CW: war, drugs, gun violence, induced insanity, confinement, forced masculinization threat, sexual gaze
“This is for Wacoooo!!" Alastair screamed as he slammed his elbow against the back door handle, resting his wrist on the rolled down window, digging lines in his skin as he used the frame to steady the Zenith Z-RS and drawing blood from the recoil as he started firing.
I was hyperventilating so hard I didn’t even try to stop him. This was so close to how Delilah went that it felt like her memories were inhabiting me alongside Halation’s, even though I had only experienced them in nightmares. The ominous thing that had been pursuing us skidded to a halt on the side of the road. The finger of blue-white light from those freaky too-powerful headlights that had been stroking my skin like the creepy gay homophobic church kid at the ninth grade dance slipped off my shoulder. It had been - it had looked like an innocent semitruck, but it was now barrelling down on us like the tanker from fucking Duel. I didn’t know who they were or whether they had anything to do with Waco. I didn’t know if Alastair even thought he knew. But for all it was souped up it was never going to scare the rational part of me as much as the cars that had merged onto the road and started tailing behind it, either Cloudskater’s regular cops or the weirdos’ actual fed backup, a few hundred metres behind it. And they must have heard those shots.
Alastair popped his head back inside, leaned over my shoulder as Jax drove. “That thing was fucking armoured - I hit it and didn’t break the glass - but it still swerved." He laughed. “Who the fuck - one of those weird halfassed agencies they drag out to harass protesters in DC? Fucking mercenaries?"
“Dude why the fuck would there be mercenaries after us." Jax sounded like he was on helium.
“Edison Lens," I reminded Alastair.
“They’re not drug mercenaries or whatever. The badge they showed me said Edison Lens." I pulled my phone out of my pocket and started searching Duckduckgo. My heart sank at the first page of results. Declassified documents describing a collaborative agency proposed by US and Soviet intelligence and scientists at the height of UFO mania in the 1960s. Dismissed by higher-ups on both sides as a security vulnerability with no benefits, never funded or approved. At least not in these documents. I read this off to Alastair. “Man, you’ve never heard of this? It seems right up your alley."
“Shut up while I’m aiming. I can slow these guys down the same."
“The point is, they know. They saw me." My voice was cold and hard. I didn’t know I could sound like this - I hadn’t tried to since tabletop roleplays over voice chat when I was 12. I wasn’t human any more, but not because I had an alien inside me. I was not human but Human with a capital H. I was a representative. I remembered my thesis on Marx’s concept of species-being. I was no longer I. I would be alone except my mind trembled with one who felt the same way. My heart was pounding in my ears, pushing out terror and despair with this purpose and anticipation. “Are you in this, for real? Because if you’re not, you can jump out of the car and say I kicked you out. We’re not going back."
“We’re in luck!" Alastair whipped out a rolled up sticker of the Tasmanian devil from Looney Tunes. “I found this in the truck stop bathroom a week ago - Taz is tonight - so there’ll be less people at basically all of the labs in the county except the Hispanic one. I suggest we hit Cloudskater’s because, I mean, the guy calls himself Cloudskater, he’s definitely going to be at Taz."
“What’s Taz? Who the fuck calls himself Cloudskater?" I squint, realizing I’ve fallen asleep with my eyes open in one of Halation’s memories again.
“Temporary Autonomous Zone. It’s a kind of rave in a field. Started by some weird hippies who moved out here in the 90s and now eighty percent swamped with redneck dipshits."
“Nobody was doing that when I lived here." And I bemused by the reference to anarchist literature - where I was from, you couldn’t get away with naming anything after that pedophile. Probably none of the “redneck dipshits" knew the name was a reference to a faggot.
“You didn’t know the right people, it’s been going for two decades. Also internet makes it easier now although it still tries to maintain the whole analog ARG mystique."
I stared into Alastair’s eyes for a few seconds with a strange, disorienting mirroring impression. It was starting to gel for me that Alastair - the person Jax had started to gravitate towards as soon as he’d lost me - was a lot like the kind of person I might have become if I’d stayed here, developing the same interests (come to think of it, my own leftism had always gravitated a bit towards the paranoid style), the same doubts and resentments, and learning the avenues there were for them out here, digging them out like a fox. In fact, what if he wasn’t even a chaser but a - I stopped thinking before I’d be unable to contain a laugh or at least an awkward facial expression.
“Cloudskater’s a guy who cooks primarily so he can hotbox his living room and listen to metal every other day and sell what he has left over, but he actually makes a shit ton because he has blackmail on some trucker who gives him stuff cheap. If we don’t raid him first somebody is probably gonna kill him. He should have enough chems for… going by how long you were saying this was lasting your alien… another week? And the other reason I picked Cloudskater is, he’s a goldbug too, and I bet I know where he hides it. Meaning we could start just buying stuff up, stockpiling for the long haul."
(We saw the truck at the gas station - the same one where Alastair had found the Taz sticker, and apparently something of a hub for illegal activities - on the way out, which was funny because we’d seen it on the way to our hideout, six hours earlier. I wouldn’t have noticed if Alastair hadn’t remarked on it - at this point I think he was just showing off his rural street smarts, but he didn’t seem to have ever seen it or even have a clear idea what it might be doing sitting there for so long. I ventured it had probably just broken down. There was nothing else suspicious about it.)
Cloudskater’s lab was out to the West where the foothills started to rise, in the central lodge of an abandoned campground and hiking trail. I tensed a little when we passed through the inconspicuously hanging-open wooden gate (a suspended log with a curled-up metal sign) and started inching through the twists and turns of the dirt road leading up, headlights turned off. The road was hemmed in on both sides by low-lying scrub that in a few places stuck out wavy branches into it, but no more than a few scrawny disease-gnawed trees. I still didn’t have a clear sense how much raids like we were doing were a thing that happened, but this guy had certainly picked a place that gave him tons of time to see anyone coming.
But as we pulled up in front of the building, nobody came out to meet us, no alarms went off, no lights were on. Jax told me and Alastair to get out - he would keep driving along the trail to somewhere less obvious in case somebody came back while we were here. Alastair had his Z-5RS and I had my Roland Special. We both wore balaclavas. As we approached the door a flickery white-blue light came on - too weak (and poorly angled) to even reach us, though evidently a sensor had. In the light I could also see the silhouette of a small camera over the door. I took almost a minute to aim, and took it out in one hit.
I couldn’t entirely take credit for it. At the trap, at target practice, on video games and a number of other activities, I’d been figuring out what I could do with Halation inside me. Their species hadn’t evolved to be symbiotic with basically any animal without conferring some advantages on their hosts. The major one was brain-interface. The direct neural connections didn’t just let them share information with my conscious mind - it let them send signals to parts of my brain I didn’t even realize I was using. (All of these levels of brain chemistry occurred on a single plane for Halation in a way that gave their consciousness a distinctly different texture than mine - a sort of flat dreamlike sheen I could only analogize, again, to certain psychedelics. Indeed, Halation’s species had apparently jump-started the sentience of several other species on their planet - in a way that couldn’t help but remind me of a certain non-mainstream scientist’s views about certain mushrooms - which Halation had instantly taken to and now I had a sidequest to find “Cloudskater"’s shroom stash and see if Halation could commune with the mushroom, which I didn’t think would work but would be incredibly fun.) In that moment, I had had Halation shut down basically all of my conscious subprocesses except my aim, and juice my focus to the extent that it felt like I was zooming in on the camera on an Imax screen.
Just to be safe, we shot out the light too. Then crouched under the porch for about a minute to see if anyone came running to respond to the shots. Then pulled ourselves up and strafed to the door. Alastair had a lock-pick. I stayed behind him, scanning the woods.
A flurry of noise. Alastair doubled back so fast he keeled over the rail of the porch, fumbling his gun in his hands. “Fuck me, I don’t wanna shoot a dog, man!"
I spun around to face the door. The black Cane Corso was leashed, but its leash extended far enough to reach me as soon as it noticed I was there and it couldn’t reach Alastair. I hadn’t tested this yet, but I didn’t want to shoot a dog either and didn’t have the time to aim, so I reached out a hand towards its face while backing up. As its tongue and teeth scraped my palm, a line of multicoloured liquid, vaguely phosphorescent even in the dark, shot from my ear down my neck, over my shoulder, along my rigid outstretched arm to the tips of my fingers which clenched unconsciously around the dog’s huge muzzle. It stopped, mouth half open. The liquid had gone into its nose, and didn’t seem to be extending any further. Confusing, foreign sensations started to trickle into my mind. In some ways the dog’s mind felt more alien than Halation’s. More abstract consciousness, Halation had told me, was more “interoperable"; their range of symbiotic experience had given their species a distinct theory of consciousness within Meteorology’s panpsychism. Interoperability was neither an absolute, like the sentient/nonsentient distinction humans applied to other animals and AI, nor a criterion for ethical subjecthood, at least for a Meteorologist. Given enough time, we could probably “make" the dog “interoperable", a process I wasn’t totally sure whether or not would entail making it sentient by human standards. As cool as it would be to come out of this raid with not just another week’s worth of alien atmosphere but a talking dog, this would take a lot of time and painstaking consent negotiation, so we settled for putting it to sleep.
Alastair pulled himself back up over the fence, and I giggled at the dust and scrapes on his hands and his dishevelled hair. “What the fuck, since when does Cloudskater know how to look after a dog. Does he even remember to fucking feed it?"
I reached down and tugged on the dog’s leash. It was made of tough, black, ridged serrated fibre, buckled tightly with plastic. I felt along it, fingers slipping between the tough material and soft fur, following an intuition I’d barely been able to pick out of the confused signals that had jolted my brain, until they ran over the gentle indentations of letters. I didn’t have to look down to read them. K-9.
I jumped back. “Not his. Cop dog."
“Shit!" Alastair hissed, and backed all the way up to the treeline.
I hid under the porch and waited. But there weren’t any noises from inside the building. When I was confident the coast was clear I went back to regroup with Alastair, who had just phoned Jax and told him to take the trail that circled back around to the highway and make sure no one was coming.
“Why would they just leave their dog here. Do you think they would have like… lent it to him as a guard dog? If he was like, an asset? I don’t think anyone’s here."
“Fucking cops. What if you didn’t have… alien powers, what if it got shot."
“Fucking cops." For reasons I had yet to fully explain to anyone in this part of the country, I couldn’t agree more.
We moved through the doors like fucking cops ourselves, in a video game, specifically SWAT 4. We had the same “training", as it were. The first room, as far as we could tell in the dark, had nothing in it besides dusty shelves of old brochures. Posters peeling off the walls, eighties horror movies, an old Conan cover. A sleeping bag on the floor. The next was pitch black.
“More of you. What the hell is going on tonight."
A light switched on as soon as we entered, and sound - buzzsawing, dissonant guitars. An AR-15 trained on us in a relaxed grip, but we had two to one and didn’t flinch. A man sitting in a wooden chair, widemouthed sneer in a thin face. Long silver hair (dyed), draping over his shoulders in curls at the tips, Grateful Dead bandana around his neck, white undershirt over his sunken chest. Skeleton keys tattooed on his shoulders and something in Hebrew across his collarbone. Two men bound, gagged and blindfolded on either side of his chair. An Afro-Latino man with am oddly square-shaped head wore small sunglasses and a stiff black suit that might have looked sharp or impressive if it hadn’t been folded and crumpled into undignified shapes, the thickness and shine of the fabric only accentuating the way it bunched and wrinkled around the rope. A pale but vaguely Eastern man - maybe Caucasian-as-in-Caucasus? - wore a too-small white T-shirt that pulled up over a nicotine-patched gut and Hawaiian swim shorts. Both were balding. A pair of earpieces that had presumably been in their ears lay at Cloudskater’s feet.
“D-drop your gun, put your hands up," Alastair reacted instantly.
Cloudskater leisurely lifted his hands and let the long gun slip, without the smile fading from his face. “Alastair. I told these fuckers when they were trying to ask me about aliens or something, you’d know more about that than me. But of course you were in with them the whole time. Who are they?" He was dialling 911 on a shitty old flip phone absentmindedly in the hand that wasn’t holding his gun.
Alastair looked at me in panic. I tried to convey with a look - don’t let him in on anything. He somehow understood.
“I-I have no idea who these guys are. What were they asking you… about aliens?"
“They’ve been snooping around here in their truck the last few days. Cops lent me their dog - yeah we have an understanding, like you wouldn’t if you got the chance - because I warned about them. You guys all tell me I’m an idiot for getting high on my own supply, but that’s why I notice stuff like this. Did you know I have a photographic memory? Photographic memory plus uncontrollable flashbacks - now that’s a superpower, man."
The guitars surrounding us shifted from a sensual phallic pounding to a frantic, mechanical gallop, with a synthesizer stretching out agonized arpeggios in high frequencies.
“Yeah, but the aliens?"
“Don’t play dumb. If you didn’t know what they were talking about, why are you even here?" He didn’t seem interested in me at all so far. Alastair glanced at me again.
“We’re the ones with two guns on you, man. You answer our questions. What did they say about aliens?"
Cloudskater opened his mouth - then his face melted like clay. We scanned frantically for any sign of what was happening - but neither of the people next to him seemed to have moved - then his eyes flashed back open, rolled back to their whites, screaming at a harmonic with the static growl that had just joined an electric yowl over the guitars, whaling at us with the butt of his gun, Alastair ducking back too fast to aim, veins popping out on his neck. And as I tried to steady my arm towards him before Alastair started spraying -
- a black shape tore through the open doorway. The dog slammed into Cloudskater, paws first keeping its teeth from immediately finding his throat. The gun swung uselessly against its side in the same moment its jaws found his wrist. The drugged Cloudskater was no less savage than the dog, clawed hand tearing at its face, its eyes, jaws gnashing as it reared back and its defensive claw brought red brush-strokes across his neck. Not dead yet, the two rolled on the floor. In the meantime both men had stood up and trained their guns on us (some sort of pistols I didn’t recognize at a glance, probably German) - Alastair, backed into the doorway, no longer holding his steady.
“Cops get here," said the white man, in the sort of huff one used for berating an uncooperative child or service worker, “or anyone else, and we call feds. When everything stacks up we have every right to be here."
“But you’re not feds? Or do you have a badge to show me."
He rolled his neck back and dug in one pocket, then another but the black man, who had clearly practiced snapping his whole body in a two-part borderline-martial-arts gesture to reach his breast pocket and then thrust out with his palm, beat him to pull out a glass circle in a black plastic square. I could barely make out the words embossed in scratched gold like an office participation trophy: Edison Lens.
“Sorry I dunno what anime that’s from."
“What are you doing with that dog, though."
His voice sounded like he was asking for an autograph for his favourite comic book.
“Depends. What kind of agreement can we reach, and mayyyybe" - I held my gun steady, tensing my hand on the trigger to keep his eyes on it - “I can tell you something, if you tell us-“
He slumped to the floor. My gun switched immediately to the other, who was slow to turn, and gestured Alastair to back through the door and cover me.
The dog started barking. I couldn’t easily sustain Halation’s influence on more than one creature at once, but I figured it could hold its own. Meanwhile Halation was spreading across the floor. The other man in black climbing up on the stool. By the time he was trapped on it, Alastair had trained the Z-5RS on him and we could back out slowly. With his other hand he was dialling Jax.
“There’s a truck idling on the side of the highway, right by the entrance," Jax told us, voice ragged with nerves.
“Oh great." Alastair glanced at me, then back to the phone: “It’s way worse than that here, you have no idea."
As if to punctuate his anticlimactically delivered verdict Cloudskater’s jaws sank into the dog’s throat and blood bubbled up around its choked, shocked whimper.
“Do we still have time to take what we came here for. It’s really important." Halation had reached the other man in black. “I can hold them here, you grab everything you can. Then as soon as Jax pulls up we run."
Remembering running carrying a huge tank of Freon over the porch and slamming it in the trunk like a quarterback. Not sure if it was just my own adrenaline strength or Halation messing with my neurochemistry somehow. Alastair behind me keeping a bead on the enemies slowly emerging from their disorientation. Jax had thankfully removed the license plate, at the cost of attracting the attention of any cop on the road. But on some discomforting level, they seemed too hapless to even think of as enemies. Nothing in their facial expressions or body language suggested they were any more prepared for this situation than us. What they had done…. but then, they had to be looking the same way at what we had done. If we could maintain that psychological edge… if I didn’t lose my cool…
At first we tried to take a long way around to another entrance Jax had found, but when we got close we could see a bunch of parked headlights, and there were never cars at that disused entrance onto a dirt road. We barrelled across rough grass to avoid passing the cabin directly and made it out a couple dozen metres behind the truck he had mentioned. Soon it had not only turned around after us, but ditched its trailer and started accelerating faster than any of us had heard of a semi being able to. I told Jax what had happened as we veered down every loop and detour he could think of to shake them off.
A corner of Jax’s smile flashed in the light-dirty rearview. “Are you kidding? I’ve been looking for an excuse to get out of here since you did. I’m gonna take them up the mountainsides and try to lose them up there. I dunno what kind of training they get but they didn’t spend Grade 12 racing those turns."
“You nearly crashed your dad’s shit on those turns."
“This time some feds will."
“Will you guys shut up?" I groaned. “I’m trying to talk to Halation and work out what’s the plan when they do catch us."
In reality I was rummaging through the Zoboomafoo closet of their mind to see if there was anything useful to getting us out of here, any secret weapons. I wasn’t sure what getting caught by the feds meant to my brother or Alastair - given the blitheness with which Jax had told me about his first federal crimes, I wasn’t sure it meant anything at all to them except glory, battle scars, martyrdom. To me it meant torture, rape, entire spaces locked away from the world and dedicated to the kind of sadism I’d only seen in the back of people’s eyes… and the complete defeat of everything I’d prayed for that night I met Halation, the expansion of the power I’d spent my miserable life pretending to fight to the far corners of the galaxy. And getting caught by these “Edison Lens" guys… Halation kept trying to drag my mind back to that, with a mix of terror and interest. That there were humans out there who had prepared, in some serious, however malevolent, way, for what Halation was… maybe we should have turned around and handed ourselves in to them. was I being selfish?… we certainly wouldn’t be able to raid any more drug labs around here, right now the course of action we had decided on the spot was to not even return home and go on the run across the country, which was insane and probably little more than buying time to come up with a bargaining plan. Anyone with the resources for that truck, or whatever they had injected Cloudskater with, on the other hand, would have the resources to procure all the chemicals Halation needed… but I had told Halation they could go, if they wanted. They could open the window and stream off the tip of my finger and pool into that truck and end this. And they wouldn’t budge.
Over the last several days, we had brainstormed a plan together. The advantages of turning ourselves in were obvious, but Halation turned out to be more reluctant than any of us. They were the most hesitant voice but the firmest ‘no’ in deliberations, to the point that Jax and Alastair had wondered if I could only communicate with them in yes-no questions. It was like having a Socratic daemon, a Holmesian narrowing algorithm. Nothing I had told them about humans made them particularly inclined to trust human authorities. And the threat of worsening the war was not only at least as bad as losing or continuing it - it was, for their side, the very thing the war was being fought over. Introducing humanity to the galaxy under its current administration might be as big a risk as the Adipose.
But they trusted me. They had seen everything I could possibly ever hide. If we changed humanity, then maybe humanity would be ready to enter the galaxy - to enter this war. And I had always been confident humanity could be changed, only despaired of a way to do it. Our interests - we realized almost guiltily - aligned.
Once we secured a reliable supply of atmosphere, Halation would teach me how to produce technologies that all of humanity would clamour for. My first objective was to obtain the materials to build the foundation of faster-than-light space travel, as well as a number of unique materials, clean energy sources and powerful computing systems: a Weak Asymmetry Field. Almost every interstellar civilization had some version of them, though each with its own particular trick, its own capacities and limitations; it wasn’t clear how much the methods Halation was familiar with would work with Earth materials, but Meteorology had a particularly good set of general theorems, and our first step would be contacting a trustworthy physicist who would be able to make sense of how to apply them here. That would mean contacting Mai; she had, I recalled, a particularly good Discord friend at Stanford who had collaborated on worldbuilding for one of her albums. (Maybe they were dating now? I had always gotten the vibe that there could have been something between them.) I was torn between giddiness imagining her joy to be part of this, terror at the danger she’d be in, a dull aching apprehension trying to imagine how she’d respond to the compromises I was already prepared to make…
In twenty or thirty years, maybe, when the world was thoroughly transformed and unrecognizable, we would consider leading it to war.
You don’t have to do this for me, Halation was now telling me, in a voice so clear it came through as sound, although we had already been over this. I’m not going to ask you to die.
Why? my brain reacted spitefully, although every leftist, every fighter, I’d ever met had told me the same thing. Except Mab. We’d all believed that about each other, held it as foundational to our ethics that we’d never tell each other how or when to fight, even the ones who pretended to want a great revolutionary vanguard leader to do it for us, but was that why we’d never accomplished anything?
One night with Mai I’d thought, I could murder your parents, but hadn’t said anything, because if nothing else another white person killing black people wouldn’t help anything, but that almost felt like conscripting her into the fight, telling her she had to bear it for the sake of her identity.
But what did all these fantasies of violence mean to me anyway? What made me think I had it in me to do the thing I had spent most of my life running away from? (I mean I had, on numerous occasions, successfully and without compunction, but not like… not like…)
Besides, I’m not trying to die. If I die you die. That would defeat the entire purpose. So let’s get out of here, OK?
I couldn’t tell who had roped who into what. Should I be as worried about whether I was stringing them along as they seemed to be for me, when it felt like the latter? All my dreams crashing over me to the point that it still didn’t feel real. As I thought that the light crept back across my shoulder - an omen of a reality I hadn’t escaped.
Gunshots went off over my shoulder again.
“Are the cop cars here yet?"
I glanced back up at the window, where Alastair’s body now seemed to be framed in a strange yellowish light.
“No, it’s the fucking truck again!"
“Huh?" Jax yelped. “We should have gotten a huge lead when it went offroad like that, how fast is it going?"
“I can’t really tell. It seems to be going about as fast as us still."
“Dammit, are they playing with us?" Jax ground his teeth.
I didn’t mention it but the light outside didn’t seem to be just streetlight. It was hazy and glowed from everywhere, like city-light bouncing off the sky. It felt like a headache to look at. Something in my head - some side-effect of alien chemistry, the unreality I had just been thinking of - was probably distorting it. I wondered if it was a premonition of death. If Delilah’s last ride had turned into something this otherworldly.
I closed my eyes, half-expecting the light to stay with me behind my eyelids. It didn’t.
The car pulsing through my flesh was a comfort I wondered if I deserved before I died.
Gunshots. “No good - they can see their windows’ armour is holding and aren’t even avoiding it now."
“Then shoot for their tires, dumbass. Should have been doing that in the first place."
We’re stuck together. You don’t know how often I’ve been in that situation. How often it happens here.
There was a word for it in Meteorology, and the thought comforted them. Right, what was I thinking, this was a freaking symbiote. That was why they were so careful. A kind of carefulness all my friends used to pay lip service to, developed elaborate rulesets to approximate, but discarded all the time, like Delilah driving off into the night to leave all of us alone, like me letting Jax drive us all into this all-devouring light. I don’t get it. What else am I supposed to do.
A weird sound in my ears, like tinnitus.
“Fuck it’s swerving too much."
“Well that should slow it down at least?"
“Well that’s the weird thing - it isn’t. It’s veering all over the street but seems to be keeping the same distance from us."
“Huh? OK just a second. Close the window and get in - we’re going offroad."
The comforting vibrations turned into a hellish buzzsaw that forced me to sit up. We were completely in the dark now - black leaves brushing, branches cracking on the windows - but somehow I could still see the light, like a sort of glowing mist. “It’s too wide, it shouldn’t be able to follow us in here - at least not without getting slowed down quite a bit. And if it gets stuck and blocks the actual feds, we’ll be off scot free."
The truck screeched behind us. Brilliant headlights fell away from the rearview then strafed across, broken by the cutout shadows of leaves.
“Where does that term come from anyway. Maybe because we’re gonna drink like fuckin Scots when we free, am I right?"
“Jesus, Jax, shut up. You’re not Peter Parker." I stared into the rearview.
Why weren’t those lights getting dimmer.
Was I talking about the truck lights, or the haze I was seeing.
The tinnitus sound was also getting louder. I don’t need this right now - I need to figure out what’s happening - something’s wrong - I need to figure out what I can do -
Halation had been quiet for the last several minutes.
“Hate to say this, but I think you might have underestimated these guys again. The good news is, they definitely can’t swerve in here. I’m gonna end this."
I closed my eyes, tuned out everything, and listened.
A grating fear, and a keening heartache.
Tak-a-tak-a-tak. Like someone knocking on a door in the far distance. It didn’t mean anything to me.
It didn’t mean anything now.
“Got ‘em! WOOOOO!"
I didn’t even feel the vibrations any more.
“Hey what the fuck. Why aren’t we moving."
I opened my eyes. The headlights behind us were still. But so were we.
“I don’t get it. The engine’s still on. The brakes haven’t engaged. There’s nothing wrong up here, except… we’re not moving."
“Should have known they’d have some fucking supervillain tech like this."
In the rearview, the truck’s doors opened.
“Guess we’ll have to make a run for it… Leona?"
Without thinking, I had opened my mouth.
Made noises I didn’t know my vocal cords could make. Long, layered notes. Notes like I had heard in dreams before.
The tinnitus sound lowered into a comprehensible register.
Music. Could it be called music.
The trees swayed slowly in the mist of light. By the way their eyes wandered I could tell even Jax and Alastair could see it now.
The men were still running towards us.
Not the same as before, but both men again - a built, tattooed Asian man in Under Armour and another schlubby looking white guy with a literal “Pi day" T-shirt. They hadn’t made it any distance out of the truck. They were caught in the headlights, laminated with backlight, one still spinning his legs and arms like he was on a slow-motion hamster wheel, another blinking, panting, leaning and exploring something with his hands.
Maybe if I hadn’t had Halation inside me, maybe if I hadn’t known what to look for, I wouldn’t have seen it, they would have looked like mimes doing the classic invisible box - but in the all-encompassing dim light, I could see a ghostly outline against which they were straining. Three-dimensional, it looked something like a giant waving aloe plant around the truck, if I subtracted everything else from it.
A Weak Asymmetry Field.
Specifically, a weak gravitational asymmetry field. The kind Contemplation’s ships used to pull themselves through space - what I daydreamed about christening, as soon I had a working whitepaper for it, the “inchworm drive".
Did it really come down to this trope? Were there aliens already on Earth waiting for us? Did they control the government like in Alastair or Cloudskater’s conspiracy theories? Or just this one obscure agency, built to catch anyone who made first contact before anyone else did? Were they on our side?
Then Halation let down the mental barriers and let me hear what the music was saying.
Help me. Take me back.
The signals are wrong. They’re breaking me.
I’m here, Halation. We can leave.
Fix me and we can leave.
I took two rapid strides. Halation stopped me right at the edge of whatever the two men - who were looking at me the way I imagine the scorpion must have looked at the frog - were stuck at. You don’t have to do this for me. The feeling was different than the last time they’d said this. It wasn’t a cool, unyielding Meteorological sense of honour. It was terror, it was even cowardice, it knew itself as this, and yet it was completely, abjectly honest and sincere.
The inchworm drive uses a field of extremely low-density energized cool plasma to suspend a gravitational field whose gravitons oscillate in a tachyonic state. This field and the altered laws of physics within it is bounded within a semi-permeable membrane, like an amoeba, that flickers in and out of existence countless times per second, pulling itself and the ship within it along its preprogrammed path, at faster-than-light speeds without suffering relativistic distortions relative to the outside of the field.
For legal reasons, I’ve had to fudge a couple details even in that extremely broad definition, but there’s no way you’d be able to figure it out if I hadn’t.
At the moment, it seemed to have produced several nested fields within each other.
What if it produces another one? I wondered frantically, and Halation sang out my question from my mouth.
Preparing new field launch - radius 1 Scylla. (I’m filling in my own name for the radius of a particular cloud whirlpool that had become a standardized measurement on Contemplation - about 10 km.) I can’t stop it. But I can get you out with it.
Not if you’re breaking down, not like this, Halation screamed through my mouth, in Ahasurunu - the language the ship itself was using to speak to us. You’ll lose control, you’ll die.
I’ll get away from their frequencies and then I’ll be OK.
Command frequencies. Too many of them, overlapping. Whole bands consumed by ordered noise.
We can’t help you, we can try and come back for you, just shut down, they won’t be able to do anything to you if you shut down -
Halation’s heart was breaking and they didn’t want me to hear it, even though they were using my own voice to break it.
I was actually kind of mad.
Hey - you don’t have to do anything for me is a two-way street, you know?
As if by way of a response, Halation’s tears sprung to my eyes.
I stepped forward again and pressed up against the semipermeable membrane. I crossed it effortlessly; it felt like walking across a heated knife, a clean slice across your whole body that instantly healed as if it had never happened. Except on the other side my leg buckled. I was withstanding what felt like multiple Gs from every direction at once. The world was denser, heavier.
No wonder they were moving in slow motion. In slow motion, they turned towards me, diverting their attention from the field itself. Their slow motion faces were open with savagery, as if the light and the weight and the different physical laws had brought something out of them. They felt huge and I felt huge, statues moving through nebulae. One’s spaceplow hand reaching out towards my wrist, the other towards my face. I coated my hands with Halation as I caught both - whatever this organization was, neither of these were people I would have been scared of the way I might have been scared of an actual Fed.
I trudged, both knees bent, one step further towards the truck.
We had considered one other plan, before setting off to run away. When we had first gone over the possibility that getting captured might be the safest, the sanest option. We agreed it wasn’t, for ourselves, for humanity, for the galaxy, but had thought through a way we could maintain some leverage if we did, what cards we had and how we’d play them. Our goal would even be basically the same as in our current plan - effecting change on Earth by controlling access to things people wanted - but we’d have to do it under infinitely more pressure. I still wasn’t quite willing to admit, to myself or Halation, that we were going with this plan. We were going - I was telling - to break into the truck, make contact with and free the spaceship, go somewhere they couldn’t follow us and only return to the world when we were ready to change it for good.
But those guys weren’t even ready for me - I wasn’t some badass - was I really going to be able to just fight my way inside that truck? Where some of them, if they were any like the other ones, would have guns? I had cheats, but this still wasn’t a video game. I wasn’t sure why I was pretending I wasn’t expecting to get captured, but it seemed to be out of an impulse to show off. To show Halation how humans fight, when we’re willing to fight, to show her (the second time I had slipped into the pronoun we had established as acceptable but inaccurate like a comfortable sleeping bag) how I’m willing to fight, to go head-on for the impossible until it is, to not surrender and to surrender. I ran in a faster slow-motion, trusting Halation to mitigate the effects of the pain from inside my head, no I wouldn’t die from the pressure, do you know how many Gs humans can withstand, even without a goop mode to collapse into, and whatever happened next I had the will to survive.
And as soon as I saw the gun poking out of the open truck door towards me, my run cycle was pulling my own gun up from my pocket, rising slowly like a lift up a mountainside to meet it -
to meet one eye of a tall, thin middle-aged man mostly hidden behind the doorframe.
“Shoot me and you shoot your one chance ever of communicating with an alien."
One new line folded across his forehead.
“But I can shoot you. You’re, who? Anyone that matters around here? So turn around."
If I could just negotiate these guys into accepting their own total defeat over mutually assured destruction, this would be easy. I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, because they were Cold Warriors, or learned from them. Halation, does your war have people who think like Cold Warriors yet?
“We’re not an equal matchup in multiple ways."
I took one step further. “So what are you gonna do?"
“I dunno. Tell me, what are you gonna do? Maybe you’re going to turn yourselves in. I don’t know."
“Why are you talking so tough? Your guys are mall cops. Who are you. Who would I be turning myself in to. Your organization doesn’t exist anymore."
“We exist more than you think anything exists, rebel without a clue."
And then I felt the butt of the Asian man’s gun in the back of my neck.
Shit! Halation, if we’re going to do what we’re thinking of doing, I’ll get better at this, I promise!
“What are you going to do?"
I sighed. Put my hands up. “Turn off your damn radio."
I woke up midsentence. I had fallen asleep and Halation had figured out how to reanimate my body while they figured out how exactly to undo what had been injected in me - this seemed at odds with their usual ethics, but I could imagine any number of extenuating circumstances. There was a parcel of memories for me to sift through but I was too exhausted to try and go through it.
“-get it, how do you even communicate by radio if you use a full frequency for all your comms? Wouldn’t you run out of airwaves?"
“Is there… another way to communicate by radio?"
“Probabilistic signal packets?"
As they stared and tried to form a next question, I blinked as if to say don’t ask me, I don’t know what that means either although I didn’t know if they could tell I was awake now.
“A way to use radio without taking up a whole frequency would have… significant military applications," one ventured.
A darker-skinned man’s eyes narrowed. “Does that mean… we’ve been trying to contact extraterrestrials by radio for a while now. By we I mean uhhh, Earth. Not Edison, but we’re in contact with the ones who do."
(“Fucking SETI dilettantes," the woman hunched over a crooked plastic desk taking notes on a cheap office pad muttered.)
“Would that be considered, uhhh," the man continued, “an act of war? A threat?"
“Oh we have a bunch of known active frequencies blocked," Halation spoke through me. (It was weird hearing them in my voice, especially since everything about it in terms of phrasing and mannerisms sounded so much like mine - they had to be running some subconscious processes of mine rather than doing it manually.) “Some of those might be yours."
“Can we see them." This was Halation asking. “We need to communicate - make sure nothing else is wrong."
“Is it - are they - conscious." The man fidgeted nervously at the thought. “Like artificially intelligent."
“It’s… complicated. We - they - sorry I’m losing track of who’s speaking here - have a kind of different understanding of that than you."
“Was it… angry. Is that why it did that."
Halation wanted to lean on the analogy but I downplayed it; it was a question of Meteorological thinking versus being precise. Halation might have said a flood was angry; but within that there would have been a thousand nuances of non-anthropomorphism unavailable to these frankly probably dumbasses we were talking to. “Overwhelmed. It wasn’t able to process things properly. It’s not that different from… a website being DDOS’d? Except of course the ship is exponentially more complex than a website." I paused, realizing the pulsing in my head was not just a feature of reality. “Holy shit can someone get me a coffee or something."
“Caroline can you go to the coffee machine."
The woman taking notes on a yellow pad looked up, nonplussed. “If someone takes over notes."
She lifted an absolute dumptruck ass that spilled over the seat of the chair out of it and settled with a wobble as she pushed open the plastic door like the door of an outhouse behind her. The others glanced at each other.
“And should it be functioning OK now?"
“That’s… I wanna go in and check." Halation did. “Once I get my coffee."
I sat. Shivered, not with cold or really with anything. I took in my surroundings. My hands and feet were ziptied. I was in a tiny metal room lit by stained fluorescents. A corkboard hung on one wall, plastered with papers and printouts. Photographs. Maps. My house. But also several others. “Where did you… find it?" I asked.
“Are we allowed to tell them?" one whispered.
“It might be useful. We need to understand what happened. You’re Leona Lillywhite, right? You remember that name?"
It didn’t seem worth lying. “Yeah."
“We were tracking an object whose trajectory we calculated into this forty-mile radius - about the radius you would have blown up - but some sort of radar burst scrambled our tracking right as it landed. We scraped social media and text messages and found this thing in a fertilizer tower, breaking the shit down into methane and ammonia and small amounts of hydrofluoric acid."
I let out an audible sigh of relief. Now that we were captured it was pretty much a given that they could find resources to keep Halation alive but it was good to know this was already accounted for. “So that’s how you knew to target the meth labs?"
“Yeah we figured if there were… more of these things, they’d go somewhere with those chemicals. And that guy seemed to know stuff about aliens already - he had suspicious social media posts, things that implied knowledge of UFO events in the near future around here. He wasn’t with you?"
I laughed. “No. He’s just some nutcase. We… had our own source of chemicals."
Eyes narrowed. “You and who else?"
Gulp - hoping they didn’t have a lie detector or someone who could read facial expressions in a TV detective way. “Uhhh. The alien?"
The tall man adjusted his tie and his forehead wrinkles, just as Caroline walked back in with the coffee. This was the first time I saw her face well, and it was just as much of a shock as seeing her ass, eyes far apart and drowned-looking, mouth pulled up over front teeth as if from habitual breathing. After I grabbed the styrofoam cup of coffee she went back to looking down at the notepad and letting her bangs fall over it. “Right. So the chemicals you were looking for, weren’t like fuel or anything, they were…"
“Air, essentially. The ship doesn’t need ‘fuel’ per se. It can generate antimatter from any matter in its accelerator cycles, which in turn can take in energy from its central collider, so it’s practically a perpetual motion machine if it can get either new matter from anywhere, but balancing those cycles and keeping them separate under a lot of pressure in an unfamiliar environment can be difficult, and if you then overwhelm it with… was it just radio or were you doing other stuff to it."
Fidgets around the room. “Well…"
“Should we give them the notes? Just to make sure that doesn’t happen again?"
I sipped the garbage coffee. “Just let me see it."
I stepped through the door. The ship hung in the middle of what looked like a small greenish sun with waving pseudopoda. Within the halo of light visible by the clean-edged beams it refracted it into, it looked like a glassy pinecone, with its spiralling scales connected at the centre by an astonishingly complex array of tubes, like intestines or brain-folds, like some complex pipe organ designed to produce an inner-ear resonance, and bristling with cilia.
“Is there a way for us to touch it?"
“You’d have to contact it with a command packet. Radio, but not a whole band like you guys use - a probabilistic signal packet."
“Can’t you like - sing to it? Isn’t that something you were doing out there?"
“Not while it’s dormant."
“How do we know you’re telling the truth."
“What if we told you to wake it up right now. What if we told you if you don’t do it we won’t care if you’re telling the truth either."
“Are you sure you want that?"
“Do you genuinely think you’re in the position to negotiate with us? We’ve got your brother and his loser friend out there. We’re not cops and we outrank cops so we have zero procedure to worry about, for anything." The tall man - who wasn’t all thin but only bulged in the belly - had taken over the negotiations, picking up where we had left off outside the truck.
“I think I’m in a position nobody has ever been in in history, and neither of us really know what that is unless we talk everything out."
I blacked out again.
“Your life is over. I don’t know what kind of life you think you’re going to get out of this and out of your admittedly unique position - rich and famous? revolutionary? - but let’s make this clear: you don’t get one. Well, you might get a little quiet life somewhere. The kind you always wanted. What kind of life did you always want? You never even got a chance to find out, did you? We know everything about you you could imagine the boogeyman knowing, by the way. You get to find out, maybe, what kind of life you always wanted! You get to spend the rest of your life figuring it out! What you don’t get is to be part of the future we drag out of your body and brain, the easy way or the hard way. But you can help people."
The voice wasn’t the one that I had been arguing with before. It was one I had only heard a brief snippet of - agreeing to get my coffee. Her wide-apart watery eyes never really seemed to meet mine, but always stayed too close for me to move mine around comfortably. She bounced the back of the pen on her knuckles. She was leaning over a desk in a small cubicle - still, from the look of the back wall, inside the truck - with books on the desk. Liu’s Memory of Earth’s Past - the entire trilogy. Behind the desk a single motivational poster: an photo of a muscular hiker with a water bottle on each hip re-enacting Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Clouds, captioned with the quote: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the labour of real thinking." - Joshua Reynolds.
“What people do you want to help? Humanity? Or just this shitty country and the shitheads who run it?"
“Look, you don’t understand still, so first I’ll tell you who we are." No, her eyes were definitely catching mine - off guard, suddenly, never too much at once, but every several seconds my brain would spark with instinctive reaction to eye contact and it’d already be over and I’d almost forget what I was thinking. “As you can even Google now, we were set up by the US and the Soviets. We existed off record. A couple generals on either side covered for us when the auditors came knocking. Then the Soviet Union stopped being a thing, and the US wanted to fold us into something for NATO they never actually built. So instead we did what the other relics of the Cold War did - we privatized. We had one genius who was really good at making connections - getting full guest lists at Bilderberg and stuff and running down everyone on it like a door-to-door salesman. Most of our money, our gadgets and fancy shit comes from a few board members who really care about big X-risk scenarios but right now we’re an open secret in certain circles, everyone wants a slice of us just to be in the game if it happens. Not who you’re thinking of. People so rich you haven’t heard of them.
I nodded. I rotated my hands, trying to figure out what my wrists were in; they were behind my back and all I could tell was I couldn’t move them at all or feel anything in them.
“But that’s not what I’m talking about. We’ve been checking in on your ex. They seem to be struggling a lot. We can help them."
I had been breathing in and out slowly to avoid giving any sign of response, and at this I almost stumbled, but Halation kept me going. “What are you asking for." Still, those words flowed from my mouth faster than I would have liked. I wasn’t giving in; I just wanted to know their terms, know exactly what I was negotiating around. And giving the impression of weakness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“As you yourself put it, we’re in a unique position. So we could ask for anything we want - or we might as well at least try. By the way, those people who run the world I was talking about? Some of them are listening in right now. Some of them" - she tapped an earpiece - “can even talk to me, if they want. So you’re not just talking to me. Think about who you want to appeal to."
“You know, I’ve always dreamed of sitting down to talk to the people who run this world, as the representative of another one."
“No you haven’t. That’s something she dreamed of. I have the Facebook status. You dreamed of leading an army and razing it all to the ground. Your comment on that status refers to - let me check here - ‘teabagging their corpses’. So at the moment the board isn’t inclined to give your leash a lot of slack."
I smiled awkwardly, like an embarrassed anime girl, disarming. What was the point, when I was going to bring out my own big guns in a few minutes? Was I still flinching away from the commitment I needed? Halation, if I flinch, you don’t yield, and if you flinch, I won’t yield. Neither of us are doing this for each other. That’s the deal - that’s how we’ll win.
“OK. So you want to know what I have to offer. What we have - you’re not just negotiating with one person either. Their name is Halation, by the way. Well, that ship is just the beginning. It works by breaking Lorenz equilibrium. Almost every technical problem humanity is stuck at explodes if you can do that. Of course you have to be incredibly careful about it. Not like we’ve done with carbon, or even nuclear, or anything. Or should I say, like you guys have done."
“Oh. Names. I’m sorry, I should have offered." The way she was looking into my eyes - definitely this time, not ambushing or evading - wasn’t meant for me, I could tell, but for Halation. “I’m Caroline Bennett-Fog. Strategic consultant at Edison Lens."
Then her eyes rolled back, and she tapped her knuckles with the pen more violently for several seconds. She spoke next with a groan: “Identity redacted wants to know… what you’d value the technology you’re offering at. In USD."
I blinked. I allowed myself to react genuinely just to derail this entire train of thought as quickly as possible. “I… have no idea. How would you even measure that."
She waited again, one finger resting on her earpiece. “…he says an estimate. Look, this isn’t going to work. You know this kid’s literally a communist, right?."
Surprisingly, I found Halation taking over for me. “What would you value this entire planet’s economy at. Let’s say ten times that, very conservative lower bound."
Bennett-Fog blinked this time. “Well, you heard her. Don’t take it at face value, I have no idea where that estimate comes from." She narrowed her eyes, though they still looked unfocused. “Personally, the stakes I’m interested in are less profit, more existential. It’s not about the bigger number, it’s zero-sum. And even though we sold out, there’s still a few people listening in who think that way too."
“War. As a matter of fact I was going to get to that."
“I want you to know that if anything you’re telling us isn’t the truth - if it gets us ambushed by an alien fleet or eaten by nanotech or whatever the hell else, if there’s a chance we could have had a week to prepare you didn’t give us - we can make not just your life hell in ways you couldn’t imagine. We can make her life hell in ways she couldn’t imagine, and I think you have some idea of what a high upper bound that is. We don’t want that, but it is a possible outcome."
“How are you going to do that if you’re eaten by nanotech? If she is? And I think that alone should tell you we’re not interested in recreating War of the Worlds. If we were I’d have left Halation to die - they couldn’t have survived without me. I hate this world, but getting Space Columbus’d sounds about as fun as getting regular Columbus’d. I’m a principled anti-imperialist. I’m sure your bio will show that."
Bennett-Fog flipped through a parcel of printer paper she had under her notepad. Perfunctorily, as if to make it seem like she hadn’t actually memorized it all. I wondered idly what was on there. Who hadn’t? Every edgelord’s social media presence, ultimately, was curated for none other than the three-letter agent we knew would be reading more thoroughly than any of our friends, even our enemies. “Well… it shows that after a pronounced stint in first year undergrad. Remember the ‘Belt and Road as Worldwide Equator of Justice’ Facebook group?"
“Yeah, that was before I met Mai. And before they started banning gay shit."
“In that case, I assume you’re also skeptical about helping us strike first."
“No shit. But look, I do have an offer -“
“You don’t have anything. You don’t exist any more. This isn’t a fucking casino."
“You’re talking to the wrong person." We had considered whether I should adopt a different voice for Halation, whether they could do something with my vocal cords that only an alien could do like when I sang in Ahasurunu to the spaceship, but had concluded the ambiguity was best to keep them on their toes. “I exist because right now I’m the most important thing in your world. I won’t co-operate in any threat to the rest of the galaxy, even if you make her."
“So why don’t we just get rid of her and talk to you directly."
“This is the other thing you need to understand. I’m not leaving her. Any deal you make with me, she has to be involved in."
“We’ve come to understand that you need to leave her, periodically, to even survive on this planet."
“Yeah but you can’t talk to me when I’m like that. I have to go inside someone to even be capable of producing your language. And I’m not going in anyone other than her - unless she directs me."
“Are there ways we can learn your language. When you talked to the ship, you were… singing. We have an entire office of cryptographers working on it."
Halation laughed drily. There was something weirder about someone else laughing through me than even someone else talking to me. And Halation was, right now, someone else. They were someone else, I think, even to themself. “You picked literally the worst language in the universe to decode. I don’t know what human cryptography is like but computational life trained on multi-million-year datasets can’t crack Ahasurunu."
“You’re not quite there, but…" Halation paused to read some memories I’d forgotten I even had of debating with the rationalist-adjacent Comp Sci kid in the Coven of Domnu. “Oh you have some pretty bad superstitions about computational life huh. They’re not as scary as you think - and I say this as someone who has more reason to hold a grudge against them than almost anyone."
Bennett-Fog flipped over to another page of the notebook and scratched something down. “I’ll try not to go on tangents but there’s clearly a lot to cover. How much, given what we’ve established of your situation, would you be willing to tell us about the rest of the universe - computational life, space travel, military capacities, political entities, economic activity?"
“It depends what guarantees we can secure about how you’ll engage with them. Those are also all extremely varied."
“And supposing we didn’t give you any." She flipped the notebook shut. A vein bulged barely noticeably in her forehead, but there wasn’t much to notice. “You need us to even survive right now. What would you be willing to tell us to make sure we’re interested."
“All your shareholders wanna sign off on risking that? You don’t know how long it takes to prove I’m telling the truth about anything. You don’t know how to monitor my vital signs. You think it would be a hard choice for me, but it’s easy. I don’t understand how a planet that’s been at war for so long produced so many cowards, but that’s not how it is in the rest of the universe. I’m cornered here. I have nothing but bad options, unless we can agree to a better one. As bad as you could ruin this, I could ruin it way worse if I let you guys loose on the universe."
“I’m not sure what she’s told you humans are like…" Bennett-Fog adjusted her short but bushy eyebrows. “But are you sure you want to trust her? If we are like that? Don’t you want to go in someone else’s brain, and see what it looks like through their eyes? Seeing through someone’s eyes, walking in their shoes - those are human idioms that unlike your species, we don’t get the chance to do literally. They’re metaphors for empathy. Empathy is very important to us humans. We’re loving, family creatures. Lifetime pair-bonders." Her voice betrayed a hint of wistfulness and a hint of disdain - even with whatever interrogation training she obviously had she couldn’t convince herself to believe this, although maybe that was part of what she wanted to communicate too.
“I’ve seen what your family looks like."
“Have you? There are lots of counterexamples. My own family…" She stopped.
I reached out my hand. Or Halation did. “Do you want me to look?"
She paused. Laid her rounded wrist on the table, clenching and unclenching her knuckles.
As the multicoloured liquid raced down my arm, she pulled it away. “Too much confidential information in there. Not just mine. We can bring people in, you know? Grab a random person off the street, just so you know you’re not being like… brainwashed in there. We’re parked at a gas station again."
“Could I go to the gas station and get a drink." I butted in. My throat was dry as hell.
“No, you’re not leaving, but we could get you something. You haven’t eaten in longer than you’ve drank. They sell hot dogs. And I think maybe breakfast sandwiches."
I nodded. “Sure."
As she dialled someone on a walkie-talkie, Halation returned to the fore. “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to confirm some basic facts about your world, about the people you’re working for and why they’re important, a few of which you’ve already confirmed for me. I really doubt you’d be able to deny any of them and have a realistic negotiating position. That said, I’ll have lots of chances to talk to other humans, and maybe even commune with them, if we get a good deal out of this. None of this changes my basic position here. I’m doing this for my own safety and my own advantage. If you can just put me in whatever body you want, share the information in my mind with whatever human you want…"
Bennett-Fog, putting down her walkie-talkie, nodded. Placed her hand on the books in front of her, almost as if she was about to swear an oath. “The basic condition of first contact is distrust. I’m aware of this."
“Right. For you, at least. For me, it’s different. I trust Leona. I know her inside and out, know parts of her she didn’t know herself before a few days ago. Even then I don’t necessarily know what she’s going to do, what pressure she’ll break under or what decisions she’ll make or what idea she’ll come up with next, who or what she loves most in the world. She doesn’t know that either; it’s not decided yet. But I trust the Leona that’ll make those decisions, and I will only communicate with Earth through her. Those are my conditions, and we’re both prepared to accept the consequences of them."
“Trusting Leona got you here. To be fair, this is just about the safest place on the planet for you, and we’re about the nicest people who would ever detain you. But are you sure that’s a good idea?"
“When she turned around and dragged me back to my ship, I was sure."
“OK. Well, being stuck to a human means you’re stuck to human weaknesses. Food. Sex. Pain. We’re not sure how your mind-meld works exactly but" - she looked down at her notes again - “if our guess is correct, she retains a good deal of the knowledge you share with us. So we wouldn’t need to get anything out of you anyway. In fact, if the arrangement between you two is what you’re saying it is, it might be better to just separate you from her and deal with her one on one. If there’s a way to communicate with the rest of your people directly, she can teach us. If not, we can figure out from her whether we even want to."
“What are you talking about. The only way she’d understand to communicate with us is to have one of us in one of you. I’m the only one of us willing to go in one of you."
“So, you remember that thing we did to" - she pulled a Post-It Note off the edge of one of the papers - “Cloudskater. If Leona doesn’t cooperate we could give her that formula. It probably wouldn’t do anything to you because your biochemistry is so different - we can show you the formula to make sure - but you’d be stuck in there with her, unless you felt like coming out."
“I wouldn’t mind going feral. Looks fun. Might not be for you guys."
“It’s a steroid, by the way. Synthesized partly from testosterone. It also feels very similar to a panic attack."
…oh, fuck you. On both counts. I poked Halation to buy time while I calmed my body down, but they responded in clear words: I think she wants to hear from you on this. I don’t think it’ll work unless you talk next.
“You know they can do things while they’re inside me. Mess around with my brain signals to counter what you’re doing, to some extent. Kill me, if it comes down to that."
“And you’re happy to just live with something that’ll kill you for its own reasons whenever it’s convenient, inside you, for the rest of your life?"
“It’s not ‘whenever it’s convenient’. I’m sure they’d only do that if there was no better option. In fact, I’m not even sure they’d do it then. But we’re in a pretty bad situation, right? That’s what you keep impressing on us."
“Well, no, it’s not what I’m trying to…"
I grinned and leaned in, chin almost dragging on the table. “You can offer me whatever, that doesn’t change that, as you put it, my life is over. And you’re right that I don’t have a strong negotiating position - I only really have one way to get what I want. So I’m ready to die at the drop of a hat. Or just sit here with my pain receptors fried watching alien anime in my head, which is more likely. Really, it’s Halation’s willingness to die that’s more commendable."
“Well, maybe they just have less to lose. They’re stranded on a planet with as little reason to trust them as they have to trust us. You’re one of us. You’re an Earthling. You know what Earth’s atmosphere feels like on a nice sunny day. You know what relaxing in a pretty girl’s arms feels like. No matter how alienated you are from the kind of people you grew up with, the kind of people I work for, even people like me, you have more in common with us than with… Halation. You’re the one with something to lose. Like… any body you ever wanted." She paused just to let this one sink in, and I squirmed inside. I hadn’t expected it to hit me that hard. Like I said, I’m the kind of trans girl who’s still never had a good relationship with my body and didn’t even go into the experiment really expecting to, I always thought of it as more of a futile, defiant act of rebellion. Dying alone in here - stopping a reprise of the Columbian tragedy for a whole galaxy by being forgotten by the universe itself, retreating into a world of artificial beauty woven by an incomprehensible being who had descended from heaven to communicate with me in a way I had never been able to with anything else - would have been all the more perfect a Promethean end. But maybe, what if there was a chance I would lose to have a normal body, not anyone else’s normal but my own, that I could have felt at home in because I made it and taught it how to be at home with me? That terrible fear drove into me that I wasn’t playing to lose head-on, like I had been when I ran up to the truck, pretending I could commandeer it and letting myself get captured gracefully. I was playing for keeps. I was playing for worse-than-death.
“Or if that’s not altruistic enough for you or something. Like, with a tiny royalty from those technologies if the estimate you gave us was accurate would be enough to end world hunger - yourself - without overthrowing our system, without even upsetting it enough that they’d try to stop you. Do you think Mai would disapprove of you giving in for the sake of feeding people? Did you ever read that Olivia Butler she lent you?"
“You don’t understand. No matter what I have to lose, Halation still has way more to lose than I do. In a battle of wills between us, I’ll lose. They have more at stake here than either of us, and not only that, they’re the ones who have something to ask you. This isn’t a negotiation between you and me, ignore me in all this. My life was over when I let this - visitor in."
“Is it an ask or a demand?"
One of her eyebrows twitched in a way that reminded me of pressing “GO" on a recorder.
“What do you mean?"
“What position of power do you think you’re making it from? We want it to be an ask, a petition, because we want to be in the position of power, and however much you think otherwise, Leona, you want us to be too, and we want you to help us with that. No matter how good you think communism or whatever is, we want you to understand that’s not what aliens in a position of power would be like. It would be a world so alien, so foreign to any sort of value you can conceive of, it would be like hell. Like living in a salvia nightmare."
I felt like I was starting to psych them out, not the other way around. Halation was rallying within me and ready to take over if I gave them the upper hand. “Who cares? Just let them explain what they’re here for and figure out the power stuff later. You always see that in everything but it’s nothing. Not right now. Neither of us are in a position anyone’s ever been in before. Each of us have things at stake no one’s ever had at stake in history." I tried to stand up, tried to make a pose slamming my finger down on the table, but of course I couldn’t because I couldn’t move my hands and they were hooked under the chair, so I just wiggled dramatically. “We don’t even know how to figure out the power stuff here, so let’s just talk."
She briefly vibrated her head in a small unconscious way that ruffled her short-cropped hair. It was actually a shockingly cute gesture on the ugly face. “All right. It gives you an opportunity to manipulate me. But you seem like an idiot. So why not. Her eyes brightened. “We have a room prepared for Halation’s individual body, much more comfortable than what you were keeping them in - if there’s anything they need in there besides atmosphere - favourite foods we can synthesize, temperature or radiation conditions, just let us know - or her. Our planet also values hospitality."
“Tell that to the kids in refugee camps, the people whose hospitality your ancestors repaid with smallpox blankets, the lineups at every border" - This wasn’t me snapping, it was Halation, although I assumed there was no way they could tell.
“I’d be fascinated to know how these issues are dealt with in the rest of the galaxy. How you’d deal with one of us, if we crash-landed among your stars, completely defenseless, relying on an interpreter you don’t exactly trust. That said, we at Edison Lens don’t really have anything to do with any of that."
“So how would you feel about changing it?"
What spread across her face, which widened like a clay pot melting, was a sort of smirk of excitement, stretching even the lines around her eyes. “Are you talking to me? Or my backers? Or the whole world? And which one of you is talking? You understand, right, that half the problems you’re describing stem from the expansion of an alien set of values over a people who don’t share them?"
“I’m not expanding anything. Like I said, I won’t do anything that doesn’t go through her. And she won’t do anything that doesn’t go through the will of humanity."
“Well, I don’t know if you have any silly fantasies of getting everyone to vote or what, but that’s us." When she said “us" - I was still groggy - I could have sworn I could see the swarm of gazes writhing around her, the eyes behind her eyes, the flows of energy and capital through the astral bodies of the ones speaking through her. We are Legion. I felt like this was the alien we were both contacting. “Our board of directors represents the greatest accumulation of resources in a single group of people in history. We have been granted authority by all the superpowers the blood and sacrifice of all the world’s conflict has culminated in - the United States, Russia, China, the European Union. Anything you want - yes - goes through us."
When I woke up Caroline Bennett-Fog was gone. There were no clocks and no outside light; I had no idea what time it was, what day it was. I must have waited for at least an hour.
When I next opened my mind she was back, holding a canister of Soylent, screwing and unscrewing the cap absent-mindedly.
I didn’t respond as fast as either of us probably expected to. What did “outside" even mean any more? I had settled in here for the long haul, I had made myself at home. I had thrown away my expectations. I had been dreaming vividly, continuing to project them in front of my open eyes.
She tapped a fob against what looked like a random spot on the back wall and slid it aside. At the same time I found I could move my feet, which were individually (now) in little white plastic spheres that closed around my ankles. (My hands, which I assumed were in something similar, didn’t become any more mobile behind my back.) It led into a narrow, poorly lit plastic hallway, with doors in either side. The door on the right opened onto light. I stepped out into an overexposed afternoon, a shoulder of the road with soft, grainy dirt mixed with larger pebbles, falling off into a ditch under the shade of leaves that looked white-yellow in the bombardment of sun.
“Still at the gas station." Caroline disappeared around the front of the truck.
A couple of guys I recognized - the black guy from the shack, still in his Men In Black suit, and the Pi Day guy, this time in a T-shirt that parodied the E.T. poster with an Among Us spaceman, were standing around talking by the doors of the gas station. The nerd was sucking on a rocket popsicle while wearing the Men In Black guy’s sunglasses. Thin eyebrows riding ridges of fat pulled his eyes up over their fallen edges to look at us, but they didn’t say anything. The Men In Black guy waved with a smirk.
I half expected to get looks wearing these weird handcuffs but with this truck here for who knew how long, the side-shave-mulleted, pointy-faced, baggy-eyed cashier had probably gotten the idea something was up already. I pointed out a breakfast sandwich from the open refrigerator and a pink Monster - I usually went for a less intense flavour, but I needed something to last me the next absence. Caroline picked them up for me.
“I don’t know how much of Earth she’s shown you," Caroline sidled up to me, not getting anything for herself, still fidgeting with her Soylent with my meal in a plastic bag over her wrist. “I assume you’ve seen a gas station. Maybe you’ve seen a grocery store? There was a very powerful empire whose leader more or less surrendered to us when he saw one of our grocery stores. But I don’t know how much the concept is even legible to you. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen that much of Earth. I’ve put so much less effort into it than I would if I was an alien visiting a new planet for the first time. Although I don’t know if for an interplanetary civilization we’re particularly unusual."
“You are in a lot of ways." I was pretending to be Halation, who seemed to be still sleeping at the moment. “Not a lot of stars or planets this size - very rare medium. Thin, placid climate."
“My point is, it occurs to me I wouldn’t be a very convincing tour guide to the planet, since I’ve taken it for granted myself. I’ve travelled a fair bit with Edison’s Lens - been on four continents, which is better than most people - but I don’t really take the time on my own. And I tend to stick to familiar sights and routines when I do. You don’t want anyone too xenophilic for a first contact. Not on the home team, at least. You, on the other hand… There’s so much to see if you’re willing to convince us you’re safe. I don’t know how much Leona would think to show you."
“They can ask," I replied coldly, focusing on a flickering light-panel as I waited for her at the counter.
As we walked back towards the truck, I could feel Halation stirring and somehow, the second I did, Caroline turned back and looked me in the eyes. Holding out my food, she said “You didn’t try to escape."
“Where am I gonna go."
“I don’t know. Where did you think you were going in the first place? But you really do seem to have changed your strategy."
It legitimately hadn’t occurred to me, and Halation hadn’t been there to consult with. But yeah. I could have probably sent them running down my body and into the ditch and into the woods and… they could have found Jax? Or Leeroy Jenkins’d back into the truck to try and get to their ship? Or…
“You couldn’t have. We’ve figured out how to get the ship to do its field thing stably."
Halation yelped. “You’re not supposed to do it stably! Not without moving, which is what it wants to do, and not without a proper probabilistic packet command for a trajectory! It doesn’t want that! Are you bombarding it with those permanent frequencies again?"
“It’s been stable for over a day."
Over a day… how long had I slept… probably as long as they wanted me to.
“That convinced the last of my backers you’re willing to cooperate. To me it’s not a solid proof but I wanted to hear you out anyway. What are your demands. If you don’t say them now you may not get to say them again."
“At the moment, the galaxy is at war - your uncontacted planet is outside the scope of the conflict, and no one will seek to press you in against your consent - at least, not yet. Maybe if they find out about the kinds of things you’re hiding on this planet, someone will grab you for their side before we do, someone less willing to negotiate. But it’s not irrelevant to you - the war is over a technology called the Causal Adipose that threatens the integrity of the universe itself. We need your help - my faction wants to force a peace as soon as possible, and resume research on technology that would control the Adipose’s spread. We are willing to share our technologies with you, starting with the Weak Asymmetry Field, which would allow you to start building a space fleet, in exchange for your alliance in this war."
Bennett-Fog dropped her arms to her sides, the plastic bag twisting and bouncing against her dramatic hips. “What are the risks. Which side has the advantage. If they have technology worth ten times our entire planet too, what are we, cannon fodder?"
“Less of that technology than you expect" - I didn’t want to overstate this, I didn’t want to trail blood in the water in front of sharks, but it was an unavoidable part of what made our offer rational in the first place - “is military. We haven’t fought like this in millennia - that’s part of why it’s so bad. It’s like World War 1 out there - but on hundreds of planets, trillions of lives." I switched back to Leona. “I’m - Halation is… Halation really wants to do this, we wouldn’t have even risked getting captured if they could let this war keep going any longer. As bad as the risk of introducing you to the rest of the galaxy, it’s worth it if anything could weigh on the scales just enough."
Bennett-Fog smirked as if she’d gotten a bite on her line. “I thought you said you were a principled anti-imperialist."
“I am. That’s why we have no intention of letting this turn into an imperialist expedition. And to ensure that, I want Leona Lillywhite, as sole mediator between Earth and Contemplation, and thus Earth and the Anti-Adipose Alliance, to lead the Earth Expeditionary Force. Which will be an entirely new military body, with no national allegiance detracting from this loyalty."
“Are you… kidding?"
She laughed dramatically for several seconds, leaning back almost onto the hood of the truck. Fat boobs spilling backwards under white shirt. I had to will myself to understand it as performance. Everything was here. Nothing was true and everything was possible. “No."
Caroline Bennett-Fog closed her eyes and started to walk around the engine to the other side of the truck, leaning away from me to listen to her headpiece. I stood there.
She had wandered off close to the edge of a picnic table a few metres away from the front of the truck when she beckoned me over.
“Are you even," she began when I got close enough, “politically important on your planet? Why do you think they’re going to go along with this?"
“I’m…" this was the first time I had heard this, I hadn’t even thought of it in our planning, fuck I’m gonna have to get good at this, are you sure you want this, “something of a celebrity, particularly for my cause. I’m one of the last survivors of a peaceful scientific project that was martyred, drawing us into the war, and I’ve been a fugitive across the universe for several decades, leading me here. We have faster-than-light transport but not instantaneous telecommunication - that’s one of the things the Adipose does - so it would take a huge expenditure of resources for Contemplation authorities to come negotiate with you themselves, and it would be immensely unpopular to go behind my back. They trust me more than they trust any of you, too."
Caroline wandered over to the picnic table as I spoke and sat down. “Look, I assume she’s told you about the history of this continent. Letting… trust, in any form, determine the outcome of a first contact is misguided." Her earpiece buzzed. “Let me handle this!" She gestured across the half-stripped planks of the table to the opposite seat.
I followed in starts. I had to sit down carefully without the option to stabilize myself with my hands. As she noticed my difficulty, Bennett-Fog pulled out something that looked like a car key and unlocked my remaining cuffs. “Well, if you think that, I simply won’t trust you. So now, what do you have to lose? Ten times the GDP of Earth, at least. What do I have to lose? Eternal infamy for introducing American imperialism to the cosmos and a boring life arrest?"
Now she was talking to Halation. To the being she herself had only seemed to be able to trust through me. “Your chance to get home safe and sound, in your normal form, guaranteed protection from any military action ever undertaken by Earth, with an accompanying detachment of the newly formed Earth Expeditionary Force, to communicate with your leaders directly. And a signed - we’ll figure out how this works - agreement to never contact Leona Lillywhite."
The earpiece buzzed again. “Shut up!" She dropped the edges of her hands on the table. She was trembling. “There are lots of ways to do this without the stupid part. Forming a united Earth military force has been… we’ve had draft proposals for it since the 70s. It’s the north star of our charter."
“You think I would entrust this war to people who fantasized about it?"
- Uhhhh, Halation.
I have some bad news. I assumed you already knew about my childhood fantasies.
- It’s okay.
“What happens after she dies? I could imagine this happening… rather quickly." The other two men, still in front of the glass doors of the gas station, swayed like mirages.
“She picks her successor, I guess. And transfers me publicly - so there’s no ambiguity that I consented to the pick. You won’t find me as quick to die, not within your generations."
“You’d be surprised how long humanity is willing to wait."
“Well you’d be surprised what we can do while you’re waiting."
This was a power Halation had never projected within me. Had never projected towards anyone in their memories. They had been born for a quiet life. Even as an interstellar refugee they had sent letters, wistful and supportive and defiant, across light years at allied computational-life relay stations to a small legion of outraged, mostly uncomfortably nationalistic followers. They had pulled this power directly out of the situation, even more than I had. I felt a strange vicarious pride.
“Eat your lunch. I think we are going to have to pause the negotiation to consider what we’ve established here, but I have a number of further nuts-and-bolts questions I need to ask you before anyone can make any kind of reasonable decision, and we clearly need some clarity on what positions we’re asking each other questions from. You should also… sleep on it. One more thing. You aren’t used to war, I get it. So I’ll let you in on something we know here. People like her don’t win wars. She’s been fighting the losing side of a centuries-long war her entire life, and hasn’t done the slightest thing to turn the tide."
“Give us humans who do."