Emptying Passages

by David Golding

On a planet of liquid and sand, a parasite evolved. It wriggled and sank down to the murk, into the tunnels burrowed by worms. The worker worms ribboned out from below and shimmered through the fluid expanse, tittering with anticipation, writhing towards the shattered melodies that indicated the way to food. In their gaping membranes, they collected blooms of algae and brought them back to the colony. Guarded by soldier worms, vast chambers were packed with the dark slime that gave them life.

The queen worm kept cool by nestling into the algal gobs. Her massive torso undulated in rhythm, heaving song after song through the tangle of tunnels. Her messages vibrated down routes and curves to other routes, to where the workers received them and bore their shapes into the sand. The workers hummed their progress back to the queen. She synthesized the harmonies as a single formation in her mind, a circuitous order expanding, expanding.

When the workers were hungry they screamed. The sheer distress ricocheted off the walls and into the food stores. The soldiers tore chunks of algae with the blades of their mandibles and shot through the tunnels to the source of the cry.

The parasite infiltrated the body of the worker through its vestibular canal. Then began a gradual progression whose first symptom was a change in voice. The tenor of their communications became hollow and festered with incomprehensible bubbles and blips. The others could not understand the way those tainted frequencies made their sensory rays tinge cold, so they swirled through the tunnels to investigate. The sickness spread quickly until the worms learned to avoid the infected. Some were shunned only because their emissions sounded weak enough that their bodies might have possibly been compromised. These abandoned ones went to the infected for companionship. Between them, they shredded apart masses of algae, sharing sustenance, sharing fates.

As the parasitism progressed, it sapped the strength of its victims. If they called for help, their screams stretched into thin rasps that alerted the soldiers, who would immediately swarm in and pinch the diseased body at its midline, chitin piercing cuticle, tissue oozing out, jaw squeezing until thrashings became spasms and became still. But most likely, the infected would just keep quiet and die in isolation. Their antennae coiled in dread and unfurled to probe for anyone or anything, tendrils wisping over the grooves in the walls. They just let their body float against the sides of some remote tunnel, open maw, flesh loosening into particulates, dissolving into the sand.

With fewer workers to feed, the queen grew. The cavities within her amplified her song beyond the reaches of her empire. The reverberations slid and sifted the sand. Nothing was left for her to hear, nothing was left for her to eat. She listened, trying to remember the hundreds of tones once harmonized by her workers. The shape of her creation was now shrouded in silence. She pressed against the confines of her chamber, starving in the ruin of a parasite that could not infect her.

David navigates the tubes of survival that sprawl throughout Colombo, Sri Lanka. His work has previously appeared here in The Molotov Cocktail, Mithila Review, Jersey Devil Press, and his website, www.dsgolding.com.
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