The Child Decides
By G.D. Tinnams
Midday approached as we stood in the central clearing of the alien forest, the heat almost unbearable as the air filled with an orange shimmering haze. All about me the green hummed with life, a background noise of intertwining clicking, singing and the beating of heavy wings. It was so noisy that after a while you didn’t even hear it anymore, didn’t even notice. It was the silence that was truly disturbing, because when silence came it meant that all life had scattered to avoid the planet’s principal predator. A predator I was not evolved to sense but feared all the same. We were waiting for them, because the alternative was to be hunted down. An agreement had been made, a sacrifice, but we didn’t know who it would be this time. We never did.
Silence descended like a shroud.
I was still, the sweat beading on my forehead and trickling down into my eyes without impediment. It stung, but that didn’t matter, nothing mattered, because the Skyla had arrived, its coming heralded by the sudden parting of huge branches and a wild, effortless leap. I marvelled again at its agility, the very grace inherent in every single movement. It was a long tentative creature comprised of a thick tubular torso and six spindly legs that could grip and climb with feline precision. Those thin pathetic looking limbs were not jointed like mine; they were elastic, and seemed to bend in every direction at once, giving it a range of movement no Earth mammal could match.
I watched with my mouth open as it scuttled down a tree and landed at our feet, it stood on all six limbs and looked on us with eyes as multi-faceted as diamonds. Lance Townshend, the leader of our little group, approached it, and in response the Skyla rose upon two hind legs, standing like a human, except no human could be twelve feet tall.
“The year is over,” Townshend said, meeting those red expressionless eyes.
The Skyla said nothing, it had no vocal chords to say anything with. Instead it turned its back to him, revealing a translucent sac attached to the curvature of its spine. I studied it closely this being the first time the birthing sac had contained someone I actually cared about. I could make her out dimly, a woman shaped outline floating free within the Skyla’s gestation fluids. There was no movement from her, not even the slightest sign that she was alive. Townshend touched the sac, tracing it with his fingers.
“Time to come home, Emma,” he said and reached for the knife at his belt. I watched him plunge that knife into the sac, the blow arching my back with a sudden shiver. Instantly green bile streamed to the ground, flowing faster as the cut grew wider and wider, it splashed across the grass in all directions. Townshend’s blue uniform was soaked through and he stopped for a moment to wipe the substance from his eyes with a forearm. I saw more of his teeth with each arcing thrust until finally Emma spilled out from the sac with the last vestige of fluid. Jane and Marcia had been waiting beside me, and they rushed forward with blankets just as the Skyla collapsed to the ground. I heard a low murmuring, but it wasn’t the alien, it was Emma, her blinking eyes emerging from a mask of green slime.
“Emma?” I said.
Marcia held out a restraining hand, “Not now, Tom, give her a chance.”
I nodded as Emma tried to rise, her gold speckled brown eyes meeting mine for only a second before Jane caught her. I took a step forwards despite my earlier agreement, but Marcia was ready and pushed me away.
“It’s over,” Townshend said.
I blinked. The Skyla had resumed its two-legged standing position and once more towered over our six foot human leader as if he were the insect. I felt both oppressed and in awe of it, but Townshend seemed to feel none of these things, and met the alien’s eyes with a detached intensity.
“Choose,” he said.
I imagined those diamond eyes shifting, if ever so slightly, surveying the clearing and resting on each of us in turn. Five had already been chosen and showed no sign of fear. Instead it was as if a shell had hardened over each of their faces, freezing them in an expression of cold defiance. As for the remaining four, including myself, we waited with reluctance and fear in equal measure. No one wanted to be chosen and no one is ever the same when they are returned. Something dies inside, something none of them can explain but something the rest of us were instantly aware of.
They become callous.
Finally those eyes of diamond settled upon me, an extended claw rising to point me out.
“Yes,” Townshend said. “We will return with him in three days as agreed.”
With an explosion of motion the Skyla was up a tree and gone. I exhaled, vaguely aware of the buzz of life picking up in volume as the local creatures returned from hiding. I couldn’t quite believe it was my turn even though the odds of it not being had fallen every year. At that moment my mind was reeling and my vision filled with veins of bright red. Suddenly it was just too hot and my legs gave out beneath me, and I crashed to the ground. The others watched without comment. I didn’t want to get up.
Minutes later I was following my colleagues back to the compound. Jake kept me company, offering me some of his water along with a reassuring smile. I took both and thanked him, remembering the freckly-face boy he had been when we had landed rather than the man he had so obviously become. Despite the camaraderie I could sense his relief that he had not been chosen in my place.
I would have felt the same.
He and I were the last men in the survey team yet to ride the Skyla’s back. The other three, including Townshend, no longer engaged us in anything but necessary and rudimentary conversation. It was a gulf that could only be bridged by the birthing, until then we were two distinct groups slowly becoming one. Such thoughts made me dread having to speak to Emma. Not because my feelings had changed but because she had become one of them.
The Skyla dug trail came to the end as we stepped into the compound, a site cleared by our own spacecraft seven years before. The ship had left us here for a three-week survey and never came back. We never did find out why but I suspected it had been intended from the beginning and we were chosen emissaries. Shortly after our arrival the Skylas attacked, destroying the radio and generator equipment, but nothing else. We had been left alone, ten people on a planet inhabited by a physically superior species that forced us to give one of our own to them each and every year. We were prisoners, never daring to leave the compound for long. The Skylas watched us. Even then I felt their intense gaze prickle my skin in the open air.
The following morning I woke up sitting at Emma’s bedside in the medical hut, my back a mass of cramped muscled. At some point during the night I had let go of her hand. I quickly picked it up again, squeezing it tightly as if my touch could bring her back. I watched her for a long time until it hit me; two days, two days and then... My grip on her hand tightened, I wanted to speak to her before then, tell her how I really felt before it was too late.
“Tom?” She was awake, bleary eyed but slowly focussing on me. She had been washed the night before, her skin deathly pale from lack of sunlight and her hair a poorly nourished light brown. It hadn’t grown even an inch in her year away from me.
“Hi Em,” I said and kissed her forehead. “How are you feeling?”
She pulled her hand free and turned over. “It hurts Tom, come back tomorrow.”
“Leave me alone,” she said and buried her head in the pillows.
“Em?” I touched her shoulder and felt it tense under my fingers. “Emma, I’m next.”
“Good,” she said. “Go away then.”
It was no use, she ignored me and I was left feeling more afraid than when the Skylas had first invaded the camp. With nothing more to say I left the hut and found Marcia waiting by the doorway. She smiled at me, but it was a tired smile, her short black hair doing nothing to hide a face lined by middle age and worry.
“How is she?” Marcia asked.
I shrugged. “She doesn’t want to speak to me.”
Marcia nodded knowingly and then linked her arm in mine. “Come on Tom, we could both use some breakfast.”
Feeling lost, I let her lead me away. I didn’t really want to go, but staying seemed worse. I was not wanted here.
“I’ve been up all night doing the blood tests,” Marcia said.
“Same as the others?”
“The same,” Marcia replied. “She’s been altered.”
As we walked, I noticed Townshend strolling across from the opposite side of the compound towards the medical hut. My paranoid self told me he had been waiting for me to leave. I stopped and watched him go in, a stab of jealously making me grimace. I imagined Emma would not turn him away, not now. They were the same.
Marcia tugged my arm. “Come on Tom,” she said. “Leave them.”
We continued on our way to the food hut, and when I say the food hut, I mean our food hut, not theirs.
Two days later the ten of us marched back along the path and into the clearing. Marcia and Jane hugged me goodbye and Jake shook my hand. The six said nothing, Emma regarding me coldly, her face composed without expression and then frozen that way. I couldn't penetrate that veneer, all my words and advances of the last two days having fallen on deaf ears. It was like Emma hadn’t come back at all, just this lookalike, this doppelganger. I was afraid the same thing would happen to me, my breathing becoming more laboured with the onset of an ever growing panic.
This time there was little waiting, just an abrupt displacement of air as the Skyla dropped from the trees to land at my feet. Townshend remained silent this time, only nodding in confirmation. The Skyla didn’t hesitate, picking me up with two of its limbs and then bounding away before I could even take a breath. The clearing retreated and disappeared below us, my vision filling with fleeting brown and green shapes, the leaves scraping and scratching my skin. Just as suddenly we broke free into the light, emerging to dance across the roof of the forest at a speed that made me both weak and dizzy. During our journey I lapsed into daydream, seeing Emma as she had been before, a smiling radiant woman who took my hand and assured me of her love. Then I saw Townshend standing by her side smiling, his hand on her shoulder, fingers digging into the bone.
I screamed and then choked, my throat filling up with a foul that made me want to vomit. I flailed helplessly as I drowned, my uniform eaten away by some sort of acid. It all weighed so much, beating down on my head, pushing into me through every pore, every orifice. My legs were jammed into a foetal position and my entire body tingled and stung, like alcohol upon an open wound.
The birthing sac had closed around me, absorbing me, and there was nothing I could do but endure the invasion. Nothing... It cut me off from myself, every extraneous receptor of sense and feeling detached from my mind until only my mind remained. I felt no fear, no despair, no emotion at all. That traffic was quelled. There was no surge of adrenaline to make my heart flutter, nothing to induce fight or flight. There was also no quantifiable passage of time, so that a minute might have been a day or a week. I had no way of knowing, no way at all. But I tried, creating for myself the false sensation of revolving, of being a container of thought going round and round in the nothingness. I counted each revolution, on and on, the numbers jumping up and down as delirium took over. Madness came because there was nothing else, nothing to latch onto.
Then I heard it, just there in the background, an ever so soft purr that would have made me giggle if I had been able. What did it mean? There could be no sound here, no sight or feeling, and yet the purr remained, growing in something that wasn’t volume. I resolved to study the purr, to run it through a hundred tests in turn so that I might discover why it resonated so. As I did this the purr changed, slowly resolving itself into an expression of meaning. I rejected the first iteration as unlikely and so it became another and then another. When the process was complete I was left with only one conclusion.
I felt nothing at my triumph.
Then the purr altered and I was left to begin the process all over again. My need to understand had become the driving force of my existence because there was simply nothing else to do. Time passed I’m sure, but only by the virtue of one thought running into another, I was learning, but ever so slowly, ever so gradually. Hours, days, months, hours, days, months, until... I didn’t know and I cared even less. Finally the point passed when the purr was a purr no longer, it was a language, a language in my head that I could both understand and express.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the Queen,” it said, “a mother to you, as you are a child to me.”
“I am not your child.”
“Every child must learn so they can grow,” she said. “Come with me.”
My perceptions changed rapidly and instead of blackness I became aware of various subtle shades of warmth. In time I recognised these shades as shapes, the shape of a leaf, the shape of a branch, the shape of a tree. My mind resolved the warmth into yellow and this radiated from each shape in varying degrees and shade, this aura of life.
“Poor external creature,” the Queen said. “So limited.”
As if to illustrate her point, the view was replaced by spheres of yellow travelling through a complex corridor of light. I surmised it to be an inner representation rather than an outer one, a network of shared thought and logic. I felt elation, my earlier numbness transcended by discovery. It seemed I could feel again, I could want. It was all beginning to make sense and with a newfound hunger I traversed from one piece of logic to another, reaching a conclusion and then circling back for more. There was so much to know, so much to experience, and I was free to explore it all.
My mind was opened.
“Stop,” the Queen said.
I was pulled back from my expansion, held in check as a yellow sphere split off from a distant path and came hurtling towards us. As it drew closer I marvelled at its apparent beauty, a mosaic pattern of shaded variation.
“Is that another Skyla?” I asked.
“That is the Skyla male, Parthon. He seeks my thoughts for a private exchange.”
The sphere stopped before us and then emitted a sharp white light, illuminating each groove and imperfection in itself with growing ferocity.
“Yes,” the Queen said.
The pattern disappeared from view and I felt it overlap us, syncing itself to our thoughts.
“A new trial my mate,” a voice said.
“You have a challenger?” The Queen asked.
“Yoitil wants you,” Parthon said. “He would bend my thoughts to a new direction and be the next father of our race.”
“Then I will prepare,” the Queen answered. “Bring him to me.”
Parthon’s illumination dimmed as he disengaged, his pattern becoming a speck of energy as he accelerated into the distance.
“What does he mean?” I asked.
“I am the one Queen, the one female,” she explained. “The males often fight for my attention. It is their way.”
Around us the corridor of light unfolded itself into a square that filled with a multitude of Skyla patterns that I assumed to be either spectators or supporters for one side or the other. Parthon returned and came before us with a renewed glow. Behind him came another, this pattern neither complex nor beautiful. It was raw, ugly, and I guessed the owner to be much younger than Parthon, younger and determined.
“My Queen,” Yoitil transmitted loudly. “And a new little mind as well. I am honoured.”
“You will respect our guest,” the Queen replied. “You do not rule here yet.”
“I apologise my Queen,” Yoitil said, his pattern glowing passively. “My challenge is true, let Parthon return to his scholarly pursuit of neural memes. I am more worthy of you. The next generation will know vigour and life, not endless contemplation.”
“Parthon?” The Queen said.
“I accept the challenge,” Parthon replied.
“Then let it begin.”
The two male patterns merged, the new single sphere engulfed in a crackle of energy that was akin to lightning.
“The neural storm,” the Queen explained. “We go in”
The pattern merged with us and at once I was privy to their battle, my own construct ripped apart by ever more violent waves of conflicting hatred. In this fight the Skylas could access their most base emotions, focussing them as a weapon that gave a ferocity to all the thoughts and arguments vying for attention.
“Little mind,you sully our Queen,” Yoitil said. “When Parthon is defeated I will seek you out and rip your body away from her. I will leave it for the scavengers to feed upon.”
“No,” Parthon countered. “The humans are not inferior, they will learn and grow and one day enrich us all.”
“They are a contamination,” Yoitil said. “A disease that should have been wiped from our planet as soon as they arrived; even now they are beginning to change us.”
“And we change them, it is movement, it is new, all are better for it.”
The battle continued and I could feel each side gathering more strength to aid their conflicting arguments. Instinctively I knew the Queen was slave to the victor, her free will merely allowed to operate within the dominant male’s defined parameters. As for the combatants, Parthon was older, with a mind more focussed but also more detached. Yoitil was young, barely mature, with all the access to negative emotion that youth implied. It was then that I felt fear, for I realised that Yoitil’s pattern was becoming ever more dominant.
Parthon was losing.
“What will become of me?”
“Observe,” the Queen said.
I could not because I was afraid, afraid that Parthon’s wisdom would be struck down by nothing more than enforced ignorance, by wilful pride.
“Thank-you Tom,” Parthon said. His strength renewed while Yoitil had no more to give.
“Enough!” Yoitil screamed. “Parthon you are our rightful leader, I accept your judgement.”
The combined pattern became three once more, and I noticed that Yoitil’s had subtly changed, within his sphere there appeared variation, an engraving of new lines overwriting the old.
“I am glad to teach,” Parthon said, his glow dazzling. “My Queen, I will return to my studies.”
“My mate,” the Queen acknowledged.
Around us the square once more became a corridor, the other Skylas retreating at high speed.
“I will join you, Parthon,” Yoitil said.
“Come then,” Parthon said and the two exited through a newly created junction.
“Today you learnt your first lesson, Tom,” the Queen said internally.
“I shared Parthon’s fear.”
“And in sharing it, you helped him win.”
Townshend cut me free from the birthing sac and I fell headfirst into the dry grass with a jolt of cold and shock. I had so long been absent from the physical world that I was almost overwhelmed. The colours leapt at me with agonising vigour, and looming face shapes struck at me with intense and flat ugliness. Where were the glowing auras, the subtle shades of life? The Queen had warned me that this would be a difficult day, but no warning could have prepared me for this. I recoiled from it all, willing myself to nothingness, to blankness, the Queen’s warm presence painfully absent from my mind.
They carried me back to the compound, put me in a bed, and then began to send me gentle and questing thoughts.
“Rest, Tom,” Townshend said without speaking. “You’re not alone.”
“Tom,” Marcia said aloud. “Tom, will you speak to me? Have you come back to us?”
I opened my eyes and studied Marcia, she had grown her black hair long and her face had thinned behind it to become pale and gaunt.
She didn’t reply; then I remembered that I had not actually spoken. I opened my mouth and slowly traced the syllables.
“Marcia?” I said without inflection.
“Tom, I’m going next.”
My vision swam, a watery veil hovering just above the truth of reality. I concentrated, I struggled, but words were not enough for me, maybe they never had been. They just didn’t mean anything anymore.
“Let me,” Emma said from afar. Her strength flowed and the image of Marcia changed before me. I saw her aura rather than her, and it emanated waves of recognisable emotion. She was happy to see me but mostly she was afraid, she needed me to reassure her, she needed me to hold her.
“That’s good,” I said. “I wish you well.”
She recoiled and I realised that my voice had become toneless, unable to articulate any sense of the Tom she had known.
“Tom, what happened to you? What’s going to happen to me?”
I tried to enter her mind, impart some small image, but it was locked to me. I lacked the strength to beat back her barriers. All I could see was what happened to leak through.
“Just go Marcia,” I said finally. “Go and find out for yourself.”
She left burning with despair, but I couldn’t follow. She was nothing and no-one.
“Stop it, Tom,” Emma said. I shook my head like I could shake her out of my mind.
“You’re being childish.”
“Any more than you were?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But things have changed while you’ve been away.”
I felt sadness and then caught a glimpse of Emma struggling against a smiling man as he forced himself upon her.
We assembled within the human neural net for the challenge; my pathetic new home nothing more than a dim square of half completed logic gates and cached memories. Townshend’s pattern wavered before me, as barely lined as a fingerprint, but confident and ready.
“Tom,” he said. “There’s no need for this.”
I reached out my awareness to Emma’s pattern; it glowed at my touch and fortified my love.
“My challenge stands,” I said. “Do you accept?”
“I accept,” he replied. “Begin.”
Our essences swelled and embraced each other, a million points of conflict and pain as we both fought for dominance. Emma joined us then, the arbiter in the war for her soul. For long seconds we fought, his argument a powerful vision of a successful human colony conquering the planet. He stressed that for this to happen we must be prepared to make sacrifices, to mate and breed with impunity in order to do what must be done. In response I expressed my love for Emma, that she was mine and mine alone and I would not share her with anyone. Together she and I were complete, the depths of our intimacy making any other state absurd. I was rawer than he was, newer, my emotions more powerful and extreme. I believed wholeheartedly that I would win.
I should have...
“No – We do what must be done.”
Townshend beat me, sending all my emotion and arguments spiralling back into my mind with a broad stroke of all pervading purpose. He was right, he had always been right and I had been misled by my own bad judgement. My feelings for Emma were undiminished but my will to fight for her was gone. From Emma I sensed unconditional surrender, the challenge having forced the same change in her attitude, resolving her pain. She would share herself willingly.
Dazed and weak I fell away and almost didn’t hear the fourth voice in our conflict, the little voice that had ever so slightly tipped the battle in Townshend’s favour. As far as I could tell it possessed no ideas, no knowledge, no anything. All it had was simple blind love and devotion.
“LOVE DADDY, DADDY BETTER.”
Emma was pregnant...
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