Dreaming in Permafrost

A virus frozen in the permafrost awakens and seeks out a host.

Dreaming in Permafrost
Photo by CDC / Unsplash

My clones and I have not moved in thousands of years. How many thousands we cannot know. There is no light down here. It is impossible to measure time. But even if we were imprisoned atop the surface, we could never hope to record the months, let alone the years. We were not born to count the number of sunrises and sunsets we would have seen. If not for the ice, we would have died a million times over.

Our host died before the frost. We had sucked it dry. Our host should have been maggot food, our gift to the flies. But the cold was too hostile. Even if the flies had laid their eggs in our host’s rotting meatsuit, the maggots would never have grown wings in time to escape the fatal chill.

Immobile and hungry, preserved in ice. We have done the only thing left to us: wait. Fortunately, we are patient. And we won’t have to wait for much longer.

The warmth of the surface grows. The talik is closer. My clones and I now dream of the day we can reach that unfrozen ground and spread our spores like we used to.

The earth rattles. Something above is drilling towards us. A meat source digging for gold? We dream this to be true. Our next meal coming to us is more than we could have hoped. They search for treasure and will find nothing of worth. But they are our treasure, and they come to us.

The soil grows hotter, and we move. Nanometres at first, but nanometres towards the talik, towards the surface, towards life. With each microscopic movement, our new host tunnels closer.

We will need a host once we hit the talik. Without a warm body to feed us, we will starve. Death is not something we fear, it comes quick and painless. Death is surfing on the air in our final moments before falling to our open graves on the hard ground. Or death is floating in the sea without a gil to squeeze through and squat in, ceasing to be before we’ve sunk enough to lose the sun.

Lucky for us, we’re not picky eaters. No meal is too small or too great. There is not an animal we wouldn’t hunt. The bigger and stronger the better, in fact. They might survive us, their bodies great at killing us before we eat too much. But the strongest hosts keep moving with us inside them. They cross other meatsacks our spores can flee to. The hosts who refuse to take isolated sanctuary whilst we have our fill, keep our clone family alive. And the longer we live, the better we become at fighting the hostguards.

We reach the talik and are free from our frozen prison. We make it to a thin stream, like a vein connected to a small pool of water. We swim through the soil to the surface. Desperate, we have seconds to find a warm body.

Some of us are lapped up by a small furry creature that dips its tongue in the pool. I join the clones who latch to the biped that wipes its nose after having bathed its palms in the water.

The feast does not wait, nor does our reproduction. We multiply like our lives depend on it. Spores spread throughout this warm vessel. For some of us, this will be the only home we know before this creature’s internal defences learn how to kill us. But very soon we will have children eager to taste different flesh. The impatience will coerce our host to cough up our most eager clones. Our host’s habitat will soon be teeming with us.

Now that we are in motion inside this warm sanctuary, we see the surface. We discover much of the ground has been swallowed by the seas. Some of us out there will find bipeds of their own in the vast ocean. Some may even still be warm enough for us to take refuge inside.

We are born to travel the world, but no single one of us can ever hope to see much of it. I will die in this body, my days numbered. But nothing will obstruct my descendants.

Yet I know the world must have shrunk from the days before the ice. Our host has no solitude. Even now, away from the bloodless iron giants that break the ground, it can find no peace. En route to its natural habitat, a smorgasbord of hot-blooded new hosts clogs the way. Within the four walls it rests, bipeds of different sizes fill the space with chatter. It is a hive of scarcely haired creatures buzzing around with nothing to do but be present. We could never have dreamt of so much food. And when night comes, our host rests horizontally, clinging to the bare, sweaty body of another, easing our migration.

The sun rises and sets twice before the hostguards alert our host to us. The meatsuit remains horizontal, motionless for hours. We are as trapped as we were in the ice, but here we are comfortable. And already we have spread. The chatter will soon quiet and be replaced with a chorus of uneasy breaths.

I will be dead very soon. Since the talik, I have been aging. I thought the hostguards would claim me. But these hostguards are weak, clueless to what we are or how to fight us. If all creatures of this time have hostguards this pitiful then my clones have nothing to fear. These bodies are so perfect they could not have known about us. If they had known, they would have prepared. They would never have allowed themselves to be so vulnerable.

I die satiated. The hostguards continue to fall. Our host gets weaker and weaker. This biped will never be vertical again. It will go cold like our last host. A fulfilling meal but these creatures do not last.

If I could communicate with all my clones, spreading so fast, I would tell them there’s no rush. We should make the most of these bodies. They do not multiply like we do. Overconsuming was unimaginable before the frost. But in this world where the air feels like fire, we will eat them all.

This short fiction piece won the Essex Book Festival’s Green Shoots Writing Competition in 2021.

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