I lie beside you, in the pre-dawn light, listening to your breath, listening for the change which I know is coming. We’ve argued, the last few months, past the autumn festival at the town hall, into the first frosty nights. Yesterday, you told me you’d decided, held my gaze as you slipped the hypodermic under your skin and injected the alien serum. How will you change? Become taller, stronger, with scales on your skin and goat-like eyes, yes, but will you still be ‘you?’
At first the aliens—the Ekru—kept their distance. We allowed them to build a base on the moon; in return, they employed their technology to our benefit. There were sceptics, but over the years, the Ekru earned our trust. What we saw of their behavior was calm, pacifist, just. A decade after their first arrival, they announced that anyone who wished it could become an Ekru and leave this world forever. Years of exploitation, unemployment, pollution meant that there was no shortage of volunteers, injecting themselves with the alien serum which would transform them.
In the morning, you don’t mention the injection, and neither do I. I scrutinize your breakfast choices: peaches, yoghurt, and a little slice of toast with ham. For a long time, you were vegetarian, and I realize now that I don’t know whether the Ekru eat meat.
You put the dog on a leash and head out to the forest to work on another oil painting. You have an exhibition coming up in a month. I wonder if it will go ahead.
I hoped that your bold step would mark the end of our arguments, but it doesn’t. You are even more insistent, now, that I should make the change too. Was I going to throw away fifteen years of marriage over this? That is the most feeble of your arguments, and I wonder aloud, when you say it, whether—for all their strength and technology—the Ekru might be a little stupid.
Your fury is magnificent. I stoke it further. Why not? You’ll be gone soon, leaving me with little more than your precious paintings, and a streak of color on the wall where you threw your palette at me. I am banished for a week to the studio at the end of the garden. When you finally welcome me back into the house, you are crying.
“Come here, Natalie,” I say, pulling you toward me. “I can come with you. I will.”
You look into my eyes, and I can’t help but notice that yours are changing, the circular pupils beginning to flatten. I kiss you on the cheek. Your tears are oily and sour, like salad dressing.
“Oh, darling,” you say, “I foijeje you to come with me and boga.”
“I foijeje you to come and boga with me,” you say, and smile. Your smile was one of the things which first attracted me, nearly twenty years ago. Now there is a hint of a sneer. I imagine our future life, travelling between the stars on an alien spacecraft, staring into each others’ goat-like eyes. I’m not sure I cannot go through with it.
You take the news with all the enthusiasm and good grace of someone learning they are subject to a tax audit. More days in the garden studio follow. The dog keeps me company; he won’t go near you.
When you allow me back into the house, a week later, you have changed. You were always tall, a champion basketball player in your college days, but I was taller. Now, you tower over me by nearly a foot. Your shoulders have become broad, arms and legs muscular. When I massage your back, the skin is rough like sandpaper, and when we make love, you are assertive, forceful even, in a way you have never been before. Afterwards, you let me hold you. Your body is hard and rough: it’s like holding a large brick.
You turn to me. Like an accident on the freeway, I can’t pull my gaze away from your goat-like eyes.
“Kupu koipukoi goni vibixi xobiba?” you say. I have no idea what you mean, but nod in response.
“Fui jefe,” you say, swinging on top of me and grinding your hips. You giggle as we make love again. For a moment I’m encouraged by such a human gesture, but the giggle becomes a growl, and when you cry out at the end, your guttural roar is utterly inhuman.
We don’t argue any more. We can’t: you neither speak nor understand English. You have stopped painting, and spend your days meditating. At night, we go into the garden to catch bats, the only thing you can eat. When we have a dozen or so, squeaking and squirming in a cloth sack, you go to the garden shed to eat them. I watched you, once, peeling the skin from the live animal and sucking out the core. Now, I hide in my office, trying to ignore the grunts from the end of the garden, averting my eyes when you return, bloodied, to the house. For a while, we make love every night. Eventually that has to stop: I’m afraid for my life.
“Jepe fefe jufu koije,” you say one morning. I pass you the toast and milk, which you massage into your thick alien hair, trying not to spill too much on the breakfast table.
“You know, for the first jekoi in puje I understand,” I say.
“Vogi keje kekuke,” you reply. You look at me and smile, more sneer than smile these days.
My own words echo in my ears: “jekoi in puje”. Those are alien words.
“You injected me, bibago!” I shout.
I grab your hand across the table and dig hard into your rough skin with my sharp fingernails. You seize my arm and pull. One moment, I’m sitting at the table, the next I’m on the floor, struggling to breathe, with my scaly seven-foot wife looming over me. You tear your clothes off and throw them into the corner of the room. For the first time in weeks, I see your naked body, muscular, hairless, without any sign of genitals. You roar; I tremble.
We don’t speak for several days. You rip the living room curtains off their rail and build a makeshift tent in the garden. Those damned curtains (Laura Ashley 2024 Collection), the source of so many arguments in the early days of our marriage, are torn now, flapping in the breeze. You sleep on a bed—more like a nest—made from old cardboard boxes and paper. The floor of the tent is littered with shredded canvases.
I watch you from the bedroom window, one night, as you hang from the old oak tree at the end of the garden, snatching bats out of the air.
The food in the house is unappealing, but I’m not yet ready to start eating bats. For a few days, I eat nothing. By the third day, I’m weak and lethargic. You prepare me soup. It has the color and texture of chicken soup. I devour it greedily and try to ignore the tiny claws I find at the bottom of the bowl. As the days pass, the soup becomes more substantial, until one day I find a black leathery wing floating on the surface. I eat. It’s good.
I sleep in the house, but spend the days with you. Despite your strangeness, I find it comforting to be near you. I keep a diary and take photos of my transforming body. Scales form on my skin, each growing from a tiny pimple. My pupils narrow, mouth and chin widen, cheekbones shrink and disappear until my face completes its alien form. My thumbs and forefingers shrivel and drop off while the remaining fingers thicken and move to their final arrangement: two clawed fingers facing forward, with a thick opposing talon. Writing becomes impossible, typing a chore. My feet undergo the same change; I can’t walk for a week. I wonder how you managed, and realize that you must have been practicing while I slept, ashamed of your changes.
I scour the internet for information on an antiserum. I find forums for people who are changing. Their remarks seem overwhelmingly positive:
I can lift 100kg—with one arm!
You don’t know food until you’ve experienced the bibina texture of fresh bat!
My sexual powers have increased tenfold!
This latter comment was presumably written before the commenter’s genitals disappeared, although… maybe not. That night, I go into the garden to join you. For a few innocent days, I allow you to teach me the delights of Ekru physiology. For the record: no, you do not need genitals to have sex, and yes, the texture of freshly killed bat is very bibina.
Two days later, I watch you mount the ramp into the Ekru spacecraft. I can’t hold back the sour alien tears. When I get back to the house, I find that you’ve left a tiny portrait of the dog on the kitchen counter. The paint is still wet.
I sleep in the tent at night. I feel close to you, though where you are, I do not know—you might have already left Earth.
One morning, as I lie admiring the tasteful oak pattern of the Laura Ashley curtains, I am overcome with melancholy. A gentle breeze carries the scent of dewy grass into the tent. In the corner, our kitchen table lies reduced to splinters by one of our terrifying sex games. The dog is nowhere to be found. If there is a way to reverse this change, I will find it.
I turn to the dark net for advice. Sites appear for a few days before disappearing, but I pick up a few scraps of information. There are others, like me, resisting the changes. How many, it is impossible to know: the Ekru are controlling the internet, patrolling and shutting down sites, detaining their owners. There is rumor that they are taking users too: people like me. I struggle to separate truth from paranoia, but eventually find someone I think can help me: Professor Klondike at UMass.
Professor Klondike, it turns out, is a chatty linguist. I find her page on the Linguistics department’s website: a list of papers on obscure languages, with a passport-style photo in the corner. She appears late middle aged, grey hair, wool sweater, the very model of a linguistics professor. We speak on the phone. She has no difficulty understanding my mix of English and Ekru languages. When I query her, she tells me she has been researching the Ekru language ever since they appeared a decade previously. In our conversations, she is positive and reassuring. Her Iowa accent reminds me of a favourite aunt from my childhood. After a few weeks, she suggests that we meet in her office at the university. That night, I can’t sleep. I lie awake, worrying that the meeting might be a trap, but I’m changing fast, and eventually I realise it’s my best hope. I agree to meet her the following week.
Travel is easy if you are an Ekru—or look like one. An aircar picks me up outside my house to take me directly to the university. As we fly fast and low, following the streets barely above roof level, I am struck by how much the town has changed. So many people have taken the serum and left, abandoning cars and homes, contents spilled out onto dried up lawns through broken windows.
Over the years, the Ekru have spent considerable sums analysing and documenting human languages; jobs in linguistics now outnumber computer science two to one. The aircar deposits me directly in front of the Linguistics department’s grand new building. The upper floors are neoclassical in design, while the basement contains a standard Ekru hive structure. I assume that Professor Klondike’s office is in the main part of the building—humans find the hive structures unnavigable. A map in the marble lined foyer confirms my supposition.
I knock on the half-open door of Professor Klondike’s office and enter. She isn’t there. The light-filled room is human in design, with adaptations to accommodate the aliens’ larger bodies: the ceilings and windows are high, the desk is adjustable to accommodate either form. The walls are embossed with ornamental Ekru writing: pictograms I wish I could understand. A low table displays a collection of artifacts: some human, some alien. One looks like a part from some intricate machine, tiny, blue scuffed plastic, inscribed with interlocking circular grooves. I try to pick it up, but it’s too heavy.
“That’s part of a Neodromian death machine. Better not drop it, unless you want to start World War III,” says Professor Klondike, entering the office from behind me. I turn to face her. It’s her voice, but not her body, at least not the one from the photo. She’s an Ekru.
“Surprised?” she asks.
“No,” I lie.
Her alien hair is white. I try to imagine her wearing a wool sweater. The threads would catch on her scales.
“Where’s Natalie?” I ask. We are both speaking the Ekru tongue. It feels more natural than English.
“She took the antiserum,” replies Professor Klondike. “She never fully surrendered her humanity. She’s on Earth, must be fully human by now.”
“Why hasn’t she contacted me?” I ask. An awkward silence hangs in the air. I wait for the emotions to come—anger, jealousy—but there’s nothing.
Professor Klondike reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small wooden box. “The antiserum. For you.” She holds it out to me.
Inside, is a tiny hypodermic.
It could be poison. I don’t think so. Everything I know about the Ekru suggests that would be anathema to their notion of justice.
I think of the things that have made up my life: the dog, wherever she is; my now too-small wedding ring, sitting on the nightstand next to the bed I no longer use; the shelves of books in a language I can’t read; a portrait Natalie painted, lying crushed somewhere in the nest; my house with its low doorways; my neighbourhood—vacant homes and empty shop fronts; the Earth, still choking in the waste of my ancestors.
I close the box and return it.
“Take me to the ship.”
Julian D C Richardson was born in London, and recently returned to live there after sixteen years in California. When he is not working as an AI researcher, he writes science fiction and makes pots. In 2018 he attended the Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop at the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Previous work has been published in Daily Science Fiction and MoonPark Review. He blogs sporadically at glowseed.com/mindmash