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by Max E. Keele
The ants have been building a cemetery between the panes of my northern window; they've been at it all winter. Every morning, when I return from work, I check their progress and count the withered ant corpses lying helter skelter along the sill. The mortician ants arrange their dead precisely, but without apparent design. Tiny sunbeams reflect orange ant-shadows through condensation on the glass. The mortician ants struggle without rest until they drop, and are in turn stacked in neat little piles by their successors.
Everyone I have ever known is dead or doomed. On these cold spring mornings I often feel that I belong there, between the panes, heaped like cordwood by the dedicated ants.
The human species did not, as many predicted, go out in a blaze of arrogance. We did not blow our collective selves to ionized dust; we did not choke on our own toxic excrement; our progeny did not become so numerous that they consumed our ecosphere out from under us. The end turned out to be simpler than anyone expected, simpler and more abrupt. And completely unforeseen.
No one was more surprised than David and me. We were, at the time, doing genetic research for the Human Genome Project, humanity's vainglorious attempt to map its own uniqueness. David worked with a group trying to break down a sequence involved in the Y chromosome complex, and I tormented fruit flies with the concept of mutagenesis. For every generation of Drosophila that I could endow with an extra pair of legs growing in place of their antenna, I smugly took another step toward my niche in the Halls of Darwin.
I remember the day my species died as clearly as if it were this very morning. Was it really that sudden? Yes, I can pinpoint the day -- the hour, even -- although no one realized the truth of our extinction for several more years. I remember it because that day, David and I fought. Our fights, though rare, were often bitter, and never about what they were really about. I remember that fight. It was our last.
I am no longer a scientist. Since David's . . . since that awful year, I've worked the graveyard shift at the Mivart Home for Deleterious Mutations, spending my dreary hours at the main desk. Except for the occasional spontaneous ectogeneration, the odd bouts of screaming, the rare episode of parthenogenesis, the late shift revolves around the endless repetition of tedious acts. Pointless duties that begin to blur into one single eternity of drear. As the winter grows old and dies, I have begun to depend on my morning vigils at the window with the ants. More and more, the insect necropolis addicts me.
* * *
David's lab partner, Chaim Guddenov, intercepted us on our way to lunch. "Dave! Hi, Zina. Hey, they've isolated that virus."
For the previous two days, David had been growing a sullen mood. It hung across his shoulders like a sphagnum. "Yeah. So?"
To be honest, I was feeling fairly mossy myself. "What virus?" My heels made sharp punctuation clicks on the hall tile.
Chaim, for all his intellect, was impervious to emotional subtlety. He fell into step beside me, and his hands danced like orbiting electrons. "You know. That weird plague in Indonesia. That saltationist thing."
"Bullshit." David's moods precluded humor.
Of course, I knew what Chaim meant. The plague, isolated to a small, primitive island east of Borneo, had been widely reported in the popular media, had in fact merited two column-inches in Nature. But I was reacting to David's blossoming acrimony. "Really?" I tried to make my voice suggest fluttering eyelashes. David hated that tone. "I thought that spontaneous mutation stuff turned out to be a hoax."
"Not true," Chaim continued, oblivious to the gathering storm. "I've seen the data. It was like some sort of gene-based malignancy. The poor bastards just started evolving until it killed them. One of them actually grew feathers. I'm not kidding."
Normally, David thrived on nonsensical speculation; it was a game that appealed to his sophomoric sense of humor. But on that day, a swelling anger obscured his juvenile spirit, made him older, and humorless. "Bullshit," he repeated. "It'll turn out to be some sort of perverse government eugenics experiment."
"You're probably right." Chaim winked at me. "Probably trying to crossbreed. Hey, what do you get by crossing a person with a duck?"
Neither of us answered.
"I don't know either, but the kids all take after their mother. Get it? The kids all take after their mother."
David stopped in front of the main exit. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. Why don't you get that new extract in the tank. We can run it through this afternoon." He dismissed Chaim with a cold glare.
Chaim shrugged, and made a weak smile. "You're the boss. Hey, why don't you kids serious up? You're having altogether too much fun." He shrugged again, and walked away.
Tension increased by a factor of twelve. David held the door for me, more impatient than chivalrous. "I'm getting pretty tired of waiting for you," he said.
I could feel the storm behind his eyes, about to burst. It was the same old argument.
* * *
At the Mivart Home, at my job, empty time fills the air like the scent of formaldehyde. I spend my every free moment doing the same thing that everyone else does in their free time: I inspect myself for deviance. I count my fingers; I knead the flesh around my elbows, my shoulders; I examine the reflection of my face with frightened attention to detail. There, that tiny bump, is it only a pimple? And that mote of discoloration, nothing worse than a freckle? I wriggle my toes. I run my hands up and down my thighs. I concentrate my awareness on my genitals, is everything well? Is everything unchanged? I imagine a dedicated army of servant ants roaming the surface of my body, constantly on the lookout for . . . the unusual. It passes the time.
Tonight has certainly been no less pleasant than the usual. Poor Mr. H sprouted another limb, but painkillers were administered and the old man took his new leg in stride. Ms. R cried out once -- a soft and frightening howl -- as she often did when giving birth to hopeful monsters, but to the staff, to me, it was just another routine mitosis. When the relief nurse finally arrives, I nod blankly and push myself out into the street.
I walk the five blocks home to my lonely flat, through a dismal fog that stinks of ocean decay. The empty streets fill me with a curious longing; looming shadows of derelict cars flush fleet memories to the surface of my brain, memories tinged with death, like the ghosts of rotting jellyfish.
I gasp involuntarily, and my breasts grind against starched white linen. An image of a man's face surges into my consciousness-but I catch it in time, stuff it back into the deep well of repression, where it belongs. It would not be wise to think of David. Not just yet. Not on an abandoned street, thick with rancid fog.
For a long time, I conjured his face to comfort myself. But in the end, the image always smeared, the flesh peeled away, the horns sprouted; a thousand eyes would erupt like some hellish pox. I would prefer not to remember him that way. I would prefer to remember him as a strong and vibrant lover, a gentle man who laughed with childish abandon. I can not. I remember him as I last saw him. I remember him as he was.
* * *
"The doctor says you should rest." I held one hand against David's shoulder, and although he had once been able to carry me as easily as I would a baby, he no longer had the strength to resist.
"Fuck the doctor." With a sigh that was nearly a sob, he lay back into the bed. "I ought to be able to do something. There has to be an answer."
Two lumps of bone protruded through the thin skin of his forehead; the flesh around them glistened with the sickening sheen of raw meat. I gently dabbed an anesthetic gel on the hard boils that covered his cheeks. Several of them had begun to split. "Just rest, my love." I whispered, to camouflage the quivering agony in my voice.
"It's some kind of truly sick cosmic joke. Only Chaim could've thought this one up, may he rest in peace."
I considered trying to shush him, to make him sleep, but talk was the only weapon left to him. I let him talk.
"Who'd have thought. Three of the stupidest bullshit theories ever advanced, and all three are happening to me." A dry, hacking laugh strangled on the way out, but the humor behind it seemed genuine. "Saltation: evolution by spontaneous mutation. I'll bet I've changed species three times since breakfast. Not even George Mivart himself would've believed this one." He ticked a finger. "Then there's punk-eeq. Punctuated Equilibrium, an explosive burst of adaptive radiation. Hell, those guys were talking about an Event lasting maybe, a million years, and making, say, a couple hundred thousand new species. In the last two years, there's been more new species happen on this block! Before this is over, there won't be any room for good old Homo sapiens. No room at all." Another finger. "And last, we got all that Lamarckian nonsense. Zina, that old coot couldn't have been right. But you know, these changes, all this . . . " He held out his arms, to encompass himself, as well as all the pain and suffering in the wretched world. ". . . all this is genetic. Not disease, not external, not superficial: genetic. Every chromosome in my body reflects this . . . mockery. If we made a baby, right now. . . ." Sobs racked his skeletal frame.
And there it came. The old argument. And it looked like this time, it just might get resolved.
"I'm so sorry," was all I could say.
* * *
I arrive at my building, exhausted and alone. I look in my mail pouch, not expecting anything, and find nothing. Nothing familiar or comforting survived the Punk-eeq Event. None of humanity's proud trappings, none of the glorious institutions, none of the pretty paragons of Homo sapiens sapiens' million-year struggle up the evolutionary pyramid, none of it at all. All that remains is the unaffected few -- the pure, unmutated few -- and their pathetic attempt to preserve the unsullied genetic structure of a doomed race.
An insane, drawn screech crashes down on me from high above. I pointedly refuse to look. It will only be another mutant birdman, chasing dogs that fly on chitinous wings. Or something worse. There is always something worse.
The stairs to my flat creak a bit as I take them, step by leaden step. They are worn, but fairly clean. I sweep them every week. No one else climbs them anymore. The man who lived in 38 was reported to Evolution Control for extra fingers, webbed and growing from his wrist, and they had taken him away. The landlady keeps to herself. In fact, she sealed her door with bricks, save for a small opening through which she receives her rations of food and my rent checks.
I lock my door carefully behind me, lean against it and crush my eyes closed. A bead of sweat crawls across my cheek.
I go immediately to the window. Kneel there, hands clasped on my knees. Will my mind to peace. Stare in at the cemetery. An imitation calm settles in on me. I kneel there, motionless, until morning fog flees from the stern noon sun. It is approaching mid-afternoon when . . .
I begin to notice the change.
Worker ants still stack their broken brothers in neat little piles, but no longer at seeming random. An order has begun to form from the chaos. The piles of bodies line precisely cleared alleys: one major aisle runs the length of the windowsill, and several others branch out at ninety-degree angles. The more I look, the more patterns I see. The ants pile their dead in perfect Euclidean pyramids. The ants observe strict rules of traffic through the tiny streets.
I choke off a scream. Part of my mind explodes in horror, but another part -- the scientist part, the controlling part -- regards the miniature tableau with amused fascination. My eyes begin to cross from the effort of watching; I exaggerate the motion until my head aches, then abruptly, I laugh. I trace a smiling face onto the glass with a moistened finger, a face with many eyes.
The memory of David's funeral comes unhindered. Without guilt, without anger. I live through the procession again, and the brief ceremony, and the long trip home. I allow the image of his face to form in the glass. When his flesh begins to peel away from bony spurs, I do not recoil; I reach to touch it, feel the cool glass smear beneath my fingers. When the eyes begin to erupt, the skin splitting away with audible rips, I do not retch; I embrace a soft ache in my breasts, a damp, electric warmth in my crotch. I imagine David's children, my children. The children that should have been. And I know that it's all right. The children take after me.
I look back to the ants, and this time the scream bursts out, erupts past my newfound contentment, past the fresh greenery of peace that has only just begun to grow across my barren scars. The scream bursts out, punctuating my equilibrium with a sound like breaking glass.
The procession moves with somber elegance through the main aisle. A team of black aphids draws the hearse.
Story copyright 2001 by Max E. Keele firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke email@example.com
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