For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Ettercap
Moreau is one of the hottest artists on the planet, but he doesn’t work on canvas or with clay. His medium is the human body, his art expressed through extreme surgery and body modification. He makes human beings into artworks, but art isn’t always about beauty. Art makes you feel something, and that something isn’t always nice.
Trigger Warning: Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, Self Harm, Surgery, Body Horror and Gore (yeah, there’s a lot going on in this one)
“What made you respond to the article I put out?”
“I don’t know, you said you could turn people into works of art. I wanted to be art.”
“You know art isn’t always about beauty, don’t you? Art expresses something, it makes you feel something. That something isn’t always good.”
“I know that.”
“You’re familiar with my work?”
Moreau leaned across his glass desk. The artist, a small but striking man, was paper pale with snow white hair and delicate hands. Surgeon’s hands. He’d practised none of his art on himself but his eyes were artificial, pitiless black orbs with orange rings for pupils. They scanned Audrey up and down, unblinking.
“This is cutting edge stuff, you know. On the cutting edge of biomechanical adaptations and grafts. I do things most people think are impossible. That some people think should stay impossible.”
Moreau was one of the hottest artists on the planet. Tens of thousands of people would have killed or died for a meeting with him, and yet the young woman looked like she’d rather be anywhere else. Audrey fidgeted in her chair. Floor to ceiling windows bathed the room in shifting neon from the advertising holos outside. The office offered a breathtaking view of the city’s towering skyscrapers and arcologies. Ranks of flying traffic zipped between them like insects.
Moreau leaned back and picked up his smartglass tablet, flicking through her file. “You’ve had treatment for body dysmorphia, I see that in a lot of my potential subjects. Eating disorders, drug addiction, hospitalised for a bodymod that didn’t take.”
“I was hospitalised three times when I was a teenager for not eating. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I felt was disgust. Disgusting.”
“You still feel that way?”
“Yes, no matter what I do, no matter what I try. I see my reflection and all I feel is revulsion. I don’t care what you do to me, nothing could make it worse.”
Any person looking at Audrey would have struggled to understand what disgusted her so much. Her face had clearly had work done, and had the anonymous, inoffensive beauty of most young women who had concerns about their appearance and the money to change it. Her body had been sculpted to mathematically perfect proportions and no longer showed the ravages of her teenage eating disorders. Layered over that were tattoos and piercings, and clothing that had been artfully ripped and torn. Her hair was tortured and dyed several bright colours.
“Creating art like this is a relationship, like between the sculptor and the clay. But only the clay is left so transformed that it can never be put back the way it was to begin with, you understand?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Once we begin, there is no going back. Depending on the design, this could take years of work. And being that it is so experimental, rejection of the grafts or other changes is a real possibility. You could face death, or perhaps worse, being left unfinished.”
“I don’t care, I’ve tried everything else and I still can’t look at myself. I might as well donate myself to art.”
Audrey kept compulsively cupping her left hand against her face as she spoke. It was to avoid catching sight of her own reflection in the floor to ceiling windows beside them, Moreau realised. She was blocking out the view.
Pale scars ran up and down the inside of Audrey’s left forearm. A bodymodder could easily erase them but they’d been left, perhaps as a reminder. Moreau was more interested in the tattoo that covered the top of Audrey’s forearm. So lifelike it almost appeared three dimensional from certain angles, an ebony spider with long and spindly legs, a red hourglass on its back, in the middle of a beautifully realised web.
“You like spiders?”
Audrey looked down at the tattoo. “I think they’re beautiful.”
“They are perfectly, what they’re meant to be.”
Moreau smiled, eyes emotionless. “I think we can work with that.”
Moreau’s ‘studio’ looked and felt more like a private hospital than an artist’s workspace. Audrey moved her stuff into one of the small but luxurious apartments. Even if she decided not to go through with the procedure her room and board would be paid for. If she went through with it, she could expect to be living there and possibly not leaving for at least a year.
Audrey had been through a battery of tests, both physical and psychological. To see if she stood the best chance of surviving what Moreau had planned, and that she truly understood what would be involved in the process and result. Moreau, along with several technicians and lawyers, sat around a table across from Audrey. He passed a tablet to her and let her study the holos that sprung off its surface.
“Is this really possible? This is what you want to do with me?” Audrey said.
“It’s not possible, yet, no one has ever done a bodymod this extreme. But it will be.”
“It’s extreme, yeah.”
“If it’s too much-,”
“No, no, it’s perfect.”
Moreau had already done extensive research on how the modifications would work. He had a timetable to adhere to, taking into account the long recovery periods Audrey would need between procedures. He didn’t get to work on the bioprinting until after Audrey’s final approval, however. Days later, he came to Audrey with what looked like some kind of exotic engine part made from greyish bone.
“This is what your new shoulder blade is going to look like,” Moreau said. “See the two sockets for greater range of motion, and your second set of arms.”
“Extra arms are already a pretty common mod, though? The drummer for that Nazi punk band, Shred Heil, has six. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Those extra arms are cybernetic, all they need is a mounting and a connection to the nervous system. We’re looking at full biomechanical, which means bones, musculature, nerve pathways and so on.”
Audrey’s shoulder blades were detached, dislocated, and scooped free. New parts were fused into place alongside her spine. Even with Moreau’s top of the line facilities, Audrey spent two weeks in a cast unable to move her arms at all. Nurses and helper droids had to perform all her most basic tasks. It was an immediate wakeup call about just how involved the procedures would be. After Audrey got out of the cast, there were several more weeks of recovery and physical therapy. Moreau then performed surgeries on both of Audrey’s arms, to lengthen them, increase their flexibility, and move muscles and tendons around in order to strengthen her elbows and wrists. Fortunately, Moreau operated on them and left them to recover one at a time so Audrey retained some independence.
Audrey’s second pair of arms, including half a dozen spares, were vatgrown rather than bioprinted. All the clones and bioprints were drawn from Audrey’s DNA, of course, to minimise the risk of rejection. The arms had already been altered during the growth process so they wouldn’t require the same surgeries as her original arms. Ribs were shifted so that the new humerus bones could knot into modified scapulas. New muscles were grafted.
“I can’t control them,” Audrey said, her new arms flopping against her sides in pathetic attempts to mimic her original arms’ movements.
“I told you that would happen. The muscles are new, you’ve never used them before. You’re like a baby learning where their hands are for the first time.”
The process with replacing Audrey’s pelvis was similar but more dramatic. It took not one but multiple surgeries, over the course of a couple of months. Sawing her open, Moreau pulled apart and completely removed Audrey’s pelvic bone, rendering her sterile among other things with her full foreknowledge, and wrestled her legs into new sockets. While she recovered, Audrey was restricted to a chair with four mechanical legs. It was almost a taste of what was to come. Her control over the alien second pair of arms emerging from her armpits improved every day.
When Audrey’s pelvic surgeries were complete, her legs pointed forward rather than down. Moreau performed more procedures to slim and change the flexibility of her legs. Her feet were moulded to be more like hands, dexterous and nimble. Moreau could have removed her feet entirely and grafted on vatgrown hands, but he wanted to preserve as much of the original ‘material’ as possible. Two new legs were installed and grafted to Audrey’s hips, and she had to learn how to use them as well. When she finally left the chair, Audrey could no longer walk like a human being but had to crawl on her hands and feet. Adjusting, her movements were clumsy and even grotesque.
“I’m not an artwork! I’m an animal!” Audrey cried in a moment of frustration. “I still can’t even look at myself, and I can’t move!”
“Creating art takes time,” Moreau said. “I told you this when we started. The worst thing we could do is end the process incomplete.”
Audrey abandoned herself to the process. Abandoned all hope, all despair, all feeling, and simply submitted. More adjustments had to be made, unplanned, to her hips, spine and shoulders. Her neck vertebrae and muscles needed to be distended and reshaped so she could easily hold her head forward as she moved on all eight limbs.
“Of course, what is a spider without a web?” Moreau showed Audrey the intriguing biomechanical design for her next surgery. “Actually, this rear section is a lot like an oversized mammary gland. See, it’s got these multiple lobules but they produce silk instead of milk, with ducts leading to this orifice at the tip. All protected by layers of muscle and fat.”
The bulbous, silk-producing gland started at the small of Audrey’s back, with nerve structures surgically spliced into her spine. Her buttocks were sliced open and the pockets of muscle and fat fused onto them. Her vagina and anus were tucked beneath the swollen gland. In a real spider, the bulbous abdomen would have stored most of its organs. Moreau didn’t go as far as shifting them for Audrey but aesthetically the lines of her body resembled a spider more and more. She’d learned to use her new arms and legs in unison, and was crawling faster and faster, but now she faced a new challenge in learning to control the gland, her spinnerette, and webbing.
Once Audrey’s body had largely recovered from its dozens of surgeries, Moreau intended to go to work on her face. The process had already taken over a year. Audrey wasn’t Moreau’s only project. He worked on several in concert within the same facility, all of whom were known to Audrey, and an exhibition of his works was planned in just over a month. He would not rush his art, of course, but the date added a palpable tension.
“These will be your last words, if you think about it,” Moreau said, as they rolled Audrey to the surgical suite. “Once we perform this next procedure, you’ll only be able to communicate through artificial means. Anything you want on the record?”
“No, just do it.” Audrey was intimately familiar with the surgical suite by now, and instinctively avoided looking at any of the gleaming reflective surfaces.
The procedure removed Audrey’s lower jaw and her top row of teeth. It stripped away her voice box and most of her throat. Her mouth was replaced by a black, biomechanical creation of Moreau’s that resembled a spider’s mandibles. Audrey had already switched to an entirely liquid diet months ago. Her digestive system had been changed by gene-shifting injections. With new and powerful glands in her throat, she could inject an incredible acid into potential meals, dissolve their insides, and slurp up what remained with her new fangs.
Although Moreau had artificial eyes himself, he’d decided against giving them to Audrey. His were cybernetic, and all of Audrey’s adaptations were biological. Instead, he personally tattooed two black eyes onto Audrey’s cheeks and four more across her forehead. Audrey’s mouthparts twitched but were unable to protest.
“One final touch, scleral tattooing is much safer than it used to be,” Moreau said.
Moreau hovered over Audrey’s eyes with the tattoo gun. The vibrating needle drifted slowly closer to the white of her right eyeball. Moreau did the work carefully, like putting the final brushstrokes on a masterpiece.
“The thread is spun, the web is wove. The work is done,” Moreau whispered as he pulled away.
Opening night of Moreau’s new exhibition was an enormous event. Tremendous holograms of abstract human and animal shapes hovered outside the gallery. Entrance was by invitation only, the crowd filled with only the cream of the art world, celebrities, and various dignitaries.
Backstage, Audrey had her own dressing room. Her new limbs worked in perfect concert as she dressed. All her clothing was custom made. There were no mirrors in the room but she didn’t struggle to get into the form-fitting suit. It covered every scar, every knot and imperfection left behind by Moreau’s process, but clung to her limbs and body like a second skin. Entirely black, except for a bright red hourglass that marked her back.
Moreau would not sink so low as to explain his own art. A team of curators toured small groups around the dimly lit exhibition hall so Moreau’s living sculptures would not be overwhelmed. A giant of a man with an impossibly hulking physique greeted groups as they entered. His musculature had been increased to such proportions that he needed a specially designed exoskeleton to make sure he didn’t tear himself apart with every movement. Moreau’s fluted girls titillated with their haunting and erotic performance, making music with their impossibly delicate frames.
“And this piece is called ‘Spider’, meant to depict a perfect predator. One who is perfectly what they are meant to be,” one of the curators recited.
A pane of glass separated the exhibition space from the tour groups. It was more to create a sense that they would otherwise be in danger than anything else. Audrey’s exhibition space was a dark square with a web of thick, milky ropes of silk hanging at the back.
From a hatch in the ceiling, Audrey descended on the web. Incredibly strong, the webbing flexed beneath her. She wasn’t totally satisfied with the web’s design but it was orders of magnitude better than her first attempts. Through the glass, she heard the first group gasp. Even the curator looked discomforted.
All eight of Audrey’s limbs ended in handlike protrusions. They worked in perfect unison, uncannily alien. Reaching the floor, she was nimble and shockingly fast. Some of the observers couldn’t help but step back. Audrey’s spine flexed. Her silk gland jostled behind her as she raised her face. Above the nose, Audrey’s face was untouched in its unflawed beauty, apart from the tattooed eyes and black sclera. Below the nose, however, were threshing, black mandibles. Pedipalps combed her bristly chelicerae, hiding long, lurking fangs like gleaming knives. Her mouthparts opened with a low hiss.
Behind the curator, dignitaries and celebrities looked horrified. Hands were cupped over gaping mouths. A few shook their heads in helpless denial. Behind the eyes of some of the critics, headlines were already being written asking the question whether Moreau had finally gone too far. Audrey’s eyes weren’t on the aghast faces and looks of fear, however. Her gaze settled on her reflection in the pane of glass between her and the crowd. The reflection of what she’d become, what Moreau had turned her into. Warm and wet, a tear trickled down her cheek.
She was so beautiful.
Sean: For all my horror loving facade, clearly I’m just a sap who loves a happy ending. To be honest, I don’t usually get much of a measurable reaction from reading my own writing but that last line, editing, rereading, it actually still gets me.
I’d been thinking a lot about various spider creatures in the Monster Manual and could have linked this story back to Driders, but the Ettercap seemed more appropriate. They’re spiders made humanoid, while this one is about a human made spideroid, or however you might put that. Main thing I worried about was quickly covering periods of months, over a year, without specific jumps in time, but I think it came together in the end. Choice of language is also really important in a story like this, so a lot of thought went into that.
Pretty obvious where the name Moreau comes from, but the first person who can tell me why the main character is named Audrey gets a hearty thumbs up. There are layers upon layers to that one. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the fluted girls are a reference to the short story by Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Fluted Girl’.
I consider this story as taking place in the same universe as my ‘Kill Switch’ series, a good entry point for exploring more about that setting if you’re interested would be the slightly longer short story ‘Titama’.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Nalfeshnee