“Chester!” Her voice is shrill and tired-sounding, as though she’s been crying again. “Inside now, please.”
He ignores her, head bent over his work.
The frankenstem is dying, and he’s sad about that.
The books he’s read make it sound easy—how you can graft cuttings from one plant onto another, taking the best parts from two different things and combining them. Simple, really. So, with a stolen kitchen knife, Chester has made little diagonal incisions into the bark of the young willow growing in a shady corner of the yard. He’s spliced a variety of scavenged off-shoots into those cuts to make his ‘frankenstem.’ There’s the head of a pink rose (already long past its best and beginning to wilt, so he’s not hopeful it will survive this drastic transplant), the sticky tip of a sweet chestnut flower, the root-stock of a petunia dug up from his mother’s window-box and—his personal favorite—a bramble thorn with a wickedly sharp point. Threads of cotton teased from his fraying t-shirt bind each of the grafted items in place. The result isn’t pretty, but that was never the point. He wants to see what survives and what doesn’t.
Only… It’s been a few hours now, and the frankenstem grafts look pale and limp, browning at their cut edges. Even the willow has begun oozing sticky sap from its wounds.
“Chester!” Louder this time, her patience ebbing.
The yard is a safe-haven, more so than the house. Although the house is familiar (and that’s good, of course) it often has people in it. The kind of people it attracts are mostly his mother’s friends—exactly the kind Chester dislikes. All they seem to want to do is talk. Some of them even want to talk to him.
Not that he replies. His mother despairs of him because he won’t talk to her. To anyone, in fact.
It’s been two hundred sixty one days since Chester last spoke aloud. Mostly, he has nothing that needs saying. And now it’s become one of his experiments. He’s curious: how long is it possible to go without talking? Can he live his whole life this way? He doesn’t think he will, but it’s an interesting experiment all the same.
Of course, some of his experiments turn out better than others. His taste experiment, for example, when he sampled every type of living plant he could find growing in the yard, carefully recording the outcome. The results were interesting, but he was sick for three days after.
“Chester! Are you ignoring me?”
A tiny moth brushes against his face, tickling his skin. It alights on the frankenstem and starts climbing upwards, stopping every few steps as though inspecting Chester’s work. Its wings beat a frantic rhythm, the sound of paper fluttering in the breeze.
There are dozens of them in the yard. His mother’s friends complain about them all the time. What if they turn out to be dangerous? Suppose the mutation spreads? Something ought to be done.
Chester leans closer, peering at the tiny vibrating body. Is it dangerous? It doesn’t look dangerous. It’s just a moth, barely the size of his thumbnail. A bullet-shaped body, vaguely triangular wings. He’s read up its Latin name: lymantria dispar, the gypsy moth. In pictures, they look a speckled brown, but this one is a crisp white, as though the creature has been fashioned out of icing sugar. A mutation has occurred in the species, fundamentally changing it right down in its DNA, the scientists are saying. ‘Engineered’ is a word that gets used a lot. But it’s a mystery who the engineers might be, or their purpose.
He’s listened to the wilder theories discussed on the late-night TV channels when he’s supposed to be asleep: clandestine government laboratories with their gene-editing programs, or secretive terrorist cells creating some kind of bio-weapon, or alien spores drifting across the cosmos.
Chester likes to lie in his bed at night, imagining a world so far away, its sun is not even a faint prick of light in our night sky. The beings who inhabit this system carefully select some desolate, icy world, impregnate it with their engineered virus until it takes hold in every crack and pore, like a farmer sowing a crop. Then they explode that world into a billion pieces; an expanding sphere of debris, each a messenger to the waiting stars. A long time passes—but the originators understand what it means to be patient. Sooner or later, these long-dormant icy fragments will be woken from a millennia-long slumber.
He imagines one such fragment nudged by the chance perturbations of celestial mechanics. Finally tickled by the Sun’s warmth, it sloughs off an outer skin of complex organic molecules. When the Earth strays into the tenuous trail left behind, the alien material mingles with wisps of atmosphere and tropospheric winds carry it around the globe. Instructions are followed: simple replicating patterns infiltrate whatever primitive living structures they encounter and slowly—
Chester’s arm is yanked backwards and he almost falls.
“How dare you ignore me, young man! Haven’t I warned you about being out here when those horrible moths are around? Get back in the house this instant!”
His mother pulls him back across the yard, his feet dragging. He turns to look back at his frankenstem one last time, but the moths have moved on.
Jeanette Briggs feels the tension mounting inside her: a prickling sensation crawling across her forehead, cramp in her hand as she clutches the phone in a death grip. “I just want my son to be normal, Dr Pattaya,” she says, fighting to keep her voice even, and not quite succeeding.
“The fact is, Mrs. Briggs, Chester won’t ever be that, not in the sense you mean. Remember we talked about the autism spectrum?”
“More engaged, then. Why won’t he talk to me anymore? To anyone?”
There’s a gentle sigh from the other end of the line. Jeanette imagines the consultant psychologist rocking back in a deep-padded chair, probably gazing up at ceiling vents from which deliciously chilled air cascades into the room. She herself is sweating like a pig in this early summer heat. Damp spots stick the cotton dress to her skin. Dark motes dance in her vision every time she moves her head.
“We’ve established that Chester is perfectly engaged,” Dr Pattaya is saying. “But on his own terms. There is no physical impairment of speech. When he wants to, he’ll speak again.”
Jeanette stares out the kitchen window to the back yard. Even more of the horrible flittery moth-things are in evidence, settling on the shrubs like hoar-frost, or fluttering in ever-changing clouds amongst the tree branches. She hates them. Some damn scientist has been playing god again—or, saints preserve us, some terrorist group.
None of the TV talking-heads seem to think the moth mutations are a threat. At least, not yet. The mutation hasn’t been seen in neighboring species, and its detrimental effects seem to be limited to some minor behavioral changes. Infected moths exhibit an odd gregariousness; an unnatural tendency to swarm in a way never observed before. And of course, there’s the extreme albino trait, that pristine snowy-whiteness.
Nothing to worry about, mutters the TV in the corner. Everything necessary is being done.
It’s just that there are so many of them, Jeanette thinks. More every day. And if some kind of viral infection is behind it all, no one can say where it might have come from.
Right now, two or three are batting ineffectually against the window pane. She looks past their milky, pearlescent bodies to where Chester stands in the yard. With a jolt of panic, she sees he’s as still as a statue, a cloud of white moths surrounding him like a halo. Ugh. Arms outstretched, he’s trying to get them to alight on him. But they dance and flutter just out of range.
She raps on the glass, gesturing him to come inside. It’s not as if she doesn’t have enough things to worry about.
Chester hears. He glances back towards the house, then he turns his back on her.
Oh, that boy! Now she’ll have to go out there and fetch him again.
On the phone, Dr Pattaya is droning on in the same professional monotone, the one carefully cultured to impart either good or bad news with equanimity. But something he’s just said—
“Wait,” she says. “Tell me that part again. I’m interested in any new treatments you’ve got, no matter how experimental.”
It turns into a much longer phone call and Jeanette bites her lip with indecision as she listens, all the time watching Chester through the window.
The TV whispers to itself in the corner. Jeanette catches enough to get the drift while she cooks dinner. Never anything new to report, of course, only endlessly recycled speculation.
“—virus mutation unlike anything seen before, but impossible to say where—”
“—DNA-like structures, but also a previously unknown nucleobase which has been dubbed—”
“—emergence of a completely new type of virus. But why? We just don’t know.”
Everything circles back to that one question that no one has an answer to.
Mom talks and talks, trying to make him understand.
He understands perfectly. But he can’t let her know, not even with a shake or a nod of the head, because that would be like saying yes or no—and then the experiment would be ruined. Two hundred sixty seven days of silence. He’s come too far to abandon it now, not until there’s something worth saying.
“I promise it won’t hurt, Chester. The electrodes that go inside your head are tiny. They’re going to tickle your brain. See if they can wake up some parts that are sleeping right now. I know that sounds scary, but Dr Pattaya has promised it won’t hurt. And when it’s all over, you’ll feel so much better! You’ll feel…”
She stops before she can tell him how it will make him feel. Normal? Is that what she means? It’s a word she’s often used when talking with Dr Pattaya.
Does he want to feel normal? Not if it means he can’t do his experiments any more. Not if it means he has to stop being himself.
“So the day after tomorrow, we’re going to see Dr Pattaya in the hospital. Just for a few days. He’ll take good care of you and I’ll be with you the whole time. Is that okay with you, Chester?”
No. It isn’t okay.
This is the closest he’s come to abandoning the experiment. It’s a real struggle. He wants to shake his head or scream out, “No!”
But he’s put so much into this. He can’t ruin the experiment now. Besides, Mom never used to listen to him before. Why would it be any different now?
His mother bats away a moth that lands on his bedside lamp-shade. “Ugh! Horrible things!”
She’d be horrified if she knew that earlier, he opened his window wide, hoping a few of the transformed lymantria dispar would be drawn by the warm bedroom light. They fascinate him. Through a magnifying glass, their bullet-shaped bodies remain curiously fuzzy, like someone’s rough pencil sketch. They always seem to be in motion; their wings beating in a blur even when settled. There’s much more he must find out about them…
Mom knocks the moth to the floor and steps on it. Its body crunches and becomes a smear of whitish powder on the rug.
“Horrible things,” she repeats.
Chester looks at her, his expression unreadable.
But he says nothing.
Later that night Chester hears the drones flying. Mom has closed all the windows, blocked up the fireplace—house sealed tight in the way the authorities have instructed. But she can’t stop him watching from the window as the fine mist of chemicals falls like gentle rain. Again and again, the drones fly complicated patterns above the city, breaking off now and then to refill at distant tanker stations before flying to the next sector.
By morning, their yard is white with moth carcasses, like a weird kind of snowfall. It’s impossible to step outside without treading on them. All dead; millions upon millions of them. Their bodies crunch underfoot and turn to a fine dust.
“Tomorrow,” Mom tells him, “is a really important day. A day you’ll look back on and be glad of.”
A lie. But he’s getting better at recognizing them.
He wonders if he should run away, just for a while. It wouldn’t be hard to stuff some food and clothes into a backpack and sneak out of the house. Where would he go, though? It’s such a scary thing to think about. And the idea of going outside revolts him. It means trampling on a carpet of dead moths and he couldn’t bear that.
So he stays in his room, door shut, refusing to come out all day. Mom doesn’t get angry. She brings his meals on a tray, smiling in that fake way of hers he’s come to associate with her feeling guilty.
He doesn’t want to go to the hospital. He remembers Dr Pattaya: an overweight man with an unwavering gaze, smelling of stale sweat. He gave every appearance of listening intently to what Chester said—back before Chester began his experiment in silence—but moments later it was all dismissed as an irrelevance.
Nobody listens. Nobody ever sees things as they really are.
And now everything’s turning out wrong.
Swarms of lymantria have been wiped out in their millions. The frankenstem experiment has failed. Through the window, he can see the willow drooping and forlorn in the corner of the yard. It was a stupid idea. You can’t build something new just by bolting bits and pieces together. You have to strip things down to their basic components and build afresh.
Should he abandon his other experiments, too?
He listens, making sure Mom isn’t hovering outside his room like she sometimes does. Carefully, he opens the wardrobe door, removing a small off-cut of willow. A tiny white moth clings to it, wings trembling. It may be the very last of the altered lymantria. He offers it a morsel of food from his plate, but the creature seems frozen and moribund, as though mourning the loss of its siblings. By suppertime, its wings no longer beat. Gently, Chester strokes its tiny, delicate back. At his touch, the moth crumples into dust.
He feels something then. There are things he dimly recognizes as descriptions of sorrow, hurt, and anger, all churning inside him like the drum of the kitchen washer. Even so, the emotions are cold and clinical, serving no purpose that he can see. He had expected more.
Only his curiosity is undiminished.
He stares at the remains of the lymantria. On a whim, and remembering his ill-fated garden taste experiment, he licks a finger, dips it into the gray residue and puts it to his tongue. Does anyone know what space-moths taste of?
He senses a grittiness between his teeth as though something has been ground down into its constituent parts. But as for taste, all he can savor is the saltiness of his own skin.
There is a hard rain that night. Not the quiet mist of drone-sprayed insecticide, but a driving downpour pounding against the shingles and running in rivulets to the gutters. It washes away the white-dust remains of the moths, scouring the roads and sidewalks of their crushed bodies. Almost as if they had never existed.
Chester is not sleeping. Strange, flickery thoughts slide through his mind, like watching some bad stop-motion film; all jerky and indistinct.
He’s running a fever. Feeling sick. He stumbles out of bed to let some cool night air into the room. The rain has stopped but the air is laden with its moisture, and there’s a tang of something else, too.
Before long, a dark shape flutters through the open window, alighting on the bed. Soon, two more join it. Their wingbeats are just a blur. If he blinks rapidly, he can see flickering patterns of iridescence in their wings, like the spokes of a wheel in some old western that seem to turn the wrong way.
More moths are arriving, streaming into the room. They aren’t the altered lymantria. These are crudely-shaped creatures; gray-black blobs with small, fast-beating wings, like some child’s model built out of left-over parts of other insects. Frankenmoths? They swarm and pulse in odd shapes at the end of the bed, as more crowd in through the open window to join the swarm.
Their wings make tiny, meaningless patterns. He blinks, trying to make sense of it, but the patterns dance and change too fast.
Thoughts that are not his own run free in his mind—
“Yes,” he says, and the voice he hears is barely more than a croak. His own voice; a strange and unfamiliar sound. It’s been such a long time. Two hundred sixty eight days precisely. But now there’s something important that needs saying.
Jeanette calls up the stairs. “Get in the car please, Chester. It’s time.”
She knows he won’t, that she’ll have to go up to his room and maybe drag him out. He spends far too much time up there now, staring into space as if listening to things that only he can hear. If this treatment doesn’t work, what on earth is she going to do?
Jeanette does a last scan round the kitchen. Purse, car keys, overnight bag for Chester. She can’t put the moment off any longer. “Chester!” she yells one final time. When she turns to climb the stairs, she nearly jumps out of her skin because Chester is on the bottom step. He’s standing very still. His face is composed but she gets a sense of something pent up inside, something about to break free.
“Come and see,” he says.
Her brain takes a few moments to register what’s just happened.
He spoke to you.
Chester disappears back upstairs.
She follows him into the bedroom, her hands flying to her mouth, stifling a scream. Moths are still streaming in through the open window, like ghostly wisps of dark smoke twisting and turning in a non-existent breeze. They spool themselves onto the mass of bodies circulating above the bed, becoming a dense cluster of black, vibrating blobs packing together so tightly the sound of tiny wings brushing against each other becomes a roar of static, like a receiver not yet tuned to a station.
There’s a snowstorm of beating wings against the glass. They rise up out of the storm-drains. They crawl from puddles, clamber glistening and new-born from streams and rivers. Transformation is swift. Instructions which have lain dormant in the alien virus for millennia are re-activated. New forms arise from the organic building blocks of the decomposing lymantria.
There’s so much that needs saying now. Chester can feel the subtle changes taking place deep inside. He’s ready. The virus has found its target host at last, like a lock that fits its key. An image floats into his mind: strands of DNA-like material unwinding like threads being pulled from an old sweater—or the cotton threads binding those crude grafts on his frankenstem. Now the DNA reforms in a new arrangement, patiently replicating its message carried from a distant world across eons of time.
“It’s calibrating,” he tells her. “The message is decoding.” He takes a step towards the tight ball of insect bodies.
She seizes his shoulders. “You’re scaring me. What message? Who’s sent it?”
Chester stretches out a hand and one of the dusky black bodies settles on a fingertip. Its tiny wings are so delicate they shimmer with iridescence, flitting through rainbow colors like a visual test pattern. When he offers it to her for inspection, she shrinks back. “I don’t understand.”
The ball is coalescing, holding position in the air above Chester’s bed, a dense mass of fluttering bodies.
“They must have waited a long time to talk to us, Mom.”
“Who’s they, Chester?”
He shrugs. “Let’s find out.”
The wings begin to beat in time, a throbbing sphere built from the roiling mass of insect bodies. Subtle changes in wingbeat frequency sweep ripples of multi-colored moiré patterns across the surface. They slow and settle into pulsing waves. Each beating wing becomes a single pixel in a vast, three-dimensional array.
Chester laughs and claps his hands.
Moving images begin to form.
The message begins.
About the story
I work from home a lot and one day I looked up from my computer to see a pretty little moth on the outside of the window. I watched it for a while, assuming it would soon fly away, but it didn’t. It walked across the glass to the corner of the window nearest my desk and stayed there for half an hour or more. What fascinated me was the way its wings kept beating the whole time. It wasn’t caught in a web and stayed in contact with the glass the whole time, so as far as I could see there was no reason for its wings to keep beating. The longer I watched, the more I felt as if the moth knew I was there and was trying to communicate with me, fluttering its tiny wings in ever-changing rhythms.
It seemed an idea too good to pass up, and I started scribbling story notes right away. Before I could finish, the moth must have decided its work was done, the message sent, and it fluttered off. But we had shared our special moment, and that was enough.
A question for the author
Q: What book or books inspired you as a child?
A: At some point in my childhood reading, I came across the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. I loved those novels about time travellers and robot detectives and far-future galactic empires. Then in the local library one day, I came across an anthology of science fiction stories, each of which had a little personal introduction by Asimov and suddenly it was as if he was not only telling me wonderful stories but speaking directly to me. I’d never met any writers at that point. There were no websites or internet. But here was Isaac Asimov reaching out to his readers and chatting with them about anything and everything as though we were firm friends. More than anything, that proximity to someone that I admired so much convinced me that one day I wanted to be a science fiction writer too.
Later I discovered Asimov’s books of science essays gathered from his monthly column in “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazine. They, too, began with some personal note or chatty introduction. His writing style made every difficult concept seem accessible. Suddenly I was convinced I wanted to study science and be a science fiction writer, something I still aspire to today.
About the author
David Cleden is a British author. He hasn’t led a colourful life, doesn’t live in an exotic location and possesses little in the way of interesting hobbies, so he tries to make up for all this by writing speculative fiction.