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"Terra Nullius" © Sishir Bommakanti 2017

"Terra Nullius" © Sishir Bommakanti 2017

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The river surrounding me is teeming with life. Schools of startled fish resemble pearly ribbons, undulating in the meanders of their collective motion. Fine threads of algae cling to my diving mask while I release a handful of false school leaders into the current. Their hydrophones resound on frequencies the fish cannot resist. Hidden inside their suicidal silvery spiral, I descend deeper.

The simulacrum resting on the muddy riverbed starts rising and slowly turns her gigantic head against the current. Intrigued by the unexpected appearance of food, she opens her maw and fills it with water. The river flows miles wide in the delta, forming dark pools hundreds of meters deep and laying staggering barriers of sand and mud between them, modeled by the forever restless fingers of the current. The simulacrum resembles these barriers, her belly deep in the stagnant pool, her back rippling the water surface gently.

I let the silvery vortex take me to the darkness of her throat. I slip inside just before rows of razor-sharp teeth clench to ensnare hundreds of my fish companions in a death trap. Stems of her filtration symbionts slide over my suit harmlessly and withdraw back into the ridged landscape of the throat, filled with green-brown river algae.

The simulacrum sinks again. Compensating gravity makes my bowels twist. The water encompassing me is dark and clear. The simulacrum fills it with enzymes, reducing its viscosity dramatically. The liquid stops resisting my movements. I float freely inside the abdominal cavity of the simulacrum and the beam of light from my headlamp doesn't find anything to reflect from.

And then they come. The stars.

At first I glimpse a few with my peripheral vision. I turn down the light, and as my eyes get used to the dark, I find thousands. They are everywhere. Above my head, far beneath me. I see the unmistakable cross of Cygnus, Deneb shining like a bright diamond. I see Lyra cradling Vega in her starry palm. Yes, it cannot possibly be they, but human imagination finds familiar shapes in any complex pattern. The illusion is so perfect that I have to look at my legs to assure myself they're still stuck in the diving fins. Their movements, as seen in the superfluid enzyme cocktail, are indistinguishable from movements in space. Even the bubbles from my breathing apparatus nanocavitate, disappear, and turn into a fine mist resembling the freezing vapors of gases expanding into vacuum.

The brain refuses to believe what the eyes are seeing.

This must be space. It must be the vast interstellar void.

Yet it's not. The stars are just phosphorescent polyps on the inner epithelial membrane. The vacuum is a fluid. The microgravity is just biomagnetism of the simulacrum's tissue. Everything is an illusion. And in the darkness surrounding me dozens of the young lie in wait, the hungry star vessels of this miniature universe. I turn up my light and the illusion of void withers away. Some black shadows brush against my shoulder and taste the rough neoprene's surface. It's time to go.

My suit covers with sparkling electrical discharges. I tear the molecules of anti-reynoldsian enzymes via electrolysis and start to feel the natural viscosity of water again. A few strong kicks get me to the abdominal wall. I attach myself with the anchors on my gloves.

The stars are actually fist-sized, milky white, glowing blisters. I tear at one with an anchor and the luminescent liquid squirts out in all directions in the non-viscous environment. A supernova explosion.

I speed along among the stars where I suspect the throat to be. I irritate the membrane with discharges until the reflux flow finally seizes me.

As I rise up through the cloudy darkness of the river bottom, my right glove is still glowing. I'm carrying a few drops of a broken star with me. The luminescent fluid is being washed off by the water flow, and so the glow transforms into a light smudge trailing behind me in the depths.

Once outside, I collapse on the riverbank, tear off my mask, and gulp in the fresh chilly air.
What I've seen here took my breath away. But I'm searching for something else.


"Terra Nullius" © Sishir Bommakanti 2017

Dusk made the forest into a maze of distorted, dark silhouettes. Scabs of old snow were showing between mounds of fallen leaves and frozen mud at the bottom of a narrow gully. Although the implant maximized the sensitivity of Taira's eyes, she couldn't have avoided all the twigs slashing at her face while she ran and catching at her uniform with their thorns. The unit was trying to cover the difficult terrain quickly, regardless of scratches and bruises.

The implant, watching over distances between the members of the unit, told Taira that Major Anderlini, running before her, stopped suddenly and gave an instruction to maximize caution. Taira ran to him, out of breath, grasped her gun, and pressed her back to the wall of the gully.

“Sir?” she breathed.

The major's voice hissed in her implant: “Comms only, no verbal!”

It took a few seconds for Taira to link her comms to her speech centers. “What the hell's happening?”

The implant informed her the whole unit had stopped. Dots on the map in Taira's field of vision reassembled into a rosary lining the arched relief of the gully.

There was no reason for Anderlini to whisper in the comms; nevertheless he did. “Above us.”

Taira raised her gaze and tried to make sense of the crimson pieces of the sky framed by the dark outlines of the branches. But she didn't see anything, not even when her implant gave her the infra-image.

“Don't you hear?” Somewhere deep inside her skull Anderlini was whispering.

True. Somewhere above in the forest canopy, something was moving. Taira let the implants of the whole unit combine the registered acoustic signals. By cluster analysis of their time lag, it was possible to deduce the location and speed of the source.

Not a source. Sources. Taira pressed herself closer to the cold slope. There were seven acoustically active objects moving overhead.

“Random patrol, sir? Or are they searching for us?” she asked the commander. Anderlini was silent. “Shouldn't this area have been clear?”

As the objects disappeared far away, their acoustic localization was no longer feasible. Results of the cluster analysis collapsed into a single blurred blotch flowing over the virtual western horizon.

The commander ordered for the unit to assemble in a nearby turn of the gully. Shining spots in Taira's visual field sprang into action, and the gloom around them filled with the silent rustling of combat boots wading through the fallen leaves.

The implants showed them the tactical map. Anderlini kept speaking on the comms, his gaze still fixed on the canopy and sky. “See? It's less than two kilometers to the river. We can reach it before it gets fully dark. Stops after each three hundred steps and continual acoustic analysis.”

Their comms flooded with confirmatory messages.

They got into motion again.



I'm standing on a dead plateau fractured by heat. Though sensors report increased radiation levels, I dare to loosen the straps on my mask and taste the air inside the simulacrum. It burns like a furnace. Fine dust is sticking to my tongue and lips. I take off my fins and bury my feet in the clay between charred grass blades.

When I take off the mask, burning wind razors my eyes at first. I can see far in all directions. But I cannot recognize what is real landscape and what are just realistic drawings on the cavity's wall. Around me shattered houses are burning. The fire is dancing in the wind, but as I come closer to the ruins, I feel no intense heat. Eventually, I put my hand directly into the flames. They are composed of vines of fine red and orange fluorescent tissue writhing in quivers of tropisms. From a tiny spiracle at the end of each vine, dusty black smoke is ascending. Through the simulacral fire, I enter the dead house. Flames surround me like tall grass. I leave a trail of trampled fire behind me.

The house is composed only of blackened and partially collapsed walls. Along one of them runs the remains of a steep staircase. I carefully climb to the first mezzanine. The brickwork crumbles beneath my feet, but the staircase holds. From this height, perspective inside the simulacrum appears deformed. I recognize the arch of the cavity reflecting the flares imitating a faraway battle. Underneath me, belts of eroded dead land run between islands of burning houses and distorted remains of armored vehicles. With more confident steps, I descend the staircase back into the illusory fire and approach one of the lonesome wrecks. A partly erased trail extends from the torn treads to the far horizon. The cabin's windows are blackened and twisted by heat; the door is gaping wide open.

I glimpse a white outline in the dust and ash beneath the door. I bury my fingers in the ash and gently brush it away. Underneath it lies a human skeleton, perfect, realistic in all the details. As I kneel by it and the wind pumps the reek of seared oil and burned varnish into my lungs, my brain starts asking itself strange questions. Is it possible for this not to be real? And conversely: is it possible for it not to be a mere illusion?

Above me two jet fighters soar through the sky with a deafening rumble. I cower instinctively. My body resonates with the echo of the sonic boom. I keep clutching the ghostly white jigsaw of the carpal bones, and tears are welling in my eyes. People are still fighting. I watch those receding black dots on the sky and my heart fills with pride. As if those two silhouettes, those two spots moving across the simulacrum's membrane have anything to do with myself. With people.

Something shifts inside the dark cabin of the crawler. I get up hesitantly and take a step back. I sense the movements of two or three young in the shadow. It is like waking up from a wild dream. No; this is not our scorched Earth, these are not ruins of our towns. Close behind my back, a small pond is waiting and on its shore my diving gear.

And beneath the surface lies a way out, a journey through the throat of the simulacrum, a ride on the reflux flow across the maze of teeth and digestive macroorganelles. Ultimately to the depths of the river, to the real world where real houses are burning to the ground.

I break into a run. My lungs are burning and I'm coughing wildly. Inside the second simulacrum I have nearly lost my mind. I almost succumbed to the illusion. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.



On the riverbank, in the darkness of a starless night and silence broken only by the ripples in the water, Anderlini explained their orders to the unit.

“Simulacra?” echoed Sammos, a broad-shouldered marine sitting next to Taira with his gun on his knees. “If our guys know there are simulacra in the river, why in hell don't they send some rockets there to tear them to pieces? How many young are in each of them? A hundred? Three hundred? Do we wait till they crawl out able to spit bombs at us more effectively?!”

The commander's voice in the comms grew in urgency. “There are many more useful ways to deal with simulacra than to tear them to pieces, Sammos. Just realize how much human science can learn about their species if we succeed. Every single piece of information is invaluable. They're nothing like us, you know that.”

Yes, they knew. The conquerors weren't capable of learning during every part of their life spans. As adults, they were incapable of adapting to completely new situations, analyzing their environment and changing their ways. The ability to learn was reserved for the young; anything the simulacrum hadn't prepared them for, they didn't thrive in well later. The adults were just tools. People described their intelligence as inertial. That's why their progress was so slow; that's why humans had any chance against them at all. Each new environment the conquerors entered, their young had to absorb in the simulacra, or else they couldn't cope with it.

“Each major change slows them down a generation. When we understand how the simulacra work, when our scientists receive records, samples, test results… maybe then we can do more.”

“But still,” Sammos continued, “has anyone ever tried it? Entered a live simulacrum and returned?”

Anderlini nodded in the darkness, aware of the futility of his gesture. “One man, a scientist, made five dives into five different simulacra about half a year ago. From him we got all the methodical guidelines.”

Taira spat into the water. “Methodical guidelines! So why didn't he bring more information?”

“He had much more primitive equipment, just test versions of what we've got. Moreover, he didn't have any implants.”

The comms crackled with the derisive snorts of several soldiers.

“He made a few records, but continuous recordings from our implants will be much more useful. And he was… he wasn't a soldier like us, I mean he didn't have the courage to… he wasn't entirely prepared to face what he'd encountered in the simulacra. He was alone. And even though he strove to resist, the power of the illusion was greater than his strength at times.”

For a second, there was silence in the comms as well as on the riverbank.

“Sir,” Sammos spoke again, “you met him, didn't you? Sorry for asking, but it seemed to me like you had when you spoke about him. He told you about those dives, am I right?”

A gentle breeze was rising above the river. Small whitish ridges of waves disturbed the darkness of the surface, visible even in the gloom of the heavy sky.

“That's none of your concern, Sammos.”



Of course we don't know how their world works. We have no means of finding out. But out of all our hypotheses, only one survived confrontation with the insights gained during the thirty months of the invasion. As a batch of eggs matures in the female's body, her physiognomy starts changing dramatically. That much is known, and we've observed it many times in captive subjects. Her appendages gradually atrophy, her skin swells with a thick layer of fat preparing her for the long stay in cold water. However, no cellular growth, no hormonal change in gestation can rebuild the three-meter body of the female into the gigantic fortress of the simulacrum in the course of mere months.

What happens then? Hundreds and hundreds of males arrive and try to earn their right to leave their genetic imprint in the new generation. They shape the bony ribbing of the simulacrum's dome, lift her gargantuan arch, spawn tissue in enormous amounts from their glands and cover the construction in it. And during this phase, through some mechanism not yet comprehended by us, they convey a message to the female about the kinds of environment she should expose the coming young to inside her new body. The males are blind teachers, forming the abdominal cavities of the simulacra into visually perfect simulations of what they have seen on their endless conquering quests. This reproductive strategy, once, perhaps, providing the young growing up with a perfectly safe and at the same time perfectly illustrative simulation of various realms of their home planet, may have become a way to specialization, the tactical diversity of the conquerors. One simulacrum may prepare soldiers for fights in outer space, one for landings on alien worlds… Some young migrate and live in dozens of simulacra during their juvenile phase, some stay in one place and highly specialize. Around every twentieth juvenile is a female. In any environment the conquerors have invaded, where there is enough standing water and enough surviving males, a new generation of simulacra may arise.

I ascend to the surface and look around. This time, I don't find myself in the wide open space of the cavity. On the contrary, the throat leads me into a narrow shaft. Just above the calm surface gleams the lower rung of a ladder. I climb high enough to be able to take off my fins and hang them on a carbine on my belt. The air here tastes of rust and decay, the gray monotony of the walls interrupted only by the cold halogen lights. The shaft goes further up and so do I. I pass several horizontal shafts, dark, barred. However, some ten meters higher, I can swing from the ladder into a corridor. It's tortuous and claustrophobic, but illuminated, and I can go through. I put my palm, wrinkled from water, onto the doors in the passage. Each of them opens and they let me deeper and deeper inside… what? A ship?

There is writing on the walls, resembling various human writing systems in its structure. But they are actually just clusters of nonexistent letters. Architects of the simulacrum had seen such things in human devices, remembered them as basic visual schematics, but their adult mind capacity wasn't enough to comprehend their meanings. Another ladder leads me a floor down. The corridors are branching. Some of them host doors into small square rooms. I can hear the young crawling through the narrower passages. They're frightened of me and I'm frightened of them, but curiosity wins over fear on both sides. And the walls are rhythmically expanding and contracting with us as the simulacrum vents hectoliters of water through her gills.

Suddenly the corridor widens, and a few steps lead me to a room resembling a bridge. There are screens, full of a glowing mixture of nonsense writing and figures, all around the walls. Beneath them, empty chairs stand surrounded by panels of keyboards. I sit in one of them and my fingers stop just above the buttons. What am I trying to achieve here? There is no computer for this keyboard to control, no command system of anything. It's just a scene, a cheap copy, a trick.

But still: the chairs beside me seem to be waiting for the other members of the crew to arrive. There are piles of empty and overwritten papers on the tables, as well as small items that are nothing in reality, but which could be denoting empty cups, pens, staplers, paper clips…

My fingers dance on the keyboard, touch the surreal letters. None of the screens react in any way, of course, nothing is happening, but I continue writing. I'm writing a message for the young of the third simulacrum. I write about their parents destroying our home, uncomprehending, blind and deaf to us, separated from people by an insurmountable communication barrier. It's you, I write, who possess the ability to analyze, comprehend, learn. You should be able to recognize humans as thinking beings and take pity over their destiny. You are the key to…

I leave the last sentence unfinished. Bodies of the juveniles are wriggling curiously behind the slits in the ceiling panels. I haven't found what I've been looking for. But I've been close this time. So close.



The net, with a matrix of sonar buoys, slipped onto the restless river surface. It took less than a minute for the structure of the net to stabilize enough to enable the buoys to perform acoustic tomography of the riverbed. Its results, processed by the implants of the unit, gave the soldiers a chance to see deep beneath the surface.

The simulacrum was huge. Her head covered nearly the whole width of the river and her body surpassed the range of the network. The buoys increased the resolution of the tomograph by frequency sweeps, and slice after slice sharpened the view. The unit could see details of the simulacrum's head now, her wide cheeks with ornaments of gills and the blind crevices of the eyes.

“This is what we're supposed to let swallow us?” Taira mumbled, and tightened the straps of her mask.

The implants were furiously exchanging information and feeding instructions to the unit. Gloves with small anchors enabled safe movement across the membranes. Electrodes on the suits could irritate the villi to induce the reflux flow.

Below surface, the darkness was impenetrable. They saw the world through the buoys' sight only, a green-black scale model on the sonar map. They saw themselves, on it too, blurred outlines descending to the bottom toward the waiting maw of the simulacrum. Without their implants, they'd be blind, helpless.

Their instructions led them one by one to the mouth. They entered, and, only as the membrane engulfed them and the sonar map grew black, got permission to light their headlamps.

Taira was so focused on her careful motions and keeping up with the instructions that she barely noticed at first that something was going on with her implant. The cramped space of the throat, along with the muddy water, started weakening the data flow between members of the unit. Their implants grew isolated gradually, their interaction decreased.

Taira felt a strange loneliness and freedom at the same time. The freedom of her eyes, gazing at the world through her mask. The freedom of her movements, unrestricted by the algorithms for safe distance. And along with the freedom came questions. Or, rather, they didn't come; they had always been there in her mind, but her consciousness had refused to let them resurface. Suddenly she understood how much Anderlini's commander implant controlled what had been going on in her head, every motion, every memory. Instantly she felt the burden of her loyalty to the unit, which now depended on her own will and not on the cluster decision-making of the implants.

And her loyalty had to pass an examination by her newborn questions: how come the river didn't flood? How could the simulacrum be almost as wide and tall as the river, and offer no resistance to the water flow? What was the meaning of no one learning the details of the action until they had reached the riverbank? They released the sonar net where they happened to arrive, and just there lay the head of the simulacrum with her maw toward them. Could that have been an accident? The simulacrum is blind, so why did they make the dive in darkness? So that they would be blind?

Certainties in Taira's mind were cracking up like eggshells. Is this what she would face inside the simulacrum? Madness? Would she be strong enough to resist?

The reflux flow caught them and hauled them up.

Where are they?

The arch of teeth opened.

Who are they?

Sunbeams penetrated the water around them.

Their implants were finding their way back together, pieces of the cluster fitting back into one another. Already, from the first data packages arriving in Taira's mind, it was clear to her that she hadn't been the only one asking strange questions in those short moments of loneliness.

They were rising toward the light, leaving the darkness far behind.



The interior of the fourth simulacrum is cold and beaten by brutal wind. I emerge near a muddy riverside and squint a little in the bright winter sun.

Bare branches tear the sky into thousands of peculiarly shaped shards. I climb to the riverbank and huddle under a tree, safe from the wind. Several well-worn paths lead from the river deeper into the forest. The terrain is furrowed with rocky gullies, where creeks may run under the cover of dark ocher leaves. I walk amidst the trees, and mist rises from my mouth with every exhale. The land is ornamented in streaks of melting frost.

And then I see what I knew I’d have to behold, someday, at first as a phantom appearing and disappearing in a slow stroboscope of passed trees. Then, more closely, in all the details, a perfection that even our human vanity cannot ascribe to pure accident. The silhouette is approaching me, walking in the middle of the path, her head held proudly high and her unseeing gaze fixed somewhere far away. She's a tall young woman dressed in what resembles a military uniform. However, as she comes even closer, I can see that the structure of the fabric arises directly from the woman's skin.

She's breathing, or at least imitating it. Her chest calmly rises and falls in the rhythm of a slow walk. Clouds of vapor condense by her nostrils.

I sink to my knees and the woman passes me by. She doesn't stop, falter, or look at me. She doesn't seem to notice me at all. I extend my hand to touch her, but that doesn't throw her off balance either. She brushes against my palm with her elbow and continues walking. Fascinated, mesmerized, I walk a step behind her. In such a way we return to the apparent riverside, where she gracefully kneels and draws water in her palms. She drinks. I stand beside her, unable to speak or move. Holding my breath, I watch as she brushes through her long curly hair with her dripping fingers in a perfectly human gesture.

Once again, the brain refuses to believe what the eyes are seeing.

And the eyes refuse to see what the brain is whispering to them.

Nothing can convince me now that I'm not seeing a human being. Perhaps unusual, perhaps created differently than would be natural. But there's new nature in the world, coming with the new rulers of this planet.

I have months and months of hard work ahead. Dozens, maybe hundreds of submersions and journeys through the thorny path of the maw, countless tests, experiments, errors. But at the end of this long journey lies hope, meaning.

I'm standing on a sharp edge, but human science has already surpassed it. There are implants bearing AIs, used mainly by special units. Clusters of the implants constitute an extension of the unit's training and also its safety precaution: even a mortally wounded or dead soldier with a working implant can be a useful member of the commando unit. For some time, the implant can continue sensing, and control the body's motion. It can absorb the dead’s identity and make decisions, even if those must be lower priority than the decisions of the commander implant. True, the human being beside me doesn't have a brain capable of accepting the implant, doesn't have real eyes or a nervous system. But it has their accurate simulation, made of the simulacral tissue, and there is always just a tiny, surmountable step from a perfect simulation to reality. Neither is she a soldier, but for a limited time, for a few hours, before I lead her out through the darkness of the maw and before the surgeons of my team free her from the shackles of her inhuman origin, she can become one. Even I will have to be one for that time.

The woman keeps kneeling at the riverbank and her nonexistent eyes are transfixed somewhere beyond the simulacral horizon of the far opposite bank. On a shoulder of the apparent uniform I notice a rectangular plate resembling a name tag. The first shape is an asymmetrical cross, somewhat like the letter T. The other ones could be A and I, if I use my imagination. And then a distorted R, possibly. TAIR? Can it be a human name? I'm certain it can.

I've found what I was looking for, and it surpasses all my expectations. The young in the branches above my head… no, above our heads, are curiously descending nearer. I cannot see them but I hear the small, barely audible rustling of their fragile appendages on the frozen tree trunks.

The end of my story is growing near.


"Terra Nullius" © Sishir Bommakanti 2017

Golden wheat was swaying gently in a summer breeze.

The sun was high in the late afternoon sky. Two figures interrupted the calm of the otherwise deserted landscape.

Taira was caressing the sharp spikelets on the tops of the ripples in the wheat ocean as she walked the country lane. Her long blue dress defended her soft neoplanted skin and fresh scars from the bright sunbeams.

“And if we had said no?”

Anderlini gave her a sad smile, as if he'd been expecting the question. “Then I would have lost. Along with everyone else on the project. We would have lost our hope… and would have to start searching for another. Such is life.”

They were talking directly, without comms, as he had not had his implant for some time now and she'd been learning not to notice she had one.

Taira stopped on a low hill and looked around the vast acres of wheat. Stems caught by the wind were painting the strangest images for ephemeral moments in time. Spirals of galaxies, ruins of cities, systems of tortuous corridors, meanders of a river. The patterns resembled them loosely, but it was enough, because human imagination can find familiar shapes in any complex pattern, she thought. Where the stems grew apart for a while under gusts of wind, she glimpsed the jerky, shy movements of the young, staying in a safe distance from the arch of the road.

“Out there,” Anderlini continued, gesturing somewhere up, beyond the azure sky fissured with lines of condensation trails from commercial aircraft, “out there a war is going on. There is one world, one Earth and two civilizations who claim it. We gave you something else instead.”

Taira smiled and narrowed her eyes in the sun. “No man's land?”

“We can call it that, yes. It actually sounds quite nice. No one's land: Terra nullius. It is beautiful, isn't it? Infinitely interchangeable, full of challenges, tasks, opportunities. We cannot colonize it, but you can. For us it would be a desert: without the resources we need, unforgiving. For you it is home, or at least can be. It gives you everything you need to live. It creates your bodies. You come to this world blind, and we are just opening your eyes.”

Anderlini's face grew serious. “The era of humans outside may be coming to an end. We may be able to defend ourselves for perhaps fifty years, maybe even a few centuries, but we cannot hold for eternity. And until they stop meeting us out there, they will keep creating you here. That is why we must try to resist as long as possible. To give you a chance.”

Taira absentmindedly tore a wheat stem, weaving it between her fingers. It occurred to her all of a sudden that it was a strange crop, perfect in all perceivable details, but failing at the most important part. It would never become even a dash of flour, never feed even one hungry person. It was nothing more than an illusion, imitation, tissue specialized for deception.

“A chance for what?”

“Here, in your terra nullius, you have an opportunity we cannot ever have outside. You can encounter an alien race here, beings come from the stars. However strange they are, here they are still curious, learning, capable of a dialogue. Keep meeting them. Use their intelligence, not inertial yet, and use yours, artificial and human at the same time. Those few centuries must suffice for you to find a way together.”



But there is still one chapter missing from the end of the story. The fifth simulacrum waits for me in the dark labyrinth of the river delta, gazing into the cloudy current with its atrophied eyes, swallowing water and spewing it out again in a gurgling analogy of inhales and exhales. While hundreds of my colleagues are already working on the implants’ development, cluster programs, and analyses of the simulacral tissues, I slip into my fins and put the mask on my face. Curiosity triumphs over usefulness or meaning. The mouthpiece of my breathing set has a strangely bitterish rubbery taste, the taste of a journey into the unknown.

The river embraces and swallows me.

And deeper yet, I'm swallowed by the simulacrum.

I ride through her maw expertly, extend my jumps in a slowed down, unearthly effortless run through darkness. The light of my headlamp is just a white spark flying up a black fuse line.

The throat widens but the surface is still far above me. I swim up through the clouded water and encounter clusters of isolated tissue, resembling fish schools in their movements. It occurs to me to reach for some hydrophone guides, to see whether the simulacral objects react to the false acoustic leaders. But I know the answer already. Everything here is a deception, an illusion, and the replicas are deaf, biologically programmed only to imitate their originals' behavior. The schools pass me by, flow around and circle me. I try to avoid them, so I notice too late that through the lightbeams pouring from above something else is approaching. Swiftly, elegantly, with deadly precision and certainty in its movements.

The paralysis is barely longer than one heartbeat. It's replaced by a feeling that something cold is writhing in my guts. Fear. It's like a parasite, an icy worm gnawing its way from my stomach to my spine, wanting to seize and freeze it. The adult male alien is just a few meters from me now. Three bean-shaped eyes as big as my head, knot-like appendages full of weapons. It shouldn't be here, it doesn't make any sense. The simulacrum is supposed to protect the young from the dangers of the outside world, and the adults are the biggest danger known to the world.

The creature misses me and makes an angry turn. Incapable of any rational thought, I let the flow take me and stare through the greenish haze of the light penetrating the water. The adult is close, so close that turbulence shakes me up as he swims around me again and again. He is looking at me and I am looking at him. But when I avert my gaze, my panic only rises. Another adult swims just above me and his silhouette shadows the circle of light on the far surface. He, too, comes back in a few moments, and again scurries above my head.

I look around and even in the cloudy water recognize another and another, fast, deadly shadows. There are dozens of them. They're cruising the water apparently aimlessly, but I can sense the noose of their movements tightening around me. Cold sweat is running down my face beneath the mask and itches under the neoprene. I must swim up. I reach for the weapon at my thigh, aware of the futility of the action. I may wound one of them, possibly even kill him. But it changes nothing.

The surface grows closer and I'm still alive. I grasp the weapon's handle and close my eyes for a second. My mind is asking so many questions it will never have time to answer. The most important one comes to me suddenly, and I, despite all my panic, feel taken aback that I haven't asked it long ago. Why them? Why them and not us? It should have been humans traveling to space and finding alien species. We've always wanted to do so. And them? What do they want? Released by the vast interstellar void, they move only along the roads already familiar to their inertial intelligences, defined by the worlds they have already seen and rebuilt inside the simulacra. And at the same time, they are able to create something as amazingly sophisticated and detailed as the simulacra definitely are.

I emerge on the surface. I open my eyes in despair, because death is so very close, but it's still not coming. My sight is blurred, yet the ridged backs of the adults in the waves around me cannot be missed. More creatures, with their wings spread, are cruising the air and circling the lake like darters looking for their prey. However, something else draws my attention. Maybe a hundred meters from me lies the bank, a steep beach where big eroded rocks encompass gray pebbly coves. I unstrap my mask with my free hand to see more clearly.

Something huge and unbelievable lies by the edge of water there. It resembles the arch of a cathedral, a whale skeleton, an aviary for mythical giant birds, but it is alive. The female undulates, sometimes raises her metamorphosing head from the waves and with a deafening hiss snorts out a cloud of river mud. The males are descending from the sky or jumping out of the waves, disappearing inside the vast construction and then joining the vortex of others once again.

I overcome my fear and carefully, so as not to cross paths with any of the creatures in the water, I approach the simulacral building site. Everything suddenly has a new meaning. And everything loses it at the same time.

These adults are not real. They are perfect in the details, in their movements and collective behavior, but they are nothing more than an imitation. They are as false as the stars filled with luminescent fluid, as the fire that doesn't blaze, as the woman walking in the forest. Just as unreal is the construction of the nascent simulacrum, or even more so, as a real one would never fit inside another simulacrum. Only the original body of the female and the lower parts of the ribbing are made of the simulacral tissue. The rest is an optical illusion, a pigment pattern on the arch of the cavity making the space seem vaster. An illusion inside an illusion, a level of learning inside another level of learning. But what does it mean? Can even the reproductive strategy of the conquerors be a behavior studied in the simulacra?

My brain refuses to believe that, but I have learned to relativize my own thoughts inside the simulacra, not to put any more weight on them than on what the senses are telling me. Yes. Maybe. The conquerors may be just empty shells. No innate instinct for preserving their species, no genetically determined self-identification with their descendants and ancestors. Just a vast chain of imitation. They are not a race, not a civilization, not a community, at least not using the context in which we understand these words. I think about it and hold my breath. I cannot extrapolate what else this could mean. And I fear that no human can.

There are juveniles hiding among the rocks on the bank. They are watching the construction. They may be as confused, as curious, as much asking for meaning and consequences as I am.

I put my mask back on. I should have stopped searching in time: until now I had been finding answers and not more questions. A few fast kicks get me near a male who has just left the construction. With the anchors on my gloves, I catch his ridged back, and let him carry me into the depths.

"Terra Nullius" © Sishir Bommakanti 2017

This story originally appeared in a Czech SF anthology, Terra nullius, ed. Julie Nováková.

Hanuš Seiner is a Czech scientist and occasional SF writer. He has published more than ten short stories in Czech and Slovak SF magazines and anthologies. Hanuš is married, has two kids, and lives in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
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