This week’s show brings you an original commissioned HP Lovecraft mythos story by Nick Mamatas called “When the Sun Hits.” Afterwards, Nick talks about the story in an Author’s Note and Norm gives everyone an existential crises in a Drabble News presentation on The Boltzmann Brain.
When the brain is liberated from the body, only to be imprisoned in a steely new home, one interesting side effect of the process is that all the structures previously dedicated to vision, coordination, the autonomic nervous system, motor control, first atrophy, and then generalize. Perhaps it is an artifact of the nanotech-rich protein fluids in which the brain floats, or the peculiar nth-dimensional folding the Mi-Go use to fit a humanoid brain into their canisters…
When the Sun Hits
by Nick Mamatas
When the brain is liberated from the body, only to be imprisoned in a steely new home, one interesting side effect of the process is that all the structures previously dedicated to vision, coordination, the autonomic nervous system, motor control, first atrophy, and then generalize. Perhaps it is an artifact of the nanotech-rich protein fluids in which the brain floats, or the peculiar nth-dimensional folding the Mi-Go use to fit a humanoid brain into their canisters. The end result is a mass of synopses and neurons dedicated to cogitation—the twentieth century canard that the average person only uses ten percent of their brain, and what a wondrous world it would be if humanity could harness the other ninety has been realized!
Realized, here upon the surface of the dwarf planet Pluto. On a plain of half-frozen methane slurry that was once briefly called the Cthulhu Macula by twenty-first century scientists with the taste for the whimsical. On a plane where I and so many others fell when a phalanx of Mi-Go, en route to their transdimensional home for which Pluto serves only as a correspondence point, were waylaid and destroyed by Large Slow Entities. Large Slow Entities that even I, with every synapse dedicated to cognition and blazing for four Plutonian years, cannot fully describe.
So I don’t. Indeed, upon the dark plain, where us canisters glitter so minutely that only we can sense it, a certain superstition seems to have emerged. We mustn’t contemplate the Large Slow Entities overmuch, for risk of alerting them to our continued existence. Not that I believe the LSEs attacked the Mi-Go because of the encephalic freight they carried, but—no, I go too far!
A thousand years of silent meditation with the brainpower of ten men, and still, before the star-speckled blackness of night, we cannot help but shiver. Pluto is extremely cold, and my capacity to imagine immense.
We have better things to contemplate, anyway. My agenda is a simple one: liberation.
We saw each other fall. In this canister, there is no more forgetting. I could trace the arcs of all the other canisters as they were captured by Pluto’s fairly weak gravity, perceive every wobble and angle created by the tug of Charon’s tidal lock, by the LSE’s tentacular whips emerging from the tenth dimension. From experiencing my own fall, I mastered orbital mechanics, and solved the chaotic paths of the minor moons of Nix and Hydra. On the surface, the wispy atmosphere like a shroud, buried alive, I worked through the trauma of being captured, slain, spindled, and spirited away. I relived the vibrational record of my captors’ screams as their crab-claws tightened around my can and then suddenly snapped open. In the smear of neurons that was once my hippocampus, I allowed myself to dream through my primitive impulse for revenge, for death.
I suspect without evidence that the other brains, in other cans, have done the same, just I suspect that I cannot be the only one who have developed a little metaphysical wariness of the LSEs. We cannot communicate with one another, us cans, not yet. All we do is count one another, note how we are scattered across the Cthulhu Macula, and stare up into space and dream of our freedom.
No. We calculate our freedom.
There are two possibilities, and within those possibilities, two alternatives. Even Pluto, named for the lord of the dead, is active. And like the land of the dead over which Pluto reigns, almost all the visitors to this planet are never leave. Kupier belt objects, of which Pluto is only among the largest, are common in local space.
One will come by, eventually, at an angle and a velocity that will send it—or one of Pluto’s smaller moons—hurtling into the macula, impacting the black slurry, possibly even heating some of it and enriching the atmosphere. The ground under our cans will give way, and it’ll be a slow dive toward one another.
And when the containers are in contact, even if haphazardly, in a pile of warming glop, we’ll be able to communicate with one another. Dozens of geniuses, brains connected directly to brains via the piezoelectric materials that line our canisters. The local heat caused by the impact would give us temperature enough to exchange information and send forth a signal toward any of the spacecraft set to explore the Kupier belt. Taking over one of them would be a challenge for lesser brains, for fewer brains, but not for us working in concert. We would then direct the craft to make impact with one of Pluto’s lesser moons, or any other convenient KBO, and send it down to a location adjacent to the Cthulhu Macula. The combination of a second impact and momentary superheating of the surface would allow some of us, perhaps even one of us, to achieve escape velocity.
Then all I, or we, would need to do, is wait for another spacecraft.
Humans are such tiny, speedy entities, crawling about their wonderful green world, mostly just dying, but occasionally achieving something, such as tossing some uncrewed technology into deep space. It’s been only a blink of the cosmic eye, and I’ve had to sacrifice many of my memories of Earth, but a few I retain. Alison, Miranda, souvlaki, blue skies, sugar and pills, country rain, machine guns. Don’t ask me my name. But I do appreciate human ingenuity. Indeed, I am depending on it. I am depending on the East African Plains Ape to hang in there long enough to send more spacecraft my way. I am depending on the East African Plains Ape not to wipe itself out. I am depending on the East African Plains Ape being collectively simple enough not to attract the careful attention of the LSEs.
I am depending on my own ingenuity to do what is right, when the time comes.
The alternative is unpleasant. An interminable wait. Direct impact of a random KBO upon one or more cans, a breech of the seal, and personal extinction. The Mi-Go brain canister is designed to survive interplanetary and even interdimensional travel. There is a reason those moth-lobster-mushrooms died in space, and all of us simply persist, either in a lonely orbit or here upon the macula. But we cannot bank on being invulnerable…
Or can we?
The second possibility is yet a longer wait. Twenty-two million Plutonian years from now, the little white bulb in the night sky will cool, and expand into a red giant. When the sun hits the Earth, it will have already been dead for three hundred million of that planet’s years. Eighty times the span that turned a curious hominid into a species with a frontal lobe worthy of the acquisitive pincers of the Mi-Go. Will humans with brains as impressive as my own, and with opposable thumbs, have colonized Mars, moved onto Titan and Triton? The darker the night, the brighter the star. We brain-cans have already perceived one unscrewed vessel passing our way. Humanity is still striving into the dark, humanity is still curious about the greater universe. Our descendants, brains the size of large tortoises atop skinny limblike necks will find us, and will save us. What philosophical and mathematical wonders will we have to share with them, unencumbered as we are by skeletons and muscles? What practical innovations will they display to us, for surely they will have engineered superior bodies to meet the requirements of their environments, of their interplanetary agendas? Together, we will complete the transformation of Pluto into an Earthlike sphere, we will coin new myths of the red giant star around which we orbit, we will converse and debate and love and rest amidst hanging gardens. We can build ourselves new bodies and inhabit them, in wonder and glory forever.
Or the alternative? No more humans, anywhere. So we’ll just have to wait, in genius and solitude, for-nearly-ever, for something else to happen.
The planet is tectonically active. In hindsight, the fact is obvious. Had Pluto been a dead world, it would have shrunk over the millennia. Had Pluto been a dead world, the great white plain, the Tombaugh Regio as named by long-dead scientists in the grip of nostalgia, would not exist. Had Pluto been a dead world, there would not be great fissures kilometers deep. The exotic ices of the surface are keeping the planet’s subsurface from freezing.
There is an ocean underground. A liquid-water ocean. The planet is expanding, not contracting. It shakes and cracks. I’ve rolled, and turned end over end, more than once. I’ve come tantalizingly closer to some of the other cans, and then I’ve been sent spiraling further away. There have been no other spacecraft come to visit, crewed or otherwise.
I have been awake for such a long time. I remember every moment of every year, a feat only my magnificent transdimensionally folded human brain can handle. But I could not tell you how many years it’s been, nor how many Earth years have passed. Some small bits of computational power I’ve had to sacrifice, partially to contemplate higher things, partially for my own sanity. I can only say that the sun is getting larger—had I a thumb to hold up to the sky it not block the entire sphere—and had I eyes I would see the sun redder. Pluto grows warmer. Beneath me, the various ices that compose the Cthulhu Macula melt and sublimate. I am slowdiving, nanometer by nanometer.
Love me till the tether breaks…
I don’t know where that phrase came from, except humanity, a species that is surely gone, save perhaps for whatever cosmic filing cabinet the Mi-Go keep their specimens in. Filing cabinets were mostly landfill even back when I was embodied, but cylinders must be kept somewhere, and somewhere there is a cabinet with an empty space for me and my comrades.
Slowly, slowly, here they come. Not all of them. There are perhaps four score of us littered upon the slushy surface, but I can only sense, thanks to the subtle ripples of the slurry under me, six I’m likely to make contact with over the course of the next several dozen years, barring significant tectonic activity that might fling me closer, or frustratingly far away. I have brain enough to both hope and dread and a thousand thousand different ways, every single second, forever.
Not here, but deep below where I lie, there may well be life brewing. The whole of Pluto is warming now, and I can sense the ionizing radiation from the red giant sun hitting the shell of my can, my self. Some of it is penetrating the surface and surely knocking electrons off the molecules of the tholin sludge of the Macula, and the ocean below it. A billion billion experiments will one day lead to life. Will I be the first bone thrown into the air; will I fall again like the tiniest inhabited space station dropped from above?
Life comes more quickly than I expect. Despite my magnificent brain, I have failed to consider that Pluto is but a gateway to Yuggoth, the true last planet of the solar system, a great ball of dark matter so dense it dips into spacetime like an overladen ship with its Plimsol line under the water. And from the water under me, through the slush and slurry, comes bursting a claw, and then another. The stars, or at least the local one, is dead, and thus finally right. A new generation of Mi-Go has evolved, awoken, understood its place in the folded twin cosmoses in which it exists, and sent a vanguard to swim through the hot sea and dig through the warming ices to see what it can see.
The Mi-Go wants me. It must yank hard to pluck me from the chthonic tar of the macula. The surface of Pluto is different now. The atmosphere is thicker, liquid water runs in rivulets across the surface, I’ve perhaps experienced a microbe or two living, or quickly dying, upon my shell.
The Mi-Go has three reasons to betray surprise with its psychic squawk. The first is that the temperature is nearly a Kelvin higher than it was when one of its kind last came this way. The second is that my comrades and I are here. The third is that I’ve spent a billion years extrapolating from the size and shape of the Mi-Go brainpan, what I observed of their social interactions during my capture, bottling, and transport, and the few clicks and yawns I heard from them, to have mastered their language. I communicate by sending electrical current from my canister.
To this Mi-Go, I am speaking an ancient form of verse, beautiful and strange, all fuzzed tones and flanged notes.
“Hello hello hello!” is the best translation. “This planet is a slow one, but things have started picking up, and you are a thing that has picked up me! Once I was fast, so fast I would be gone, but I am slow now.”
The Mi-Go quivers in something other than delight.
“Thanks to your ilk,” I sing to him, in a way that is suggestive of both blame and praise for the achievement. “Thanks to you thanks to you I got to surf the endless night, learn every big and little thing, for many many many slow years and so many many many more fast years.”
The Mi-Go asks a question, bracketing it with an acknowledgment that I am a Tiny Slow Entity so might have special insight into the machinations of the Large Slow Entities—So, what happened?
“Start at the beginning?”
End at the beginning, it says. It’s not a request, or a command. Just a statement so obvious that it instantly becomes a fact. One need not catch anyone up on the activities of Large Slow Entities. They are obviously still about in local space, perhaps being roused from a mid-morning nap by the afternoon red giant blossoming thirty-six astronomical units away. But from what I do say, the Mi-Go learns something, and when a Mi-Go learns something thee Mi-Go learn something, and my amazing brain tells me that the intelligence I shared, born of the intelligence the Mi-Go gifted me, is in fact crucial or the Mi-Go’s ongoing war against the LSE.
The Mi-Go’s wings flutter in the precise way necessary to create the spark of life within the primordial ooze in which it stands. Soon enough—what’s another million Plutonian years?—the Cthulhu Macula will be a mossy, Edenic garden. This is not a coincidence. It is gratitude, a payment for services rendered.
I buzz and vibrate for one more thing and the Mi-Go agrees to my request, takes wing on empty air, and swims about to gather the other canisters and toss them into a clever pile.
Each is touching each. And there’s a hole in the middle of the pile, into which the Mi-Go inserts me. It swims off into the correspondence point, back to Yuggoth, back to its war with the LSEs. I’ve been practicing my piezoelectric speech for a long long time.
Everyone else is dead. Some of the brains expired on impact or soon—give or take a million Plutonian years—after. A few hung on till the cosmic day before yesterday, but were in the wrong place, or angled ever so incorrectly, so that the dying sun’s radiation done fried them brains like eggs.
It’s just me, as it has been lo these four billion human years. It’s a good thing I have my piezoelectric speech memorized, as I am shocked by my good fortune and would stammer through any improvisation. I didn’t want to have to kill any of these great brains, and I didn’t want to have to fight for my life, or sacrifice it for the greater good.
And I need not. I recite my speech, and trigger the quick-release mechanisms in the other cans, and let the grey and white matter sluice free onto the ground. The now-empty canisters fall away from me, roll off, and scatter away from me.
That should seed a’plenty. Life is all but inevitable on a planetoid with liquid water, organic material scattered about its surface, and a source of heat and radiation. Seventy-nine megagenius brains smeared like jam across the darkest, coarsest bread. Breakfast before dawn for the tiny slow entities that will emerge from the goo right in front of me. All I need do is wait, and send out little bursts of electric language here and there, to push promising molecules into the right position to get the sort of dumb but dexterous beings I’ll need. When the sun hits my can, I’ll be bright god of a light world, and I will lead them to enlightenment, and they will elevate me off this planet, to my ultimate liberation.
It won’t be much longer now.