I found Borne on a sunny gunmetal day when the giant bear Mord came roving near our home. To me, Borne was just salvage at first. I didn’t know what Borne would mean to us. I couldn’t know that he would change everything. Including me.

Borne was not much to look at that first time: dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so.

Come close, I could smell the brine, rising in a wave, and for a moment there was no ruined city around me, no search for food and water, no roving gangs and escaped, altered creatures of unknown origin or intent. No mutilated, burned bodies dangling from broken streetlamps.

Instead, for a dangerous moment, this thing I’d found was from the tidal pools of my youth, before I’d come to the city. I could smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt and feel the wind, knew the chill of the water rippling over my feet. The long hunt for seashells, the gruff sound of my father’s voice, the upward lilt of my mother’s. The honey warmth of the sand engulfing my feet as I looked toward the horizon and the white sails of ships that told of visitors from beyond our island. If I had ever lived on an island. If that had ever been true.

The sun above the carious yellow of one of Mord’s eyes.

 

*

 

To find Borne, I had tracked Mord all morning, from the moment he had woken in the shadow of the Company building far to the south. The de facto ruler of our city had risen into the sky and come close to where I lay hidden, to slake his thirst by opening his great maw and scraping his muzzle across the polluted riverbed to the north. No one but Mord could drink from that river and live; the Company had made him that way. Then he sprang up into the blue again, a murderer light as a dandelion seed. When he found prey, a ways off to the east, under the scowl of rainless clouds, Mord dove from on high and relieved some screaming pieces of meat of their breath. Reduced them to a red mist, a roiling wave of the foulest breath imaginable. Sometimes the blood made him sneeze.

No one, not even Wick, knew why the Company hadn’t seen the day coming when Mord would transform from their watchdog to their doom – why they hadn’t tried to destroy Mord while they still held that power. Now it was too late, for Mord had not only become a behemoth, but, by some magic of engineering extorted from the Company, he had learned to levitate, to fly.

By the time I had reached Mord’s resting place, he shuddered in earthquake-like belches of uneasy sleep, his nearest haunch rising high above me. Even on his side, Mord’s outline rose three stories. Drowsy from sated bloodlust, his thoughtless sprawl had leveled a building, and pieces of soft-brick rubble had mashed out to the sides, repurposed as Mord’s bed in slumber.

Mord had claws and fangs that could eviscerate, extinguish, quick as thought. His eyes, sometimes open even in dream, were vast, fly-encrusted beacons, spies for a mind that some believed worked on cosmic scales. But to me at his flanks, human flea, all he stood for was good scavenging. Mord destroyed and reimagined our broken city for reasons known only to him, yet he also replenished it in his thoughtless way.

When Mord wandered seething from the lair he had hollowed out in the wounded side of the Company building, all kinds of treasures became tangled in that ropy, dirt-bathed fur, foul with carrion and chemicals. He gifted us with packets of anonymous meat, surplus from the Company, and sometimes I would find the corpses of unrecognizable animals, their skulls burst from internal pressure, eyes bright and bulging. If we were lucky, some of these treasures would fall from him in a steady rain during his shambling walks or his glides high above, and then we did not have to clamber onto him. On the best yet worst days, we found the beetles you could put in your ear, like the ones made by my partner Wick. As with life generally, you never knew, and so you followed, head down in genuflection, hoping Mord would provide.

Some of these things may have been placed there purposefully, as Wick always warned me. They could be traps. They could be misdirection. But I knew traps. I set traps myself. Wick’s ‘Be careful’ I ignored as he knew I would when I set out each morning. The risk I took, for my own survival, was to bring back what I found to Wick, so he could go through them like an oracle through entrails. Sometimes I thought Mord brought these things to us out of a broken sense of responsibility to us, his playthings, his torture dolls; other times that the Company had put him up to it.

Many a scavenger, surveying that very flank I now contemplated, had misjudged the depth of Mord’s sleep and found themselves lifted up and, unable to hold on, fallen to their death . . . Mord unaware as he glided like a boulder over his hunting preserve, this city that has not yet earned back its name. For these reasons, I did not risk much more than exploratory missions along Mord’s flank. Seether. Theeber. Mord. His names were many and often miraculous to those who uttered them aloud.

So did Mord truly sleep or had he concocted a ruse in the spiraling toxic waste dump of his mind? Nothing that simple this time. Emboldened by Mord’s snores, which manifested as titanic tremors across the atlas of his body, I crept up farther on his haunch, while down below other scavengers used me as their canary. And there, entangled in the brown, coarse seaweed of Mord’s pelt, I stumbled upon Borne.

Borne lay softly humming to itself, the half-closed aperture at the top like a constantly dilating mouth, the spirals of flesh contracting, then expanding. ‘It’ had not yet become ‘he’.

The closer I approached, the more Borne rose up through Mord’s fur, became more like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as water-worn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.

It didn’t really look like food and it wasn’t a memory beetle, but it wasn’t trash, either, and so I picked it up anyway. I don’t think I could have stopped myself.

Around me, Mord’s body rose and fell with the tremors of his breathing, and I bent at the knees to keep my balance. Snoring and palsying in sleep, acting out a psychotic dreamsong. Those fascinating eyes – so wide and yellow-black, as pitted as meteors or the cracked dome of the observatory to the west – were tight-closed, his massive head extended without care for any danger well to the east.

And there was Borne, defenseless.

The other scavengers, many the friends of an uneasy truce, now advanced up the side of Mord, emboldened, risking the forest of his dirty, his holy fur. I hid my find under my baggy shirt rather than in my satchel so that as they overtook me they could not see it or easily steal it.

Borne beat against my chest like a second heart.

‘Borne.’

Names of people, of places, meant so little, and so we had stopped burdening others by seeking them. The map of the old horizon was like being haunted by a grotesque fairy tale, something that when voiced came out not as words but as sounds in the aftermath of an atrocity. Anonymity amongst all the wreckage of the Earth, this was what I sought. And a good pair of boots for when it got cold. And an old tin of soup half hidden in rubble. These things became blissful; how could we names have power next to that?

Yet still, I named him ‘Borne.’

 

*

There is no other way to say this: Wick, my partner and lover both, was a drug dealer, and the drug he pushed was as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself. The beetles Wick altered, or made from materials he’d stolen from the Company, didn’t just teach when shoved in your ear; they could also rid you of memories and add memories. People who couldn’t face the present shoved them into their ears so they could experience someone else’s happier memories from long ago, from places that didn’t exist anymore.

The drug was the first thing Wick offered me when I met him, and the first thing I refused, sensing a trap even when it seemed like an escape. Within the explosion of mint or lime from putting the beetle in your ear would form marvelous visions of places I hoped did not exist. It would be too cruel, thinking that sanctuary might be real. Such an idea could make you stupid, careless.

Only the stricken look on Wick’s face in response to my revulsion at the idea made me stay, keep talking to him. I wish I had known the source of his discomfort then and not so much later.

I set the sea anemone on a rickety table between our chairs. We were sitting on one of the rotting balconies jutting out from a sheer rock face that had inspired me to name our refuge the Balcony Cliffs. The original name of the place, on the rusted placard in the half-collapsed subterranean lobby, was unreadable.

Behind us lay the warren we lived in and in front of us, way down below, veiled by a protective skein Wick had made to shield us from unwelcome eyes, the writhings of the poisonous river that ringed most of the city. A stew of heavy metals and oil and waste that generated a toxic mist, reminding us us that we would likely die from cancer or worse. Beyond the river lay a wasteland of scrub. Nothing good or wholesome there, yet on rare occasions people still appeared out of that horizon.

I had come out of that horizon.

‘What is this thing?’ I asked Wick, who was taking a good long look at what I’d brought. The thing pulsed, as harmless and functional as a lamp. Yet one of the terrors the Company had visited on the city in the past was to test its biotech on the streets. The city turned into a vast laboratory and now half destroyed, just like the Company.

Wick smiled the thin smile of a thin man, which looked more like a wince. With one arm on the table and left leg crossed over the right, in loose-fitting linen pants he’d found a week before and a white button-down shirt he’d worn so long it was yellowing, Wick looked almost relaxed. But I knew it was a pose, struck as much for the city’s benefit as mine. Slashes in the pants. Holes in the shirt. The details you tried to unsee that told a more accurate story.

‘What isn’t it? That’s the first question,’ he said.

‘Then what isn’t it?’

He shrugged, unwilling to commit. A wall sometimes formed between us when discussing finds, a guardedness I didn’t like.

‘Should I come back at some other time? When you’re feeling more talkative?’ I asked.

I’d grown less patient with him over time, which was unkind as he needed my patience more now. The raw materials for his creations were running out, and he had other pressures. His rivals – in particular, the Magician, who had taken over the entire western reaches of the city – encroached on his thoughts and territory, made demands on him now. His handsome face beneath wispy blond hair, the lantern chin and high cheekbones, had begun to eat themselves the way a candle is eaten by flame.

‘Can it fly?’ he asked, finally.

‘No,’ I said, smiling. ‘It has no wings.’ Although we both knew that was no guarantee.

‘Does it bite?’

‘It hasn’t bitten me,’ I said. ‘Why, should I bite it?’

‘Should we eat it?’

Of course he didn’t mean it. Wick was always cautious to a fault, even when reckless. But he was opening up after all; I could never predict it. Maybe that was the point.

‘No, we shouldn’t,’ I said.

‘We could play catch with it.’

‘You mean, help it fly?’

‘If we’re not going to eat it.’

‘It’s not really a ball anymore.’

Which was the truth. For a time, the creature I called Borne had retreated into itself but had now, with a strangely endearing tentative grace, become vase-shaped again. The thing just lay there on the table, pulsing and strobing in a way I found comforting. The strobing made it look bigger, or perhaps it had already started growing.

Wick’s hazel-green eyes had grown larger, more empathic in that shrunken face as he pondered the puzzle of what I had brought to him. Those eyes saw everything, except, perhaps, how I saw him.

‘I know what it isn’t,’ Wick said, serious again. ‘It isn’t Mord-made. I doubt Mord knew he carried it. But it isn’t necessarily from the Company, either.’

Mord could be devious, and Mord’s relationship with the Company was in flux. Sometimes we wondered if a civil war raged in the remnants of the Company building, between those who supported Mord and those who regretted creating him.

‘Where did Mord pick it up from if not the Company?’

A tremor at Wick’s mouth made the purity of his features more arresting and intense. ‘Whispers come back to me. Of things roaming the city that owe no allegiance to Mord, the Company, or the Magician. I see these things at the fringes, in the desert at night, and I wonder . . .’

Foxes and other small mammals had shadowed me that morning. Was that what Wick meant? Their proliferation was a mystery – was the Company making them, or was the desert encroaching on the city?

I didn’t tell him about the animals, wanted his own testimony, prompted, ‘Things?’

But he ignored my question, changed course: ‘Well, it’s easy enough to learn more.’ Wick passed his hand over Borne. The crimson worms living in his wrist leapt out briefly to analyze it, before retreating into his skin.

‘Surprising. It is from the Company. At least, created inside the Company.’ He’d worked for the Company in its heyday, a decade ago, before being ‘cast out, thrown away,’ as he put it in a rare unguarded moment.

‘But not by the Company?’

‘It has the economy of design usually only achieved by committees of one.’

When Wick danced around a subject, it made me nervous. The world was already too uncertain, and if I looked to Wick for anything besides security, it was for knowledge.

‘Do you think it’s a mistake?’ I asked. ‘An afterthought? Something put out in the trash?’

Wick shook his head, but his tight frown didn’t reassure me. Wick was self-sufficient and self-contained. So was I. Or so we both thought. But now I felt he was withholding some crucial piece of information.

‘Then what?’

‘It could be almost anything. It could be a beacon. It could be a cry for help. It could be a bomb.’ Did Wick really not know?

‘So maybe we should eat it?’

He laughed, shattering the architectural lines of his face. The laughter didn’t bother me. Not then, at least.

‘I wouldn’t. Much worse to eat a bomb than a beacon.’ He leaned forward and I took such pleasure from staring at his face that I thought he had to notice. ‘But we should know its purpose. If you give it to me, I can at least break it down into its parts, cycle it through my beetles. Discover more that way. Make use of it.’

We were, in our way, equals by now. Partners. I sometimes called him my boss because I scavenged for him, but I didn’t have to give him the sea anemone. Nothing in our agreement said I had to. True, he could take it while I slept . . . but this was always the test of our relationship. Were we symbiotic or parasitic?

I looked at the creature lying there on the table, and I felt possessive. The feeling rose out of me unexpected, but true – and not just because I’d risked Mord to find Borne.

‘I think I’ll keep it for a while,’ I said.

Wick gave me a long look, shrugged, and said, too casually, ‘Suit yourself.’ The creature might be unusual, but we’d seen similar things before; perhaps he believed there was little harm.

Then he took a golden beetle from his pocket, put it in his ear, and his eyes no longer saw me. He always did that after something reminded him of the Company in the wrong way, unleashing a kind of self-despising rage and melancholy. I had told him confessing whatever had happened there might bring him peace, but he always ignored me. He told me he was shielding me. I did not believe him. Not really.

Perhaps he was trying to forget the details of some personal failure he could not forgive, something he’d brought on himself or actions he’d taken toward the end. Yet the job he’d chosen – or been forced into – after leaving could only remind him of the Company hour by hour, day by day. It was hard to guess because I didn’t know much about biotech, and I felt the answers I wanted from him might be technical, that maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand the details.

If I’d had his full attention, if Wick had argued with me over Borne, the future might have been different. If he’d insisted on taking Borne from me. But he didn’t. Couldn’t.

The above is an excerpt from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne, published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Photograph © Toshiyuki Tajima

Sick of Steel
The Unmailed Letter