They came with the rains.
I had my suit on. Jane didn’t.
The turquoise sky just frosted over with clouds as quick as a finger snap, and the rains fell.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. To let her take her suit off. But she was desperate. You get that way sometimes. You just want to feel real air against your skin, the sun warming your hair. These tin cans can feel like a tomb and you just have to get out of your shell or you’ll go mad.
So I let her.
And now the rains are falling all around us, plinking off our suits with tinny clinks, and we just look at each other through our fishbowls.
There’s an ocean between us, but not a word comes to our lips.
By now, they’ve wriggled in through her pores, burrowed straight down through her flesh and into a vein, caught a ride on some hemoglobin up into the brain, and are feasting.
I watch her pupils swell till her eyes become black holes.
And then I run.
I’ve this mad notion that I can reverse this. That it’s not too late. That I can somehow use the ship’s equipment to suck the squiggling tadpoles out of her grey matter and there won’t be just swiss cheese left.
I pound across the cracked earth in my titanium suit, shouting into the COM to open the ship’s door. Shouting for help.
I mount a red dune with just a couple of strides. I cross a desert with a bound. When I mount the final hill, I see the ship is gone. Just its square prints are left in the red earth.
They’ve left us.
Left me to die at the hands of my deranged wife.
From what I know, the adult parasites burrow in and live symbiotically with the host; whilst it’s the juveniles that live in the clouds who are hell-bent on life and death. They fall down with the rains, land on a host, and send it on a rampage, killing everything it can get its hands on. Then the bodies in its murderous wake become more hosts for the rains. And on and on the cycle of life goes.
But the adults are solitary creatures. They’re known to consume any competition in the host. They even heal a host’s body, give it life, vitality, which is why the Imperium pays us top dollar to collect them.
If I could just…
“Bruce. Can you hear me?”
My heart stops.
“Bruce, my sweet, sweet love. Where are you?”
My startled gasp frosts the front of my fishbowl.
It’s her voice coming through the COM, her exact voice. But she can’t be. She’s infected. They’ve eaten away her brains. She shouldn’t be able to even speak.
“Bruce. Where are you, my sweet love? Talk to me baby. Tell me where you are?”
I spend the day hiding in a crevice, crying my eyes out and listening to her call for me.
That moment where I tell her it’s OK, that I’ll watch the skies while she sunbathes in her underwear, plays again and again in my mind.
And I see myself run, like a coward. I throw it all away and just run because I was scared.
That’s the most unbearable bit of it all. In a split second, I abandon her after twenty years of marriage.
“Bruce. I’m scared. Tell me where you are? I need you.”
A terrible cry surges up my throat. I bite down on my lips to stop it from spilling out. Tears make the rocky, desert landscape a wavering, liquid sea.
I was on a collecting crew one time where some idiot forgot to keep his gloves on. He went mad. He became a senseless killing machine. Took a shovel and smashed open the foreman’s fishbowl, then crushed his windpipe with his bare hands. Then he lifted a girl up by her legs and dashed her like a doll against a rock.
But Jane seems sane. It hasn’t affected her like it’s done to others. Perhaps what I’ve read isn’t completely true?
A pebble plinks off my fishbowl and I look up into the chink of day.
She’s high above, bent over the crevice and looking down at me. Her long brown hair has fallen forward and pooled in her fishbowl, her face just a furry mass.
“Bruce! There you are!”
And then she heaves down a fist-sized rock at me and I’ve no time to react.
It hits my fishbowl square with a resounding gong that nearly splits my head it two. The world seems to separate and then come back together.
Cracks spread across my fishbowl, and there is a soft hiss as the outside pressure equalizes.
I can taste the planet’s air now, it’s arid and sweet.
And I run.
This planet’s rock formations are born from some violent upheaval, thrust into the sky at sharp angles like dragon’s teeth.
It’s hard to scramble across this with my wife just a rock’s throw behind me, chasing me and whispering poison in my ears.
“I think you were relieved when we lost the baby. That’s why you never said anything about it. You were relieved, weren’t you?”
I’ve seen the juveniles under a microscope, they’re like tadpoles with teeth; just a mindless, black squirming mass.
How can they do this?
“Bruce, did you ever really love me? Truly? Is that why you didn’t want the baby? You didn’t love me?”
It’s working, these barbs. They’re slowing me down, making me think because there’s truths in all of them.
I get up a shale-faced ridge, nearly slip back down into her open arms. I turn around and see she’s struggling to get up too, can’t get a purchase and keeps sliding back down. She stops and looks up at me.
Her eyes are all black now, no whites, just empty black pools.
“Bruce. Come down. I just want to talk.”
I nearly do. She is my wife after all, and I love her so.
“Yes. Come down Bruce. You owe this to me. For once in your life, own up to something.”
All her talk has gnawed its way through my head and into my heart. She’s got to me. She deserved so much and all she got was me.
“Just step forward and I can catch you.”
But I can’t move. My selfish body won’t let me do it.
“For Annette you can step forward! Can’t you Bruce!”
Our neighbor Annette, tight tops and short shorts; and Jane was always away on long, long trips.
Truly, I’m a bastard.
“You owe me everything Bruce! Everything! Step forward!”
And I run.
I’ve looped back to the fissure where we were collecting.
Eventually, the parasites mature and force their hosts to walk to these cracks, then they’ll squirm their six-inch bodies out of the closest orifice and climb down into the cleft’s warm depths.
It’s kind of like fishing. You drop in a couple of pellets and the fissure fills up with white foam. Any parasites are pushed up to the surface, where you scoop em up and sell them for a small fortune.
It’s easy, but dangerous work.
And I was a fool to take her with me. She should be up there, studying the stars where she belongs; not down here in the muck of this planet with me.
“The astrophysicist marries a commoner, eh Bruce? That’s what my dad said, didn’t he?”
The crack is about a foot wide and ten feet long. I drop in a couple of pellets.
How can she be so sane, yet insane?
“You know, I’ve been thinking about us,” she says. “And it’s true what they say. The alphas do marry the deltas. Do you know what I mean? When a person is one extreme, say they are this brilliant, beautiful woman who achieves and achieves. Well, they don’t marry that same kind of man. No. That would be too extreme, that would be too much competition for them, that would be an unbalanced relationship. So do you know what they do? Can you guess?”
I don’t know what her game is now, but it’s crushing me from the inside out. I let out a ragged, defeated breath. My eyes sting with tears that I cannot wipe away. I wish to hell I could shut this COM off.
“Why they marry you, of course. The parasite skimmer. And it’s not some unconscious instinct driving one to do this. It’s a calculated, conscious decision that I weighed out in my brilliant head.”
The first of the white foam begins to bubble out and I get a glass bottle ready.
“Bruce, do you know what I’m saying? Can you understand me, or am I speaking too quickly for you?”
“Ahh! Good. He speaks. We can converse now.”
The white foam rises out of the crack like a baked cake and there’s nothing. It’s empty. I drop another pellet into small fissure to my left.
“So I’m saying that all those awful things you think about yourself, how you are a nobody, how you don’t deserve somebody like me…well, they are all true. I was lying when I said you were special. That you hadn’t found your calling yet. That when it comes you will know it and you will run with it and you will be amazing. It was all lies.”
I can’t take it anymore and I cry out. “Why are you telling me this?! Why are you hurting me like this?”
“Because you are nothing and now I’m free to say it.”
“This isn’t you.”
“Of course it’s me, Bruce. It’s me through and through. Not all of these juveniles eat your mind away. Some of them are smart. Some of them just want to live in symbiosis like the adults that you pimp out.”
“This can’t be true. I’ve never heard of that.”
“It is. You and your fellow skimmers never bothered to investigate because, for one, you’re not intelligent enough to do so and, two, all you care about is money so you never bothered to dig into it. Yet, here I am. Speaking to you clearly and concisely, so try to tell me I’m wrong.”
“No! It’s not possible!”
“It is, Bruce. They wriggle in and just nibble away at the front matter of your brain, feels like seltzer bubbling beneath your forehead. And your reward for feeding them is clarity of mind and unimaginable strength. I could break you over my knee if I caught you.”
Foam begins to bubble out of the crack and I ready the bottle.
This isn’t her. There’s just no way. They’ve done something to her. She is my wife, my meek, wonderful wife who dotes on my every word. She gave up her rich life and her massive inheritance to be with me. This angry, spiteful creature isn’t her.
“Bruce, why don’t you tell me where you are?”
“Bruce, are you not listening to me? Are you too stupid to hear me? I’m trying to help you.”
There, pushed to the surface on a cake of white foam is an adult. A black, six-inch slug that writhes in frustration.
“Obviously, I’m not being clear enough. What I’m trying to tell you is that you have always been nothing and I have always been something. And now that they’re with me, I am even more than I was. Do you understand? They’ve elevated me even higher, Bruce, and I want you to come with me. I can’t promise that you’ll be up to where I am, but you will be better than that thing you are.”
God, her words have a pull to them. I know she’s full of it, I know that’s not my wife talking, but deep down I am tempted. Those are my wife’s memories they’re drawing from and they know exactly what to say. Know exactly which of my weaknesses to prey upon.
She was always so much better than me, at everything. I was just this pale creature in her shadow. I do want to be more than I am, desperately, and she knows this. Knows how I’ve struggled with this.
I uncork the glass stopper and easily scoop him up in the bottle. They’re pretty harmless like this. I could pop him like a grape between my forefingers.
“Of course! I know where you are. Your self-importance has given you a false sense of noblesse oblige and you’re back at the cracks, trying to skim your troubles away.”
Startled, I look up and see her.
The planet’s eternal wind has raked up the sand of the red desert into long serpentine ridges and she is on top of one, fast approaching. In the bright sun, she shimmers in her suit like a shooting star.
And I run.
I run maybe a full mile and then collapse beneath a boulder. The fracture in my fishbowl is letting my moisture escape, so my throat is bone dry, my lips are cracked and parched.
Sleep! My body lusts for it. I try to stave it off, but I find my eyes drooping. Then against everything, I drop off.
I awake with a start. The sky is a black mass of clouds, threatening rain. Night has fallen. My skin prickles from the frost that’s crept through the fissures in my fishbowl. The suit’s heaters can’t keep up.
I stand. I’ve been asleep for too long and she could be right on top of me. My heart thuds in my chest and my limbs tremble as I look around for her. But all I see is a ruined landscape of red rocks.
“Bruce, obviously I’m not insane. I’m quite coherent. Tell me where you are so we can talk.”
“You dropped a rock on my head.”
“Yes, but you needed it.”
“Because everything you do is done so timidly. You have to be kicked over the edge so you’ll fly. Bruce, you need these things to be better than you are, to be stronger than you are.”
There is no other way. I’m going to have to fight her. Fight my wife who is full of adrenaline and with her pain receptors shut off.
I shudder at the thought of it.
My plan is a fool’s plan. I somehow have to break her fishbowl open and stuff this parasite up her nose. That’s all I’ve got though. That’s all the planning I’ve done.
And then there is this other half of me that thinks she’s right. She is never wrong about anything, ever. She is the brains and backbone of our relationship. She’s right, I do need pushes to get me going–and more than once she’s done that and I’ve been grateful. I do need to be better than I am. Perhaps those things in my head would give me the clarity I need, make me stronger in body and mind.
But it isn’t completely lost on me how much she’s manipulating me. Like a master puppeteer, she’s pulling the right threads to make feel and think this way.
The crack of lightning in the dark clouds draws my attention. A ship suddenly streaks across the skies overhead. The roar of its engines rumbles like thunder.
Another skimming crew, landing to try their luck.
There’s no way she hasn’t seen that.
“Jane, I’m ready. I’ve made up my mind. You’re right. I need this. Where are you? I’m too scared to take my helmet off by myself.”
Not a word.
My heart races and my mind somersaults at the meaning of this. It was all a trick. Now that they’re here, I’m secondary. It really wasn’t about me becoming more than I am. All that was bullshit.
She really has lost her mind. They really are in control.
And I run.
The ship is not too far off. I figure it’s about a mile away. I can see it glowing like a gem on the horizon.
She’s likely making her way to it. Does she want to kill them and make her way across the galaxy? Or make more hosts for the rains? I have no idea what those tadpoles are thinking.
And then I see her. There’s LED lights ringing the base of her helmet. Her dark form is scrambling up a rock face not too far off.
I still want to save her, despite everything.
And I run after her.
She’s making hellishly good time though. She’s up and over the cliff and out of sight in seconds.
I leap down off a rock and land with heavy booted feet. Pins and needles shoot up my spine. I don’t stop for a second and I pump my legs, running. With the crack in my fishbowl, the air filtration can’t keep up with my heavy breathing and it quickly frosts over with my panicked breaths. I pull it off and throw it to the ground.
I run on for what seems forever, losing sight of her and then gaining it and then losing it again.
Eventually, I have to stop to catch my breath and throw up. I’m sweating so badly, I feel like I’m swimming in this suit. It’s hot and wet and I can’t run in it any longer. I pull a latch and it splits in two and I step out as it falls to the ground. I grab the bottle tightly in my wet, sweaty fist.
And I run.
The ship is at the base of a hill. It’s a big white glowing egg. Its front door is open and rampway is extended. Warm lights spill out of the entranceway and illuminate a square patch of earth in the front of the ship.
I scramble down the hill, watching the surrounding landscape for movement. But I don’t see any.
Now that I’ve slowed, the night chill sets in. The cool air prickles my sweaty flesh and a shiver runs up my spine. Suddenly, I’m very conscious of how exposed I am. I’ve got on white boxers and just a t-shirt.
I sneak up to the ship, keeping to the shadows and listening for any sounds coming from within.
Judging my moment, I slink out from behind a rock and quickly make my way up to the ship. Just as my foot touches the patch of light cast upon the ground, a dark figure fills the entranceway.
I gasp in surprise and my heart squelches in my chest, but I’m too startled to move.
The figure is in a suit and they have their back to me. Whoever it is, they’re bent over and dragging something large.
I can’t help but let out a cry as I see that what they’re dragging is a body. It’s a man and his head is crushed like a smashed cantaloupe.
It’s Jane, I realize. She’s killed the crew and is dragging them out one by one. Hosts for the rains.
Her back is to me. She drags the person down the ramp, leaving a long bloody trail behind.
There’s a big rock at my feet. I put the bottle down and pick it up with two hands. I raise it high above my head, and I wait.
A shock of thunder splits the skies, but I stand as still as a tree.
Closer she comes.
There’s a moment there where I waver. This could kill her. Or worse, it doesn’t kill her and she kills me. Or all this has been true and I am ruining the one chance I have to be better than I am and be on her level. Or I’m taking all this away and dropping her right back down beneath me.
The raindrops begin to fall and I bring the rock down.