When the call comes, I’m busy at my favorite occupation: Watching an old 2-D movie (anything dated before 1990 will do), shoving fistfuls of popcorn into my mouth and not thinking.
I pause the movie, switch over to the call, and throw a handful of popcorn at the image. It’s Luis Delgado, my psychiatrist, and I know what he’s calling about – how could I not? The news is spinning around the net like a crazed top.
It has to do with the ship. The one now sitting in the middle of the Arizona desert. The one that sent out a greeting in about 40 different languages as soon as it hit the edges of our solar system, and continued broadcasting nonstop.
They call themselves the Mlati.
They are aware of Earth’s recent extraterrestrial ventures.
They are especially aware of the phenomenon that we call the Thread. They say that the Thread has drifted (whether purposely or by chance) past the planets of several intelligent and proto-intelligent species, decimating the populations and destroying some highly useful cultures. They want to stop it.
There is only one problem. The Mlati want to meet a Survivor.
And Luis has, of course, volunteered me.
“No,” I say.
“You can do this,” Luis tells me. “You’re ready.”
“I haven’t left Alaska since you guys shipped me out here. I sleep about two hours a night – if that. I have about five anxiety attacks a day. And the last time a human being came within three feet of me I had to be gassed just so they could get close enough to sedate me. That was just so much fun.”
“Sharah, that was over a year ago,” Luis says in that irritatingly calm way he has. “And recent tests indicate that if you’re completely enclosed in a hazmat suit and moderately medicated, you’ll be fine.”
“Go screw yourself,” I tell him, and put the movie back on. Steve McQueen motorcycles away from the Nazi troops, heading for a barrier he won’t be able to jump.
Unfortunately, Luis has an override for everything in my house. He pauses the movie.
“Need I remind you,” Luis says patiently, “that you are completely dependent on a generous government pension in order to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle? Not to mention your complex regimen of medications. And believe it or not, you’re currently one of the most well-adjusted Survivors we’ve got.”
“Not true,” I tell him. “How about Yuri Garovitch? I hear he actually touched his wife’s hand three weeks ago.”
“He killed himself two days ago,” says Luis.
It’s at least ten minutes or so before I can pay attention to anything Luis says, during which time he’s obviously upped my meds, because when I can breathe again there’s a tingling at my wrist where the mediband is.
Luis waits another minute or two to let me wipe the tears from my face, and then informs me that I am about to spend a lot of time online with various expert therapists who will check my conditioning, my current emotional levels and my meds. (“And I’ll be sitting in,” he adds, “just to make sure you stay honest.”) I will then be put on a plane and prepared to meet and greet the Mlati on behalf of the good people of Earth.
“But that’s only if they find me competent enough to make the trip,” I insist.
“Of course,” Luis says soothingly.
Needless to say, they do.
Somebody – human, I presume – has attached a ramp leading to what is apparently an entrance: a large round hole with pink scalloped edges that flap slightly in the breeze. The edges seem to glow faintly, although it’s hard to tell in the hash desert sun.
I’m not alone, of course. Luis is here, along with one Colonel Jake Starrett, who is right out of central casting – tall, blond, beefy and self-righteous – and two anonymous grunts (looking even more anonymous in their hazmat suits). Starrett obviously hates my guts; probably thinks I’m a weenie because sitting around in Alaska being insane can cause you to put on a few pounds. He says something to the troops, glances over at me. I smile sweetly, and wave my hand. Love ya, Colonel, sir.
Something whistles in my earpiece and somebody says we’re supposed to get going. We get into formation – Starrett, the soldiers, me and Luis – and start up the ramp. I’m not at all nervous. Hell, with all the meds I’m on now, the Moon could come crashing down and I’d be only mildly interested.
Behind the fluttering edges of the opening, it’s dark. We all have lights; they dance around but don’t show anything. In the beams, tiny motes of dust swirl lightly and I wonder for a moment whether that is really dust, or some other material entirely. Maybe a form of life. Are we breathing in our hosts?
No, our hosts are birds. Giant birds. Well, something resembling giant birds. That’s what they told us.
We step slowly forward, following Starrett. I look back, and see the entrance, still open and bright with sunlight. No sudden doors sliding shut. I can turn and run any time I like.
Starrett puts out a hand and points. “Here,” he says shortly. “They said that we’d find a covered doorway. This must be it. Feldman,” one of the anonymous grunts, “you take point. Greene,” and he points at me, “you’re right after me. Delgado, you stick with her. Yu,” the other grunt, “you take the rear.”
As if Luis hasn’t been watching me every since we got here. I turn and grin at him, wondering if he can see me through his suit. Luis shrugs.
Oh. My turn. I twist back and get my legs moving. Through the curtain to see who is actually in charge of this particular playground.
Light. I blink a couple of times until the bright blur resolves into images.
Like the outside of the ship, it’s big. Very high, very wide. No rooms, floors, or dividers of any kind. Somewhere there has to be engines, controls, but if there are any, they’re somewhere else.
It’s definitely not empty, though. In the center of the space is a huge, dark, tree-like object that looks more purple than brown, but it’s hard to be sure in this hard yellow light. Around 12 feet up or so, a mass of interlocking branches breaks out and up. The higher you go, the further the branches reach; until near what must be the top of the craft, they spread across the entire width of the space, tangled and wild. I throw my head back as far as I can, trying to see how high the tree goes. Somewhere in the spaces between the branches, tiny forms lazily flap in wide circles.
“The immaturesss,” says a voice, the sentence ending in a hiss that sounds like a teakettle the moment before it starts to whistle.
Our host – hostess? – towers above our heads, about 12 feet high and broad as a house. Like the tree, it’s not quite brown; there are dabs of red and tan at the tips of the feathers, with a hint of something shimmering underneath. Large, scaly feet clutch the floor, while the pear-shaped body curves gracefully up to a slightly cocked, oblong head. Vestigial wings run from the claw-like hands to the shoulders.
It’s the face that fascinates me, though. The mouth is shielded by some kind of pliable membrane that somewhat resembled a beak, but not quite. Above the beak, large black eyes glisten. They look upward for a moment, indicating the forms soaring above us.
“They fly to play,” it says in a tone that seemed to contain pride, assuming that pride is something that has a place in the Mlati psychology.
Starrett steps forward and fingers the switch that turns on his external speaker. “We’re very pleased to be here,” he says. “This is a momentous occasion.”
The being cocks its head. “Yesss,” it says. “A moment indeed.”
I look up again. Sitting among the lower branches, several adult Mlati stare back, moving slowly, ponderously, like huge fat men after a good meal.
Starrett goes through the introductions; our Mlati silently listens. It’s hard to pay attention; the soaring of the immatures pulls at the corners of my eyes.
“Sharah?” It’s Luis, using his concerned voice. Apparently, I’ve missed something; the Mlati is moving off, toward a branch that seems to originate somewhere up the main trunk and bends down to touch the floor. Luis and the rest of the group are a little ways off; I strike out to join them.
Starrett is obviously annoyed. “We’re in an alien ship, for chrissake,” he whispers – or tries to; the amplification in my suit automatically brings it up to conversational level. “Can’t you keep it together for at least ten minutes?”
When we get to the branch, there is a large, round hole, about 15 feet in diameter, some four feet from the floor. It’s the only branch that is this low; I wonder if it grew there naturally, or was coaxed down – and was that for our benefit, crippled aliens without wings? As we approach, a smaller Mlati emerges from the hole with a – log? – in its delicate front claws. It places the log in front of the hole with meticulous care, as if it were calculating precisely where the step should be placed to best suit our physiques.
Starrett says something to the grunts; they take up positions on either side of the entrance. We – Starrett, Luis and I – step onto the log and enter. Our Mlati follows, hopping onto the edge of the hole and down, its wings opening slightly for balance.
The room – if it can be called a room – has a softer, more comfortable light. The whole place is padded with feathers; piles of them on the floors and sticking damply to the walls. There is no furniture that I can see, other than large pegs that push out from the walls at varying intervals. It is, at least, quiet; the constant hissing of the immatures is no longer audible. Maybe I’ll be able to pay attention now.
We turn and stare at the Mlati. It stares back for a moment. “We are dessirous of learning your ssstoriess,” it finally says, “about your experiencess with the Enemy.”
“We would appreciate that,” Starrett says. “If this – Enemy – is a danger to both of our civilisations, an exchange of information could be invaluable.”
“They have met you. They have tasssted you.”
Starrett nods slightly. “Yes, we have met them. But we don’t know much about them.”
“You have met them.”
There is a pause. Then Luis’ voice, quietly, for our ears only. “It’s a question. They may be having trouble with the plural form. I think it is asking whether you yourself have met them.”
“Oh.” Starrett looks at me briefly, then back at our host. “No, I haven’t met them. But Greene has,” he says, pointing at me. “She is what we call a Survivor. She was on the ship that encountered what we call the Thread, and what you call the Enemy.”
Three pairs of eyes – two human, one Mlati – turn to me. “Well?” Starrett hisses, sounding remarkably like our hosts. “This is why you’re here. Talk to them. Tell them.”
“Fuck you,” I tell him pleasantly. But I dutifully switch on the external speaker and say, “Yes, I was on the ship that encountered the Thread,” a short ten-word speech that I rehearsed constantly on the flight from Alaska. And I get through it without a hitch. Good for me.
The Mlati cocks its head slightly. “Yesss. Tell us your ssstory,” it says.
Tell? If I tell, it will bring back the memory and the longing to touch…
Suddenly, my legs feel can’t hold me any more and I sit down, right in the middle of that feather-covered floor. I try not to throw up.
Luis steps forward. “Those of our species who met the … the Enemy,” he says, his voice sounding rather high and strained, “were damaged. We tried to, uh, fix them, but in the process we made it impossible… It’s hard for them to tell the story.”
I pick up one of the feathers and examine it; it looks remarkably like it belongs to a seagull, the kind I used to watch on the seashore when I was young. Of course, the seagull feathers weren’t various shades of bright orange. And they didn’t have what looks like tiny beads of mercury flowing along the main stem. I move the feather back and forth, watching the little beads shift with the movement. Not thinking.
After a few minutes, I realise that Starrett has apparently taken the stage. “…those few reports that were at all coherent seemed to indicate that they came into visual contact with what appeared to be an entity that resembled a thread. You have been sent copies of the reports…”
The Mlati’s throat works for a moment, brilliant orange and yellow feathers ruffling. “Yesss. We sssaw. But it doesss not tassste of memories.”
There is a rustle, and the creature settles itself gracefully on the ground, in the same way that a chicken sits on a nest. Its legs disappear under a ruffle of shining green feathers. This is, apparently, a very patient species. It turns one dark eye towards me.
“You are the one with a ssstory,” it says. “But you are ill.” The Mlati bends its head and pushes aside some of its feathers, like a mother hen offering its warmth to a chick. “Come,” it says.
And damn, but it looks soft and warm in there. Suddenly, I want to know how the feathers really feel. I want to know how something living feels. I pull off my gloves and toss them away.
The headgear is next to go.
“Dammit!” “Sharah!” Starrett and Luis, almost in chorus. Far away.
The air smells bitter and a bit lemony, not at all what I expected. I take a step toward the Mlati, who waits. A tiny feather floats up and touches my cheek; it is actually warm, as though it retains a certain amount of life.
Something hard and fast flashes in my peripheral vision. Starrett, in his white suit, his face red and angry past the visor. He’s got my headpiece in his left hand, is coming towards me; slipping on the feathers. He goes down, reaching automatically for me as he falls. His gloved hand pulls at my sleeve and touches the bare skin of my left hand.
And the screaming begins.
My ship felt safe.
Something rubs the top of my head gently. It feels slightly rubbery, as though I were being messaged by a spatula. It’s weirdly comforting. “Tell usss,” the Mlati whispers.
The silence around me is expectant. I huddle into the feathers. And tell my story.
We had been detoured because something had shown vaguely on long-range sensors, something that some of the astronomers posited might be a link in the development of a star or even a strange sort of life form. The request was bounced off Central, and came back with a qualified okay, and so off we went.
Didn’t bother me. All it meant was adjusting the shifts to see who could do overtime in case additional support was needed.
In three days, the first faint traces of the Thread could be seen on the remote viewers.
It was beautiful.
It was long, and moved slowly, sinuously, like a piece of knitting wool carried in the currents of thick oil. It looked white at first, but the Science guys said that it was actually multicoloured, that we’d see it more clearly when we got closer. And sure enough, as we neared our viewing sector, the colours appeared, shimmering and moving along the length of the Thread like thin rainbows.
We started taking our meal breaks in front of the larger viewers, just watching the Thread twist and shimmer. Even altered by filters and the digitisation of imaging, it was absolutely fascinating. You wanted to see it in more detail, to follow each blurred band of colour as it passed up and down the length of the Thread.
We got closer. We got to the prime viewing distance. We passed it. Somebody in Nav had decided we needed to get closer, and nobody questioned it. There were no questions. There was just the Thread.
We wanted to watch it. To touch it. To taste it. To be part of it. We wanted. We.
“It was like needing water, or air,” I whisper. “It called to us, it sang to us, it moved and shimmered and sang, and we went to it.”
Until the ship touched the Thread, and the Thread was in us. We could no longer see the colours, we could feel them. They were part of our skin and bone and blood and spit. We needed to be part of it, we needed to be part of each other, and there was no longer any thinking, no longer any I, only the We, and we clawed at each other in a frenzy to touch, to join, to absorb, to become a complete part of the We.
I don’t remember where I was, or with whom, or what happened. All I remember is the need.
“Yesss,” answers the Mlati. “The Enemy pullsss. And tassstess. And absssorbss.”
I bury myself inside the feathers, and try to breathe.
“That isss not the end of the ssstory,” says the Mlati.
I am too busy listening to my heart thumping to say anything. Finally, Luis clears his throat. “I was part of the medical party that first boarded the ship after it was found drifting,” he says. “Most of the crew was dead. There were groups of them everywhere, piled on the floor. They looked like they were all trying to … to fit into each other. Fit any part of themselves into any orifice they could. Many had asphyxiated. Some had bled to death. Others died from malnutrition and dehydration.
“We took the survivors, and brought them back to Earth. It was a few days before they became aware of their surroundings, and when they did, the compulsion remained. They still tried to join with whatever human was nearby. They had to be nursed by mechanisms, or restrained when another human entered the room. Finally we decided to, in effect, reprogram them so that they couldn’t touch anyone, couldn’t bear to be near anyone. So they could at least survive.”
He shrugs, almost apologetically. “It worked better for some than for others.”
Everyone waits. I take a deep breath and push aside several of the Mlati’s feathers to see what’s going on.
Luis is hovering solicitously, holding a mediband in one hand. Starrett is talking to the grunts, who had been called into the room at some point.
The Mlati bends its head down and touches the top of my head lightly with its beak. “We would be pleasssed to have thisss one as a guide,” it says.
Everyone stops. “A guide?” asks Starrett.
It raises its head again. “The Enemy isss difficult to find, and when found, it absssorbsss. There are only a few who have removed from it, and they remain a part of the whole. We would be grateful if thisss one would conssssent to come and help usss find the Enemy.”
“How many of our people will you take?” asks Starrett.
The Mlati cocks an eye at him and repeats, “We would be grateful if thisss one would conssssent to come and help usss find the Enemy.”
“What will you do when you do find the Enemy?” Luis asks.
“We will dessstroy it,” says the Mlati.
“But what about Sharah… I mean, the Survivor?”
The Mlati shivers a little. I think it’s surprised by the question. “It is honored. It isss in our care,” it finally says.
A long feather catches on the sleeve of my suit, glistening and twitching slightly in the air currents. I reach over and take it in my fingers. Touch it.
“Yes,” I say. “Why not?”
Starrett glares at me for a moment, but has apparently decided that I’m no longer somebody who will respond to reason. He whispers urgently to Luis, and then starts talking slowly and loudly to the Mlati, as if to a five-year-old child. I think he’s trying to make it realise that I’m out of my gourd and not qualified to volunteer for anything.
“Sharah?” Luis is trying to get my attention. I wave at him from my new nest.
“They’re not human,” he says urgently. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You may never speak to or see a human being again. You’ll be completely alone.”
I stop waving and smile. He colours and looks away.
Starrett is completely correct. I’m out of my gourd. I know that. The Mlati know that. That’s why they want me. We’re both good with it.
The Mlati will use me as a compass to search for the Thread’s magnetic pull. Once they find it, they will try to kill it – and will probably kill me in the process. But in the meantime, they will care for me and teach me to be something other than what I’ve become. Something – someone – who can touch and be touched.
My caretaker – for that is what it is – bends its head down and gently tousles my hair with its beak. I reach up and stroke the soft, living feathers.
“No,” I say, to Luis, to the Mlati and to myself. “I won’t be alone at all.”