The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch. I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls are little defense against the artificial dawn.
I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those already ebbing in my bloodstream.
I’ve no choice but to face the day.
My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.
My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.
My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing, because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my instructions.
The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing, clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.
I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.
Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.
I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.
My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.
My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.
Snow blanketed the California coastline like icing spread on cake with a child’s heavy hand. The cold air clung to my skin and burned my lungs, burst through my lips in streams of vapor. Waves crashed against a shore barren but for my own footprints. The swath of the Milky Way dominated the night sky. I picked out Jupiter, imagined the neighboring space-folding anomaly, and the mysteries that awaited.
A cluster of buildings squatted against the wind nearby. Laughter inside indicated the rest of the team had already begun celebrating. A smile haunted my face. I was never one for parties.
My wrist buzzed. I flipped open the display and accepted the call. Laquan’s broad grin filled the screen.
“I got your message,” he said, face flushed. “Congratulations, love. We’re all going crazy about the news, up here in Toronto. I mean, a real goddamned wormhole!”
“Right in our own backyard.” I couldn’t keep the quaver from my voice. “What are the chances?”
“And there’s already plans for an unmanned probe?” Laquan’s excitement was as contagious as ever. “This is awesome. I mean, without your research they might never have found the damn thing. We need to celebrate. When are you coming home?”
“Hard to say. It’s busy as hell down here. Interviews, briefs, proposals–it’s a bit overwhelming.”
Laquan smiled. “You’ll do great. Miss you.”
“Miss you, too. It’s colder here than in Canada. Crazy weather.”
Footsteps crunched through the snow behind me. Orange and spice teased my nostrils. Bare skin brushed my hand, raising the hairs on my nape. Natalia winked at me with her long lashes. My stomach fluttered.
“Everything alright, love?” Laquan said from my wrist.
Natalia flashed me a coy glance from beneath her hood.
“Laquan, I’d better go. Love you.”
“Hurry home.” The screen went dark.
Natalia hoisted a bottle of champagne, salacious grin tracing her lips.
“Time to celebrate,” she said.
I glanced at the complex. “Not really in the mood for a crowd.”
Her gaze lingered on my lips, sending a thrill up my spine. “Me neither.”
Traces of silk and lace protruded from beneath her jacket. She wrapped her arm around mine and led me toward the coast.
A swell of fog rose up from the horizon and overtook the water, then the land. The air thickened. The collapsing dream gave way to a flash of lucidity–green letters across a flickering screen. Falling again.
I wake in a delirium of sweat and vomit. My nerves are frayed; I’ve received another electric shock. The last sinews of the dream cling to my periphery. Familiar faces slip from my mind like mud through a sieve.
I stagger to my feet. My fingertips find the keyboard.
Clack, clack. Clack, clack.
I make sure not to look at the screen.
The dope nozzle dispenses two types of drug. One tastes like bitter melon, the other is viscous and salty. One numbs my mind for the day’s work, the other induces sleep. I prefer the sleep, though I’ve begun to fear that as well. Someday my work–whatever it is–will be complete. I’ll taste the third drug, and I won’t wake again.
I fear that our men are dead. I haven’t seen them since the eve of our imprisonment, nor heard their voices in the dark. Sometimes as the artificial sunlight fades to shadow, my fingers groping for my carapace, I think of Laquan. I imagine the pod is his body, warm and strong around my own. I scrape at memories of his calloused hands as I draw the membrane around myself. I suck on the dope nozzle and taste his lips.
My finger punches the “L” key but it doesn’t spring back. Instead it lays depressed, a tiny cavern swallowed by shadow. I stare dumbly, uncertain how to proceed. L-words drift through my mind on a tide of delirium.
Lascivious. Liberation. Lies. Loneliness.
I glance down at myself, something I don’t remember doing in a long time. My arms hang limp at my sides, bones protruding against brown, flaky skin. My breasts sag, my hips jut, my knees knock. My toenails are yellowed and cracked. How long have I been here, in the gut of this alien planet?
I haven’t eaten in months, not consciously. The dope nozzle must dispense calories and hydration along with the drugs, or I wouldn’t be alive. How have they learned what our bodies need for sustenance? How many of us died before they got it right? How long will they keep us here, sleeping and typing and sucking down their drugs?
The broken key gapes at me like an eye socket.
In these stolen moments of inaction, I begin to formulate a plan.
Laquan was stunned. His smile stuck to his face, but was drained of intent. I tapped the screen, afraid the video feed had frozen.
“That’s…” He trailed off. “How long will you be gone?”
I started to blurt out something noncommittal, a half-truth. The words caught in my throat. At some point it had become rote, deferring to lies. I’d encircled myself with them like a protective carapace.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s some risk of time dilation.”
Laquan’s face snapped out of stasis, suddenly hyper-animated. “This sounds so dangerous! What about the unmanned probe? Why aren’t they sending the military, or experienced astronauts?”
I inhaled slowly, trying to slow my pulse. “The probe was a success. It’s safe on the other side. But the ultimate goal was always human exploration.”
Laquan stared unblinking.
“The crew is mostly astronauts,” I said. “Only a few scientists are going. We have the most experience with the anomaly.”
Laquan’s expression clouded. “A few scientists?”
I pursed my lips, unsure how to respond.
“Natalia’s going,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “Who else?”
I glanced away. “That’s it.”
“A few is three or more. Two is a couple.”
The last word hung in the air like a fog. Laquan was too gentle to accuse me directly. This was as clear a verdict as I would get. The rest was up to me. It had been eighteen months, an embarrassment of time. I tried to tell him in California, the morning after the discovery. I tried to tell him in Toronto so many times. Now I found myself cramped inside the comms room of an observatory in the Chilean Andes, about to embark on a mission from which I may never return. If there was ever a time for the truth, it was now.
Natalia was still asleep downstairs. I knew what she’d worn to bed, the subtle hints of her orange and clove perfume, the exact distribution of birthmark constellations on her back. I knew what she’d say when I crawled back under the covers (“Buenos días, mi corazón”), the way she bit her lip while she was running calculations, how she held her breath against a cold wind. I knew her indulgences (dulce de leche) and her fears (the dark).
But I couldn’t tell my husband a word of it. I was weak. I didn’t want to see the pain on his face and know that I had caused it. I could already feel myself retreating into my protective shell.
“I’ll be back soon,” I lied.
By morning the “L” key has been replaced.
I stop taking my drugs. I admit, it isn’t much of a plan.
Daybreak. A brood of scarabs crawls beneath my skin. The dope nozzle drips tantalizingly close. I grit my teeth, shrug off my carapace and get to work.
By the time the artificial sunlight begins to fade, my body is in complete revolt. Spasms wrack my muscles, jarring my joints and popping my spine. Tears streak my face; when they reach my lips I taste blood. My skull amplifies the sound of my chattering teeth. Are these withdrawals an unintended side effect, or a calculated inclusion?
It makes no difference. Though I’m able to avoid the dope nozzle that evening, I wake with its nipple clamped firmly in my mouth. Salty drug residue cakes my teeth. My body trembles as I ride a wave of euphoria. I spit curses at my treacherous body.
If I am to overcome this addiction, I must find a way to combat my own subconscious.
The next day I begin to gnaw at the inside of my cheek. My body is weak, but my teeth are sharp enough to cut the flesh. I taste iron. I keep gnawing. Tears well in my eyes. After enough damage is done, I switch to the other side. Soon my jaw opens reflexively to allow my wounds the relief of cool air. I force my mouth shut and chew harder.
I wake with a start. My lips have once again sought out the dope nozzle, but this time the salt against my wounds has startled me awake. Slowly, carefully, I squeeze the nipple. I let the liquid seep through my lips and down my chin. It pools against my body, powerless. I smile at it, cackle in the darkness of my carapace. The sound frightens me. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I retch until morning.
The withdrawals subside on the second day, replaced with a fiendish thirst and hunger. My bowels groan as I stand at my workstation. I focus on my discomfort as my fingers hammer the keys.
I mustn’t betray my intentions. My cheeks haven’t healed, and I fear the left side has become infected. The skin is welted and tastes sour.
But I’m sober. Already my mind has begun to recover. I remember more. Earth. Laquan. The expedition. Natalia. An alien planet darkened by eclipse. The Rapani. First contact, the eggs, the cover-up, the–
I must escape this place.
I cower inside my carapace for half the night, until the scraping and coughing of my crew mates fades to reluctant silence and all I can hear are the growls of my stomach. Avoiding the latch in fear of triggering an alarm, I dig my nails into the walls of the pod and drag away chunks of organic matter. I wipe my hands on my body and scratch again. Then again. The carapace is still alive, and the flesh throbs in my grip.
The wall grows thin and slick like an open wound. Soon my fingers breach the tissue and wiggle into the open air. I jam my hands into the gash and tear the hole wider. A gentle breeze teases my face through the fissure. I squeeze my head through, then my body. Caked in mucus like a newborn bird, I flop onto the cold stone floor.
The carapace offered surprisingly little resistance. It was more nest than prison. I fear what this portends: now that I’m free, perhaps there is nowhere to run. I unfurl my limbs and stretch until my muscles tremble. I drag myself standing.
The darkness is absolute. Panic flushes my skin. My pulse hammers in my ears. I have little hope of finding my own workstation, let alone an exit. This was a foolish plan. Only the dope nozzle will cure this nightmare. I step back, my fingers groping for the comfort of my carapace–
A pinpoint of light draws my attention. Then another. My eyes adjust, draw substance from the void. The outline of my workstation, mechanical and rustic. Rows of hunched shapes like tortoises on display: the other carapaces. Beyond, a trail of blue pinpricks illuminates a tunnel.
I raise my leg, wobble, step forward. My muscles are weak from atrophy and malnutrition. I step again, stagger, regain my balance. By the third step my equilibrium has returned. I pick my way between rows of carapaces, each housing another crew member curled in drug-induced hibernation. I can’t risk waking them. Not yet.
Instead I skulk down the tunnel and around the corner.
The passage extends for an eternity. Smooth stone cools my feet, sends chills up my naked body. The air grows warm, with traces of sulfur. Distant noises join my own rasping breath. A wet slurp, like suctions against flesh. A sickening groan. The patter and hiss of a horde of creatures.
I drag my fingers along the wall to keep myself oriented.
Soon the tunnel slopes downward and splits. The left passage terminates at a fleshy surface. Pink folds pulse in the ambient light. I plant my palms against the center and lean in. The surface relents, slurps open like a diaphragm and engulfs me. I struggle against wet musculature. With a second churn, the diaphragm spits me out the other side.
The chamber is cavernous in width, though no more than five meters tall. Streaks of light emanate from hidden outlets, spilling burnt orange and deep violet hues. Creatures writhe in the shadows against the far wall. The stench of sulfur and rot is overpowering. I begin to discern shapes. Thick tails, porous and oozing. Glistening eyespots. An amalgamation of limbs, some twice as fat as a human and others half the width of a finger. I can’t distinguish heads from bodies, nor where one creature ends and the next begins. I catch a glimpse of pink flesh around gaping maws, triggering a memory. These are the male Rapani. Chains bind the creatures to the wall.
I hug myself and shiver. Before things went sour, the Rapani inquired about our men. Why do they roam free? Communicate? Command, even? At the time Natalia nudged me and whispered: “Damn good question.” Soon the Rapani explained the source of their consternation. Their males serve reproductive purposes alone, kept sedated and imprisoned to control their violent urges. Left unfettered, the males would eat their young, war tirelessly, stifle innovation.
When the Rapani came for us, they claimed our men first.
A fat pipe runs the length of the room, splits into tributaries near the chained males. Oversized dope nozzles hang above their salivating mouths, oozing a purple colloid. The third drug. The one they fed to Kaori on the first day of our imprisonment, seeking answers. It did not have the desired effect. She screamed for only a moment before blood wormed from the ears of her rigid body.
I follow the left wall, walking parallel to the pipe. Soon the pipe plunges through a rough-hewn hole into an adjacent chamber. Steam hisses through the gaps. I squeeze into the largest fissure, trying to avoid contact with the pipe. My leg brushes it and the flesh sears. I wince and pull myself the rest of the way through.
Rows of canisters line the walls of this small chamber, housing an array of multicolored liquids. The pipe from the male Rapani chamber narrows, linked by a tube to one of the canisters. A separate pair of tubes join into a second pipe that disappears through a hole in the opposite wall. One transports a slosh of thick, white stuff. The other runs dilute yellow. Drugs for the humans. One to numb the mind, one to induce sleep.
The Rapani seek truth. Humans specialize in deception. If only McFadden had left the damned stones alone.
Our lander scratched down near a vast pool of methane. Not fifteen minutes after our ramps hissed open, McFadden was already ogling over those godforsaken stones while the others plucked at geological striations and scooped soil samples. Natalia warned him to leave the stones. Just because we hadn’t found signs of life didn’t mean the planet was barren. By the time McFadden came running down the hall covered in phlegm, laughing about how the stones were really eggs–and how one had just hatched and died in his cabin–it was too late. The Rapani made contact later that day, and our lies began. Better to study the onboard specimens in secret than to admit we’d stolen their broodlings.
The Rapani do not take kindly to deceit.
I follow the human drug pipe, pull myself through the gap in the next wall. The pipe descends flush into the ground nearby. A few meters into this next chamber, a naked woman stands beneath a cone of artificial sunlight. Her fingers hammer at a keyboard.
The remains of a carapace lay wilted nearby. Darkness shrouds the far half of the chamber.
I approach. The woman stands naked, hunched, emaciated, caked with dry skin and residue from her carapace. She doesn’t acknowledge the sound of my footsteps. I put a hand on her shoulder. She flinches, and so do I. Her skin is warmer and grittier than I expect. She looks at me with vacant eyes. I remember her. Yami–no, Yali. An engineer that cursed like a sailor and bragged endlessly about her valedictorian daughter. Shadows carve gouges in her sunken cheeks.
“Hello.” The word croaks from my lips.
Her eyes widen an increment. She shakes her head and points toward the back of the room.
“You…can’t be here.”
I glance over her shoulder. Green letters cram the terminal screen. It’s a jumbled chain of thought out of a child’s nightmare.
Movement catches my eye at the back of the room. Shapes take form in the shadows. Teddy bears twice as tall as a human, stuffing ripped through busted seams and dangling like entrails. Humanoids dragging misshapen limbs, tentacles writhing from their eye sockets and mouths. They move slowly as if migrating a great distance. As they do, their limbs erode and detach from their bodies, leaving fleshy stumps. Only slight flickers betray them as digital projections.
I force my gaze away–to the terminal, then to Yali.
“You’re typing dreams,” I say.
Her teeth chatter through a narcotic wave. “Remembering.”
The woman’s eyes are a dull brown, devoid of life. Just like Natalia’s, as I held her broken body in my arms beside the methane lake, my hands slick with her blood. Why did she lie to them about the anomaly, about Earth’s location and our unmanned probe? Why did we all so quickly defer to deception? Was it fear? Or some strange human instinct?
My cheeks are damp with tears. Yali has returned to typing. Clack-clack. Clack-clack. Decrepit corpse-men drag their remaining limbs through the shadows.
The Rapani seek truth. Humans specialize in deception. Instead of risking further lies, they’re extracting truth from our subconscious, our dreams. But why?
A cable extends from the terminal along the wall. I follow it to another flesh portal. This time I push harder, squeeze through the diaphragm in a single movement. The chamber on the other side is circular with a vaulted ceiling. Piles of gear–our gear, from the lander–lay at the back, organized by shape. Comms packs and med kits and spring cots lie in a heap. Rations and waste bags amass in another. Clothing and bed sheets tangle in a third.
Wires spiderweb the floor from holes bored into the walls, converging at a central console. An array of optical projections bursts from the console’s flat top. The Milky Way dominates the lower region. Boxes highlight three distinct sections of the galaxy, bordered by rows of obscure characters. A frantic cycle of images flashes above the Milky Way: a field of golden poppies, a snow-caked coastline, a snarl of rush-hour traffic, a mountaintop observatory with a backdrop of stars. Lording over the confusion is an achingly familiar sphere of white and blue and green.
A chill wracks my body. The Rapani are trying to find Earth. They don’t know about the anomaly yet. They’re using our dreams to triangulate Earth’s location. When they find it–
I can’t let them succeed. My body lurches toward the inventory. I root through piles of gear. Buckles lacerate my hands. My bloody fingers close around a comms pack that still registers a charge. I fire it up and signal the lander.
Overhead, a cacophony of hissing. Flesh slides against rock from a nearby chamber. The comms pack triggered an alarm. The Rapani women are coming.
I try the main ship. No response. The Rapani must have brought it out of orbit to dissect for clues. The onboard network is encrypted, but it’s only a matter of time before they stumble across the auth codes in one of our dreams. With both the lander and the main ship under Rapani control, all hope of escape is lost. This cave will become our tomb.
The projection of Earth swirls overhead, so perfect with all its flaws. I curl my body into a ball, crushed with homesickness and the weight of our mistakes–
I shake myself alert. I can still warn the others. The unmanned probe is programmed to hold steady near the anomaly, maintain radio silence and await orders. The Rapani might not know of its existence, yet. Natalia’s lies may have saved humanity.
My fingers work the controls as I find the correct channel. I fire a ping.
Muffled groans emanate through the walls. Scuttling chaos resonates from above. The scent of sulfur pervades the room.
The probe pings a response, acknowledging my credentials. The screen flashes, awaiting orders.
My fingers tremble across the blood-smeared interface. I tap out a message.
“Alien life discovered through the anomaly. We have breached their social protocols and acquired a dangerous enemy. Do not attempt further contact or rescue.” I hesitate, my vision obscured by tears. “Tell Laquan I’m sorry.”
I transmit the message along with orders for the probe to return through the anomaly.
The surrounding chambers reverberate with a torrent of moans.
I squeeze back through the portal. Yali lies shrouded within a fresh carapace, her daily shift complete. I don’t have much time before the others awaken. I slip through the fissure in the wall and into the chemical routing room. A flurry of movement emanates from the male Rapani chamber. The stench of rot is overpowering.
I work the chemical controls with steady hands, closing valves and swapping tubes. I reroute the third drug from the male Rapani pipe into the human one, then crank the valve to full bore. The poison floods the system.
Human wails echo in the distance, tapering to silence. The sound wracks me with guilt; they’ll never know the sacrifice they’ve made to save humanity.
Rapani tentacles press through cracks in the walls, writhing toward me with renewed fury. By now they must know what I’ve done.
I unhitch the tube and press the nozzle to my mouth. I try to imagine Laquan’s lips, moving against my own, murmuring forgiveness. But the nozzle is cold and bitter, and brings a different kind of mercy.
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When he is not writing, he’s on another continent in search of adventure. Derrick’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online.