Edition 8: A Man And His Parasite by Cat Rambo
To be the wife of the only man on Earth with an alien is a lonely existence. It disgusts Aye, yet she is curious and envious. Is Carl meant to be the one exploring the universe or will the creature just leave her without a husband? SY
The doctors thought Aye’s presence made Karl calmer, kept him stable. They monitored her health with impersonal politeness, never looking at her face, mainly so she wouldn’t drop dead on him, which might drive his blood pressure up.
She was an appliance, she thought, used to keep his body a pleasant and hospitable place where the parasite could thrive.
It felt wrong. Aye was used to being in the spotlight. In school she’d led the popular crowd. Who she liked (or didn’t) had been central to everyone’s opinion. Nowadays the list of who she didn’t like was ignored.
Dr. Taro, who supervised the parasite’s growth and reported on it daily, was high on her list. She read his findings on Karl, though. “Subject’s readings within normal parameters. Parasite appears the same.”
Or, ominously, “Subject in pain. Parasite appears unhappy.”
She didn’t think Dr. Taro was the one who suggested that Karl would do better with her there. He would have preferred Karl with no entanglements, no complications involving the outside world. Just a body that he could experiment with. Not a person with opinions on his treatment.
She didn’t like Nurse Turner either, an obnoxious little white man who saw her as an inconvenience. He was always moving her out of the way while he fiddled with buttons and dials and machines that made odd, choked noises.
She didn’t like anyone in the hospital, really. Everyone was full of despair or terror or both. Some of them were just waiting to die. The air smelled like antiseptic and vomit. There were no living things, no plants, no fish, nothing other than human forms. Even the flowers she brought were dying, stems severed, held in water and glass. She brought them there to die, keeping Karl company. He liked that. He liked drooping balls of peonies and hydrangeas, petal-shedding bouquets as grandiose as though his hospital room was a resort hotel suite.
That brought her to the person at the top of the list.
Karl. She didn’t like her husband Karl anymore. Or what he had become. Karl plus one.
Today Aye looked in the shop windows on her way to the lab. Tunics of plum and amber velvet, sideways-slashed silk scarves, wasp-waisted dresses in turquoise and burnt umber.
She wished she could bring him a bouquet colored like that to liven up the room. They did keep it pleasant. Linen sheets. A 42′ ultradef TV opposite his bed, accessing all channels. Even the net, in case he wanted to post to his own vlog—a big crowd pleaser, readers eager to know that the man hosting the space parasite, the only one of its kind, had said thus and so.
Most of his observations were trivial. Sometimes the sponsors asked him to work specific things in, which he did with a tone of half-mockery that let the readers know what he was up to. The sponsors didn’t care. It helped drive brand recognition no matter how it was framed, no matter how he winked while eating rice cakes or chocolate bites.
When she came in, he was watching riot footage from the Philippines. He switched it off as she knocked.
“More news, always bad,” he said.
“They tell you to watch pleasant things.”
“Only so many shows about lion cubs,” he said.
“There’s two hundred channels to choose from.”
He shrugged. Beneath the cloth on his chest, the parasite squirmed, probing at the surface with needled tendrils.
She stared at the bouquet from two days ago, yellow Peruvian lilies, still lustrous, open throated and inviting.
He laid his hand on hers, tentative question.
She forced her hand to lie still, unmoving.
“They want to move me to the moon,” he said. “They think the recent sluggishness had been due to gravity it’s unused to in its adult form.”
She went even stiller.
“They’ll let you visit,” he said. “You can get an apartment up there. I insisted on that.”
It meant less wear and tear on her fragile joints. The longer she was up there, the more time it would add to her life. It was munificent.
She could not force gratitude though. She kept glimpsing limbs seething underneath the fabric, the parasite curled against his skin like an ornament made of polished chitin and obsidian. The only time she’d seen it, it had made an odd clicking noise at her.
“He likes you,” Karl had said, and laughed. It was the early days, before he’d noticed how she flinched away.
His fingers moved, hesitant as plucking a string, brushing across the back of her hand.
She would not shudder. She had trained it out of herself.
Outside the room, she passed through sealed chambers. No scrap of the parasite must make it to the outside world. They didn’t know how it reproduced. They didn’t know how it communicated. They didn’t even know what it was. Only that it had fallen to her husband by accident.
They didn’t know what it could do.
Half a year earlier, the skies had opened. Not literally, but figuratively. An alien ship landed, had come, and given away a few presents (the water desalinization device, the spray that repaired the ozone layer, the machine that made meat that was not meat). To know more, to get more, we’d have to learn to communicate with the rest of the universe, the alien said. Then that strange, lead-gray figure uncurled its hand and something in it swirled to the waiting crowd, thousands of people from across the world come to see the alien, and the thing had flown to her husband, planted itself in his chest, the chest she had once considered hers as much as his.
They were six years married at that point. Six years of learning to live with each other, six years of—not getting tired of each other, precisely, but getting used to each other.
On his chest, under the hospital pajamas, was the parasite. It looked like a design inlaid in his skin until it stirred. The first time it happened, she screamed and screamed. Now he didn’t ask her to look at it anymore.
But she knew it was there, even when she wasn’t around. A new partner for him? Did it talk to him, did it communicate in some fashion? She didn’t want to know.
She didn’t want to think about it. She wanted to go back to the life they’d built together. They were just starting to think about children, a complete and loving family, of the sort neither of them, both the product of divorce, had ever experienced.
They had felt too proud of that, perhaps. Maybe she had said it smugly, or his smile had been overly self-assured.
No matter. Whether they had brought it down on themselves through hubris, or whether an uncaring universe had drawn them through random chance, they weren’t that couple any more. Instead, only one of them existed in the eyes of the world. She had been reduced to support staff for the more important pairing: A Man And His Parasite.
Being a host paid well. And it wasn’t as though her confined husband was spending the money. His only expense was the unfettered Net access. Everyone assumed the parasite was driving that. His search keywords drove the stock markets up and down. Others read the future in it. Searchomancy and Google-Fu. Internet-Ching. The accrued knowledge of a race perched on the brink of…what? Disaster or singularity?
A network pundit called her husband post-human. That was ridiculous. He liked human things. He loved hearing the neighborhood gossip. And his flowers. How he reveled in his flowers, sniffing them, touching them as they died.
How long could it go on?
Why did they call it a parasite? Why did they assume it couldn’t detach from Karl? Surely it would pull away, its mission accomplished. She would have her husband back.
It wasn’t a parasite. An organic machine perhaps. Or maybe even a practical joke, to see what the humans would do. No one knew what sorts of humor aliens exercised.
No. Not a parasite.
Why? Because a parasite was a life form.
Her thoughts skittered around that. Important not to think of it as a life form.
Why? Because what did life forms do?
Her mind froze, ticked away from that conclusion. No. Not a parasite at all. That was…just a misunderstanding.
They ran barrages of tests every day. Karl emerged tired, on the edge.
“I was thinking about visiting Dad in Florida,” Aye said.
Desperation tightened his face. “How long?”
“A couple of days, that’s all.”
She’d meant to broach the subject of whether she needed to come daily. His expression told her not to start that conversation.
“Sure,” he said. “Go see your dad. I bet you need a break.” His smile was weak.
But she put it off. Looked at the tickets online and never clicked “Buy.”
When the government had offered to pay her full time wages to make herself available for visits, it had seemed great. She’d loaded up on books and videos she wanted to read, spent mornings by the neighborhood pool, soaking up sunshine. But now that had grown tedious. She’d tried enrolling in classes, a book discussion group, but there was always some conflict, some change in Karl’s schedule that meant she had to drop it.
Half a year now.
How much longer?
She could move to the Moon. It wasn’t that difficult. It would be easier on her body than traveling several times a week.
He said, on her next visit, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
“Like what?” she said. She had taken up knitting, to give her hands something to do while they sat there and talked. She was making a snowflake afghan for her neighbor Bibi, who had told her the day before that she was pregnant. The snowflakes were gray from handling. She would wash it when it was done and the synthetic yarn would shine as brightly as it had in the craft store.
“Like this,” he said helplessly. “You don’t touch me anymore.”
Was he saying, “You don’t touch us anymore” or “You don’t touch me anymore”? What did the parasite want of her?
“Do you talk to it?” she said.
“It’s not talking,” he said. He paused, his eyes distant as he searched for the right words, the words to describe something no other human had ever experienced. Perhaps the parasite should have selected a writer, she thought coldly, who could think of new verbs, new words, new descriptors, and not a man whose favorite pastime was watching Real Moon, Season 4. A musician, or a poet, or an artist. Someone other than her ordinary husband, who had been anything but ordinary to her before.
She had stood beside him in the crowd. She’d seen the flash in the air, colors she had never seen before. For a moment she thought it was coming to her, making her special, picking her out of all the people there.
Instead it was Karl.
He’d paid a high price for his singularity, his existence reduced to a hermetically sealed room. Now she was no longer part of a couple, an entity called “we” that went to parties and the movies and sometimes on weekend trips.
All over the world, humans were re-thinking themselves. They weren’t brave explorers anymore. Instead, they were beggars, reduced to living on presents and scraps. The Gate processed traffic from a thousand different worlds, but few ever chose to visit Earth. Instead they passed in and out, and sometimes scraps fell from their pockets and kept the humans alive a little longer.
She stared at his chest. What was the parasite doing, there under the cloth? Could it see her through it?
Was it as terrifying as she remembered?
“What are you thinking?” Karl asked.
“Let me see it again.”
He made no move to uncover it. “You remember what happened last time.”
“That was months ago.”
He still didn’t move.
“Unless I can see it,” she said, “how will we ever be together again?”
It wasn’t fair, invoking sex like that, especially now, when he was starved for her touch.
And she for his, truth be told. Just to feel his hand on her hair, gently stroking, making it soft and silky with just the touch of his fingers.
“Let me see it,” she said.
He was statue-still. “Are you sure?”
Irritation flared. She had offered, hadn’t she? It had seemed to be what he wanted most in this world. How like him to balk now.
“Yes,” she said. She let unspoken threat linger in her tone—take too long and she might change her mind.
He fumbled with the buttons.
His eyes never left hers. She returned the gaze, not letting her eyes stray to the flesh of his chest.
He twitched the fabric aside.
The parasite lay along his breastbone. At first it looked like a tattoo, a stylized lobster—crab—spider.
Almost Egyptian: intricate, boxy, lines a little not what she was used to, a little out of the ordinary. It rippled, in a way that skin should not move. Her gut twisted in revulsion.
Karl sat there, watching her look at it. His fingers rested on the edges of the fabric, ready to yank it shut.
She held out her hand.
“Careful,” he warned, but she was already reaching, even as some unseen watcher hit a button and an alarm shrilled.
As the room filled with orderlies ready to pull her away, she felt it brush against her fingertips, a pain piercing beneath the nail of her ring finger.
Hands shoved her aside. An orderly hustled her out to confront Dr. Taro.
“No touching!” he shouted at her. “That’s an alien creature—we don’t know what it’s capable of!”
But they let it stay on her husband. Their guinea pig.
Taro subsided. “If you had touched it, we’d have to quarantine you.”
She folded her arms. In the confusion, they’d missed the most important moment. Pain pulsed in her finger, ugly, blunt pain. She refused to react. She wouldn’t become a prisoner too.
Taro threatened to keep her from visiting again, but they both knew the threat was empty. Karl’s well-being required her as much as daily vitamin supplements and the prescribed physical therapy she was paid to exhort him to work at.
She wouldn’t look at her hand. She didn’t, all the way home.
“Don’t you know anything?” she’d asked Taro. “You’ve had him for months.”
“We think we know what it’s for,” he said.
“What?” Possibilities raced through her mind, gleaned from science fiction and horror movies.
“It’s preparing him for space.”
Only confusion. Taro clarified. “It’s changing his body, becoming a living spacesuit. He’ll be able to live in vacuum itself.”
“Why would anyone do that?” Weren’t spacesuits enough?
Taro’s expression was odd.
“What aren’t you telling me?” she said.
“It’s not reversible,” he said. “In fact, I think in while he may be unable to live in anything but vacuum.”
The words were meaningless. Then Aye realized: no more visits. Herself on one side of glass, Karl on the other. One of them visiting the other in a high tech zoo.
Space. Envy flashed in her. He would know space in a way that no one else ever had. Imagine how famous he’d be! The first of a new species.
A new species. Setting out while she waved from the shore.
Her hand hurt. Her heart hurt. She was tired of breathing in such pain.
At home, scuttling up the steps into the foyer, she finally let herself look at her nail. A cobalt splinter, wedged deep underneath. It took an agonizing time to coax it out with tweezers. She held the fragment up. A half-inch curve of blue chitin, pointed on both ends. Had it stung her? Should she worry about venom or disease?
But a sterile, manufactured look about the splinter comforted her. This was not a discarded fragment, but something with a purpose to it.
She stood in front of the mirror, staring at herself. She looked frayed around the edges. Her fingers traced the ridge along her breastbone. Where it sat on Karl. Where it should lie on her.
With a kitchen knife, she traced a horizontal line along the path her fingers had touched. Blood welled. The splinter clung to her fingers.
Like filling in a last puzzle piece, she put it over the line of blood. It dropped away. She retrieved it, this time pushed it into the wound. It stayed, a thread of blue among the crimson. Like a secret glimpse inside her.
Up till now, the story had been about Karl. Now that had changed. It was about them again. Hero and heroine. It made her feel less lonely, to the point where she realized the depths of the loneliness that had filled her so long.
She couldn’t sleep. The wound on her chest buzzed with too fierce pain that convinced her something was happening. She went out onto the porch and breathed in. A high fence surrounded the porch, the tiny courtyard, presented her with the illusion of space in a crowded city.
Finches twittered in the lilac bushes she’d planted. She’d tried to make the porch festive with pots of geraniums, fragrant with boxes of lavender and mint. But she’d neglected it. Everything drooped, and the mint was downright dead, withered leaves. She leaned over to a plant, crushed it between her fingers, smelled the dusty but somehow still fresh scent.
Her chest throbbed as she stood back up. She let the mint fall away, let her fingertips hover over the pain. What could soothe it?
Perhaps a cool bath. She felt feverish, too warm. The thought seized her, a vision of the bathwater lapping around her, white porcelain chill against her back. They had unrationed water, due to Karl’s status.
Only moments to run the bath, to sink into it with a sigh. The water lapped at the wound. The burn spread, carried upward along her throat, gathered in her mouth in taste like bile mixed with mercury and old coffee.
The saliva coiled in a blue thread, color so pale she thought it was a reflection of the blue towel above it at first. Was it, wasn’t it—it spun on an eddy when she moved her hand. Definite blue, varying tendrils through it like veins.
She slid further into the water, let it cover her chest, took in a mouthful of bathwater to rinse the taste from her mouth. This time when she surged and spat and sank back, it was clear. The blue clot hovered around her toes near the drain.
The pain in her chest intensified, ragged claws digging inward. Had Karl felt this? Surely he would have said something. But they had kept him away from her for days at first. He had been silent and sullen the first visit. Shaken with the aftermath of pain?
Or was something wrong?
She dried herself. Bending set off a pain so sharp it took her breath, gripped her ribs like hands from behind. She stood stock-still. If she moved, it might get worse.
It ebbed. She gulped aspirin, four of them, and chased them with acidic orange juice that felt gummy in her mouth.
Something was wrong.
She threw that thought away, discarded it like a wad of textbook text. Who knew what could happen when alien physiology met human? She was developing her own parasite, the thing that would allow her to accompany Karl to the stars.
That was all she’d ever wanted, to be with him. To know she wasn’t alone.
In the small hours of the morning, she examined the line riding her breast’s upper swell. It burned blue. At the inner edges of her fingernails, a cobalt thread as well. She had never noticed that on Karl.
The design was developing, more elaborate than Karl’s, but smaller, much smaller, bumblebee to his spread-winged sparrow.
Her breasts felt heavy and tender, her womb hot and solid in a way that usually signaled the beginning of her menses. But that had ended just last week. She was too young for menopause.
Her phone shrilled, the bing-bong that signaled someone from the hospital, an intrusive doorbell.
Dr. Taro. “Karl’s having problems. We need you to come early.”
“I’ll be there as soon as possible.” Panic sped her fingers, let her throw on slacks, baggy linen top with a high neckline. A bra hurt her; she decided she could get away without one.
The flicker of Taro’s eyes to her chest when she arrived made her regret the decision. Too late now.
“You can’t see him,” Taro said.
“You called me to say come immediately!”
His lips compressed, his gaze dropped to the sand-speckled linoleum at their feet. “He’s gotten worse.”
The pain in her chest blazed like a star and she doubled over. Taro mistook her reaction for grief. “We’re doing everything we can,” he said, taking her elbow. “It’s just that right now, well—he wouldn’t want you there.”
“Why, what’s happening?”
He stared downward. Her chest felt as though a red hot coal were pressed against the skin. In college she’d read about the women tortured as witches in medieval days. She’d always thought that she couldn’t have borne the torture they did. Now she realized that sometimes all you could was exist in the moment.
Taro was staring at her, waiting. Had she missed something he’d said?
“I don’t care what’s happening,” she said. “Take me to him.”
Taro hesitated, the officious little nurse behind him.
She grabbed the pain, wound it tight and used it to push herself upright, its furnace fueling her words. “Take me to him!”
They fell back as she pushed past.
The skin of her forearms rasped against their white sleeves. She glanced down. Her arms were scaly, as though the skin had thickened, clumped, grown into white ridges. The burn continued down them. It was in her ears too, with an accompanying high buzz. Her chest pulled her forward. She could feel where Karl was, yield to his pull. Or his parasite’s pull, she supposed.
She was an arrow, launched into the hospital’s heart.
Karl on the bed, thrashing, despite the leather restraints on his arms and legs. She flew to his side, let her hands rest on his skin, as fevered as her own.
The shock flung her backwards, landing in a crash of machines, a chorus of protesting beeps and alarms.
Taro raced past her. She thought, He doesn’t even care if I’m hurt. Nurse Turner helped her up.
Taro turned to her. “He’s dying! What did you do?”
She recovered herself. Pushed past him to Karl’s side.
“Don’t die!” she screamed at him. “Don’t leave me alone!”
He smiled at her. “Giving…it…to you,” he rasped.
The pain, the fire inside her, cooling. “What have you done?!?”
“Takes…consciousness for it to…adapt to a host. Only enough…for one.” Smiled at her, the easy smile of early days. “Gave you…the rest.”
It was true. She could feel something stirring in her. Adapting her. Changing her. A dry consciousness at the back of her mind, not hers.
Life would be different for her now.
Now she’d be studied as the parasite joined with her, readied her for space. She’d learn to talk to it. Even now she could feel it assembling words, concepts.
It would talk to her as she swung in the depths of space, it said. It would sing to her as the stars fell by and they would see everything that thin, unlimited space had to offer. Together.
She would never be alone again.
Never alone again.
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her online classes, see http://www.kittywumpus.net