All was dark, and something touched her.
She started violently then curled up even more tightly, nose to tail like an infant. The blackness behind her eyes consumed everything and the only sound that she could hear was breathing.
Slowly, though, she became aware of other noises. Though they were muffled by her protective suit, she heard a voice repeating her name. “Ahrottl? Ahrottl, can you hear me? Please tell me that you can hear me.”
Gerry, she thought. Images of a tall, angular alien creature with a sickening lack of fur on its pallid skin and a huge mop of it on top of its head, a study in color contrasts, dark and light. Thick, rubbery pinkish-red lips underneath a bizarre triangular nose (they have hairs inside their noses but almost no where on the outside) beneath a pair of binocular eyes, the most familiar thing about this “face”.
The images, by themselves, without emotional context, were disturbing. It felt like part of her, the part of her that felt was cut off from the part that made images, and that in and of itself was extremely unsettling.
Alone with aliens, nothing around, the Red Key’s curse… her thoughts flowed in a circle, a wheel that she was unable to stop, a cycle she was unable to interrupt. The vast loneliness, the unimaginably huge distances between her and another of her kind, and the mocking, gory image that she had been subjected to all conspired to keep her Stilled, and not just as a deliberate sign of displeasure, not consciously, but Stilled to the depths of her, moving in such a quick, tight circle that she seemed not to be moving at all.
“Ahrottl! Ahrottl! Wake up!”
She grew aware of a sense of detachment. As these thoughts cycled at a vicious pace, she could see them, separately. A part of her was watching the frantic pace of madness overtaking her with a detached curiosity, and heard the voice outside her suit with remarkable clarity.
“I don’t know, she won’t move, she’s not responding! She’s breathing but she’s just curled up into a ball! What do I do?” More muffled voices. The detached part of her guessed idly at the tones without being certain which was which or what they were saying.
What will they do? Detached-Ahrottl wondered. What will they do with me? Will they just space me? I’m just using resources, precious resources, the resources that Maria didn’t want me to use… they’ll space me. I’m sure of it.
Panicked-Ahrottl seemed to hear this and the visions of the empty, cold vastness drew even further outwards. Her body tightened even more; Detached-Ahrottl could feel control of bowels and other voluntary functions beginning to slip.
“Ahrottl, listen, it’s Gerry, Algernon, please listen to me. I’m here. Maria is joining us. We’re going to do this together. We should never have sent you out alone. It was unfair of us to expect that of you.”
See what you’re doing? His wife sent him out, and now she’s coming herself. You forced her to risk her mate, and now her own body, a mated female with status and a ship. It’s bad enough that she had to send her husband after you, but now you’re putting a potential Mother at risk with your selfishness. If they space you that’s the least you deserve! Detached-Ahrottl reasoned. At least, it seemed very reasonable to her. Images of Maria, another alien shape flashed through her mind. Even more hairless, but at least not as angular as her husband, and another female, another potential Matriarch.
Don’t fool yourself, Ahrottl. You’re no potential Matriarch. You write novels and make a poor sum at that. Sure, you have fans. Sure, people enjoy your work, but what do you have to show for it? Plenty of males would love to play with you for the novelty of it but none of them are going to want to stay and build a family with an author of all things. No, Ahrottl. Your job is an unstable one, your lifestyle an unstable one, you have no den, you have no close family, you have no way to feed your children, if you even had any. Even if you weren’t lost at the other end of reality from every Hrotata that ever lived, and about to die there, it’s not like you have a legacy other than masturbatory pleasure fantasies about people who never existed outside of your own mind.
After all, Detached-Ahrottl thought, why else would you be out on a mining operation with humans? We both know why – you do poorly enough with your own kind that you seek out aliens to fill your need for companionship. You know that your prospects of creating a den and a legacy are null, so you run off to have adventures like an adolescent male! You probably would have been happier as a male, able to go and fight and play and seek and explore without any concern about serious matters like education, finance, or the future of your species and the Great Family. The Mother-gifts are wasted on you, and your organs will shrivel before you have a chance to use them for their true purpose – that is, they would have, if you were even going to live that long.
Somehow Panicked-Ahrottl spun even faster internally with each cold, detached insult. Detached-Ahrottl had ceased to pay attention to the outside, crouched over the frightened animal spinning in circles inside her own head, taunting. Detached-Ahrottl ceased to feel so detached. A kind of hateful satisfaction flooded her as she tortured herself, and Detached-Ahrottl spread her shoulders and stretched and yawned, shedding her old coat for a red-and-black one, becoming Tormenting-Ahrottl.
Yes, little creature, keep running. Keep in circles. That’s all you’ve ever known to do, isn’t it? You don’t like something, so you run from it like a male instead of facing it and defending your turf. You run, but then you run into something else you don’t like and you run again. You keep running, bouncing from place to place, and now you’re running out of places to run and hide. There are no good options now. There’s no place that you can run to that is made for you, no comfy den and you don’t have the strength or the ovaries to create your own. That’s why you’re spinning like a moon; you don’t know how to sit down and deal with discomfort.
Panicked-Ahrottl began to mewl as she ran, letting out peals of agony. Tormenting-Ahrottl was vaguely aware of the sound the human outside, saying something about her making noises. She refocused on her prey.
They won’t help you, they can’t help you. Their Mother is as afraid as you are, little one. There is no den, no home, no warmth, no bonding. They scratch your head and let you sit beside them and on them as they would a pet or a favored animal, and you know that it’s only because you let them taste your nectar. They think of you as a useful tool, like their artificial intelligences. They think of you as an animal that they send out to do their dirty work for them. When you show that you’re useless – as you already have, by breaking here – they’ll probably end your life in mercy, unless they keep you around to eat after supplies run low. After all, they are aliens, and not scavengers. Humans like their meat fresh.
Tormentor-Ahrottl cocked her head, listening, and smiled in satisfaction. They’re talking about opening your helmet now. No, it’s not out of concern, though it might be masked with that. They’re talking about opening your helmet because you’re an expendable animal to them. They want to see if the air will kill them, so they’re going to try it on you first. Just like they did by sending you in to the predator’s den first, to see if there were any scraps to be had.
Just stop. Just give up. Stop running, creature, scared little male kit. The only Mother than can help you now is Death, and she awaits you eagerly. If you want to be altruistic about it, you’re helping those poor humans by giving up your pointless life.
Fool. She kicked herself.
Fake, pauper. She spat on herself.
Professional liar. She turned her back on herself.
Honorless homwrecker, trying to steal a good woman’s mate.
Within her she felt something welling up. The spinning of Panicked-Ahrottl was reaching a fevered pitch. Like a wheel with a burr, she began to trip up at one point, and the shaking began to rasp and get more and more violent.
Useless, shiftless, pointless, meat. Tormentor-Ahrottl dropped that one on Panicked-Ahrottl, spitting it at her over her shoulder.
Panicked-Ahrottl exploded with a shriek of confusion and rage. The scream ripped through all of Ahrottl’s parts, beginning as high and keening but continuing and growing low and ragged as it faded. No longer tense, her body fell limp and for a moment there was blissful silence within and without.
Then her head snapped back, and her eyes opened wide. She knew these things because she could feel, but she could not see. All that was in front of her was a field of white, endless white light. Her jaw began to work without her permission, and words came out of it that did not originate in her at all.
“Leave this place. It is diseased, not with a disease of poison or parasite but with a malady of perception and cognition. Cling to your ignorance and stay and share our fate or leave and warn the others. If this spreads all Raleli are doomed. Quarantine and flee.”
Then the pure white light faded again to quiet, comfortable darkness.