Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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Late Bloomer

by M. J. Guillotte




Pod-Jumbo-Walla-Brother-Gnum got dry mouthed at the sight of them. Tall, lean, honey sucking flowerheads huddling around the executive level sweetwater jugs. Hard bodies with none of the awkwardness of hips or pre-burst breasts, just straight forms rising to their glorious, tentacled heads. The long red tongue of their cerebral cortex licking at the sweetwater drip. Gnum caught their scent with their high humm and the multiple entanglements of their spray. He couldn’t catch all the complexities of the scent, really, not beyond that it had nothing to do with him. He might as well not spray at all. Who was he? He hadn’t even burst yet, just a nobody inside his own skull.

Gnum hated working this high up the stem, nothing but flowerheads and everyone’s spray was dominant to his. They were all so piss and puss evolved!

“Humm, humm.” Sprayed a lean flowerhead next to him. “Pod-Brother-Gnum?” she asked, marking the air with her own identifiers.

“Humm, humm.” Gnum sprayed. “Pod-Sister-Ectu?”

She had burst. The tentacles of her flower like head waved in front of Gnum, the colors still muted except for the red of the brainstem, but lovely anyhow. Gnum remembered when the pod was still close, when they all just had one dull black hive in a cheek. Back then Ectu had embarrassingly large breasts. She always insisted it was a glandular problem, but her big bust and curvaceous figure got her teased and overlooked by others. Now here she was with barely a nipple and stem straight from burst head to toe.

Gnum didn’t know what to spray, he was suddenly too aware of himself. He still had just one dull black hive in his cheek. He tattooed stem juice with the beginnings of another hive on his right cheek to appear more advanced for those who still had eyes. Now here was another old podmate who had burst and working the executive levels. Gnum was stuck working the lower stem, delivering chemical notes to those above, like Ectu. He was sure he was spraying his shame.

“Humm, humm.” Two flowerheads jumped into their awkward moment, spraying at Ectu. They had no eyes to see Gnum, and his scent didn’t mean much to them. “Did you hear the Come Fly With Me Stem sent half their unevolved workers to the Bloom?”

“Humm, humm.” Ectu sprayed. “Didn’t they have the blight on that stem?” She was trying to change the subject. It was obvious the two others hadn’t smelled Gnum standing there.

“Humm, humm,” sprayed the other. “They were able to raise their scent language level and doubled their efficiency.”

“Humm, humm,” added the first. “The Bloom is a better deal for any dumbhumm hardhead anyhow.”

“Humm, humm,” the other sprayed. “The Bloom is really happening. That’s the real future. Seeds flying to the next sowing, no roots. That’s where a dumbhumm hardhead can at least be of use. Till the new soil and all.”

Their perfumed words soured as they finally smelled Gnum. It took a while. His spray barely smelled next to the scent of them.

“Humm, humm,” Ectu started to spray, but Gnum caught wind of her embarrassment and quickly walked away. He was just trying to leave, not even to smell, but the heavy odor of the flowerhead’s opinion blanketed the room. He only caught the obvious notes of laughter, that he was the butt of some joke, and the more sophisticated elements to what was wafted about was beyond him.

Gnum almost ran to the stem flow to go down to his floors where the air was cool, and the scents were dull to null.


*****



“Humm, humm,” sprayed Thal. He was a chemical note carrier like Gnum, a hardhead, but he had a hive in each cheek and they had turned blue now. “Did you hear about the Bloom offer?”

Gnum didn’t spray back, just let him stink up the air for the both of them.

“They are saying any pod member born for the coming season who hasn’t burst yet can get a thirty-cycle bonus for signing up. Humm, that’s a hell of a deal. Fly in a seed to a new sowing. Be right at the root of it. New Soil.”

His odor poured over them, musky dominance in its spray. “Humm, humm” Tralus was a real whipbrain of a boss, a late burster whose thick cerebral cortex only knew heavy odors. “Gnum!” he sprayed. “New assignment. From executive level.”

“Humm, humm.” Gnum sprayed thinking for a wild and crazy moment that Ectu found some way to get him a better assignment for an old pod mate. Gnum took the chemical note and sniffed it. No, he was being sent down, not up, to clean an odorless patch of blight on the stem. It was likely those other two flowerheads getting another laugh at his expense.

Tralus was still spraying his order. “Get moving you dumnhumms!”

Gnum wanted to burst right then and there, to whip his boss silly with his new moist brain stem. But who was he kidding? Gnum wasn’t sure if all of his hive hummed and it hadn’t even changed color. As he headed towards the stem flow, he thought that his best bet might be the Bloom Deal, still, he took the flow down, the bitter smell of his shame in the air behind him.


*****



Gnum had never gone this far down before.

On this floor they broke down the dead husks of the bigger flowerheads molting, broke them down and passed them down further, and here he had to walk to where the low humming workers ran the acid ovens. Black hives in cheeks like him, and many older than him. One hardhead actually had gray hair. It was the first time Gnum thought that some people never burst.

Gnum walked one more level down, darker. The floor and walled lost all tackiness, even feeling dry in some places. Gnum couldn’t see the green light anymore and there was little to no smell here. He had no scent to find his way around. There was a workstation with a chem light. There was a pack with a 3-gallon sprayer and extra tanks. He was to give this place a really good stink.

The sprayer tank was filled with drone musk. A scent that stabs the senses, like the pincher head drones would if you sprayed to much in their presence. Still, any smell was better than none, and it would also act as a deterrent, warning people to stay away from the patch of blight.

Gnum began to spray the yellow black walls with the drone scent, layering the first coat. He was on the second tank when the walls went from yellow black to black yellow. It was lighter now, but not green light like above or even the chem light. He saw a glossy sheen on one wall with a transparency Gnum had never even heard about. It was unshielded light coming right into the stem.

Gnum put the sprayer down and looked at what the transparent patch illuminated. There were signs people were living down here. There were holes in interior walls, cut not grown like they should be for a pod or for an adult cell. In the shadows of the corridor Gnum thought he saw someone, maybe a young pod, but it quickly disappeared in the dark. Probably the drone scent drove him away.

That is when Gnum realized he didn’t smell the drone scent. He had noticed the blight didn’t hold scents for long, but he should be covered in it. He didn’t smell it at all. A strange sour smell hit him instead. He realized that was him. He smelled that way. Not his spray but him. He reeked a sharp musky tang he couldn’t even identify. It had no language. Panicked, Gnum picked up the sprayer and tried to cover the smell, but the heavy drone smell wouldn’t do it.

Gnum noticed a small black speck on the floor in front of him. He bent down and his hand shook holding it. Except in books, Gnum had never seen anything but the back of the hummer for his hive. Their abdomens and a small portion of their thorax, the two rear legs and the tips of their wings was all he had ever seen. They shook and hummed and sprayed. Maybe if he could remember his earliest pod memories, he might have seen the heads emerging from his left cheek before they turned around and began to communicate with others, humming, spraying to the burst and non-burst alike. He knew of course from school their development and his. He knew the work they did collectively under his skin, the tendrils along the nerves, the nerves. Others got to see them pop out of their less dominant side as they developed their second hive. Others saw them change colors and the changes within were reaching towards the culmination of bursting. But not his, and now he had this very still hummer in his hands and he could not smell spray, only through childish organs could he smell his own physical smell.

With shaking fingers he touched his hive, almost knocking out another still hummer. He found the hole and he nervously stuck the still hummer back in. His face was wet. He touched up higher on his cheek and found some kind of leak coming from his eyes.

Gnum dropped the sprayer and stumbled and then ran to the stairs that got him down here, thinking what other freakish thing could happen to him next.

He had his hand on his hive as he ran, dreading any hummers falling out in the jostling. When he got to the flow he went up but was thinking how high did he want to go. To where the nursemaids worked? Shame stopped him. Instead, he got off at his work assignment station. He was going to take the rest of the cycle off due to illness, blaming the spray.

Tralus, his whipbrain boss was there. Gnum knew that he must have been spraying to him, but he was actually smelling it, all of it and he couldn’t make flow to roots of it. Gnum saw Thal next to Tralus, who still had eyes and he pantomimed that act of spraying all over himself, like it was some kind of accident him not being able to humm. Thal got his message and relayed it.

Thalus pointed to the stem flow. Gnum deciphered the stink he smelled in his head, “Go to cell.”

All the way back to his cell, Gnum suffered the stares of other hardheads. They were set on edge from the drone smell covering his body and repelled by his primitive smell. Gnum was relieved when he got to the privacy of his own cell.

He had a reflector in his aromarama, just outside of his body sprayer. Gnum looked at his hive. They were all still and one fell right out in his hand. The hole where it came from was crusting. Again, his eyes were leaking fluid. He must be dying; his hive might already be gone. His own smell was wretched. He got under the sprayer and drenched himself. In horror he saw one after another of his hummers in the moist pool of spray at his feet. Dead. They were all dead. He wasn’t even going to bother to pick them up this time. There was a muffled sound from his own throat. He had no idea what was happening to him.

When he turned the sprayer off, he heard humm outside his cell. He attempted to get a grip on himself, shaking the spray off and peeking outside his cell.

Pincherheads! Piss and Puss! The drones were spraying back and forth with Gnum’s neighbors. They likely complained about the sour smell. He couldn’t easily understand the spray, breathing it in, but he caught the fear.

The drones approached Gnum’s cell forcedly. Their long curved pinchers of exposed white bones crowned them and their pointed brainstem licked the air. Besides the unusual pinchers the drones had antennae they could feel around with.

Drones spray was a heavy scent, it usually made Gnum immobile, but now he was reacting out of habit. Like he thought he should feel afraid, but smelling the spray only through his nose, he was not really affected. His own smell, or lack of smell, however, was having an effect. He caught wind of one idea. Blight. The Drones backed away and left.

Still the neighbors were spraying, and some of them had eyes. Best get somewhere else, Gnum thought.

He was past shame now, truly frightened for what happened to him and decided to go over his boss to the flowerhead executives and get permission to see the nursemaids. He went to the stem flow.


*****



Gnum stood in the common work area he had delivered chemical notes to earlier. There, as before, were the tall, lean, honey-sucking hummers around the sweetwater jugs. His simple nose couldn’t read much but without his hummers, without the tendrils working along his nerves he saw them all differently with his unburst eyes. He wasn’t in a daze from their spray. Gnum looked at male flowerheads he had envied and even feared a little before. Their tall straight bodies looked oddly frail next to his stout frame. Gnum looked at the tentacled head he so badly wanted, the flower heads. Gnum felt his own skull. It seemed right. It seemed in proportion. Gnum touched the scabs where his hive had been, and he felt his other unmarked cheek. This is how it was going to be, Gnum thought.

There was a scream. Gnum turned to see Thal looking at him, at the empty hive in his cheek. Thal’s own hive was humming wildly. He was spraying his terror. Others reacted and sprayed terror and Thal’s spray was spread throughout the floor.

Leaving fast, Gnum ran into Ectu. She was spraying her fright, and it increased feeling his touch but not smelling him. He wanted to communicate to her, that it was just him, but she had burst. She couldn’t ever know him now.

Before he got on the flow a small army of drones came to the executive floor. Their bone white pinchers were clicking in their agitation. Their clicks and the red pointed brainstem licked the air, the antennae feeling about.

The pincherhead drones rushed forward but they bubbled around him like he was a rock in the stream. They rushed Thal as he was the only nonexecutive they could smell.

Gnum moved away from the chaos and got on the stem flow going down.


*****



The yellow black grew black yellow and then there was that translucent patch casting shadows in the corridor and lighting the cut hallway he had seen the small pod mate in. The blight he was in had no spray scent. He had no spray scent. There were no instructions in the air here, no mingling of purpose. Gnum just stood there for a while.

“It’s dead.”

The words hit his ears as meaningless noise. It wasn’t the scream of Thal or his own sobbing. It wasn’t the ambient sounds few paid attention to. He didn’t understand because it wasn’t a scent. But there was purpose to it.

He turned to the sound of it and they were there. Not a pod as they were different ages. There were five of them, two males, a female, the small male and a very old hardhead. The elder handed Gnum a scent note sprayed thick and it took a while after sniffing it several times for Gnum to get it.

Home. Safe. Free. Those where the thought of it. The old man touched Gnum on the shoulders, and then the others did. His eyes were leaking again. Home. Safe. Free.


*****



It took a while. They had chemical notes to work out the vocabulary for Gnum, a rudimentary vocabulary. It was the same language he knew but he never had used it spoken.

The cells here, homes, they were called homes, varied in sizes but no one was alone. Not pods, not arranged in type and purpose but a man a woman or in some two woman or two men, some with children and older people. Families. Gnum loved that word. None of them had or would burst.

“Humm-an.” Gnum said to the very old man who first spoke to him. The leader of the colony in this stem.

“Human,” the man said. “No Humm. No Humm here.”

“Almost every stem has a bit of the blight,” he said to Gnum, while both of them looking out the translucent patch to the field of stems. “Some colonies have gone overboard and killed too much of the stem and then there was no home for anyone.”

Gnum saw the hundreds of stems as far as he could see, they rose almost to the clouds. In between the stems was a forest with other vegetation and where there wasn’t were colorful creatures churning in the soil. Flowerheads with wings floated between stems high above.

“Its not safe out there, Gnum. There are places without stems, places they can’t grow. There are still wild humans too, people descended from people who were immune to the original infection. But they still have outbreaks and its hard for them to scratch out survival.”

“Original infection?”

“It was in the water. Sea water. Meteors it was thought, but they were seeds and they did the prep work for the bloom with their spores. That’s what they wait for. Maturity and a Bloom, all the stems in the right season. They lift high and out into the stars. Not all make it. I suppose many don’t, but they spread. They live, they thrive. Here the spores did the early work. Viral little things, making changes in the sea and soil before we even really knew what was going on. The spores move up from one host to another. Plants, animals all changing until they came to us, with the hives and the changes and the bursting.” The old man explained. “Later seeds carried the workers, hardheads, drones, flowerheads to teach them.”

“Not everyone though.” Gnum said.

“No, Gnum, Not everyone.” And they were both smiling. “Thus, the blight. We are the parasite now.”

“So, we are conquering the stem?” Gnum asked.

“A good parasite doesn’t kill its host.” The elder explained. “No. The stems have given us things we never could have gotten on our own. We are free of want, or the destruction of one another. We thrive. They send some to cure the blight, but they fail, or they join. We grow but we don’t kill the stem. And now, now Gnum with the Bloom, we can reach the stars.”


*****



Gnum had to learn his own body again, his own mind and voice. He mastered language. Gnum found the perversion of young podmates touching one another’s genitals was not entirely a perversion. Sometimes he missed the nuances of spray, the connectedness of scent, but he wouldn’t trade being human for it. He found a woman whose curves and breasts were nothing to laugh at and he fell under her spell. They both were joining the bloom. The blight would just ride along as an unwelcome but unavoidable bad smell on the seeds set for the next sowing. They all hoped for new soil in the end.



THE END


2020 M. J. Guillotte

Bio: I am a sommelier and whisky expert by profession (yeah, not a bad life) enjoying travel for both work and pleasure. When at home in Rhode Island, I'm writing and being occasionally and delightfully interrupted by my wife and two daughters.

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