Kenese Umaga had not yet gotten used to the twists and turns of corridors in Alpha station, even after a year. She wouldn’t say she was lost, exactly. Not on the way to the lab that she worked at every day. No.
Confused maybe. Turned around. Not lost.
She put it down to trying to walk and talk at the same time.
“I thought you said this would only take an hour,” she said into her comm as she hesitated at the junction of sections two and three. A passing technician gave her a small smile and a gentle head tilt in the direction she should be going and she took a moment to nod in thanks.
“We had problems with some of the core concepts,” Martine said in her ear. “Look, I can turn the translator back on for you, but it will delay my work by a day if I don’t get this done before third shift.”
“Martine, I need these samples, and I can’t take them if he can’t understand what I’m asking for.”
“You really need to be able to talk to him? You’ve done this a hundred times.”
Kenese sighed in frustration, but quietly so Martine wouldn’t hear. “I can’t just walk in there and start sticking him with needles. It wouldn’t be polite.”
“The samples will have to wait then,” Martine said briskly. “Anyway, I know you had other plans for this afternoon, Manny was going on about it in rec yesterday.”
Kenese had forgotten she had plans.
She finally turned the corner to Eli’s corridor and stopped, just before walking in front of the glass wall that made up one side of his quarters. “Shit,” she said. “Okay Martine, I can leave these samples until later. You think you’ll only need an hour for the translator update to be finished?”
“Less than that.”
Kenese switched off her comm, still standing just outside Eli’s line of sight. The glass wall that made up one entire side of his cell could be made opaque, if he should wish it. Eli never asked for privacy, however. There might have been a time, when he first joined them, when one of the scientists could have flipped the switch themselves — given him the privacy he possibly wanted but did not have the language with which to ask.
That time passed, however, and now the corridor to what most called his cell was avoided by all who could manage it, and traversed quickly by those who could not.
Kenese’s comm crackled and Manifred’s deep, amused voice sounded in her ear. “I’m waiting in Airlock Q with a space suit that is far too small for me, Umaga,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
She had been told that being in zero gravity was like being underwater. Unfortunately she’d been told that by a man who had been born on Alpha station and had never set foot on a planet, let alone gone swimming in the ocean.
Kenese remembered the feel of cool water on her skin. She could remember the puckered dryness of her lips, exposed to too much salt, remember the taste of rubber in her mouth and the pressure of her mask against her nose as she bobbed and floated so far above the corals that she felt vertigo.
Being in zero gravity made her stomach flip and gave her a nagging headache. The suit was uncomfortable, bulky, and made her claustrophobic, despite the vast emptiness around her. Manifred certainly seemed to treat it like he was going for a pleasant swim, lying on his back (or what would be his back if up and down had any meaning), the soft sigh of his breath in her ear through the comm making her wish she could enjoy this as much as he obviously was.
She grit her teeth and stuck it out. Years of coping with rough seas meant she didn’t actually throw up, although she felt a little like it would be better if she did, and she managed a smile at Manifred when they got back into the airlock and she pulled off the helmet.
Station air smelled like ozone and disinfectant.
“You didn’t like it,” Manifred said.
She gave him a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “It’s not the same.”
He squeezed her shoulder and shook his head. “Well it’s probably for the best anyway. Security nearly had conniptions when I tried to get permission for you to come.”
She handed him her helmet and he put it back on the rack, then turned to help her get the rest of the suit off. “I do appreciate you trying,” she said. “I just wish — they keep saying they need me here but I don’t…”
“You know more about him than anyone else,” Manny pointed out.
“We don’t even know that he’s a he, Manny.”
“I thought he’d told you that?”
She smiled. “I’m not the linguist. That’s Martine’s job and she says that the gender pronouns are all mixed up — no way of knowing if they even have male and female, certainly no indication of how they reproduce yet. You know I’ve done a study and compared them to certain amphibious…”
Manny laughed and squeezed her arm. “You’re here because you love the work, Nese,” he said.
She shook her head and smiled, looking down. “Sure. I just hate the office.” I miss wind, and sky, and the changes in temperature, and sunshine.
“Keep working on them,” he said. “You’re not stuck here, you’re allowed to go back if you want to.”
She did want to. She wanted it like air.
Things were never that simple.
“Your visits have become more erratic in the past time periods,” Eli said to her. The blank tone of the translator gave no clues as to the alien’s emotional state, but Kenese couldn’t help but think there was accusation there. She might feel isolated and disconnected from her home up here, but that was nothing to how he must feel, thousands of light years from a dead planet, the only others of his kind still locked in cryogenic stasis.
It was her job to find out enough about this creature to bring the rest of his people back to life, despite Eli’s strong objections.
“I’ve been correlating data,” she said. “Trying to work out how your biology will react to our technology when we start trying to thaw out your people.”
“I have told you I do not wish my people to be revived,” Eli said. When he spoke he tilted his lizard-like head to one side. Kenese wasn’t sure if that was just a personality trait or something that his entire species did.
Despite Martine’s update the translator garbled the word “wish” somewhat. Facts were easy. Body parts, even technology to a certain extent, but when they got into the hazy world of abstract thought the translator would often short out entirely. Martine had done a lot of fine tuning, but Kenese was beginning to suspect that Eli tried to sabotage it deliberately. He knew the translator better than any of them did.
“You won’t explain why,” Kenese said. “You were supposed to negotiate, to be their ambassador, you’re not doing your job for them.”
“None of us anticipated what we would find at our journey’s end,” Eli said.
“Is it because Earth is inhabited? We’ve done the projections, we can cede land enough to you so your people can live, there’s progress in terraforming Mars…” Eli made a sound that she recognized as the closest he ever came to frustration and she stopped. They had had this conversation before. “You’re the only ones left,” Kenese said, her voice small.
“We should not be preserved. Our world is — ” the translator stuttered out completely on that word, but she knew what he meant.
Their world was dead.
“You carry your world with you,” she said.
Eli’s clawed fingers opened and shut in a gesture she recognized as frustration. “No. We are not human. Our world is no more, destroyed through our own foolishness. Therefore we are no more.”
She shook her head. “I need to take more blood, if you don’t mind,” she said finally. He stood, moved to the science station in his room and held out his arm.
He did not react to the jab of the needle, and Kenese was adept enough at the process to make it quick. She slotted the vial into the pouch she wore at her belt to take for analysis, but hesitated before leaving.
“Do you need anything, Eli?”
He always answered the same, no matter how many times she asked. He never requested anything, never asked that they stop the tests, never seemed to need entertainment or variety in his food.
Kenese never knew why she constantly felt like she was failing him.
“I’m just saying there are really good reasons why he doesn’t want his people revived. Nese, you remember what they did.”
“He isn’t thinking straight.”
“Nese,” Manny leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “You’re the one who keeps telling me that he isn’t human.”
“We still don’t know that Eli’s even a male,” Nese objected, weakly. She suspected ideas of gender for Eli were completely different to those of humans, and whenever he was asked he acted completely baffled.
“He doesn’t mind being called he, Nese,” Manny said.
“We don’t know that,” Kenese said. “I don’t want to hurt him any more than he’s already hurting.”
Alpha station had a few nicer restaurants for the upper company echelons, and a few dingy eateries for the miners and finders. Nese found herself far more comfortable in the miner’s district than here among the wealthy company officials. Marine biologists like her had absolutely no place here at all, really, where the only fish were served in delicate sauces to wealthy spacers or freeze-dried in packets to be sent out on month long mining and exploration expeditions.
Kenese had never had a chance to meet people who weren’t directly involved in the project to revive Eli and his people, not until Manny had dragged her out one night, telling her she’d stayed shut up in the lab for far too long.
She had. But in some ways coming out and seeing the general life of the station had made her even more homesick. While she’d been in the lab, concentrating on the work, it had felt like her thesis, or a research grant paper that had to be completed before she could go back to her island and her turtles and the work she actually cared about. If she let herself feel at home here, amongst the miners and the engineers and the cold dark of the asteroid belt, she would never get home.
Manny was talking again. She tried to focus. “You’re looking out for him,” he said. “That’s why they don’t want you to go home. That’s why you’re not pushing as hard as you could to go.”
“He’s just so disconnected,” Kenese said. “If I could just get him to see that there’s more, that he can have a life with us. All his people can. Just because his home is gone doesn’t mean…”
“What if you could never go home again?” Manny said. “You’ve told me countless times how much you want to go back, but what if the option wasn’t there?”
Kenese’s shoulders slumped. There’d been a time when the oceans had been in danger, when it looked like the reef and the turtles would not survive. Kenese’s parents had been heavily involved in restocking the oceans, genetic cloning, seeding the reef with new coral.
They’d cared enough, just, to save it. Eli’s people hadn’t.
“If they were so connected to their world, why did they leave? Not all of them can be as sad as Eli is.”
“Eli isn’t sad,” Manny said. “Eli’s angry.”
“Are you?” Kenese knew she shouldn’t ask such abstract questions, but she’d been wondering ever since Manny had said it, analyzing what her own responses would be to a people who thought abandoning their world was a better option than staying and trying to save it.
“Manifred Saeed exhibits a great deal of wariness around me,” Eli said.
“He’s better with…” she was going to say people, but pulled herself up short in horror at the close misstep, “…better with familiar things. You know that.”
“I believe he assigns emotions to me. Ones that he himself is experiencing.”
Kenese’s lips twitched as she smoothed the sample container label in place. Eli had exhibited a reaction to one of his food supplements that was puzzling and she’d taken blood, saliva and waste samples. Eli had borne it all with his usual grace.
“So you’re not angry?”
“I wish for my people to pay for their crimes by remaining in stasis until there are no others near they can hurt.”
“I don’t think that’s an answer.”
“Yes you’re angry?”
“The translator seems to think so.”
Kenese tilted her head to one side. “If you could go back, would you?”
“That question makes no sense.”
“What if I could take you to Earth?” Eli didn’t respond. In fact he went so still that Kenese thought something had gone wrong. “Eli?”
“Your government would not allow it.”
“Eli, do you want to go to earth?”
“Your government would not allow it.”
“Eli, if you agreed to revive your people then they would allow anything at all. Surely you know that by now?”
“You speak of this as though it is a bargain I would make. I do not wish my people revived.”
“Eli, we’re going to do it anyway. You have to know that. You don’t get to make that decision for an entire race.”
“It is not your race.”
She sucked air through her teeth. “No, but they’re people and they deserve to live.”
“These are human value judgements.”
“I can’t make any others!”
He considered her, the membrane lowering over his eyes.
“Have you finished?” he asked finally, indicating the samples.
She made a small sound of frustration. “Yes, Eli.”
“I would appreciate it if you did not make offers to me that cannot be fulfilled, Dr. Umaga.”
He had never called her by name before. Never called any of them by a name that she could remember. The translator spat out static, but she could hear the taste of it in his natural voice, soft, low pitched and half swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No,” Director Archaya didn’t even hesitate.
“Director, I think it would be an important step in showing Eli that there is hope for his people to…”
Archaya sighed heavily, but kindly. Kenese had little reason to trust the Company, but Archaya was a child of the modern age, and the mini empire he and his colleagues had built themselves here in space could no longer hurt the oceans and the people she loved.
“Dr. Umaga you’re not one to deal with the realities of the press, I understand that. We’ve barely been able to keep the discovery of Eli and his people off the usenets — there is no way we’d be able to keep a shuttle trip under wraps.”
“Why not? We don’t have to land the shuttle in Florida, we can land it… we can land it near Heron. I can take him to the island, no one there would say anything. You know that.”
“To be frank, Doctor, there’s no way this is going to happen and you know it. The expense is enormous, this would not be a one way trip. We’d have to get him back to us afterwards if he’s going to help revive the rest of his people.”
“What if…” she hesitated.
Archaya cocked an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“What if this was the only condition under which he would revive his people?”
Archaya’s lips pursed. “Is this something he has intimated to you, Dr. Umaga?”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “I think he wants to go,” she said. “I think he needs some sort of connection to a planet before he’s ever going to agree to help us. I think if he doesn’t he might…” she shrugged, struggling to express it. “He’s depressed. He’s angry. He’s lonely and he needs this, Director.”
“You want to help him,” Archaya said.
“You know that eventually we’ll discover how to revive his people but Eli is the expert, and Eli has told us repeatedly that the process is delicate and there’s every chance if we try to do it ourselves we’ll kill some of them. Regardless of how the rest of the population feel about their actions on their home planet — and we can’t even be certain every single one we revive won’t have the same attitude that Eli does — I can’t imagine they’ll be very cooperative about sharing technology if we show so little consideration for their well-being that we kill them waking them up. And what if we kill the ones who know the things we need? What if the next one in a pod is the only engineer, the only biologist? Eli is the diplomat. Eli was meant to be the one best able to cope with us and he is uncooperative. What if we only manage to wake up the bureaucrats?”
Archaya looked pensive. “You think we’re going to have the same problem we have with Eli with all of them.”
She shrugged. Kenese couldn’t be certain. Eli was special — he was woken before the others, woken when they’d first made contact with the alien craft a lucky finder had come across in the vast expanse of the asteroid belt.
“I think that even the most technologically advanced people are going to run into problems when they face something as monumental as this.”
“You’re not a psychologist, Dr. Umaga.”
“No,” she sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “But I am homesick.”
Archaya’s face softened for the first time since she’d walked into his office.
“It’s not that you want to take him to the planet at all, is it, Doctor?”
She spread her hands. “I want to go home. But I don’t want to abandon him.”
Archaya’s long fingers tapped on the table for a few seconds. “I can’t promise anything,” he said. “The logistics of this are going to be a nightmare. But you can tell Eli we’ll start on the process.”
“We can go together,” she said. “I’ll show you the island. The turtles. Director Archaya has called for the next shuttle up to bring samples, make sure there’s nothing you’ll react to on the island that will harm you. You’ll need to wear an oxygen mask but they’re not very bulky these days — you should be fine.”
Eli’s clawed hands opened and shut repeatedly as she talked. She was pacing the room, trying to infect him with her own enthusiasm, trying to bring him back to whatever state could be considered normal. “Doctor…”
“I know you had oceans on your world — think about that, Eli! I can take you on a glass bottomed boat, you can see what we’ve done to revive the reef.”
“There are fish repopulating and spawning that people thought were extinct before I was born. Some of the original DNA samples we used to clone them were taken from household aquariums, can you imagine that? But the genetic mutation program gave them enough variety to thrive, we’ve managed to bring the populations up for nearly fifty percent of our target species, if we’re lucky we’ll see the reef back the way it was before the gulf wars…”
A clawed hand had touched her arm. She was wearing a standard, long sleeved company jumpsuit, but the shock of the contact ran through her like electricity.
Eli had never touched her voluntarily before.
His eyes were too wide spaced, and the membrane that flickered across them obscured any expression she might have tried to read there. There were no lips to quirk, no cues to tell her when he might be angered or upset, simply the flat, neutral tone of the translator in her earbud, and what she could make out with her own hearing of his too low vocalizations.
He looked at her, so close that she could smell the strange musk of his skin, head tilting to one side. She wished she could gauge his expression, understand his thought processes. Wondered if she had swung so ridiculously wide of the mark that she was in physical danger.
“Thank you,” the translator spat into her ear. Eli’s fingers gently withdrew from her arm and he moved back to his usual seat.
Kenese brought her own fingers to her lips, nodded, realized that he would not understand the gesture any more than she understood his. “It’s the least I could do,” she said.
Eli did not speak on the shuttle to Earth, nor did he speak during the rushed (but thorough) customs check. They’d landed on a mobile platform off the coastal border of North Queensland — Kenese had known from the expression on Archaya’s face as he handed her their release papers how much effort that had cost him. She wondered what would happen if this trip didn’t pan out the way she’d intimated to Archaya, if Eli decided he wasn’t going to go back, if he decided he didn’t care and his people deserved to stay frozen.
It was only as they approached the dock at Heron that Eli turned to her, his voice completely muffled by the oxygen mask he wore over the lower half of his face. She realized she’d been used to hearing the subtle buzz of his real voice alongside the translator’s monotone, and she missed it.
“It’s hot,” he said.
She laughed and nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” he said. “I like it.”
The wooden boards of the jetty hadn’t been replaced in years, and she had to resist the urge to kick off her boots — stupidly heavy weight in this climate, and feel the rough wood under her toes despite the risk of splinters. Kenese breathed in air that was rank with an algal bloom, surprised and partly delighted that the smell offended her when only two years ago she would not have noticed it. Combined with the musk of nesting black noddy terns and the salt and sand and wind, Kenese almost felt overwhelmed with sensation. Eli, though, didn’t seem at all upset. He had filters in his breathing apparatus, she supposed that only part of the nasal assault was reaching him, and despite her detailed papers and study she still did not understand how his brain processed sensations like taste and smell and touch.
She supposed she didn’t really know how any human did, either.
They walked, in silence, through the deserted resort, the empty science station, to her own lab. They’d replaced her, of course, with stipulations that she could return provided she could get the grants, but she was pleased to see that whichever nameless scientist had taken her place in the smallest shack near the water still had not installed screens on the windows, had left her much repaired hammock on the tiny verandah, not bothered to sweep the sand from the white tiled floor.
Eli stopped at the entrance to the lab, looking at her. “Did you bring me here for more tests?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No,” she said, motioning him through the double doors where the beach could be seen. He moved forward, but she stopped him with one hand. “Wait,” she said, then sat on the floor and started pulling off her boots.
Eli watched her, confused, she thought, while she stripped the boots and the socks from her toes and with some difficulty rolled her pants up to her shins. Eli’s huge clawed feet were encased in boots that had been specially made for him, that he could remove himself if he so wished. She nodded to him. “Take them off,” she said as she worked.
He did as she asked, without question.
Eli had proven resistant to most forms of Earth bacteria that could be picked up from sand and soil. Salt was more of a problem for his skin — used to transferring moisture far more readily than humans, and as such they had installed a special cleansing station for him behind the lab after this particular part of the trip. Still he placed three toed feet directly onto loose, coarse sand at the same moment as Kenese did. She didn’t think, but reached out to take his hand in hers as they faced the setting sun over the shifting blue and green water. It was the first time she had ever touched him directly without gloves. In her overstimulated state, his skin felt no different to that of any humans. Warm and soft, the strong beat of his heart able to be faintly felt in a counterpoint to her own.
“It smells,” Eli said after a long moment.
“Critic,” she said, breathing in deeply and trying to control the smile that wanted to split her face in two.
“The oceans of my world were a different color,” Eli said, some time later. “They smelled different. Less salt.”
“Did you have much marine life?”
“Come here.” She moved forward towards the rocks, slightly worried about Eli’s bare feet on the sharp stones. He followed without hesitation, however, and when his wide sole planted on the rocks, she was surprised to see his toes curling and gripping in a way that made her think they had evolved specifically for this purpose — to scramble over rocks at the edge of the ocean.
She wondered what the children of his species looked like, wondered if some day there would be small Elis racing over rocks with buckets full of crabs and anemones, laughing or making whatever sound it was they made when they were happy.
“Here,” she said, leaning down and pointing to a small pool in a depression where two rocks met. A crab — one of the generic kinds that had survived even the worst years of the reef’s decline, rested there, eyestalks waving, legs coiled and ready to flee at the slightest hint that they might be a threat.
Eli looked at it. “What is that?”
“A crab. Crustacean.”
Eli tilted his head, leaning closer. Unfortunately his movement alerted the animal, which scuttled away into the darkness between two rocks.
The translator bud in Kenese’s ear spat static at her and she could see Eli shaking a little. He was vocalizing, loud enough for her to hear over the seal of his mask.
Concerned, she reached out and took his hand again. His large fingers closed over hers, grip strong, skin hot. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said, and there was more static, and more shaking as Eli stood up again and swept his gaze back over the ocean. “Yes, Dr. Umaga, I am fine.”
She followed his line of sight to the horizon, where cloud banks were building. There would be a storm tonight, she figured, with a surge of excitement. Once, during nesting season a few years ago, there had been a bioluminescent bloom in the ocean during a storm, and she and a fellow scientist dove into the pitch black water, amongst the reef sharks under the pier. Moving in the water left glowing sparks behind them, and Kenese had joked that it was like flying through the black of space, leaving a trail of stars. They had scrambled out of the water as the lightning hit, rain pelting down on them as they raced back towards the labs. Funny how being wet from rain and wet from the sea were so different. Funny how memories could be so intense, sometimes, that they were like complete emotions on their own, undefinable except by immersion.
Eli was still shaking, but he repeated himself twice more. “I am fine, Doctor. I am fine.”
Imogen Cassidy is a speculative fiction writer from Sydney Australia. Her stories have been published in The Colored Lens, Aurealis and on Toasted Cake.