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Fiction

All That Touches the Air

When I was ten, I saw a man named Menley brought out to the Ocean of Starve. Thirty of us colonials gathered around, sweating in our envirosuits under the cerulean sky, while bailiffs flashed radio signals into the Ocean. Soon enough the silvery Vosth fog swarmed up and we watched the bailiffs take off Menley’s suit, helmet first. They worked down his body until every inch of his skin was exposed.

Every. Last. Inch.

Menley was mad. Colonist’s dementia. Born on Earth, he was one of the unlucky six-point-three percent who set down outside the solar system in strange atmospheres, gravities, rates of orbit and rotation, and just snapped because everything was almost like Earth, but wasn’t quite right. In his dementia, he’d defecated somewhere public; uncouth of him, but it wouldn’t have got him thrown to the Ocean except that the governors were fed up with limited resources and strict colonial bylaws and Earth’s fuck off on your own attitude, and Menley crapping on the communal lawns was the last insult they could take. He was nobody, here on Predonia. He was a madman. No one would miss him.

The fog crawled out of the water and over his body, colonizing his pores, permeating bone and tissue, bleeding off his ability to yell or fight back.

He was on his side in a convulsion before the Vosth parasites took his motor functions and stood his body up. They turned around and staggered into the Ocean of Starve, and it was eight years before I saw Menley again.

Before that, when I was sixteen, I was studying hydroponics and genetic selection. In the heat of the greenhouse, everyone could notice that I wore long clothing, high collars, gloves. I’d just passed the civics tests and become a voting adult, and that meant dressing in another envirosuit and going out to the Ocean again. The auditor sat me down in a comm booth and the Vosth swarmed into its speakers. The voice they synthesized was tinny and inhuman.

We tell our history of this colony, they said. You came past the shell of atmosphere. We were at that time the dominant species. You made your colonies in the open air. We harvested the utility of your bodies, but you proved sentience and sapience and an understanding was formed.

You would keep your colony to lands prescribed for you. You would make shells against our atmosphere. You would accept our law.

All that touches the air belongs to us.

What touches the air is ours.

 

***

Endria was a prodigy. She passed her civics tests at thirteen. She was also stupid.

After two years in hydroponics, I graduated to waste reclamation, specialty in chemical-accelerated blackwater decomposition. No one wanted the job, so the compensation was great—and it came with a hazard suit. I used to take a sterile shower in the waste facility and walk to my room in my suit, past the airlock that led to the open air. That’s where I caught Endria.

Emancipated adults weren’t beholden to curfew, so she was out unsupervised. She was also opening the door without an envirosuit on.

I ran up to stop her and pulled her hand from the control panel. “Hey!”

She wrenched her hand away. No thanks there. “What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” I asked back. “You’re endangering the colony! I should report you.”

“Is it my civic or personal responsibility to leave people out there when they’re trying to get in?”

I looked through the porthole to see what she was talking about. I had no peripheral vision in the suit, so I hadn’t seen anyone in the airlock. But Endria was right: Someone was trying to get in.

Menley was trying to get in.

He looked the same: Silvery skin, dead expression, eyes and muscles moving like the Vosth could work out how each part of his face functioned but couldn’t put it all together. I jumped back. I thought I could feel Vosth crawling inside my envirosuit.

“He’s not allowed in,” I said. “I’m contacting Security Response.”

“Why isn’t he?”

Of all the idiotic questions. “He’s been taken over by the Vosth!”

“And we maintain a civil, reciprocal policy toward them,” Endria said. “We’re allowed in their territory without notification, so they should be allowed in ours.”

Besides the Vosth, there was nothing I hated more than someone who’d just come out of a civics test. “Unless we take them over when they wander in, it’s not reciprocal,” I said. Vosth-Menley put his hand against the porthole; his silver fingers squished against the composite. I stepped back. “You know it all; who gets notified if an infested colonist tries to walk into the habitat?”

Her face screwed up. I guess that wasn’t on her exam.

“I’ll find out,” she said, turning on her heel. “Don’t create an interspecies incident while I’m gone.”

She flounced away.

I turned back to the porthole, where Vosth-Menley had smooshed his nose up against the composite as well. I knocked my helmet against the door.

“Leave,” I told him. Them. It.

He stared, dead eyes unblinking, then slouched away.

***

I didn’t sleep that night. My brain played old-Earth zombie flicks whenever I closed my eyes, staffed by silver monstrosities instead of rotting corpses. Endria thought I’d create an interspecies incident; I thought about how many people would be trapped without e-suits if a Vosth infestation broke out.  How many people would be screaming and convulsing and then just staggering around with dead silver eyes, soft hands pressing into portholes, skin teeming with parasites ready to crawl into anyone they saw.

I talked to the governor on duty the next day, who confirmed that the colony would “strongly prefer” if the Vosth weren’t allowed to walk around in naked fleshsuits inside the habitat. She even sent out a public memo.

Three days later, Endria came to give me crap about it. The way she walked into my lab, she looked like someone took one of the governors, shrunk them, and reworked their face to fit that impish craze back in the ’20s. She even had a datapad, and a button-up tunic under her hygienic jacket. “I’m not going to enjoy this, am I?” I asked.

“I came to interview you about civil law and the Vosth,” she said. “It’s for a primary certification in government apprenticeship. I’m going to be a governor by the time I’m sixteen.”

I stared at her.

“It’s part of a civics certification, so I can make you answer,” she added.

Wonderful. “After these titrations,” I told her.

Endria went to one of the counters and boosted herself onto it, dropped her datapad beside her, and reached into a pocket to pull out something colorful and probably fragrant and nutrient-scarce. “That’s okay. We can make small talk while you’re working. I know titration isn’t demanding on the linguistic portions of your brain.”

Excepting the Vosth, there was nothing I hated more than people who thought they knew more about my work than I did.

“Sit quietly,” I said. “I’ll be with you shortly.”

To my surprise, she actually sat quietly.

To my annoyance, that lasted through a total of one titration and a half.

“I’m going to interview you about the sentence passed on Ken Menley in colony record zero-zero-zero-three-zero-four,” she said. “According to my research, you were the youngest person there, as well as the only person there to meet Menley again. You have a unique perspective on Vosth-human interactions. After the incident a few nights ago I thought it would be a good idea to focus my paper on them.”

“My perspective,” I started to say, but thought better of calling the Vosth names usually reserved for human excrement. They were shit, they were horrifying, they were waiting out there to crawl inside us, and if Endria was going to be a governor by age sixteen she’d probably have the authority to rehabilitate me by sixteen and a half. I didn’t want her thinking I needed my opinions revised. “I have no perspective. I don’t deal with them.”

Endria rolled the candy around in her mouth. “I don’t think any of my friends are friends with you,” she said. “Isn’t it weird to go past two degrees of separation?”

“Wouldn’t know,” I said. My primary degrees of separation were limited to my supervisor and the quartermaster I requisitioned e-suits from. I wouldn’t call either of them friends.

Endria kicked her heels, tilting her head so far her ear rested on her shoulder. “Everyone thinks you’re a creep because you never take that e-suit off.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“Are you afraid of the Vosth?” Endria asked. She said it like that was unreasonable.

“I have a healthy skepticism that they’re good neighbors,” I said.

“And that’s why you wear an e-suit?”

“No,” I said, “that’s why I’m active in colonial politics and took the civics track with an emphasis on interspecies diplomacy.” I set down the beaker I was working with. For irony.

Endria sucked on her teeth, then gave me a smile I couldn’t read. “You could go into Vosth research. It’s a promising new area of scientific inquiry.”

I pushed the beaker aside. “What new area? We’ve been here for a generation. Bureaucracy is slow, but it’s not that slow.”

“It’s a hard science, not sociological,” she said. “We couldn’t do that before. I don’t know much about it, but there’s all sorts of government appropriations earmarked for it. Don’t you read the public accounting?”

I turned to look at her. She was kicking her heels against the table.

“You should go into Vosth research, and you should use your experience with Menley to open up a line of inquiry. It’s probably xenobiology or something, but it might be fertile ground for new discoveries. Then you could be the colony’s expert on the Vosth. Interspecies relations are an important part of this colony. That’s why I’m writing a paper on them for my civics certification.”

“I’m not getting this titration done, am I?”

Endria smiled, and said the words most feared by common citizens interacting with civil law. “This will only take a minute.”

***

It wasn’t against the law to go outside the compound, and some people liked the sunlight. Some people—daredevils and risk-takers—even enjoyed the fresh air. As for me, I passed the front door every time I got off work and always felt like I was walking along the edge of a cliff. I’d tried taking different routes but that made it worse somehow, like if I didn’t keep my eye on it, the airlock would blow out and let these seething waves of silver flow in and I wouldn’t know until I got back to my shower or had to switch out my suit for cleaning. Or I’d be opening my faceplate for dinner and feel something else on my lips, and there would be the Vosth, crawling inside. I had trouble eating if I didn’t walk past the airlock to make sure it was closed.

Yeah, Menley made that worse.

I started staring at the airlock, expecting to see his face squashed up against it. Maybe he was just outside, seconds away from getting some idiot like Endria to let him in. People walked past me, and I could hear them talking in low tones while I watched the airlock, like maybe I’d gone into an absence seizure and they should get someone to haul me away. And then they could have me investigated for colonist’s dementia despite the fact that I’d been born here. And they could take me out to the Ocean of Starve…

After two nights I realized if I didn’t step outside to make sure the Vosth weren’t coming with a swarm, I was heading for a paranoid fugue.

Actually walking out took two more nights because I couldn’t stand to open the airlock myself. I finally saw a couple strolling out as I passed, e-suited hand in e-suited hand, and I fell in behind them.

The airlock and the outside were the only places I could be anonymous in my e-suit. The couple didn’t even cross to the other side of the enclosure as it cycled the air and opened the outer door.

The grass was teal-green. I hear it’s less blue on Earth, and the sky is less green, but I was just glad neither one was silver. The sunlight was strong and golden, the clouds were mercifully white, and there wasn’t a trace of fog to be seen. So that was good. For the moment.

The Ocean of Starve was a good ten-minute hike away, and I didn’t want to get near it. I walked around the habitat instead, eyeing the horizon in the Ocean’s direction. I’d made it about a half-kilometer around the periphery when I caught a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye and jumped, ready for it to be a trick of the light or a metal component on the eggshell exterior of the dome.

No. It was Menley.

I screamed.

The scream instinct isn’t one of evolution’s better moves. Actually, it’s a terrible idea. The instant sound left my mouth Menley turned and dragged himself toward me. I considered running, but I had this image of tripping, and either losing a boot or ripping a hole in my e-suit.

Menley staggered up and stared at me. I took a step back. Menley turned his head like he wasn’t sure which eye got a better view, and I stepped back again.

After about a minute of this, I said “You really want inside the compound, don’t you?”

The Vosth opened Menley’s mouth. His nostrils flared. I guess they were doing something like they did to the speakers in the audience booth—vibrating the equipment. The voice, if you wanted to call it that, was quiet and reedy. We are the Vosth.

“I know that,” I said, and took another step back from them. Him. Vosth-Menley.

You will let us inside? he asked, with an artificial rise to his voice. I guess the Vosth had to telegraph their questions. Maybe they weren’t used to asking.

“No,” I told him.

He shifted his weight forward and ignored my answer. The Vosth are allowed inside your partition shell?

“Look what you do to people,” I said. “No, you’re not allowed inside.”

This is natural, they said, and I had no idea if that was supposed to be an argument or agreement.

“What?”

Take off your suit, Vosth-Menley said.

“Hell no.”

The air creates a pleasurable sensation on human skin.

“And the Vosth create a pleasant infestation?”

We will promise not to take you.

If they had to tell me, I wasn’t trusting them. “Why do you want me to?”

Do you want to? the Vosth asked.

I checked the seal on my suit.

Take off your suit, Vosth-Menley said again.

“I’m going home now,” I answered, and ran for the compound door.

***

Endria was in the canteen, sitting on a table, watching a slow-wave newsfeed from Earth and nibbling on a finger sandwich, and I was annoyed to run into her there. I was also annoyed that it took me that long to run into her, after trying to run into her in the library, the courthouse auditorium, the promenade and my lab.

Endria just annoyed me.

I dodged a few people on their rest hours and walked up to her table, putting my hands down on it. I hadn’t sterilized them after being outside and was technically breeching a bylaw or two, but that didn’t occur to me. I guess I was lucky Endria didn’t perform a civilian arrest.

“One,” I said, “I don’t want anything to do with the Vosth in a lab, or outside of one, and two, in no more than thirty seconds, explain Vosth legal rights outside the colony compound.”

Endria jumped, kicking over the chair her feet were resting on, and looking agape at me in the middle of a bite of sandwich. Sweet schadenfreude: The first word out of her mouth was the none-too-smart: “Uh.”

Of course, she regrouped quickly.

“First of all, the Vosth don’t believe in civil or social law,” she said. “Just natural law. So the treaty we have isn’t really a treaty, just them explaining what they do so we had the option not to let them. We don’t have legal recourse. It’s like that inside the colony, too—we can adjust the air system to filter them out and kill them, so they know we’re in charge in here and don’t try to come inside. Except for Menley, but that’s weird, and that’s why I’m doing a paper. Did you find anything out?”

I ignored that. “And he doesn’t act like the other—how many other infested colonists are there?”

She shrugged. “A lot. Like, more than forty. A few of them were killed by panicked colonists, though. We don’t know much about them. In the last hundred records, Menley’s the only—”

Vosth-Menley,” I corrected.

Endria rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that. Whatever. Vosth-Menley is the only one to make contact with us. There’s actually this theory that the rest are off building a civilization now that the Vosth have opposable thumbs. Even if it’s only, like, eighty opposable thumbs.”

The base of my neck itched. Fortunately, years in an envirosuit let me ignore that. “We lost forty colonists to the Vosth?”

“Oh, yeah!” she said. “And more when everyone panicked and there were riots and we thought there was going to be a war. That’s why so many Earth-shipped embryos were matured so fast. In fact, our colony has the highest per-capita percentage of in-vitro citizens. We’ve got sixty-three percent.”

“I’m one of them,” I said.

“I’ve got parents,” Endria responded.

I managed not to strangle her. “So there’s no law?”

“Not really,” Endria said. “But there’s a lot of unwritten stuff and assumed stuff. Like we just assume that if we wear e-suits out they won’t think they own the e-suits even though they touch the air, and we assume that if they did come in the compound they’d be nice.” She shot me a sharp look. “But I don’t think that’s an issue now, since you squealed to the governors.”

“Yeah, thanks.” I did not squeal. Endria just didn’t see what was wrong with having a sentient invasive disease wandering around your colony. “I’m going to go now.”

“I still want to complete our interview!” Endria said. “I think you have opinion data you’re holding back!”

“Later,” I said, gave a little wave, and headed off.

On the way out of the canteen I ran into one of the auxiliary governors, who pulled me aside and gave my envirosuit the usual look of disdain. “Citizen,” she said, “I need a thumbprint verification to confirm that your complaint to the colony council was resolved to your satisfaction. Your complaint about the infested colonist.”

I looked to the hall leading in the direction of the outside doors. “Right now?”

“It will only take a moment.”

I looked to the vents, and then back at Endria.

I hated thumbprint confirmations.

Quickly, I unsealed one glove, pulled my hand out, and pressed my thumb into the datapad sensor. The air drew little fingers along my palm, tested my wrist seal, tickled the back of my hand. “Thank you, citizen,” the auxiliary said, and wandered off.

I tucked my exposed hand under my other arm and hurried back toward my room to sterilize hand and glove and put my suit back together.

***

I went outside again. I don’t know why. Specialized insanity, maybe.

Actually, no. This was like those people on Mulciber who’d go outside in their hazard suits even though the Mulciber colony was on a patch of stable ground that didn’t extend much beyond the habitat, and they always ran the risk of falling into a magma chamber or having a glob of superheated rock smash their faceplate in. Some people find something terrifying and then just have to go out to stare it in the face. Another one of evolution’s less-than-brilliant moves.

Vosth-Menley was stretching his stolen muscles by the shore of the Starve. I could see the muscles moving under his skin. He laced his fingers together and pulled his hands above his head. He planted his feet and bent at the waist so far that his forehead almost touched the ground. I couldn’t do any of that.

I went through the usual colony-prescribed exercises every morning. The envirosuit pinched and chafed, but like hell I was going to show off my body any longer than I had to. Vosth-Menley didn’t have that problem. The Vosth could walk around naked, for all they cared, if they had a body to be naked.

The Vosth noticed me and Vosth-Menley turned around. He clomped his way over, and I tried not to back away.

The air is temperate at this time, at these coordinates, Vosth-Menley said.

I looked over the turbid water. It caught the turquoise of the sky and reflected slate, underlaid with silver. “Why do you call this the Ocean of Starve?”

Vosth-Menley turned back to the Ocean. His gaze ran over the surface, eyes moving in separate directions, and his mouth slacked open.

Our genetic structure was encoded in a meteorite, he said. We impacted this world long ago and altered the ecosystem. We adapted to rely on the heat of free volcanic activity, which was not this world’s stable state. When the world cooled our rate of starvation exceeded our rate of adaptation. Here, underwater vents provided heat to sustain our adaptation until we could survive.

My stomach turned. “Why do you take people over?”

Your bodies are warm and comfortable.

“Even though we proved sapience to you,” I said.

Vosth-Menley didn’t answer.

“What would you do if I took off my envirosuit?”

You would feel the air, Vosth-Menley said, like I wouldn’t notice that he hadn’t answered the question.

“I know that. What would you do? You, the Vosth?”

You would feel the gentle sun warming your skin.

I backed away. Nothing was stopping him from lunging and tearing off my suit. Not if what Endria said was true: that it was the law of the wild out here. Why didn’t he? “You don’t see anything wrong with that.”

I wished he would blink. Maybe gesture. Tapdance. Anything. You have been reacting to us with fear.

The conversation was an exercise in stating the useless and obvious. “I don’t want to end up like Menley,” I said. “Can’t you understand that? Would you want that to happen to you?”

We are the dominant species, the Vosth said. We would not be taken over.

“Empathy,” I muttered. I wasn’t expecting him to hear it. “Learn it.”

We are not averse to learning, the Vosth said. Do you engage in demonstration?

Demonstration? Empathy? I shook my head. “You don’t get what I’m saying.”

Would we be better if we understood? he asked, and stumbled forward with sudden intensity.

I jumped back, ready to fight him off, ready to run.

We want to understand.

 

***

[Can the Vosth change?] was the first thing I wrote to Endria when I sat down at my terminal. I don’t know why I kept asking her things. Maybe despite the fact that she was five years my junior and a pain in the rectum she was still less annoying than the diplomatic auditors. Maybe because she was the only person who didn’t look at me like they might have to call Security Response if I walked up. I didn’t really talk to anyone on my off hours.

She never wrote me back. Instead, she showed up at my door. “You’re going to have to be a little more specific.”

“Hello, Endria,” I said as I let her in. “Nice of you to stop by. You couldn’t have just written that out?”

She huffed. “You have a pretty nice room, you know that? The quarters I can get if I want to move out of our family’s allotment are all little closets.”

“Get a job,” I said. “Look, when you said the Vosth—”

“Don’t you ever take that suit off?” she interrupted. “I mean, we’re inside about five different air filtration systems and an airlock or two.”

I ran a hand around the collar of my envirosuit. “I like having it on.”

“How do you eat?”

“I open it to eat.” And shower, and piss, and I took it off to change into other suits and have the ones I’d been wearing cleaned. I just didn’t enjoy it. “Can you reason with the Vosth?”

Endria shook her head. “More specific.”

“Do they change their behavior?” I asked.

Endria wandered over to my couch and sat down, giving me a disparaging look. “Nice specifics. They adapt, if that’s what you mean. Didn’t you listen at your initiation? They came to this planet and couldn’t survive here so they adapted. Some people think that’s why we can negotiate with them at all.”

I didn’t follow. “What does that have to do with negotiation?”

“Well, it’s all theoretical,” she said, and tried to fish something out of her teeth with her pinky.

“Endria. Negotiation. Adaptation. What?”

“They adapt,” she said. “They fell out of the sky and almost died here and then they adapted and they became the dominant species. Then we landed, which is way better than falling, and we have all this technology they don’t have, and they can’t just read our minds, even if they take us over, so wouldn’t you negotiate for that? To stay the dominant species? I think they want to be more like us.”

Would we be better if we understood, the Vosth had asked. “They said they took over colonists because our bodies were comfortable,” I said.

Endria shrugged. “Maybe being dominant is comfortable for them.”

I ran a hand over my helmet. “Charming.”

“I mean, letting them be dominant sure isn’t comfortable for you.”

I glared. “What, it’s comfortable for you?”

“They’re not that bad,” Endria said. “I mean, they’re not territorial or anything. They just do their thing. When I’m a governor, I want to see if we can work together.”

“Yeah. Us and the body-snatchers.”

Endria tilted her head at me. “You know, I think it would be kinda neat, sharing your body with the Vosth. I mean, if it wasn’t a permanent thing. I bet you’d get all sorts of new perspectives.”

I gaped. I don’t think Endria saw my expression through the helmet, but it was disturbing enough that she didn’t share it. “It is a permanent thing! And you don’t share—you don’t get control. They take you over and you just die. There’s probably nothing left of you. Or if there is, you’re just stuck in your head, screaming.”

“And that’s why you’re asking if the Vosth can change?” Endria asked.

“I’m asking because—” I started, and then couldn’t finish that sentence.

Endria smiled. It was a nasty sort of hah-I-knew-it smile. “See?” she said, hopping off the couch and heading for the door. “You are interested in Vosth research.”

***

Twenty minutes later someone knocked on my door. I opened it, thinking it was Endria back to irritate me. No. In the corridor outside my room stood a wide-faced, high-collared balding man, with an expression like he’d been eating ascorbic acid and a badge on his lapel reading DIPLOMATIC AUDITOR in big bold letters.

He’d even brought a datapad.

“This is a notice, citizen,” he said. “You’re not authorized to engage in diplomatic action with the Vosth.”

“I’m not engaging in diplomatic action,” I said, shuffling through possible excuses. It’d be easier if I had any idea what I was doing. “I’m … engaging in research.”

He didn’t look convinced.

“Civil research,” I said, picking up a pen from my desk and wagging it at him like he should know better. “Helping Endria with her civics certification. Didn’t she fill out the right forms to make me one of her resources?”

There were no forms, as far as I knew. Still, if there were, I could probably shuffle off the responsibility onto Endria, and if there weren’t, the sourface in front of me would probably go and draft some up to mollify himself. Either way, I was off the hook for a moment.

He marked something down on his datapad. “I’m going to check into this,” he warned.

At which point he’d argue his case against Endria. Poor bastards, both of them.

“Expect further communication from a member of the governing commission,” he warned. Satisfied with that threat, he turned and went away.

***

For about a day, I decided work was safer. If I kept to the restricted-access parts of the waste reclamation facility I could cut down on Endria sightings, and I could work long hours. Surely the governors wouldn’t work late just to harass me.

It wasn’t a long-term solution. Still, I thought it’d be longer-term than one work shift.

I got back to my room and my terminal was blinking, and when I sat down it triggered an automatic callback and put me on standby for two minutes. Now, in theory automatic callbacks were only for high-priority colony business, which, considering I’d seen my supervisor not ten minutes ago and I wasn’t involved in anything important in governance, I expected to mean that Endria wanted something and they took civics certification courses way more seriously than I’d thought. I went to get a drink while it was trying to connect.

And I came back to a line of text on an encrypted channel, coming from the office of the Prime Governor.

Most of my water ended up on my boots.

[Sorry I'm doing this over text,] she wrote. [I just wanted an official record of our conversation.]

When a governor wants an official record of your conversation, you’re fucked.

[What can I do for you?] I typed back.

[Someone stopped by to talk to you,] she went on, the lines spooling out over the screen in real-time. [About your not being authorized to engage in diplomatic action.]

I had expected that to be defused, not to escalate. Escalating up to the Prime Governor had been right out. [I still believe that I wasn't engaging in diplomatic—] I started, but she typed right over it.

[How would you like authorization?]

That hadn’t been on the list of possibilities, either.

[I'm sorry?] I typed. What I almost typed, and might have typed if I didn’t value my civil liberties, was I recycle shit for a living. My skillset is not what you’re looking for.

[You may be aware that we're pioneering a new focus of study into the Vosth,] the Governor typed.

Vosth research. I wondered if Endria had recommended me upward. [Yes, ma'am,] I wrote.

[We now believe that we can reverse the effects of Vosth colonization of a human host.]

I looked at my water. I looked at my boots. After a moment, I typed [Ma'am?] and got up for another glass. I needed it.

I came back to a paragraph explaining [You've been in contact with one of the infested colonists. We'd like you to bring him back to the compound for experimentation.]

Okay. So long as I was just being asked to harvest test subjects. [You want to cure Menley?]

[We believe it unlikely that human consciousness would survive anywhere on the order of years,] she typed back, and my stomach twisted like it had talking to Menley. [This would be a proof of concept which could be applied to the more recently infected.]

And Menley wasn’t someone who’d be welcomed back into the colony, I read between the lines. I should’ve asked Endria who had sat on the council that decided Menley’s sentence. Was this particular Prime Governor serving, back then? Why did I never remember these things? Why did I never think to ask?

[So, you would extract the Vosth,] I started, and was going to write leaving a corpse?, maybe hoping that we’d at least get a breathing body. She interrupted me again.

[The Vosth parasite organisms would not be extracted. They would die.]

My mouth was dry, but the idea of drinking water made me nauseous. It was like anyone or anything in Menley’s body was fair game for anyone.

[I want to be clear with you,] she said. Dammit. She could have just lied like they did in every dramatic work I’d ever read. Then, if the truth ever came out, I could be horrified but still secure in the knowledge that there was no way I could have known. No. I just got told to kidnap someone so the scientists could kill him. I wasn’t even saving anyone. Well, maybe in the future, if anyone got infested again.

Anyone the governors felt like curing, anyway.

Then she had to go and make it worse.

[We would not be in violation of any treaties or rules of conduct,] she wrote. [If we can develop a cure for or immunity to Vosth infestation, the de facto arrangement in place between our colony and the Vosth will be rendered null, and the restrictions imposed on our activities on the planet will become obsolete.]

I wished Endria was there. She could interpret this. [Isn't this an act of war?]

[We're confident that the Vosth will regard an unwarranted act of aggression as an expression of natural law,] the Governor explained.

That didn’t make me feel better, and I think it translated to yes. [I thought it was understood that things like that wouldn't happen.]

[It was understood that the dominant species could, at any time, exercise their natural rights,] the Governor explained. [Perhaps it's time they learned that they aren't the dominant species any more.]

***

We believe the ambient temperature to be pleasant for human senses today, Vosth-Menley told me when I got to the Ocean of Starve. I was beginning to wonder whether his reassurances were predation or a mountain of culture skew.

“What is your obsession with me feeling the air?” I asked him. Them. The Vosth.

You would be safe, Vosth-Menley insisted.

I should have asked Endria if the Vosth could lie. I should have kept a running list of things I needed to ask. “Listen,” I said.

We would like to understand, Vosth-Menley said again.

I read a lot of Earth lit. I’d never seen a butterfly, but I knew the metaphor of kids who’d pull off their wings. Looking at Menley, I wondered if the Vosth were like children, oblivious to their own cruelty. “What would you do if someone could take you over?”

Our biology is not comparable to yours, Vosth-Menley said.

Bad hypothetical. “What would you do if someone tried to kill you?”

It is our perception of reality that species attempt to prolong their own existence, he said.

“Yeah.” I was having trouble following my own conversation. “Look, you’re a dominant species, and we’re supposed to have a reciprocal relationship, but you take people over and—look.” I’d gone past talking myself in circles and was talking myself in scatterplots.

The back of my neck itched, and I couldn’t ignore it.

“What if I do want to take off my suit?” I asked, and then scatterplotted, “Do you have any reason to lie to me?”

The Vosth considered. Yes.

Oh. Okay. Great.

Our present actions are concurrent with a different directive, he added. There is reason to establish honesty.

Nothing was stopping him from attacking. He could have torn off my suit or helmet by now. Even if it was a risk, and it was a risk, and even if I had a phobia the size of the meterorite the Vosth had ridden in…

I’d seen how many Vosth had swarmed over Menley’s whole body, and how long it had taken him to stop twitching. If it was just a few of them, I might be able to run back to the compound. Then, if the governors really had a cure, they could cure me. And I’d feel fine about tricking the Vosth into being test subjects if they’d tricked me into being a host. That’s what I told myself. I didn’t feel fine about anything.

I brought my gloves to the catch on my helmet.

Two minutes later I was still standing like that, with the catch still sealed, and Vosth-Menley was still staring.

“You could come back to the compound with me,” I said. “The governors would love to see you.”

We are curious as to the conditions of your constructed habitat, Vosth-Menley said.

Yeah, I thought, but are you coming back as a plague bearer or an experiment?

I squeezed my eyes shut, and pried my helmet off.

***

I’d lost way too many referents.

The outside air closed around my face with too many smells I couldn’t identify or describe, other than “nothing like sterile air” and “nothing like my room or my shower.” Every nerve on my head and neck screamed for broadcast time, registering the temperature of the air, the little breezes through the hairs on my nape, the warmth of direct sunlight. My heart was racing. I was breathing way too fast and even with my eyes shut I was overloaded on stimuli.

I waded my way through. It took time, but amidst the slog of what I was feeling, I eventually noticed something I wasn’t: Anything identifiable as Vosth infestation.

I opened my eyes.

Vosth-Menley was standing just where he had been, watching just as he had been. And I was breathing, with my skin touching the outside air.

Touching the air.  That which touched the air belonged to the Vosth. I wasn’t belonging to the Vosth.

I looked toward the Ocean. Its silver underlayer was still there, calm beneath the surface.

I took a breath. I tasted the outside world, the gas balance, the smell of vegetation working its way from my nostrils to the back of my throat. This was a Vosth world, unless the governors made it a human world, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Looking back to Vosth-Menley, I didn’t know how he’d feel about it either.

“You came from beyond the shell of atmosphere,” I said. “Like we did, right?”

Vosth-Menley said, Our genetic predecessors came to this world on an meteorite.

“And you adapted, right?” I almost ran a hand over my helmet, but stopped before I touched my hair. I hadn’t sterilized my gloves. Never mind that my head wasn’t in a sterile environment anymore either. “Do you understand that we adapt?”

It is our perception of reality that living organisms adapt, he said.

That was a yes. Maybe. “Look, we don’t have to fight for dominance, do we?” I spread my hands. “Like, if you go off and re-invent technology now that you have hands to build things with, you don’t need to come back here and threaten us. We can have an equilibrium.”

His eyes were as dead as usual. I had no idea what understanding on a Vosth colonist would look like.

“We’d both be better.”

We are not averse to an equilibrium, Vosth-Menley said.

I swallowed. “Then you’ve gotta go now.” Then, when I thought he didn’t understand, “The governors are adapting a way to cure you. To kill you. Making us the dominant species. Look, I’m … telling you what will happen, and I’m giving you the option not to let us do it.”

Vosth-Menley watched me for a moment. Then he turned, and walked back toward the Ocean of Starve.

Interspecies incident, said a little voice at the corner of my mind. It sounded like Endria. Sterile or not, I sealed my helmet back onto my e-suit and walked back toward the colony at double-time.

***

That night I filed a report saying that I’d invited Vosth-Menley back, but he’d declined for reasons I couldn’t make sense of. Communications barrier. I thought of telling the Prime Governor that she should have sent a diplomatic auditor, but didn’t.

I didn’t hear anything until the next day when a survey buggy came back in, and its driver hopped down and said that something strange happened at the Ocean of Starve. Far from being its usual murky silver, it was perfectly clear and reflecting the sky. He said it to a governor, but news spread fast. It came to me via Endria as I was walking out of my lab.

“The only thing that would cause that would be a mass migration of the Vosth, but that’s not something we’ve seen in their behavior before now!” She glared at me like I might know something, which, of course, I did.

A diplomatic auditor came by later to take a complete transcript of my last interaction with Vosth-Menley. I left most of it out.

Survey buggies kept going out. People walked down to the Ocean shore. Auditors flashed radio signals out of the communications booth, but no one answered. The Vosth had vanished, and that was all anyone could tell.

***

I stopped wearing my envirosuit.

The first day, stepping out of my door, I felt lightbodied, lightheaded, not entirely there. I felt like I’d walked out of my shower without getting dressed. I had to force myself to go forward instead of back, back to grab my envirosuit, to make myself decent.

I walked into the hall where every moment was the sensory overload of air on my skin, where my arms and legs felt loose, where everyone could see the expressions on my face. That was as frightening as the Vosth. I’d just left behind the environmental advantage I’d had since I was ten.

But I was adapting.

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An Owomoyela

An Owomoyela smAn (pronounce it “On”) Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and a handful of Year’s Bests.  An’s interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between.  Se can be found online at an.owomoyela.net, and can be funded at patreon.com/an_owomoyela.

4 Responses »

  1. Excellent storytelling! I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and can’t wait to read more this author!

    • I love the way the author uses the protagonist’s envirosuit to represent a defence against the world. The suit isn’t only protection from infestation, although it is clear that the narrator goes through routines of obsessive cleaning; it protects from interaction with people: the helmet prevents the others from seeing facial expressions. Likewise, the human colonists have been hiding behind their “partition shell” and have accepted the status quo, the diktats of aliens that think themselves dominant.

      And I love that, when the governor decides to lure the Vosth into the compound, to destroy them and assert the human dominance, the protag alerts the aliens. To be able to do so, she must trust them, and quit her shell. The solution comes from a fish out water, a woman who doesn’t want to touch the air, a person that can change, even though she doesn’t understand. Well done!

  2. I like this a lot. Atmospheric! (groan.)

  3. This is my favorite short of all time. For some reason it just sticks with me.

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