These Luminous Cadavers

These Luminous Cadavers

By Rich Larson

It started off so small: a micrometeorite the size of a clenched fist, plunging undetected into the dusty belly of the Gobi.

Now the Spiral is visible from orbit, a massive organic labyrinth rising from the dregs of the desert it uses as raw material, a behemoth of bone-colored silicon. We don’t see it in person until we crest the Altai Mountains, and even after a week of prep and sim, half the crew starts to vomit.

Me, I see God. Deep-sea dives, psilocybin, magneto-cranial stimulation—the Spiral is all that put together. The Spiral wraps a hand around my brainstem and nearly uproots it, and I nearly want it to.

“We’re really doing this,” Kaya says, eyes shining. “We’re really going in there.”

“Someone has to,” I say, but she can see it in my face, I think, that this is rapture for me.

We hold each other’s gaze for an endless moment, then the nausea hits and we both reach for the sick bags.


Spiral is a misnomer, of course. The organic structure swirls in all directions, inward, outward, making a mockery of Fibonacci or any terrestrial logic. Once it grew large enough to attract notice, mathematicians needed quantum sequencing to calculate the most likely origin point.

We land as close to there as possible. A strange sort of magnetic convection repels us to a distance of three-point-three-repeating kilometers. We check our hazard suits. Then the hatch opens, and we take our first steps on the surface of the Spiral.

It seems to cover the entire world, a transplanted xenoscape stretching in all directions. The fear, originally, was that it would expand until the whole Earth was crusted over, terraformed for some unknown colonizer.

But once it ate its fill of sediment and established its borders, the continual flurry of global emergency meetings downshifted from containment strategies to research initiatives. So, after months of inconclusive scans and legions of lost drones, here we are, a six-member crew, assembled by backroom bidding and possibly fate.

“Sounding is complete,” Kaya says, voice flaring static through my hood. “We’re unloading the drill now.”


The surface layer of the Spiral is soft, porous; it flakes away under the titanium drill bit like carving soap. We learned a few things from the last electric gasps of the dying drones. We know the Spiral is hollow and that there is faint energy within.

Once the borehole is complete, once the lines are secured, I take a final look at the Mongolian sky. Contrasted with the warped labyrinth under our feet, the pure blue backdrop and its cottony clouds seem almost artificial.

I descend. The husk-dry air of the Gobi is replaced by damp vapor, obscuring my vision. I know the bottom exists only by math, an eroding number in the corner of my goggles, and then finally by the touch of my boots.

There are no threats apparent, so I signal the others. They drop one by one, until five of us are arrayed at the bottom of the borehole. The sixth will remain with the flier as our link to the exterior.

Kaya angles her scanner like a divining rod. “This way.”

We move off into the mist. For a moment I recall a recurring dream from my childhood, from the war years: descending into a nuclear bunker the size of a town, herded by the cheerful static of a PA system, knowing there will be no egress.


We journey through an alien underworld. Sparks leap through the vapor with us, crackling the insulated skin of our hazard suits, leaving trails of lightning in the gloom. My equipment seeks out patterns in the timing of the pulses, finds none.

As we draw closer to the center, we start to find sculptures. They rise like islets from the mist, each one the height of a human and vaguely suggestive of the human silhouette. They appear in clusters of five. Some find this correlation unnerving.

“Barely a lick of oxidization,” Kaya says, running her gloved fingers across the base of one statue. “Fresh renders.”

The others murmur, and when we arrive at the next cluster, the murmurs are shocked quiet. It’s impossible to know whether the sculptures were built with intent or by processes as mindless and masterful as those of the termite mound.

But this time they bear our faces, somehow divined through the concealment of our hazard suits, contorted in agony.


Only Kaya and I go on. As we tighten our gyre, as we near the center, the vapor thickens, and the sparks proliferate. More dreams come to me, seeming to hang in the mist: on a dark beach, a woman descends beneath the waves with a lit candle held aloft; in a sunlit field, a lion’s gaunt carcass is inhabited, reanimated, by swarming bees.

We pass ourselves in the dark, over and over until our steps slow. Time spirals. I feel mercury in my bones, feel the ache and scrape of my fingernails growing, the bristly explosion of my hair and beard. When I look across to Kaya, I see she is ancient, bent, gravity-gouged.

If we stop, the Spiral will coat us in its silicon vernix. We will become foreboding idols.

“We’re close,” Kaya says. “So close.”


The Spiral ends in a tiny hollow that we enter on hands and knees, and in its center, a speck of light no larger than a single grain of sand. Even through the hazard suit, it turns all my skin to gooseflesh.

I understand at last: the swooping, coiling architecture of this place is the architecture held within a skull, a labyrinth of dendrites and neurons, a massive brain dreaming in slow sparks.

I feel the bioelectricity of my own body, the battery of my pounding heart. Kaya understands, too. We reach with our linked hands, driven by the atavistic urge to touch, to encounter. Current courses through us, scorching us, transmuting us.

The Spiral awakens, and we become its first thoughts.


Copyright © 2023 Rich Larson

The Author

Rich Larson

Get Issue Updates

Promotions, new products and sales. Directly to your inbox.