The Walking City
By Jason Heller
Published Issue 119, November 2023
Around Zelia the walls oozed.
They clamped onto every side of her skinny frame like lips sucking a finger. When she lay perfectly still, she could feel a dull pulse run through the Gut’s smooth muscle. It was as though a dozen giant slugs were slithering across the surface of her gutsuit.
Not that she’d ever seen a slug, let alone touched one. As with all animals, they existed only in myth, within the dim memory of the Mind. The closest thing to an animal that anyone had known in centuries was the vast, walking city of M’bul itself.
Zelia occasionally came across half-digested, half-fossilized chunks of animals, along with the remnants of plants and rocks and soil that M’bul fed upon as it trod the barren land far below. After all, that was her job: to clear such blockage. The Gut always needed cleansing the day after M’bul sent down its massive feeding tube to suck up sustenance from the Remained. But those clots of unprocessed debris were required to be handed over to the Mind — as the Mind dictated — for preservation and study.
She cleared her throat then inhaled deeply through her nosepiece. The airsacs in her gutsuit fluttered against her, alive in their own way. Why am I letting my thoughts wander? That’s the first thing Lira warns her apprentices about: “Be ever aware. The Gut knows not the difference between sustenance and citizen.” Zelia was, she reminded herself, just a gutrat. A member of the Guild of the Body. The Mind spared her no attention. Why should she spare any attention to it?
Plus, she had a more urgent thing to occupy her.
Wriggling her right arm free — an effort that produced a slick, slurping sound — she reached up and adjusted her goggles. Their bioluminescent lenses cast a faint, green glow into the blackness ahead.
She was in one of the tight, minor tubules that threaded themselves through the Gut. At the next junction, she should be able at last to pull herself into a larger passageway. There she’d continue toward her destination by crawling on all fours — or if the Gut were being particularly agreeable today, she might even be able to crouch-walk.
For now though, she still had a quarter-mile or so left in the tubule. A quarter-mile of creeping along on her stomach, contorting herself to get through tricky loops and spirals. She thanked M’bul for the millionth time that her nosepiece kept her from having to smell the Gut. Not that the Enclave wasn’t entirely saturated with that meaty, curdled stench. No wonder those who dwelled in the Heart above stuck their noses up at gutrats such as her. That is, in those rare instances when gutrats were allowed in the Heart.
You’re daydreaming again, Zelia. Eyes empty, senses wide.
Just ahead, lit by the pale green of her goggles, the walls of the tubule contracted. After shrinking to the width of her waist, they reopened. Then they shrank and opened again, like a throat swallowing. Thick strings of yellow-gray mucous webbed the sides of the opening — a ragged, irregular passageway, just wide enough for her to squirm through.
Great. Peristalsis. The last thing Zelia wanted was to have to spend the night in the Gut. If she was going to have to navigate waves of spasms, it might take her hours to find the general location of the blockage. After that, it would take time to pinpoint the actual obstruction. Extraction would be next. By the time she was done with that, she’d be exhausted. She’d have to unpack a supper of dry, tasteless shingles — made, ironically, of the same material sucked up by the Gut, the raw stuff that formed all food eaten by the citizens of M’bul — and unroll her sleeping bag somewhere in a larger passageway. A stable one. One in which she wouldn’t be crushed should a dilation come in the middle of the night.
Her mouthpiece rattled with the sound of her sigh. Maybe she should start pretending to be bad at her job. At the tender age of seventeen she was already one of the best gutrats in the Body. If not the best.
Which, of course, is about the same as being the best inmate of the Cells.
She gritted her teeth and tensed herself. Then she remembered Lira’s lessons. Relax. She breathed in through her nosepiece and out through her mouthpiece. She let herself go limp. Through the thin material of her gutsuit — itself sewn from the lining of the Gut — she felt the subtle undulations of muscle. She let them speak to her. Then, once she’d determined the intricate rhythm of their ebb and flow, she synchronized her muscles with them. They responded in kind.
She began to swim.
Loose and warm and liquid and smooth. No resistance. Only motion. She let her limbs hang limp at her side, her spine as free and flowing as the cilia that quivered like worms along the walls of the Gut. Somehow sensing the sympathetic movements of Zelia’s posture, M’bul itself carried her along as if she were a part of it. Which, Zelia knew — as did all of the hundred thousand citizens of M’bul — was more or less true.
As she often did when she surfed the Gut, she lapsed into a trance. It made it easier to operate on sheer instinct as she simultaneously swam and was pushed through the tubules. A form of meditation, Lira instructed. But trancing also gave her a chance to remember.
Lira, as much as Zelia loved her, wasn’t the first to have shown her the ways of the Gut. Her mother and father, Zoria and Owim, did. Zelia remembered her mother’s red hair, the same color as her own, and the scrawl of ceremonial scars that marked her skin like script. Her father’s face had been dark brown; Zelia got the kink in her hair from him. She didn’t inherit much else from him though. He had been solid and stable, neither quiet nor loud. In conversation Zelia was often both quiet and loud, sometimes within the span of a single sentence. Things didn’t get better ten years ago when, soon after Zelia’s seventh birthday, both Zoria and Owin had been lost in the Rupture. She had watched them tumble and fall until they vanished into the wasteland of the Remained.
They clutched each other as they plummeted, she remembered. They never screamed.
As Zelia had grown older and fiercer, Lira worked patiently to help her curb her volatility. But the more the wise, kind leader of the Guild of the Body tried teaching her to be calm and thoughtful, the more Zelia pushed back. She knew that, deep in Lira’s soul, the old woman must regret adopting her after her parents’ death.
It wasn’t all difficulty though. If less than an ideal daughter, Zelia had at least proven to Lira that she could be a worthy pupil. She still recalled the first day Lira had brought her into the Gut. Zelia’s parents had only been dead for weeks, and she had just begun to fall asleep each night without tears. Her mother had taught her some of the basics of the Gut, but nothing as advanced as surging. It was Lira who had seen the potential in Zelia. In her small, wiry frame. In her fierce, hungry intelligence. In her sensitivity, even when it seemed she was the least sensitive girl in M’bul.
At least that’s what Lira had told her when, sputtering and shaking, the seven-year-old Zelia had emerged from her first tubule. She had survived her rite of passage, her gutswim, and she had done it five years earlier than most apprentices of the Guild.
She didn’t sputter or shudder now. Even lost in a trancelike haze of recollection, halfway between sleeping and waking, she sensed she was nearing the junction. Still surging, she opened her eyes. Lit by her ghostly gogglelight, the flesh and bone and squishy plastics and soft metals of the walls blurred by in mottled patterns. She pressed her ankles gently against the walls, slowing her surge. Soon she came to a stop.
The aperture ahead was ringed with cilia. Beyond the opening was a chamber. It throbbed with a pale luminescence, the same green glow that suffused her goggles. She crawled through the opening and dropped to the chamber floor below.
She landed with a splash. The gastric fluid, warm and thick as spit, went up to her knees. With a grunt she began to slosh through it. High above her, the ceiling of the chamber arched and dripped. She cleared the blobs of slime from her lenses with her fingertips then fixed her eyes on the opposite wall.
There. The blistering. The discoloration. Damn it.
She tromped closer to the wall. The swelling became clearer. It wasn’t large, but it was large enough. A shell or mineral fragment of some kind had lodged itself in the tissue of the wall. The wet, green flesh had already begun to grow over it, causing an infection. A phosphorescent yellow pus dribbled from the bottom of it, leaving a livid streak.
As efficient and well maintained as M’bul was, it couldn’t always fully digest everything it drew from the Remained. M’bul was old. It was heresy to speak such things in the Heart, Zelia knew, but down here in the Gut, it was just a fact.
Before she could reach the embedded object though, the jellylike fluid in which she stood began to quiver. The floor of the chamber began to vibrate.
Zelia tensed. What is this? It isn’t the chamber itself. Attuned to every nuance of the Gut, she knew the disturbance came from a deeper place. From everywhere.
She’d never felt anything like it before. M’bul wasn’t perfect, true. But the great walking city never trembled like this. Its monolithic legs — each many miles high — absorbed all shock as it strode the Remained in search of sustenance. Now though, as she looked up in time for a gob of gastric fluid to splatter her goggles, she knew something wasn’t right.
She sighed and let her shoulders slump. If this winds up making me late for supper, Lira will cook me herself.
Then the oozing ceiling came down on her.
To be continued …
Jason Heller is a journalist, editor and author whose books include: Strange Stars (Melville House); the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk); the Goosebumps tie-in Slappy’s Revenge (Scholastic); the Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook (Disney); and a chapter of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Time Traveler’s Almanac (Tor). He’s also the former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld and won a Hugo Award as part of that editing team. His short stories have appeared in Apex Magazine, Farrago’s Wainscot, Sybil’s Garage, Paper Darts, Nightmares Unhinged, Swords v. Cthulhu and many others. He writes about books and/or music for NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and The New Yorker, and is a former Senior Writer of The Onion’s A.V. Club. His writing has also appeared in Weird Tales, Entertainment Weekly, Alternative Press, and Tor.com. He is the co-editor of the Cyber World (Hex) and Mechanical Animals (Hex), and is a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He lives with his wife Angie in Denver, where he play in various bands.