Starfish, by Peter Watts

Continuing the discussion from Why is everyone's avatar getting a blue circle?:

His beam shines down on a small rocky outcropping rising from the mud, no more than two meters across. Jagged cookie-cutter flowers litter its surface, radial clusters shining garish red and blue in the artificial light. Some of them lie flat along the rock face. Others are contorted into frozen calcareous knots, clenched around things Clarke can’t see.

Some of them move, slowly.

“You brought me out here to look at starfish?” She tries, and fails, to squeeze some hint of bored contempt through the vocodor. But inside there’s a distant, frightened amazement that he has led her here, that she could be guided, utterly unsuspecting, so completely off course. And how did he find this place? No sonar pistol, compass doesn’t work worth shit this close to the Throat…

“I figured you probably hadn’t looked at them very closely before,” Acton says. “I thought you might be interested.”

“We don’t have time for this, Acton.”

His hands reach down into the light and lock onto one of the starfish. They peel it slowly from the rock; there are filaments of some kind along the creature’s underside, anchoring it to the substrate. Acton’s efforts tear them free, a few at a time.

He holds the animal up for Clarke’s inspection. Its upper surface is colored stone, encrusted with calcareous spicules. Acton flips it over. The underside writhes with hundreds of thick squirming threads, jammed into dense rows along the length of each arm. Each thread has a tiny sucker at its tip.

“A starfish,” Acton tells her, “is the ultimate democracy.”

Clarke stares, quietly repelled.

“This is how they move,” Acton is saying. “They walk along on all these tube feet. But the weird thing is, they have no brains at all. Not surprising for a democracy.”

Rows of squirming maggots. A forest of translucent leeches, groping blindly into the water.

“So there’s nothing to coordinate the tube feet, they all move independently. Usually that’s not a problem; they all tend to go towards food, for example. But it’s not unusual for a third of these feet to be pulling in some other direction entirely. The whole animal’s a living tug-o-war. Sometimes, some really stubborn tube feet just don’t give up, and they literally get torn out at the roots when the others move the body someplace they don’t want to go. But hey: majority rules, right?”

Clarke extends a tentative finger. Half a dozen tube feet latch onto it. She can’t feel them through her 'skin. Anchored, they look almost delicate, like filaments of milky glass.

“But that’s nothing,” Acton says. “Watch this.”

He rips the starfish in half.

Clarke pulls back, shocked and angry. But there’s something in Acton’s posture, in that barely visible outline behind his lamp, that makes her pause.

“Don’t worry, Lenie,” he says. “I haven’t killed it. I’ve bred it.”

He drops the torn halves. They flutter like leaves to the seabed, trailing bits of bloodless entrail.

"They regenerate. Didn’t you know that? You can tear them into pieces and each piece grows back the missing parts. It takes time, but they recover. Only you end up with more of them. Damn hard to kill these guys.

“Understand, Lenie? Tear them to pieces, they come back stronger.”

“How do you know all this?” she asks in a metallic whisper. “Where do you come from?”


It’s hideous.

Nearly a meter across. Probably smaller when Clarke started working on it, but it’s a real monster now. Scanlon thinks back to his v-school days, and remembers: starfish are supposed to be all in one plane. Flat disks with arms. Not this one. Clarke has grafted bits and pieces together at all angles and produced a crawling Gordian knot, some pieces red, some purple, some white. Scanlon thinks the original body may have been orange, before.

“They regenerate,” she buzzes at his shoulder. “And they’ve got really primitive immune systems, so there’s no tissue rejection problems to speak of. It makes them easier to fix if something goes wrong with them.”

Fix. As if this is actually some sort of improvement. “So, it was broken?” Scanlon asks. “What was wrong with it, exactly?”

“It was scratched. It had this cut on its back. And there was another starfish nearby, all torn up. Way too far gone for even me to help, but I figured I could use some of the pieces to patch this little guy together.”

This little guy. This little guy drags itself around between them in slow pathetic circles, leaving tangled tracks in the mud. Filaments of parasitic fungus trail from ragged seams, not quite healed. Extra limbs, asymmetrically grafted, catch on rocks; the body lurches, perpetually unstable.


Just for kicks:



“Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.”– James Nicoll, SF critic. (source)


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