Presenting Ken Liu’s “The Plague” a new short story from Nature magazine’s Futures series about a meeting between a girl whose skin has been replaced with plague and a man from the Dome who doesn’t understand her.
What does the future hold? Is there life beyond the stars? Will artificial intelligence take over the world? Is time travel possible? All of these questions and more are addressed every week in Futures, Nature’s science-fiction column. Featuring short stories from established authors and those just beginning their writing career, Futures presents an eclectic view of what may come to pass.
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Lessons on life.
I’m in the river fishing with Mother. The sun is about to set, and the fish are groggy. Easy pickings. The sky is bright crimson and so is Mother, the light shimmering on her shkin like someone smeared blood all over her.
That’s when a big man tumbles into the water from a clump of reeds, dropping a long tube with glass on the end. Then I see he’s not fat, like I thought at first, but wearing a thick suit with a glass bowl over his head.
Mother watches the man flop in the river like a fish. “Let’s go, Marne.”
But I don’t. After another minute, he’s not moving as much. He struggles to reach the tubes on his back.
“He can’t breathe,” I say.
“You can’t help him,” Mother says. “The air, the water, everything out here is poisonous to his kind.”
I go over, crouch down, and look through the glass covering his face, which is naked. No shkin at all. He’s from the Dome.
His hideous features are twisted with fright.
I reach over and untangle the tubes on his back.
I wish I hadn’t lost my camera. The way the light from the bonfire dances against their shiny bodies cannot be captured with words. Their deformed limbs, their malnourished frames, their terrible disfigurement—all seem to disappear in a kind of nobility in the flickering shadows that makes my heart ache.
The girl who saved me offers me a bowl of food—fish, I think. Grateful, I accept.
I take out the field purification kit and sprinkle the nanobots over the food. These are designed to break down after they’ve outlived their purpose, nothing like the horrors that went out of control and made the world unlivable….
Fearing to give offence, I explain, “Spices.”
Looking at her is like looking into a humanoid mirror. Instead of her face I see a distorted reflection of my own. It’s hard to read an expression from the vague indentations and ridges in that smooth surface, but I think she’s puzzled.
“Modja saf-fu ota poiss-you,” she says, hissing and grunting. I don’t hold the devolved phonemes and degenerate grammar against her—a diseased people scrabbling out an existence in the wilderness isn’t exactly going to be composing poetry or thinking philosophy. She’s saying “Mother says the food here is poisonous to you.”
“Spices make safe,” I say.
As I squeeze the purified food into the feeding tube on the side of the helmet, her face ripples like a pond, and my reflection breaks into colourful patches.
The others do not trust the man from the Dome as he skulks around the village enclosed in his suit.
“He says that the Dome dwellers are scared of us because they don’t understand us. He wants to change that.”
Mother laughs, sounding like water bubbling over rocks. Her shkin changes texture, breaking the reflected light into brittle, jagged rays.
The man is fascinated by the games I play: drawing lines over my belly, my thigh, my breasts with a stick as the shkin ripples and rises to follow. He writes down everything any one of us says.
He asks me if I know who my father is.
I think what a strange place the Dome must be.
“No,” I tell him. “At the Quarter Festivals the men and women writhe together and the shkins direct the seed where they will.”
He tells me he’s sorry.
It’s hard for me to really know what he’s thinking because his naked face does not talk like shkin would.
“All this.” He sweeps his arm around.
When the plague hit 50 years ago, the berserk nanobots and biohancers ate away people’s skins, the soft surface of their gullets, the warm, moist membranes lining every orifice of their bodies.
Then the plague took the place of the lost flesh and covered people, inside and outside, like a lichen made of tiny robots and colonies of bacteria.
Those with money—my ancestors—holed up with weapons and built domes and watched the rest of the refugees die outside.
But some survived. The living parasite changed and even made it possible for its hosts to eat the mutated fruits and drink the poisonous water and breathe the toxic air.
In the Dome, jokes are told about the plagued, and a few of the daring trade with them from time to time. But everyone seems content to see them as no longer human.
Some have claimed that the plagued are happy as they are. That is nothing but bigotry and an attempt to evade responsibility. An accident of birth put me inside the Dome and her outside. It isn’t her fault that she picks at her deformed skin instead of pondering philosophy; that she speaks with grunts and hisses instead of rhetoric and enunciation; that she does not understand family love but only an instinctual, animalistic yearning for affection.
We in the Dome must save her.
“You want to take away my shkin?” I ask.
“Yes, to find a cure, for you, your mother, all the plagued.”
I know him well enough now to understand that he is sincere. It doesn’t matter that the shkin is as much a part of me as my ears. He believes that flaying me, mutilating me, stripping me naked would be an improvement.
“We have a duty to help you.”
He sees my happiness as misery, my thoughtfulness as depression, my wishes as delusion. It is funny how a man can see only what he wants to see. He wants to make me the same as him, because he thinks he’s better.
Quicker than he can react, I pick up a rock and smash the glass bowl around his head. As he screams, I touch his face and watch the shkin writhe over my hands to cover him.
Mother is right. He has not come to learn, but I must teach him anyway.
“The Plague” copyright © 2013 by Ken Liu