This is another piece of short fiction I wrote in February 2017.
This one had looked so promising: dimensions and proportions of optimal estrogen levels, fertile age. Indicators of health: bright eyes, luminous skin, lustrous hair.
But if I were a human, and it were a car, I might’ve compared it to a Mercedes with no engine.
I resent that, it said inside the head I now inhabited. Its lips didn’t move, because I controlled them, but (alas!) it could still think and feel.
I’m a she, its consciousness retorted. Androgen insensitivity syndrome doesn’t render me an it.
“Indeed,” I said to its face in the bathroom mirror, its lips forming the word.
This sort of thing always happens to me. Even on my home planet (I’d tell you its name, but you’d need an extra tongue to pronounce it) I had miserable luck. On Earth, I thought things might be different. I had one simple task: inhabit a human female and mate it with a human male. Once it was impregnated, I was to inject its foetus with my own tiny clone. Having been born already merged with its host, the baby parasite and baby human would form a single consciousness, and the resulting being would be superior to either parent, combining a human’s strength and versatility with a parasite’s intelligence.
I was to continue breeding my host and populating its young with mine until it reached age 35, at which point my spirit would enter the Blue World — a glorious place, full of glittering plankton and rainbow reefs — and my shrivelled form would pass like a blood clot through its reproductive tract. The human could then exercise its own will as before, retaining only an expanded knowledge of the universe. It wouldn’t even have to deal with its troupe of offspring, which I was to put up for adoption so they wouldn’t impede my ability to find new mates.
But my host’s genetic condition was an insurmountable barrier. I’d only discovered it when I couldn’t find the uterus I was supposed to wrap my tentacles around. Confused, I anchored instead to its liver and reached up its spinal cord, inserting myself into its brain.
Once there, I found the memory of its diagnosis, the shivering girl on the hospital bed, the doctor explaining why, at 17, she still hadn’t menstruated. That was when my host woke up.
At first, I thought I’d gone blind. Everything was dark. Then, heavily distorted, as if seen through several feet of water, my room appeared. My eyes, feeling strangely far away, moved of their own accord. Before this, I’d never realised my consciousness had resided in my head; now, it was as if I’d been shoved to the bottom of my own spine. Something felt knotted in my abdomen. I tried to wiggle my toes and couldn’t. Instead, my right hand rubbed my eyes and a gravelly voice introduced itself, speaking from the place in my body where I used to live.
I’d known before my body was snatched that my body wasn’t me. It had taken nearly a decade of yoga, meditation and soul-searching, but by age 27, I no longer felt the need to throw myself into the arms of men for confirmation that, yes, these breasts, this hair, and this pearlescent skin meant I was enough, a real woman.
They meant nothing.
I was, I’d come to understand, a nonphysical being having a physical experience, and it therefore didn’t matter that my exquisitely female exterior hid the interior of a partially-developed male.
I’d come to terms with the karma that made me what I was. I’d learned to treat the drooling attentions of my male yoga students as temporary manifestations of illusory desire.
But I couldn’t come to terms with this.
The Parasite, eavesdropping, rooted in my brain for the definition of “karma”.
I offered it: karma is the universe’s reaction to your actions in this and previous lives. If it really exists, you’ll be reincarnated as one of those caterpillars that houses the larvae of those awful wasps. I’d seen it in a documentary once, the caterpillar writhing as white globs burst from its skin.
The Parasite’s intention for my body added insult to injury. Although infertile, I’d always wanted to be a mother. Two weeks earlier, I’d applied to adopt a child.
And there it was, the sadness like a waterfall crushing my lungs, and yet my body, controlled by The Parasite, still inhaled the sandalwood smell of my apartment fully and deeply, from the diaphragm, like I taught my students. Like it had continued to teach them for the last several weeks, poaching my knowledge as it adjusted a pelvis or knee, as it shared insights, as it chanted “om” to the vibration of a singing crystal bowl.
Aliens, after all, required nutrients, and nutrients in Vancouver required funds.
Your loss is mine, The Parasite said. I too should’ve been a parent.
As if I should be sympathetic to it. Parenting is about raising the child, not birthing it, I said.
Partially, perhaps, it acknowledged, but it’s also about leaving something of yourself in the world to remain when you depart.
A better way to do that is through your work, I shot back, feeling a pang with the thought, because although my students often showed true appreciation for my classes, the city was saturated with excellent yoga teachers.
What difference did I make?
Before joining the ranks of The Breeders, I’d been my spaceship’s mechanic. The ship was defective (the fleet had recently outsourced construction to a neighbouring planet where labour was cheaper), but The Commander blamed me for its failures, in spite of the ingenious (I thought) ways I kept it starworthy.
Then, one day, my jerry rigging of a broken cafeteria console tangled the wires in The Commander’s Pleasure Port, the consequences of which were his temporary neutering (thank goodness our appendages regrew) and my reassignment.
Members of my species only embarked on Breeding Missions once we’d otherwise exhausted our value. Reproduction was supposed to be, for us, a final reward, a decade of pre-death enjoyment. But to be sent on such a mission prematurely was the worst possible insult. It meant my superiors had decided I was good for nothing else.
I didn’t relish the thought of calling The Commander now, but it was my only option. I’d been trying to find a way out of the human for almost a month, but I was trapped, unable to abort my mission for the same reason I couldn’t complete it: both operations required a functioning reproductive tract.
With the communicator I’d left on the human’s bedside table before slithering into its sleeping mouth, I called The Mother Ship.
“What is it?” The Commander snarled.
I told him my host was a rarity, apparently female, but with undescended testicles instead of the standard female plumbing. It had X and Y chromosomes, but its male hormones were like flowers thrown at concrete: ineffectual. Uncontested by its masculine equivalent, estrogen ran rampant, sculpting a beauty many women would’ve killed for, which was why I’d chosen it in the first place: fertility was written all over it.
“Do you know what this means?” he asked.
“The mission will be delayed.”
“Unforgivably. We’ll have to send someone else.”
“No! Please! I’ll choose better next time. Extract me and I’ll try again.”
“Extraction without a functioning reproductive tract is expensive, and the mission is already way over-budget, thanks to your incompetent handling of the cafeteria console. Given you’ve proven yourself a liability on more than one occasion, you’d hardly be worth saving. In fact, it’s probably better this way. Your genes are probably as defective as your host’s.”
“So … I’m stuck here?”
“Until you die, yes, but that should only take a few weeks.”
In a voice he might use with a juvenile, he explained, “When you metabolise your host’s nutrients, you expel toxins. If your host were a fertile female, it would expel those toxins in its menstrual blood. But since it’s not, the toxins will accumulate until you both die of sepsis.”
When I didn’t respond, he said, “If I were you, I’d find a painless way to kill your host and yourself as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’ll both suffer terribly.” The communicator clicked, and he was gone.
I sat the body on its bed, its joints suddenly weak.
I didn’t know its language, but my connection to The Parasite’s consciousness conveyed the conversation’s essence.
Silence reverberated throughout the body as we marinated in shock. Time passed, long enough for the sun to slice through the oaks in the West-facing window. The body blinked and I thought, But I’m not done yet.
Until now, for the sake of my sanity, I’d refused to consider my host’s feelings. My kind had to populate other intelligent beings to reproduce. Those of use who failed or refused our Breeding Missions shrunk into sickly calamari before dying slowly and painfully. According to our mythology, The Barren Ones then passed into The Brown World, where, for all eternity, they drifted alone and freezing in a sea of cosmic dung.
The Blue World admitted only parents.
Compassion for our hosts was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
I’m sorry, I said. My host’s consciousness retracted like a snail.
I laid in its bed and closed its eyes.
We woke in the dark. I felt for its presence in my psyche and found only silent despair. I wasn’t sure whose it was.
Hello? I offered.
It ignored me. I could hardly blame it.
Her, the human corrected, softly as a conscience. You could hardly blame her. Not it.
Her, I acknowledged. I could hardly blame her.
I looked back on my life. In attempting to follow orders, I’d committed an unbroken string of errors. I’d left no one behind, done nothing that mattered.
I deserved The Brown World.
While listening to The Parasite ruminate on its regrets, I surprised myself twice, first by feeling sorry for it, and then by realising I’d failed this entire time to exercise the value I’d worked hardest to cultivate: compassion, even for apparent enemies. I’d taken for granted that the invader of my body was an exception, that surely, if anything could be considered other, something to be reviled, rejected and resisted, this was it.
But here it was, echoing the thoughts that had kept me seeking answers, even after I’d accepted my condition: I’ve left no one behind and done nothing that mattered.
For the first time since the invasion, I softened. There’s still time, I said.
To do something that matters.
Give my body back.
I can’t leave.
Can you give up control?
I never relinquished control. Not if I could help it. When a crew member from the planet of our ship’s construction offered to help me fix the broken cafeteria console, I’d declined. If I hadn’t, maybe I’d still be up there.
But, even before that, I might’ve had a career that inspired me instead of tangling me in a web of broken things: my inability to surrender had prevented me from commanding my own starship. Though I’d mastered every aspect of the requisite technical knowledge, I’d never learned how to navigate, which, more than anything, demanded intuitive listening to the vibrations of The Universe, and a willingness to submit to their nuanced messages. Attempting to give myself to them filled me with black terror that shut out any sense of meaning, leaving me paralysed and stranded.
I had nothing to lose by letting go now. Still, I didn’t know how.
Luckily, coaching people in the art of surrender was something I’d done often as a yoga teacher. I instructed the alien through a series of gentle restorative poses and breathing exercises, ending with a meditation.
The way she spoke now revealed a kind of beauty I’d never witnessed, one that had nothing to do with estrogen. It moved through me like a golden current, illuminating pockets of calcified sadness in my water jet and fins. I writhed against the body’s stomach, and nausea flooded it. Then, slowly and gently as sand tossed in the ocean, my thoughts settled. My tentacles relaxed.
I felt its grip on the nervous system loosen, and a space above me opened. My consciousness shot into it like a minnow, and my eyes flooded with light.
She flung my tentacles down, and for a moment, everything went black. Well, here I am, I thought. There’s nothing else I can do wrong.
Until then, I’d never really known what relief felt like.
If I had, how much sooner would I have let go? Would it’ve been soon enough that stars would at this moment be streaming past my own galactic vessel?
My host’s bedroom appeared dimly through her restored vision. I suddenly realized I was exhausted and that, strung like a wire around a problem I couldn’t solve, I hadn’t properly rested since entering her. While she rose and stretched her supple limbs, I tumbled into a long, deep sleep.
To stave off thoughts of my impending entry into The Brown World, and to shut out the growing sharpness of our building toxic load, in the days that followed, I slept as much as I could.
Meanwhile, my host ferried herself between doctors, ending up at an oncologist. He gave us ultrasounds and a biopsy, which involved a hollow needle that tore a streaming chunk from my mantle. Anaesthesia numbed my host, but left my senses keen. The doctor declared me a teratoma tumour and set a date for surgery.
Teratoma, he explained, came from the Greek for “Monster”, because that’s what the growths often looked like.
Knowing the agony I’d felt during the biopsy, Juliette quivered with anxiety. The surgery would dismember me before killing me. My death would be slow and excruciating. I could spare myself unspeakable pain if I resumed control and killed us both now.
I could slit our wrists in a warm bath. I could throw us off the Granville Street Bridge. I could swallow a hundred pills. There were so many more attractive options than the one I was now facing.
What’s a few hours of torture compared to an infinite fecal ocean? I asked her. Keep your life, if you can manage it. One of us deserves to be happy.
Her flowering gratitude was almost sweet enough to overwhelm the putrescence growing inside us.
Maybe you won’t go there, she said. Maybe your mythology is incorrect.
When she laid us on the operating table and closed her eyes to the fluorescent lights, waiting to be put under, I was so scared I almost changed my mind and seized her brain again.
Please, her thought-voice said. I want to live.
In the end, dying hurt less than I’d expected. The scalpel seared into me only a few times before I lost consciousness. Then, I became aware of a nothingness, a colourless, borderless, textureless, odourless silence, and in that silence I felt an endless unfurling, and I knew without a doubt that it was where beauty came from.
I don’t know how long I stayed there.
Eventually, distant voices emerged, along with constant thumping and the colour red. I opened my eyes and, in front of them, lights and shadows moved across a heavy membrane webbed with veins. The fluid silhouette of a many-armed creature moved lazily around it. More time passed.
Suddenly, I was crushed so hard I thought I might break. The squeezing continued for what felt like forever, and then I slid from my warm home into bright, screaming cold.
Hands took me from my birth mother, wrapped me in something soft, carried me down a long hall, and passed me to another woman.
I knew her.
It’s strange how we can become grateful for the most horrible things that have happened to us. I knew things now most humans would never know, like how to steer a spaceship, and the colours of stars beyond the spectrum of our seeing. Behind people’s irises, I saw their true selves swimming.
And in the eyes of the baby the nurse had just placed in my arms, my new adopted daughter, I saw flickering silver tentacles.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered into her perfect seashell ear. “I know how to build and steer a spaceship, and one day, so will you.”