William Squirrell is a Canadian writer living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared under the name of William Squirrell in Monkeybicycle, Drabblecast, Blue Monday Review, and other venues. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.com and on Twitter
Zero-G adaptive rats proliferated in the mining communities of the Transneptune: long-limbed rodents scrabbled across the ceilings, walls, and floors of deserted warehouses, support decks, and processing complexes in search of human refuse; they burrowed into bales of bedding and clothes; gnawed their way into grain silos; startled custodians and drunks with their yellow smiles and knuckled paws. For decades, even centuries, perhaps longer, they launched themselves down shadowy hallways and across open, industrial spaces; small, sleek torpedoes with twitching whiskers and long naked tails, spiraling like well thrown footballs. Reports of titanic hives built into sewage and air conditioning systems occurred—like the rumors of conspiratorial political covens, vaccination plots, and secret death cults—with predictable regularity. In the public mind the rotating cities and asteroid villages of the outer reaches were infested with secret, cancerous labyrinths constructed from masticated pulp that dried smooth and rock hard; everyone out there knew someone who knew someone who had thrown a light-switch in a deserted launching tube to illuminate a palpitating mass of sleeping rats floating in midair—a mass the size of a sofa, a bulldozer, of a shuttle. Babies were stolen and eaten, the infirm elderly consumed in their dotage, sleepers woken to infected bites. A billion eyes glittered back at us from the subterranean darkness of both the objective world and the Spiritus Mundi. There was horror, of course, there always had been, how could there not? But there was never really fear, not rational fear, not reasoned, until the incident on the Inter Alia.
The scene in the movie when Jennifer Lawrence opens the door to Edward Norton is rightly famous. Lawrence’s face is animated with pleasure at the sight of her husband and then she realizes something is terribly wrong and the joy drains out of her features. It is a masterful piece of acting, perhaps the best of her career: in the furrowed brow, the slack cheeks, the hint of a tremble in the lower lip, we see the helplessness of revelation; her face is a curtain tearing. That we can see Michael Fassbender over her shoulder, grinning his toothy grin at the couple, oblivious and cheerful as Lawrence had been a second before, intensifies the viewer’s sense of her total isolation. What follows, though more celebrated, is just the echo of the existential catastrophe performed by Lawrence. There is a cut to a wider shot: Norton stumbles into the room—a strange, shuffling stagger; Lawrence steps back; Fassbender forward.
“Ivan?” Lawrence’s voice breaks on the second syllable.
Then the shot of Norton: the grey skin of his face and arms rippling, his knees and elbows rubbery, bending this way and that, his eyes dead. He opens his mouth as if to speak, wider and wider, his throat bulges and a rat emerges from between his distended lips; fur slick, clawed fingers scrabbling at the actor’s face, it crawls down his chest and another pops out, and another, and then, only after the third rat has appeared, Lawrence screams: a bright, white hot, trembling aria. High drama indeed, as more rats boil out of their grotesque mask in a rush. We hear the a-tonal violence of bows striking strings and the threatening rumble of timpani, a refrain that will haunt the remainder of the movie, the skin coils to the floor in a heap, and the seventy-minute battle between the villainous rodents and our two remaining heroes begins in earnest.
All utter rubbish of course, especially if, as I have, you have seen the video reconstructed from the Inter Alia broadcasts.
Ivan P. woke up and every square inch of his sleeping cubicle was alive with flickering video images of his lover, Irena Z., copulating with another man. Each sequence had a time signature embedded in its frame and each recorded act was occurring in a recognizable location in the Inter Alia: the galley, Irena Z.’s cubicle, the bridge, the shower, the hydroponic chamber. Ivan P. blinked at the images for quite a while. We know this because the crew was closely monitored and the data beamed back to Eris in real time. We also know his pulse rate spiked, his blood pressure went through the roof, and his circulatory system was flooded with adrenalin. He will have experienced this panic reaction as dizziness, lightheadedness, the roar of the ocean in his ears, and nausea. But in the archived images he looks quite calm. Irena Z.’s forty-five-day affair with the crewman Andrew B. had been common knowledge at Eris control, but she had managed it with discretion so they had not interfered. People live their lives.
It was a seed ship, loaded with frozen passengers, riding the solar wind to the edge of the system with a skeleton crew, and then, with the AI fully engaged and the fusion engines ignited, set to embark for its final destination. The human pilots were to return home to ferry another ship out. So many of such ships had been launched without complication the Inter Alia incident caught everyone by surprise and resulted in something like hysteria. The lurid interpersonal drama would have attracted a great deal of attention no matter what, but the question of who woke Ivan P. up and why they did it as they did generated near universal speculation, and the resolution of that mystery by forensic investigators triggered a psychological, even an ontological revolution for humanity at large, both among those of us who accepted the facts of the case, and those who rejected them as fabrications of the technocratic state.
This is what we know from the raw data: Ivan P. woke up to that pornographic phantasmagoria; he lay there for five minutes staring at the images; he got up, made his way to the workshop where he collected a length of steel piping, and went to the galley where he found Andrew B. and beat him to death; he found Irena Z. at the bridge and murdered her as well; he sat there for a half hour or so then went to a console and the Inter Alia fell silent.
Subsequent investigations produced some additional undisputed facts. The AI had been hacked by someone onboard the Inter Alia after the ship had passed into the heliosheath. There was additional biomass in the cubicle with Ivan P., something in the order of seven or eight pounds, and a whining chatter pitched so high that he would not have consciously registered it. This biomass and the associated subliminal chatter pursued Ivan P. on his circumambulations but whatever haunted him never revealed itself to the CCTV. The only organism that could have accounted for the biomass was the usual, insignificant population of stow away z rats which, as always, were to have been flushed out of the ship during that transitional period when the crew disassembled the solar sails, started the fusion reactors, and disembarked. After communications were cut the solar sails were discarded, the shuttle dumped and the fusion reactors ignited. The trajectory of the Inter Alia out of the solar system was not towards its initial target but a previously insignificant star of similar distance from earth.
I do not need to tell you what followed the release of this information, I do not need to review the mad speculations, the confused recapitulations and reconsiderations, the revisions and refutations, the whole frantic rewriting of our history and that of our fellow travelers, the disorientation consequent of our realization that we had never been alone, that things had always already been different than we had thought them.
Decades before this incident, centuries really, perhaps longer, significantly longer, when I spent my summers planting trees in endless, scrubby mileages of clear cut, and my winters skiing in the Rockies, a buddy told me about this wildly lucrative job he’d had killing rats for the government of Canada on a rocky little island in a west coast shipping lane. The island was a seabird sanctuary on which the greedy little bastards proliferated, and, if unchecked, they consumed all the eggs in an orgy of thoughtless destruction. So every spring, just before the
birds arrived, the government dumped a crew of slackers, hippies, and vagrants on the island to spend a couple of weeks battering rats to death with shovels. They burned the piles of greasy bodies in a stinking holocaust. They smoked pounds of weed, wolfed down pounds of mushrooms, and drank gallons of liquor as proof against the horror of the work. On the last morning there my buddy woke early and—head spinning, eyes burning, skin crawling—stumbled down to the beach. The ocean was a sheet of blinding light, the sky a washed out and undifferentiated white. Everything stank of burnt hair and charred meat. He waded into the surf, the cool waves surged around his thighs. He closed his eyes and had the following vision:
A massive vehicle orbited a blue planet, lit up by a small white sun.
The vessel was lifeless, filled with thousands of empty berths, the spaces between littered with countless gnawed bones and human skulls, generations of shit on the floor.
He opened his eyes:
Not two feet away a rat was swimming towards the shore; black hair matted, nose just above the surface, frantic pink paws distorted in the translucent wash. There was not a ship in sight.