Title: The Shadow Walker
Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Science Fiction
Page count: 148 pages
The kaleidoscope was turning, the pieces were shifting, rearranging themselves into a new pattern, one that was recognizable and yet different from all the ones that had come before. It was a disquieting experience, but also one the entity had long since become intimately familiar with. When it stopped it was deaf and blind, a disembodied consciousness that was barely aware of the presences that surrounded it. It fixed on the nearest one, entered its mind, made itself at home, and using its —no, not its, his— eyes got its first glimpse of its new world. The problem was that the entity had no frame of reference, nothing that could even begin to help it make sense out of that cacophony, and then, after what felt like the briefest of instants, it realized it had a far more immediate problem: something within its host knew it was there. No, it was more than that, there was something there that was actively fighting it. That was something it had never experienced before, and for a moment it didn’t know what to do, then it tried to grab a stronger hold. It worked, and that enabled the entity —the Shadow Walker— to begin the process of sifting through its host’s memories, but those were in such a disarray that it couldn’t even begin to make heads or tails out of them. It was still trying to do that when it became aware of the fact that there was something wrong with the body itself. The body was sick. No, it wasn’t just sick, it was dying. It had been dying since long before its arrival, and its presence was making matters worse.
The Shadow Walker hesitated, it didn’t know for how long, its notion of time was still too vague, too distorted, and it hadn’t been in that body long enough to even begin to orient itself in that regard. Still, however long it was, it was too long, as before it could finish making up its mind the host was dead, and it found itself being unceremoniously flung back into the void, only this time around there were no shifting pieces, no new patterns, just an all encompassing darkness. It was back to being a disembodied presence, but now it was a disembodied presence that was stuck in that world. That was rather unexpected, though fortunately its brief glimpse into its previous host’s mind had enabled it to get some semblance of an idea as to what it was that it was up against.
No, it still had no clue when it came to the specifics, but It knew some things, enough to make a few educated guesses. It knew it was in a world in which the inhabitants divided themselves into two genders, and it knew its previous host had been dying since long before it tried to get a purchase into his mind. Had his sudden death been a coincidence, or had its presence triggered something deep within him? The Shadow Walker wasn’t sure. The problem was that staying in a disembodied state wasn’t exactly feasible, and seeing how it had no control over its journey, getting out of there without fulfilling its mission was not much of an option either. That meant that it was going to have no choice but to try to take a new host, though at least this time around it knew enough to look for one that was actually healthy.
It didn’t help.
Sure, that second host lasted a little longer than the first one had, and the fact that the Shadow Walker was actually able to sift through its memories for a little while provided it with a more detailed picture of what was going on, but it too became aware of its presence almost immediately, it too began fighting it, and as it did the Shadow Walker became aware of the body’s rapidly rising temperature. It was as if the body’s immune system were responding to its presence, treating it as if it were some sort of an infection, but given that there was nothing physically there for that immune system to attack, the body wound up turning against itself. Realizing what was going on, the Shadow Walker tried to abandon that body, but it was already too late, and even though it managed to get out before it collapsed, a ghost of a link remained, one that flashed for a moment before vanishing into nothing as the body ceased to function.
The Shadow Walker was stumped. Twice had it tried to enter a host, and twice had its attempts turned out to be fatal. It could try again, of course, but it had gleaned enough from its second attempt to identify the mechanism that was causing the problem, and the bottom line was that it was one that, unless it could figure out a way to bypass the host’s immune system altogether, would effectively ensure that its efforts would lead to the same outcome time and time again.
It stretched its senses to those around it, trying to learn as much about its potential hosts as it could from a safe distance, but its inability to perceive the physical world made that an incredibly tricky proposition, and the fact that there were billions of potential hosts for it to choose from wasn’t exactly helping matters. Those hosts ran a whole gamut, and trying to pinpoint something that would make it possible for one of them to accept its presence when none of the others seemed to be able to do it was a riddle it didn’t know how to crack. Realizing it had to start somewhere, it focused on what it had managed to glean up to that point about the world’s inhabitants, trying to identify some basic traits, and then it tried to apply its knowledge of those traits to its potential hosts in an attempt to identify the differences between them.
It knew, for instance, that there were two genders, and it also knew its first host had been dying since long before it entered its body. It tried to sense a pattern in that regard. Was the number of weakened individuals greater than it ought to be? Could there be something like a pandemic that was affecting the population at large? It sure felt that way, and that was another factor it knew it was going to have to take into account, as it didn’t know how long it was going to be there, and even though jumping from one host to the next when the need arose was something it had done countless times before, given the difficulties it had encountered up to that point it knew that those kinds of shifts were not going to be an option, not this time around.
Simply put, it seemed to have stumbled upon a world in which the inhabitants were literally allergic to its presence… and that was one problem it was going to have a very hard time trying to overcome because, being blind, it had no clue as to how it could possibly go about the process of looking for someone who would be an exception in that regard.
That was the big one.
It didn’t know how long it stayed there. Time had no meaning for it, but eventually it succeeded in recognizing some subtle variations, and by combining those with the few stray thoughts it had managed to catch from its dead hosts, it tried to make some basic inferences.
It knew, for instance, that the world’s inhabitants could be divided into male and female, into healthy and infirm, and into young and old. Those were all distinctions that grew more recognizable the longer it stayed there, a finer grain that made it possible for it to see its potential hosts as individuals with specific traits that could be combined in a myriad of ways. The question then became whether or not there was a way to combine those differences into something that would translate into an exception when it came to their reactions to its presence. It was hard to tell, and then it realized that there were a few presences that felt fundamentally different. It was as if those presences were muted somehow… no, not muted, sheltered. That was by far a better word, and the vast majority of those were actually healthy. It was as if they were beyond the reach of whatever it was that was wrecking havoc among the population at large. That was certainly enough to catch its attention, and then it realized that those presences had another common trait: they were young, in fact they seemed to be much younger than the others.
It was a puzzle, one that was niggling at the back of its mind, and then it hit it. If there were males and females on that world, then chances were that there was also some sort of sexual reproduction going on, and if that was actually the case, then there was also likely to be a gestation period of some sort, one in which the world’s future inhabitants were apparently sheltered from the world around them, and one in which chances were that their immune systems too would be immature, a fact that could make them far more malleable than those of their fully developed counterparts. The question then became, would they be malleable enough to adapt to its presence? And, seeing how those muted versions weren’t self-contained, but rather seemed to be engulfed by others of their kind —something that hinted at some sort of an internal gestation mechanism— could it actually hope to take one of those unborn beings as its host without triggering its parent’s immune system’s response?
It contemplated its options.
What it was considering, it was something it had never done before, in fact it was something it wasn’t sure could be done, and even if it were to succeed, that success was bound to bring its own set of problems along for the ride, such as the fact that, if it were to take over an unborn being, then chances were that there would be no memories it could rely on to make sense out of its surroundings, a shortcoming that was likely to add considerably to the time it would need to complete its task. Did it have that kind of time? As usual, it couldn’t tell, but then it realized that it didn’t really matter, because at the end of the day it didn’t have much of a choice.
With that thought firmly in mind, the Shadow Walker set out to find a host. It needed a healthy one, but the problem was that —seeing how the world in which it found itself seemed to be in the grip of a pandemic— the challenge wasn’t so much going to be how could it possibly hope to find a host that was healthy, but rather how could it possibly hope to find one that would remain so for long enough to allow it to accomplish its task… and to make matters worse it was going to have to try to answer that question with nothing but the vaguest of notions as to what that potential pandemic actually entailed.
It didn’t know what the symptoms were, what were the means of transmission, the incubation period, or the mortality rate. It did know that the disease wasn’t invariably fatal though, as it had sensed it fade away in a couple of instances, but unfortunately it didn’t know if survival conferred some sort of immunity to the blasted thing, and much less did it know if those survivors could pass that immunity down to their offspring. That would have been ideal, but even if that had been the case, at the end of the day the most the Shadow Walker could do was sense the illness as a sort of dissonance in the active cases, and given what it was up against, that ability was bound to be almost entirely useless.
Realizing that there was no point in putting off the inevitable, it set out to choose one host. It knew there was a developmental range there, but it didn’t know what would be the safest point of entry… no, it did know, in that regard the answer was likely to be that the earlier the better, but it didn’t particularly relish the idea of being stuck in that unborn state for any longer than it absolutely had to. The problem was that, if it were to choose a potential host that was too far along in its development, it ran the risk of causing yet another death —if not two— and that was not a thought it was particularly keen on.
In the end it decided to split the difference, and settled on one that felt like it was roughly half way through.
It was warm, it was in a small space, but in spite of that there was an odd sense of safety, and after a while it became aware of some sounds, muffled, but still discernible, that reached its host’s ears, thus enabling it to begin the process of getting acquainted with that world’s language. That was a positive development, as was the fact that there were periods of light and darkness it could actually recognize, periods that enabled it to regain its sense of time.
It languished there for what felt like eons, thinking, binding itself to its host in a way that was tighter than it had ever done before in a desperate bid to keep that host from rejecting it once its immune system matured, and with each and every passing day the space within which its host was contained grew tighter. Yes, on a rational level the Shadow Walker knew that that was to be expected, it knew it was a good sign, but at the same time that tightness was turning that environment into one that felt increasingly hostile.
The pain was all but unbearable, and it caught the Shadow Walker completely off guard. The problem was a simple one: while pain was something it had seen through its hosts’ eyes countless times before, never before had it experienced it as its own, and it frightened it in a way few things ever had. Throughout eternity it had remained untouchable as it watched the worlds crumble all around it, but now that immunity seemed to have been taken from it. Could it even unwind itself from its current host? It didn’t know, and for a moment it was tempted to try, especially because it knew that was the one thing that might enable it to leave the pain behind, but unfortunately it also knew that that was the one thing it couldn’t do… not without running the risk of finding itself rejected, and flung into the void once more.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun, the pain stopped. No, it wasn’t so much that it stopped, but rather that it changed. It no longer felt like it was being squeezed from all sides, but instead it found itself trying to cope with a host of alien and uncomfortable sensations that threatened to overwhelm it. Realizing that its host had finally been born, the Shadow Walker tried to use its senses to get the hang of its new surroundings.
That turned out to be easier said than done.
The sounds were too loud, and their pitch was much higher than that of the sounds it had gotten used to while waiting to be born. They were grating, almost painful, and then it tried to see through its host’s eyes, but those turned out to be even less useful then the ears had been. Not only were the lights far too bright, but the eyes themselves seemed to be incapable of focusing, so everything looked like a blurry blob. It wanted to escape that assault, but it couldn’t. Its host’s eyes and ears were open, and the fact that they were its host’s meant that it didn’t have the ability to close them, that it never would.
Its host felt a sharp pain, one that caused it to let out a wail of displeasure, and the Shadow Walker couldn’t keep itself from thinking that it most definitely agreed.
It was still thinking about that when its host’s body was engulfed by a kind of warmth that was totally unlike the one it had known before. There were a series of garbled sounds it couldn’t quite make sense of, and one word, Shayma, that was repeated so often that it actually managed to percolate all the way down into its mind.