Escape Pod 769: Deal
By Eris Young
Beulah wonders what it would be like to touch the Visitor. Oil-slick iridescent, it is tennis ball-sized and scaled with an animated crystalline skin—or shell—or carapace. It floats, stationary, a foot above the rug in the corner of the living room. Its surface changes by the second, rippling back and forth as if stroked by an invisible hand. If she were to run her fingers—gently, gently—over its surface, would it be keratinous, like an iguana? Or feathery? Would it be warm to the touch?
Kim is still behind her somewhere, hovering in the hallway. Get it out, was all she had said, face white as saguaro blossom in the dim mudroom.
Beulah pulled on her jacket, then pulled it off again. “Babe, I have to go to class. Can’t you—”
Kim shook her head, “Uh-uh. Please.” She had been close to tears, almost hyperventilating. Now, muffled by the wall between hall and living room, Her voice is shaky but a bit firmer.
“Is it out?”
If Beulah turns she can just see a sliver of Kim’s shoulder, her pilly cardigan, the electric pink tips of her hair. Her face is now hidden.
“It takes a minute, you know that.”
Beulah crouches, knees popping, to get a better look, steadying herself on the coffee table.
“How’d you get in here, huh?”
Beulah has not yet come across a satisfactory reason as to why a Visitor might end up so far from the ozone layer. Of course the internet is awash with theories, as to what business could one have at the top of a telephone pole or in the branches of a thorn tree, or the artificial cool of a Safeway produce section. If somebody has asked one, and it has answered, then that answer has not yet been made public.
She clears her throat and tries the standard greeting they learned in the first week of her class: a low-pitched humm that turns into a trill, downward-inflected. The visitor stays where it is, rippling skin moving as busily as ever, no discernable change. Beulah’s face heats: she might as well be talking to an insect. An insect with the capability of intergalactic travel, that can move naked in the vacuum of space. Maybe an insect is not the best metaphor.
She puffs air out through pursed lips. At least she can tell Luis she was late for Visitor Studies 110 because she was wrangling one out of her house.
“Babe?” she calls out. The old boards creak as Kim shifts her weight, “can you please bring me the foil?”
Her girlfriend’s steps speed away. Beulah, eyes still on the Visitor, sticks her hand out behind her, wiggling the fingers. The skinny cardboard box slides across the floor with a hiss. Beulah has to reach back to retrieve it. Kim’s slippers shush away. Beulah is alone with the Visitor.
The first time she and Kim saw one in person was in Tempe, at the ASU campus. Back when the state of emergency had just been lifted, when the Lattice was still a new presence in the sky, the OVR not yet established. She and Kim had been walking by the Sustainability school, where a low stage had been set up on the department steps. Two Visitors the size of exercise balls floated above it, some kind of mic array set up behind them.
Kim, whom Beulah has seen carry a bark scorpion outside in one of her shoes, flinched, her face turning the color of oatmeal. She fled across the quad and Beulah had to go find her in Starbucks later.
Beulah unrolls a couple feet of foil and shimmies it underneath the Visitor. Chapter one in her guidebook explains how to move them when they appear in inconvenient places, foil being the easiest way. But Beulah is still amazed when it works, because no one has figured out why; maybe it has to do with magnetism. Maybe Visitors just hate tinfoil.
It begins, slowly, to rise into the air. She sits crosslegged on the floor to wait. After a few minutes it reaches the height of the windowsill, and Beulah has to tilt the foil, holding it at an angle to nudge it out towards the yard. Her arms are getting tired.
Beulah had stayed behind, curious. The Visitors had left their sector and come down to sea level for a press conference: possibly the most boring setting anyone could ever see space aliens in, Beulah had thought at the time. A short Latina woman in a charcoal suit was there, too, looking at a tablet and speaking platitudes into a microphone, a long pause between each phrase.
We greet you. We have come very far. We thank you for your—he speaker stumbled a bit, your hospitality, and cooperation until now. And continuing on, from now. We look forward to working together.
Beulah had found that gesture reassuringly human, intelligible, even if the words themselves were vague. And of course, this had all been way before anyone could detect stabilising weather patterns, the drop in average temperatures, which in the last year have approached pre-industrialization levels. Too soon to notice corals re-growing, little by little.
Beulah gets to her feet and pushes the window open, letting in a puff of desert air. The Visitor, unmoved by the breeze, passes near her bare arm. The hairs there stand on end. She has to stop herself reaching out and wrapping her fingers around it. OVR guidelines suggest “avoiding physical contact”, but whether this is for human or Visitor benefit is unclear.
In the hush of the crowd on the steps, bristling with microphones, spectators, students, Beulah could hear a faint fluttering between gusts of wind and the words of the spokeswoman. Trills and stutters, rhythmic clicks. And all at once it had fit together in her head: the woman at the podium was not a spokesperson or an ambassador, but an interpreter: she was listening to the Visitors, who were speaking, and repeating their words in English. Beulah swayed, realising she had been holding her breath. The next day she had started her application for the VL training program.
The Visitor sinks gently from sight, leaving the living room still and ordinary. Beulah swings the window shut again. She should go find Kim, make sure she’s okay. She had thought Kim’s phobia—officially diagnosed as of DSM 8—was under control. Kim has encountered Visitors in the house before, once or twice, and she has been able to get them out or ignore them, their presence no more remarkable or threatening than that of a desert tarantula or a ringneck snake. Evidently, something has changed.
She should go to Kim and find out what. But it is almost quarter-to, and Beulah is already late. Kim will have gone back to her office. Her headphones will be in and she will be working.
“Babe?” she calls down the hall from the mudroom as she pulls her jacket back on, “I’m gonna go, okay?”
There is no response.
When she gets home three hours later Beulah’s mind is still buzzing with locomotive verbs and noun classes and a shit-ton of weird sounds. The instructor, Luis, a little sweaty linguistics postdoc from the University of Arizona, ten years Beulah’s junior, had started the lesson with the original contact recording, which has just been declassified.
Beulah had leaned forward in her rickety school desk, trying to catch every sound coming from the ancient classroom speakers, watching the parallel bars of waveform and spectrogram ripple across the projector screen, agile as the movement of iridescent skin.
Beulah understood, then, why it took the people at Arecibo months to figure out this burr and hiss was even language. With a clench of frustration she realised the sounds she’s been making, based on IPA transcriptions and tongue-and-mouth diagrams, are nothing like this.
Now, in the car, she is seized by an absurd flush of embarrassment, remembering her attempts to communicate with the Visitor this afternoon.
As she backs into the driveway, she practices humming while breathing in and out through her nose, a long rolled r, a voiced lateral fricative, trying to reconcile these sounds to her memory of the recording. She tries to vary her pitch. She puffs air out of her mouth and slumps back in the car seat.
V110 is the hardest she has worked since high school. She took German in college but never got to use it. Her grandma tried to teach her Yoruba for a while when she was a kid. But Visitor is nothing like Yoruba or German or any other human language. Of course it isn’t. And this is why it fascinates her, more than anything has in fifteen years. Why she has given up her stable admin job to apply to the VL training program. Why she’s sure she’d be taking V110 even without the tax rebate.
The light is on in the kitchen, Beulah’s vintage R&B playlist murmuring from the sound system. Kim is wearing boy shorts and her “sexy housewife” apron, swaying to Remember the Time, a bottle of Napa red open on the table.
Beulah pours herself a glass and lets her brain shift down a gear, easing out of the concentration she’s been sustaining since quarter to six. While Beulah relaxes, her girlfriend is restless. Kim dotes on Beulah, refilling her glass, getting up to get her ice water even though Beulah is sitting right by the freezer. Beulah feels a bit guilty letting her femme girlfriend make her dinner, like they’re playing out some internalized heteronormative fantasy, but she knows Kim is trying to make up for her freakout earlier.
This is what Kim does: she tries to make up for things. Whether she has done something wrong or not, annoyed Beulah or not, she makes gestures like these. As if she wants to show Beulah she’s still a good girlfriend, or useful, or something. As if there is some value or score or measure unknown to Beulah that she is trying to balance. Beulah doesn’t care if Kim cleans or cooks or acts domestic. But nor does she know how to stop her. And if it makes Kim feel better, who is Beulah to try?
Tonight, Kim is cooking steak, Beulah’s favourite: an expensive brand of mycoprotein that browns on the outside and gets that charcoal flavour when you grill it. WholeFoods doesn’t deliver, so this is a good sign: Kim has left the house this afternoon.
But Beulah should not have to worry whether Kim has left the house today. She should not have to watch Kim’s hands as she flips the steaks, to see if they are shaking. Not since the very early days of their relationship, before Kim even transitioned, has Beulah had to look at Kim’s inner arms and be relieved to see no new marks there. The sinking realisation comes, that she is falling into an old, familiar pattern of watchfulness, that there is something going on with Kim that is more than just a phobia. She scrubs her hands over her face, digging her fingertips into her eyelids until she sees pops of light.
“Kim, babe. Are you okay?”
Kim stops fidgeting with the steaks, speaks with her back turned. Her voice is carefully even. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, like, you seemed pretty shaken up earlier.”
Kim turns to face her at last,
“Oh. Yeah. I was—it startled me, you know?”
“Is there, uh, anything else going on?”
How to explain why she is worried? How to explain that she knows phobias don’t just get suddenly worse out of nowhere. That she saw Kim’s visceral reaction, sees how anxious she still is, four hours later. How to explain why this frightens her?
Because, as expected, Kim’s face closes like a blind being lowered.
Beulah sighs. She won’t get an answer. Not tonight. This has happened before: after a fight with her shitty parents, or the loss of a reliable client. Sometimes she tells Beulah what’s up, and sometimes she doesn’t and handles it on her own. Beulah has made herself okay with that. Has told herself Kim can handle it on her own. But she doesn’t really know.
A little spike of annoyance and frustration surprises Beulah. Why won’t Kim just tell her what’s wrong? In the past, when she has opened up, it has taken a lot to draw it out of her. And Beulah is too tired to do that work tonight. Kim knows that she can come to her if she needs something. She must know, and that will have to be enough. Beulah lets her girlfriend pour her another glass of wine.
Beulah does insist on cleaning up and taking out the trash, while Kim relaxes on the couch. She gathers up all the packaging and food waste from dinner and takes it to the recycling bins in the mudroom. The paper one is overflowing so she scrunches the top of the bag and lifts it out. There’s a letter stuck to the bottom of the can; an official-looking envelope bearing the logo of the medical center in Phoenix. This is the place Kim used to go for her endocrinologist appointments, but as far as Beulah knows Kim hasn’t had one of these in a while; she picks up her prescriptions at the Rite-aid down the street. It occurs to Beulah, her heart beating a little faster, that she cannot actually remember the last time Kim went to the doctor.
Early in their relationship, when Kim was still seeing a roulette wheel of psychiatrists and surgeons and insurance people every month, they had come to an unspoken agreement not to talk about “medical stuff”. As long as Kim seemed to be keeping it together, Beulah wouldn’t bring it up. And Kim, for her part, did seem to be keeping it together. With her transition underway, her prescriptions worked out, her appointments much reduced in frequency, there was no need to discuss any of it.
So the letter feels like picking up a rock and finding something nasty underneath—something she must have known, on some level, was there. Before she can think about it, Beulah rips open the envelope, standing there in the mudroom. She tilts it towards the light coming from the hall.
It is dated four months ago. It has Kim’s deadname at the top. It is a request that she come in for a biopsy, of a mole on her thigh. The name of an oncologist is mentioned. Over the roaring in her ears Beulah wonders, in a muffled way, which mole it is.
Back in the living room, Kim’s smile dies as she sees Beulah’s face. She sits up, tucking her legs beneath her. When her eyes stray to the envelope in Beulah’s hand her face goes from blank to wooden.
“Why didn’t you tell me.”
“I straight-up asked you, Kim. I asked you what was up.” Beulah can hear her voice rising, but Kim’s stays low, quiet.
“Have you gone?”
Kim opens and shuts her mouth. Her eyes flit, looking everywhere but at Beulah. She gives a little shake of her head.
“Have you made the appointment?”
“Sit down, please. Beulah.”
The letter ends up on the coffee table between them. Kim can’t seem to look at it. Her face is very pale. She presses the tips of her long fingers down onto the base of her wine glass until the joints turn white. Beulah’s knee jiggles up and down.
“Kim. It could be serious. You have to go to the doctor.”
“I don’t—” Kim’s throat works, her voice sticking and breaking, as if it is a physical effort to talk about this. “I would rather not.”
“Kim, look at me. It could be cancer. What do you mean you would rather not go?”
“This!” Kim bursts out, “This is why I didn’t tell you. Because I knew you wouldn’t understand. You don’t get what it’s like—”
“Yeah, no. I don’t,” Beulah speaks over her, “I don’t get it. Because you won’t explain it to me. How is this different from, like, an endo appointment?”
Kim presses her lips into a thin line at the mention of the endocrinologist,
“So what’s wrong? It’s their job to help you. They’ll fix it. It’s what doctors do.”
“Yes, I know, Beulah,” Kim snaps, “I’m not a fucking idiot. I know, I know, I know.”
“Well then what is the goddamn problem?”
Beulah can’t help shouting, even as it makes Kim flinch. It hurts. She knows there are things in Kim’s past that are painful for her to talk about. But if she doesn’t share them with Beulah then what is the fucking point? Does Kim trust her so little?
There is a tense silence.
“You have to go to the doctor.”
“Look. I—” Kim looks at the ceiling, blinking rapidly, “I can’t have this conversation right now.”
“Oh yeah? When are we gonna have it? Are we gonna have it tomorrow? A year from now? Are we gonna have it when you’re—?” Beulah can’t finish this sentence. Kim gets up from the couch without looking at Beulah, and leaves the room.
Beulah stands on the porch, even though it’s freezing outside. The desert moon is very bright and lights up the prickly pear and bougainvillea of their xeriscaped yard, the neighbor’s chainlink fence, the white gravel pathway running around to the driveway.
In the clear light Beulah can just about see the Lattice, way up in the lower stratosphere. An isometric grid of evenly-spaced Visitors, it circles the entire planet, like a shell, or a net bag. All she can make out from the ground is a soft shimmer, like thin fabric laid over her eyes.
Beulah imagines the work going on up there, that has caused UV levels to fall steadily over the last half-decade, bringing worldwide melanoma rates down with them. She breathes deeply—in, out—sinuses burning with the dry, frosty air. As she watches, a faint ripple emanates from a point in the Lattice far above. The ripple expands in a spreading circle until it is lost to sight.
Three weeks on from their fight, Beulah and Kim have not once discussed the letter from the oncologist. Kim has been sleeping in the office. Beulah reaches out to her, trying to squeeze her hand in passing or give her a massage or kiss her, but Kim moves away, brushes off her fingers. She hunches her body in on itself in a way that is worse for how familiar it is.
Beulah practices her sounds constantly, her fricatives and nasals. Listens to the first contact recording, over and over. Banging her head against the wall of its unintelligibility. If Beulah can learn to talk to literal space aliens, maybe she can figure out why her girlfriend would rather get cancer than go to the doctor.
The recording is supposed to be simple. A message of greeting—which has become the standard one taught in V110—and of intent to begin some kind of process. This process doesn’t have a direct translation, but seems to refer to whatever function the Lattice is accomplishing that drones, UAVs and sensors haven’t, in five years, been able to identify.
Like the process, the gift the Visitors have given humanity, the unasked for help that is somehow reversing the greatest crisis of the 21st century, the recording is a black box. According to Luis, the language is polysynthetic, meaning that all the meaning in a phrase can be expressed as a single long word. The recording consists of two words, sounding less like speech and more like radio static. An old-fashioned dial-up tone. The turning of a bicycle’s wheel.
The Visitors are technologically advanced: far moreso than humans, or they couldn’t have got here, couldn’t do whatever it is they are doing in the atmosphere. Some of the elicited data refers to concepts unfamiliar to humanity, like the process, but we know it is scientific. Nothing at all has been discovered about Visitors’ social or kinship structures. If they have gender or even sex, though Beulah has found reams of speculation on Reddit, and in the clickbait articles her mother sends her. There are essential things missing, things it would make no sense to keep classified. Concepts and structures that would be taught in any other beginners’ language class on Earth.
So when twenty-five-year-old class clown Scott says, “Hey Luis, how do you say Where’s the bathroom? in Visitor?” Beulah isn’t surprised to see Luis push his glasses onto the top of his head, like he always does when he’s about to launch into an explanation.
“Oh, yeah, Scott, that’s a great question actually.”
Scott looks antsy, like he really does have to go to the bathroom, and some of the students are scrolling on their phones or whispering to each other. But Beulah is holding her breath, waiting for Luis to continue.
“One of the first things I like to elicit when I’m doing fieldwork, as soon as I can, is interrogatives. Since there are a bunch of different ways languages do them, they can teach you a lot about a language’s structure. And you can use them to elicit more data.
“But as good as they are at, uh, what they do, Visitors are funny about some things. One of the things they haven’t taught us yet, is how to ask a question. The best we’ve been able to do is to say an unfinished declarative sentence, and wait for them to fill in the answer. And sometimes they fill in the blank, and sometimes they don’t.”
A cold finger draws itself down the length of her spine, as Beulah thinks about what it is to not be able to ask a question, or make a demand. To be faced with someone who had given you a gift, who held the key to your entire future, your survival. To not have the tools to ask that person why. What they want in return. To know that, whatever it is they want, you cannot afford to say no.
Kim must realise something has to change, too. Because when Beulah sits down on the couch next to her with two mugs of tea, she doesn’t get up and walk away. She wraps her hands around her mug, fidgeting with the little ‘Lipton’ tag at the end of the string.
But now Beulah has worked up to having this conversation, she has no idea what to say, where to begin. She can tell Kim is nervous. But she seems determined, too. She is tired, and beautiful, and Beulah wants to kiss away the dark circles under her eyes.
Kim surprises her by speaking first.
“I’ve never told you what—what it was like. When I was first transitioning. When we had just met.”
Beulah holds her breath, sits perfectly still.
“It was… hard. The appointments were hard.”
Kim takes a deep breath and then speaks all at once, as if she’s diving into a pool.
“And, after I recovered from surgery, I went to see my doctor,” she swallows and says, haltingly, “for a checkup. He—” her voice cracks, and as she draws breath to continue, Beulah stops her.
“Kim.” Beulah reaches out and takes both of Kim’s hands. Kim doesn’t pull away. “Kim, honey. It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry.” Kim’s voice is tight. She shakes her head, tears of frustration welling in her eyes.
“I’m sorry too, baby, and that’s not your fault. Whatever happened, if it hurts you to talk about it, I don’t need to know. When—if you want to talk about what happened, we can. But we don’t have to.”
Kim’s eyes flick away and back, and she nods. Beulah continues, as delicately as she can,
“I know you know that you have to go to the doctor.”
Kim stiffens, and Beulah tenses in sympathy. She watches Kim’s face like the window of a house, to see if she will close herself off. But she doesn’t. Beulah keeps going,
“I know you know what you need to do. But I also want you to know that, whatever you need from me, I’m gonna try and give it to you. It doesn’t matter what I know or don’t know. That’s not what this is about. You don’t owe me anything. Ever.”
Kim tries to smile, but her face breaks, instead. She shuts her eyes and the tears begin to fall.
“I know, honey. I am too. It’ll be okay.”
She wraps her arms around Kim, and Kim lets her. They sit in silence together for a while, Beulah rubbing Kim’s back, feeling the texture of Kim’s hair between her fingers.
It is August. The air shimmers as Beulah walks to her car after class. This evening is Kim’s last laser treatment, and they’re getting sushi in Phoenix afterwards, to celebrate. The sun is starting to go down, and out of the corner of her eye Beulah catches a glimpse of a dark shape. A Visitor, the size of a watermelon, is hovering at the bottom of an open stairwell across the quad. Beulah’s feet carry her towards it before she realises what she is doing.
It is rising gently into the air, passing between the second and third landings. Beulah scrambles up the concrete steps, which curl around the central space the Visitor is moving in. If it is aware of her presence it does not let on, only rises steadily.
She is out of breath by the time she gets to the upper landing, and it is hard for her to get the phrase out. She shouts, wheezes, stutters out the first thing that comes into her head, no time for embarrassment:
Airspeed-mode-relative-axial tilt-low! Temperature-local-iterative-adhere-average!
“The weather has been good lately.”
The Visitor hesitates. The rhythm of its skin changes, just a bit. The top section reverses, pushing aside scales at the sides, and everything rotates a half turn towards her, then back again. It is not windy out, so she can hear the distinct flutter and series of clicks this movement creates. This is a word, a phrase. It has spoken to her, she is sure beyond any doubt.
And she has no idea what it said.
It begins to move again.
“Fuck,” she gasps. She is giddy, laughing, even. On impulse she sticks her hand out, closing the distance between her and the Visitor just before it rises out of reach.
Her hand meets it at its bottom, moves up through the body from below. The little hairs on the back of her hand stand up and her skin tingles with goosebumps. The Visitor’s surface wrinkles around the shape of her fingers, which pass through it and out the other side. It has no texture at all.
By Mur Lafferty
Writing aliens that are truly alien is hard. We all know that most of the original Star Trek aliens were humanoid, had a non-human forehead or ears, and were pretty much based on Earth cultures. Please, Klingons, tell me about your honor again.
But people love those kinds of aliens.
When wanting to make definitely alien aliens, the difficulty comes with knowing where the perfect line of just alien enough. In a lot of stories, animals are more alien than the aliens when it comes to our ability to understand them. But we learn body language and the sounds they make, which is pretty much what’s going on here.
While I do love me some alien stories, the true story here is the inability to communicate, both with the real alien and the alien space between Beulah and Kim. In one situation, the language isn’t there yet. In the other, they are stopped by emotions of fear and frustration. I’ve heard people say we’re shouldn’t discover (or be discovered) by alien life until we can figure out our own problems between us, but communication challenges will happen no matter who or what you are with, until we can get mind meld powers, and then when we see others’ true Ids, we will never communicate again. Probably. I don’t know why that got dark. Blame January.
About the Author
Eris Young is a queer, transgender writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction, based in Scotland. Their work has appeared in magazines including Shoreline of Infinity and Fusion Fragment, as well as anthologies such as Uncanny Bodies from Luna Press and We Were Always Here from 404 Ink. Their first nonfiction book, They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary Gender Identities, was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing in 2019. They were a 2020 recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award.
About the Narrator
Sandra Espinoza is a New York born and raised voice actress. Bilingual with a background in English literature and writing, she’s always been fascinated with what people were saying and the broad palette of ways to say it. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she’s 180’d so hard that she’s finally in them and never leaving. Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Brawl Stars, Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games point-and-click adventure game Unavowed. Get to know her at dustyoldroses.com and follow on Twitter and Facebook @dustyoldroses.