Threads of Pearl, Writhing
by Gwendolyn Clare
They tell you it won’t hurt—that part is the lie. It does. But afterward, you won’t feel any pain at all. Ever again. They believe the lie because they can’t remember what “hurt” means.
We don’t need the schematics to find our way through the space station’s air ducts anymore. After so many trips back and forth, we’ve worn a path into the film of dust and grease that thickly lines the ducts. We crawl on hands and knees, (we’re expert crawlers now, Angelo and me) and the metal feels slightly warm against my palms. A familiar sensation.
Angelo drops out of the air duct first, landing quiet as a cat on the deck of the control room. He reaches up to give me a hand, though I don’t need one. It’s cute in an old-fashioned, occasionally infuriating sort of way, as if I haven’t had plenty of experience with ducts and maintenance hatches since the station was infested.
Like always, I go straight for the communications panel while Angelo watches the door. They turned the quarantine broadcast off again since the last time we checked. The parasitized humans aren’t particularly bright or motivated, but occasionally, one of the gossamers manages to steer its host human into the control room and undo all our security measures. The gossamers are content for now, but as they use up the humans aboard the station, they’ll grow more desperate for a starship to take their species to greener pastures. Like a planet.
As it is, I have to restart the quarantine broadcast and re-engage the lockdown on all docks. I send a quick status update to the xenoparasitologist who was assigned our case, along with a request to resend the last incoming message—which they erased.
Angelo wanders over from his post by the door to look over my shoulder. He plants a soft kiss on my neck.
“No news,” I whisper. “They deleted it.”
His lips move close to my ear. “You know, Liz, those meat puppets are starting to really get on my nerves.”
I throw an annoyed glance over my shoulder. He knows I don’t like it when he calls the hosts meat puppets. Our friends are still in there somewhere. But I get what he means; I never imagined an alien invasion would be so soft and tedious.
We hear the muffled clank of a door closing out in the hall and share a worried look. Angelo moves silently back to the door and cracks it open just far enough to see out. The station doors are designed to lock only in the event of a hull breach, so it doesn’t afford us much protection. I finish at the console, climb up into the air duct, and turn to offer Angelo a hand. He’s right behind me, but there isn’t time for him to clamber up into the duct; the hosts are already opening door.
Angelo swings the grate closed over the air duct, shutting it in my face. “No,” I hiss, but he ignores me and turns to face the hosts. He quickly adopts the slow, gentle body language of a host, hoping to fool them, but his situation is too suspicious; no gossamered human should be in the control room, apparently alone, with the security measures recently reinstated.
I watch from between the slats, barely breathing, afraid to move lest I give myself away. One of them used to be a friend of ours, Ejike, a mineralogist consulting for the mining companies in-system. The thin, pale tentacles of a gossamer shimmer like spidersilk against his dark-skinned face. Of the other three hosts, I recognize two of them but don’t know their names.
“Vacant?” Ejike says, eyeing Angelo.
One of the others nods. “He’s vacant.”
Ejike holds out a hand to Angelo and flashes a warm, reassuring smile made hideous by the web of tentacles pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Come, brother. We want to help you.”
Angelo steps back, though there’s nowhere to go. “Get bent, meat puppet.”
They spread out to surround him, closing in slowly like one might when handling a feral animal. They coo softly to him, promising to make him happy, make everything better. Gentle and inexorable, they grab him.
I press my hands over my mouth, afraid I won’t be able to stop myself from calling out his name.
They take him away.
There aren’t many free humans left on the station, but we have to last. We have to keep fighting them in the odd little ways we can.
The best way to stay free is to act slow and dull like a host and hope no one notices. I’m serious about this. The hosts are doped up on a cocktail of barbiturates and benzodiazepines injected straight into their nervous system, so their skills of observation leave something to be desired. Skulking around is an activity suspicious enough to draw their attention, but if you go about your daily routine acting high and stupid, they assume you’re already like them.
This is hands down the worst part of the whole ordeal.
The day after they enslave Angelo, I have to eat with him in the mess hall like we always do. The sight of a gossamer’s fine, pearlescent tentacles stuck to his face makes me feel ill. I can barely keep my lunch down, but I fork it in one mouthful at a time, mechanically, because that is what a host would do. The hosts don’t seem to perceive the tentacles, either their own or those attached to the faces of their friends, perhaps because they would find the sight distressing. I know I certainly do.
“I think this is the best chili I’ve ever had,” Angelo says with a blissful smile.
“Delicious,” I agree, trying not to hurl.
This is exactly the sort of exchange we would normally share when out in public. It feels so familiar that I find myself waiting for Angelo to give me his usual significant glance, for his lips to fend off a smirk, for any sign at all of irony. But this time he is sincere. Never again will we share private jokes too subtle for the hosts to notice.
I shovel the last of the chili into my mouth and leave the table before he’s finished. Out in the corridor, I check to make sure I’m alone and then break into a run; it’s risky, but I need some time alone in our quarters before Angelo gets there. I should have dealt with it already, but I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t trust him, that he wasn’t him anymore.
I duck inside our quarters, shut the door, and glance around. My lab notebook lays out in the open on the low table in front of the couch—stupid. It contains detailed accounts of my progress toward a cure. I move a chair beneath the air vent, pry open the grate, and shove the notebook inside. Next, my specimen box with a live gossamer in it follows the notebook into the duct.
The most important parts complete, I stand in our living room with hands on hips, staring at the metal cabinet that contains my chemistry supplies. Angelo pilfered it from a wet lab in one of his more daring escapades, but now I don’t know what to do with it. It’s on wheels, but moving it anywhere would draw attention. After a minute of indecision, I grab a tube of glue and seal the doors shut to keep Angelo from accidentally reminding himself of what’s inside.
I sigh when it’s done. Now all I have to do is pretend to be happy so my brainwashed husband doesn’t shove an alien parasite down my throat. Easy.
You’d think being stuck on a quarantined space station would be claustrophobic enough, but trust me, there is trapped, and then there’s trapped.
Angelo’s constant presence makes progress on the cure nearly impossible. Even a quick trip through the air ducts to the control room requires elaborate planning to avoid arousing his suspicion, so my communication with the xenoparasitologist is severely restricted. There is no one left to help. In stolen minutes here and there, I inch painstakingly toward a solution. I try to hold onto the hope that if I can perfect a cure, I may be able to revive the real Angelo. Sometimes, when I see his slack expression, I think it would be better if he were dead, and then I hate myself for it.
I could handle the parasites and their horrible ultimatums, so long as Angelo and I were free, but with a gossamer latching onto him, the fall of humanity seems inevitable. It’s hard to mimic a host’s cheerful bliss when you’re contemplating the unavoidable enslavement of your entire species.
I begin to make preparations for my own infection, which I know is more a sign of despair than a practical concern.
So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when, the next week, someone I don’t recognize stares at me in the mess hall and says, “Vacant,” uncertainly the first time, then pointing and yelling, “Vacant! Vacant!”
Everyone around me stands, and they calmly and lethargically drag me from the room.
This is the way it will work when they do it to you, too.
They sit me down in a reclining chair in the medical lab and tie my wrists to the armrests. Then they smile and ask me to open my mouth. It’s okay to be afraid because pretending won’t do me any good now, so I scream in their smiling faces. For a moment it feels nice, cathartic, you know. They reach forward, mistaking my open-mouthed scream for cooperation, and I clamp my jaw shut. Angelo is here, of course, and though I know what will happen, I can’t bring myself to give in without resisting them.
Angelo walks over to stand at the foot of the reclining chair. He smiles down at me. Then his eyes roll back, and he hits the floor like a stone, convulsing from the neurotoxins his gossamer has begun to pump him with. He will be dead in minutes if I don’t comply. Early on in the invasion, I watched on the security cam as a med tech died the same way, foaming at the mouth, trying to motivate her colleague to accept a gossamer.
I open my mouth.
They insert a metal contraption between my teeth so I don’t accidentally—or deliberately—bite down on my gossamer during the procedure. My eyes widen in panic. They try to soothe me with phrases like, you don’t understand how happy you’ll be, and you’ll thank us later for sharing this with you. The words send a shiver down my spine, because I know they are right; I will be blissfully happy and utterly a slave.
Ejike takes a scalpel and carefully slices open a hard-shelled incubation pod. From within, he lifts a sub-adult gossamer, barely old enough to infect a host. The naked gossamer looks something like a tiny, emaciated squid. Its semi-translucent, ice blue body shimmers with iridescence, and narrow tentacles undulate slowly, testing the air. Ejike holds the fragile creature with gentle hands.
He shuffles back to my side. Angelo, now recovered, pokes at the controls, and the chair reclines all the way down, giving me a view of the bright ceiling lights. Ejike cups his hands together like a trough and tilts them toward my open mouth until the gossamer slides in.
The thin, slick body wriggles down my throat. I gag, my eyes tearing, but I can’t dislodge it. The tentacles trail behind, working to wedge themselves between my cheek and the side of my teeth; the ends hang loose from the corner of my mouth until the gossamer is correctly positioned inside.
When the gossamer sets its hooks into my throat, I feel like I’m swallowing shattered glass. I jerk against the restraints, teeth trying futilely to clamp together. Now I am being stabbed with hot needles from the inside out, as the gossamer sends neural probes through the wall of my trachea and up into my brainstem. At the same time, the tentacles splay across my face and suction to my skin. The hair-thin tips quest blindly for eyes and ears and nose, tugging gently at eyelids and sliding up nostrils until they tap directly into the major sensory nerves.
It’s a relief when the gossamer finally asserts itself. All at once, the pain vanishes, and I lose sensory awareness of the gossamer’s presence, as if it never existed. Looking around the room, the faces of my colleagues are back to normal, too; my parasite must be editing out the other gossamers before the images reach my visual cortex. Astounding, how advanced their neurological control over humans is. An unparalleled scientific curiosity, or at least it would be, if it didn’t spell out the downfall of our species. For a moment, I wish the gossamer would allow me the freedom to choke on it.
Then the gossamer starts to thread pure euphoria through my brain, and I can’t possibly care that I’ve forgotten what I was thinking about.
Whatever I told you before was wrong. If you could comprehend how incredible this feels, you’d be lining up to host a gossamer. The aliens have given us a living nirvana.
A month goes by, and another.
I am deliriously content. The food in the mess sets my taste buds alight; everything around me looks saturated with beauty. Even the hum of the station’s air recyclers takes on a musical rhythm. I could listen to it for hours, and sometimes I do.
Memories start to go missing, things I think I ought to know, but can’t seem to recall. I forget biochemistry, and then I forget why I needed to know biochemistry in the first place. Eventually, I forget my parents’ faces and my own last name. But what does that matter? It’s a small price to pay for perfect bliss.
“Are you glad we gave you a gossamer?” Angelo asks me one lovely afternoon. We are sitting by the viewport in our cabin, watching the frozen stars spin slowly by.
“Of course,” I say. “I was miserable before, always worrying about…I don’t know what I was worrying about. But there’s no reason to be so upset all the time, is there?” Now I understand why we call the other humans “vacant.” They are wretched and empty without a gossamer. I pity them.
“It’s almost dinner time,” he says, shifting his position as if to rise.
But Angelo’s question has planted a seed of doubt in me. For some reason, I feel it’s important to understand why I was unhappy before. Perhaps my gossamer is not yet mature enough to achieve perfect contentment. “Go ahead,” I say. “I’m not hungry yet.”
I close the door behind him when he leaves, vaguely aware that this is an important thing to do, though not sure why. Then I stand in the middle of the floor, turning slowly to look around our quarters, with no conscious idea of how to proceed. I don’t know why I move the chair over to the wall or why I stand on it or why I pry open the grate, but these seem like natural activities, familiar to my muscle memory. Something the old me would do.
Inside, I find a confusing assortment of stashed-away possessions. A ratty notebook with a brown cover. A rectangular, clear plastic box with a live gossamer in it, specimen container, my brain says, a remnant association of words and objects that means little to me now. Next, I pick up some kind of plastic hand-tool, subdermal injector, whatever that is. It has a note attached: take 1.2 mg epinephrine every hour. The handwriting seems familiar.
I fiddle with the device, wondering what its significance was to my former self. There’s a little plastic lever that moves, and when I squeeze it all the way down, I feel a sudden sharp prick in the palm of my other hand. I scowl. It would be just like the other me to own something designed to cause pain. I carefully put it back and pick up the notebook instead, hoping it will prove a safer object to investigate.
For a few minutes, nothing happens. Then I start to feel strange, twitchy and nervous. My heart flutters in my chest. The haze of the gossamer’s bliss recedes into the background, and my mind begins to clear.
Oh god I’m infected, I think, and then, I don’t have long to work.
I break the seal and crack open the cabinet of supplies, frantically trying to remember where I left off. I have to read through my lab notebook twice before I’m confident enough to start working again. My grasp of the concepts still feels fuzzy, as if someone shook me awake in the middle of the night and asked me to balance redox equations. My brain is full of sluggish ghosts, swirling around and muddling my thoughts.
I take the epinephrine injector down from its hiding place and set it on the counter beside me. After an hour or so, when the fog grows thick, I give myself another injection and keep working. I try not to think about the possible contraindications with the chemicals my gossamer keeps feeding me or about the likelihood of inducing tachycardia. I don’t have time to worry about that now.
Angelo should be back from dinner, but he must have gotten distracted with something—a random stroke of luck, but I’ll take all the luck I can get. I finish my latest attempt at a cure and pour the cloudy fluid into two glass vials. I still need to sneak into one of the labs to use a centrifuge, then transfer the supernatant to a new pair of vials and try it out on my test specimen. But I’m getting close.
I start feeling foggy for the fourth or fifth time that night and press the injector to my arm, but when I pull the trigger, nothing happens. I frown and check the dosage meter, only to find it empty. No more epinephrine. My lucidity is already starting to fade. Panicked, I shove my lab notebook and the almost-finished vials into the air duct and shut the grate. I’m putting the supplies back in the cabinet when the purpose of the activity slips away from me.
I crouch on the floor, holding a brown glass bottle labeled chloroform. As I stare at it, befuddled, a neurochemical certainty grows inside me that this is a bad thing, a hurtful thing, that all these bottles and contraptions once made me very unhappy, and if I don’t destroy them, they will do it again. I grab the supplies by the arm-load and drop them all down the trash chute.
When it’s done, I wonder where Angelo is, and I leave our quarters to look for him. I know Angelo and I will always be happy together.
Days pass. I forget why I threw out the bottles, and I forget what I was doing before I threw out the bottles. But the bliss can’t seem to purge from my mind the curiosity about my former self.
I’m eating breakfast in the mess hall with Angelo when I decide to ask him. “Do you remember why we were so miserable before?” I know that I should let it go, but the question nags at me.
Angelo shrugs, as if the question makes him uncomfortable, too. “We were unhappy because we didn’t have gossamers.”
Something seems faulty about this logic, but I can’t quite grasp it. I stir my cereal with my spoon. It should be easy to stop thinking about this. “But doesn’t that mean people are supposed to be unhappy?”
He frowns. “You’re being unpleasant. Go away.”
I look at him, baffled, but he’s ignoring me now, so I abandon my half-eaten cereal and wander back to our quarters alone. I sit on the edge of the couch and stare at nothing. I don’t understand why salt-water keeps running down my cheeks. Of course, I feel perfectly comfortable and content. The comfort is a steel pillar inside me, and I am nothing more than the façade painted upon it.
Suddenly, I want very badly to be able to feel unhappy.
I toss the room, knowing what I need is here somewhere but unable to remember where exactly. I pull drawers out and empty them. I strip the bed. I overturn furniture. I check inside the cabinet on wheels, and when I find it empty, I kick it even though I can’t remember what I should expect to find inside. I don’t feel pain in my foot, but the act of kicking something helps to sharpen and clarify my need.
Finally, I stand on the chair beneath the air vent and pry off the grate. I find two glass vials in a plastic rack, a gossamer inside a clear-walled box, and a notebook labeled Elizabeth Felsen.
I read it aloud, “Elizabeth Felsen.” It sounds eerily familiar.
I step down off the chair and place my discoveries atop the cabinet to examine them more thoroughly. The liquid in the vials looks separated, a clear fluid floating atop a murky white one. The top one, my brain insists, though I don’t know where that knowledge comes from. Before I can lose my nerve, I grab one vial and pour off the top fluid as best I can into a drinking glass.
Then I lift the glass and toss it back like a shot.
The cure sears tentacles on its way down, and the gossamer releases its hold on my sensory nerves to flail about wildly, tentacles writhing against my face like salted leeches. As I swallow, spreading the cure over the gossamer’s body, it retracts its neural tap and desperately unhooks itself, and I am hit suddenly with the full awareness of my situation. A feeling like razors in my throat, the slippery squirming body makes me gag.
I hack and cough and finally have the sense to grab the damn thing by its web of tentacles and pull. It slides out with a wet suctioning sound, and I throw the parasite in the plastic box with the test gossamer and jam the lid closed again. The cure hits my stomach and comes right back up again, and I double over and puke it all over the floor. I can smell the faint, sweet residue of chloroform; I really should have centrifuged it properly before consumption.
Woozy from the cure, I have some trouble standing up straight and staying that way. I stumble through the chaos of stuff formerly known as my quarters and finally unearth a usable shoulder bag. Not ideal for crawling through ductwork, but it’ll have to do. With my own supplies gone, I need to access the laboratory facilities if I’m going to mass-produce enough cure for the whole station. I pack up my notebook, specimen box, and vial and climb up into the air duct.
It takes me a while to remember how to get to the labs. I find the nearest maintenance shaft and climb two floors up, then I squeeze back into the ducts and head in the general direction of the research facilities. This path isn’t as well worn as the one leading to the control room, and I’m not sure where Angelo hid the schematics the last time we used them; some of my memories are still fuzzy. But I make my way by trial and error, periodically sliding up to a vent to peer through and orient myself based on my memory of the station’s layout.
Eventually, the vent I crawl toward turns out to be the one I’m looking for—a storage room nestled in the back of the laboratory complex. An acrid smell reaches me through the grate, but I push it open anyway.
I drop into the room with a splash. The floor is a mess of broken glass and spilt chemicals, and the fumes burn in my nostrils. I hold my shirt sleeve over my nose and mouth and take short, shallow breaths while I step carefully through the supply room. Stumbling through the door on the other side, I gasp for fresh air and stare around the lab in shock. This room, too, has been tossed, and I’ll be lucky to find a functional centrifuge for Angelo’s dose, let alone the supplies to make any more.
I check the adjacent lab, which has fared no better, and then the next one beyond that. The better part of an hour goes by before I find a usable centrifuge and finish preparing the last dose. The damage is extensive, and I give up the idea of making more. At least I managed to concoct enough for Angelo. Now all I have to do is find him.
The thought of going back to the fume-filled storeroom turns my stomach, so I proceed forward through the lab complex, looking for an easier entryway into the ducts.
Something falls to the floor with a crash nearby. I duck behind a lab bench, then peer out to try to assess the situation. Indeed, this is the room I want; it has a nice large air vent on the opposite wall, but between me and the vent stands Ejike, smiling blissfully as he spreads the destruction. He looks up and spots me.
“Crap,” I mutter, pulling back into my ersatz hiding place. I try to put on a blank, happy expression, but my heart is hammering in my chest, and I can’t seem to get it right.
Ejike comes around the end of the lab bench and stands over me. “Vacant?” he says, and then he’s shouting at the top of his lungs, “Vacant! Vacant!”
There’s no time. I have to shut him up, and so I do it the only way I can think of. I pop the lid off the vial, lunge up to grab his head, and pour the cure down his throat.
Ejike coughs and gags and drops to his knees. The tentacles stuck to his face release their grip all at once and writhe through the air, glistening in the artificial light. I kneel and grab ahold of the narrow, slippery limbs, gathering them together like a bouquet, but I wait for a cue from Ejike. His eyes go wide, and his coughing redoubles, then he taps my hand to signal that the gossamer’s hooks are out. I pull, gently but firmly, and the gossamer slips free. It goes in the specimen box inside my bag with the others before I turn back to Ejike.
He seems to be feeling better than I was. “You did it. Amazing!” He says and pulls me into a spontaneous hug. “We must find Angelo. Or have you cured him already?”
“Ejike,” I say, “that was the last dose.”
He pauses, sobering. “So you will make more.”
“I can’t. The gossamers trashed the labs. No equipment, no reagents.” I shake my head. “Besides, we have to go. They could be here any minute.”
Ejike’s gaze unfocuses as he struggles to dredge up the memory. “Yes, I was yelling.”
I stand, shoulder the bag, and grab his arm to help him to his feet. “Come on,” I say, leading him to the wall.
I pop open the grate on the air vent. “The ducts, of course.”
“Oh! What a clever idea,” he says brightly.
I stare for a moment. I can’t bear to tell him that he was the one who thought of it, back in the early days of the infestation. He’s been a host for a long time, and there’s no way to know if his memory will ever fully recover. He seems lucid enough, though, and I remind myself to be grateful for small favors.
The vent is a high one, so climbing up involves some upper-body strength and a lot of scrabbling, but I haven’t lost my touch for it. I squeeze around in the duct to face out, anchor my feet against the walls on either side, and reach out a hand to help Ejike pull up.
Out in the lab complex, there are sounds of feet and voices now. I tell Ejike to reset the grate, then we get moving. He’s not very quiet, and he can’t match me for speed or stamina; I have months more experience crawling around in ductwork. I worry about the hosts catching us despite our unconventional route.
We pause at an intersection with a vertical maintenance shaft, but when I push open the hatch, I don’t know whether to take us up or down.
Ejike, catching his breath, says, “What is the plan?”
“I don’t know.”
He adjusts to sit with his back against one wall of the duct, hunching down to fit. “We can pass on the formula and have your xenoparasitologist friend send us an unmanned shipment with enough doses.”
“That could take weeks. By the time it gets here, they’ll have shoved gossamers back down our throats, and there won’t be anyone to administer it.”
“So what do we do, then?”
I pause, undecided, and in the silence, I hear a muffled clang clang. Ejike opens his mouth, but I raise a hand and whisper, “Shh. Do you hear that?” Again, I can make out the bangs and clunks, sounds of an inexperienced person trying to navigate in a small space.
Ejike raises his eyebrows, questioning.
“They’re in the ducts. Coming after us.” Now there’s nowhere safe left on the station, and we have little choice but to go up, toward the emergency shuttles. I grab a rung of the ladder and swing into the maintenance shaft, hanging in the air several stories up, then start to climb.
Ejike follows me. “Where are we going?”
I don’t answer. It’s a violation of the quarantine for anyone to leave the station, especially with live specimens in their possession, but we’ve run out of options. With the available resources, there’s nothing more we can do here except get ourselves re-parasitized.
I try not to think about leaving Angelo behind.
I lead Ejike along a duct line all the way to the end. This particular grate is reinforced and opens only with a key code. The station’s chief engineer secured the emergency shuttle bay first; if he had the time to secure the control room, too, before he got a gossamer, maybe I wouldn’t be here now. Or at least, I’d be here with Angelo.
“We leave the station?” Ejike says doubtfully, peering through the holes in the grate.
“The other option is to turn around and hand yourself back to the hosts.”
I punch in the code and then reset it to a new numerical sequence, because Angelo knew the old code. The reinforced grate swings open, and I drop down into the shuttle bay. Once Ejike has joined me, I slam the grate shut and give it a yank to make sure it’s locked.
Next, I check the door. Thankfully, it’s still sealed shut. That done, I take a minute to look around the bay. A few emergency shuttles were deployed during the initial panic after the infestation was discovered, but most of them sit in their cradles, ready to rescue people who won’t ever come.
A clunk emanates from the duct, and I look up; two hosts have reached the vent. They cut themselves on the grate as they press their fingers through the holes, and while the blood runs down and drips from their fingertips, they smile those ludicrous contented smiles, feeling nothing. One of them is Angelo.
“Let’s go,” Ejike says, gently taking my arm. I can’t look away. He pulls more insistently, and I walk backwards all the way to the shuttle.
When the shuttle doors seal shut, I try to blink away the image. Ejike moves to the front and wakens the onboard computer, and the engines hum to life. The autopilot lifts the shuttle, maneuvers it into a launch tube, and shoots us out into the stars.
I am very much accustomed to navigating through confined spaces, so the compact design of the emergency shuttle doesn’t bother me at all. The vast empty void outside the shuttle, though, puts me immediately on edge.
“Great. Now we’re stuck in a short-range shuttle at the edge of human space. What an improvement.” I toss my hands in the air, marveling that I could be so short-sighted.
Ejike, sitting at the console, pulls up the regional flight logs. “An industrial starship, The Intrepid, shouldhave passed us a few days ago on its way in-system. It is scheduled to be unloading equipment at the new mining colony for the whole week.”
I flop down in the co-pilot’s chair, relieved. “Finally a bit of luck. Let’s set a course and send out a distress call.”
Ejike mans the controls while I rub my face, exhausted now that the adrenaline of our escape is wearing off.
I’m already starting to dose off when he says, “Hmm. No response, but we are only equipped for short-range communications here. They probably can’t hear us. We can try again when we get closer.”
“Yeah,” I say, and shake my head to clear the cobwebs. I should at least check on the gossamers before falling asleep. I lift my bag into my lap, take out the specimen box, and examine it for cracks. It appears to have survived the trip through the ducts intact.
Ejike looks over and jerks, startled by the sight of them. “Why did you bring those?”
“They could still be useful for perfecting the cure or finding an alternative if the others develop resistance.” I get up and carry the gossamers into the rear of the cabin and put them down a little less gently than I might. “Besides, they’re sealed in a box. Not going anywhere.” I lean close to the clear wall of their prison and say, “How does it feel to be the powerless ones? Not so tough without your meat puppets, are you?”
Then I straighten and turn away from them, because I sound like Angelo and because that makes me ache for him.
Ejike spends the day at the controls, attentively watching the console while the autopilot keeps our course steady. I curl up in the co-pilot’s chair and drift in and out of sleep for a while. When I can’t do that anymore, I move to the back of the cabin and watch the gossamers.
I wonder if the zoologists thought them beautiful before they discovered what they were capable of. The gossamers have a sort of grace to their movements, an intelligence to the way they blindly explore the boundaries of their containment. It’s mesmerizing…and unsettling.
“They seem…awfully calm,” I say. In the panic of trying to escape, it hadn’t occurred to me to observe how the gossamers were reacting. Can they perceive what happening outside a host body?
“What?” Ejike swivels the pilot’s chair around to face me.
“The gossamers. They don’t seem overly perturbed about their current predicament. Don’t you think that’s suspicious?”
“Maybe they find it cozy.”
I sigh, annoyed. “If I put you in a tiny plastic box, wouldn’t you try to get out?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But I also would not enjoy living down another animal’s throat.”
I get his point, but there’s a growing certainty in my gut that the gossamers are more than they seem. “This whole thing was too easy. Our gossamers had plenty of time to knock us out with a burst of neurochemicals before we ingested the cure, but they chose not to.”
Ejike lifts one shoulder in an uncertain shrug. “Perhaps they did not know what you were doing?”
I shake my head. “No. They played us. They’re exactly where they want to be.” Three reproductive adults, soon to board a starship heading to a world full of potential hosts.
I snatch up the specimen box, turn to the back wall of the shuttle, and jab the button to open the inner door of the airlock. I place the box inside and shut the door again.
Ejike realizes what I’m doing and rushes down the length of the cabin. “Liz,” he says. “If you are right, we cannot be sure the cure we used actually works.”
“I know.” If they were playing us from the start, they may have only pretended to react badly to the cure I developed. If, if, if–all I have are ifs. “We can’t risk it.”
I reach for the airlock control panel, but Ejike intercepts my hand. “How are they going to design a real cure without live specimens?”
“Freeze-dried will have to be good enough,” I say, knowing that it likely won’t be. I reach up again, and Ejike doesn’t stop me this time. With the push of a button, I vent the airlock and condemn Angelo to permanent slavery.
Ejike turns away. Softly, he says, “I hope this is right.”
“Me too,” I say, almost wishing for the simplicity of the gossamers’ drug-world. Slaves never have to make impossible decisions. “Me too.”
I leave the gossamers exposed to the vacuum of space for several hours, just to be sure, before I repressurize the airlock and retrieve the brittle, useless carcasses.
You’d think it would be the idea of Angelo living out his life as a meat puppet that drives me quietly insane on the long coast to intercept The Intrepid. Strangely, it isn’t. At least he can’t understand the horror of his own fate; as gruesome deaths go, his could be worse. Angelo-that-was would hate it, and on his behalf, I hate it too, but Angelo-that-is resides in a blissful zombie paradise and isn’t capable of hating anything.
I think about what it would be like if our positions were reversed, if I had stayed down in that gossamer oblivion and let Angelo be the one to rise back up and fight them. I know him; he would never have left without me, even if staying meant accepting a gossamer again. I’ll have to live with the guilt.
But those thoughts are pointless, and I push them away. No, the part that really drives me nuts is the three and a half months I spent as a host myself, and my memories—or lack thereof—of that time. Foggy, like a half-remembered dream. This I know: the control room is silent. No quarantine broadcasts reach our shuttle, which means there are no free humans left to reset the lockdown, either.
I check the flight logs: eleven starships came and went from this solar system in the time I was a host, and I can’t be sure they all stayed clear of docking with the station. For that matter, there’s no way to know The Intrepid did, either.
We send out the distress call again and wait for an answer.
by Gwendolyn Clare