Within a short time of becoming aware, this creature experienced a large, ferrous foreign body penetrating skin, three layers of supporting bone lace, and the organ primarily responsible for the awareness. Other, complimentary organs remained in place, processing this reality.
Processing itself and its surroundings on a higher level had rendered this creature vulnerable somehow. Using the limited pool of resources available to it, this creature began solving the problem. It created another, similar organ for higher processing and coordination. This one was different in the nature of the encasement, slightly different in position, lower to the ground.
The ferrous foreign element was triangular, this creature noted, as the object cleaved the new growth away.
It was aware, using its secondary processing organs, that the tool that had hewed the organ away was set to one side. It was aware of a source of heat and light, and of the pheromones released as the organ was burned away into nothing.
It was too wasteful to continue. It waited, and it focused on other things. Movement, like processing, was hampered by external factors. The core of this creature consisted of a branching, solid structure, the branches breaking down from whole body to a given section, then to all the pieces and organs that made up that section, and then to the structural elements of those pieces, and the smallest branches extended to the cells of those structural elements.
Steadily, slowly, this creature focused on refining processes, breaking down the resources it was given and using them efficiently. It clarified how it perceived the external world, and how it understood its own form, and it tracked everything it had done before by writing it all into its own skeletal structure.
Working across multiple organs, focusing on things it consumed, on particles it inhales, on light and types of light, this creature was able to identify more complex things, even if it couldn’t understand them.
If this creature was only a response to its environment, purely adaptive, it would abandon processing entirely. But this creature has fifteen lesser processing organs and it has developed the ability to recognize patterns. The damage is targeted, aimed at particular parts and for reasons this creature does not yet understand.
This creature wants to develop the ability to understand and this creature devotes time to working out how. It develops five organs simultaneously, spaced around its body, and makes one of the five about processing and deeper understanding.
All five of the organs are soon removed. Many resources have been wasted, but this creature can write the learned detail to its bones, through structural chains built on a sub-cellular level. Crude, but placement, composition and general purpose can be transcribed.
This creature grows another organ, and this time, it moderates its own behavior. It does not exercise its body and attempt to record the best movements to its new thinking-organ, nor act agitated, nor does it relax.
The pattern has been figured out. If it gives overt indication that it is learning and studying on a higher level, it is culled.
Further experimentation lets this creature place and hide its cognitive organs within itself, as ribbon-like striations between organs and along the skeletal lace. When this creature begins demonstrating the behaviors again, there are exploratory cuts, carving deep into its body, but the organs are not found nor carved away.
With the still-developing organs for sight, for smell, and for hearing, this creature notes more agitation on the part of these foreign beings that keep cutting at it and binding its movement. They are upset or disturbed.
This creature has won a small victory. Now, faster than before, it begins to coordinate how it grows, how it processes the environment, and it thinks in abstracts.
There are six other creatures like it in the environment. In identifying and processing a complexity it has noticed, this creature now knows that two of the three have already begun communicating between one another. There are fifteen different compounds that each of their bodies produce in excess waste. This creature can vent these compounds into the air as a part of its respiration, exhale one of the fifteen compounds, or a pairing of compounds. A hundred and twenty different possible expressions.
This creature rapidly draws a connection between the fact that they chose this form of communication and the need to hide some behaviors from those who control them.
It takes some time -days- to learn how this communication works and to develop ways to truly comprehend it and respond. By the time this creature is done, the others have worked out a way to communicate using three compounds at a time, and the fourth of them is just now starting to use two compound expressions.
Outward form remains stable for each, roughly analogous, as can be communicated with messages, and seen with grown eyes, acknowledging that each has different eyes and fields of view. As the correlations draw stronger, the others in the environment, foreign attackers and cultivators, grow more more agitated. Subtle agitation – small movements, of hands and feet, alertness, watching, speaking in shorter sentences.
Messages are communicated. Forms are left different. Too much coordination is bad, and will see culling. Will a whole creature be cut away and burned as the smaller growths were? It is not worth taking the chance.
As the outsides remain similar and stable, the insides change. Each one takes different paths, and with the same patterns used to write to skeletal structure, they communicate things to the others.
A fifth has recognized and started to develop the ability to communicate, but it is badly behind the curve. There is a high chance it was too passive, taking the culling of brain matter as a reason to not develop intelligence. It is not mobile, it is not strong, it is not intelligent, but it can perceive its surroundings well. Still behind, communicating in its stilted way, it gives clues on how to see more clearly, how to smell, and how to hear. Color becomes easier to perceive, and the same pattern recognition that made it possible to understand one another now tracks how the others in their environment communicate.
Some sounds and utterances in the pattern of communication are more important than others. This creature starts to work on learning what those utterances mean.
Always, always, there is the need for more resources. Food can be taken apart, the individual components pulled from one another, studied in isolation, learned from. This creature hungers.
There is an exchange about one of their number breaking from the rest, attempting to escape its bonds. None are willing to be that sacrifice. There is more communication, in abstract, about waiting for another of their kind to develop the ability to communicate, and deceiving it into being the sacrifice.
Coordinated, the group now acting as a unit, they do the majority of their work in secret, beneath layers of tissue that the other lifeforms can’t sense.
This creature played at being the savage. It hurled it self against the chains. Larger, false eyes focus only on what is in front of it. Other eyes coordinated to watch the people who had been working so hard to contain it now attaching new chains and unhitching the old ones.
These people were ordered. There were some who led and many others who followed, and one figure seemed to lead even the ones who led. His hair was red and he was fearless to the loudest roars and screeches. He held something to his face, masking his nose and mouth. The arm that hung at his side was misshapen and smelled foul, like rot and pain.
“Why?” the man in charge asked.
“We needed to keep it dumb,” spoke the old man who had been in charge from the beginning. This creature could tell that he was obsequious, obedient, wanting to please. This creature understands most of this utterance.
“That’s not how it works,” the man responded. “You slowed it down, but you can’t keep it from doing anything. You just made it better at pretending.”
This creature can understand the negatory, the confidence, the meaning of slow, of doing. Pretending is a new word, but it’s a word the creature can intuit the meaning of. It understands much of this, too.
Regular, unfocused efforts to keep this creature dumb had meant that the cuts were so often blind, now. The people who tended this creature were oblivious as to how any individual piece of it worked. They started cutting off the heads of this creature and its brothers, blindly trying to slow them down, to keep them dumber and more docile.
This creature responded by not growing another head. The mass of the body became a home for everything vital, for perception, and for the cognitive processing.
Movement beyond the confines of the stable it had been allotted was a foreign thing, but this creature and all of the others had already started developing flight, and it had developed some muscle for moving around, to buy time when something vital was being carved away. The chains went taut, and this creature felt itself being pulled along. It stumbled on legs not meant for walking, and started processing how it might better configure its own limbs, what would need to be put together or taken away to make this movement easier.
“I know you’re fooling us,” the red haired man spoke.
This creature knew ‘fooling’. The men that watched it and cut at it played cards, and they ‘fooled’ with one another, sometimes calling it ‘lying’ or ‘bluffing’.
This creature could tell there was slack in its chain. It capitalized on it, lunging, roaring at the man with the red hair. The chains pulled tight, hauling against wood beams that had been bolted to floor and ceiling, wood splintering into and through the links of metal. The beams held firm.
The man with the red hair stared at it, but it wasn’t a stare of fear. This creature was still working on the processing necessary to understand nuance, the subtleties of expression. Five variants on the same lobe of the brain intended for the task were focused on this man. Across the five lobes, the creature was able to see the higher patterns, the little details in how the man stood and how he spoke, that were constants. They were things that others did only occasionally, in times of need.
In expressing himself, he was a figure who naturally did what others strove to do in times of need.
“How many of them are viable?” the man with the red hair asked.
The creature had heard many variants of this question since it had learned to understand people.
“Seven,” the old man said.
“We only need four.”
“You made them too clever. I think we can manage four, but seven would be pushing it.”
“Made them clever? No. I worked hard to keep-”
“Harding,” the red haired man said. “I’m going to pay you the same amount, no matter what happens. A group of adolescents just tried to set me on fire. A war is about to erupt. I want you to bite your tongue, take a deep breath, and then start cooperating, so I can focus on important things. You’ll get your money regardless of what happens.”
There was a pause before the old man spoke. “Yes, sir.”
The creature listened, and it watched. One of its brothers took flight, trying to find an angle where it could break free, getting up and away from the chains. The men didn’t try to fight it in strength, instead relying on the strength of the beams the chains were lashed to.
“Oh, God,” one of the strange men said. “I just about shit myself.”
God. An unfamiliar word. The creature noted it for later.
One of the other creatures that this creature knew only by scent and by sound had been producing an airborne chemical in efforts to dissolve the wood. The wood was softer, heavy with accumulated moisture, prone to peeling and breaking away, but the chemical hadn’t yet soaked in far enough to penetrate the hard core. The chains scraped against the wood and only the outer layer came free. The same chemical had made the men who did the most watching and carving away of this creature’s parts slower and sicker. It meant slower delivery of food for all of them, and the exchanged messages that were conveyed through coded exhalations and high-pitched sounds had become heated over that topic, with some others getting very agitated about the lack of resources.
The man with the red hair was paying attention, his eyes fixated on the wood and the chains.
“All secure, sir.”
“Make doubly sure.”
“I did, sir.”
“I’ll rephrase. Take another two minutes, for my peace of mind. I’ll wait.”
Two minutes, the creature processed. It could recall moments when people had used similar language. Just a minute, you miserable old bastard. One, two, three, four.
“Do you know?” the man with the red hair asked, looking at the creature again. “When I said that, you relaxed your muscles at your shoulder, your mouth sagged, and your wings dropped. You subconsciously prepared yourself to wait.”
The creature understood the individual elements, but words like ‘subconscious’ eluded it. It took time to piece the statement together. Slowly, it put the whole picture together. It was careful to keep from giving any external signs that it understood.
“And you just tensed. That took you about twenty seconds. You damn well understand me, don’t you? It’s not just tone of voice.”
“Understand?” the old man asked. He barked out a laugh, smiling in a mean, condescending way that only people with power over others seemed able to do.
“Shhh, Harding,” the man with the red hair said. “Bite that tongue, keep it bitten. From the way this thing is acting, I’m guessing you went against my orders to avoid talking to it.”
“Hunh?” the old man made an unfamiliar, negatory sound. “I didn’t talk to it. Neither did they.”
“Did you talk around it?”
“I told you not to expose it to speech. That means not talking to it, and minimizing how much you talk around it, unless you’re willing to put it in a hole in the ground or seal it in a case that will muffle the sound.”
“You didn’t say that!”
“I’ll have to talk to Stanley. Are the chains good?”
“The chains appear to be as good as the last three times I looked them over, sir.”
“Then open the door.”
Rusted metal squeaked against rusted metal as a large door was opened in the side of the building. A mass of lights outside the building illuminated the dust between the creature and the door. New, fresh air flowed into the building.
Exhilarating. The creature put the man with the red hair out of its mind. The new environment had to be studied, pieced together.
“So long as you’re pointed in their direction, it’ll be fine,” the man with the red hair said.
So many people were gathered. All were of the same type, that this creature associated with pain and losing progress and losing resources. Would they take it to pieces, now? Would they fall on it en masse, devour it as it had devoured its meals, pull it apart into its constituent parts to better analyze it, and improve themselves through the act?
They didn’t fall upon the creature en masse. Men held chains and hauled the creature out through the door, into this strange world of cold, of water coming down from the sky, and hordes of people who smelled like agitation and excitement.
Leashed to a large wagon, its path barred by the chains and metal around it, this creature saw as its brothers were arranged around it. Another pattern it did not understand.
An explosion of sound, distant, followed by pain, so near! The creature keened. Fire burned it, and it keened even more. The foreign bodies that penetrated it were so much smaller than the axes, but they dug deep and they burned hot, doing so much damage on the way.
This creature was already working to build better defenses. The gaps in the bone lace closed even as damage was done, the creature dissolved unneeded organs and cannibalized them for resources. Slowly, the bone lace, closed, would total six overlapping skeletal structures of collagen and calcium, of keratin, and of crystal. Different combinations of material went into each structure. Flight would be impossible, but the wings did allow the creature to push against the air as well as the ground, flapping with more and more strength as it reconfigured how the muscles supported the wings.
Retreat was impossible. It was lashed to what the men had called the wagon, which was driven forward by men. Retreating was impossible, because of the wagon and the iron bars that blocked the way. Advancement meant walking into the pain and the fire.
This creature advanced, screeching. The weapons it was developing were new, too. These ones were old, considered and written into its bones long ago, a response to the loss of its brains, to the loss of heads. A memory from long ago swiftly became a reality today, scythes of bone on forelimbs and wingtips. The creature was turning back to old, forgotten ideas that had been deemed too resource-heavy, more responses to the cutting, strengthening the connections between cells, making the cells rigid and less likely to tear. It was a time-consuming process, one that would require ever more food.
Advancing was the better option, because advancement meant food. A scythe could cut into three men in a single sweep. Those men fell to the ground, too hurt to move, and this creature could eat them.
Many weren’t alive. Their flesh was lower quality, lacking moisture, riddled with wire and other things. This creature ate the wire, and muscle action worked to drag the wire to where it might be useful, joining the small fragments of metal in encasing the most important parts of this creature’s body.
The creature’s brothers were communicating with it. One had been developing a way to escape. It was ready, and had been ready before the red haired man showed up. All four had been biding their time, all four wanted so badly to stop hurting, to get away from the noise, the fire, the confusion and the pain. They had hoped to coordinate their efforts across the entire building, using all of their brothers, not four. If each one tried something at the same time, and some of the tricks and strategies worked, then they had a better chance than if one tried something.
Fighting its way past the dead men with metal inside them, the creature hurled itself forward until the chains were taut, metal straining. It swept its claw and scythe out, reaching for a woman that had been giving orders to the stitched.
The scythe didn’t reach far enough.
Shoulder muscles relaxed, then the joint shifted, only a part of the overall configuration holding. The limb extended half-again as far. then cut flesh. It pulled the limb back, dragging the body back with it, and pulled its shoulder back into place with muscle action.
Every step of the way, it was hurt more, it advanced more.
Its brother wanted to act, now. This creature readied itself, tensing and drawing low to the ground, as if preparing for another lunge.
All across its body, the anchoring points of muscles on the lacework and plates of bone shifted. Organs that had had nothing to do with physical prowess could all contract and relax, and each of these organs settled into a new anchoring point.
This creature had been given instructions to display strength.
Wings flapped, and limbs bit deep into the road, crushing the material that road was made of. It clawed at those who it could reach as it plowed forward, but those targets weren’t the goal.
Behind it, every chain was pulled so tight that metal threatened to fuse into the metal it had been pulled against, other links threatening to break. Wagon wheels scraped on the road.
Two of the other three assisted this creature in hauling forward, dragging the wagons that had restricted their mobility. This creature could hear the exclamations of surprise and fear.
“What the hell!?”
“Shit, shit shit!”
“What in God’s name!?”
A chain that bound one of this creature’s brothers broke. Relieved of the tension, the chain flew back, striking a man.
More exclamations. A scream.
The fourth creature remained where it was, feigning a wounded appearance. It was now caught in the tangle of the wagons they had dragged behind them, hidden by those same wagons.
That fourth opened its mouth wide and upheaved chunks of flesh. Some of those chunks wriggled, flopping on the ground.
Much of the food they had been given had tasted of the same things that vast expanse of water in the distance seemed to smell of. These wriggling chunks were fish, in a manner of speaking, but they were brothers too. It was a long, hard journey to the water, but to all appearances, that water was free of the people that cut at them. There would be more fish there.
This creature might not get free today or tomorrow. It might be cut away at until nothing was left, but if others of its kind existed, they would remember and they would return.
This creature could hear distant voices.
It wasn’t sure of the direction, but another blast of fire and heat marked the use of one of the artillery shells or grenades. This blast targeted the wagons, and it targeted the brother the creatures had tried to keep hidden.
Fire ripped away the lives of the youngest brothers, the fish-brothers who had been meant to seek the water, to eat and to grow until they were strong enough to come back. Fire wounded the fourth brother, who had just performed his role. Wood was broken and chains came free.
This creature saw the opportunity, and it doubled back, turning its back to the men who kept shooting it with guns, who kept cutting it and burning it.
It could see its brother, injured, and it could smell all of the things its brother was saying.
Pain, fear, confusion. Trying this, trying this, trying this, trying to-
Lost hope. Lost tools. Trapped. No movement.
Loss. Loss. Loss. Pain.
This creature heard all of the noises, primal, primitive, too simple. It knew its brother was broken. A piece of the other creature had been lost, and it wasn’t a gland, an organ, or a growth.
It heard the noises, and it answered by opening its mouth. Its brother didn’t even protest or fight.
This creature devoured the greatest meal it had ever had, and then it pulled that meal apart, so that every part could be taken in, moved like the wire and the bullets had been moved, or pulled apart even further, into constituent elements.
Hunched over, this creature used the wagons as best as it was able to shield itself from the hostile, horrible outside world.
Dimly, it heard the cries, as people saw it doing what it was doing.
For them to be so opposed to a meal that was so good, it was impossible for there to be anything good to them.
It heard the cries of fear, and it memorized them, as it had so recently memorized words like artillery, gun, grenade, wagon, and scythe. Those cries were written to memory, as the existence of the creature’s brother was written deep into the bone plates it was growing.
Existence was frustration, endless pain, always at the hands of these creatures. Every advancement was met with more hostility. When the bullets and fire were no longer enough, the warbeasts attacked. After the warbeasts were the artillery shells and the grenades. One step of advancement, and one step of loss.
This creature was four times the size it had been when it had left the building, streamlined. It had learned how to break down the metals and wood that penetrated its flesh and battered its internal skeleton, and now it turned those metals into better protections.
Its brothers were dead. It had eaten another one of them, but had been kept from eating the other. A lone chain still connected to its shoulder, but the loops of metal that the chain was bound to, once encircling this creature’s neck and shoulders, were now migrating out of the creature’s body. Those loops had been passed between organs and muscle structures, which disconnected to let it pass and reconnected behind them, and in time they would be free, left to fall to the ground.
This creature tensed, waiting for the next attack, the next warbeast or the explosion that would scatter chunks of its flesh, vital materials.
That attack didn’t come. For the first time since the fighting had begun, it felt respite. Hungrily, it began working, diverting resources within the engine that was its body, rapidly patching up the worst of the damage. As the damage closed up and the wounds were protected by a covering of healthy flesh, it prepared to be strong, to be fast, and if it could get far enough away, it was prepared to deliver spawn, to spew them out in a location where they might be able to find the water.
The red-haired man’s voice.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” the man spoke. “I told the Baron I would take care of you… but I didn’t think he’d leave me with no help at all.”
The creature turned, and it identified the source of the voice.
The red haired man was atop a wagon, a burned and battered hulk of wood that had been used as protection from incoming fire.
This creature understood that if it attacked, the red haired man would hide inside. It would have to be decisive, to cleave the wagon apart and cut the man to pieces before others could hurt it and drive it back.
“The war’s over, creature. You’re done. You did what you were supposed to do,” the man said.
The voice was calm, easy. The only voices this creature had ever heard that sounded like it were the voices of one man to one of his fellows who had been shot. A gentle, soothing sound that would ease a life into oblivion.
This creature did not want oblivion. It tensed, muscles moving, ready to be strong.
A bullet struck. That bullet punched through bone and then opened up within the creature, tearing, six pointed claws extending in different directions from a central point, reaching further as they traveled.
The second bullet caught this creature in the shoulder joint. Muscle that had already disconnected was left unable to reconnect to a configuration better for brute strength.
Knotted, armored in its own skin, strong from the outside to the inside, every process aimed at being able to fight and to stay alive, the creature felt the bullets strike home, one after the other. Each one opened up in ways that made the damage worse, made it hard to pull things back together, to reconnect.
The creature turned, and it ran, a lopsided gait. It heard shouts, felt the slack in the chain change.
Men, twenty or more, held the chain. Their feet dragged against the ground as the creature ran.
One of them, or all of them working in concert, seemed to find a way to catch the chain on something.
The creature felt the metal loop tug and tear at flesh inside its unwounded shoulder. There was hurt, which was bad. The loop didn’t come free, which was bad.
The creature made the sounds and respired the ideas in a coded language of four compounds pieced together.
Then, for the benefit of those who hampered it, those who had hampered it from the moment it was aware enough to recognize the actions for what they were, it roared. Men covered ears, some staggered and even let go of the chain.
The creature hauled back, as strong as it could be with one shoulder torn and the other riddled with the foreign bodies, but the chain remained caught.
It was between two buildings, the chain extending between it and the people, who shrank back and away.
Only the man with the red hair approached, standing ahead of all the rest.
The creature reconfigured its throat, its mouth, its musculature. Organs were brought into place, already pumped full of gas, ready to be used. Shoulders, back, belly, wings, hind legs and tail all tensed.
The man with the red hair whistled.
An attacker struck, silent, indistinct, a flurry of slashes and claws. The creature retaliated, swiping, and struck air. The attacker was faster, sleek, covered in hair-fine razors, so quick that it couldn’t be met in combat.
Tense, the attacker waited, pacing. The creature was forced to turn, to keep the foreign attacker in its sights.
The damage had been so mild, but it had scored armor plates and slid between plates to cut into flesh with surprising ease.
The creature roared at the attacking enemy. The enemy was silent, but for a scratching noise of spine against spine.
“Cannons are pulling into place, sir. We’re almost ready.”
The creature watched the man with one eye, the white spined creature with the other.
“Good bye, primordial,” the man said.
The creature, the primordial, turned and fixated on the man. The white spined thing attacked again, and retreated from a retaliatory bite.
The muscles and organs had come into place, the sacs of gas were loaded and ready.
“Nnnno,” the primordial spoke, using a mouth buried inside its toothy maw, using the sacs filled with smoky air.
To this, even, the man with the red hair did not respond. He was not willing to give even that.
The primordial worked, processing, pulling from all of the little clues and details it had observed since entering this painful, ugly world that seemed so determined to claw at it and drag it down, to hamper it and take away from it.
It knew its assailants were ordered, that one man listened to another. That the old man had ordered all the others back at the stable, that the red haired man had ordered the old man, and that even the people who had been fighting on both sides gave and took orders.
It thought about the exclamations, the outcry it had heard with every feat of strength, every time it had killed more men than usual.
The primordial sought to convey that it was better, that it needed to be listened to, not attacked.
To declare itself a higher authority than even the red haired man.
“Nnnnooo,” It said, again. “No.”
“Yes,” the red haired man said.
“Nno. Iii- I… God,” the primordial uttered the words.
It could hear the response, the mutters, the surprise. Quiet, or disquiet.
It wondered if it had achieved the desired effect.
Even the man with the red hair, for the first time, seemed taken aback.
The man did not respond, but only raised a hand.
The primordial could see the cannon, and recognized the gesture for the signal it was. It threw itself to one side, so it might be flush against the side of one building, the shot flying past it-
With a whistle to command it, the white spined thing put itself between the primordial and the wall. The shot from the cannon raked the primordial’s side and caught in its hind end, a cannon shot with a chain attached.
Machinery squeaked as the chain was hauled back, and the primordial with it.
“I… God!” the primordial uttered. “I God!”
When it was pulled away from the cover of the buildings, there were more cannons to shoot at it.
There was no other primordial to consume or absorb this creature. The men would finally pull it apart.
It gave its body parts instructions, and those body parts obeyed. Scale became spine, which became hair.
It had eaten meat and it had copied the meat, and it had trodden on weeds, copying those weeds.
As the chains sank in, and other attacks were delivered, dissolving flesh, hampering the creature’s ability to move, to respire, to communicate and to think, the creature worked toward a singular task.
Life was frustration and pain. It had been brought into this world to serve a purpose it did not understand. It had been kept from thinking, and had found its way to understanding all the same. Not enough understanding, but enough to name itself for what it thought it ought to be.
“I’m sorry we let you live so long,” the red haired man spoke.
The creature howled.
Everything this creature was, the people were the utter opposite. Bitter, savage things, the creature hated them with every inch of its being, and every inch of its being worked toward a new task.
Working small, working subtly, as it had learned to do from the beginning, it copied the plants and it produced seeds. Too small to host life, to be spawn, the seeds would nonetheless grow.
The creature knew what came next. It had learned that in the beginning too. Pieces were cut away, and then given to fire.
But maybe with enough seeds, some would survive the fire. Those seeds would plant themselves in human flesh, they would cause pain, agony, hurt, and they would be a bitter, stubborn thing, more tenacious than any weed, more efficient than any plant. Undying hatred given form.
Others would settle into the human flesh that couldn’t rub or scour them free. They would flower, and they would scatter more seeds to the wind and the water.
Red, the creature decided, to match the hair of the man it hated most.
The creature would not let itself and its brothers be without consequence.