by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Theme of Absence, June 2016
Standing in the hospital lobby, Daniel spread his hands over the shirt covering his flat belly. He tried to imagine the alien life growing inside him, but it didn’t seem real. He didn’t feel any different than he had a week ago.
A couple women walked by Daniel, chatting with each other. The base’s hospital was otherwise quiet at this time of evening. Daniel turned back toward the row of glass doors that led out to the dry, desert air of Eridani Mu, wanting to leave the hospital. The buildings of the human base were under the shadow of twilight now, but the majestic spires of the alien city in the distance were still lit by the pink-and-orange tinged sunset. In only five years since the humans had crashed here, those spires had grown and stretched until they dwarfed the human base. The aliens’ work was awe-inspiring. Unlike humans, they were naturally suited to this environment. Their technology and progress far outpaced what humans could do on their own, stuck on this backwater world.
Daniel put his hand to his belly again. He tried to remind himself of why he was here. He wanted to be a part of the progress on this world in any way he could be. No matter how strange.
Another man walked through the glass doors into the hospital lobby. “Are you here for the birthing class?” he asked Daniel.
“Yeah,” Daniel said.
“Do you know where it is? This is my first time.” The man laughed nervously. “I guess that’s obvious. If it weren’t my first time, I wouldn’t need the class, would I?”
“I guess not,” Daniel said. “Want to look for it together?”
The man talked with Daniel as they walked through the halls of the hospital looking for the class. His name was Mike, and like Daniel he was the last one in his company to be impregnated. “Most of the guys are on their second or third time,” Mike said. “One woman, I think she’s up to five. Talk about dedication!”
“No kidding,” Daniel said.
“I could see they were starting to wonder why I wasn’t doing my part. We’ve got to earn our meal packs somehow, right?”
When they found the room, it was crowded with people. Their ages ranged from graying hair with a few wrinkles down to one girl whose angelic face looked so young that Daniel would’ve sworn she was fourteen. Except she was here. There were children on base, but the rules were very strict. The doctors couldn’t properly repair bodies that were too young or too old. The girl must have been eighteen, at least.
Chairs were set out in a big circle around the room. Daniel took a chair beside Mike. Daniel didn’t feel like talking, but Mike started chatting right away with a couple women who introduced themselves as Lorelei and Andrea. They looked like sisters.
“I’ve never felt anything else so relaxing,” Lorelei said.
“It was like a really great, week-long nap!” Andrea said with a deep belly chuckle.
Lorelei swatted Andrea on the arm and said, “Oh, you keep saying that! But, you know it was so much more.”
Mike leaned forward and said, “It was sensual, wasn’t it?”
Andrea blushed, but Lorelei nodded, touching her fingers to her neck.
As Daniel watched, he realized that he’d unconsciously put his fingers to his own neck as well. He remembered the pinching sensation as the larval body had grabbed him, reaching behind his head with an amorphous pseudopod and latching on. It grabbed his neck first, but then it drew itself against him, enveloping his body and wrapping around him. He could taste its flesh against his lips, briny like oysters or mussels. It pressed against his eyes, holding them shut. All of it felt in the darkness behind closed eyes.
The visceral nature of the memory struck Daniel so suddenly, he gasped.
Mike laughed; Lorelei smiled; but Andrea caught Daniel’s eye. Daniel realized that she’d been joking about her experience of being impregnated, because she felt the same way he did: it had been too personal to talk about openly.
A nurse wearing green scrubs called for quiet and started the class with an outline of what they’d be doing — a short presentation, breathing exercises, a video of an actual birth, a break with snacks, and then a visit from a special guest. The nurse handed out half a dozen or more pamphlets and information sheets on different colors of paper.
Daniel flipped through the papers and pamphlets as the nurse, along with several assistants, gave their presentation. The papers mostly had medical information — how to take care of yourself during the recovery, post-partum groups to join, etc. The presentation was about the warning signs that your birth was about to begin and making sure that you made it to the hospital early enough. Apparently, it could be really dangerous if you didn’t.
They weren’t talking about what everyone wanted to hear: the lifecycle of the aliens. But whispers passed through the audience, telling hushed rumors of one of the aliens visiting the hospital. Maybe they’d all get to meet one and finally see the adult phase. Only the initiated and the few who worked directly with the aliens got to see them.
During the breathing exercises, everyone stretched out on the floor in the middle of the circle of chairs. Over all the funny breathing patterns, Daniel heard Mike and Lorelei talking quietly about how exciting it was to finally feel like they were part of the amazing changes happening on their planet.
Daniel pictured those spires in the distance — at once mechanical and organic — twisting their way into the sky. He tried to imagine the aliens that must live there — not the larval stage that had impregnated him but the mature phase of their lifecycle. The child growing inside him would live in those spires someday, build them taller, make this world strong and powerful. They would regain space travel. Probably faster travel than had stranded them here in the first place. Other planets would envy the nation that humans and aliens were building together here.
“All right, everyone,” one of the nurses called out. “It’s time for the video now. Back to your chairs.” Once everyone was settled, the nurse said, “Now, I know this video can be kind of shocking. Graphic, even. But, I want you to remember that this is completely natural. This is the way that our two species were always meant to coexist. And, besides, we have cutting edge doctors here to take care of you. There’s nothing to fear.” The nurse started the video.
On screen, a woman lay on a hospital table, naked except for white sheets draped over her upper and lower body. Blue-gowned, face-masked doctors tended her. Her breathing was heavy but not erratic.
“Notice the breathing pattern?” the nurse said, standing beside the video. “Just like we practiced.”
The woman’s breathing sped up, faster and faster. Her eyes were wide. If Daniel hadn’t known better, he’d have thought there was terror in them. Horror. The skin on the woman’s chest, just below her ribcage, began to bulge and crawl. The flesh rippled, darkened, and then — the students in the birthing class all gasped — melted away, leaving a gaping hole in her abdomen. An infant nestled between the glistening pink of the woman’s shockingly revealed organs. Its face was all eyes — faceted and silvery — and its body was all tentacle-like arms and hands and tiny, tiny fingers. Its multitude of fingers wiggled and stretched. Then the creature skittered out of its hold in an explosion of cracking sounds and disappeared off-screen.
Ragged, shrill screams emerged from the woman in the video, but the doctors weren’t fazed. Instantly, they went to work, mending the hole in the woman’s abdomen with a prepared stretch of lab-grown skin, gleaming metal tools, white gauze, and a pale purple foam.
“Look at that professionalism!” the nurse running the video said.
One of the assistants, without looking away from the video, added, “A few broken ribs is completely normal, but they heal fast.”
The video cut to a new scene: the woman who had been lying naked on the hospital table was sitting up, dressed in a hospital gown, and smiling. Someone from off camera asked, “How do you feel?”
The woman spoke slowly, easily but slightly slurred, like she was drugged. Or maybe just really tired. “Great,” she said. “Never better.”
“Your offspring has already made it to the alien city,” the voice off-camera said.
The woman’s smile widened. “God,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I wish I could be there with it.”
The voice off-camera said, “In all the ways that matter, you are. That city is a monument to their love for us. The food they export to us daily is a tribute to what you — and every other host — has done for them.”
There were tears in the woman’s eyes. She tried to speak but was overcome with emotion and could only look away, brushing at the gleams in her eyes.
The video ended.
“Does anyone have any questions before our break?” the nurse asked.
Lorelei raised her hand. “How long does she have to wait before it’s safe to do it again?”
“Eager!” the nurse said. “I like it. Our doctors ask that people wait several months to let their bodies heal. Since people heal at different rates, it’s best that you check in with your doctor and get a green light before signing up for another ovum.”
Daniel remembered his ovum: large enough to hold an adult human curled into the fetal position; translucent, milky white; and, warm and sticky to the touch. He’d heard that they’d found clusters of the ovum numbering in the thousands when they first started mining this planet after the crash. Back before the spires. The ovum were desiccated and lifeless when they were found underground, but exposure to the surface atmosphere revitalized them.
The first impregnations were accidents. Now, you had to undergo a health exam and sign medical waivers to be assigned an ovum. All that paperwork and, then, as soon as he was in the room alone with it… The pseudopod had burst the ovum’s milky white skin, tearing its way out so fast. He barely saw the larva before its amorphous body pressed against him, blocking out everything except the sensation of its soft flesh and the subtle taste of shellfish.
Daniel’s heart began racing. His chest felt funny.
All through the break, Daniel watched the others, talking excitedly, planning parties with each other after their births, exclaiming over the brief glimpse of the alien they’d seen in the video, speculating about how many years it would be before the aliens had space travel, and they could all take to the stars again. He knew he should join them, but he couldn’t muster the enthusiasm. He couldn’t help feeling frightened and shaken by what he’d seen.
“Okay, everybody, break over!” one of the nurses sang out. “Time for our very, very special guest!”
Another nurse went to a door in the back of the room and said before opening it, “I know that you’ve all been dying to meet the aliens we share this planet with… well, let me introduce you to one of their queens.”
Everyone fell silent.
“Of course, there are many queens over in the alien city, but this one has come here today especially to meet you!” The nurse opened the door, and the darkness behind it writhed. A creature stepped forward that was almost too tall for the room. Its body stooped, curving like a question mark. Multitudinous appendages — arms and tentacles of all lengths and sizes — lined its sides asymmetrically, and its face was the same cluster of faceted, silvery eyes.
“Oh my god,” Lorelei said. Other voices around the room echoed hers. At first, Daniel thought they were horrified. He was. But, then, he realized they were expressing awe. Why didn’t they see a monster? Was this what was growing inside him? Inside all of them?
Andrea held her hands to her belly like she was clutching a precious treasure. Lorelei was saying beautiful over and over again. Mike, at least, looked worried, but he said, “I guess it’s normal to feel nervous.” He tried to share a laugh with Daniel, but Daniel didn’t feel like laughing.
A woman on the other side of the room stood up from her chair and shouted the words that Daniel was thinking, “What’s wrong with you people! Can’t you see this is a monster?”
The nurses rushed toward the woman, trying to quiet her down. “Please, ma’am,” one of the nurses entreated. “You’re upsetting the queen!”
The woman struggled against their restraining arms. She kept shouting. “We’ve been tricked! We’ve all been tricked!”
Daniel wanted to help the woman, but he noticed the queen moving. Terror froze him in his seat.
The woman pointed at the alien queen and screamed, “Parasite! What have you done to us?”
The queen’s arms and tentacles spread wide, looming over them. She stepped toward the screaming woman, reaching out to her with those mismatched rows of limbs.
The woman shrieked and grabbed a chair. She threw it at the queen, but a long tentacle, surprisingly strong, whipped it out of the way. The queen’s massive body hunched up and then sprang forward. The queen pounced on the woman, immobilizing her with winding tentacles and more restraining arms than the nurses had. Faceted eyes large enough to reflect the woman’s entire face stared her down, mere inches away from her own scared eyes.
Daniel smelled perfume in the air like sea foam, tangy and fresh. The woman’s screaming stopped, and she relaxed into the queen’s embrace.
The nurses took the woman and helped her, limp and calm, out of the room. The queen settled back into her curved posture; her many limbs folded across her body. Daniel wanted to demand an explanation. He wanted to grab a weapon and point it at the queen. But he felt the presence in his belly — the alien presence — holding him down like an anchor. No matter what he did, he would still have one of that growing inside him.
Daniel wanted to rip it from his belly and strangle the infant with its own tentacles, rip off its arms, and leave it tattered into shreds. He seethed inside. What was wrong with everyone? All the people who’d done this before? All the workers who transported goods from the alien city? Had everyone succumbed to these monsters?
They’d either succumbed or been made to like that woman. Nothing was worth this. He’d rather starve on this rock than barter his body for the food these monsters could grow and the technology they could build.
“We’re sorry for the disturbance,” one of the nurses said. “That was clearly a very unstable individual, and we have people helping her. Now, if we can move on, I’d like you all to breathe deeply, put your hands on your bellies, and I’m going to guide you through a meditation.”
Daniel breathed deeply, and the sea foam scent in the air filled his lungs. Had the smell grown thicker? He needed a plan, but the droning voice of the nurse and the soothing ocean smell dulled him. He couldn’t think clearly. He couldn’t plan. He felt his worries floating away.
“Now picture the life growing inside you,” the nurse said.
Daniel pictured it — unmatched arms, tentacles, faceted eyes and all — deep in his belly. He felt it writhing.
And it was beautiful.