Escape Pod 329: Pairs


By Zachary Jernigan

I had been practicing turning myself into a knife. Between star systems I gathered and focused my particles into a triangle, a sharp shape. Hurling myself against the diamond-hard walls of my small ship, the point of the weapon hardened. I honed myself.

You see, I had decided to murder my employer. I had studied his weaknesses and come to believe myself capable of the act. I did not know when and where, nor did I know what would trigger it. I simply knew it had to happen. On that day I would either die or buy myself a measure of freedom.

Originally, this was the extent of my plan: To serve myself.

My name is Arihant. I am one of two humans still inhabiting a physical form, diminished though it is. Outside the walls of my ship, I am in form a faintly translucent white specter, strong and powerfully built—an artist’s anatomical model. Over the years it has become difficult to remember what my face looked like, and thus my features are only approximately human, my head bare. My eyes glow the color of Earth’s sun.

I am quite beautiful, Louca tells me. On more than one occasion she has run her hands over the ghostly contours of my body. “I wish you were solid,” she once said. “Oh, Ari. The things I would do to you.”

Louca is the one I am forced to follow and observe. Her name means crazy—an appropriate name. She is the second human possessing a body. Technically, her body is a black, whale-shaped ship one hundred meters long, but her avatars take the forms of anything she imagines. Very rarely, she is human, and never the same person twice. More often, she wears the bodies of flying animals.

She dreams of flying, which is appropriate.

Our profession is transport. For three centuries we have hauled the disembodied souls of Earth—each stored in a projection cube—from star to star to be sold. They are quite expensive, I am told, but I have no understanding of the means of exchange. Nearly everything is hidden from me, and Louca sees nothing.

The reason souls are bought varies. Often they are kept as curios. Sometimes they are used to attract customers to the buyer’s business. My employer used to goad me on these points: “Is it not wonderful to know your people are put to such good use? Imagine how happy it must make them!”

But I know the truth. Even without physical bodies, men become lonely. They despair and I feel it. Surely Louca feels it; she goes crazier and crazier in such close proximity to ghosts. Before the events of this story, only the luckiest souls were bought in pairs or groups, a rare occurrence. Now, because of Louca and I, it is the rule that souls must be sold in pairs.

It is my one accomplishment, making men marginally less alone.

Still, I arrange nothing—I have no power over the situation. I follow Louca from a distance of one hundred thousand kilometers, never any closer, and report anything unusual. I need not watch very closely. Louca’s duty is to dream violent dreams, to defend and deliver her payload. Hopefully, her capacity for violence will never be tested. She is categorically insane—a fact that, my employer insists, makes her uniquely suited to the job of protector.

Employer. Job. The terms are ridiculous, for Louca and I are not paid. Our terms of service are not negotiable. I am no one’s employee, but I prefer not to use the word slave. Or master.

I cling to life. I value it, though what value it has is measured in a mere handful of molecules. I possess no unique or useful knowledge, only memories. My ship, small though it is, has several lifetimes’ worth of entertainment files. I immerse myself in virtual environments so flawlessly rendered I forget they are fiction. I have lived many lives, largely uninterrupted by my duties.

An observer might call these lives empty, but between systems, often decades at a time, they are all I have.

By my count, the year is 2432—though I may well be wrong, as we travel faster than the speed of light. Not that it matters; Earth is dead, ground up for fuel, all her souls absconded with. In the time it has taken me to lose track of my own lives—a hundred, a thousand years—the fate of mankind has not changed.

I record these words for a posterity that will not exist.

I was interrupted in the middle of making love to a four armed, furred woman. My life of four years dissolved around me, and I woke in my single room to find a message written on the surface of my desk: We have arrived in the Sfari system. A quick check in my journal confirmed that we had visited it once before, nearly two centuries previously. A second visit is rare.

Before/Under me spun Sfari, a blue-green marble. To my right, in the process of docking with a triple tori-shaped station, was Louca. She opened a bay door for me and I guided my ship inside. Several robota, eight-limbed and silvered, ignored me as they passed by in the maintenance corridor. Their carapaces nearly brushed the ceiling. An inspection team from the satellite, I recalled from last time.

I found Louca in the debarking lounge. She had taken on the form of a five foot-tall flying squirrel, cartoonishly feminine—one of her favorites. A paw tapped the handle of the cart loaded with souls, eyes staring out the lounge’s one window. There was nothing to see but the pitted wall of the station.

“How are you, Louca?” I asked.

She turned and smiled, revealing large incisors. “Arihant! You wouldn’t imagine where I’ve been!”

“I bet I can.” We have this conversation every time we meet.

“No, no. I was a hawk.” She curled one claw, beckoning me closer as if to share a secret, and whispered, “I just flew in. I’m a hawk right now, actually, but you can’t really tell. A vicious hawk.”

“You are?”

“Yes. I am.” She rocked back, looked me up and down. “You look wonderful. Where have you been?”

I considered my life, just erased. I had been an author of erotica on Luna, a famous man. I had had twelve children from seven women, a penthouse apartment in Saffron Towers, and an endless supply of drugs. It had been wonderful—wonderful but already fading, disappearing quicker and quicker the more I tried to cling to it.

“Nowhere special,” I told her.

Her rodent face managed to look sad. “That’s sad,” she said.

The door irised open, admitting us into the station.

The cart guides us to the buyer. A cube intended for him/her/it glows and Louca hands it over. That is all, generally. Sometimes I am asked to demonstrate how to activate the soul projection, and I pantomime pushing the cube’s single button. I have been instructed that Louca is not to perform this action—perhaps because, unlike me, she could physically depress the button. I have been warned several times not to allow this to happen.

Apparently, the customers too are warned to never activate the projection before us. This used to disappoint me. I used to long to see the person trapped within the device, but now I know it is for the best. If I see another human, I have to explain what I am and what I do.

The schedule is the same every time. We deliver the souls and store the cart. If sales are negotiated in the interim, we return to the ship to retrieve more cubes. Thus, during the night—or whatever constitutes the end of the business day—Louca and I are allowed to wander. I do not follow her; I do not witness what trouble she causes. For me, carnal pleasures are had only in simulated life.

Our first day in orbit above Sfari we delivered seventeen souls to representatives of—to my untrained eye—nine species. The final three transactions occurred at the central market, a raucous, jumbled warren of stalls displaying items recognizable and foreign. The various species eyed us with expressions I read as menacing, hungry, disinterested—never friendly.

One smiled, or possibly grimaced, exposing blue and yellow gums. He gestured to me and tried to hand Louca a sheaf of goldleaf bills in exchange. “Fuck you,” she said. “I’m a hawk and you’d better back off. I wouldn’t sell Ari for all the gum in a candy store.”

We locked the cart to a metal stanchion. There I said goodbye to Louca.

“Goodbye, Louca.”

“Wait, Ari. What are you going to do tonight?”

“I do not know. Maybe I will get a drink.”

She did not laugh or crack a smile at my joke. “Oh. Okay, Ari. I’m going to eat a rabbit. Bye!” She lifted her arms, let out a piercing cry, and bolted down an alley between stalls.

I traveled the triple tori, a trip of six hours—approximately thirty kilometers. Each contained a different atmosphere, but this presented little challenge to me; I can pretend to swim as easily as pretend to walk. The satellite’s population was by turns elegantly menacing, sleekly torsional, gelatinously disgusting. Four of the species I recognized from sales earlier in the day. Free of containment suits, they were no prettier.

It happened while I was watching diners from under a restaurant awning in the main torus. The establishment catered to what I thought of as Sfari’s native species, the one most represented in the satellite: a crow-billed, green bipedal people. I recognized one from a delivery earlier. He/She/It and several others stood on long, thin legs around a high circular table.

On its top a projected woman danced.

A human soul, the first I had ever seen.

I stared at her naked body, unable to look away. She was beautiful, muscular thighs and arms bangled in silver and gold. She made me ache in a way unrelated to physiology. I have no organs, no bones, yet I swear I felt the sparse molecules of my being shudder collectively.

I had seen real women, ages ago, another lifetime ago. I have made love to many more in virtual life, but this was something else—the essence of a woman, the essence of her dancing, not hips gyrating but the idea of hips, and breasts, the idea and memory of real sex…

Suddenly, she looked up, stared at me as though she had felt my eyes on her.

My reaction was swift—almost as if I had been planning to run, had known it was going to happen—as if my ghost muscles held the memory of flight. I condensed myself into a tight ball and rocketed away, but not before I saw the fear in her eyes. More than likely, she would be taken somewhere to be displayed, never to see another of her kind.

Somehow, she knew.

We left, and I immersed myself in the best sort of lives, full of danger and sex, but they went sour. I flitted from one to the next, unable to find comfort.

I was followed.

On Crete in the fourth century BC, a young girl with golden eyes stood always on the periphery of public markets, watching me. When I walked toward her, she turned and fled, disappearing into the crowd.

On Barsoom, the ghost of a garroted princess floated under the surface of my villa lake, only seen from the corners of my eyes. The long strands of her purple hair became weeds that drifted under the hull, just out of reach.

In my dressing room at the Ole Opry in 1937, I kept finding items I had not left: a hairbrush, a compact, a crushed package of women’s cigarettes. When I went on stage, my knees shook and sweat stained my underarms. Every woman I brought to my dressing room said the same thing: “Not tonight. I don’t feel right tonight.”

As Oddyseus, I was haunted by visions of Penelope being ravaged by a crow-headed god. I woke in the night clutching my furs, hands and forearms cramped. My grip became weaker and weaker until I could no longer hold a weapon.

I could not forget the image of the woman, dancing—her eyes meeting mine.

I spent more and more time out of simulation, watching old movies and reading novels I have read many times. From time to time I watched Louca in the viewscreen, her twin lava-red exhausts lashing like tails from side to side, warping space in ways incomprehensible to me. I meditated. Oddly, the discontent focused me. I felt a control over my form I had never known. I changed form faster. My edge became sharper, my point harder.

I became a better knife.

“You’re different this time, Ari,” Louca told me after we finished the deliveries. “I’m going to stay with you tonight.”

Ten years we had traveled to reach Jejuno, a hazy, city-covered planet. Due to its triple suns, the world never became dark, just a greater shade of grey. We delivered seventy-three souls without incident the first day. The people of Jejuno, bipedal oxygen-breathers—to my eyes the unfortunate mating of toads and civets—stared at Louca and me in open curiosity but never opened their mouths to speak.

She wore the body of a redheaded boy. It was a coincidence that he resembled the woman I had seen above Sfari. Surely it was. Nonetheless, her appearance unnerved me.

“I am no different, Louca. Enjoy your evening.”

But she insisted on coming with me. She talked nonstop as we walked at the bottom of a canyon of skyscrapers, along maze-like alleys winding through tent cities at the buildings’ feet. Nowhere was there a road wide enough for a vehicle. Above us, however, powerful aircraft boomed, snapping the canvas tent walls and blowing trash at our feet.

She sneered. “It smells, Ari. Smells bad.” She draped a piece of purple cloth over her forearm. “Do you like this color on me, Ari?” She made me stop to watch a puppet show at the intersection of two alleys. We were watched as much as the show. “These people, Ari. They’re weird.” She stepped in a pile of dung or rotted trash. “Shit, Ari! What is this, shit?”

At the largest intersection we had yet seen, she licked her index finger and held it in the air. “Right, Ari—definitely right.”

The avenue opened up. In a few kilometers it had become a major thoroughfare of six lanes, along which segmented commuter buses puffed grey smoke from multiple rooftop exhausts. Motorcycles, two and three wheeled, weaved around the larger vehicles, wasp-engines piercingly loud.

A median separated the two lanes, widened into a park of high deciduous trees. We crossed a bridge over the road and onto a path leading inward. Instead of becoming darker, the sky grew lighter. The shadows of the trees stretched behind us, fanning out to each side and, shortly, we entered a clearing where an artificial sun shone above the treeline. Children, the first we had seen, climbed on a series of large, colorful cages.

“We should sit, Ari. Talk.” Louca sat cross-legged and patted the matted green vegetation.

I sat. I did not look into her eyes. I remembered the near-sexual reaction I had had to the dancing woman’s soul. Discussing it with the Louca—especially as she was, in a body that resembled the woman—was impossible.

“Louca, there is nothing to talk about. Everything is fine.”

“I know you’re lying.” She closed her eyes, stretched her arms as if they were wings. “How do I know? A hawk knows these things. We can see deep into the hearts of everyone, see fear and pain and desire. All of it. And you, Ari.” Her right eye popped open, fixed on me. “You’re radiating guilt. A lot of guilt.”

“What do I have to feel guilty about, Louca?”

She closed her eye again. She reached her hands out as if they were claws, grasping, and plucked an invisible thing from the air. “Ha! I’ve got it!” She cupped whatever it was in her hands, held it up to her ear, and shook it. Grinned. “It’s something to do with a woman, Ari.” Both eyes popped open and met mine. The grin disappeared. “You hurt someone. Oh, Ari, you hurt a woman.”

For a moment it felt as if I had a heart—as if something inside me had misfired. But Louca could not have known about the woman, and I calmed as I thought it through. Maybe I had hurt her. There are a thousand small and unpredictable ways to offend an unbalanced mind.

“I am sorry if I hurt your feelings, Louca. Whatever I have done, I apologize.”

She laughed and closed her eyes again. “Ari, Ari, Ari. You’re an idiot, but I still love you.”

I waited, but she would not speak again. Clearly, I was correct: I had done something to offend her. After several minutes of waiting, it also became clear that she wanted to be alone, and so I stood up to go. Louca could find her way to the shuttle; she always did.

When I looked back from the treeline, she sat in the same position, listening to the secret in her hands.

My employer’s name was Slaf’Salakem. I thought of it as a he, but I am not sure this is correct. In appearance, he was a two and one half-meter high bluegreen reptile, proportions roughly that of a man. His smooth-scaled body shined iridescently. When he smiled, blood red gums retracted from long black dagger teeth, and all four sinewy limbs ended in sickle-shaped claws.

His replacement, whom I also think of as male, is only broadly similar—reptilian surely, but large muscled and slow, peg-toothed. Still, I think they are the same species. I would rather picture one annihilating race than several.

I write this and it sounds ridiculous, as if I still have hope.

And if my description of them seems comical, somewhat cartoonish, then I have failed to describe them properly. Beyond their general appearance, I know almost nothing about the race that destroyed Earth. Overall, I found that I was not curious—that I did not want to know. How could a man cope with the loss of an entire planet, everything he has ever known?

Knowing our destroyers will not make the tragedy easier to handle.

After freeing me from the prison of my projection cube, Slaf’Salakem had told me what his people had done, what I was, and what I was to do.

In perfect English, he told me, “Your chief value is predictability, Arihant. You will do as you are told. Never forget that you are my pet.”

He introduced me to Louca—in suspended animation, wearing the body I assume she had lived in on Earth—and seemed to speak with a touch of affection. “She is crazy. She tried to bite me, can you believe? Of course, I will remove that memory. But the craziness—I will not remove the craziness. I would have her no other way.” He ran a clawed hand over her face. “She needs to be quick and strong. We have cargo others envy.”

He glanced at me. “Report anything unusual—anything—to me. Initially, you will travel known, generally safe routes. You will become used to routine, and what constitutes a problem. I want to know if she becomes unstable. Tell me you understand.”

“I understand,” I said.

There were so many questions I did not ask. Once, I had a family. I might have attempted to free them. I did not even try. Then, I was simply grateful to be free.

My only questions were, “Why have us do this? Why not one of your own people?”

My new employer had shown me the first of his rare smiles. “My people are too self-centered, good conquerors and bad nurturers. Other species we have tried on occasion, but the situation is much the same. No one wants to lose decades traveling the void. Though we paid well, we could not guarantee delivery. Too many factors in deep space. Sometimes violence is called for. Through eons of trial and error, we have found that no one protects the souls of the dead better than their own people.”

We delivered seven souls the next day. Louca was quiet and spoke nothing of our interaction the previous evening. I was happy to let it rest. I had thought about my conduct and was unable to fathom what I had done to offend her. It embarrasses me to admit, but I also considered briefly the possibility that Louca had in fact read my mind and seen the dancing woman.

Before we stepped into the shuttle—nearly home without incident—she reached out to grab my arm.

“Ari,” she said, and frowned as her hand passed through my shoulder. It had been a while since she had tried to touch me. “Ari,” she repeated, eyes wide, moving her hand back and forth in my chest. “Why, you’re a ghost!”

She was forgetful. I looked down at her arm, cut off at the wrist. “You are right, Louca.” I turned to enter the shuttle, but she closed her fist inside me—and I felt yet another new sensation, almost like being unable to breathe. I found that I could not move forward, so I turned back to her.

“No, Ari,” she said. “You’re a ghost right now, but you don’t always have to be a ghost. Nobody has to be a ghost. A ghost is a person with no reason to live. A hawk with clipped wings. Oh! You know what I think? I think you need to fill in your body, grow some flight feathers.”

Her eyes widened. She grinned. “No. Even better, Ari. You need to find the man who clipped your wings. Clip his wings right back.”

Eight years of dissatisfying lives, focused only through the lens of my knife meditation and the reoccurring vision of the dancing woman, passed before we touched down again.

Eight years, so easily glossed over, yet to do so is a denial of the truth, which is that the enjoyment I once took in simulated living had soured completely. Outside the simulation, I became increasingly aware of my own body. I itched—or remembered itching so vividly it seemed that I itched—and I felt hunger.

Eight years, so easily glossed over.

The planet Gratte was covered by a shallow aquamarine ocean spotted with innumerable brown islands. Louca met me in the shuttle bay, wearing the body of an Egyptian goddess, statuesque and sun-browned, hawk-headed, seven and a half feet tall.

She waved fingertips in my chest and said, “You’re still you, Ari. A ghost.” Her hooked beak did not move when she spoke. I wondered if her breath smelled of meat, of rotted fish.

“And you are still you, Louca,” I answered. “A raptor.”

One great amber eye winked.

We descended in a jacket of flame, in silence. Hammo, a walled city of dried brown clay bricks, was uninteresting, as were its people, walking on eight legs, clacking their claws and mouthparts unceasingly. The sound was maddening. After twelve deliveries—three of which oddly were pairs—the particles of my body felt jumbled. I doubted my control over them, as if my form were wavering in the hot sun.

Louca disappeared silently just after the final delivery, off to her pleasures. I climbed the wall of the city and dropped to the beach below. The clacking of claws and mouthparts died away, and I began to relax.

Lines of electric white writhed on smooth rocks below crystalline water. The sea extended to the horizon before me, broken only by humped bodies of islands too numerous to count. Close to shore, small fish and invertebrates flitted from rock to rock. A school of paddle-finned insects the size of sea turtles swam slowly just below the surface several meters out, feeding on something I could not see.

As I watched, a dark shape detached itself from a distant rock and arrowed through the water toward me. The school of insects parted, but not quickly enough. Without slowing, the dark shape’s arms darted, impaling one, two, three. Yellow gore trailed in its wake.

I waited.

He rose from the water. His body glistened. Small black eyes, set deep in an angular skull, regarded me for a moment and looked away, uninterested. He held one fist closed, slender tendrils of yellow ichor dripping from it.

“Hello, Slaf’Salakem,” I said.

I was not surprised to see him; I half suspected he would be there. I had become used to meeting him on water planets. Slaf’Salakem enjoyed one thing above all else: Hunting. It was the only personal information he shared with me. During our meetings, he made displays of skill and talked of killing. I had once confessed to him a love for hunting, though his proclivities were vastly different from mine. He never bagged his kill. Many times I witnessed him moving on without pausing to examine what he had killed.

The first time I witnessed this behavior was also the first time I remember wanting to kill Slaf’Salakem. I began trying to become a knife soon after.

“Three pairs today, Arihant,” Slaf’Salakem said. “That should please you.”

It took me a moment to understand that he was referring to the deliveries. “Why would that please me?” I asked.

He shrugged. “They are your people.” He flicked a piece of viscera from his arm. “It is better for them not to be alone, no? Your people are very communal, if I remember correctly. Very poor survival strategy in the long run.”

This was the other type of conversation I had with Slaf’Salakem. I believe he wanted to incite a reaction from me. This had always seemed the underlying purpose of our meetings—to anger me, belittle my people. Of course, now I know the truth: He was trying to keep my spirit under his heel, so that I would never consider betrayal.

“It is?” I asked.

“It is. And complicating for business. I find myself wondering if selling a pair of human souls is better for our long-term plans than selling just one. Pain is often more compelling than joy, in my experience—and usually more salable.”

His eyes met mine and flicked away again. “Then again, it is possible that this is the wrong tack, as well. Perhaps I should simply raise the price of pairs, market them like one does a breeding pair. What do you think, Arihant?”

I looked away. “How was your hunt?”

He sighed. “Too easy.” He raised the closed fist to his face and opened it. A translucent blue globe sat within. It went into his mouth whole—a flash of blood red gums and ivory teeth. “Mm. Easy, but quite delicious. There is no way to tell the difference between male and female separr, and there are far fewer females than males. One must kill a dozen or so animals before finding an ovary.”

I did not kill Slaf’Salakem that day, though I wanted to, but the anger had not focused me into a weapon. While he talked of killing, a wave a nausea I could not explain passed through me. With no stomach, no organs to speak of, nausea is surely impossible. Yet I felt it, the urge to vomit. I feared that if I did my body would fly apart and I would be unable to piece myself together again.

To keep from doing so, I fantasized about smothering Slaf’Salakem in a cloud, asphyxiating him. Thankfully, before I lost control completely, he grew bored with our interaction and dived back into the water, taking my nausea with him. Powerful strokes soon took him out of sight.

I thought then that my plan was foolishness. I could not kill Slaf’Salakem. I had been a fool to think I could, had overestimated my courage and control.

I turned my back on the sea. On the wall of the city above me stood Louca.

I held up a hand in greeting, but she did not respond. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon. Curious, I waited for a reaction, some hint at her purpose.

None was forthcoming. After several minutes—both of us standing motionless—she turned and jumped down, out of sight. I eventually followed, intent on explaining my interaction with Slaf’Salakem. As far as I knew, she was not aware of his existence, and I worried what conclusion she might have drawn from our interaction.

That night, I walked the streets of Hammo, looking for her. The alleyways and avenues were quiet, utterly deserted. I circled the city by walking on the enclosing wall, but saw no sign of Louca. Near morning, however, as the horizon began to glow and the citizens started clacking their claws, I thought I heard one of her piercing cries, far out to sea.

A guilty conscience, surely. My job is to watch Louca for signs of instability, and I had been lax. Her madness had always run along predictable paths, but if this changed she would be in danger. Slaf’Salakem would not hesitate to replace her.

When Louca and I met at the shuttle the following morning, I said nothing, hoping she would tell me what it was she had seen, or what it was she had hoped to see staring out at the ocean. She did not. The feathers on her head were dark and stiff, stuck together in spikes. I suffered a moment of doubt and wondered—If I could pluck one of her feathers and taste it, would it taste like the sea?

We walked in silence along Louca’s corridors. Before stepping into my ship, she finally spoke:

“For a second yesterday, I thought you were hunting.” She angled her head down and turned so that I stared directly into one dark eye. “For a second, I thought you were a hawk, too. I guess I was wrong. I’m disappointed in you, Ari. No, don’t say anything—it’s okay, I forgive you because you’re not as strong as me.”

She started to reach forward, but stopped centimeters from my chest. “I… Oh, Ari. I forget what you are sometimes. But don’t fret. I’m going to do something for you. Do you want me to do something for you, Ari?”

Before I could answer, she turned and left.

I wonder: What would I have said if she had not walked away?

Tava. Smoltwar. Klin-Klin. Abas. Berun. I remember the names, but not much of the places or people. Louca was twice forced to fashion modified bodies to handle the atmosphere. Once, she inhabited the body of a great clanking robot, and refused to speak. She beeped and flashed lights at me. Fortunately, we need not communicate to do our job, though I wonder if she interpreted my lack of comprehension as rudeness.

On one planet we saw nothing but the inside of a bare room. For the first time, the customer came to us, and we were not allowed our shore leave. Louca, wearing the body of an immense bat, scratched gouges in the metal walls in her rage. I worried that it might become a regular thing. Maybe we would never see the surface of another planet. I knew I could do nothing for Louca in that event. Fortunately, it seemed to be an isolated occurrence.

My relationship with Louca returned to normal. We never talked of Gratte or Jejuno.

The space between stars was silent, as always. I had a lot of time to think, lives to squander. I stopped meditating. Gradually, the dancing woman left me alone. She disappeared and for a time I convinced myself that I had forgiven myself.

Gradually, I gave up my plan for revenge.

This is not true—not entirely. I would not tell this story, otherwise. Slaf’Salakem is, after all, dead, but I am not the one most responsible. Louca has a passion for death I did not then comprehend. She is also more watchful than I knew, though I doubt she understands what she sees. She is all reaction, no forethought or reflection.

The oceans of Xhef were nothing like the shallow, friendly sea of Gratte. Deeper and colder than Earth’s waters, Xhef’s oceans had given birth to an astounding variety of marine life.

After our deliveries in the port city of Erois were completed and Louca disappeared, I watched the fishing boats unload at the docks. For several hours, the massive, six-limbed sailors of Xhef pulled no two of the same creature from their cargo holds. Toothy fish and finned reptiles of all sizes and shapes.

I was not surprised when a small boat arrived bearing a messenger. Silent, the sailor presented a slip of paper to me. On it was written, Go with him. He will take you to me.

I watched black seabirds fly as we hugged the jagged shoreline. The sky was overcast but bright, the kind of florescent white it hurts the eyes to stare into. Spires of dark gray rock, jagged and bare, rose like teeth to eat the landscape behind us. The trip to the small bay lasted less than an hour, but we lost sight of the city within minutes.

In the center of the bay was a hole. Glimpsed now and then as grey waves rose and fell, the sailor gave it a wide berth. It looked very much like a whirlpool, but did not seem to affect the currents. The hole had to be artificial. Suddenly, waves of nausea passed through me—just as they had the last time I met Slaf”Salakem.

The sailor pointed to the dark hole, and rumbled alien words.

I needed no translation. I dispersed into a cloud and floated off the deck.

Forty feet deep and ten wide, the walls of the well were black, smooth as glass. Slaf’Salakem stood on dry sand at the bottom, waiting for me. He wore an unusual garment on his torso, a harness or armored vest with two smooth silver compartments positioned over chest and upper back. His eyes followed me down. I imagine he wanted to show that he could see me, though I had not formed my body yet.

“Hello, Slaf’Salakem,” I said, organizing my particles.

He looked away, now dismissive. “Arihant. What do you think of my aquarium? Outside this temporary wall swim over five thousand species of carnivore, some no bigger than my palm and some well over fifty feet in length.”

“Are you hunting?” I asked.

He smiled an open, honest smile. He only displayed this expression when the hunting was particularly good. “Yes, I am hunting today, Arihant. Do you want to see the creature I am hunting? Good. Watch.”

Torchlight bloomed in the bay. Beyond the wall Slaf’Salakem had erected, mobile lights were moving, illuminating three long, sinuous shapes. I stared, gradually forming a picture of the creature Slaf’Salakem was to hunt. Measuring fifteen to twenty feet, it was shaped somewhat like an eel though fatter, flattened horizontally rather than vertically. Its wide mouth could not close due to the length of its teeth. It had no eyes, though I doubted it suffered much for their lack. Though it moved slowly, I knew it could move quickly if the situation demanded it.

It was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen.

The lights went out.

“They are quite intelligent,” Slaf’Salakem said. “I have observed them for days. These three females control this bay, protecting their eggs from other creatures and males of their own species with an enviably violent and cunning zeal. Alas, unprotected I am no match for even one individual creature, nor for many of her cousin species. I must protect myself with this wall, though I keep it very close to my body while hunting.”

“You have no weapon,” I observed.

He smiled again, clearly enjoying the subject. “In addition to protecting me, I can form atom-thin knives and spears from the force-field substance. Still, it is a challenging hunt. They do not die easily.” He stretched, grimacing. “And the generator packs restrict my movement. What one does for sport, eh, Arihant?”

I said nothing. I remember thinking how often Slaf’Salakem mirrored my anxieties, how often he seemed to read my soul. A knife or a spear.

“You will watch,” Slaf’Salakem said, “after I remind you of the terms of your employment. Louca has been watching me, as I am sure you are aware. I only became aware after our last meeting. She followed me, Arihant—she swam after me, chased me—and I want to know why. Beyond this, I want to know if she can be relied upon to do her job. If not, I will find someone else; perhaps I will even consider replacing you. It will not be easy to train your replacements, but I will not hesitate.”

The nausea increased. I began to feel shaky, disparate, on the verge of shuddering apart. An image of Slaf’Salakem standing over the dancing woman’s broken body flashed in my mind. I observed it as I would the real thing—from a distance, unable to move.

I knew then that if I did not act I would fail her.

“I do not know,” I said. The particles of my being halted, as if waiting for me to direct them. “I know nothing about this.”

Slaf’Salakem stared at me for a long moment before turning away. The irrational fear that he knew my thoughts returned. “Should I believe you?” he asked. He exhaled quickly, loudly. I realized that he was laughing.

He continued. “I think I should. I trust you, Arihant. I trust you because you know your chief value. You know that I will see any change in you. You have neither the personality or cunning to betray me. You are a reliable old dog. Louca, on the other hand—I have decided that she will be replaced. She is becoming a liability, and…”

I stopped listening. I now see that it is immaterial, whether or not Slaf’Salakem had been able to read my mind. It does not matter if he understood that I was gathering the courage to kill him. He had made a judgment: I was harmless.

Every molecule of my being hummed with hate. I had finally decided that death was preferable to continued slavery. No, I thought nothing of my people, the thousands of souls I had helped sell into another form of slavery. I felt hate, pure and clean. I felt free.

I condensed myself into a knife, a sharp shape, and aimed for Slaf’Salakem’s throat.

I hesitated. A second. Two seconds.

In that moment, the sky above went dark, and something entered the well. Something huge fell, screaming, wings folded to its side yet still brushing the wall. A shrill scream filled the bottom of the well, compressing my body tighter with its pressure.

Slaf-Salakem looked up and I darted forward, burying myself in the soft tissue of his throat just before Louca slammed into the ground, crushing his body beneath her.

She died, of course, along with Slaf’Salakem. If the fall was not enough to kill her, the water caving in probably was. If that also did not kill her, the creatures of the bay surely did.

Thus, Louca does not remember killing Slaf’Salakem. Her body was never recovered and her memories died on the planet Xhef. Louca-the-hawk never uploaded to Louca-the-ship. Whatever urge had compelled her to kill our employer died with her.

Or it did not. Sometimes I think she is waiting for an opportunity, still. Sometimes I catch her looking at me while we walk behind the cart on our errand. When she is in the body of a human, I almost read the look as wistful—possibly even loving. During these moments I remember my mother, my wife, my children, and I feel warmth suffuse my body, and I think about the type of being I have become. I wonder. I wonder and maybe I remember what it feels like to be a true man. Altogether, it is not a bad thing to feel.

But I cannot return Louca’s look. She is a crazy person. She needs me and in my way I need her, but it is best not to read too deeply into our relationship. It is best not to dream of being closer to her—of finding a way to travel inside her instead of so far behind. We would undoubtedly grow tired of one another, being cooped up together for such long periods.

My employer’s replacement, Slaf’Samas, arrived three weeks after Slaf’Salakem’s death. He recovered the generator packs from the bay, but no body was found. I stuck to my story. Slaf’Salakem and I had talked for a time, and then he had dismissed me.

“He died while hunting, then?” Slaf’Samas rumbled in a thick voice I struggled to understand. “He was hunting something dangerous?”

I described to him the animals that Slaf’Salakem had shown me.

“Then he was also being hunted?” Slaf’Samas asked. He wondered if this was a fair assumption.

“I think it is a fair assumption,” I answered.

It is perhaps that simple, the deception of my new employer. It is my understanding that he came into Slaf’Salakem’s position unprepared and uninformed. Certainly, he knew nothing of his predecessor’s plan to restrict the sale of human souls to pairs.

And so, I dutifully informed him of the conversation Slaf’Salakem and I had before his death. With my help, Slaf’Samas grew to understand the economic benefits. He is, if anything, more unpredictable than my former employer—quicker to anger, quicker to threats. His loathsomeness, however, is manageable. He does not hunt, nor does he draw me into conversation. He is not stupid, but he is not a sophisticated mind, either.

It is possible that I can deceive him again, win more concessions, but I do not suffer any delusions. Whatever my contribution, it will be small. Men are still slaves. Louca and I are no more than couriers.

I record these words for a posterity that will not exist.

About the Author

Zachary Jernigan

Zachary Jernigan’s first novel, No Return, is a science fiction/fantasy tale filled with sex, violence, looming middle-age angst, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes (including one capricious god). It came out from Night Shade Books in March of 2013 in hardcover and July of 2014 in paperback. Generous reviews have appeared in a lot of cool places, written by people much cooler than him.

His two critically acclaimed novels are compiled in Jeroun: The Collected Omnibus. Sometimes, he works on new stories, but mostly he listens to music and eats burritos.

Find more by Zachary Jernigan


About the Narrator

Matt Franklin

Matt Franklin is a person that exists.

Find more by Matt Franklin