AUTHOR: Kevin Wabaunsee
NARRATOR: Phillip Lanos
HOST: Norm Sherman
- Trusted Messenger is an Escape Pod original.
- Discuss on our forums.
- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our Wikia
- Thank you for visiting us on Facebook and Twitter
about the author…
Kevin Wabaunsee is a speculative fiction writer living in Chicago. A former newspaper reporter on the health and medical beat, he is currently an editor and communications director for a large medical school. He is a Prairie Band Potawatomi.
about the narrator…
By Kevin Wabaunsee
Dr. Thaddeus Begay had been expecting a dying child in the exam room, but no one had said anything about a woman half-dead from starvation. He stepped inside and muscled the door shut – like the rest of the clinic, it was made from metal reclaimed from the original dropship, and like everything else in the colony, it didn’t quite fit right.
“Good morning,” Thad said.
“Hello there,” the woman said. Her tone was probably meant to be cheerful, but to Thad, it sounded like it took significant effort.
Thad frowned. His nurse must have made a mistake. A woman had burst into the clinic without an appointment, the nurse had said, demanding help for her sick child.
But the woman sitting on the examination table with her child was thin to the point of starvation. Cheeks deeply sunken; the outline of her ribs and collarbone sharp through her tank top. Her hair, like her shirt, was thin and plastered against her flesh with sweat. On her lap sat a little boy of about a year and a half, had jet-black hair and deep brown eyes, and cheeks that were flushed with a painful crimson rash. Still, he looked healthier than his mother.
Thad dragged a stool over to her. It squealed across the faint outlines of the struts and tie-downs and internal dividing walls that had once honeycombed the massive storage container that now served as the colony’s clinic.
He glanced back at the chart – her name was Suzanne Buenaventura. He glanced at her vitals, and nearly gagged when he saw her records from the colony ship. She’d been more than 215 pounds when the dropships had landed. Sitting on the exam table, she didn’t look like she’d top 110. “And what seems to be the problem this morning, Mrs. Buenaventura?”
“I need medicine. My son’s been sick, so sick, and he’s not getting better. He needs antibiotics, I’m sure of it, doctor. Uh, Doctor – ?”
“Oh, terribly sorry. I’m Dr. Begay.”
“Navajo?” Suzanne asked.
“The name’s a dead giveaway, isn’t it? On my mother’s side, anyway.”
“I’m Pima. Or was. Sorry, I can’t stop asking people what they were before. No more reservations, though, right? Just colonists now. One big happy planet, and all that? I’m babbling. Anyway, nice to meet you, Dr. Begay. I’m just real scared for Little Will. He’s been sick for a week or two. My neighbor says it’s Scarlet Fever.”
Thad smiled and nodded. He sat down in front of them. “Well, why don’t I take a look, just to be sure? Scarlet fever hitched a ride with us, sure. But antibiotics usually clear it up.” He paused. “And that’s all you’re here for? Just antibiotics for Will? Your health, your passenger: all OK?”
Suzanne’s eyes narrowed. “Actually, we call him ‘Little Will.’ His daddy was ‘Big Will.’ But never mind the other thing. Everything else –” she paused. “It’s going fine, I guess. We’re all surviving.”
Thad nodded. Under the harsh LEDs of the exam room, he could see a tinge of yellow at the corner of her eyes. Jaundice. Starvation causes the body to begin digesting its own internal organs. By the time it hits the liver, that means weeks of malnutrition. Bile in the bloodstream is just the outward sign of worse things happening under the skin. Thad hadn’t seen jaundice in years. Not since the colony’s starving seasons.
Thad resolved then that he wouldn’t let her out of the clinic without finding a way to help. Even out here, even after the choices they’d had made to survive, Thad refused to forget what it meant to be a doctor.
Still, there was a right way – and a wrong way – to have difficult conversations with patients. His mentor, Dr. Francisco, had drilled it into him in med school. Calm voices and encouraging words. Start slow and work up to the tough subjects. Don’t press too hard or come on too strong, or you’re liable to scare them away. And some treatments were a lot scarier than others.
Thad put on his best impression of a genuine smile, and held out his hands. “OK, let’s take a look at you, OK, Little Will?”
Suzanne frowned a little, and kept a tight hold on the boy on her lap. “I’d prefer to hold on to him. He’s a little shy around strangers.”
“That’s fine,” Thad said. He leaned over, elbows on his knees, and made encouraging little coos and warbles. Children were easier to fool. He ruffled the boy’s hair, peeked in his ears, held his tiny fingers and toes. Back at the Albuquerque Medical Center so many years before, Dr. Francisco had slapped Thad’s hands when he’d reached for an instrument before anything else. “Pay attention to the patient, first thing,” Francisco had said. “You can always hear their heart or bang their knee after. But first thing, look at them, make contact. Just touch a patient, and you’ll learn a lot.”
Decades ago and light years away. Francisco would be long dead by now. Not for the first time, Thad wondered what his mentor would think of the medicine they dispensed at the colony’s little clinic. Of the choices they’d made.
The little boy had a blistering fever, a rough red rash was creeping down his arms. But otherwise a pretty normal little boy. A little light, but some kids run skinny. “Can you turn him around?” Thad asked, putting his stethoscope in his ears. “I need to listen to his lungs.”
Suzanne looked away. “Is that necessary? Look, you can see it’s Scarlet Fever.” She took a hold of Little Will’s chin and thrust a finger into his mouth. Thad didn’t have a laryngoscope, but he didn’t need one to see the angry red tongue and white pockmarks. A strawberry tongue usually meant Scarlet Fever. But why wouldn’t she want to show her son’s back?
“That’s certainly something to be concerned about,” Thad said. “But I need to listen to Little Will’s lungs. We need to rule out a couple of other things. I can’t give you antibiotics until I give him a full exam. It wouldn’t be safe.”
Suzanne closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For a second, Thad thought she was going to stand up and leave. Instead, she carefully picked Little Will up and spun him around, so the little boy was perched on her knee facing her, his back to Thad.
Thad ran his hand up the back of the little boy’s t-shirt, feeling for the placement. He froze. A cold shudder rolled down the length of his own back. There was nothing there. Thad pulled back the collar of the cotton t-shirt. Nothing on the child’s neck, either. He suppressed a shiver of revulsion that rumbled in his stomach and rippled between the muscles of his shoulder blades. “I’ll need to take his shirt off.” Not a question, this time. The mother nodded. Thad thought he saw a look of tired resignation flash across her face.
He slipped the little boy’s shirt off, and saw two things: first, it was definitely Scarlet Fever – the characteristic rough dotted rash was all across his back. But the second thing was even more shocking. The boy didn’t have a passenger. Smooth, untouched skin all across his back. An involuntary shudder sent all of the skin up and down his spine crawling at the sight of that expanse of pristine skin.
Thad took a deep breath, and tried to keep his tone casual, breezy. Smile when you talk, even if they can’t see you, so the advice goes. People hear it in your voice. “Your boy’s overdue for his placement,” he said.
Suzanne nodded, strands of sweaty hair falling in front of her eyes so Thad couldn’t see her expression.
He licked his lips, a sudden rush of anticipation warming the tips of fingers and the skin behind his ears. “We can help you with that. You don’t even need to go down to the breeding pools, we can do it right here today –”
“No.” Suzanne blurted it out, a sudden, panicked syllable. She held her breath for a moment, and when she spoke again, it was in a smoother even tone. Like she’d practiced saying the words a hundred times before. “No thank you, doctor. Some other time.”
Thad kept his eyes on the little boy, smiling at him, avoiding his mother’s sharp stare. He could feel a gnawing feeling, something like a hunger, scrabbling at the edges of his thoughts. He couldn’t stop staring at the boy’s empty back.
Thad slipped on the stethoscope and breathed on the chest piece to warm it up. He let the heartbeats thrum in his ears.
Suzanne didn’t say anything.
Thad glanced at Suzanne. Sometimes it was best to back off, let the patient bring up what was bothering them. Forge a connection. Build a rapport. But sometimes a little nudge was required. “You can talk to me, Suzanne.”
She shook her head, and fixed her gaze on the floor between them.
He took another look at her. Skin pulled tight over every bone, every joint. Not a bit of fat left on her.
A flash of insight, and Thad felt nauseated. The shuddering, crawling sensation came in waves across his back. He didn’t want to think it could be true.
But in that moment, he knew with absolute certainty that if he examined the mother, he’d see the same thing on her back that he’d seen on the little boy. Nothing at all. A smooth patch of deep olive skin, and nothing more.
Thad made the calculations in his head. The dropships had landed just over five years ago. The freeze-dried rations and emergency supplies had run out about a year later. That was when the starving seasons had started.
Most people got pretty close to starvation in that second year, before they worked out the fix, but some people had hoarded. Sure, there’d be some Earth food left over, after the colonists had stopped having any use for it anymore. But that wouldn’t last forever. Three years, give or take. Could she have lasted that long? It was possible, but barely.
“How?” he asked. It was only one of a hundred questions running through his head. But it was the one that didn’t involve him screaming.
Suzanne raised her head, caught his gaze, and he could see that she knew he’d figured it out. She slumped down in her chair, and the wariness, the fight seemed to drain out of her.
“Stockpiled as much as we could. We grow a little in our greenhouse. Mostly we try to stay away from the clinic.”
Suzanne looked up at him, jaw set, gaze sharp, and even though she looked like she had one foot in the grave, Thad wondered how he was ever going to reach her.
“You can’t keep going like this. You need to –”
“To hell with that. I don’t need anything. It’s my life. I don’t want one of those things pulling my strings.”
“You don’t –” He shut his mouth. His heart was pounding. His breath shallow and ragged. If he said another word, he wouldn’t be able to stop. And all his careful words and pleasant, neutral timbre, they’d go right out the window. He trailed off, the silence broken only by an occasional burble from the little boy.
“It’s not what I signed up for, coming here,” she said. “They told us we’d grow our own food. Work the land, connect with nature. Those things aren’t not right – they’re not natural.”
“Mrs. Buenaventura –” Thad stopped, took a breath. He tried to think of the town meetings when they’d decided. Everybody hungry and angry and on edge, screaming and crying and wondering if they were all going starve to death trillions of miles from home. Thad tried to remember what the colony administrator had said to soothe the angry crowd. What was his name? Pokagon. Some tribe from the Midwest. Luke? No, Lucas. Lucas Pokagon. That was his name. Standing down a room full of angry Indians. Telling them what they’d need to do to survive. Not everyone was convinced then, either. But that was a long time ago.
Thad took in a slow breath. “Nobody knew that our food wouldn’t grow here –”
“That’s what I’m saying, doc. This planet is poison to us.” She leaned forward, gesturing sharply as she spoke. A speech she’d given before, clearly. “It doesn’t want us here, so putting those things inside us is just crazy.”
He stood up. Words weren’t going to convince her.
He shrugged out of his white lab coat.
“What are you doing?” Suzanne asked.
Underneath, he was wearing a lightweight tan short-sleeve shirt, which began to unbutton. Vaguely military, like most of the Bureau of the Indian Affairs surplus gear that had come along with the colony’s supplies.
Thad didn’t stop. “Have you ever seen one? A passenger?”
“Sure,” Suzanne said, panic crawling in at the edges of her voice. “Everybody has.”
He didn’t believe her. “Up close, I mean.”
Suzanne didn’t say anything. Thad glanced over his shoulder. She was looking away. Not demure. Disgusted. “Suzanne?”
“No, I guess not.”
Thad slipped out of the shirt. On his chest, running down over his left shoulder and across his left pectoral muscle lay a thick green tendon, like the root of a swamp tree, or one of the eight arms of an octopus. The tentacle nestled half-buried in Thad’s flesh. At the edges, the human skin merged with the alien body, and it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
Suzanne put a hand to her mouth and turned away. “Cover it up. I don’t want to see it.”
“No, Suzanne. Just look at it.” He could feel the eddies of cool, air-conditioned air blowing across his skin, and at the same time, across the skin of his passenger. The two sensations blended together.
He turned around, showed her his back. He knew what she’d see. The same thing that was on all but the youngest colonist’s backs. A thick, seven-pointed star, like a starfish half-sunken in wet sand, nestled in the space between his shoulder blades. It’s arms – tentacles – radiated out across his back and plunged deep into his skin, one reaching across his shoulder and down his chest. He knew that if Suzanne looked, she might even see the soft rippling of the creature’s skin.
“Are you looking?” Thad asked. He exhaled slowly. The hair on his arms was standing on end. His heart thudded and he felt a trembling sensation from his passenger, a warmth spreading across his back and shoulder.
“Yes,” Suzanne said. “Cover it up. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“There’s an emesis basin on the counter if you need to.”
“The kidney-shaped pan over there. Use it if you think you’re going to vomit.”
Thad stood perfectly still. Seconds passed, but he didn’t say a word. A dim, faraway thought occurred to him: what would Dr. Francisco think of him, standing half-naked in front of a patient in an exam room? But the though wafted away as quickly as it had come.
“Doc, let me ask you a question.”
“Anything you like,” Thad said, glancing over his shoulder. “Do you mind if I put my shirt back on?”
She nodded. “It’s a parasite, right? So isn’t it just going to eat you all up from the inside?”
Thad sighed. If that’s what she thought, he wasn’t surprised she’d stayed away. he wondered how many people were out there, still starving themselves, subsisting on scraps so they wouldn’t submit to the alien “parasite.” He slipped back into his shirt and coat.
“Actually, it’s a symbiont. Technically, parasites are symbionts, too. This one’s different, though. It’s what the biologists call a mutualistic symbiont. Do you know the difference?”
Suzanne shook her head. “All I know is, that leech on your back’s lookin’ pretty happy.”
“It means we both benefit, Suzanne. That’s the way this planet works. Nothing grows on its own. That’s why our crops, our livestock, they never stood a chance. They don’t fit anywhere, they can’t eat the plants, they can’t grow in the soil. Alone, they just starve. Just like we did, those first few years.”
“Telling me this planet is poison to us isn’t going to convince me to stick one of those things inside me, doc.”
Thad bit his lip. He wanted to yell at her. Grab her by the shoulders and hold her down and – he stopped himself. Best not to think that way. He took a deep breath. “That’s the bargain. If we want to live here, we need to become a part of this planet. The passengers let us live. Without them, we starve. That’s all there is to it.”
“But why didn’t we try harder?” Her voice was cracking, she was almost wailing. “Why didn’t we figure out something else?”
“There just wasn’t enough time. This was the only way to survive.”
“Or maybe those things on your back, maybe they were telling you there wasn’t enough time.” Suzanne folded her arms across her belly, and shivered like she was going to throw up.
He couldn’t tell her – he wouldn’t tell her – that he sometimes wondered the same thing, occasional drifting thoughts that flitted away as soon as they cropped up. But whether it was true or not, he also knew it didn’t matter one bit.
Suzanne made a face like she smelled something rotten. “God, it’s like you’re not even human anymore. You’re not really an Earth creature anymore, you’ve –”
“You have a crappy sense of humor, doc.”
Thad stared at her, and as he did, a thought blossomed in his head. Something he could show her that convince her completely. A plan unfurled in his brain like a blooming flower.
“I’ll make you a deal, Suzanne. Come outside with me, and take a look at something I want you to see. If you still feel the same way afterwards, then come back and I’ll give Little Will his antibiotics and I won’t tell anyone anything.”
Suzanne’s eyes narrowed. “Promise?”
Thad exhaled. “I promise.”
As he led Suzanne out the back of the clinic, Nurse Parker tried to stop him, complaining about the afternoon appointments, but he silenced her with a look that conveyed the message that the schedule could go to hell, that something much more important than the afternoon schedule and the complaints of the people in the waiting room was at stake.
The huge red sun was just cresting above the eastern mountains. Both moons were visible, much higher above the horizon. Thad and Suzanne stood at end of a path a few hundred yards behind the clinic. The thick, moist heat and smell of the jungle filled his nostrils: mud and rotting vegetation and moss and mold and a thousand other smells all mixed up together. Human smells, too: sweat and smoke and motor oil and other reminders of home.
The trees surrounding the colony looked like the impossible offspring of a Douglas Fir and a Palm tree, standing 500 feet high and draped in vines and wrapped up in a cobweb of something that looked like strangler figs. Thad and Suzanne stood a few feet from a sharp line that divided the original borders of the colony from the jungle beyond.
On the jungle side, trees and bushes and grasses crowded the border. On the colony side, nothing but lifeless mud, cracked and dry. The first thing the dropships had done was burn the colony site with their retro-rockets. They sterilized it to make room for the buildings and farms and ranches that never took form.
“OK, what’d you want to show me?” Suzanne asked.
“They’re finally building farms, you know. On the other side of town, outside the colony line. They’ve found some native plants to cultivate. And they’re discovering more every day. With the passengers, we can’t eat what we brought with us, but we’ve got a whole planet to sustain us now.”
“La-dee-dah,” Suzanne said. “Alien plants in poison dirt on a poison planet.”
“That’s not why I brought you here.” Thad turned, toward a flat plain just inside the colony line. Orderly rows of rough-hewn stone, crudely chiseled with names and dates. The only competent stonemason had died during the first starving season. He stopped in front of one of the gravestones, and waited for her to follow.
“You lose someone, doc? A kid?”
“We never had children,” Thad said. “My wife died in the second year, when the food ran out.”
Suzanne didn’t say anything. Thad reached forward, and brushed his fingertips across the rough-hewn gravestone. The name on the stone was “Nikan Redpath.”
Nikan was the closest thing to a son he’d had, though. He A teenager when the dropships landed. His parents were farmers. After all the Earth livestock died, they’d tried to raise these native herbivores. But like everything else here, the alien meat wouldn’t keep them alive. Thad remembered taking Nikan in after they died, trying to take care of him.
Thad realized he’d drifted away, lost in his memories when Suzanne broke the silence. “I’m real sorry for your loss, Doc –”
“I’m not looking for sympathy, Suzanne, I’m trying to tell you something important. When we first got here, some of the colonists, the ranchers, caught some of the symbionts from native beasts. They were the first. We didn’t know what the things were. But we were horrified. Like you are. Thought they were leeches. We carved them out of people’s skin. Most of the time, people survived. With terrible scarring, of course, but – ”
“Ugh, now I really don’t want one.” She folded her arms and looked back towards the colony, away from the graves and the jungles and the rising red sun.
“Suzanne, for god’s sake, shut up and listen. Right when things were at their worst, when people were starving, dying of malnutrition every day, Nikan came to me. He trusted me and asked for help. Starving, like the rest of us, but he was worried about the thing growing on his back. Wanted to make sure it lived. I told him to be smart, cut the thing out of him while he still could, and save the calories for himself.”
“Sounds like good advice.”
“He didn’t take it. But I did something I’ll never forgive myself for. I convinced him he needed a checkup. And then I sedated him. And I tried to cut that thing out of him anyway. But it didn’t work. It had grown too deep. There were complications. He woke up from the surgery. But just long enough to realize what I’d done. He died of the complications a few hours later, cursing my name.”
“Doc, I –”
Thad stared at the gravestone, one hand resting on it. “Suzanne, I was the only person he could trust. He didn’t have anyone else in the world. And I’d violated that trust – violated him. And he died for it.”
“I don’t understand what that’s got to do with me.”
“People like Nikan – after they died – they helped the colony biologists figure out that the passengers can let us survive here. That they let the planet sustain us.”
“Yeah, so? What are you telling me this for?” Suzanne asked.
“I can’t force you to take on a symbiont.” He suppressed a shudder. “But if you choose not to, you’re spitting on the graves of all these people who died before we figured it out.”
He pointed at the field of stones. Hundreds of them, all fro the same handful of years.
Thad suddenly realized that it wasn’t just his duty as a doctor that made him want – need — to save Suzanne. Letting her starve would dishonor their memory. All of them. The ones who died on the operating table, trying to cut out what they’d thought were parasites.
Suzanne turned back and looked past Thad, at the rough granite tombstone.
Thad held his breath. In that moment, he felt sure he’d reached her, finally convinced her.
Then she shook her head, and showed him how wrong he could be. “I don’t care. I won’t do it.”
“Suzanne, listen –”
“No, I’ve done enough listening. I listened to your stories, looked at your gravestones –”
“Suzanne, calm down, just think about it – ”
She backed away from him. “Dammit, I don’t want one of those leeches crawling inside me and changing the way I think. Why won’t you all just leave us alone?”
Thad stepped forward, trying to calm her down, convince her to come back to the clinic. “But I can’t stand by and let you kill your child.” This wasn’t the way he wanted to handle this, but he couldn’t let her go. He saw himself cutting into Nikan’s symbiont all those years ago. He’d called it a leech, then, too. “You’ll die without one – and when you do, they’ll take him and they’ll place one of the symbionts, and take root, and it’ll make him a part of this place, just like he was meant to be.”
Thad’s heart began to pound, and he felt a sense of warmth spread under his collar, down the back of his neck.
“I’m not killing him,” Suzanne said. “I’m saving him.”
Thad couldn’t help but sneer at that. “I’ll make sure they carve that on your gravestone, and his too, when they bury him next to you.”
Suzanne scowled at him, her upper lip curling back like she was going to snarl. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Those tendrils are up there mucking around in your brain.”
“Maybe they are. But is dying really better?” Thad stepped forward, he hands curled into painfully tight fists. All the thoughts of bedside manner and sacred trust and his duty as a doctor evaporated as he looked at this crazed woman, clutching her child to her emaciated frame in a tightening grip. “Here’s what I do know. They’ll find you. And they’ll take your son away. I’ll make sure they do.”
She took a step back, away from him. “It’s true. They’re in your brain. I – I won’t let you –”
Thad felt his composure slipping away completely. He shouted at her. “What? What are you going to do? Run away? Into the jungle?” He stabbed a finger towards the crush of trees. “You’ll die out there. Try to eat the native plants? You’ll starve to death with your belly full.”
“I should never have come here,” Suzanne said, backpedaling, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Forget about it. I don’t want your goddamn medicine. The price is too high.”
She turned her back on him, walked away through the graveyard. A flush of heat and warmth spread across Thad’s back and chest as he watched Suzanne her walk away. He knew he should feel guilty, a sense of professional regret for treating her with such angry contempt, and he did, but it was a soft, muffled thought, far in the back of his head.
Instead, what he felt with a painful intensity was a visceral, almost painful urge to stop her. She was walking away, and he couldn’t let her leave.
Thad sprinted forward, snatched at her arm. She screamed, jerked her elbow out of his grip, and began to run. He began to chase her. Then, after a dozen paces, her foot caught a stone. She let out a strangled cry and stumbled, her legs collapsing under her. Little Will tumbled out of her arms, and rolled to the dusty ground. The boy began to shriek. Suzanne fell forward onto her stomach. She tried to raise herself up on her knees, but slipped. Her hand flew to her chest. She took huge gulping breaths, mouth gaping wide, but her face was bone white. She tried to lift herself up again, but her hand slipped out from under her, sending her slamming back down against the ground. Thad approached her, grabbed her arm, and still she tried to crawl away, scrabbling across the cracked and chalky mud. Then, she collapsed. Lying on the cracked mud, she made no sound, save for a series of shallow, wheezing breaths.
Bright surgical lamps hung from the ceiling of the clinic’s one procedure room, casting intense white light on the two polished steel tables, draped with blue sterile cloths. A long line of steel cabinets along the back wall held various equipment, IV bags, and supplies needed for a variety of treatments. On top of a low cabinet along the opposite wall was a long glass tank, filled with greyish water. A half-dozen immature symbionts, destined to grow into passengers, lay on the bottom of the tank, stubby tentacles waving softly in the still water.
Suzanne lay one of the tables, still unconscious, still wheezing shallowly. Her clothes were streaked with mud and dust. Thad held Little Will in his arms, snoring peacefully.
“What’s wrong with her?” his head nurse asked Thad.
“If we’re lucky, just exhaustion.”
“And if we’re not?”
“Acute myocardial infarction secondary to starvation-induced multiple organ failure.” The nurse nodded carefully. She would know as well as Thad did that if Suzanne had suffered a heart attack, she’d be dead in hours, and there was nothing they could do about it.
“Take the boy,” Thad said, handing the infant over the nurse. “He has scarlet fever, he needs antibiotics. We don’t have a complete history, so break out the erythromycin. Later, we can see if we can’t find some food. Kid’s underfed.”
The nurse nodded and carried Little Will towards the door. At the threshold, she stopped. “Doctor Begay?”
“I noticed something as we were bringing them in. No passengers.”
“What are you going to do?”
Thad stared at the tank with the immature symbionts. They were all bright green, younger and brighter than his own passenger, and they undulated softly, a slow rhythmic pulsing. “The boy needs IV erythromycin, Nurse Parker. 150 milligrams per hour. Then see if you can’t find some food for him. Rations. Something from Earth. We should have some baby food in storage, I think. And close the door behind you.”
When the nurse had left, Thad slipped on nitrile gloves and placed an IV line into Suzanne’s arm, hooked up a bag of lactated Ringer’s solution to begin rehydrating her. He attached a pair of slim EKG leads. The beeping of the heart monitor counted out a quiet rhythm. He watched her breathing for a few minutes. Then, he pulled a stool up next to her and rolled her over onto her stomach. With a pair of bandage scissors, he sliced her shirt from waist to shoulder, and under the bright surgical lamps, he stared the smooth expanse of olive skin. He listened to the her shallow breaths, and waited.
He’d promised Suzanne that he wouldn’t force it upon her. But if he gave in, let her die of starvation, cursing the leeches that would have saved her life, would that be any better than what he’d done to Nikan? And what about Little Will, another orphan child, growing up without a parent? He pictured Little Will growing up. He imagined the boy growing up into a young man that very much resembled Nikan. With the same sad, angry eyes.
Thad exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been stifling. She’d feel differently about the passenger once it was inside her. Once it took root, she’d accept it. Realize just how good the bargain was. Perhaps she would even love it.
He stepped over to the tank, reached into the water and lifted one of the symbionts out. It was bright green, marbled with mahogany stripes. Perched in the palm of his gloved hand, the immature symbiont wriggled, its four stubby legs seeking a place to latch onto. The other three legs would only sprout after it had found a suitable host. Thad could feel the symbiont’s tube-like beak prodding the surface of his glove, exploring, tasting, seeking out flesh to partner with. He stroked the brown and green flesh, and felt an appreciative shudder.
He traced a circle with his forefinger on a spot in the middle of her back, right between the shoulder blades. A perfect spot for host and symbiont alike. It wouldn’t take any effort at all. He’d conducted hundreds of placements himself.
He let out a ragged sigh as he set the symbiont down in the chosen spot and released it onto her flesh. Over the course of a minute or so, the three legs wriggled and wormed their way into a comfortable place on the skin. The slow process of integrating into the flesh was half burrowing, half healing. At the same time, the rhythmic pulse of the symbiont’s thick central body were the only visible sign that the creature was painlessly inserting its beat through the thin flesh of the back. Through that initial hole, the symbiont would tap into her bloodstream, her lymphatic system, her muscles, and her nerves. Without spilling a drop of blood, the two would never be apart again.
Thad stripped off his gloves and drew a finger across the moist skin of the new symbiont on Suzanne’s back. He felt the contractions of the creature’s body, settling in to its new home. He traced the outline of its three short arms.
He reached under his shirt and gently stroked his own passenger’s flesh, tracing the long, thick tendril as it wound across his chest. He savored the dim, secondhand sensation he felt as his fingers cross back and forth across the blurred line between the two bodies.
A rush of calm and contentment suffused his back and chest. Would Nikan approve? Thad had felt certain that day, as well. What would Dr. Francisco say? Would they understand, or would they be repulsed beyond all measure?
He ran his fingertips down her naked back. He reveled in the shudder of fascination he felt at the bare skin. There was a wisp of something else, too. A faded feeling of revulsion surfaced, something like panic or anger, but as quickly as it appeared, it faded away again, like an echo from the depths, too far away to understand. As he waited for Suzanne to wake, Thad glanced over at the glass tank and watched the immature symbionts, imagining their yearning, their ache, their hunger to be joined with another life.