Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.
Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.
The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.
As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.
Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.
Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.
She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.
She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.
“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.
“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”
Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.
The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.
The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.
“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.
My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”
Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.
Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.
Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.
“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.
“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”
We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.
“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”
“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”
“That’s a trade secret.”
“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”
“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”
Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”
In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:
“The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.
There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.
The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”
A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.
“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”
He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”
Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.
“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”
By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.
The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.
Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.
One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.
Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.
“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”
I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.
We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.
Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.
“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”
I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.
A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.
Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.
Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.
Dust—spears out and stab.
Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.
We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.
Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.
We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.
“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.
I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.
“Easy, now. Steady.”
We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.
Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.
We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.
“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”
The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.
From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.
“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”
We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.
A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.
Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.
“Would you like a taste?” he asked.
“But aren’t they poisonous?”
“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”
Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.
“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”
Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.
Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.