Aphelion Issue 246, Volume 23
December 2019 / January 2020
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When they Arrived

by Richard August

When they arrived, she loved them almost before they began to speak. The way their limbs moved, all insect arrhythmia and rotating joints--she loved that. She loved the length of their necks; elegant stalks extending upwards, swaying like strands of algae seen through clear water. When they began to speak she loved them even more; their voices bubbled with strange verbs and conjunctions which everyone who heard them understood but could not translate. She recorded their words and listened to them, through as many speakers as she could assemble so that she was surrounded on all sides by the reflected murmurs of the things. She was happy then.

Soon, she began to try to speak like them; she began to imitate their high-pitched, winnowing voices. Her lips throbbed with the difficulty of pronouncing syllables her throat could barely produce. She fainted, struggling to speak an imperative which required more oxygen than she could ingest--she fell to the floor with the stately grace of a martyr. When she awoke she realised her commitment to them was the most real thing she had felt in her life. She could recall, vaguely, the sentiments of love; she could recall the sensual thrill of a man or a woman touching her, caressing her, but it all seemed ephemeral. She had felt the burning in her lungs as her breath gave out, her mind had gone silent. It had all been for them. That had been real. That had been true.

She would walk behind them, watching and imitating the sway of their hips--bone spurs which jutted from their mottled skin, like ivory tusks from the jaws of the elephants she had seen in museums. Sometimes they recognised her and made peculiar gestures, rippling their flesh up and down their necks, and clicking their pincers together. She loved that sound almost as dearly as their voices; a sharp sound, like snapped porcelain. She did not know if these clickings and ripplings were affectionate or mocking. She did not care. She merely cried with joy that certain of them could remember her face. She wondered if, as certain scientists had speculated, they had a collective repository of knowledge; she wondered if she had been entered there. Had her image been accreted into their store of shared concepts and ideas? She hoped so.

Sometimes, she would follow their blind, flabby slave creatures as they went about their desultory duties. These bloated, ugly worm things she did not like, did not admire, but she still envied them their closeness to their masters. She wished she too could feel the gentle, transitory contact of one of their pincers. She wished she too could be scarred with the blushing wounds of those claws. She followed them as they went about their tasks. Sometimes she even laid her hand on one of the smooth, waxy backs of the slave creatures. It felt like the fat which edges raw meat--gelatinous and creamy. Afterwards, the fingers she had used to touch the worm things smelt of rotten wood. She did not wash it for a week.

Attending conferences assembled by prominent astro-biologists, she sought to understand the social structures of the creatures. She read treatises which detailed their hierarchies and relationships. She pored over syllabaries that attempted to catalogue the noises they uttered and the images which formed in the mind when they were listened to. She continued to try and speak the words, cutting her tongue on her teeth as she tried to form implausible sounds with a mouth that could only stretch and warp itself so far. She wondered if she failed because her mouth could only ever be three-dimensional. Having watched them speak so often, thrilling to each word, she had begun to wonder if their mouths formed sounds which they only uttered later--that every audible grunt was in fact something which had been spoken long ago, and that what was being vocalised by those remarkable mouths would only be heard in future centuries. Was this possible? She watched their fleshless mouths pupate and squirm with life, trying to discern whether she was right. In the end, she decided it was impossible to tell.

Where had they come from? She studied their ships; long sleek things that trembled under the hand, like the stomach of a dying bird. Once, she was sure, she saw one burst; its limits simply exceeded by its own substance. As it had dissipated, she had thought she’d seen one of them simply inhale it. Its broad nostrils, perfectly circular and with an interior the colour of coral, had sucked up the material it had sailed through space inside. There had been a new sound then, which she hadn’t heard before or since--it was the sound of metal, being scratched against bone.

She followed them whenever she could. She lurked in the interstices of their colony. There were others like her; they were too beautiful to only have one person in love with them. She knew this. It did not stop her hating all the others she saw. There was a thin, sunken-eyed man. His skin had the saggy quality of wet dough, it draped from his arms and from his neck. She could always hear him, when he was near--his flesh made a sound like flap, flap, flap as he moved. She felt pity for him; she thought that they played with him. If he neared a spot from which she was watching them--watching as they split themselves into quarters and then reassembled in unsettling shapes, perhaps--the noise of flesh, slopping about, disturbed and distracted them. Sometimes they would flit away. Sometimes they would issue harsh but beautiful cooing sounds. Sometimes their chests would become hollow, their anatomy reshaping itself in response to a stimulus, although what the response might mean she could never be certain. When the man, her competitor as she thought of him, arrived, he would look out over them, blandly unaware of the disruption he had caused. She hated him then. She pitied him only when she heard the flap, flap, flap of his pendulous skin. Once, she followed the man home. It had been late, the night unbesmirched by the glow of streetlights--the city in the midst of one of its power cuts. She’d been able to follow him purely by the sound of his flesh--his own body mockingly applauding him, as he ran through the streets. She’d watched him, looking through the window of his basement flat. His walls had consisted solely of endless pictures of them; collages, in which he had attempted to capture every facet of their beauty. Thousands of images--individual limbs captured in minutely different inflections, hind-eyes shuttering like the wings of humming birds. She could see, in the architecture of his obsession, a love which seemed deeper than hers. She truly hated him then.

It was only after a year of her carefully watching them, loving them, that something changed. Some element of their disposition altered, irrevocably. Their comportment toward her became almost affectionate; pincers would idly brush against her face in passing, leaving beautiful stripes of scarring which she treasured, picking away the scabbing whenever it spread across the cuts, so they remained enflamed, marks of pride. Sometimes, when their forms became swollen or they suddenly began to leak and sweat and ripple, they would expose aspects of their anatomy to her she had never seen. She felt honoured then, superior to those others who worshipped them as she did. She was one of the elect; were they beginning to love her as she loved them? Her dreams were filled with peculiar glimpses of mottled innards; of herself in the midst of some sexual abandon which even her subconscious couldn’t truly visualise, leaving instead the centre of such dreams an awkward blank.

That failure of imagination didn’t trouble her. Instead, she continued to walk among them, continued to receive the benediction of their claws, scraping against her soft pink skin. Sometimes she still saw the man whose skin hung, horribly, from his bones, but she no longer despised him, as she had done. Now she ignored him; the hundreds of criss-crossing scars which those lengthy pincers had etched into her skin had erased her jealousy, her envy. She wondered if they were making her a saint, if perhaps they were about to begin loving her in the way she loved them. The idea made her delirious.

Daily, their pincers scraped across her epidermis, leaving their gentle score marks. She loved each scar; each new addition she fondled and traced carefully with her fingers. She would follow its individual filigree, from wherever it originated, until it joined the indistinct raised mass of scar tissue that stretched across her stomach. She still picked the scabs free; she still tried to retain the livid redness of each mark as best she could. They proved, she thought, her closeness to them. They let all of them know that she was theirs, that she was loved as she loved them.

She didn’t notice at first that even those scars that she was unable to pick at, to scrutinise constantly with the tactile thoroughness of a child, did not truly heal. They remained, frayed and splitting, stress-marks in her flesh. She didn’t mind of course. No, that was to repudiate the gifts she was being given. Even as other people began to stare at her, even more than usual, she was unconcerned. It was enough to see the covetousness in the gaze of the others who worshipped them as she did, and so she returned to them, every day, letting their claws slowly etch themselves into her skin, letting the sensation of an unknowable intelligence marking her out as chosen salve any pain she felt. One day, she saw herself in a mirror. Unconsciously she had avoided seeing herself, but, when finally she did, she knew that this was how she was always meant to look. Why shouldn’t her skin be jewelled with blood? Why shouldn’t her face be a peeling mess? This was how she was meant to look.

Soon, after a few more months of the gradual caress of their claws, she could feel the barest murmur of a breeze against her flesh. She could detect--or thought she could--each molecule of water in the rain as it patted her head, as it trickled down lacerated cheeks. They had made her look as she was meant to look. They had made her feel as she had been meant to feel--her senses were more than human, better than human. So was she. Just like they were. Or nearly. If only she weren’t so constrained by her own lumpen physical shortcomings. She looked at herself; her limbs were too long, she thought. How low little weight she could carry. Her features were too shapely, much too shapely--too harsh with the prominence of cheekbones, too defined. Why didn’t her skin bunch and puff out; if it did then she could follow them around forever, watching the sensual gyrations of their shoulder blades--ridges of ovoid muscle beneath their granular flesh. Sometimes she wondered if she could plunge her hands into them, as if into the fineness of sugar or sand. Or salt.

There were more stripes in the coming weeks. Stripes of redness across her legs, across her back. Each night she probed them anew. She considered giving each of the scars names, or at least titles of some kind. She tried to cull something from her limited knowledge of their language which might do for a name but those sounds... no, she thought, they should not be sullied by such terrestrial disappointments like human bodies. She felt, nightly, as her skin struggling to mend itself, that she was transforming.

Passing through their district one day, no longer skulking and watching as she had done, but walking with the easy confidence of one who had been marked as special, she felt the familiar painful ecstasy of claw against flesh. It was being drawn across her back. She turned, to see the bestower of this latest gift and as she did so, felt the stripe of claws again, this time along the side of her face. She spun around, completing a geometrical shape like that of a bruised peach. There were dozens of them, surrounding her. Claws extended toward her, in lengthy, almost formal offering. What were they doing? They hemmed her in and she felt, for the first time, panic begin to infect her joy at their presence. There was something thoughtful about them. Again, the tingling thrill of pain but now intensified as the claws tore at her, in a dozen different places at the same time. What were they doing? She let out a bark of... laughter? Was it a scream? Even she didn’t know. All she was aware of now was the sensation of those claws slashing at her, of the coarse ululations which leapt from her throat, of her flesh falling away from her.

That was what they were doing. She realised this, as a piece of her skin floated across her vision. A scrap. A scrap of her skin. She was being transformed. They were making her one of them? Or... they were making her beautiful. Making her beautiful. At last, she would be as beautiful as them. That was what it had always been about, hadn’t it, really? Being as beautiful as them, as those impossible bodies, those sinuous limbs. That was what love was, really, anyway: the worship of beauty. The world had narrowed itself now to the narrowest point of experience--she felt the surging, generative pain of those surgical claws. She saw the air made shadowy with the tasselled remnants of her skin.

Eventually the creatures drifted away from her, as a man whittling wood hands over the small boat to the child and leaves him to discover its mysteries. What was she? She felt little different. Transformed but only in the remotest sense. Freer, perhaps, but only because she was certain some lengthy process had been finished, some responsibility discharged. She began to follow their retreating forms. She moved differently now. More ponderously. It did not matter. She loped along, happy to be moving. What could she bring them, to thank them for touching her, reshaping her, loving her as they had done? She tried not to distract herself. Simply follow. Simply follow. Her skin was different now, too. Chalky, slightly bloated; what had the ministrations of her benefactors revealed? It did not matter. She should simply follow. Perhaps she would be given orders. Then she would know what to do. Would she be complete then? She felt a presence at her side and saw that one of the fat, worm-like slave things had fallen in besides her. Was she one of them now? Was that it? The colour of their skin seemed to match, she noticed, the pace of our movement is the same. Limbs now withered and short. Yes. She was one of the slaves now. That was nice, she thought. Together, she and her new companion followed them, their beautiful masters, faithful as whipped dogs.


2015 Richard August

Bio: Mr. August has had non-genre fiction published on Gloom Cupboard and Zygotes in my Coffee, and SF published in Iron Watch.

E-mail: Richard August

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