Peter Morrison

CAUTION: Contact with aliens may damage your health.

The door swings closed behind Lei Bliley, the latch falling into place with a click; she turns the key in the lock, listens to the home security systems come online. Then she stands for a moment, practicing breathing, something that at this moment remains more of a challenge than she is particularly happy about. She has been out walking, exploring the city, looking at the world anew in light of her recent travels. General Oscar Morse had wanted to keep her under lock and key deep in the basement of the facility at all times. But the psychiatrist, Dr Angelique Charles, had argued, insisting that Lei was scarred, that it was a miracle she had survived, or at least had survived as intact as she had, and that to cage her would be the final straw. Dr Charles had insisted that under those conditions Lei would break.

None of the others had survived - Hounjet, Panocha and Iteif were all dead, fragments of bodies returned through the gate; if they wanted to get anything out of Lei then they would need to take infinite care of her body and mind. Lei tended to feel that she would have preferred that they hadn't had that conversation in front of her, even if she was thankful for the space that it granted her.

Something out there is tracking her, something out there knows where she is, at least.
The trip through the Gateway changed everything; anything she can tell them is important, Lei understands that, but her memories are fragmented, and disturbing. Nevertheless, Lei doesn't want to be treated like a broken child, even if that is how she feels sometimes, though very little of that is what you would call her fault. The space and patience are essential to her wellbeing, that is clear to her every time she tries to move, let alone go out.

It's not as if she isn't still being monitored 24 hours a day - the chip they injected under the skin of her forearm, the shadows that follow her through the streets, shadows housed next door so they are only minutes away at any time. She certainly appreciates Dr. Charles' efforts on her behalf, for all the compromises and balances that have resulted. The fact that her memories of what happened are fractured, are far from complete, is something which enrages General Morse. She can tell, even if he does his best to keep his temper under control. Those memories which do linger of what happened are far from pleasant. Her dreams are filled with flashes of the first contact, of her attempts to communicate, of the screams of her colleagues. What uncertain horror had made such professional veterans of space and Exploratory Division missions so hysterical, so distressed?

Lei was a language specialist, finishing her doctorate at Tokyo University, when she was recruited by a branch of military intelligence and research. The Space Orbital and Extra Dimensional Exploratory Directorate was a department she had never heard of before, but then it wasn't exactly an area that she had had previous dealings with. She was recruited, sworn to secrecy and then they had told her the absolute bare minimum. She had hesitated; the surgery that was proposed was extensive, and not something they had mentioned on first approach, waiting till they had her tied up with contracts and conspiracies. They offered more money than she could ever dream of, and then there was the prestige of being an expert in a new language, one of the few people on the planet to be able to speak an alien tongue. There had been others before her, who had failed to fulfil the mission requirements, though she had never been told in what way they had failed to live up to those requirements.

So she had signed up, and started to learn the language through intensive sessions, from documents, from the transcripts of dreams. It had seemed absurd to her, the very idea that the alien language had been derived from dreams! Never had she thought to ask, where do these dreams come from, who are these people afflicted by dreams of alien worlds, and what is it like to experience these things? She took it for granted, the transcripts which she was provided with, the notes supplied without context.

Now she has become one of those who dream nightly of horrors; part of this is clearly the memories she has buried from her visit, part of it is that her brain has been opened, and something out there is transmitting directly into her mind every night. Something out there is tracking her, something out there knows where she is, at least. That is how she feels, the impression she has, lying there alone at night, drenched in sweat, waiting to see if tonight is the night he comes for her.

But she had done her job, went through the motions, asked no questions, knowing she would get no answers, and gradually over time she had cracked the language. The syntax had been torturous to learn, word structures beyond anything she had previously encountered, a language that was truly alien, but as time passed she could actually make some sense of the patterns.

"Bath," she calls, listening for the initial, heavier splash, lessening as the water starts to collect. They have housed her in an apartment with all the latest facilities, in of one of the city's towers - a government-owned office building with accommodation located securely at the top - with a breathtaking view if she were to stand at the window and look out. Certainly it has everything she could ask for, and more. She has taken steps to reduce the input from the building's AI - she has no desire for machine communications. The irritating voice constructed from a bank of recorded words, with its faux concern for her health has had to be switched off, feeling too invasive. With her unquiet thoughts she craves silence, she craves peace. She tugs at the first straps, taking her time as they come free, buckle by buckle. She has to handle everything with care, the slightest hurry and she would bruise, the slightest scrape and she would bleed. They did things to her body before they travelled, engineered her for a different gravity, tweaked systems to breathe different atmospheres. They had told her that this was the first planet they had discovered with this new technology. The planet was called Slu gishgo Dhom; she had told them that, derived from the words she had studied, Lei having gone further with the language than those who had gone before her.

While they boasted about the discovery, they never revealed how they had discovered the gateway, the world on the other side - how many failed explorations had there been? How many failed trips, dead ends, and false leads had there been? What kind of probe systems were they using in order to collect the kind of data that was at the root of the work they did to her? Part of her had wondered how reliable was this data? That was, like everything else, a secret. So she never said anything out loud, surrounded as she was by people who seemed very convinced of the knowledge they had, and the power that not sharing gave them. Though now Lei had her suspicions that certain things had an inevitability of their own - perhaps there had been no other explorations, perhaps before the dreams of that planet leaked into human heads there had been nothing? Over-confident bastards, Lei cursed. How many of them would suffer the way that she did now? How many them would be tormented and devoured by the chilling sight of the alien? Each night she dreamt the answer to those questions – many would suffer.

She hangs the torso harness in its charger by the door. Flexes too-long fingers, to work out the feeling of stiffening. Still not used to the way her skin was discoloured by alien skies, the burnt out red sun tinted her an ash grey, something else to add to the list of things they wanted to sample and prod - collecting flakes of skin and hair samples, daily syringes of blood. She runs one hand across the other, runs a hand to her elbow, flexes again, and another stroke. Constantly convinced she can brush the changes away, or at least feel the difference beneath her finger tips. She can't, it feels like flesh, just flesh. She winces, closes her eyes, takes slow abrasive breaths. The latest spike of pain flashes through her, she rubs her temples. Her skull feels too close to the surface, somehow warped and out of shape. It seems as though veins pulse there, each circuit a physical pain, so that Lei suspects her head will implode at any moment.

She had been changed too much, what has she now become? Human, or alien, or some absurdist hybrid, some missing link found between the two? Is it any wonder that people stare at her as she walks through the bustle of the city streets? Her warm ash grey skin, intense red eyes. They made her too tall, too thin, and now she needs the exo-harness in order to walk any distance. The frame keeping her upright even during the worst of the pain. Through streets awash with rain and neon, she feels now as though every day is an alien encounter. These strange humans, flesh she used to know, rushing through underground tunnels and colossal concrete structures. It all takes on a sheen of the unknown.

They had adjusted her brain, her eyes, so that she could cope with the sleeping planet - its environment green and brown, waves crashing against sluggish shores where the gateway had deposited them. Strange structures, riddled with the written form of the alien language. Alien geometries that would never be entirely knowable, would never feel entirely real. Do what you want with surgery, with training; you could never get over that kind of "alien". Huge doorways, and Lei had been surprised how easily the first had opened beneath Ambassador Hounjet's touch, a career diplomat assigned to the mission, and trained in the new field of first contact. The darkness had been alive, within a pulsing slumbering form. Shari Hounjet had slapped her, while Dr. Maarten Panocha looked on embarrassed, and Sergeant Hayk Iteif remained neutral. Hounjet told her to pay attention, to stay focused on him and his words, then he had started shouting, and the alien had woken as Lei translated his words blindly.

In one ear out the other, Lei looked into the building again, had seen tentacles, piercing red eyes, strange hoofed hands, she had heard the flap of thick leathery wings. She had felt faint. She had felt sick. "To me, pay attention to me," Hounjet had snapped at her again, and she had focused on him as the alien words came. The language spoken by a native was entirely different from what she had studied. Her mind raced, flailing to keep up with the words, to make some form of sense from them. They had come stumbling from her mouth, only in that last step from her brain to her mouth clicking into place in a way that seemed to make sense. That in the process seemed to be actually changing her thought processes with each spoken syllable. "I am awakened. Chairman Hu. I am. Awakened from deep slumber." Lei can't remember what she said after that. Dr.Panocha had started screaming, while Ambassador Hounjet fell to his knees, clawing at his eyes, and Sergeant Iteif had tried to run. And Lei had continued to translate word for word the full extent of the alien's response to the humans' intrusion, like a puppet. No longer operating under her own volition. No longer conscious of her own actions. The same way she had finally staggered through the gate home some time after, and the next thing she remembers is the soldiers who caught her and offered support.

There are rails along the walls, Lei uses them to support herself, to pull herself along towards the bath. The exo-suit stripped, the protective padding left behind; she shivers a little from the cold, from the memory, from any number of involuntary reactions. She anticipates the bath, in the same way as she hoped that it would rain when she was out. Moisture reminds her of there, and soothes her, warm atmosphere more suited to the body she finds herself in now. She eases into the bath, taking great care, conscious of just how fragile she is, lets the water cradle her and hold her, and envelop her.

"What happened next?" Morse asked her again and again, over and over, every day, the good cop / bad cop interplay of Charles and Morse. With Sundays off for good behaviour she takes advantage of being allowed out to walk the city streets. A chorus of clicks and whirrs with every step, she recalls, closing her eyes, hoping the water takes her away from it all. Heads turning at every sound, stolen glances taking in her human alien form, whisperings and confusion stalking her progress. She brushes her body again, fingers exploring muscular pains, and doing their best to offer relief. Plunging limbs beneath the surface, before weakly swirling them around, embracing the tentative therapy that offers. As the liquid warmth takes her into its embrace she closes her eyes and sighs deeply, sliding in and down to her neck. Perhaps she is crying now, it would not be the first time, but she is trying to keep on top of the sensation, resist self-pity. Though for all that, the idea of cutting her wrists and sinking into death passes through her mind again. It is unlikely she actually would though; she is confident the AI would trigger an alarm - undoubtedly it could drain the bath in seconds and refill it with suspension foam, undoubtedly in one of the neighbouring apartments where they have the shadows housed there will be a medic; undoubtedly they have analysed each potential scenario more thoroughly than she could.

Lei finds that she has been dozing in the bath, fatigue having caught up with her. The water is still lukewarm, so she can't have been off for too long. Yet it feels oddly nice, to have had a moment of peace. She pulls herself to a standing position, pushes the button that drains the bath, pushes the button which produces the hot air to dry her. Clinging there as she is buffeted like a fallen leaf by the warm blasts that come from all around her. Shivering, she steps onto the floor, lowers herself to the bath edge and sits there, holding herself, before building up the determination to get dressed for bed, to see if she can get some proper sleep. Knowing with certainty that this will absolutely not happen, but still having the resolve that she must pretend to be as normal as she can. As she goes through these motions she recalls this afternoon's walk, how there had been a different mood to the city, a different buzz in the air. People had seemed too distracted to pay her too much attention, she had passed some people standing staring into the sky, hobbling by with her clicking contraption, and they didn't even look. Perhaps she should have paid more attention, but she had enough problems without being concerned by trivia. Perhaps tonight will be different, she yawns.

Lei pulls herself along, using the bars, till she gets to her bedroom, tottering with each step, a helpless child relearning the art of walking. Reaching the bed, she crawls up, managing to cocoon herself in the thin blanket, curling into a ball, wrapping around herself. Closing her eyes, she steadies her breathing, absorbed in meditation techniques she has been taught to focus and relax. As with every night, this is enough to allow her to get to sleep in the first instance. But it is a restless sleep; she rolls from one side to the other, approaches awakening, hovers and dives back into dreams. Murky images, eyes staring, alien voices insinuating themselves into her head, strange lights, strange structures half glimpsed.

At last, inevitably, she finds herself awake, breathing heavily, aching inside. That interminable presence lurking in her head, thick and malevolent, like dirty fingers sifting through her thoughts, like tentacled caresses. She half sits, chest heaving, spikes of pain, and she struggles with each breath. It takes her a moment to notice - the silence; the darkness. From her window she can see the city lights, hear the odd city sound now and then. In her apartment there is always some sound, the subliminal hums and clicks of modern living. The moon hangs in the sky, sickly and discoloured; to a degree its diseased pallor describes a feeling that is growing in her. The silence is a blanket that becomes claustrophobic, "lights!" she calls out. Nothing. Darkness. Silence. The feeling that there is something in her head grows. She is not alone. There is something here. At last.

Then, a sound, a slithering, a shuffling. He is here. At last. Beneath this gibbous moon, the Chairman has come for her. Lei closes her eyes. There was only one way that this could end, and she has known it all along. Anticipation. They rebuilt her to travel to Slu gishgo Dhom, the Chairman rebuilt her to return to Earth. They poked and prodded her, tried to undo some of what had been done to her. With their mastery of human engineering, they could not make her human again, they could not undo the alien work. She was the Chairman's creature, and he has come for his youngest child. Lei climbs out of bed, wobbles in place, then gathers herself, stands steady, finding a strength she hasn't felt in a long time. He has come for her, shuffling through this human structure, tracking her as though she were a beacon returned to Earth. Her presence guiding him, through dimensional fabrics. She takes a breath, filled with a near crippling sense of anticipation. The door opens; with a wet slapping sound, moist drops plop to the floor, eyes red and piercing stare at her from the dark. A tentacle furls out, lazily, brushes past her face, she smiles.

© Peter Morrison 2008 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 01:00 Sat 22 Nov 2008
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