Next Time, Scales
By John Moran
“You’re too restless,” the lizard whispered into my brain.
“And you’ve been at the reactor fuel again.”
Marla slapped her prehensile tail onto the table, cracking its surface with her paralysing stinger and rattling the chess pieces. The blow echoed through the control room.
“I hate it when you do that, Steven.”
“Think you can read me.”
I smiled. “Your underarm scales are pale, which means a supercharged diet or zero-gravity. As we haven’t been off-planet, it must be the
food. Plus, your breath stinks of sulphur and your claws have white rings.”
Marla pointed one crimson eye at the table, but kept the other on me.
“Your move,” she said.
“Give me time. Why do you think I’m restless?”
“Because you’ve spent the last three weeks researching Loris, and done each patrol fully armed.”
I glanced through the window, as if by chance I might catch our thief creeping up in plain view, but all I saw were two huge moons glowering over the ruined planet, its civilisation long-dead, part-excavated and full of secrets.
I couldn’t let Marla know the site had me spooked, though. Her people had been hunters for a thousand years, and, through a quirk of fate, she believed in me.
“Right.” I said. “Let’s patrol.” I got most of the way to the door before I realised what the click behind me had meant. “And you can put that piece back.”
“Damn,” Marla said.
The night was darker than usual, but I left off my flashlight and navigated by the excavation’s amber glow. After two months I’d learned
the drill pretty well: walk three steps from the door before turning right, drop down through the first causeway, crunch my way over rubble and calcified ferns, pass beside three thousand year old shop windows, then into what people said were the temples of the spider-creatures that had once ruled Artemis.
As I walked, Marla leapt from one wall to another like a shooting star. She looked beautiful, her scales shining like jewels.
“Why you care so much about an urban legend?” she asked.
“Because he’s a mystery. For two hundred years, Loris has been stealing artifacts, leaving only the letter L engraved onto the wall. Who wouldn’t be interested?”
“He’s only human, Steven.”
“I’m not sure. We didn’t have the technology to grow new bodies two centuries ago, so if he’s human, how has he lived so long?”
Marla was silent for a while, then she said, “however good he is, I bet you’re better.”
I walked away, unhappy with false praise. Instead, I ducked through the first arch, and stepped out below the huge, half-buried alien
machine. Next to it, the laboratories and excavating machines looked forlorn and tiny. Forty archaeologists worked here in Artemis’ summer, but none had yet figured out what the machine did.
“Perhaps you regret our melding?” Marla whispered, her voice quavering.
“Not for a moment.”
“Then why do you seek out complications?”
“What do you mean?”
“Loris, for instance. He’s just another hunt. So —”
“The machine’s active.”
She appeared at my shoulder, scuttled up to the machine and crouched, eyes twitching in different directions. What had previously been a
mountain of dark metal now held a tiny panel that shimmered like oil on water. As we watched, it faded to black.
“Intriguing,” Marla said.
“Still think Loris is a myth?”
“I think we need to be careful.”
She left in a blur, dancing up the wall. I crept after her, gun ready, but stopped at the end of the avenue, just as the city opened into a plaza capped by a broken tower.
“What’s up?” Marla asked.
I sent my mind back through memories of other patrols, and compared them to the present. Some people have a photographic memory; I have video recall. It’s rare, but it has saved my life more than once.
“The shadows are wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
I ran through the images again, spotting a nearby lamp that had been smashed to put an area several metres square into darkness. Something was lying there, dark and still in the shadows, covered in thick cloth. Even as I dragged it into the light, I knew it was a body: an old man, sallow and grey, with slash marks down his face and a stab wound in his chest. His blood had not yet congealed.
“Loris is here,” I said.
Marla appeared at my shoulder. “So who’s that?”
“An accomplice, maybe?”
Her eyes swiveled upwards. “Steven?”
“The lights are going out.”
I stood. Segment by segment, darkness was falling over the excavations.
“He must be in the base,” I said.
“About time we found something to hunt.”
Marla’s thoughts murmured low, then turned into alien chanting as she skipped ahead along the darkening walls. I chased after her, the sound of her death song filling my mind. It scared me when she was like this. She was too eager, too ready to put herself at risk.
When we reached the base I saw that the door had been forced, revealing two entrance corridors in a Y, their lights off.
“I’ll go right,” Marla said, her voice full of excitement.
“What if he’s in my side?”
She laughed. “Then keep some for me.”
She shivered and curled her tail like a scorpion, before speeding into the darkness. I gripped my weapon and followed.
“Corridor one clear,” Marla said while I was only part-way down my own, my footsteps clanging along the metal floor despite my efforts to be silent. Every step threw moon-shadows crazing over the walls. When I reached the end, the connecting door opened itself.
“Why remove lights but not the power?”
“Beats me. Reception room one clear, by the way.”
My heart beat hard as I stepped into an echoing dome of titanium and plastic, turned on my light and scanned the walls. Our base was a
hundred years old and built for far more spartan times. Now it echoed hollowly and something scraped in the distance.
“Sickbay clear,” Marla said, though she seemed to be hurrying too much. Despite her confidence, I’d seen her get hurt before. Then I noticed something else.
“The floor’s vibrating,” I said, moving to the wall and activating the readout.
“The reactor’s been set to self-destruct.”
Disbelief filled her voice. “How is that even possible? What about fail-safes?”
“It was designed to stop other races getting our technology.”
“You mean it’s deliberate? What sort of idiot culture builds a bomb into a science base?”
“Who cares? Right now I have to shut it off.”
“You know, if we hadn’t melded, I’d still be hunting on Targol.”
“You nearly died on Targol.”
“Everybody dies, Steven. The aim is to make it glorious. There’s nothing glorious about a bomb.”
“There’s nothing glorious about being stupid, either. Please be careful.”
Gun held high, I slid into the reactor room with my back to the wall.
I didn’t think there was anything wonderful about dying in any manner.
That was why I’d joined the Explorer’s Service a hundred years earlier, to get the new bodies they’d offered. Old, young, male, female — I’d tried them all. Little had I known I’d end up having humanity’s first contact with the Lizards.
I swept my flashlight from left to right, trying to be systematic.
Given the number of alcoves and chest-high machines, the room could have been full of people and I wouldn’t have known. The reactor terminal stood exposed in the centre, but it was the only way to stop the countdown. Or to start it, I realised, which meant the intruder was probably in my side of the building.
I kept low, and began to relax only when I reached the terminal and managed to end the countdown. Then something skittered along the floor behind me. I tried to turn, but was far too late.
Ten years earlier I’d been late, too. I was still in the Service because of my rapport with the Lizards, and had been partnered with one on her first hunt. It was sold as a getting-to-know-you mission, but tradition said it should be done without technology. After showing lizard after lizard my fingernails, they’d finally allowed me one small knife.
Targol was hot that month, entering the nearest phase of its eccentric orbit, and after being in the jungle for three days I was glad I’d been argued down over body armour. Then my companion found the first traces of our prey and her naive eagerness took over. She sped after it, leaving me alone amongst the thin green trees and ankle-deep water, naked except for a knife pouch.
When the screaming began, I panicked and fled, only to find myself in the heart of the action regardless.
Someone was screaming when I woke this time, too, face-down on a cracked floor-tile in the flickering darkness of the reactor room. My head ached, pain between my shoulder blades prevented me breathing fully, and my throat burned with vomit. I heard a skittering noise, then more screaming.
I rolled over and saw it. Facing the wall, dark red scales shining, and eight legs skittering over the reactor room floor was a creature I’d only previously seen in drawings on the alien machine.
Although its front two legs looked adapted to tool-use and it carried a green bracelet high on one of them, it drew breath instead, and used some internal force to blow a stream of fine grit onto the wall, completing the letter L it had been etching.
Two thoughts filled my brain: first, that this couldn’t be the same Loris who had left footprints on Beta-4. Second: was Marla okay?
She arrived in a blur, skipping off two walls and landing on the creature’s back before plunging her stinger into its chitinous armour. Incredibly, she failed to penetrate, and instead the creature turned, grabbed and hurled her with such force that she snapped against the far wall and left a dint in the metal. She fell and did not get up.
The creature advanced, raising one of its second-row legs, tipped with barbs, for a killing blow.
“No,” I shouted, grabbing a back leg — and immediately it turned and skittered towards me like an onrushing asteroid. Now I understood why the arches round the dig had been so broad. The spider was as high as my shoulder, but wider than three humans.
I kicked backwards along the floor, waving my hands to show I had no hostile intent.
“There’s no need for violence. Take what you want.”
It stopped, and its mouth clicked sideways before speaking. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you tell anyone about me.” As the sentence progressed, I made out an Earth accent and realised how Loris had lived so long. Nowadays we use enormous hospital ships around the moons of Jupiter, but there’s really no reason an alien couldn’t make the technology smaller. A bracelet, for example.
“Was it the machine we’ve been excavating?” I asked, walking closer.
“Yes,” Loris said. “Damn gene-banks. I turned it on thinking it was a technology store, but ended up bringing one of them to life, instead.”
“You thought quickly, body-swapping like that.”
“I am rather proud of myself, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to destroy the witnesses.”
I ducked, and he caught me high on one shoulder, my arm splintering in a flash of blood and pain that took me back to that fateful day in the jungle years earlier. This time I remained conscious, and as he lifted my impaled body off the floor, I groped for the alien bracelet, flipped back the cover and hit its only button.
I expected to wake looking at my own body through spider-eyes. I was even going to be gentle with Loris, take him into custody and confiscate the bracelet.
None of that happened.
Instead, I ended on my back, staring at the ceiling with my left side aching. When I tried to stand, I found it difficult because I now had legs where arms should have been. Also, I was seeing images in two places at once. Crazy, confused images, that —
— I focused both eyes to the front. Ahead, the alien spider threw my limp body at a wall before turning to face me. I was a half-metre off the floor, dark-green, and, something told me, possessed of a strong prehensile tail with a stinger at its end. Even if I lived, I had no idea if Marla would, as she was now trapped in my dying body. To save her, I would have to press the bracelet again, but it was still on the spider.
The spider charged, so I leapt for the wall like I’d seen Marla do. Pads miraculously flowered upon my fingers as I ran over the surface just ahead of its onrushing blows. They cracked nearer and nearer, so I leapt to the ceiling, re-oriented my eyes, and ran over its bellowing body.
The door yawned in front of me as I realised I was faster than it was. I could leave, and live to fight another day. The Service medics would raise an eyebrow but give me another body eventually.
That wouldn’t save Marla, though. Reluctantly, tiny heart beating faster than I could believe, I turned back to face the thing. Behind it, I saw my body get up, try to follow, then fall over and throw up.
A scream that sounded terribly like Marla hit the air and my mind simultaneously.
“I’m sorry,” I thought back to her. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
The spider didn’t seem to notice as it attacked me at full speed, legs whipping and jaw wide. I spun off the door jamb, backflipped from the ceiling and scuttled down the corridor as the whisper of its barbs skimmed me. This body was amazing. Now I knew how Marla’s people hunted so well, I didn’t feel so bad about being poor in comparison.
“Come on,” I shouted. “I can take you,” but the noise came out as a series of clicks. Whatever magic Marla used to speak mind to mind remained a mystery. Ahead, my body rose, then collapsed.
“Steven,” Marla’s thoughts echoed. “If this is pain, make it stop.”
Ten years earlier I’d turned the corner and ran headlong into a ghoul-like creature holding Marla down and throttling her. More by luck than judgement I’d plunged in my blade and saved her life. Though its dying blows had mortally shattered my ribcage, I’d won the fight and upheld the honour of humanity.
Now in this body, I knew I’d failed Marla when it mattered most, and anger drove me forwards. I felt exhilarated, too, and wanted only to leap for its face and take it on directly. Even if I died, this creature would pay for hurting her. As I feinted left, a barbed leg whipped past the spot I would have stood upon, but it was so hard emotionally to give ground.
It’s endorphins, I thought, suddenly realising just how much this body was pumped up for battle. No wonder Marla was so active, if she went through this each time we hunted.
Though it felt wrong, I forced myself to retreat, skipping from wall to wall and trying to think like a human — and as I dodged, I ran through the fight in my mind, searching for a weakness.
At last I remembered a spot between its plates that had opened up when it struck my human form. I turned, waited, and ducked down as the spider’s leg whistled over my back, ending up underneath the thing. I twisted my eyes frantically, feeling nauseous from the spinning images, but finally found the gap — struck hard, and, in the biggest surprise of the day, had something like an orgasm as poison pumped out of my stinger.
A minute later, and still quivering with excitement, I struggled out from Loris’ still form, retrieved the transfer bracelet and went looking for Marla.
She lay in a pool of blood, and my heart trembled to see her spirit inside my dying eyes. Something white fell from her mouth; a tooth, perhaps.
“I never realised it was like this, being you,” she said, in part mind-speak, part whisper.
As I held up the transfer bracelet, I finally realised something I’d refused to notice in the five years since she’d saved my life on Targol: whatever strange, wayward, naive spirit inhabited her, it was one I loved. Although I was going to die, I felt happy, knowing I could swap back and save her.
I pressed the switch. At first the pain was immense, but then, through some unexpected grace, I fell into utter blackness. When I woke I was completely numb and unable to move. I opened my eyes to find eight images of Marla dancing before me, all smiling in that slow lizard way of hers.
“Welcome back, idiot,” she said, her voice gentler than I’d ever heard it before.
“What happened?” I asked, finding words so hard to form I ended up just thinking them.
“I saved your life, as you would have done, had you thought it through.”
My mind flicked back to that day in the jungle when a young lizard had made the decision to save my life by sharing her own life-force the only way she could, leaving us exquisitely and uniquely connected.
“By melding with me again?”
“We can only perform the mating ritual once, I’m afraid.”
She raised her tail and showed me the stinger. “This isn’t lethal poison.”
I looked down and saw my new body, already feeling the numbness recede. Eight jointed spider legs ran from the edge of my vision to the floor. Lost in wonder, I raised a long barbed leg and stared. “Loris?” I asked at last.
She looked away. “I put him in your body, Steven. I’m sorry I couldn’t make his death glorious.”
I extended one leg, then another; skittered sideways before levelling myself.
Marla spoke again. “Steven. When I was dying, you had certain … thoughts about me.”
“I’m sorry. I —”
Her skin paled in a ripple from her nose to the tip of her tail. “—I’d just like to say that it’s about time.”
I stared at her for a long time, then found myself saying, “I know.” Later, as we walked down the long corridor to the outside world together, the Spider and the Lizard, I was already wondering what to tell the Service about how I ended up in my current shape. And I had no idea at all what they were going to make of my next request for a body.