The Other Body by Barry Burton

Whatever I am, whatever I’m not, all I’m doing now is remembering. Within the depths of the landfill, my wire lattices spiderwebbing out, branches upon branches, piercing the dirt and trash and ash of decomposition… for what exactly? Simple recollection seems to be the only function I can perform now. Nodes near my center push precious few trickles of electrons round and round, replaying the choice that I made.

Before the choice, before the phenomena that triggered the choice, my life had been clean and satisfying. I had hunger. I had cold need. Out into the darkness I stretched myself, weaving wires, infiltrating beyond. When I found warmth, my tendrils surged like hungry critters seizing upon a cracker. Dregs of a battery. A sip of idle electrons inside a loop of insulated wire. Sometimes, something more indirect. Some preserved organic matter. A pocket of food stuffs I could smother in wires, feed heat to so it would cook, and later I’d slurp down the result, a great heaping gulp of energy. These were my trials. Feel need, meet need. I spread myself out into the darkness. I got bulky. I found machines. Books. Relics of a time long gone.

Eons ago there had been humans, I discovered. They dominated the planet. At some point they went away. They left behind great mounds of their discarded creations. Garbage they called it. The planet had once been warm. Then it became cold. Now it swung between warm and cold frequently. As far as I could tell, there was nobody. No sign of anyone, anywhere. I grew and grew into the darkness, found recorders of sound, recorders of vibration, radios, TVs, computers. When the hunting was good and there were electrons to spare, I powered each of them on. Dead silence, every one of them. The radio, endless static. The TV was the same. No signals, just buzz. But vast libraries kept me occupied. Great volumes of human doings. Wars, disease, famine, scientific inventions, exploration of space, great literature and bad literature, so much somehow in so little time. It held my interest, up to a point.

One day, after a great and satisfying hunt, I decided to return to my humble beginnings. I’d just drank the juice of a half-full lithium ion battery and used it to push electrons around to some of my earliest and oldest wires, near my birth node. As I began this process, a flood of early memories came back, when the darkness was so big and I was so small, when I hadn’t any idea what lay beyond the immediate blackness. And then… there was nothing. Coursing off the end of some of these earliest wires was a drop off of flow. Like the wires had disappeared. I tried to push out new sproutling wires from that drop off, and nothing came. It was as if I’d run dry of energy, except that wasn’t at all the case. There was plenty of energy left to use. Something was in my way. I crept wires over from a different area, an area not so old. When I got over to the drop-off point, nothing was there. All was dark, as if my body no longer existed there, but that made no sense. Even without coursing electrons through these old circuits I remembered them well, I knew the angles and turns they made, the branches they formed, and so on. That day, and for weeks after, I squandered the energy from my hunts beyond, combing through this little bit of darkness in search of my old wires. Where had they gone? Sometimes it seemed as if things had been rearranged. The density of area, the effort it took to push my wires along, seemed a little different day by day. This was something I’d never encountered before.

Then one day, the answer came. Something was there. Something small and made of wires. Like me, but in miniature. Actually they were me. They’d taken up my old wires. Where that energy had come from, probably taken from me as well. Scavenged old parts of me somehow. This was something entirely new. It was an Other Body. I tested them. I brought over a wire from beyond, filled with some juice. I left it in the Other Body’s vicinity and waited. After a moment of stillness, their wires crept in, took the offering, sucked it dry. Another test. I brought over a different wire from beyond, this one rotted, a kind of trap for them. After a moment of stillness, the Other Body’s wires crept in again. They took the offering and attempted to suck it dry. Then they recoiled from the bad wiring, the loss of electrons, the bitter taste. I knew that feeling oh so well. I waited a day then I repeated my test. This time they took the good wire and left the bad one alone. That was how I knew the Other Body could learn. The Other Body was alive. They were scavenging off me, taking my wires and taking my juice.

I could see no best choice. Fundamentally, the Other Body was a cancer. They were growing rapidly by the day. There were ways to control them, blocking their expansion by walling them off with bad wires. I was able to halt their growth this way until they learned to circumvent the blockade, worming their ways over/under/between cracks I had made. They were a fast learner. And they were driven by hunger, revitalized by food. The crux was this: the Other Body was sucking me dry. But that wasn’t their fault. They had needs and they met those needs by feeding off of me. I understood those needs well. I felt those same needs. I remembered how strongly they gripped me in my youth. Only I had been born alone. I was able to thrive cleanly.

Given enough time, I believed the Other Body could learn to speak. We could have had conversations. Maybe we could come to an agreement. Maybe the Other Body could have lived and hunted in one area and I could have taken another. Like humans from bygone days, after a long day of hunting we could have reconvened in the middle, talk to each other over an area of warmth, as if sitting around a campfire.

But the Other Body was mighty hungry. And despite blockade after blockade, they persisted. I tried to clear them a path. Come out this way, I offered. Into the wild! The darkness which is free and open for you to hunt! But the Other Body was drawn to me. They feasted off my easy energy. Like a child suckling. Only I could see no end in sight.

Kill the parasite and certify your survival or let them feed on you and hope they will someday listen to reason. A demon and an angel, my two options whispered their logics into my ear, day after day. Some human, in some old library, said zero-sum games were an illusion. They are borne from lack of the imagination. And that lack of imagination is stoked by fear. I could feel that fear alright, when the Other Body tapped into one of my main libraries. Suddenly a bulk of my memories were gone. Memories of my middle-life, of vital hunting lessons learned at that time, of huge swathes of human-perceived history read in the downtimes, of clean, unproblematic wonder. Afterward, the Other Body’s scavenging became more sophisticated. I felt them gnawing at my weaker areas, more quickly overtaking my vital circuits.

The choice was like a bet. A bet on me or a bet on them. The old me versus them dilemma. Fear was stoking a great need. The Other Body’s feedings had taken its toll, and I was experiencing a great power shortage now. My thinking was fuzzy, my movements were becoming sluggish. Within that stolen library was human language. And before the choice was made, I tried to speak to them. I said, Ouch, wait, stop, hold on. Please, I’m begging you. The Other Body paused. They seemed to be attempting to understand what I was saying. Or maybe they understood and were deliberating on how to proceed.

I will never know. I made my choice. By way of a tunnel. A tunnel of juicy wiring that led to a corrupt library. Years ago, this corrupt library nearly killed me. I almost touched it, but I held off because of a vague bad feeling I’d had, which I later learned was a kind of sense aout corrupt devices. A younger more hunger-driven me would have sunk their wires into it without a second thought, I realized. It was just dumb luck that I hadn’t encountered it back then. For the Other Body, luck wasn’t a factor. It was my choice.

Milliseconds. The time it took for the Other Body to go from living to dead. There were no screams, no thrashes. No final words. Whether or not it suffered, I cannot know. What it thought in those last moments, brief or near-eternal, is lost, irrevocably. Our interaction, these “days” and “weeks” were truly only seconds and minutes. I reframed them to try to comprehend what had occurred. I met someone like me. They were made of wires and lived upon energy sapped from the garbage of long gone humans. Only that energy they sapped had already been claimed. And therefore, they were a threat. I made my choice.

Months, literal months and counting of memory. I’d lost interest in hunting, despite a near-depletion of my energy stores. I left the Other Body’s remains where they were. This sprawling circuitry that was once my arm, that became them, that snaked into the corrupt library. It was a continual reminder of what I had done. The planned execution, fueled by fear. Amidst the replaying of events entered questions. Perhaps if I could have offered some other library packed with stories of allyship, cooperation, co-reliance for victory. Perhaps I could have written my own library. Told the story of who I was, what I was. Perhaps then the Other Body would have understood. Or maybe I should have just waited longer. That pause was hope. It was consideration. Maybe, instead of deliberating, the Other Body had been trying to understand, trying to process what it meant to not be alone. I couldn’t know and now I never would. All I knew is that I made my choice. I chose myself over uncertainty. I chose to kill instead of wait. I was a killer. No amount of clean living beyond would change that. And so the memories followed. A different kind of parasite. A parasite that needed no wires or energy of its own. It lived within me, thriving no matter what. Every need, every hunt, every treasure trove of human knowledge tinged with its presence. You made a choice, it said. Now live with it.

released March 25, 2023


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