by Julia August
There was a white light in the dark where there shouldn’t have been. It lit up the window and glowed around the door, so I said, “Hello? Is someone out there?” and no one replied. I wrestled the bolt back and stepped out into the porch on my bare toes, shivering as the breeze pushed up my cotton nightie.
There wasn’t anyone there. The light beamed down unnaturally from above. I looked up and saw the thing blotting out the stars just as everything went black.
* * *
Sensation came back slowly. I lay on my back, splayed carelessly, my legs and cheek pressed naked against metal. My nightie was almost up to my waist. I tried to move and couldn’t. Everywhere a cold unwavering light washed across the asymmetric floor.
I sucked in air to scream. It tasted tinny. Before I could force it out again, a sharp pain struck my neck and the light went out.
* * *
Now I hung suspended like a scarecrow, slowly turning, my chin digging into the notch in my collarbone. Wires cut into my armpits and diaphragm. My hair flapped in my eyes, but I couldn’t move a hand to push it away.
Dribble dampened my chin. I couldn’t wipe that away either. Dim hazmat suits moved just outside my sphere of vision. It sounded as if they were taking notes.
My throat and neck ached as much as my shoulders. Everything seemed very slow, very hazy, very unclear.
I forced the blockage out of my throat. “What the fuck?”
They didn’t hear me. I repeated it, much more loudly. The back of my mouth was peeling away. “I can’t believe I fell for the alien abduction trick!” I said. “Will one of you jokers tell me what the fuck is going on?”
A red suit shuffled into view. “Oh, hi, Jess. How are you feeling?”
“Pretty fucking awful! What’s going on?”
“Standard procedure, Jess,” Paolo said innocently. “You know the routine.”
“I wrote the fucking routine! Why am I here?”
“Language,” he said and vanished behind me again.
I wasted a few minutes and a lot of my remaining breath on trying to kick free. I shouldn’t have bothered. In the first place, I wasn’t strong enough; in the second place, even if the harness suspension broke, Paolo and Kiran were in the observation chamber and someone more senior, maybe even the principal investigator himself, would be observing from the other side of the one-way mirror; and in the third place, even if I got free and escaped the postdocs and broke out of the observation chamber, security would bring me down before I reached the exit. I should know. I’d drawn up the security plans.
Eventually I stopped struggling and hung limp in the harness. They would have taken the necessary samples while I was unconscious. I’d drawn up that procedure too. In the background, the computer fan hummed so loudly it must already be processing the data. The ribbons of my nightie fluttered under my chin.
I bit my tongue until the pain cleared some of the drug-induced haze out of my head. “Paolo?”
The suit shuffled back into view. “Yes, Jess?”
“Where’s Steve? I want to talk to him.”
“I don’t think he wants to talk to you, Jess.”
“Are you fucking kidding? The least he can do is come down himself and tell me what’s going on! You can’t do this! I’m the project coordinator! It’s in my contract!”
“You got fired from the project, Jess. Did no one tell you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, last night? Kiran, when did they decide to use a human subject for this one?”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You can’t do this to me! You need me!”
“I guess Steve thinks he doesn’t,” Paolo said. “I guess maybe he remembered who pulled the name out of the hat for the last one.”
“You are kidding me,” I said in disgust. “He’s not still pissed off about that skinny blonde chick, is he? How was I meant to know?”
“Well, that’s the thing, Jess. I kind of think he thinks you did.”
* * *
The system has a list of names for when we need a test subject for whatever the military’s brought in this time and the nearest cow won’t cut it. No known family, friends, mortgages, pets, socially important jobs, stuff like that. You input your requirements and the computer spits a random name out. I didn’t write the programme. I didn’t draw up the list. I don’t bring in the test subjects, either. We have grad students for that.
I guess I didn’t feel very sorry standing over what was left of the blonde chick. It was a mess, all right. We could have lost our funding for that one. Still, how could I have known some joker had added the girl’s name to the system? If the creep in charge of our project was having a fling with a particularly dumb undergrad, could I have helped that?
* * *
I heard the postdocs conferring as the uptick in fan activity indicated that the computer had almost finished processing my samples. I wanted to hope I might turn out to be unsuitable, but even as the drawn-out beep announced that the results were ready and my stomach twisted in anticipation, I knew it wouldn’t happen. Anyway, there was always another experiment. If I really wasn’t suitable for whatever horror they’d got their hands on, they’d just put me in cold storage for the next.
Paolo reappeared round the corner. “Congratulations,” he said, grinning through his smoked glass visor. “You’ll do.”
My stomach twisted tighter. “Now wait a minute –”
“Don’t make a fuss, Jess. You know it won’t help.”
“Don’t you fucking patronise me! I hope you end up on the list, you bastard! I hope they stick another meteor virus in you and watch you fucking dissolve!”
“Now, now,” said Paolo, approaching cautiously. I kicked out as hard as I could. He backed off, leaving me swinging in my harness, my nightie flapping at my knees. “There’s no need to be like this. It’s just a job, you know. Kiran, this would be a really good time for you—”
A spike of pain in my upper arm told me Kiran had injected the standard paralytic. I kicked backwards and heard him yelp. It wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Already I felt the weakness spreading upwards from my extremities. My fists uncurled involuntarily as dizziness began to take over.
“It’s a low dose,” Paolo said. “You shouldn’t need a ventilator. Want to know more about this little beastie?”
I probably didn’t. “Fine. Go on. Tell me.”
Paolo picked up a glass jar and a pair of sterilised steel tongs. Something like a mouse-sized louse curled in the bottom of the jar. “They cut it out of a shark, but it’s definitely alien. Steve reckons it’s the larval form and it’s looking for the nutrients to get to the next stage. I’ve got a bet with Kiran that it’s going to eat your brain and explode out of your eye sockets. How does that sound?”
“Seriously? You could use a cow for that.”
“We’re going to,” Paolo said calmly. “Open wide.”
I snapped my teeth together. From behind, Kiran’s gloved hand clamped down on my nose. I started to see blue spots and felt my body kick automatically into asphyxiation mode: chest heaving, flapping ineffectually, physically panicking despite myself. As soon as I opened my mouth to breathe, Kiran thrust his fingers between my teeth and pried my jaws open. The paralytic was really taking effect. I tried to struggle and couldn’t. He forced what felt like a fist-sized metal ring into my mouth and strapped it roughly at the back of my head, dragging at my hair. Now I couldn’t shut my mouth at all.
Paolo had got the lid of the jar off and was probing inside it with the tongs. “Ready?”
I screamed. When I had finished, Paolo deposited the louse in my mouth.
It was the legs I felt first. For a moment, my mouth was stuffed with feet and scales. I wanted to retch. Then it moved, and I tried to scream again, and pain exploded down my tongue. I practically blacked out. Every whiskery twitch scraped the roof of my mouth. Liquid began to trickle down my aching jaws.
“Let’s get her down,” I heard Kiran say. “Then let’s get out of here.”
* * *
I lay on my side on the metal floor. I was working so hard to keep breathing through the paralytic and around the alien thing choking up my throat that the chill against my exposed thigh hardly registered. I hadn’t known what “my head swam” meant before. Now I wished it was just my head swimming. My whole body was spiralling away from me. Sensations sprang at me out of the black fog and flashed away.
A puddle of drool and blood was collecting beside my cuffed hands. I stared at it fixedly. I couldn’t move my head, so it was that or nothing. My jaw ached, but I struggled to feel anything except the pain burning through my tongue.
I’d left the blonde chick lying like this. Hair everywhere, legs askew, begging with her eyes like a dumb animal because of the gag. I hadn’t meant to think about her, but I did anyway. She’d made such pathetic noises. I guess I should have felt sorry then. But why? What was the difference between her and any homeless guy, except she was prettier?
They had to dispose of her in a “car accident”. She wasn’t very pretty when the meteor virus was done. I wasn’t going to be either, when this thing burst out of my skull. They’d probably have to send the car off a cliff and torch it too.
I guess I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t have anything against her.
* * *
The thing moved in my mouth like it was making itself comfortable. The need to throw up was growing stronger, but if I did I thought I might choke on my own vomit. I couldn’t feel my tongue at all any more.
A searing sensation struck at the back of my throat. Light exploded like fireworks behind my eyes and in my tintinnabulating ears. Probably I made some pathetic noises of my own, but I couldn’t hear myself, so that didn’t matter. I lay there waiting for the louse to burrow into my brain and getting angrier and angrier about it. The least the louse could have done would have been to make it fast.
Slowly my head quietened. I felt an itchy heat swelling up my windpipe like an infected cut. I wanted to reach down my throat and scrape it out, but besides being cuffed together my hands were chained to a ring in the floor, in accordance with my one hundred percent effective, no-breakouts-yet, all-alien-threats-safely-contained standard procedure. Fuck, I thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck them all, especially Paolo. I hoped he learned sooner rather than later that no one stayed Steve’s golden boy for long.
Something blocked my airways. I panicked and strained against the paralytic with my last reserves of energy, even though it was pointless. The cuffs cut into my hands and left red and white marks against my skin.
The louse relaxed behind my teeth. Now I could breathe again.
Hello, Jess, a voice said in my head.
I couldn’t have been more surprised. I mean, I could have, obviously, it wasn’t as if telepathy hadn’t been hypothesised before, but in a louse? It was a soft voice, not a very intrusive one, almost comforting in its way.
I wasn’t up for being comforted. What the fuck are you?
Just a visitor. Thank you for your hospitality, Jess. I appreciate it. But you seem uncomfortable. Are you all right?
No, I’m fucking not! I’m chained up here! Are you going to burst out of my skull or not?
Of course not. Apart from being chained up, you are a highly suitable host. I am sorry your cooperation was involuntary. May I ask why you were chosen?
Well, hell. It wasn’t a larval form of anything. It was a parasite. A sentient, telepathic, alien parasite in my mouth. Thanks, Steve.
I pissed off the guy who runs the lab, I said bitterly. We analyse the alien stuff the government picks up. Bring you in, cut you up, stick you into things, all very hush-hush. I used to be the golden girl, all right? I worked so fucking hard for him. But then the new kids showed up and I wasn’t good enough any more. I guess I wasn’t the starry-eyed little suck-up he wanted. And I guess he thought ruining my career would’ve been too easy. So instead of sticking you in a cow or some homeless guy, they stuck you in me.
Ah, said the louse. I see. An experiment. Are we going to stay here long?
Do I look like I can unchain myself? Besides, they drugged me. It’ll be a couple of hours before I can move.
A flush of heat ran down my neck and diffused into my chest. My toes and fingers, which had been numb, tingled painfully. A little less than that, the louse said. Can you undo the chain?
I hesitated. No.
Another hot rush flooded into my body. I was aware suddenly of my heart hammering in my chest and pounding temples, and of how harshly I was breathing. Every one of my senses seemed sharper. I could smell the blood clotting around my mouth and the faint fishy stink of the louse behind my teeth. I wanted to break something. The urge just came over me in a sudden, violent rush.
You apes are so hormonal, said the louse comfortably in my head. It sounded like a grandmother. Not my grandmother, just the perfect smiling grandmother everyone thinks everyone else must have. I like it. Try now.
* * *
It hurt. I didn’t even bother to break the cuffs, because you can do most things with your hands cuffed in front of you anyway. I pulled at the chain until I strained a muscle in my shoulder, then pulled harder, because the pain made me want to break things even more, then smacked myself in the face and tumbled backwards when the chain broke. Fresh blood poured down my throbbing face. I stuck out my tongue to lap it up without thinking about it until I realised something else was thinking for me.
I got unsteadily to my feet. The hormonal cocktail of rage and violence still sloshed through me, but my legs were cramping like nobody’s business and I was bruised from head to toe. I clung to the dangling harness and stared at the mirror. In my nightie, scraped and blood-streaked, with my dark hair tangled around my sallow face, I looked like a ghost. Probably one haunting a Victorian insane asylum, going by the spider-arms of the gag forcing my jaws apart.
It wasn’t my tongue I’d stuck out. The louse twitched its antennae at me over my broken lips.
I actually did throw up. I fell to my knees, scrabbling at the straps around my head, and flung the gag from me as far as it would go. It bounced off a wall into the corner. I spat and clawed desperately at my wriggling mouth until it felt like I was trying to pull out my tongue, the tongue I didn’t have any more. Don’t do that, said the louse reproachfully. I’ve already joined myself to your stump. That’s why we can talk.
“My tongue!” I said, only it came out flubbed and fumbled. “What did you do?”
I ate it. You don’t need it any more. You have me now.
Its softness wrapped round me like a blanket. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see clearly. I had an alien telepath in my mouth and in my head and I knew where that went. I couldn’t hide it. I couldn’t hide from it. I didn’t know what it wanted, although a vision of tanks and tests and intricate dissections crossed my blurring eyes so vividly I was sure I hadn’t been the one to think it. I imagined the louse tumbling from the stars and chewing into its shark and boring itself silly flapping between the coral reefs. Now it was on land. Now it had something more interesting to study than jellyfish. Now it had me.
I was about to throw up again. I forced my mouth open and got a firm grip on the louse. Before I could pull, the louse said, Don’t you want to get out of here?
That cut through my panic. I did. I very much did, especially since I knew that on the other side of the two-way mirror Steve would have thumped the button that kicked security out of its kennel. Any minute now, I was going to have company. And they weren’t going to sit me down and say how nice it was I’d survived the experiment and ask if I wanted a cup of tea. If I was lucky, I’d end up back in that harness. If I was really lucky, they’d have the sort of questions you answered with a survey, not an autopsy.
I pulled myself upright. I could live with the louse for as long as it took to avoid being cut up into scientifically fascinating pieces. “I know the door codes and the lab layout. I probably can’t get past security. They’re big guys.”
This time, even though I was expecting it, the rush of hormones hit like a hammer to the head. I swayed, seeing the world suddenly through a hot scarlet mist. Fury discoloured the walls and mirror, which shimmered disconcertingly, as if I could have just stepped through it. The impulse to hurl myself at the mirror seized me by the throat, even though I knew the mirror was bulletproof glass. On the other side, though, stood Steve and Paolo and Kiran. I wanted to raise my cuffed hands and hammer the glass until it smashed into jagged shards.
I seemed to be growing, or glowing, or definitely heating up in my too-tight skin. I was just capable of realising I was not entirely in control of myself. All the same, it was exhilarating. I felt as if I could punch through brick walls.
I think you should leave now, said the louse, somewhere in the dwindling part of my brain I could still access. The tanks loomed up again, imagined or remembered, and now I could see through the alien glass the collected specimens, or what remained of them. Another blast of hormonal emotion wiped the image out. I had the disconcerting sense the louse was getting the hang of a set of unfamiliar controls. I know some people you should meet. But first I think you should have one last chat with your curious friends in there. Don’t you?