“Organic Science” is a postapocalyptic tale set on an Earth that has been conquered by a race of reptiles, called “Lizzies” by the remnants of humanity who live as exhibits in zoos. In the original version, the Lizzies were intelligent dinosaurs who had used time travel to escape into the future; in the version that appeared as the January 1999 lead story in the magazine Not One Of Us, they had become aliens. Either way, they don’t waste much.
The stink was particularly bad today. It was the heat; high temperatures stimulated the growth of the bacteria that gave the Lizzies their putrid, rotten-meat odor. In all fairness, he probably didn’t smell so good himself.
Alistair kicked his feet in the lukewarm water of the pond. He took a drink of blackberry wine, then nearly choked on it as a bugship swept in and hovered overhead. The flying machine resembled a gigantic insect, with six spindly legs, multifaceted eyes, and membranous wings that split the sunlight like a prism. The downdraft rattled the heat-shrunken leaves, broke the surface of the pond into ripples, and kicked up stinging dust from the dry earth. Alistair shielded his eyes with his hand.
After a moment the bugship zipped off, the buzz of its wings fading. Alistair shook his head, flinging grit from his hair. The surface of the pond was coated with dust and leaves.
He remembered the first time he had seen a bugship, during the war, when they had made a desperate attempt to understand and replicate Lizzie technology. But their machines were completely organic, and decomposed rapidly when not maintained. Captured Lizzie equipment quickly became useless goo; not that they had ever captured much of it anyway.
Because the Lizzies had won every battle, right from the start.
“What was that noise?” Molly said.
Her voice startled Alistair awake; he had fallen asleep with his feet dangling in the water. He sat up and spotted her at the edge of the clearing. Brian was with her, of course. “Did you see it?” Alistair said.
Brian said: “No. What was it? Humans?”
Even after ten months in the Pit, Brian still believed there was a human resistance movement that would someday rescue them from captivity and topple the Lizzie regime. At first Alistair had thought this indicated a certain strength of character, but now he simply found it pathetic. “Of course not. It was a bugship.”
Brian looked disappointed. “Damn Lizzies. They’ll be sorry someday.” He picked up a rock, flung it into the water, and stared at the ripples as if a submarine might surface and take him on board.
“I don’t know. Probably. You want some wine?”
“For Christ’s sake, Alistair, we just woke up,” Brian said. “It’s too early for liquor.”
“Why? Do you have to go to work?”
Brian picked up another rock and hurled it at the pond near Alistair’s feet. Warm water splashed him. “You could at least pretend to give a shit,” Brian said. Alistair sighed and set the bottle down.
Lewis entered from the east, scratching his hairy chest. “I do believe I’ve got fleas,” he said. “The monkeys came over the wall again. I wish the Lizzies would fix it so they couldn’t get out of their enclosure. What are they looking for, anyway? Better bananas?”
“The ship must’ve scared them,” Alistair said. “I think they come to us for protection.”
“Yeah? They’re not as smart as we thought, then.” Lewis sat down next to Alistair. “How about some wine?”
The old man reached for the bottle, but it had tipped over and drained into the soil. “Oh, hell,” he said. “I’ll have to fetch another.”
It was a short walk to the edge of the grove that surrounded the pond. Out in the open, the sun had thoroughly baked the grass. The pink organic walls, rising thirty feet, focused the day’s heat like gigantic reflectors. Alistair trudged to his cave, an artificial pile of rocks jumbled against the western wall of the Pit. Blackberry brambles grew thickly near the entrance, bulging with pale fruit that would soon be ready for picking. The plants produced constantly, ensuring a steady supply of fruit for wine-making. Since the conquest, the Lizzies had developed a taste for alcohol, and wine brewed by a human commanded a premium in the zoo’s gift shop. It was also good for barter.
In some ways, the Lizzies were remarkably like people.
He retrieved a bottle from his stock near the back of the cave, where it was a little cooler. The heat fell on him like a blanket when he came out again. A few Lizzies were at the edge of the Pit; he lifted the bottle in a salute. “Here’s to Earth’s old masters,” he called, “and her new ones.”
No response. Not that he expected one.
Alistair turned and went back into the trees.
After Alistair left to get the wine, Lewis had come over to the rock where Molly and Brian sat, crouching beside it. “Are you guys ready to make a break tonight?”
“About time,” Brian said.
“Yeah, well, it took me a while to get everything ready. I didn’t want to move too soon and tip them off.”
“What’s your plan?” Molly said.
Lewis indicated the drain at the end of the pond. “Every night, the Lizzies empty the pond and refill it with fresh water. I’ve been working the grate loose. Tonight, when they open the valve to let the water out, we’ll go with it.”
“Through the drain pipe?”
Lewis nodded. “Once the pond’s almost empty, we’ll get in and let the water push us into the storm sewers. They’re designed to handle runoff from major rainstorms, so they should be plenty big enough for us to walk in. We’ll follow them to the river, then make our way north.”
“I’m not sure I like this idea,” Molly said. “We could drown.”
Brian said, “I’d rather die escaping than stay here the rest of my life.”
“What about Alistair?” Molly asked.
“He’s too old, he’d never make it.”
“Yeah. Besides, he’s happy here,” Brian said. “As long as he can keep making wine, he doesn’t care about escaping.”
“We have to at least ask him.”
“Ask me what?”
They all looked up. Alistair stood nearby, holding a wine bottle. Molly had been so intent on their conversation, she hadn’t heard him approach; apparently the others hadn’t either.
“Nothing important,” Lewis said.
Molly said: “We’re planning to escape tonight. Will you come with us?”
The old man was silent for a moment, then went to the edge of the pond, sat down, and set the wine bottle beside him. He lowered his feet into the water and kicked them slowly.
“Alistair?” Molly said.
“The Lizzies own the world,” he said, not looking at them. “Where would you escape to?”
“We’ll go north,” Lewis said. “To the arctic. I hear there are still human cities up there. I hear it’s too cold for the Lizzies.”
“Hear? From who? The monkeys?” Alistair shook his head. “Don’t be foolish. The poles may be too cold for them and their machines, but that doesn’t mean they’d let humans live there. Humans are dangerous.”
“Satisfied, Molly?” Lewis whispered. “We asked him.” He pointed at the bottle of wine that Alistair still clutched. “That’s his way out. This can be ours, if you’re ready.”
She looked at Alistair, then at Brian, then at the trees. The walls of the Pit were just visible beyond. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Decide soon,” Lewis said. “We’re leaving tonight, one way or another. Right, Brian?”
He didn’t answer for a moment.
When he did, it was only with a nod.
The youngsters thought they had it all figured out, Alistair thought. They would sneak out of the Pit and just trot off to the North Pole and live with Santa and his elves for the rest of their lives. Lunacy.
Molly. Good. Another chance to talk her out of trying to escape. “Come in,” he called.
She entered the cave, hunching over to avoid scraping her head on the low roof. “What’re you doing?” she said.
“Getting drunk. I figured I might as well prove everybody right. Care to join me?”
“No thanks.” She settled onto the sandy floor. “You don’t think we should go?”
“There’s no point. You won’t find freedom. All you’ll find, if you’re lucky, is a quick death.” Pause. “I’m not sure that isn’t what your friends are looking for.”
“How many times have they said they’d rather die escaping than live here?” He looked at her carefully. “Is that how you feel?”
“Well, what if Lewis is right? What if there are human cities, and instead of looking for them, I stay here? Stay a captive when I could be free?”
“There aren’t cities.”
“How do you know?”
“I know,” he said. Then: “I can show you.”
She stared at him. “Show me?”
“Yes. But only you,” he added. “Not the others.”
“Okay,” she said after a moment. “Show me.”
Molly followed Alistair to the back of his cave, where the artificial stones ended flush with the smooth organic paste that enclosed the Pit. An opaque glassy panel was set into the wall, like a window rimed with frost. Alistair laid his palm on it and pushed; the stuff gave around his fingers, oozed over them to enclose his hand within. Molly crept over and examined the panel. She could barely see the outline of Alistair’s trapped hand through the glaze. She tapped the panel with her finger: hard and brittle as glass.
“It’s keyed to my hand,” Alistair said.
The crystal began to glow; a seam appeared and grew within the wall of the Pit. Molly stepped back as the split opened, like lips parting in a smile, revealing a large cavity beyond.
“What’s this?” Molly said.
“The control chamber. It’s all right, go in.”
Molly took a cautious step through the aperture. One of the lips brushed her shoulder; it felt cold and flabby, like the dangling arm of a corpse. The chamber was maybe forty feet square. Bare stone showed in a few spots, but the walls mostly consisted of organic cement, with a few odd encrustations that were probably some sort of machinery. Opposite the entrance was a circular pit containing a thick, noxious-looking liquid.
“There’s the brains of our enclosure,” Alistair said, indicating a dollop of pink sludge that depended from the ceiling in the center of the room. “It regulates the water in the pond, dispenses the food we eat, monitors damage to the structures. It also keeps track of our movements.”
“That wad of gunk?”
Alistair nodded. “As soon as you escape, that wad of gunk will know, and sound the alarm.” Alistair walked across the chamber; she followed him to the edge of the cesspool.
“What’s this stuff?” Molly said.
“Watch.” Alistair carefully laid the wine bottle on top of the liquid. The current carried it in slow circles as it sank. A moment later Molly realized it wasn’t sinking, it was dissolving, forming a spreading green tint that soon faded into the pink. “The wad of gunk controls this, too,” Alistair said. “It’s raw material for growing organic technology. It takes what you put in and breaks it down into the building blocks of their science.”
“It’ll dissolve anything?”
“Anything not designed to resist it. The Lizzies don’t waste much.” He turned to face her. “There’s one more thing I want you to see, but for that I need the Lizzies to cooperate.”
He nodded. “One of them should be here soon. They always come when I enter the control chamber, to see if I’m bringing more wine.” He looked past her shoulder. “When they get here, just stay calm. Don’t make any moves until I talk to them.”
“How are you going to talk to them?” Molly said; but Alistair wasn’t paying attention to her. She turned. The wall behind her had opened in a door similar to the one they had used, and a Lizzie was approaching them. She smelled it rather than heard it; for creatures larger than men, they moved with remarkable stealth.
The creature stood half again as tall as Alistair, with loose, scaly, variegated skin. Its dark eyes—small for its head—regarded them coldly. Although naked, it wore a small organic circlet around its wrist; she recognized this device as a weapon, and had a vague recollection of seeing them in use.
Alistair stepped forward and began to gesture, eliciting grunts and clicks from the Lizzie. They went back and forth for a few minutes, during which Molly remained motionless, as instructed. She was too dumbfounded to move anyway.
Alistair could talk to them.
He finally came back and said: “Okay, it’s all set. In exchange for four bottles of blackberry wine, our friend here will take us on a little trip into the city. If you want to go, of course.”
“Into the city?”
Alistair nodded. “We’ll be fine as long as we stay with him. No trying to escape.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
“Good.” Alistair gave the Lizzie a thumbs-up. It grunted, turned, and shuffled out. They followed it up a blank grey corridor that ended in an elevator to the surface. Stepping from the lift, Molly looked around at the world outside of the Pit. She scarcely remembered it; months of captivity seemed to have erased memories of freedom. She went to the edge of the Pit, climbed onto the wall, and looked for the others; Alistair hustled her away before she could spot them.
Their guide escorted them through the zoo, along pink sidewalks that felt warm and smooth under Molly’s feet. Quite a few Lizzies were visiting the zoo; they lounged in the sun, soaking up the hottest hours of the day. They gazed at her and Alistair with incurious eyes, too indolent to be intrigued by a couple of naked monkeys being led by an armed guard.
They eventually reached a broad slab of greyish-pink organic material at the outskirts of the zoo. It was occupied by strange, monstrous creatures that resembled huge flies. Bugships. Their multifaceted eyes, each as big as a man, flicked this way and that, eventually focusing on the three of them as they approached. Molly shrank behind Alistair and whispered, “We don’t have to ride in these, do we?”
“It’s not as bad as all that. You’ll see.”
Their guide took them to the nearest bugship and spoke to it in clicks, grunts, and squeals. Molly guessed he was issuing instructions; apparently she was correct, because after a moment the creature’s side popped open like a bursting boil. The goo that oozed from the wound solidified into a rudimentary but serviceable stairway. The Lizzie ascended the steps; Molly followed, taking care to avoid treading on the thing’s trailing appendages.
The interior of the ship was a dry pink hollow, not the morass of slime and entrails Molly had half-expected. As they entered, seats were forming from the floor. She sat in one; it was smooth and hard, yet it molded itself to her body, forming curved protrusions around her hips to keep her firmly seated.
The hole in the bugship’s side sealed itself up as the wings begin to buzz; a moment later they were airborne. The chair held her steady against the sudden acceleration. The flight was smooth and quiet; only the faint hum of the wings indicated they weren’t on the ground.
Alistair said: “Do you want to see out?”
“Just touch the wall.”
She reached out and tentatively laid her hand on the curving surface. It rippled under her palm; she drew her hand back sharply, then watched as the wall flowed away from the spot where she’d touched it, leaving behind a thin film that was clear as glass.
Through it, for the first time since waking up in the Pit, she saw the city. Organic pillars jabbed at the sky like livid fingers, pinks streaked with greys and browns, their lower reaches lost in a dirty, frothy haze. A thinner mist shrouded the tops of the skyscrapers. The two layers of fog, pallid and white, gave the city the look of a grim, half-rotted confection.
The ship dropped sharply and banked to the left, leaving her stomach behind. They settled onto the broad, flat roof of a large building. The seat released her from its grip, while the side of the ship gushed into a stairway. The membranous wings fluttered to a halt as they disembarked.
Outside, Molly nearly gagged on the stench; the ship had landed near a large rooftop vent that gushed hot, chokingly Lizzie-scented air. She moved to the edge of the building, where the stench was somewhat lessened. The high, thin mist lapped at her feet. Through it she could see the skyline. In a few spots on a few buildings, the original steel and concrete showed through. The Lizzies hadn’t torn the human city down; they had used it as the framework of their own.
Like Alistair had said, they didn’t waste much.
She turned away from the cityscape. Their escort had opened a hatch into the building and stood partway down the steps below. Alistair waited nearby. “Ready?” he said. She nodded, and followed them down the dimly-lit staircase into the darkness below.
A few hours passed before they returned to the rooftop. A bugship—not the one they had come in—waited nearby. This one dropped a ramp instead of a stairway. They boarded and the ship took off, bound back to the Pit.
Where, Molly knew, she was going to stay.
Back at the zoo, their escort saw them safely into the Pit, collected its four bottles of wine, and departed. While Alistair was settling up with the Lizzie, Molly headed for the pond, thinking she would take a swim and wash away the smell of the Lizzies. But Brian and Lewis were there, sitting together on a large rock. They appeared to be waiting for her.
“Where did you go?” Lewis said.
Molly said: “What?”
“We saw you,” Brian said. “We saw you outside the Pit, looking down at us.”
She hesitated. Brian grabbed her and twisted her arm. She gasped, more in surprise than in pain. “Alistair,” she said. “Alistair took me.”
“Alistair knows a way out?” Brian said.
Brian twisted her arm again, harder this time. It felt like he was trying to pull it off. She cried out and Lewis said, “Take it easy, Brian.”
“I’ll pull her arm off if she won’t tell us the truth,” he said.
“She’ll tell us. Won’t you, Molly?”
“I’ll tell you.” Twist. “I’ll tell you!” Her voice was a shriek; she hated the fear in it. Brian released the tension on her arm a bit. “Alistair told me how after the war, the Lizzies figured people might retreat to the arctic, like you were thinking. Their machines couldn’t operate in the cold, but our machines could. So they used our nuclear weapons to destroy the poles. They didn’t care about the radiation, about melting the icecaps. They just wanted to make sure we couldn’t go there.”
“How would Alistair know all this?” Lewis said.
“He used to work for the government, he helped them work the missiles.” Pause. “I saw footage from when it happened. Satellite pictures. They used our own weapons to destroy the only place we could’ve hidden from them.” She smiled ruefully. “They don’t waste much.”
Lewis said: “Even if they were using our satellites, why would they let you see the pictures?”
“Alistair bribed one with wine.”
He snorted. “That’s ridiculous. They can make their own wine. If they really showed you all this stuff, it was for a better reason than wine.” Pause. “Maybe they just want you to think they showed it to you.”
“They messed with your head, that’s what they did,” Brian said, picking up Lewis’s insinuation. “They brainwashed you full of this crap so you would come back and tell us.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Only one reason,” Lewis said. “Alistair told them we were planning to escape.”
“I’ll kill him,” Brian said.
“Not before he shows us the way out,” Lewis said. He stood. “Let’s go.”
Brian kept a firm grip on Molly’s arm as they went to Alistair’s cave. He was inside, sprawled on his bed of leaves and twigs, drinking, of course. He looked up at them when they entered. “Is it morning already?”
“It’s afternoon,” Brian said.
Lewis said, “We know you can get out of the Pit. We want you to show us how.”
“I can’t do that,” Alistair said.
“You mean you won’t do it,” Brian said.
“Fine. I won’t do it.” Alistair sat up. “You can’t escape that way anyhow. It doesn’t go to the outside.”
“Molly says you worked for the Lizzies,” Brian said.
“I didn’t work for them, they captured me, just like they captured you. The difference is, they don’t need you for anything except an exhibit.” He raised the blackberry wine to his lips. “You ask me, that’s all you’re good for.”
Brian knocked the bottle out of his hand. It landed in the sand, dark liquid burbling out of it like blood. Alistair looked at the bottle, then at Brian; he suddenly appeared frightened. “What do you want from me?” he said. “I told you I won’t let you out.”
“Yes you will!” Brian grabbed Alistair’s wrist and yanked him to his feet, then twisted his arm around behind his back and slammed him face-first into the wall.
“Brian!” Lewis said sharply. “If you kill him he can’t help us!”
“Don’t hurt him,” Molly said.
“He’ll let us out or I’ll break his neck!”
Molly grabbed the fallen wine bottle and swung it at Brian’s head. “Watch out!” Lewis shouted. Brian reacted quickly, dragging Alistair around to intercept the blow. The bottle struck the old man squarely on the elbow.
It smashed right through, snapping his arm in half.
Brian stumbled and fell to the ground, still clutching the old man’s wrist, the forearm dangling limply from his hand. Alistair stared down at Brian for a moment, then turned to Molly, a look of horror on his face. He held up the stump of his arm. Instead of blood and meat and bone, it was made of thick gelatinous jelly, rubbery black things like muscles, and a greyish-pink bone, all encased in a thin layer of skin.
It was the same stuff the Lizzies used to grow their city, their bugships, their biological computers.
“Good God,” Lewis whispered. Alistair examined his injury with wide eyes. He hadn’t known, Molly realized; he hadn’t known what he was.
Suddenly he bolted for the mouth of the cave.
“Get him!” Lewis bawled. “Don’t let him out!”
Brian grabbed Alistair’s ankle. The old man fell hard; sand stuck to the gummy end of his arm, coating it with grit. Brian and Lewis picked him up and hustled him to the back of the cave; he didn’t struggle much, as if his attempt to escape had been only reflexive. Molly trailed along behind them. At the rear of the cave, where the fake stone met the organic wall, Brian plopped Alistair down in the corner and stood over him like an executioner.
“Where is it?” Lewis said.
Molly said: “Where’s what?”
“The door!” he said. “Where’s the door?”
“The back wall,” Molly said. “You need his hand. The one that broke off.”
Lewis exited and returned carrying Alistair’s forearm. Dirty pink goo bulged and quivered from the broken end. It made Molly want to vomit.
“What do I do?” Lewis asked the old man. Alistair stared at him, his lips moving, nothing coming out. After a moment Lewis turned to Molly. “Well?”
“Push his palm into the glass panel.”
As Lewis did that, she held her own hands in front of her face. They didn’t really look any different from Alistair’s; they were a little younger, a little pinker, but fundamentally the same.
“Lewis,” she said.
He maneuvered Alistair’s hand so that the palm was parallel to the wall, then pressed it into the panel. The crystalline substance enveloped the splayed fingers. After a moment it began to glow; the wall split open with a quiet whisking sound.
“Lewis, listen,” Molly said. “How do we know we’re any different from Alistair?”
He glanced at her. “Don’t you think you would know if you were some kind of machine?”
“Why should we? Alistair didn’t.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” the old man said suddenly. “It just feels … missing.”
“Shut up,” Brian said.
“It makes sense, you know.” Alistair was looking at Molly. “The Lizzies don’t build things. They grow things.”
Brian kicked him. “I said be quiet.”
The wall parted to reveal the chamber beyond. Lewis peered cautiously through the opening. Alistair didn’t seem to notice that there was anything going on at all. “So why keep real humans in a zoo? Real humans are dangerous. Grow your own. Implant a phony consciousness, phony memories. The perfect exhibit.” Pause. “I guess they didn’t expect us to develop minds of our own.”
Brian kicked him in the stomach. There was a muffled thump; Alistair doubled over. “Shut up!” Brian shouted. “We’re not like you! We’re real! They caught us, they didn’t make us!”
“Leave him alone!” Molly cried.
Thump, thump, thump.
Molly screamed, “Stop it!”
“He’s not even human!” Brian said, not pausing.
She jumped on him.
Brian was standing on one foot at that moment, poised to kick Alistair again; she overbalanced him easily. Her momentum carried them both into the control chamber. Lewis hissed, “Cut it out!”
“Get off me!” Brian shouted.
She pummeled his face with her fists until Lewis grabbed her and pulled her away, holding her as she struggled. “You’re going to bring the Lizzies running!” he said.
Brian stared at her, his nose leaking fluid. He drew his hand across his face, then looked at it. His eyes widened.
The stuff on his fingers wasn’t blood.
It was the same pink goo that was inside Alistair.
“You see?” Molly said, panting. “We’re all the same, we’re all the same as him.”
“No!” Brian lunged forward, knocked Lewis down, and grabbed Molly. He dragged her toward the hole in the floor. “I’m human!” he shouted. “I’m human!”
“Brian!” Lewis stumbled after them. “Stop!”
She squirmed and wriggled and punched, but Brian didn’t let go. They reached the edge of the cesspool and he hauled her to her feet, preparing to shove her in.
Suddenly she smelled Lizzies.
Light flashed from behind her, casting long, momentary shadows across the floor. Brian erupted in a shower of pink sludge and flinty grey shards. Molly fell, landing in the slick he had left behind. Lewis skidded on the stuff and tripped over her, spinning her around. Her left leg dipped into the swirling liquid.
Lewis went into the cesspool head first.
The current tugged at Molly and she began to slide into the pit; she scrabbled at the floor, but it was thoroughly coated with sludge, too slippery to give any purchase.
Hard Lizzie claws grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back from the brink. They clucked and chattered at her, but she hardly noticed; she was staring at Lewis as, arms and legs spread, he slowly dissolved into the organic soup. She shook herself free of the Lizzies and promptly toppled over; her left leg was missing below the knee. It simply ended, as if it had been erased. As Alistair had said, there was no pain, only a sense that something was missing.
And it wasn’t just her leg.
Alistair and Molly sat under a tree beside the pond. A falling leaf landed on Molly’s left leg. She flicked it off, then gave her knee a squeeze. Felt just like the original. She thought, not for the first time, that there must be bits of Brian and Lewis in there.
The Lizzies didn’t waste much.
A rustling in the underbrush drew her attention; a young woman entered the clearing, followed by a small girl. Alistair stood. “Greetings. I’m Alistair, and this is Molly. What’s your name?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well,” Alistair said, “what’ll we call her, Molly?”
“How about Jessica?” she said. That had been her mother’s name; her mother, who had never existed. Molly wondered what memories this woman carried, what she thought she was. Alistair kept telling her to stop brooding on it, that being human was in the mind, not the biology. He was lucky; his new knowledge had stripped away the guilt over his part in helping the Lizzies take over. If it had never happened, he could hardly be blamed for it. The fact that she was more kin to the bugships than to the monkeys next door held no such relief for Molly.
These days, it wasn’t Alistair who drank too much blackberry liquor.
The old man said, “Jessica. Do you like that?”
“I guess so.”
“And the little one?” Alistair looked at Molly.
“Eve,” she said.
“Eve. I like that. Since this is our evening, so to speak. What do you think, Jessica?”
“It’s settled, then. Welcome, Jessica and Eve.” Alistair held up a bottle. “Now how about some wine?”