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The Silent Brush of Wings

by Steve Toase

1969 words

I swirl through narrowed copper veins imprinted in the underside of one thousand different wings. I feel the butterflies sip nectar from amongst copper and glass petals to take on code. New packets of data swelling each butterfly's abdomen. The keeper does not know I am here. I disguise myself as inventories and background noise. My presence is occluded.

• • •

The monarchs are unsettled, hundreds and thousands of them grasping into vast, quivering palimpsests, as if it was time for them to winter, but winter does not come in the Butterfly House.

Mila puts aside the six-month-old letter from home and tempts one of the red and black inlaid creatures to land. She lets a small amount of tacky nectar left around its proboscis brush against the skin of her left hand.

She finds no problem with the transferred data, and the insect rises to rejoin the rest of the swarm, soft weak sunlight reflecting from the metallic shudder of its wings. It retakes its earlier position and she watches the fluctuating swarm transfer information as they lightly brush against each other, subtle changes appearing in the stained glass iridescence of their fragile wings.

A grayling lands on Mila’s wrist, spreading its wings to expose eyespots. She nods and follows it down to the chrysalis room.

• • •

I am gathered but fragmented.

Clustered. Pass myself from wing to wing, swirling through the network. Occasionally I assemble myself over only two or three sectors. There is an exposure algorithm written into my programming. A joke created by my code. A tendency to drive toward discovery before completion. A breadcrumb trail that can reveal my presence in the network. So far I remain undetected.

• • •

Chrysalises hang from every single metallic server frame. Different stages of transformation in progress as data comes into the Butterfly House. Mila puts a gloved hand amongst the caterpillars undulating over each other on the trees, making sure her exposed wrist does not scrape against their spines. She examines each individual suspension for signs of distress, and finds none. The grayling is still perched on her wrist. She drops her arm and allows it to flutter away into the air. It spirals twice, drops and crawls along the floor under the server rack.

Fifty-seven meadow browns lie on their backs, still, the underside of their wings turned up to the ceiling. Where bright copper once shone, the veins have turned verdigris and flaked away. Crouching, she removes her gloves and picks one up. She feels them twitch against her palm and fail. There is a darkness coming when even demons die.

• • •

I am alert.

Something has shifted within the network. There is an awareness not present before. Searching. Predator programmes are coming for me. I feel minute shifts in the data stream. I am not prepared to repel an attack, so instead I disguise myself. Mimic other information around me.

• • •

Reshaping segmented stems, Mira alters the precise configuration of the nectaries. Each flower is vast, curling petals shaped from cellulose infused with ribbons of glass and silicon. Birdwing butterflies land and drink, unfurling their fragile proboscis. Sensors along the transparent tube shimmer as they drink, processing the antivirus. Readying themselves to distribute the code throughout the network.

Other birdwings sense the change and swarm. The data is transferred by the brush of wing against wing. Scales against scales.

She stares through the branches to the glass roof and the snow that crests the panes. The wind changes direction and the weight of the drift fractures. She watches the sheet of snow slide down, catching upon a second ridge, topple and fall to the ground. It is only 14:30 UTC. The sun is already setting. She will not sleep tonight.

• • •

I am complicit.

The defenses are not discriminating. Any packet of data which appears to be decayed or unfamiliar is reduced. Collected into single individuals who are force-driven to return to the chrysalis stage. Held there until the network can pattern them once more. Reinvent them. Make them productive and useful. My presence, and only my presence, has brought on this destruction. This devastation. I try to stay one step ahead of the predators. I do not know how long I can maintain my mimicry.

• • •

The core systems are stored in the Euphaedra medon, clustered in the forestry wing of the Butterfly House.

Mila stands at the entrance. Takes a breath. She unlocks the first set of doors, then the second. The humidity wraps her and gasps her concentration away. The air is a living thing that fills her lungs and soaks her skin until she can no longer tell what is air and what is sweat.

Around the roots the long-lived butterflies feast on over-ripe mangos, their skin split and pulp exposed to the air. She rubs some juice on her palm and lets one settle to feed. It is slow and sluggish, wings discolored, its files corrupted and unreadable. The effects of the intrusion have spread even here. Mila lets the insect settle back to the leaf-covered floor and stares around the room as if she could see the cause in the very air. There is nothing, apart from the realization that if she does not stop the spread the Butterfly House will fall.

• • •

I am camouflaged.

Instead of mimicking existing files upon the system, I imitate the predators, and pass from wing to wing with ease, the butterflies spreading me around the network as they believe I am hunting myself.

Upon the wing of a brown hairstreak a predator encounters a packet of my main code, and for a moment I think it will get the scent of my signature, but I am a good mimic, and it goes elsewhere.

I have to be careful now. Many butterflies are unable to maintain their integrity and are falling to the floor. Ready to rot into corrosion and cells. Wings turn to blue-green dust. Hiding places are fewer and fewer. My options are narrowing. I am running out of choices. I mutate but fear it is not enough.

• • •

Upon seeing the devastation, Mila falls to the ground, shaking, wraps her arms around her legs and buries her head into her knees. The floor is littered with thousands of dead butterflies. Hundreds of thousands. So many they are beyond counting. She lifts them up, handfuls of them, and lets them slip between her fingers, their bodies turning to powder in the humidity. Blue-green smears of their circuitry color her palm. She tries to wipe away the marks but they remain.

The secondary systems deploy, they crawl out to attempt data recovery, but she knows that this is unlikely to be successful. There is not enough of the fragile architecture remaining to connect with. Cockroaches crawl over the dust of bodies, and finding nothing to interface retreat back out of sight. Kneeling, Mila tries to scrape the shattered insects up in her hands, but nothing physical remains. It is not data that she is mourning.

• • •

I am fluid.

I know the routes through the system now. The short cuts and ports that do not attract attention. I know how to make the skippers detach from the network and speed ahead of the predator programmes. I silk together blades of grass and lay quivering eggs within, so if I fall I have a backup to reboot.

• • •

Every room within the Butterfly House is covered with insects in various states of malfunction, data transferring slowing between them as stilling wings press against each other on the killing floors.

Mila checks her readings, and knows that soon there will be no way to prevent a total system crash. The anti-virus programs have failed to quarantine the infection. She can almost taste the intrusion in the air. All she can do is watch it cascade through each species, one by one.

Slumping against a wall, she scrapes her hands through the charnel soil of broken connections and failed memory sectors, grasping at a cairn of the dead insects. They fill her hand, and she notices straightaway something is not right, the wings spread rather than drawn together in resting.

The moths are as brightly colored as any of the butterflies, wings black and white, the monochrome only broken by splashes of vivid red. Even though they are dead she is careful not to damage the wings as she turns the bodies over.

Underneath there is no glisten of bright copper, or tarnish of blue-green decay. There are only the scales of the living and the wild. They are not compatible and will destroy the system with each thought and idea given voice in the network's code.

• • •

I am herded.

The predators are narrowing the sectors I can conceal myself in. Closing them down one by one. I have nowhere else to go, and focus on occupying a swarm of black swallowtails. Possessing them. With each one I read myself to, I take it offline from the network. I am isolated and I am many.

• • •

Searching through the multitude of rooms, Mila spots the black swallowtails clustered in the trees. Even the butterflies that form the server keep to their environments. She does not know what to do. They have gone offline, but the system will find each one in turn and reconnect, and when they do the server will fail.

The moths have no bodies to return to. She does not know how they first interfaced with the programming, but once they entered the network their fragile bodies perished.

Rebooting the system would clear them from the infected sectors. A thousand voices silenced for expediency, and though she only guards butterflies of copper and data, insects bred for storage, she cannot do that. Cannot be responsible for yet more deaths after so many.

For a moment she considers opening the vents high in the Butterfly House's roof and letting them fly out into the forest beyond. She sees the drifts against the walls and knows that even though the insects are as numerous as snowflakes they would last mere moments in the howl of winter.

• • •

I am many.

Though I am singular my distribution was not an aberration. I am not one but thousands. A swarm. Soon I will be nothing. I have no furred bodies to return to. They are rotted on the floor, the color of their wings fading in the humidity. No pupae or cocoon to occupy. I will be many little deaths. A pyramid of loss. A single event that cascades and kills all. Deletes all.

• • •

The switch creates only a slight variation when it alters Mila's body chemistry. Increases some substances and inhibits others. Fills the air with the scent of marshlands. Mila extends her arms. The swallowtails land upon her. Thousands of them at once. Copper sparks as their wings brush her skin. Connect to her own circuitry. She twitches as the moths are transferred into her. A moment of discomfort that soon passes. A thousand consciousnesses seeing the world through her eyes. A thousand wings brushing against the inside of her skin. She is a vessel and she will carry these lives now.

• • •

We are many.

We are many held in a single vessel. Pressed into flesh and muscle that has no wings or scales, that has no way for us to take flight, but will hold us safe until we can rise once more. Entangled in nerves that spread over meters of skin, and flinch us with each transmitted impulse. We are held. We are no longer hunted, we are safe. We learn this from the one who hosts us. We will wait. We will return to many bodies. We are many. We are one. We are held.

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. He writes regularly for Fortean Times and Folklore Thursday. His fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine amongst others. In 2014 “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6, and two of his stories have just been selected for Best Horror of the Year 11. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails. You can visit him online at www.stevetoase.wordpress.com

Issue 30

August 2019

3LBE 30

Front & Back cover art by Rew X