THE SMALLEST POSSIBLE SHIPS OR, HOW GOD KEEPS US ALL SAFE
“If you think about it, we shed dead skin cells constantly, and there are tiny tiny mites living in our skin eating the stuff.” Tara nodded her head once, significantly.
“Ew,” Ellen said, wrinkling her nose, “not a thought I want to stay with.” She was sitting in Tara’s small apartment, near a lamp shedding light, near a window with the shade drawn down.
“And we’ve all seen it,” Tara continued, her hands neatly arranged together on her knees, “our shoes wear down, the heels wear away, you can see the soles get rubbed off constantly, millions of people walking around, obviously the pavement must be inches deep in leather and non-leather.”
“And yet it isn’t.” Ellen’s eyebrows were drawn up; where was Tara heading with all this?
“And by the same token, think of all the cars on the roads—their tires wear down, but where does it all go?”
“The air, I suppose. Blown into the dirt.”
“Have you noticed pockets of rubber around the trees?”
Ellen had not. “I give up. Must be magic of some kind.”
“Aha!” Tara said, slapping her knee. “You see it too.”
“I see what?” Ellen asked guardedly.
“There’s a reason. There’s a bug.”
“It eats tire rubber.”
“And the shoes,” Ellen added, thinking to catch her.
“You know how they say there’s bacteria in the deep ocean that eats the oil spills?”
“But they said—I mean, they’re scientists—”
“Go ahead anyway.”
“It was on a website. There’s microscopic photos and everything. There’s a bacterium for every problem on earth. One eats shoe debris, one eats tire erosion. Actually, it might be the same one.” Her eyes bulged. Ellen could see them pinch out a little at the edges. Overspill. Maybe there was something on the inside pushing out. Certainly not intelligence, however. That was a mean thought, and she squelched it.
But it was so hard to keep it squelched. “Huh,” Ellen said, leaning close and dropping her voice. “So what’s to stop them? If they keep multiplying then there won’t be enough shoes, not enough tires, not enough oil.” She raised her eyebrows and put her mouth into a moue. “You think they’ll eat up the roads and then the shoes and there will be nothing left to walk on?” she asked softly.
Tara was not completely stupid. She flushed slightly and stared at Ellen. “Come to the window,” she said finally. “I want you to see something.”
Ellen followed her and Tara pulled the shade up. It was dark outside. Ellen could see lights across the way, and small lights in the sky. Tara was talking about very small things, wasn’t she, creatures so small they hadn’t been noticed. So what was the point of this?
Tara tapped the window. “You see?” she hissed and Ellen’s eyes shifted away from the distance and looked at the glass. She saw herself reflected there. The small lights made lines and spots on her face. She moved a little and the prickles of lines moved with her. She stared for a moment, remembering a younger face.
“You see?” Tara repeated, her voice harsh and low. “They’re eating your skin right now.”
Ellen lifted her hand and touched the glass, running her fingers around the outline of her face. She stopped when she noticed the smear of her own cells on the window. She looked at her fingertips, half-convinced she would see the whorls and swirls of her fingerprints gone.
“You see?” Tara repeated, and Ellen pulled down the shade.
“What are you saying?” Ellen asked, moving away from the window. What, exactly, had Tara thought she’d see? She was pretty sure that it wasn’t just the years advancing across Ellen’s face. “That we’ve been invaded?”
“No, no, nothing like that at all. You’re not one of those nuts who believe in aliens, are you? You’re much too smart for that.” Her laugh rang out roughly; her eyes were excited. “No, I mean, God has taken care of it all, even if you don’t believe in God. Just look at the world through that window. It’s amazing. Whatever we do, we get a new form of life to deal with it. To keep us safe. Who would do that but God?”
“God?” Ellen asked. “You believe in that kind of God? Not me. I think aliens could do it.” She suspected that there was a much higher chance of aliens than God.
Tara frowned. “Why would aliens do it? I mean, why would aliens do good things for us?”
“Who says it’s good? They’re eating our oil. Have you thought about that?”
“Only the spills. You’re not paying attention. It’s God. So we don’t have to worry. You’re so negative, always so negative.”
“More likely, it’s aliens. Very small ones. We wouldn’t notice very small aliens, so that’s kind of clever. Very small aliens on very small ships.”
“That run on oil? Really?”
Ellen smiled. “You’re saying God couldn’t create very small aliens in very small ships that run on oil?”
Tara ran a hand through her hair. “Why?” she said. “Why would God make such things?”
“God plays with size. Consider the dinosaurs. Clearly, they were too big. But who says we’re the right size?”
“You’re suggesting the aliens are the right size?”
“I’m suggesting we don’t know what size God will settle on. Maybe God is considering another extinction. He does seem to find them useful.”
Tara seemed about to say something, but then clamped her jaw shut, which caused Ellen to continue cheerfully. “Let’s just agree that there are microscopic bacteria eating our cells,” she said. “Have you considered that at all? That they find us palatable, at the very smallest level. And we can’t see them.”
Tara’s hand rose and began to scratch her arm. She paused, looked at her fingernails, and frowned. Ellen fought the urge to scratch as well.
Such things could not be felt, on that level, anyway.
“I believe God will take care of us,” Tara said finally, pulling her right hand into a fist and resting it in her elbow.
“God or the aliens,” Ellen agreed gently. “But like farmers taking care of their crops. Usefully. And each for their own ends.”
God or aliens, she thought as she walked on her way home. Maybe it’s a war of some kind: God versus very small aliens. Maybe one side is eating the very small cells of Tara’s skin, and the other side is eating her shoes. Fattening up. Preparing their propaganda. Approaching some kind of tipping point.
Far in the sky, a shooting star. She had read that they were often smaller than a grain of sand.
Perhaps it was, indeed, a small ship leaving its trail. Something arriving. Preparing its first, deft move.
Food for Thought
Where does it all go? We have skin cells dropping everywhere, there are mites living in our eyelashes—heaps of small organic matter. But we don’t see the accumulation of it. We see grains of sand accumulating; dusts that have toxic effects; but we don’t see the things that are eroding around us constantly.
Can we be invaded if we don’t know it? Are gods and aliens versions of the same thing? Do explanations make life easier or harder?
About the Author
Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 90 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Clarkesworld to Weird Tales, as well as in a number of Best Of anthologies. She has published four novels and two story collections with university and small presses, and her last collection was chosen for Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013 list. Later this summer, Aqueduct Press will be publishing her next collection, Other Places, which follows women facing strange circumstances on this world and others.
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