Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Nine-Tenths of the Law

Donna had picked up Jared’s favorite—Romano’s to go, he liked the rosemary bread and the penne rustica—and was just putting it in the oven to keep warm when they brought him in. They being EMTs, after pounding urgently on the door, and brought him in meaning he was on a stretcher. He had an IV in his arm and his eyes were bandaged with thick layers of gauze.

Donna felt a flash of annoyance as the EMTs wheeled him toward their bedroom, sending their cat Skimbleshanks hissing and skittering nervously out of the way. She had planned to propose they separate that night, over the tiramisu she’d put in the fridge. Then Jared moaned, and she chided herself. She was still his wife . . . for now, at least. She ought to be beside herself with worry, not annoyed over having to put off an awkward conversation.

“What happened?” she asked, hovering in the doorway while they got him into his pajamas and between the sheets, fumbling in the darkness of the room. Jared seemed pretty out of it. Doped up on painkillers, maybe? “Why didn’t someone call me?”

“Workplace accident,” the woman replied, answering only the first of Donna’s questions. “He’ll be fine, he just needs to rest. Please don’t turn on those lights. His eyes are very sensitive right now.”

Jared worked in administration at Denver International Airport. “What sort of workplace accident?”

“Someone will be by to talk to you,” the woman assured her, her eyes flickering to the other EMT, a buff young man with tattoos and one of those man-buns.

“What sort of someone?” Donna did not have to fake the concern in her voice, as it was due to the oddness of the situation rather than her husband’s condition.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the front door. Donna left the EMTs to let in a man in a gray suit. His hair was short; his shoulders, broad. Donna thought he looked vaguely military, but the pin on his lapel was the new DIA logo, the white peaks of the airport’s distinctive roof against a dark blue background.

“Mrs. Crane?”

For now. She pushed away the thought, and nodded.

“My name is Mr. Smoot. I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances, but it’s a pleasure.” He did not try to shake her hand. “How is he?”

“He’s in bed,” she said. She suddenly smelled the food, and rushed into the kitchen to turn down the oven temperature. Mr. Smoot followed her. “That’s all I know at this point,” she said, over her shoulder. “What happened to him?”

“Nothing a few days of rest won’t cure.”

She frowned. “That he needs rest is all anyone’s told me.”

“There’s not much to tell. Just a workplace accident.” Donna was becoming annoyed; given how everyone was putting her off, she suspected something might really be wrong. Her face must have betrayed this, as Mr. Smoot set his briefcase on the table and opened it, withdrawing a single sheet of paper from one of the files. He handed it to her—it was a photocopy of an incident report.

She began to skim it as Mr. Smoot spoke; he and the document said basically the same thing: “He was riding in the employee train. They were testing a new sort of lighting system down there, and a bulb flared and burst. He was looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. We had him rushed to the hospital. They did a quick surgery—with a laser, nothing to worry about. Really, he will be fine. He’ll have to wear the bandages for a few days. When they come off, he’ll have two black eyes, but that should be it.”

“I see.” Donna set the paper on the table. She was relieved to finally have an answer, and understood why they’d wanted a DIA rep to tell her. Damage control; lawsuit avoidance. “I’m glad it’s not serious.”

Mr. Smoot smiled. “We are, too. Now, as to the logistics, you work as a dental hygienist, correct?”

Donna frowned. “Um, yes.” Creepy that he knew, but it must be in Jared’s file somewhere . . .? And yet, every time a new acquaintance learned her husband worked at Denver International Airport, they inevitably asked about one or more of the X-Files-style rumors that floated around the place like cottonwood fluff in the springtime. Was DIA where they’d take the President in the event of a global crisis? Did its murals predict the rapture? Were the delays and budget increases that had plagued its construction due to the secret alien research facility beneath the tunnels? The truth is out there . . . except it wasn’t. She’d been on tours of the facility with Jared. It was just an airport.

“We’ll make sure you get all the paid time off you need to take care of your husband. Or would you prefer a nurse be assigned? One will stop by, of course, to check in on him until the bandages come off, but without being able to see, he’ll need someone here to help him. We’ll of course cover any and all costs of home health care if you choose the second option, but we thought you might like a little mini-break.”

“Sure . . .” Donna may have gotten her GED, but she was no dummy. This was definitely lawsuit avoidance. “Thanks.”

“Excellent. Well, I’m sure you’d prefer to be in there with him than out here with me.” Mr. Smoot sniffed the air. “Smells like you had dinner ready for him . . . so sorry.”

“It’s just takeout,” she assured him. “Would you . . . like some?” Jared wasn’t going to want the penne rustica that she’d driven twenty minutes into Aurora to get. Someone ought to enjoy it, and Mr. Smoot wasn’t bad looking, actually. It might be nice to have dinner with someone different, just for a change. What might they talk about? The possibilities were endless! “I got wine. He probably can’t have any of it.”

“I’m sure once the painkillers wear off he’ll be hungry. Thank you though, very kind of you to offer.”

The EMT showed up in the kitchen doorway. “Mrs. Crane, he’s as comfortable as we can make him, and awake. He’s asking for you. And we’d like to go over some aftercare.”

“Thank you,” she said automatically.

“I should get going,” said Mr. Smoot, closing his briefcase. “Here’s my card,” he said, handing her one. “Call me if you need anything.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

• • • •

Just as they’d promised, all Jared needed was rest and darkness. A little help getting to the bathroom and back, or to the kitchen table for meals. After five days, the bandages came off, and for better or for worse he was back to his usual self.

Donna forced herself to put off bringing up a possible separation until at least his black eyes faded; tried to focus on the positive within their relationship. Jared had a good job, as did she. They lived in a nice house a reasonable commute away from the airport and the dental office where she worked, and had nice friends whom they saw regularly.

Turning these facts and others into a sort of litany, Donna began to doubt herself. Her life was good, so why did she feel so on edge all the time? Her feelings of dissatisfaction made no sense. Why did she feel relief instead of regret when Jared called to say he’d be working late? She shouldn’t feel that flash of annoyance when she heard his key in the lock; shouldn’t find it so irritating when she asked how his day was and he said, literally every afternoon or evening, “Good. Busy.” Shouldn’t resent the way he never asked about her day, or his perpetually preoccupied, predictable “Oh?” when she prompted him with an “I had a long day” or similar. That and a million other things ought not to make her nerves sing with tension and her heart flutter with frustration and resentment.

But they did.

• • • •

Jared was exactly the same after he recovered. That’s what confirmed for Donna that the oddness surrounding his accident was simply DIA attempting to avoid going to court. Jared worked the same amount, said the same damn things, ate with the same hand. Nothing was different about him. Sadly.

At least so she thought . . .

Just like every other part of their marriage, sex had become a routine. To be fair, that monotony was pleasant enough, not like his responses to her attempts at conversation. Always shy about such matters, Jared would turn off his light and pretend to sleep, waiting for her to tire of reading. Once she turned off her lamp, he would grope for her under the covers in the darkness of their bedroom, first finding a breast, then drifting down to her sex, which he would caress until she was wet enough to accommodate him. Usually she came, either while he was inside her, or after, squeezing her thighs together after he rolled off.

About a week after the accident, when the purple bruises around his eyes had faded to mustard yellow and a soft, pea soup green, Jared reached for her. She was ready. As far as she was concerned, Jared’s ability to sexually satisfy her, however inadvertently, was the only thing he had going for him. Responding more eagerly than usual to his touch, she was pleased when, instead of anxiously stroking her over her panties, he pulled them aside and slid a finger gently but deeply inside her—and gasped in surprise when he inserted a second.

All too soon he withdrew them both, to snap on his bedside light. She blinked, and when her eyes adjusted she saw he was sucking his fingers as he gazed at her exposed body. She shuddered, half-alarmed, half-aroused, and covered her breasts with her hands, unaccountably shy. He pulled them away almost roughly.

“I want to see,” he said.

His voice was the same, but something was different. His eyes. They glinted queerly in the light, like Skimbleshanks’ did when he was hiding under the bed. Were they a slightly different color now? Or was it just the low wattage of the bedside lamp and the sickly bruises?

She didn’t think long on it. How could she, while he was peeling down her undies and pushing her knees apart to inspect her sex? She was unable to interpret his expression—all she could come up with was wonder, but that wasn’t possible, not after ten years. And yet, how else could she explain the way his eyes widened and breath quickened as he spread her open before tasting her, which he’d never previously been particularly inclined to do. His attentions inspired her to respond with equal enthusiasm and soon she was suckling his hard cock. His delight inspired her, and she actually whined a little when he took it away from her—but her complaints turned to moans when he plunged it inside her and proceeded apace with more than his usual vigor.

He came before her, with an unexpected yelp much different from his usual relieved exhalation of breath; more aroused than she could ever remember being, she came as he slowed his thrusting. He said nothing after, just smiled and pushed her sweaty bangs away from her forehead before turning off the light. She was left in darkness, confused but far too happy to worry much about it as she drifted off.

The next morning she felt like a housewife in an old movie when she caught herself humming as she toasted her English muffin. Amazing, the power of excellent sex . . . she was actually in a good mood. Sliding into the chair beside him instead of across from him, she grinned at him.

“Have a nice time last night?”

“Hm?” he looked up from the paper. His awful bruised eyes no longer shone with that same intense, interested light.

“Last night,” she said, faltering.

“Oh,” he said vaguely. “Yes.”

Donna no longer had any appetite for her cooling English muffin, margarine coagulating in all the nooks and crannies. Feeling disappointed—even a bit betrayed—she said nothing as he folded the paper, gave her a quick peck on the cheek, and left for work without putting his cereal bowl in the sink, as usual.

• • • •

Things went back to normal, and Donna cooled down enough that when Jared next feigned sleep she didn’t keep reading until he really fell asleep, as she sometimes did when feeling particularly resentful. Indeed, she put her book down early, as she was curious to see if she’d be treated to another display of genuine interest in her needs and her body. Hell, if the shift proved permanent, she might be able to deal with their marriage. For a little while longer, at least.

He reached for her in the darkness, to her mild disappointment. As tired as she had become of her husband’s face, she had enjoyed watching him grimace and wince during their lovemaking last time. His lip had curled and his eyes had closed when he came; it had almost looked like it pained him, which had been very hot to watch. So, while she usually kept quiet during sex, that night she asked, “Want me to turn the light on?” as he fiddled with her nipple.

“What?” Jared’s surprise was genuine.

“The light,” she said. “Like last time.”

He paused, then reached over and snapped it on. “Definitely,” he said, as his eyes gleamed.

While she was tempted to pay more attention to the fact that he was already hard, she placed a hand on his chest.

“What’s going on?” She said it calmly.

Jared froze. She waited.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Something’s going on, and I want to know what it is. And I want to know badly enough that I’m putting off . . . things . . . which, let me tell you, is difficult after last time.”

Jared laughed. “You did seem to like it. I did, too.”

“Oh, now you want to talk about it?”

“I wanted to talk about it before, but . . .” He looked worried for a moment. “I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because . . .” He shrugged. “Because I’m not your husband.”

This shocked her less than she thought it should. Then again, she was tired of her husband. Whoever he was now, he had the advantage of not being Jared.

“All right,” she said. “Who are you, then?”

“That’s hard to explain . . .”

“Try.”

Jared—well, Not-Jared—nodded. “I thought it was strange, when I found out, that you don’t know. But your husband, he isn’t an . . .” Not-Jared squinted, as if thinking hard, “administrator. I mean, he is, but not for the airport. For what’s under the airport.”

She felt a frisson of fear and pleasure. The truth had been out there! All those times she’d scoffed at friends or strangers . . . “What’s under the airport?”

“A research facility. Around twenty of your Earth years ago, we made contact with you. Ever since, we—our two species—have been working to facilitate an experimental collaborative co-consciousness. Jared is hosting my mind in his body.”

Donna held up a hand. “Our two species? What sort of species are you?” It—it was now an it to her mind—opened its mouth, but before it responded, she added, “And what is your name?”

“My name is,” it sounded like Glreerak, and when Donna repeated it, Not-Jared—Glreerak—smiled and nodded. “Close enough. My world is—”

“You’re an alien.” Donna, again, felt minimal surprise.

“I am. But we are not so different. Neither of our species has achieved faster-than-light travel, and yet we wished to know more of who else might be living in our galaxy. My people are naturally able to separate our consciousness from our physical forms, so we developed the technology to send out a psychic beacon. You—humanity—were the first to respond.”

Donna finally felt upset. “And Jared? He knew? All this time?”

“Yes. He has been the . . . accountant for the program since before you were married, but his selection as my host was more recent. They ran tests on everyone who worked there, from the top scientists to the janitors, and he was the most naturally receptive to the process.” Glreerak stared at her. “This dismays you.”

“He never told me.”

“He could not. He was forbidden. But,” it was studying her face, “perhaps he ought to have trusted you? You are . . . married. It is the sort of relationship where confidences are exchanged, according to my understanding.” Donna nodded. She felt furious, miserable. “We have a similar pair-bonding—my species, I mean—where intimacy is encouraged.”

Donna dashed a tear from her eye. It felt ridiculous, crying about such a small thing, when she had been ready to leave Jared anyway. “Are you . . . pair-bonded?” she asked.

Glreerak nodded. “I am.”

“But the other night . . .”

It shrugged. “I am not in my own body. And I have been instructed by my government to find out as much as I can about human ways and lives. My mate knows sex is a part of that.”

Donna looked sidelong at it; met its eyes that were not her husband’s eyes. Jared wasn’t unattractive. She’d been very eager for his attentions when they began dating, set up by a mutual friend. Then, his reticence had seemed manly, his steady, government job a sign of maturity.

“So, does that mean you want to . . .”

Definitely,” it replied. “I am supposed to learn all I can about you, after all.”

“But for now,” it said, once it had her writhing, three fingers inside her, “let’s just keep this, ah, educational session between us?”

“Of course,” she gasped.

• • • •

Jared’s eyes healed up enough that he agreed to go to a party at a friend’s house. It was a nice time, for a bit, at least. Donna was with her girlfriends in the grass, giggling over a joint and drinking Mang-o-Ritas when her husband broke off from the pack of men standing around the grill to take her aside. He was grumpy after two scotch and sodas, and wanted to go home.

It was just so goddamn typical. She felt cute in her nice dress, the weather was finally good after several late spring snows, and she hadn’t seen Vicky or Marissa in a while. Of course he would be a pill.

“Just a bit longer,” she said, feeling like a child pleading with her parents to be allowed to stay in the pool.

“I didn’t want to come anyway,” he snapped. “We’ve stayed long enough.”

“But . . .”

“Donna, I have to work tomorrow.” She felt her expression sour at his condescending words in that exasperated tone. Work! Indeed he did, at his secret job, living his secret life. Well, she had to work, too, at her decidedly not-clandestine dentist’s office, her back aching as she picked things out of people’s teeth.

“Please?” she asked.

He shook his head, but then paused; looked back at her. “Well . . . all right,” he said, with a slow smile that was not Jared’s smile. “We haven’t been out in so long. You go spend time with your friends. I’ll get another drink.”

It was Glreerak speaking. She was sure of it. The alien was talking to her, here, in front of all these people. It was actually kind of a turn-on, the secret. Maybe she did want to go home . . .

“We can’t stay too late,” it cautioned her, waggling its finger. “But a bit longer. You’re having a nice time. Later, you can thank me,” it said, and winked.

They stayed until the sun set. Donna couldn’t remember the last time she felt so happy, alternating between chatting with her friends and sneaking kisses with Glreerak. When she climbed into the passenger’s side, she favored Jared—she was pretty sure he was Jared again—with a smile. He didn’t see it, however, sitting there with the key in the ignition.

“It got so late,” he said, sounding confused. “How did it get so late? I was ready to go hours ago.”

Donna froze. Of course, Jared didn’t recall when the alien took over. It had seemed so harmless in bed. But in public, among friends . . .

Then she recalled his tone, earlier, when he’d insisted they leave. Recalled that he had kept secrets from her—secrets bigger than how a pleasant afternoon had been passed.

“You had another drink,” she said as casually as she could, buckling her seatbelt as cover. “Maybe you got a little drunker than you realized. Sure you’re okay to drive?”

“I feel totally sober,” he said. “Huh.” He waited for another moment, then turned the key. “Better keep it to two next time, I suppose.”

Donna said nothing. Eventually, her heart slowed down.

• • • •

Before going into the induced sleep that allowed its mind to live within Jared’s, Glreerak dwelt beneath the waves, in a vast city of coral skyscrapers grown and maintained by bioarchitects to harvest and emit the faint light of the planet’s sun. Millions lived in that phosphorescently illuminated gloaming, lived and worked and loved and died in ways similar and different to humans in their cities on Earth.

Glreerak lived with its mate in a flat high above the ocean floor. It was comfortable—luxurious even, with a good view of the surrounding towers and parks and even the farmland beyond the city limits. They had been assigned such a wonderful home because while Glreerak’s mate was one of the scientists working on the project to make contact with Earth, Glreerak held a much higher-status job: sanitation.

As with all civilizations, waste removal was an issue. Burying garbage beneath the ocean bed poisoned the food supply; allowing it to drift away created problems for other cities. So, there was only one place it could go.

While all of Glreerak’s people were telepathic, only the most powerful communicators were able to pass the rigorous tests to become sanitation workers. Those who did were trained to develop their mental aptitude from a young age, until they were able to throw their minds into the bodies of simpler creatures, such as the mammal-like bipeds that lived on land. Teams of sanitation workers could combine their efforts to mobilize whole packs of them to haul waste out of the sea and inland, away from rivers and other tributaries, to minimize seepage back into the water. Glreerak was particularly talented; in fact, it could control these creatures for miles, and had seen more of its planet’s land masses than any other, such as the astonishing—

“Wait,” said Donna.

“What’s that?” said Glreerak.

It had been an intense evening. Donna had been overwhelmed by the menu at Linger, a trendy eatery with a spectacular view of Denver that Jared had never been willing to brave due to its world cuisine-inspired menu. Indeed, Jared would have hated it—would hate it tomorrow, given how spicy everything had been. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t notice anything even as fundamental as altered digestion. He’d been withdrawn and preoccupied of late, even for him, and had become nervous as well, startling at loud noises, rubbing his eyes.

To be fair, Linger’s menu had been a little weird for Donna, too, but she’d done all right with red wine, an order of sweet potato waffle fries, and the kofta, which turned out to essentially be meatballs dressed up for a night out.

Glreerak had liked everything, and the drinks along with the view of the city skyline had made it a bit homesick for its watery world.

“You can control other creatures with your mind?”

Glreerak didn’t answer; it just sipped on its cocktail, some weird thing called “Streets of Puebla” that Donna hadn’t liked at all.

“Well,” it said after swallowing, “yes. My telepathic prowess is why they chose me.”

Whatever she’d eaten for dinner felt like a cold and leaden lump inside her.

“So you knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That you’d be able to control . . . us.”

“No!” Glreerak pursed its lips. “We wondered—hypothesized, as my mate would say. But we didn’t know. I mean, it was a week before I felt comfortable enough to try, just to see. And it was you who inspired me, Donna. Your body was so soft—you seemed so receptive to pleasure. I had to see you! The shape of you, all of you. The way you responded to him, I couldn’t let my time on Earth go by without taking advantage of the endless possibilities you suggested to me . . .”

Was it wooing her with sweet talk to distract her from the idea of a mass invasion? Were Glreerak’s people testing the waters, so to speak, to turn humanity into their next generation of garbage-hauling slaves?

“You know, Donna,” it said, reaching its hand across the table to take hers, “when your husband takes his turn living in my head, we will be revealing our planet’s secrets to your species.”

More than thoughts of their lovemaking, this distracted Donna from her worries of a future invasion. “What?”

“Eventually he will return with me. I am to spend a year with him, then he will spend a year with me.” Glreerak looked upset. “I know he has been concerned about how to tell you—how to explain his absence. I thought you should know, though.”

“He agreed to all this without . . .” Donna shook her head. She was so unimportant to him. What a fool she had been!

“Are you upset about the idea of losing him for so long?”

Donna looked up from her wine, saw the gleam of the ocular implants as it tilted its head at her like a quizzical puppy. She was upset—but she was upset about losing Glreerak; jealous that Jared, who had all the sense of wonder of a sack of potatoes, would get to live with it on its planet. Would get to see how it made love to its mate.

She laughed. It was the only thing she could to, really. “Well, maybe he’ll come back with a few new tricks to try on me after watching you with your mate.”

“Perhaps. At home, I would be the one to be fertilized.”

Donna blinked at it. “You’re a woman?”

“No, you’re a woman. I’m barely female! It’s rather a bit more complicated, at home. If we were interested in reproducing, my mate would fertilize me. Once the egg developed to its solid jelly form, I would pass it back to be incubated in my partner’s pouch. Eventually we would give it over to the city, where it would be implanted into a host along with the rest of the eggs around its stage. Once fully mature, it would hatch, and eat its way out of—well,” it trailed off, seeing her face. “The point is, when we fuck for pleasure, it’s a bit different.”

“Sounds like it will definitely broaden his mind.” Donna smiled. “Glreerak . . .”

“Yes?”

“Even if we only have a year, we have a year. Together. Let’s make it a fun one.”

“It has been already!”

“Sure, the past few weeks have been great, but still—you didn’t come all the way to Earth just to go to work under DIA every day and live in Aurora.”

“Well, a month from now, Jared’s going on a tour of world heritage sites . . .” Glreerak paused. “Don’t be upset . . . you were to come on that one. Mr. Smoot has been arranging it with your job. It was to be a surprise. That’s why I didn’t tell you, either. You know I would have, don’t you, Donna?”

“Well then let’s at least go away for a weekend. To the mountains, maybe. Together. Just the two of us, I mean. When we go abroad, I’m sure we’ll have all kinds of handlers and such. If you—if Jared could get a half-day some Friday . . .”

Glreerak nodded, smiling in that way Jared never smiled at her. “Sounds delightful,” it agreed. “I’ll ask for the . . .” its eyes went a bit dim as they did when it was searching through Jared’s mind for the correct turn of phrase, “time off.”

“Good.” She reached for the small menu beside her elbow. “But first, how about dessert?”

• • • •

She decided on Steamboat Springs. It was inexpensive now that the snowpack was mostly gone, she knew no one who lived in the area, and there was a legendary hot spring up there, Strawberry Park, that was supposed to be gorgeous. Plus, the drive up would show Glreerak the mountains, where the aspens were still the pale gold-green of springtime against the dark pines.

It was exhilarating. The whole drive, Donna felt like she was going on a dirty weekend, even though it was her husband was in the passenger’s seat. Well, sort of.

Glreerak was pleased with everything—pointed out gorgeous vistas, gasped as they crested various passes. Jared would only have remarked on the traffic; worried whether they should have made dinner reservations.

Saturday, they took a picnic lunch up to the springs, sandwiches and chips and a can of the kale-flavored soda that Donna had only ever seen Glreerak buy. By late in the afternoon, they’d had enough of dipping in the various pools, heating up and cooling down by turns. But that was fine, they had urgent business in the hotel room.

Donna’s googling had told her Café Diva was a hot spot even in the warmer weather, but when they walked in the door, she saw something she didn’t like one bit. Vicky and her husband Mark were there, and before Donna could suggest ought to go elsewhere to avoid being spotted, they were.

“Donna!” cried Vicky. “I didn’t know you and Jared would be here this weekend. You sly dogs, are you on a lovers’ getaway?”

“Haha,” said Donna, just like that—not a laugh, but a statement. “Yeah, we are, you caught us.”

“We are, too! Come on, join us for dinner! It’ll be fun, you can go back to your place after.” She winked outrageously at Donna. “We’ve only just ordered starters.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t want to . . .”

“To what? Have fun? Come on, you won’t be bothering us.”

Donna looked to Glreerak. It shrugged.

They actually had a really nice dinner. Glreerak did well with Vicky and Mark, even if sometimes it had to think, scanning through Jared’s brain, before responding. Donna ordered a second bottle of wine to keep them from noticing too much. It seemed to work.

Back at the hotel, Donna collapsed onto the bed.

“That was close,” she said. “I’m so glad we’re free of them. I could barely eat, I was so worried.”

Glreerak pushed her skirt up over her thighs. “Your species’ constant need for nourishment isn’t unpleasant, but it’s a shame we have to leave the hotel to do it.”

“We can order room service tomorrow morning.”

“Good. No more distractions from what really matters.”

It was the longest amount of time they’d spent together without letting Jared surface. Donna felt bad—a little bit, at least—but she hadn’t wanted to argue with her husband about the drive, where to stay, what to do, where to eat. She’d wanted to enjoy some time with Glreerak without distractions, just for once.

When they cruised back into town that Sunday, after grabbing a late lunch in Denver, she felt a bit low to have to return to her marriage; her life. Even the idea of their upcoming around-the-world trip couldn’t cheer her. Glreerak had said they’d see the Library of Celsus—the Parthenon—the Pyramids—the Great Wall—the Tower of London—Machu Picchu . . . but she’d be seeing it all with Jared. She would know Gleerak was there, just beyond Jared’s eyes, but they wouldn’t be together. Not really.

They’d agreed on a cover story: A stomach virus had knocked Jared out all weekend. As Donna unpacked the last of their things, Glreerak changed into pajamas and got into bed.

“Wow, it must have really knocked me out,” remarked Jared, as Donna brought him a glass of watered-down Gatorade. “Well, I’m feeling better now.”

“I’m so glad,” said Donna. “You were really miserable. Probably best you don’t remember it.”

“Would you bring me my laptop? I ought to see if any work emails came in while I was so out of it . . .”

Yeah, maybe some new alien species made contact with the secret research facility where you work, she thought, but all she said was, “Sure.”

She took a long shower; took her time drying off. She’d brought her pajamas with her into the bathroom—it was silly, but she felt less comfortable changing in front of Jared of late. When she re-emerged, he was in bed, laptop open. He was staring intently at the screen.

“Hungry at all?” she asked, putting a little hopefulness into her voice, as if urging him.

He said nothing; didn’t look up at her.

“Well . . . let me know if you need anything,” she said. “I’m going to watch a little TV.”

“No,” he said. “Wait.”

When he looked up at her, finally, his expression was not a friendly one.

“More Gatorade?” she asked.

“I don’t want any goddamn Gatorade,” he said, throwing off the covers and advancing on her. Donna shrank against the wall. Jared was really upset; he didn’t usually swear . . .

“What’s wrong?”

What’s wrong? What’s wrong is that I was in Steamboat Springs this weekend,” he said. “Apparently I had a lovely dinner with Vicky and Mark in some restaurant up there. But how could that be, if my wife assures me I was sick in bed?”

Donna didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t anticipated this; hadn’t thought she would ever be caught. Oh, she’d been such a fool!

“Nothing to say?”

She shrugged; shook her head.

“How long have you known?”

“Known . . . about Glreerak?”

Who?

Donna felt faint. “Your . . . your experimental collaborative co-consciousness.”

Jared’s eyes went wide. He grabbed his phone; dialed quickly. “I need someone here, now. To bring me in,” he said. “Yes. Yes. Yes!” He hung up the phone.

“Bring you in?”

“You think I’m going to drive, knowing it could take me over at any moment?” he snarled, almost yanking out a dresser drawer in his haste to grab a shirt. “Oh god, what am I going to tell them? None of us knew it even had a name, much less that it could make a puppet of me without my consent of my knowledge! None of us . . . except you.”

“I can explain . . .”

“Oh, please do!” he said, struggling into a pair of sweatpants. “I’m eager to hear you explain going out of town for a weekend with it.” His eyes snapped back to hers. “You fucked it, didn’t you? You fucking fucked it!”

Donna wished Glreerak could intervene, but it had told her it was more difficult to take over Jared when he was emotionally agitated. She would just have to deal with this on her own. “Well . . .” she began.

“Never mind! I don’t want to hear it, actually. I’m leaving,” he said unnecessarily, “and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

“It’s not up to me,” he snapped. “But I have my doubts they’ll be pleased. This was not part of our agreement! Jesus, they can take us over! No wonder they were so eager for this partnership . . . this is not good, this is really not good. Where are they?” he said, stomping out of the bedroom.

Donna felt a chill as she followed him into the living room, and not in regards to Jared’s fears of planetary domination. “Can’t we talk about this?” she said, pleading with him.

“Talk? Talk about what?”

“Are they going to terminate the . . . the co-habitation?”

“Probably! Donna, I was supposed to be reporting anything strange. This is new technology—new law—new everything!” He shook his head. “I’m such an idiot. I knew something was wrong, but I believed your excuses. How stupid of me, to trust my own wife!”

Now Donna was furious; all her rage came bubbling up like lava, hot and toxic. “Trust! You want to talk about trust? If Glreerak hadn’t told me, how would I have known? You never even told me where you worked, what you did!”

“It’s top secret!”

“Top secret!” She scoffed at him. “You reached for me that first night, you know. Did it excite you, the idea of it watching us?”

He blushed. She’d never seen him blush, not in a decade of marriage. “It was here to learn about us! That includes how married couples . . . um, behave with each other!”

“I guess it learned a hell of a lot, didn’t it? Mission accomplished.” Something occurred to Donna, contemplating the way she and Jared had behaved with one another, before Glreerak. She really didn’t want to go back to that. Couldn’t go back to that. “Maybe . . . maybe you won’t have to terminate the relationship. Maybe there’s a way . . .”

“What?” Jared’s face crumpled. “A way? You’re more worried about losing your lover than my mental health! It was taking me over, Donna! It pushed me out of my own mind, my own body! My own marriage!”

“No. We pushed ourselves out of that.”

There was a knock at the door. Donna answered it. There stood Mr. Smoot; behind him were several military men brandishing weapons. Mr. Smoot was the only one who appeared unarmed, but given everything, it wouldn’t surprise her if he had something concealed on his person.

“Come in,” she said, as if this were the most typical of social calls.

“I’m afraid I can’t,” said he, equally pleasant. “Jared? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me,” he said, not exactly elbowing his way past Donna, but not waiting for her to move out of the doorway, either. “Let’s go.”

They walked to the black car parked in the driveway, Donna barefoot and following at a bit of a distance. She felt embarrassed to be seen with her damp hair and worn cotton pajamas, but she couldn’t help but tag along. She would likely never speak to Glreerak again. She had no idea if she would ever see Jared, either. He had to come back at some point . . . didn’t he?

Who could say? He’d never told her anything about any of it.

There was no time to ask. Mr. Smoot got in the driver’s side, and Jared slammed the car door shut in her face as she approached. He had clearly not calmed down at all, but maybe Glreerak would peek through, one last time. She looked into her husband’s eyes, hoping to see the familiar gleam . . . but as Mr. Smoot put the car in reverse, late afternoon sunlight glinted off the passenger window. It was impossible for Donna to tell who it was who mouthed “good-bye.”

 

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Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer is the author of forthcoming novel Creatures of Will and Temper, as well as Vermilion, The Pleasure Merchant, and the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book Award-nominated collection-cum-mosaic novel A Pretty Mouth. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, The Lovecraft eZine, and the forthcoming Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender and Genderqueer Speculative Fiction, as well as many other locations. Her other editorial projects include being the editrix of Congress Magazine, which publishes thoughtful erotica, and c0-editing Swords v Cthulhu (with Jesse Bullington) and the forthcoming Mixed Up! (with Nick Mamatas). She lives in Boulder, CO.