Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Salamander Patterns

I hadn’t meant to become an astronaut, but these things happen. I worked hard, because I liked working hard, and that’s just where I landed. Apparently a chemical engineer with a PhD in molecular physics and a half-dozen Iron Man trophies is overqualified for most other jobs. I’m not complaining. Not meaning to become an astronaut and not wanting to be an astronaut are two entirely different things. Sometimes people don’t understand that when I try to explain, though.

Which makes explaining the salamander even harder.

* * * *

I stretch out on the bed and stare up at the ceiling. It’s one of those textured ones that was so popular in the ’90s, big lumpy bumps forming random shapes, like constellations in the night sky. They’re all familiar. I spent my childhood staring up at that ceiling.

“What do you see?” I ask the salamander grafted to my neck.

“Are you testing my capacity for human-style imagination?” it asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m testing your ability to impose meaningful patterns on random data.”

There’s a shift in pressure at my throat that makes me swallow. The salamander is looking around, pondering.

The blob-shape on the ceiling I’m fixated on has always presented two possibilities to me. In the first instance, it’s a woman with her hair pulled up in a bun; it’s an old fashioned sort of bun—pulled up, so the hair is big and poofs out from the head before coiling into a spiral that takes up the whole back of her skull. She doesn’t have a mouth, but her nose sticks out in a long point.

If I squint the other way, it’s an ice cream cone.

“You don’t like this room,” the salamander says. “You have strong negative associations with it. Your response to it is one you interpret as claustrophobia.”

“That’s not something you see. That’s something you feel,” I say.

“But I do see it. It’s part of trying to see what you see. You aren’t actually finding patterns anymore, but recalling past associations.”

That’s probably true. “And?”

“It’s an ice cream cone.”

I smile. I’m glad it sees the ice cream cone instead of the mouthless woman. I don’t know why.

There’s a light tap on the door and I hear my Dad’s voice. “Sharon? Dinner.”

“Coming.”

I’m thinking of the ice cream cone and what the salamander said about me, just remembering old patterns I’d found, as I go downstairs and take my seat at the table. I’m sitting in the chair farthest from the kitchen, with my back to the patio doors, just like I always did growing up—and have continued to do on visits home to my parents. I do this even though it puts an empty chair to either side of me, where my siblings, who are not here, used to be.

“Did you have a nice nap, sweetie?” my mother asks.

“I wasn’t napping,” I say. “I still can’t nap.” Thirty-three years old and I’ve never napped.

“Oh,” Mom says. Then she smiles too big and makes her chair squeak horribly as she scoots in.

“How did your appointment with the doctor go?” Dad asks.

It was terrible. The doctor had started off by consoling me about the salamander, then dove right in with possibilities for removing it. “Humanely, of course,” he’d said when he paused long enough to hear my protests. Never mind that what I’d been protesting was the idea that I needed consolation, or that the salamander should be removed. I’d sat there for twenty minutes in the scratchy gown with the confusing ties. Then I told him I’d have to think about what he’d said before I made any decisions. All the while the salamander sat docile on my neck, never saying a word in defense of itself.

“It was fine,” I tell my Dad.

“Any . . . news?” my mother asks.

I blink at her, my fork stopped halfway between my plate and my mouth. She is clearly referencing something—and expects me to know what—but I have no idea. “What kind of news?”

“From the doctor. About Sally.” My mother refers to the salamander as Sally. A doctor on one of mom’s talk shows said that we should try to treat the salamanders the way we would treat humans and develop positive relationships with them. He said it’s better for those “afflicted” with accidental grafting. As if this is something that happens routinely.

Salamanders are not just like humans. They do not conceptualize themselves the way we do, and they find our self-conceptions peculiar and unsettling. Also, Sally is a stupid name.

“I’m not having it removed,” I say.

My mother drops her fork to the table, its tines clattering as they bounce off the edge of the plate. “Don’t you want it removed?”

This argument again. We’ve been having it for as long as I can remember. Not always about removing the salamander—it’s only been a year—but about my failure to do, or be, what they think I should want to do or be. Our relationship was supposed to evolve past this when I moved out, when I became an adult. It didn’t, but at least I’m on comfortable footing again. I know how to have this argument. I stick my fork into the pile of noodles on my plate and twist. “I have a responsibility,” I say as I pull a be-noodled fork clear from the rest of the plate. “I’m going to see it through.”

“Don’t be stupid, Sharon. You’re not like those others. You didn’t ask for this. Nobody can hold you to those obligations.”

It can,” I say. I shove noodles in my mouth. “And it’s right here, listening.”

My dad cuts in, his tone placating, his fork covered in sauce. “Let’s change the subject.”

* * * *

None of modern space exploration would be possible without the salamanders. They came to us and taught us how to make it practical, economical, easy. All they asked for in exchange were hosts, humans who would carry them around, sustaining them and letting them study us. A lot of people find this disturbing for some reason, but it’s hardly different from letting Google track your data usage. You go around surfing the web, it learns everything about you. Except all you get from Google is an improved ad experience, whereas the salamanders are giving us the stars.

What I mean is that it doesn’t make sense to be more disturbed by the salamanders than you are by the electronics you use every day.

It’s not that the salamanders need people without emotions like they imply on the news. They’d have you think the salamanders can only graft onto people lacking in real feeling or empathy. But that’s not it at all; they don’t need an absence of emotion, but a distance from it. They get overwhelmed by people who get overwhelmed. They need people who can think through what they’re feeling, who can experience a thing while watching themselves experience a thing. It’s not that they have an antipathy to empathy. They just need a host with a certain amount of detachment so they can maintain their own detachment and watch us.

Can you blame them?

* * * *

I’m lying on my bed again, staring at the ceiling. A foot away from the mouthless lady/ice cream cone is a lumpy huddle of sheep. They aren’t really sheep—they don’t look like anything—but one night I couldn’t sleep and had counted three hundred imaginary sheep, so I decided to find more tangible ones. That wasn’t a pattern I found, but one I imposed. And I remember it, all these years later.

“Why do you come back here, when you dislike it so much?” the salamander asks me.

“They’re my family,” I say, because it’s the only answer I have. Everybody has problems with their family, but you put up with them because they’re family. There’s no such thing as a functional family. We all know that, even if half of us make ourselves miserable by trying to be the exception.

“Are you dependent on them in some fashion?” the salamander asks.

“They’re the only family I have. I don’t get another one.”

“Why do you need a family?”

This question stumps me. This happens sometimes, when talking to the salamander. They aren’t individuals the way we are, so they’re fascinated and confused by social networks among humans, the ways our individuals form collectives. I find I can’t explain the function of families to the salamander because I’m so fuzzy on the subject myself. I know that family matters and that mine cares for me—people have been assuring me of both points since I was very small—but I am at a loss to articulate why.

“They provide a critical support network, a reliable fallback for resources and assistance should something fail.”

The salamander shifts, pressure moving away from my throat and toward my collarbone. “Like for raising children?”

“Yes,” I say, pleased to have found something to offer as an explanation. “Grandparents are great babysitters.”

“But you have no children. You have no plans to have children. Why come back here when you don’t plan to use the benefits rendered by doing so?”

Because where else was I going to go for my mandatory three-week vacation? The last time I’d had a mandatory break was college. Maybe that’s what I should tell the salamander: We need family so we have somewhere to go when our professional lives start to fall apart. Before I can say that, I hear a gentle tapping on my door. I sigh, but I don’t move. I can already predict the next twenty minutes and nobody is going to be happy at the end of them. “Come in,” I say.

“Sharon, can we talk?” my dad says as he comes in the door, his face wearing that I come in peace to be the voice of reason expression he uses whenever he feels trapped between me and my mother.

I sit up, suppressing the sigh I feel coming on. “Sure.”

“Your mother means well,” he says as he sits down next to me on the bed. “This is very hard for her.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with her,” I say. “It happened to me. It’s my life. This is my decision.”

“But it reflects on her. On us.”

The salamander shifts on my neck. When it talks, I’m the only one who can hear it, but it still rarely speaks when there are others around. It’s an observer, and tries very hard not to influence things as they are happening.

“You think this makes you look bad?” I say.

“We think we wouldn’t be very good parents if we weren’t worried. You know what those things are. What they need. We want you to be happy. But if you’re a salamander host, how can that happen?”

This conversation hasn’t quite gone where I expected it to. Discomfort with the salamander, I’d expected. Pressure to pretend the accident never happened, or to make a big deal out of it, I’d expected. But this is something . . . subtler. I’m not sure what to do with it. “I would be unhappy if I had the salamander removed.”

My dad sighs, and I wonder whether he loathes these peace-making conversations as much as I do. “I love you, Sharon. Your mother and I both do. And we’ll always support you, whatever you do. But we want what’s best for you. So if you don’t want the salamander removed, will you do something else for me?”

“That depends on what,” I say, always reluctant to commit to anything I don’t understand.

“Talk to somebody. A counselor, or a psychologist, or a priest. Somebody objective. Work through things with them. If you do that, and you still want to keep the salamander, that’s fine.”

He’s certain I’ll change my mind. He also knows that I’d never, voluntarily, “talk to somebody.” This is one of those impossible situations where, in order to avoid looking like a stubborn, unreasonable person in the face of an absurd expectation, I have to give in to another absurd expectation. He thinks he’s being fair, kind. He really does. I think about trying to explain to him why he’s wrong. But it will be one of those cold fights, where we’re both perfectly calm and reasonable, and both walk away hurt and disappointed. My teenage years are a mass of scars from those discussions and attempts. He will not understand and I’ll never know whether it’s because he can’t or he refuses to. But even if nothing else between us has changed since I was a teenager, I have at least learned that much. “I’ll think about it,” I say.

He smiles, pats my shoulder. “That’s all I ask.”

No, what he asked was for me to either cut the salamander out of my neck or to validate their sense that there’s something wrong with me by seeking help for it. But he loves me. He’ll always support me. Him and my mother, both.

The thing is, he’s almost right. He looks at me and sees the sole survivor of a devastating accident, physically maimed by the event, and refusing to deal with the psychological trauma. That person probably does need to deal with it. That person probably should talk to somebody. Standing up to that person to make sure they get the help they need probably is the best way to express love and support.

“They don’t understand you very well,” the salamander says when my father is gone.

The problem is, I’m not scarred, and I wasn’t traumatized.

* * * *

I never meant to be an astronaut, but not because I didn’t want to be one. Growing up, being an astronaut meant lots of training for the chance to spend a few days in a tin can hovering in the exosphere, eating terrible food and urging middle-schoolers into STEM fields via web-cam. We’d already been to the moon and, when we were being honest, had given up on sending people anywhere else. “Astronaut” just wasn’t a career option a practical person would find attractive.

“Your subconscious wanted it,” the program director told me when they offered me the job. “You couldn’t have a more perfect resume for an astronaut if you’d tried.” This comment irritated me a great deal. He wanted to be an astronaut, and in order to like you, he needed to think that you did too. So he invented a life-long self-delusion for me to make me palatable, and never questioned whether that explanation might make me unqualified for the position.

The director’s well-intentioned, irritating quirks aside, I quite enjoyed working for the program. The salamanders claimed they’d come from Venus and, publicly, we let that stand. In the program, we knew it was a lie—their arrival trajectories made no sense with a Venusian origin point—but they didn’t try to sell the people in the program on it. Wherever they were actually from, whatever they were actually doing, at this point they were a fascinating species giving us technology we craved and access to the universe in exchange for consensual hosting by a very small number of volunteers. Everybody suspected there was another shoe waiting to drop, but there was little we could do until it did. So we kept our eyes open and learned everything we could.

I’d found a niche I enjoyed, got along well with my colleagues, and looked forward to Penelope’s launch. My workload was reasonable, which meant I had time to pursue side interests. That was deliberate. The program wanted us cross-trained as heavily as possible.

To a point.

“You got a minute, Sharon?” the program director asked me one day. He was in his late fifties, too old for a position on Penelope but young and fit enough to fantasize about an exception.

“Sure.”

“It’s about this application you submitted last week. To join the ambassador program.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“You need to withdraw it.”

I turned in my chair to look at him directly. He liked that from the people working under him, especially women. It made him feel like they trusted him enough to be assertive, and he desperately wanted us to trust him. To like him. To petition the higher brass to give him his hoped-for exception. “Why?” I asked. “I passed the psychological exams. I qualify.” That I’d even consented to the psychological exams should have been proof of my interest in the project.

“That’s the problem,” the director said. “We don’t want the public knowing one of our astronauts qualifies as a salamander host.”

This came as a surprise to me. Up to that point I’d only thought of the benefits to the project, the advantages of having an active salamander with the crew to provide advice and guidance if something went wrong. It had seemed to me like the very sort of thing the brass would want. “I don’t understand.”

“There’s a word for the people who qualify as hosts. It’s not one we want associated with our crew.”

I still didn’t understand. “What word?”

“Psychopath.”

More surprise. “You think I’m a psychopath?”

In that moment I could see him remembering our first conversation, reconsidering his assertion that really, deep down, his dream had always been mine, too. I did not like the conclusion he seemed to be drawing. “I think you need to withdraw your application. We won’t allow a salamander host onto the crew.”

I spent four days thinking about it, then withdrew.

Of course, something went wrong. We hadn’t even launched yet and the engines were sending up warnings. We delayed the launch an hour to troubleshoot them. Thirty minutes later they were cycling out of control. The evacuation alarms sounded ten minutes later. We’d drilled for a four-minute evacuation. The explosion came at one minute, thirty seconds.

I’d taken post near the salamander storage facility on the ship since none of my skills were useful for troubleshooting the engines; I could contribute best by staying out of the way and monitoring conditions in areas the rest of the crew weren’t in. That was what saved me from dying in the initial blast. I was still a goner, except that the salamanders had been blown out of their storage, too. One of them crawled toward me, the long, tapered appendage that served as an arm and looked like a tail coiling around it when it reached me. Then it tickled my ear.

“We can save each other,” it said. “Will you host me?”

I didn’t need to think about my answer.

And the merging? Nothing in the universe would convince me to give up that experience.

I miss my crewmates. I’m sorry the mission failed before it ever launched. Six months of recovery from my injuries was intensely unpleasant. But I wasn’t traumatized by the accident.

It gave me the stars in a way success never would have.

* * * *

I agreed to talk to a counselor. There were another two weeks in my enforced vacation and it was that or leave my parents early. My siblings were coming for the weekend. It would have been awkward, complicated, and needlessly dramatic. My siblings didn’t deserve to walk into that. I did insist on a counselor, not a psychologist. I’m not going near anybody who has the authority to do anything.

Her office is drab and plain. Dr. Geffston. Beige Berber carpeting and faded chairs with worn padding. No fish tank, but several ficus plants. Neutral-warm smile as I sit down across from her.

“How is Sally?” she asks.

“Who? I’m Sharon,” I say.

Dr. Geffston points to her neck. “The salamander.”

“The salamander doesn’t have a name,” I say. “And it doesn’t want to be discussed. It’s an observer. It doesn’t change anything.”

“And you’re sympathetic to that?” the doctor asks.

My patience for this is shorter than I thought it would be. Already I want to be anywhere else, and care less about the consequences than I should. “Since you’ve already spoken to my mother, it shouldn’t be hard for you to realize that the problem is her inability to accept that my choices aren’t about her. Why don’t you have her come in and tell you all about Sally?”

Dr. Geffston doesn’t react. I wonder how many of the people chosen as salamander hosts have training like hers. Is she actually detached, or just faking it to be professional? “I may do that,” she says. “But while you’re here, let’s focus on you. This isn’t the first time you’ve talked to someone like me, right?”

No. “I was an astronaut. We have to talk to lots of people like you to get and keep that job.”

“And before that?”

I was eight. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

“Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to host the salamander.”

I’m relieved she changed the subject, and I’m sure she notices. “It’s not like anything. I mean. Nothing’s different.”

“Really?”

“Nothing with me. Other people are different. They treat me differently. For the first six months I wasn’t sure whether it was the accident or the salamander. I think it was both.”

“And now?”

“Now, obviously, it’s the salamander. The accident was a year ago.” I roll my shoulders a bit as the salamander shifts at my neck.

“In what ways do people treat you differently?”

“They worry about me so much I have to come here to calm them down.”

Dr. Geffston has a tablet resting on her lap, but she’s not using it to take notes. I wonder what the point of having it is. “But they have worried about you like this before.”

The sigh escapes before I can stop it. I start to cut it off, then reconsider. It’s like a hiccup mid-sigh. But that’s all I need to reach my decision. “There’s no point to this,” I say. “Thank you for your time.”

“Sharon!” she calls as I reach the door.

I put up with a lot for the program. I was getting the stars in exchange. But this? There’s no reward for this.

* * * *

I can’t face going home so soon. I go to a food court instead, scarf around my neck to hide the tell-tale lump from the salamander. Milkshake, French fries, and cheesy pop music over hollow loudspeakers. It’s a sort of hell, really. I haven’t been to a food court since high school, but for now it’s better than the alternative. I eat the fried potatoes and wonder whether I ought to regret walking out, whether it was worth the pique of temper. The aftermath of getting angry always leaves me a little afraid.

“Can you take me away from this?” I ask the salamander.

“It is unlikely they will restart the project. And if they do, it is unlikely they’ll allow you to crew it,” the salamander replies.

These are things I know already. The French fries are too salty and I adore it. “What about . . . how it was when we merged?”

“I don’t understand why you came back here,” the salamander says.

It has ignored my question. Salamander tact. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And I hadn’t been home since before the project started. I was overdue.”

“You owe them visits?”

“Something like that.”

“And what do they owe you?”

Love. Support. Understanding. “Nothing.”

“Yet you honor the obligation. You are unhappy, but you make no effort to change that.”

I look at the food, the plastic table, the laminate flooring. It ignored my question and I noticed. If I ask again, will I get an answer? I suspect not.

Salamanders don’t go backward.

* * * *

I remember the first time I saw the mouthless woman on the ceiling. I was six. We’d moved into the house just a few weeks before. I stared up at the ceiling from my bed, watching morning sunlight crawl across it and wondering whether it was late enough for me to get up yet. I’ve never slept much, and even then I knew that trying to keep up with me exhausted my parents. So I held still, looking to the ceiling for my amusement, and there she was. I spent a good while wondering whether I’d ever be able to scoop my hair into a bun like hers. I wondered whether her nose had always been so pointy, or if she’d gotten herself into trouble like Pinocchio.

A few years later I made up a backstory for her. Lying in bed, two weeks after I punched Jimmy Calton for stealing my best friend’s Lisa Frank folder. I was scared because the doctor told me that if I didn’t control my temper he’d take me away from my family, send me to a school for other kids like me. I didn’t know how they’d be like me, just that what I was was horrible, and that the other children would be as well.

So I didn’t think about the doctor, or Jimmy Calton, or my parents whispering furiously when they thought I couldn’t hear. The lady on my ceiling was a mom, a new mom. She loved her little baby too much for words. Bad fairies were jealous and they cursed her, taking away her mouth so she could never even sing her baby a lullaby. But she loved that baby anyway, even if she was cursed. She loved that baby so fiercely that even without a mouth, even with her pointy nose, she’d never let anybody take it away ever.

I never found her baby.

* * * *

I don’t take off the scarf, and I don’t talk about Dr. Geffston. I go out as much as I can, though I have no friends and no connections in this place. I just have to take it one day at a time, and then it’s over. I’ll wait three more years before coming back, and just stay for a week next time. Maybe things will be better by then. Maybe next time, it’ll go differently.

My siblings arrive late on Friday, spouses and children in tow. The kids take over the living room as their bedroom for the weekend, and my siblings put down air mattresses in their respective childhood rooms. My sister is jetlagged and disappears to bed before long. My brother’s wife does the same, though without the excuse. My brother and I stay up late in the kitchen.

“You need tackier jewelry if you’re going to wear scarves like that,” he says as he pours us a drink. Then he hesitates. “Can you still drink?”

I scowl. “I’m not pregnant. Give it here.”

He teases me, holding the tumbler just out of reach, but I step on his foot and he repents. I’ve missed him, and I can feel the salamander wriggle in response to my sudden awareness of just how much.

“The folks are worried about you,” he said.

I sip my drink. “I know.”

“Should I?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.” He downs his drink, pushes his glass aside. “So is this the sort of mandatory three-week vacation where you still have a job at the end?”

I shrug. “Yes, technically. Not sure for how long, though.”

“No funding?”

I take another sip. I know he won’t tell anybody, but still. How much should I share? “No salamanders. They’re leaving.”

“Back to Venus?” my brother asks.

The squirming is somewhat uncomfortable. I take a breath, try to ease the salamander. It’s not normally like this. “The hosted ones will stay, but their ambassadors and the ones who’ve been teaching us are moving on. They don’t have the patience to keep teaching us anymore. Either we figure out what happened on our own, or no stars after all.”

He refreshes our drinks, though I haven’t finished mine yet. “Well, we’ll figure it out. How long do you think it will take?”

“No idea. I’m not that kind of engineer.”

He nudges me, grinning. “You’re just about everything else, though. What’s next for you?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe biology. Well, xenobiology.”

“You want to study the salamanders who stay?”

“Of course,” I say, grinning because I can tell he understands. Not in any way he could articulate. But he gets me. He always has. I don’t have to explain the salamander to him, which makes me want to. “We can’t go to the stars, but a piece of them came to us. I think it would be nice to take a closer look at that.”

“What does Sally think of that?” he asks.

I cringe.

He squeezes my bicep. “Sorry. Our parents are assholes.”

I drink to that.

* * * *

While they’re grafted to their hosts, the salamanders see and feel everything their host experiences. The relationship is reversed during the grafting. I didn’t just sense what the salamander was sensing right then, its panic over the explosion, its fear of dying alone in the flames, but I got a sense of everything it had seen and experienced, the sum of all that it was.

They’d come from far, far away. Much farther than Venus.

They were all the same creature. They’re like starfish, where the pieces survive when you cut them off. They can wander around on their own for a bit, but they’ll come back eventually. Join again. There is no going home for a salamander, just becoming whole.

I saw the galaxy, the universe, spread whole and fragile and graspable before them. I felt novae burn and explode and knew it was nothing, a mere second of the cosmic whole, while I would stretch long past it.

I found thousands of little species, planet-bound and frightened of their smallness, their confinement. And I reached out my hand to help them, the ones that could be helped.

I learned the pattern and shape of the universe, rode the crests of its waves, sank deep into its troughs. I tore off pieces of myself to study it closely, intimately, to become lost in the ebb of it before coming back into me.

I became small.

I accepted confinement.

And I woke up to burning. My other pieces of self destroyed. Facing a moment where I would never be me again, would lose the knowledge and experience I’d gained from my temporary sundering.

Found the girl, the woman, the dying creature I might save, if only she’d let me save this small part of myself.

I became alien, and I folded the universe within me. I was happy.

And then I was Sharon, and there was a salamander living in my neck.

* * * *

“They make you different,” the salamander says after my siblings have left. “It helped me understand.”

“Good,” I say. And I am pleased. If the salamander is beginning to understand, maybe I’m getting closer, too. I pause for a moment, a pair of socks clutched in my hands. Then I recall myself to my task, put them in the bag.

“You’re leaving,” it says.

“Spending the next two weeks alone in my apartment won’t be so bad. I think we’ll all be happier.”

“Could we visit another host?” the salamander asks. It is the first time it has ever suggested that I do something. The first time it has asked me for something since I consented to host it.

“I think that would be nice.” I’m standing on my bed, neck bent to look up at the ceiling, sharpie in hand. “Will you be able to merge with the other salamander?”

“No,” it says. “But we can share what we’ve learned.”

It is awkward to draw on the ceiling, my wrist is bent at an uncomfortable angle, but it only takes a few strokes and I am finished.

“It’s not an ice cream cone anymore,” the salamander says.

“No,” I agree, smiling up at my vandalized ceiling. And the woman with the pointy nose and old-fashioned bun looks down at me, smiling back.

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Anaea Lay

Anaea LayAnaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, and plots to take over the world. The rumors that she never sleeps are not true. She has no comment on the rumors about the disconcerting noises emanating from her basement. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nightmare, Apex, Strange Horizons, Penumbra, and Shock Totem.  Find her online at anaealay.com.