In this excerpt from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, the Jesuit priest Paul Duré has tracked down the Bikura, a mysterious tribe living in the wilds of the planet Hyperion. Tiny, docile, and unintelligent, they seem to be the degenerate remnant of the original settlers, calling themselves “the Three Score and Ten” and “worshipping” in an immense, ancient cathedral at the base of a canyon. They make Duré one of their own by implanting a cruciform — one of the cross-shaped parasites they each bear — into his chest.
Alpha is dead.
I was with him three mornings ago when he fell. We were about three kilometers east, hunting for chalma tubers in the large boulders near the edge of the Cleft. It had been raining most of the past two days and the rocks were quite slippery. I looked up from my own scrambling just in time to see Alpha lose his footing and go sliding down a broad slab of stone, over the edge. He did not shout. The only sound was the rasp of his robe against the rock, followed several seconds later by the sickening dropped-melon sound of his body striking a ledge eighty meters below.
Alpha was, without any doubt, truly dead. It no longer mattered tohim or the universe whether he was of the cruciform or not. The fall had stripped him of most of his clothes and all of his dignity. The right side of his skull had been cracked and emptied like a breakfast egg. One eye stared sightlessly toward Hyperion’s sky through a thickening film while the other looked out lazily from under a drooping lid. His rib cage had been splintered so thoroughly that shards of bone protruded from his flesh. Both arms were broken and his left leg had been twisted almost off. I had used the medscanner to perform a perfunctory autopsy and it had revealed massive internal injuries; even the poor devil’s heart had been pulped by the force of the fall.
I reached out and touched the cold flesh. Rigor mortis was setting in. My fingers brushed across the cross-shaped welt on his chest and I quickly pulled my hand away. The cruciform was warm.
I looked up to see Beta and the rest of the Bikura standing htere. I had no doubt that they would murder me in a second if I did not move away from the corpse. As I did so, an idiotically frightened part of my mind noted that the Three Score and Ten were now the Three Score and Nine. It seemed funny at the time.
The Bikura lifted the body and moved back toward the village. Beta looked at the sky, looked at me, and said:
“It is almost time. You will come.”
We went down into the Cleft. The body was carefully tied into a basket of vines and lowered with us.
The sun was not yet illuminating the interior of the basilica when they set Alpha’s corpse on the broad altar and removed his remaining rags.
I do not know what I expected next — some ritual act of cannibalism perhaps. Nothing would have surprised me. Instead, one of the Bikura raised his arms, just as the first shafts of colored light entered the basilica, and intoned, “You will follow the cross all of your days.”
The Three Score and Ten knelt and repeated the sentence. I remained standing. I did not speak.
“You will be of the cruciform all of your days,” said the little Bikura and the basilica echoed to the chorus of voices repeating the phrase. Light the color and texture of clotting blood threw a huge shadow of the cross on the far wall.
“You will be of the cruciform now and forever and ever,” came the chant as the winds rose outside and the organ pipes of the canyon wailed with the voice of a tortured child.
When the Bikura stopped chanting I did not whisper “Amen.” I stood there while the others turned and left with the sudden, total indifference of spoiled children who have lost interest in their game.
“There is no reason to stay,” said Beta when the others had gone.
“I want to,” I said, expecting a command to leave. Beta turned without so much so much as a shrug and left me there. The light dimmed. I went outside to watch the sun set and when I returned it had begun.
Once, years ago in school, I saw a time-lapse holo showing the decomposition of a kangaroo mouse. A week’s slow work of nature’s recycling had been accelerated to thirty seconds of horror. There was the sudden, almost comic bloating of the little corpse, then the stretching of flesh into lesions, followed by the sudden appearance of maggots in the mouth, eyes, and open sores, and finally the sudden and incredible corkscrew cleaning of meat from the bones — there is no other phrase that fits the image — as the pack of maggots spiraled right to left, head to tail, in a time-lapsed helix of carrion consumption that left nothing behind but bones and gristle and hide.
Now it was a man’s body I watched.
I stopped and stared, the last of the light fading quickly. There was no sound in the echoing silence of the basilica except for the pounding of my pulse in my own ears. I stared as Alpha’s corpse first twitched and then visibly vibrated, almost levitating off the altar in the spastic violence of sudden decomposition. For a few seconds the cruciform seemed to increase in size and deepen in color, glowing as red as raw meat, and I imagined then that I caught a glimpse of the network of filaments and nematodes holding the disintegrating body together like metal fibers in a sculptor’s melting model. The flesh flowed.
I stayed in the basilica that night. The area around the altar remained lit by the glow of the cruciform on Alpha’s chest. When the corpse moved the light would cast strange shadows on the walls.
I did not leave the basilica until Alpha left on the third day, but most of the visible changes had taken place by the end of that first night. The body of the Bikura I had named Alpha was broken down and rebuilt as I watched. The corpse that was left was not quite Alpha and not quite not Alpha, but it was intact. The face was a flowfoam doll’s face, smooth and unlined, features stamped in a slight smile. At sunrise of the third day, I saw the corpse’s chest begin to rise and fall and I heard the first intake of breath — a rasp like water being poured into a leather pouch. Shortly before noon I left the basilica to climb the vines.
I followed Alpha.
He has not spoken, will not reply. His eyes have a fixed, unfocused look and occasionally he pauses as if he hears distant voices calling.
No one paid attention to us when we returned to the village. Alpha went to a hut and sits there now. I sit in mine. A minute ago I opened my robe and ran my fingers across the welt of the cruciform. It lies benignly under the flesh of my chest. Waiting.
[…] Why has God allowed this obscenity?