Prose Header

You Are Alien

by Luke Jackson

Your first memory is lit by the milky-white glow of diffuse light, swimming through mucous and squeezing between the moist cylindrical bodies and soothing cilia. You were all children playing; the cilia could only form simple, pleasant thoughts, hanging in the sputum like promises. That was before self-awareness, of being distinct from others.

Your second memory was being pulled from the writhing mass by an elder, its cilia twitching back in obvious repulsion, then dancing in clear signs even you could make out: forbidden, danger, warning. You kept trying to crawl back into the proglottidean play, but the elder held you back by your lanky arm, and finally began thrashing you with coiled strands of cilia and puncturing your back flesh with its round, segmented jaws.

That was when you realized that you are different.

* * *

You remember going to the zoo.

Jervix told you early in the morning. He had gestured in strange, complex symbols, not all of which you understood, which was usual. Something about life on other worlds, other planets, how we would be able to see these strange and mysterious races and creatures. His cilia fluttered frenetically, desperately; by the time you locked on to one symbol, he was seven or eight movements beyond.

“I do not know if you can go, yet,” Jervix had gestured, wrapped in the soft velvet cocoon nest above your sandbox.

In the end, they had let you go. You still remember rushing breathlessly through the concrete chambers, staring through the viewing portals into the sealed vaults containing the conquered visitors: winged creatures with massive eyes and heads, waving feebly at you; the demons with horns and fangs, hunched over and feeding on dessicated corpses at their hooves, scratching against the portal at you in futile menace; even some that could not be visitors, creatures with no recognizable features per se, wet illuminated oblongs that danced on gaseous updrifts in the foreign atmosphere of their chamber. You wonder how they came to be here.

What you remember most, though, were the ones that looked like you. They were different in some ways: their head hair was neatly shaped, they were dressed in clean, pressed grey uniforms, and they had the plump and ruddy look of the well-fed. But something was wrong with their shadowed eyes. You could tell they were not happy.

You tried to read the illuminated, multitiered hieroglyphs next to the portal, to no avail. Your fingertip skin just wasn’t sensitive enough to process the intricate subtleties of the text. You were a weak and helpless child.

“Humans,” Mother had said, gesturing vaguely at you, “used to be on our planet. We had our separate peaces for a long, long time. But their disturbances increased, and their homeworld wanted them back. We eventually had to return them. It was a time of much strife. They seemed surprised that we would reclaim our own world,” Mother gesticulated.

You wished you had cilia to speak, but you couldn’t coordinate your body hair no matter how hard you tried. You could only use your ten stubby, meaty fingers, which lacked any agility and grace, could only make the most simple and rudimentary symbols. You tried desperately to express the humans’ sadness, their need for help.

“Do you need private excretion?” Mother asked. They always misinterpreted your words.

The man inside the vault splayed his large hand against the glass, mouthing words that you could not understand. His eyes, however, spoke a quiet desperation.

You put the palm of your small hand up against the glass too, trying to decipher the voids of his black eyes.

“Don’t touch,” Mother scolded, filaments yanking your hand away.

* * *

You were ecstatic when you received cilia implants for your thirteenth birthday.

“I have to warn you, we haven’t proglottimorphized humans before,” the geneticist told Mother, while you lay there in the shifting fibers of your new skin, tasting the wind. “Not that they are stupid, per se, but their brains evolved in accordance with the limited sensory spectrum available to them. And you know that they have been decreed sociologically unstable after the hypsies.”

“I know, all too well,” Mother waved back, “but isn’t he precious?” She rubbed her cilia through yours, sparking shivers of new recognition along your synapses.

“He is much better-looking,” the geneticist agreed absently.

You were eager to taste the new world. Outside, the world that had been grey and sterile became infinitely varied, the winds carrying intriguing signs and textures. You followed these wind-smells to find more proglottiddeans, who would gather around you, cooing with their fibers. But when you tried to approach them, they would retract or bite you with the sharp teeth of their O-shaped mouths, their cilia waving the familiar signs: forbidden, danger, warning.

“Gross, it’s trying to interact,” complained a large female in heat, whose oozing, fascinating pheromones had summoned you through the miles of plastic grey tubes. Then her male suitors writhed around you, entwining your limbs and lashing your flesh, trying to impress.

* * *

At least you could read. You spent hours in Information, running your filaments through the hieroglyphs now made partially intelligible. Of course, you were desperate for news of humans. In Gjarnub’s History of Our Homeworld, you read:

“The primate hominids came hundreds of years ago, in vessels that cut through space and time. We were not interested. They began colonizing our planet, aggregating in communes that milked the resources of our world, growing foreign flora and fauna for their own consumption. They called themselves ‘hypsies.’ Still we were not interested.

“The hypsies spread over our globe crust like an infestation, but our underground world was largely unaffected. The Empire agitated for reclamation, but its power was distant and easily ignored.

“Finally, the strife began. The hypsies began fragmenting even among themselves, many of the offspring agitating for a return to the power and order of Empire after being raised in relative chaos. Other offspring grew inquisitive about us, infiltrating and contaminating our society; still others grew fearful and called for our obliteration, to make our beloved homeworld a human-only planet. Of course, this we could not abide.

“It became clear that humanity was sociologically schizophrenic, given to constant rifts and reformations, a cause of much stress and discord for our beloved race and planet. In the Hypsy Agreement, we agreed to the forced return of all hypsies to the Empire, so that they could deal with these defects within their own people and planets.

“We were surprised when they were surprised, and put up a virulent resistance.”

At least, that is what you understood from the glyphs. The proglottideans appeared to be unconcerned with human specifics like dates and places, or that could merely be layers of context which your simian mind could not absorb.

You must have read millions of glyphs over the next few weeks, but the references to humanity and your predecessors were always vague and fleeting. You longed to know where they were, what had happened to them, where you had come from.

* * *

You lie awake in your sandbox, staring at the blank grey walls, listening to the sleep-scuttling of Jervix’ segmented jaws. His cilia occasionally twitch into incomprehensible dream symbols. Your body has never perfectly acclimated to the four-hour sleep cycle; you usually feel too restless to sleep.

You stand up, your long hair mussed and the sand gritting against your newly hirsute skin, and begin wandering through your family’s quarters. You eventually arrive at Mother’s chambers, her portal always open.

“Mother?” you ask, running your cilia through hers because she is blind in sleep.

“Mmmmph,” she responds, then her waving cilia resolve into, “Sleep.”

“Mother,” you say, your strands becoming more forceful in hers, “wake up.” Her filaments thrash in her sleep; you are afraid that she will thrash you without thinking. They eventually resolve into an open question, and you can tell that she is now awake.

“Mother,” you say again, “Why am I different?”

“Because you are a human, of course,” she responds, still fuzzy with sleep.

“But why am I in this family? Where did I come from?”

“Oh,” she says. Her jaws clack together and you can see her struggle to become more alert. “I would have told you earlier, but we could not tell that you were percipient. You still cannot be under the Agreement.”

Her wordsigns are complex, but you wave her on.

“The hypsies had kept to their own colonies for hundreds of years. We were happy to leave them to the crust, an inhospitable place full of other life forms, with constant changes in temperature and light levels. Initially, the hypsies were peaceable, and let us alone.

“But then they began trickling underground. Some said that they wanted to ‘study’ us. Others said they needed assistance in avoiding and resisting their Empire. Still others were fleeing from the hypsy colonies themselves, for whatever reason. Your mother, Aunt Lucy, was one of the latter.

“She was a hungry and disheveled teenager, hunched by our entrance portal, grunting at us in her unintelligible throat-language. I would have ignored her, but Jervix was young, and insisted on letting her in. We followed his childish wishes, gave her food and shelter. She assisted in the household work, watched the children. We all had warm feelings for Aunt Lucy.” She paused, seemed to gather her thoughts.

“We could never speak with her. She couldn’t understand the cilia, we couldn’t understand her throat words. But we could tell that she was smarter than the other creatures in the caves.

“When we entered into the Hypsy Agreement with the Empire, we all realized that humanity was sociologically schizophrenic. In hindsight, Aunt Lucy was representative of these problems: she hated and feared the Empire, and yet she had fled the hypsies as well. Her own culture could never satisfy her. We should have been more alert.

“Under the Agreement, all the hypsies were forced onto automated Empire vessels. Lucy seemed terrified; she disappeared several months before the final date, but in the end she was forced to go, like everyone else. Only after they were gone did we find you, preserved in storage, with Lucy’s simple scrawled glyphs above the chamber door: ‘I will not have my child raised by the Empire.’ That was when we learned she could write.”

Mother brushed her cilia along your torso.

“We kept you for Lucy. We had good feelings for her, and for you. But she and her people were unstable, and had to leave.”

* * *

You’ve gone back to the zoo, watching the listless people behind the glass barrier. You know that it would look suspect, a human staying so long here, so you’ve wrapped your threads tight around yourself for privacy, and hope that nobody can see your human limbs beneath.

During the fifth hour, a keeper wriggles near the cage, his cilia making an intricate dance to open the portal and then push shells full of mush inside. The keeper leaves, and the humans stir to grab the shells and slowly finger the food into their mouths.

As the sleep-cycle deepens and the chambers empty, you approach the portal and imitate the keeper’s intricate dance. The portal slides aside. You unveil your threads and reveal your human body beneath.

“What are you doing?” the man asks with his throat, but you can’t understand his words. The women and three children only stare at you mutely.

You don’t know why they keep standing there, when you have granted them escape. You wave with your cilia, then start gesturing with your arms, trying to get them to leave, to flee. Eventually, the man gathers his small family and edges hesitantly towards the portal.

You run out into the grey stone tunnels, the family following behind you. You’re not sure what you’re doing, but you know that it is wrong to keep them here.

“Are you with the Empire?” the man asks, but again you don’t understand his words.

Night-cycle workers loll up ahead, their cilia gummy-pink with mild intoxicants. You just keep running, even though you begin to realize that you cannot run forever.

“Stop right there,” a worker gestures, breaking through his sluggish reverie.

Then they are surrounding you, more coming down the halls. Briefly, you remember being a child squirming among their moist pink-white flesh, but now their underskin muscles are flexing and their mouths are biting. You struggle against them, your weak child limbs futile against their size and numbers. You know that you will never be one of them again; you had never been one of them.

You feel your limbs coated with a gummy pinkish tar, and your gestures become weaker, more limited, and eventually stop altogether. You feel yourself drawing out of yourself, your body draining while your mind looks numbly on. You can’t see what’s happening to the human family.

“This one was isolated from the others,” you imagine in the squirming cilia surrounding your small, prone body. “Proves they are not only sociologically unstable, but individually, intrinsically, as well.”

Then there is blackness.

* * *

Later, the unwelcome world starts returning, in brief spurts and flickers, lit by strange new colors — blues, reds, oranges, greens, yellows — colors you never knew in the proglottidean underworld of white, grey and fleeting pink.

What you remember most is sky. You look up into a vast and unlimited space, at first thinking that this must be a vast underground chamber. But you send out your shivering cilia to sense for the walls of this space, and find none; it appears to go on forever. The space is not controlled, there is too much heat beating down from an overwhelming sky fire; the winds surge and soothe at the whim of unnamable forces, the wind carrying a nauseating miasma of unnamable smells.

You look down and see black-armored proglottideans surging underneath, their cilia well protected from sky; you are held above them, in an insubstantial clear plastic cup, exposed to everything. On distant ground, you see strange, swaying structures that you can sense are living, full of the creatures you know only from their dead shells, and burned cities of wood and bone that you can sense are dead.

The sensations are overwhelming, sending shudders and shivers throughout your torso; your head is aflame and your appendages are numbed and bloated. This must be the punishment for your transgression: the horrific sky and its fiery omniscient eye.

* * *

“Okay, kid?” a man’s voice says. “Those damn worms.... You can’t give horse tranquilizer to a man, yet they give worm tranquilizer to a kid. Just so’s you won’t see the sky. Madness... evil madness.” You only hear clacking grunts.

A wrinkled and diminutive human sits near you. Behind him, more stars and sky is visible through a portal; you feel the shiver of imminent terror.

“Take this, kid,” he says, pushing an inhalant tube near your mouth. You are too weak to push it away, and inhale an unfamiliar chemical stink into your lungs. You strain, thinking that the strange stench is poison. You become more worried, feeling yourself grow tired and lethargic, your body dying, but your worry has taken on a distant quality.

“Ether,” the man says, taking the tube away from your mouth and holding it to his own, then inhaling deeply. “Only thing keeps me sane on these long flights... Ethereal,” he says through the clear plastic tube.

Safely anesthetized, the man turns back to stare into space.

“Afraid of space, the void,” he says distantly. “Damn worms.”

Through the numb haze of the ether and your fading fever dreams, you recognize Mother’s white sputum intricately laced through your cilia. You usually have trouble deciphering these messages of shape and scent, but this one is stands out clearly to you: “We did the best we could.”

The man is huffing again on the ether tube, staring into the limitless space without fear.

“It’s wrong, what the hypsies did, to feed dreams in the minds of the young,” the man finally continues, his calloused hands rubbing his rheumy eyes. “Like the Emperor says, ‘Without order, self-interest becomes law.’

“He was right to blow their return vessels out of the sky. The Emperor is always right, blandishments be His name.”

You don’t know how, but you understand. For the rest of the flight, you lock your cilia tight around you for its fragile sense of security, your mother’s white sputum close to your torso, every moment fearing that your voyage will end in flames and shattered metal.

Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson

Originally published in Scifantastic Issue 5

Home Page