up and presses into the closest sphere. Her hand pierces the filmy wall, and it looks as if the sphere should pop, but it does not. Instead, it seamlessly closes around her arm, and she follows with the rest of her body until she is entirely inside.

Once there, she begins to lazily flap her arms. My son shoots me a bewildered look, and I tell him to keep watching. Near the woman’s sphere, a tendril begins to rise and thicken until it resembles a discoloured tree branch. The woman shifts to a different motion, hopping and kicking with alternating legs. Partway down the branch, a hanging speck has become visible.

That is what we eat,” I say, pointing at the gradually expanding speck. “You can see why we call it Plantmeat. Calling it fruit would just feel wrong.”

“I thought it was because you never know if it’ll taste like plants or meat.”

“That too.”

“And the dancing? What’s that about?”

I chuckle a little before responding. “From what we can tell, the spheres capture kinetic energy and use it to grow the Plantmeat. You can do an actual dance in there if you want, but it’s best to do something that you can keep up for a long time.” I pause to think about what else he needs to know. “You get out what you put in though, so you can’t just sit there and wiggle your fingers all day.”

“Is it hard?”

“No, it’s not hard.” I resist the urge to chuckle bitterly. “It’s just exhausting and time-consuming.”

Most of the others in the group are now working at spheres of their own, or they’re acting as harvesters, waiting for the Plantmeat to fully grow before collecting it. The two of us approach a sphere. I suggest that he work this one, and I will take an adjacent one. Before he enters, however, I place my hand on his shoulder and look directly at him.

“The most important thing to remember when you do this,” I tell him, “Is that you need to have something more in mind. You can’t just work away in there for its own sake. If you do that, if you don’t have anything greater that you’re working towards, it will…it can…drain you.”

I’m not satisfied with my word choice, but I can’t think of how else to express such a feeling. He seems to understand, at least. He pushes his hand into the sphere and is understandably surprised by the mundanity of the sensation.

“I thought it would be slimy,” he says.

“Everyone does. I’ll be right here if anything happens; just yell. They muffle the sound, but not that much.”

He nods in understanding and leans the rest of his body against the sphere. He gives me a thumbs up from inside, and I continue on to my own sphere. I smile at the young mind that comments only on the lack of slime, ignoring the still air and the slight pressure felt from all sides. The few seconds between entering a sphere and working at it are the most unusually peaceful moments available to us.

I begin moving my limbs, mindlessly cycling through patterns that will allow me to last throughout the day – an art I’ve developed over the course of years. I periodically glance over to my son to see him doing the same, albeit with less control. After an hour or two, he’s seated inside his sphere, panting. I don’t want to shout and draw attention to him, so I try to reassure him with a simple smile and nod before returning to my movements.

Not long afterwards, the sky is illuminated by the shimmering gold of recovery flares signalling a regrouping location for scattered tribespeople. As the day progresses, we take breaks in shifts, and the harvesters ration out a portion of the Plantmeat to us before carrying the rest back to the tribe.

When the sun finally descends a significant distance, we emerge from our spheres gratefully, exhausted and sweaty. The trek back to the tribe is uneventful; most are too tired to talk. When we return, it is a nearly identical scene to my arrival the previous afternoon, except there is no roof over the family’s heads, and the children swarm my son instead of me. Despite his fatigue, his earlier excitement returns as he answers their questions. I use their distraction to stride over to my wife and kiss her. She barely seems to register it, and looks at the family with a hollow expression.

“Six people,” she utters in a hushed tone. “That’s all that’s left of the others. There’s just a crater there now.”

I close my eyes and swear under my breath. I cover my face with my hand for a moment, then ask whether any of the six are related to my friend. She slowly shakes her head in response.

Guilt, rational and otherwise, washes over me. I look around in despondence at the largely unsheltered tribe. The day’s progress seems so pitiful – the collection of water that will inevitably be consumed, the beginnings of new blankets that will inevitably be destroyed or abandoned. The need for something permanent gnaws at my soul. My wife stands and embraces me. Both of our bodies briefly twitch with the beginnings of sobs, then abruptly stop, apparently unwilling to expend additional energy.

The evening is a sober one. The survivors of the other tribe are inducted into our own with little fanfare. All of us work diligently to rebuild. One scout returns having found our previous site, and a scavenging party is assembled for the morning. After such a long effort, sleep comes easily, despite our minimal accommodations.

The morning finds me once again on Plant duty, though my son does not join me this time. It’s the middle of the afternoon when someone begins shouting for me at the edge of the growth. I exit my sphere to hear him better, and several others follow suit, curious about the commotion. The messenger brings the first piece of good news in days: my wife is in labour.

“How long?” I ask.

“A few hours,” he says. “She wanted to make sure it was real before we told you.”

I turn to the others standing in and around the spheres and begin to ask, “You guys mind if I—”

“Fucking go! Are you kidding me?” shouts the nearest worker with a laugh. The others agree with him, and several wish me congratulations as I carefully but quickly make my way over the Plant.

The trek back to the tribe is probably the fastest it’s ever been, but it feels interminable. The stress, guilt, and trepidation of the last two days are swallowed by hopeful anticipation. The promise of a new life – with its new thoughts, goals, and challenges – is the most wonderful feeling for us. I’m sure it is inherently so, of course, but in our particular case, it represents a moment where our thoughts, goals, and challenges are uniquely human-sized.

When I arrive, the younger children are being watched by my oldest daughter and my friend. They urge me into the Old World structure at the center of our settlement, where my wife is being attended to by the closest thing we have to a doctor. At the first few births, I worried about the quality of whatever Old World medical textbooks she had gained her knowledge from, but after delivering the twins, I trust her judgment completely.

I immediately take my wife’s hand while the doctor shouts instructions. We’re told it will be a relatively quick process this time, although that’s obviously little comfort. I desperately wish I could do more than act as a bullet to bite. Quick process or not, it still takes hours before the doctor announces the emergence of the baby’s head. She announces a shoulder soon after, though I learned years ago not to look.

The baby’s cries mix with my wife’s screams as a tribesman urgently runs into the building. I’m about to ask what could be so important, but I’m struck by the look of fear on the man’s face. The three of us divert our attention from the birth for the first time and immediately notice the problem. A muffled rumble can be heard, and the ground is shaking slightly. Through the gap in the roof, the searing red of an emergency flare explodes.

“Where is it?!” I shout at the man.

“We don’t know! It’s still under, but we’re getting ready to evacuate as soon as we see it!”

“Now would be a very good time to push!” the doctor tells my wife, who cries, “Fuck off!” in response.

Everything intensifies. Crying, screaming, and rumbling meld into a single dissonant chord, and the shaking becomes so violent I have to lean against the wall for support. The doctor has just finished announcing the appearance of the baby’s second shoulder when a huge lurch nearly knocks us all to the floor. A great mass erupts from the earth, shattering the front wall of the structure. The doctor and I dive to shelter my wife and child. A block of debris strikes the side of the doctor’s head, and she immediately slumps to the ground.

I watch her body briefly to notice she’s still breathing, but my eyes are quickly drawn to the presence in front of us: a hand. It juts out of the ground, stands the height of four men, and touts several vestigial joints and scarred, greyish skin, but it is unmistakably a hand.

My wife unleashes a pained and enraged shriek in its direction as cracks and fissures form at its wrist and flood over the ground. Pillars of earth and bony appendages shoot upwards all around us, sometimes over a hundred metres away, and sometimes barely farther than the initial hand, which now flexes and twists before us.

The ground directly beneath us rattles more severely than ever, and I can feel it start to rise. As if in a trance, I crouch in front of my wife, and within seconds, the newborn baby lays in my arms. The ground has almost entirely crumbled to reveal an expanse of knotted muscle, and as it ascends, I stand and move next to my wife.

The two of us wordlessly embrace, the baby between us. Our eyes close. The baby does not cry. We are oblivious to the chaos that engulfs us. The only sensation for us in these moments is the feeling of our skins against each other.

And then, suddenly, I cannot feel it. In its place is a slight, unidentifiable pressure from all sides. The air goes still, and the noise is dampened. I open my eyes to find my vision distorted by a shimmering film. My wife is still in front of me, her expression of bewilderment likely mirroring my own.

Our child is still here, though no one is supporting his weight. Each of us is surrounded by a sphere that appears to have been fashioned from the sunset itself. We’re suspended high in the air, linked together by a golden, ethereal tether. An appendage of the Corpus idly swats at us, only to recoil upon contact with the spheres. My flux of emotions snaps into a laugh of relief. I turn to see my wife having the same reaction, but from farther away.

Despite the appearance of the tether, some unknown force is gradually propelling the spheres away from each other. I can hear my wife’s voice, and I reach out for her, but the pressure from the sphere escalates as I extend my arm. I adopt running, pushing, and swimming motions – anything that might reverse the spheres’ drift – but none of them have any effect.

In desperation, I begin to look around, and I notice for the first time that the tether extends in other directions. Behind me, the unconscious body of the doctor is shielded by a sphere of her own. Below, dozens of additional spheres ignite, then hundreds. All are shifting in a leisurely whirlwind, with some drawing up towards us and others spreading wide over the ground.

As their spheres approach, I can see the faces of our oldest daughter and one of the twins. I try calling out to them, but they’re still not close enough to hear. I futilely stomp at the bottom of my sphere. The other tribespeople I can see are taking similar manic actions, attempting to influence their situation. The colossal frame of the Corpus groans and shifts around us.

Finally, the spheres cease their movement. The air inside seems even more motionless than before, and I sense that the tribe is collectively holding its breath. With an inhuman sound like a slither punctuated by sharp cracks, the tethers connecting us begin to darken and solidify, twisting into something resembling wooden flesh. With an enormous quiver, the limbs begin to rapidly expand, spontaneously developing new features from within. One to my side becomes encrusted with sharp, pink crystals. Another below sprouts huge, membranous wings.

I can no longer see my wife or daughters. Most of my vision is obscured by shadowy viscera. Through the gaps, I can make out the newborn, the doctor hunched on her knees, and some distant others below. I frantically claw at the wall of my sphere without ever touching it.

Through the largest gap, I see an impenetrable cloud of dust blanketing the remains of the trees. A gigantic, calcified hand reaches up from within. Our host blearily lunges in response, and a vast limb swings into view. Its extremities dissolve into a mass of tentacles, which wrap around the hand and crush it with a series of grisly crunches. Additional appendages flash at the edges of my sight, each waging their own war against their counterparts on the Corpus in front of us. There’s a sense of reeling back, followed by a titanic slam that surely decimated whatever was left of the forest below us.

For a long time, there is no sound. The only movement is the cloud of dust billowing forever outward. I drop to my knees, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. I can hear a familiar rumbling below, and I can feel myself descending. The last traces of my sphere’s transparent surface are being filled in as I struggle to keep my eyes open. The ground approaches rapidly, and I sink below it. I close my eyes and succumb to the overwhelming desire to sleep.