The chemicals of the cryotube stung my nose as I blinked myself awake. My mouth felt as dry as cotton, my limbs chilled as they always were when I first woke after space flight. My foggy brain noted the blinking red light in the blackness beyond my chamber. Why wasn’t the ship physician there to greet me with a warm blanket and a vacuum-packed bag of cocoa with a straw?
I tore the wires from my wrists and forehead, plucking a few dark hairs out with them, then unfastened the belts around my waist. I attempted to sit up, realizing too late that the lid was closed on my cryotube when I smacked my forehead on the glass dome. Merda! I swore in Italian. Another malfunction.
I groped for the interior release panel, but it didn’t respond. None of the buttons were lit. I banged on the glass lid, my voice coming out scratchy and hoarse, deeper than usual. “Hey! Is anyone out there?” There were always a few crew members operating the ship. I kicked and banged on the lid. No one came to check on me.
I lay back down in my glass coffin. My fingers found my mother’s rosary in my pants pocket and began to worry the beads. In the light of the red beacon, the ghost of my reflection stared back at me, eyes dark and haunted. With my black hair sprawling into shadows and my usually-bronze complexion pale from months without sunlight, I probably looked like Neve Bianca. Only I would have no prince to rescue me.
I thought of Dr. Montgomery’s last words to me before I left for Pluto. “They selected you to go up there for a reason. Make me proud, Chipmunk”—his pet name for me because of my chubby cheeks. When I stared into the depths of those green eyes , I could hardly stand the idea of leaving. And yet working alongside him every day and never telling him how I felt was far worse.
If I died now from lack of oxygen in my cryotube and didn’t get to tell him about the discovery on Pluto, I wouldn’t be making anyone proud. Nor would I have the opportunity to tell him how much I loved him.
I braced my feet and hands against the lid, pushed with all I had in me—which wasn’t much, after what I guessed was a few years of slumber—and pressed down. When that didn’t unlock the glass casing, I pushed up. A lock clicked and I was able to pop the lid open.
I sucked in a breath of stale air and attempted to float out of my cryotube. Instead, I fell out. Gravity. No wonder I felt heavy and weak. We weren’t in space anymore, Toto.
From the small amount of luminosity cast by the blinking red light, I noticed the ten empty cryotubes. Where was everyone? And why had they left me?
My mind shot back to our discovery. My discovery. No one would care about mining operations on Pluto once they saw the evidence to go along with the pictures we’d sent back. The archeological site, along with the DNA we’d found, would prove the existence of extraterrestrials. And the mutation of human DNA melded with theirs would prove they had visited Earth.
Assuming NASA Inc.’s competitors hadn’t come back with similar findings first, we would be credited with making the discovery of the century. One or two of the crew members might have left me to claim my find as their own, but not the whole crew.
I stepped out of the cryo room, feeling my way into the dark corridor. The floor angled downward on an incline. Had we crashed? From the gravity, we had to be on Earth.
“Hello?” I called, my voice echoing in the deserted passage.
The air smelled musty and pungent. I guided myself to the engine room and found my way to the breaker. I turned every dial and knob until a set of backup lights lit the wall panels. The lack of power explained why my cryotube must have defrosted me. The bridge was empty. Supplies, weapons, and flashlights were missing.
My breath came faster, my heart racing. I’d been abandoned. I hadn’t felt this kind of panic since that time I’d been seven and on a camping trip with my family. My mother had thought I was in the truck with my brother and my cousins, and they’d assumed I was with my mom. I’d come out of the park restroom, unable to find anyone. I’d sat and cried until a park ranger found me. My English hadn’t been very good at the time, and he’d barely been able to understand me. Two hours later, my mother had called the park office, cursing in Italian. She said she would come get me. Only she had never showed up. I found out later that she died in a car accident on her way back.
I felt like a bambina all over again with no one coming back for me.
After much searching, I found a small LED light to illuminate my path. I went straight for the lab, intent on checking on my Pluto discovery. If my cryotube didn’t have power, the freezer holding the samples wouldn’t either….Of course, that would be a moot point if someone hadn’t already stolen them.
The stench of something that reeked like rotting road kill tingled in my nostrils as I climbed toward the lab. My boots crunched over broken glass. My LED illuminated a dark mass sprawled in my path. It squished when I nudged it with my foot, and a new wave of stench rolled over me. A body. I covered my face with a sleeve and leaned down. From the advanced stage of decomposition, flesh barely clinging to the bones, I couldn’t tell who it was. I swept the light over the name tag. Sorensen.
I staggered to the wall. Bile rose up in my throat and I dry heaved. Dr. Val Sorensen had been the sweetest lady, older than the average crew member, as the company preferred young, athletic engineers, pilots, and scientists.
I remembered Val’s generous smile. She was a mother of three and a brilliant scientist. And now dead.
I climbed the slope toward the freezer, passing another mass in the darkness. I didn’t want to know who it was. The freezer unlatched without a problem and the scent of ozone wafted out when I slid the drawer open. It wasn’t cold.
The first canister I unscrewed still held the rock with the impression of a footprint. The second hissed as gasses released. Inside was water, which had once been alien DNA frozen in ice. I should have been wearing a biohazard suit, gloves at least, but I hadn’t expected anything to be in the container. My recently thawed legs quivered beneath me from the exertion I put on them so soon after waking. I nearly dropped the next container, which held the metal tool we’d found with human DNA on it. I checked the remaining finds and replaced them in the drawer. I didn’t know what the effects of changing the temperature would be or if it had altered the evidence.
No one had left me behind to steal my discovery. So where was everyone?
I sat in the captain’s chair, trying to contact NASA Inc. while I swallowed mouthfuls of freeze-dried macaroni and cheese. The chewy dinner was tasteless, nothing like real pasta.
I tried to glean something that would tell me what had happened, but the files were gone. How much time had passed? I could only speculate from the decomposed bodies in the lab and the lack of power that it had been more than a few months.
Dr. Montgomery used to consider science a kind of mystery. If he were here, he would stroke his blond beard and mutter the words of Sherlock Holmes in a mock British accent: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
It only took me moments to decide what I needed to do. The rope ladder had been left suspended down the side of the ship and over the forest floor, as though whoever had used it meant to come back. With my LED, water, and little else, I made my way down. Moss grew on one side of the white, bullet-shaped ship, like the forest was welcoming this foreign object with open arms. I headed west, toward what I hoped to be NASA Inc. headquarters. Birds chirped in the towering conifers. Oddly, I spotted no hikers.
With use, my arms and legs lost their shakiness and the stiffness in my muscles ebbed away. By the time I found my way out of the forest, the sun was high in the sky, the rays boiling me in my uniform. I stripped down to my undershirt, tying the sleeves of my jacket around my waist. I headed north along a gravel road. I felt strong and hungry for news.
The first houses appeared deserted. Heat wavered on the road as I passed dried fields of neglected wheat. There were moments the golden hillsides of farmland reminded me of my childhood in Tuscany. Only those memories were full of laughing children and laboring adults, unlike this lonely landscape.
A cluster of military compounds within the barbed-wire fence rose like a mirage before me. I wiped my brow, quickening my pace. I wasn’t that far from headquarters now. I could stop at the base for assistance.
A prickle of ice skated down my spine when I found the front entrance unattended. I walked in without seeing a single soldier. Most of the doors were locked, but finally I found one ajar. The motion-sensor lights flickered on.
I peeked through the door past an empty reception desk. “Hello?” I didn’t expect anyone to answer, but I didn’t feel right waltzing unannounced into a military base either.
Passing through a partially lit office area, I noticed the hum of a generator. Beyond the steady white noise, I thought I heard a whimpering. When I found a supply room, I quickly stuffed my bag with a flashlight and batteries, more food, and bottled water. No one was around to stop me.
A thud echoed from elsewhere in the building. I jumped, swearing under my breath in my native tongue. It was probably animals in air vents.
I explored the military base, searching for survivors of this invisible Armageddon. Occasionally, I discovered empty military uniforms on the floor. I lucked out and found a keycard that granted me better access. In what appeared to be a lunch room, I found a dozen empty uniforms scattered about. Despite the heat outside, the unlit room chilled me to my core. Another thud and cry echoed from the nearest room.
I wasn’t alone.
I raced into the kitchen, finding a door leading down a dark staircase. A wet squelching noise rose from below. I covered my face with my empty sleeve, trying to block out the rancid, sweaty odor. The lights didn’t work so I used my flashlight, scanning the room before me.
“Is anyone down here?” I asked.
The wet slurping continued.
I stumbled on a pair of army fatigues I hadn’t noticed on the stairs and tripped two steps down, clutching at the railing with one hand. I skidded down the stairs on my knees and twisted onto my back, my pack cushioning the fall. The flashlight went flying onto the floor. Pain throbbed in my legs and arms. I caught my breath, lying on the floor, staring up at the open doorway.
What was that puzzolente stench that made me want to vomit?
A rush of warmth brushed against my cheek. Someone sighed near my ear. I jerked back, groping for the flashlight. I shined it on the spot where I had just been. A mass, almost resembling a boulder, rested there. I scanned the flashlight over the room, finding more food stocks along the walls of the shelves, a discarded shirt, and another mass.
This one quivered.
Cautiously I approached, shining the light on its smooth, pale surface. The exterior was taut like leather, a lump bulging against the side. From within something moaned, the muffled cry small and pathetic, like a dying animal.
Was someone in that thing?
“Can you hear me?” I asked.
I held my breath, listening to the sound of heavy breathing from the lump. No response.
I looked for something to cut into the cocoon-like thing. Rummaging through my bag, I came up with a knife. I hesitated over the flesh-like surface of the mound on the floor, unsure of where to cut so as not to hurt the person inside. Even if I did injure someone, it had to be better than being trapped.
I placed my hand on the lump at the top, smoothing over a softer, less-dense section. The surface felt warm, like human skin, a patch of it hairy like a man’s chest. I stabbed the knife into the soft tissue, jumping back when a scream came out. Blood oozed from the slit, trickling into a pool at my feet.
I sliced in again. A hand groped its way out of the hole.
I grabbed a discarded shirt and wrapped it around my hand, trying to shield myself from the blood as I tore into the exterior and peeled it back. The bloody lump that I birthed from the skin cocoon might have once been a human. Now it was more like a premature fetus fused with the fleshy covering. An eye opened on the side of the mass and stared at me.
I dropped the knife and ran. I was up the stairs and out of the building before I realized I was still holding the blood-soaked shirt. I dropped it, staring at the crimson smear on my hand and arm.
“Mio dio. Mio dio,” I chanted as if the words would protect me. I wanted to hold my rosary, but I didn’t want to dirty it with my soiled hands.
My head felt light, my limbs weak. The sun seared my eyes. I groped for my water, only to realize I’d left my pack in the basement with those cocoons.
I went back inside, but the idea of returning to the basement made my stomach churn. Instead, I went to the kitchen and washed myself off. I crept to the upstairs supply room once more, filling a new bag with rations and glancing over my shoulder at every creak, hoping that whatever had consumed these people was no longer here.
I decided to return to the one place I was guaranteed safety. Under the circumstances, I didn’t think it would be criminal to borrow a Hummer.
After pushing the dead bodies out an airlock, I stayed in the sanctuary of the ship for another week. I sat, cramped in my bunk, waiting for whatever had got to the others to get me. I felt no different, other than what I assumed to be stress-related queasiness. If those cocoons had been caused by something other than a virus, I could hardly guess what. My alien specimen hadn’t been missing, so it seemed unlikely that the alien cells had infected people. But what of those mutated human cells I had found on Pluto? Could this be evidence that aliens hadn’t visited in Earth’s distant past, as we’d first theorized, but more recently? Could aliens have come to Earth while we’d been away? If so, I still didn’t have enough data to formulate a plausible theory.
My curiosity may have been what kept me from going mad. I read the ship manuals, repairing and reconnecting the solar panels—not bad for a biologist. I cleaned and rearranged the lab. Under the microscopes, I studied the alien specimen. No longer frozen, I expected to find the cells dehydrated and dead.
Instead, they actively multiplied and mutated. I experimented, noticing the way the extraterrestrial cells bonded with human cells and mutated the mitochondria and nucleus, replacing part of the DNA with its own. I created separate experiments, noting the slow growth of the control versus when a variable was introduced, such as my blood. A thin film of new cells spread over the slide under the microscope until it reached its full growth potential and stopped. Again it grew when I fed it more blood. It didn’t change when I inserted cells from one of the corpses I’d discarded out of the airlock. The specimen rejected plant matter and food I introduced under the microscope. Even when I caught a live squirrel and raccoon and introduced their cells, there was no reaction. The only substance it fused with was human cells. Like it had been designed for us.
I stared at my blurry and warped reflection in the steel walls of the lab, scrying into the gleam of light as though it were a crystal ball. Whatever was eating at people outside mirrored the Pluto samples we’d found; plant and animal life remained unaffected while humans mutated.
Turning back to my work, I placed my own blood under the microscope as I’d done before, about to introduce a sample from the specimen. My heart skipped a beat when I noticed the alien cells in my blood. Surely, the slide had to be contaminated. I used a new slide, pricked a different finger, and noticed the same result.
I was contaminated. It was only a matter of time before I, too, became like those people out there.
I remembered the way Dr. Montgomery had bragged about me at the NASA Inc. press party days before I’d left, toasting me in front of all the others. “There’s a reason we selected Bianca Lupe as our newest team member. And it’s not just because she’s so pretty to look at.” He’d said it with a wink, and allowed the laughter to die away before he expounded on my other qualities. My face had flushed with heat, embarrassed by his generous compliments.
That was the night I’d met Dr. Montgomery’s wife. A wife he had never mentioned. I remembered how alone I’d felt in that crowded party—perhaps even more than I did now, when I truly might be the last human being left on Earth.
The idea of that made me shudder. My brother and nieces, my coworkers and friends, even the man I’d pretended I didn’t have feelings for were all…gone. Merda. Could I reverse this disorder before it killed the entire human race, myself included?
I drove the Hummer to the nearest residences, to collect specimens. Avoiding the gravel road to the military compound to the north, I took the road going south. The sun shone down on me, the sensation pleasantly warm with the windows of the Hummer rolled down. If anything, the wind brought with it a chill that left me shivering in my work uniform. I broke into an empty house, desperate for warmer clothes as well as food.
I found more flesh cocoons and took samples, the writhing masses whimpering when I touched them with my gloved hands.
“I’m sorry,” I said under my breath, knowing a person was within each mass. I said a prayer for their souls. And one for mine. “Mi dispiace tanto.”
I was cautious, wondering what would happen if something emerged from those flesh-like fetuses. Yet most of the masses I found were immobile, bluish gray in color, and reeking of decay. They appeared to be dead.
Why would aliens create this disease out of their cells? If they intended to kill us off so they could invade, where were they? Or was this some kind of experiment in genetics gone wrong? The way the infected sat like eggs waiting to hatch made me think some other element must be missing, a kind of fertilization.
On the outskirts of the city, stray animals ran away as I approached. I peered in empty grocery stores and a dark laundromat, searching for signs of human life. Sometimes I caught sight of movement in windows, but I couldn’t tell if they were animals or people who hid. No one answered knocks on their doors or responded to my calls. Even so, the hair on the back of my arms prickled, the feeling of being watched leaving me unsettled.
My older brother once said army flashlights were made to be heavy so they could break things—like bones. I didn’t know if that was true, but it did a fine job of smashing the windows of a grocery store. My feet crunched over the glass as I headed straight to the pharmacy, flashlight in hand. It had been a while since I’d studied chemistry. Fortunately the medications were labeled. The binder in the back that listed their uses came in handy as I decided which drugs to take with me. If I was going to create an antidote, I would need antibiotics, anti-virals, chemicals, and drugs to test. Not that I expected to succeed where other scientists had failed, but I had to try. For myself. For the memory of Dr. Montgomery, who had told me to make him proud.
I ceased my rummaging when I heard approaching whispers. Turning off my flashlight, I let my eyes adjust to the darkness as I peeked over the counter.
“This is no good. Stealing is wrong,” said a little voice. I noted the hint of an accent.
“Yeah, well, what do you think I been doing to get us comida?” asked a slightly older voice, though not deep enough to be an adult. I recognized the thick accent as Spanish. “We gets the best pickings before anyone else sees the broken puerta. It’s not like Twinkies grows on trees, estupido.”
I stifled a giggle. The end of the world came and children wanted donuts.
Plastic bags crinkled from the end of the checkout stand. Three miniature silhouettes worked to unhook the bags in the scarce light cast in through the windows.
One of them whispered in Spanish. It was close enough to Italian that I knew they were talking about a cart.
The oldest wove in and out of English as though it were a patchwork quilt she pieced together. “Mucho noisy. We no want to attract atención. Otra niños will hears and try to robar our comida.”
They moved past the checkout stand and shuffled into the heart of the store.
A higher, softer voice said, “It don’t matter if we makes noise, since you say we should waits until la noche before we go. The other niños won’t see us and the noise will scare them. They might think it’s one of them.”
Mio dio! Were there only bambinos left?
Silently I stole after them, listening to the three voices bicker. I didn’t want to scare them off. In just a few moments I had learned more than I had with my own observations. I needed to know all I could if I was going to combat the alien within me.
Plastic packaging rustled as the children filled the cart. I couldn’t read what the sign above the aisle said, but when I slid my hand over the packages on the shelves, the rectangular boxes and crinkle of cellophane under my fingers made me suspect we were in the cookie aisle. It had been a while since I’d had anything that wasn’t freeze-dried or canned. My mouth watered. Careful not to make a sound, I tucked a random box under my arm, unable to see what was inside.
“We should live in the store,” one bambina said. “They gots everything we need here.”
A voice younger and less accented than the first two spoke up. “Yeah! Then we could have all the candy we want. We wouldn’t have to carry it nowhere.”
The oldest sighed. I could imagine her rolling her eyes like a teenager. “The apartment is safer. We gots a key. We gots to be able to keep out otra niños.”
My boot crunched over a cellophane package. I quickly retracted my foot and froze. The voices silenced. The figures ducked down.
“It’s one of them! Un monstruo!” the youngest whimpered.
“Who’s there?” the oldest called out. “Who’s following us?”
“My name is—” I remembered Dr. Montgomery’s nickname. “You can call me Chipmunk. I’m not going to come any closer. I just want to talk to you.” I allowed my accent to seep into my words, hoping the sound would identify me as a fellow immigrant and someone who wasn’t a threat.
“She sound like un adulto,” one of them whispered none too quietly.
“I am a scientist from the space shuttle. I just woke from cryo and have been collecting supplies. I’m trying to figure out what happened to everyone.”
Silence. The plastic bags crinkled up ahead. I wondered if they were going to throw boxes at me.
The oldest spoke entirely in Spanish now, the words catching in her throat. “Everyone’s dead. Mama and Papa said it was a plague. That was before they turned into… They’re gone now. It’s just us.”
“I’m sorry.” I thought of my own nieces in California and wondered if they’d survived. Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t dwell on what may have happened to my older brother.
I clicked my flashlight on and shined it on a package on the shelf.
“Oreos!” one of the children cried in excitement.
I asked, “Would you like me to help you find food?”
First we gathered flashlights and batteries so they could see. Then I found them backpacks in the clothing section. All the while, I stayed back from them, uncertain whether the mutation was contagious by skin contact or was airborne.
“You doesn’t have to stand so far away. We already got contaminados,” Angel, the oldest, explained. “Niños are immune to it.” I caught a glimpse of her olive-skinned complexion in her sister’s flashlight, her eyes looking bruised and sunken.
“Not all niños,” her younger sister, Paola said, her voice quivering.
In the peripheral beam of the flashlight, I noticed Angel take her sister’s grimy little hand, speaking in Spanish. “He was fourteen. He was older than us.” She gestured toward Guadalupe and brought a finger to her lips.
The youngest, Guadalupe, sat in the middle of the aisle, drinking a Gatorade and eating a bag of potato chips. It was hard to tell under the stringy clumps of hair hiding her face, but I guessed her to be about seven. She looked up. “Who you talking about? Juan?” Tears filled her eyes. “I miss Juan.”
Paola pulled away. She switched back to Spanish, insisting he had been fine. Angel and Paola exchanged a rapid succession of words, some of which I understood.
“You mean he had been resistant to the infection for almost a year?” I asked. How long had I been frozen? When had all this happened?
Little Guadalupe tilted back her head and wailed.
Angel punched Paola’s arm. “See! I told you to say nada.”
It was my fault that I had upset her sister, not Paola’s. I watched, unable to help. More than anything I wanted to scoop them up in my own arms and tell them they would be all right.
Even if it was a lie.
Angel hugged her other sister to her side. “Lo siento. We’ll be okay if we just stick together.”
There was one thing I could do. I tried to channel confidence into my tone. “I told you that I’m a scientist. I am going to figure out how to stop the plague. I think I know where it came from, but I have to get blood samples from healthy people. It would help me if I could collect a sample from each of you.”
They followed me back to the pharmacy, patient as I donned gloves and used a diabetic test kit to prick blood from their fingers. Even through the thin layer of latex, their skin felt hot. Maybe that was part of the infection. I took their temperatures, the three of them ranging from 96.5-98.9 degrees Fahrenheit, nothing abnormal. Mine was 95.2 degrees. Definitely too low for an adult. Maybe that’s why I still felt chilled even with two coats.
The store darkened as the sun slid behind a horizon of buildings. It wasn’t until I unlatched the door and exited the building that the youngest sister commented, “Her clothes looks like los otros.”
“What do you mean by ‘the others’? Other adults?” I asked.
Angel nodded. “Dressed like you, in blue uniformes. They gots a car and goed down that way.” She pointed to the main road from where I had come.
I nodded, thinking they must have been from the ship. That road would have eventually taken them to NASA Inc.
“How long ago did you see them?”
Angel shrugged. “Maybe a month. No one comed back.”
For the first time since waking, I felt hope. I might be able to enlist their help. NASA Inc. hired some of the most brilliant scientists on Earth. Well, aside from the ones our competitors like Spacequest stole away.
I could have set out after them, except that I wanted to be back at the ship before dark. My gut clenched at the idea of leaving these children out here to fend for themselves, with those things out there. Yet seeking refuge with a contaminated adult surely would be worse for them.
Angel squinted toward the north, shielding her eyes from the long, golden rays peeking from between buildings. “And there was some hombre in un astronaut suit who ask us questions a couple weeks back. I no think any of them survived.” Desperation laced her tone. “I no think you should go after them. You safer away from los otros. That when it always happen, when los adultos are together.”
I smiled at her the best I could, knowing my fate was already sealed. “Don’t worry about me. You just take care of you and your sisters. Make sure they get something besides candy.”
Angel rolled her eyes and sighed like a teenager. Mio dio. If what she said was correct, she would soon be old enough to contract the disease.
I shivered in my layers of clothes. The generator in the ship hummed, a dim light illuminating the lab. I slid the first sample under the microscope. Paola and Guadalupe, the two youngest, had nearly identical blood specimens. Trace amounts of alien cells floated through their blood. The alien in them didn’t absorb their cells. In Angel’s, there was a higher ratio of alien cells, almost as much as mine—though in my blood, the alien cells bonded to mine, something I assumed would eventually happen to her. The samples from the victims in their cocoons were so mutated it looked as though two or three humans’ mitochondria were fused together. I didn’t know how long I had until I became like them.
I thought again of my shipmates. They would surely have gone to headquarters. If I could come up with a cure, I could help them. And yet, they had abandoned me in my tube. Wasn’t I serving the human race far better by creating a cure for the remaining children before they turned into those things?
Again I ventured out of the ship, breaking into the nearest houses and apartments, injecting a regime of antibiotics on some subjects, anti-virals on others. Neither yielded success. I hadn’t expected them to, as that would have been the first thing doctors would have tried when the “plague” started. In most houses, the cocoons had become shriveled and gray, decomposing. The eventual reason for their death wasn’t because of the genetic breakdown, but because of starvation.
Yet those weren’t the only samples of human life I collected. I came across bodies that hadn’t mutated. In these scenarios, a single emaciated corpse sat alone in a corner, an elderly person or child. In these homes, the cupboards had been bare, no food left. My blood tests showed they also died of starvation, not the alien contamination that had waited dormant within them.
Each day I ventured out, administering medications to the living specimens of flesh cocoons. With meticulous detail, I noted the outcomes, most having imperceptible results. My hands shook as I documented each subject in my notebook, my body chilled as always.
One day when I examined the mutated humans who were still alive, I noticed how warm they felt through my gloves. I smoothed my hand over a lumpy form. What I had mistaken as a fold in the skin parted, revealing a mouth. It smiled, a contented sigh escaping its lips. A corner of the flesh peeled back, unwinding itself like a blanket. It slid over my hand and up my sleeve. I jerked back, sending my bag of medicines flying.
When I looked back at the thing, it had resumed its position as a lump. Was I hallucinating or had that really happened? I touched the skin under my sleeve where it still tingled. I had to find a cure before I went insane.
I restocked at the pharmacy, disappointed not to see the three sisters. Instead, other children pummeled me with canned food upon my entry and exit. Trial after trial of medication I tested. On a whim, I injected birth control and estrogen replacement drugs.
To my surprise, the hormones caused the mutations to increase. Steroids caused a slight decrease. I considered whether adult hormones provided a catalyst for the reproduction of the alien DNA. It was the closest to a hypothesis I had yet. If Dr. Montgomery were here, he would say—my breath hitched in my chest. It didn’t matter what he would say. I would never again see him. Mio dio.
I rubbed my rosary between my fingers. Refocus, I told myself.
I had a hypothesis. Now I needed to test medications that might suppress hormone production.
My thoughts flickered again to what Angel had told me about my shipmates. The crew would have gone to NASA Inc. to seek refuge. They might have figured out a way to evade the disease. Or they might have gone into cryo to keep themselves from mutating. There were bigger generators there. It was plausible.
It was also possible they might have suffered the same fate as those at the military base. My stomach cramped at the thought, and the sweat on the back of my neck felt colder than ever.
My hypothesis was about to be tested.
I shivered all the way into the city as I collected more medications. When my Hummer ran out of gas along the road heading out of the city, I resorted to walking. The end of the world would have been so much easier had gas pumps not run on electricity.
My trek to NASA was slowed by the layers I now wore. Despite the sun beating down on me and making me near blind even with sunglasses, my teeth rattled with cold.
I’d just eaten but hunger gnawed at my belly. I wondered if I should stop to eat again. Despite the pangs in my stomach, even the idea of Oreos didn’t tempt me like it once would have. Something inside my core ached, a deep loneliness that left me feeling more lost than ever. The apartment buildings and rundown shops passed in a haze. One foot after the other, I forced myself forward. I only realized I’d left the stretch of familiar city architecture when the chill of the towering shadows disappeared. The sun on my face warmed me a few degrees. I trudged along the dusty road, rosary in hand, asking God for strength.
Mio dio, mio dio, please hear my prayer.
On my previous journey to the base, I had compared the landscape to that of where my family had lived before we immigrated. Was that why it looked so familiar yet foreign? I squinted at the gravel road, and then back the way I’d come. Had I passed the military base without noticing it? I must have. I could have picked up another Hummer. What was wrong with me? I continued on, feeling more and more lost with every step.
I walked for miles, lost in thought. I wiped the freezing sweat from my brow. Ahead of me, shimmering like a mirage in the heat, stood the blue and gray building of NASA Inc. headquarters. I forced myself to continue despite the weariness in my limbs. Why had they built it so far out of the city?
Sunlight shone through glass windows, illuminating the building as I entered. None of the doors were locked. Everything looked cheery and normal. It didn’t take long before I found the first flesh fetus, gray and decomposing outside by the dumpster. More rotted within. Someone must have cleaned out the building.
Inside the main building’s biology lab, I heard the wet squelching noises and moaning before I saw them. Discarded clothes were scattered about. A cluster of the flesh cocoons cluttered the floor at various stages of mutation. Mixed in with the odors of urine and excrement was a pungent locker room stench. The cocoon nearest rocked back and forth, panting from a mouth I couldn’t see, a jumble of arms and legs melting into folds of flesh. Some of the others weren’t completely swaddled in flesh. A few even had heads that poked out the sides or tops of the mounds. I recognized one of the faces.
Captain Richmond. Mio dio.
Forgetting my gloves, I knelt at his side and swept the chestnut hair out of his eyes.
“Captain,” I said. “Can you hear me?”
His eyes were glazed over and he twitched. I rubbed his shoulder, or where I guessed his shoulder would be within the skin casing. He smiled and his eyes refocused on me.
“What happened?” I asked.
His words were thick and slurred. “I fell in love.” He giggled. “I’m in love with the universe.”
“Why did you leave me behind?” I asked. He giggled again.
The thing encasing him wasn’t like the ones in the city. It was more like a flap of swaddling, a flesh comforter wrapped around him. I pulled back the moist skin covered in peach fuzz. It connected to his arms and fused into what once had been his legs. Something hissed.
The captain flinched. “So cold. I need my flesh blanket.”
The flap of flesh twisted in my hand and pushed me back. I fell on my butt, unable to take my gaze from it.
“It’s okay, honey. Don’t be jealous,” the captain said, stroking the flap of skin and wrapping it more securely around himself. “I’ll never love anyone more than I love you.”
I wiped my hand on my pants but couldn’t get rid of that tingle. My breathing came out labored and my head swam with dizziness. Something bumped me in the back. I turned around. One of the cocoons opened and reached toward me. I jerked back and scrambled from the litter of mounds.
I rested against the far wall. I wasn’t a chemist. I didn’t know if the formula I had put together was safe, let alone if it would work. But if any of these creatures might be reversible, it would be the ones here that weren’t as far gone.
My handwriting was almost illegible and my sight too blurry to see as I documented dosages. The emptiness in my belly gnawed at me, but I wasn’t hungry for food. I wanted something else. Had I eaten? My chest felt heavy, burdened with loneliness. For a moment I couldn’t remember where I was or what I’d been doing.
Shivers stole over me. More than anything I longed to feel warm arms around me. I imagined Dr. Montgomery. I closed my eyes and imagined kissing his lips. Something pressed against my side. A blanket was next to me, warm and inviting, smooth as silk beneath my fingers.
No, it was one of them. I pushed it away and crawled out of the lab, too weak to stand. I caught my breath in the hallway. Exhaustion stole over me and I collapsed into a shivering mass. When I woke, my head was clearer, my rosary in my hand. My stomach whined. How long had it been since I’d eaten?
I peeled back a can of sardines and ate them with my fingers. They should have tasted salty and savory, but they were bland mush in my mouth that I could barely swallow.
I needed to keep administering medications.
Every time after that, I wore gloves as I examined my subjects or even when I documented their progress. The ones with the greatest ratio of hormone-suppressing drugs showed the least increase in their condition. When I looked in the log, I realized I’d been injecting them every day for a week. I didn’t remember that much time passing. I had hardly put a dent in my rations.
“Honey, I can’t hear you anymore,” Captain Richmond cried, huddled in his flesh blanket. The leathery flap of skin hung limp around him, losing color. I gave him another injection, satisfied I was killing whatever clung to him. By now it was obvious I was going to have to amputate what had once been his legs. And I was going to need to hook up an IV so he wouldn’t starve.
I stared at my notes, not seeing my words, lost in memories. Dr. Montgomery had once gazed into my eyes like there had been a special connection between the two of us. I remembered the last time we’d taken a break from research and eaten ice cream in the park, how he’d pushed me on the swing as though I were a child.
“Who’s the teacher’s pet?” he’d asked, a smile pulling at his lips, green eyes full of mischief. He caught the swing, his cold vanilla breath rushing against my face. “Who’s my favorite girl?”
His lips had been mere inches from mine. How I’d wanted to kiss him. Instead I’d said, “Your wife.”
I wondered now what would have happened had I kissed him. Would I still have applied for the Pluto mission?
I closed my eyes, lost in what-ifs. I imagined that kiss. The silky satin of his fingers smoothed over my cheek. Sweet and salty lips pressed against mine. My brain was in a fog, reality melting into fantasy. His kiss felt so real. My vision blurred. A shadow loomed before me. Dr. Montgomery? Hot tears spilled down my cheeks, stinging in my eyes.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. I thought—” I couldn’t finish. The chasm of pain within was too great. Longing rose up in me, my loins throbbing with yearning. I suddenly understood that emptiness within me.
“Closer,” the voice said, squeezing me into his embrace.
It wasn’t Dr. Montgomery’s rough crackle of voice but I didn’t care. I just wanted to feel close to someone, to not feel alone. I wanted to fill the void I had ignored for so long.
“You must be so cold,” it said. “Let me keep you warm.”
A corner of silky skin edged inside my coat and snuggled up my back. I melted into the touch. I lifted my shirt higher, exposing more flesh to the caress. I wanted to feel closer, warmer. More layers fell away until my skin was pressed up against the blanket. I ran my fingers through a patch of hair and nuzzled into a crook of blanket. I rocked into the folds of skin. For once, I didn’t feel cold.
“I love you. I want to be one with you always,” he said.
My fingers dug into the blanket, afraid to let go. Nothing in my life had ever felt so right. I no longer felt lost. I knew exactly where I was: in my lover’s arms. A thrill of pleasure surged through me. I moaned, grinding up against him.
“I love you more than I ever loved him,” I admitted. I couldn’t even remember the name of that other man. I knew he had a beard. My flesh blanket had a beard. Were they the same person? I couldn’t focus. My awareness returned to our lovemaking.
Slick with sweat, my body smacked against the flesh blanket as tiny crests of satisfaction swept over me. This was more fulfilling than what I’d experienced with any man.
“That’s because we’re soul mates, Bianca. We’re meant to be together,” he said, using my real name, not that tiresome nickname.
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I laughed, and he did too.
I lost myself in the comfort of his embrace. My skin orgasmed where it melted into his, waves of pleasure that left me breathless. My mind stretched and uncurled like a fern, melding with his.
At first our bond was physical. Then something changed, the confines of our duality expanding. Our union transcended anything tangible a human could experience, a spiritual high that lifted us above our bodies. Our awareness spread outward, the consciousness of others pressing against us. This barrier also dissolved, a connection building with those around us. Something greater lay just beyond. We could feel ourselves rising higher, stretching toward the cosmos, grasping for a foreign presence that bordered on god-like. If only we reached a little farther, we would be complete. We would be one with our alien creators.
“Chipmunk?” a distant voice asked over a crackle of static, bringing me back into my body.
“That’s what he used to call me,” I told my lover.
“What did he call you?” my flesh blanket asked. A trill of confusion laced his voice.
“Chipmunk? Is that you? Can you understand me?”
I opened my eyes, the light blinding me. I blinked. A man in a spacesuit—no, a hazmat suit—stood over me. The bearded face within the bubble looked familiar. There was something about the green of his eyes.
I turned my face away and tried to melt into the oneness of the universe once again. The palpable touch of the man dragged me from my unity. But it was all right. As long as I was with my flesh blanky. I giggled at that, drunk on love.
Only when I felt the sharp stab of the needle did I scream.
My brain felt as though it were being ripped in half, my lover’s presence growing more distant. I felt cold again.
My voice came out hoarse and scratchy, as though I had just come out of cryo. “Where are you?”
A deep, gravelly voice that wasn’t my lover’s answered, “I’m here. Try to stay still. You’ll heal faster if you rest.”
How I loathed the sound of that voice. With it came the injections and the searing that lanced through my limbs. Instead of the tender caresses I was used to, his touch was like a thousand knives pricking my skin when he dragged his hand across my forehead,.
I whimpered against the pain. As horrible as it was, it was nothing compared to the loneliness and isolation that mounted in my heart. I drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes seeing Dr. Montgomery standing over my bed. Slowly I became aware of my surroundings: the disinfectant smell of the room; the hardness of the bed under my body; the others in the beds, moaning and whimpering over their losses. Shiny pink scar tissue covered patches of my skin, areas where I had bonded with the flesh blanket that had wrapped around me.
My mind drifted back to those heightened sensations I’d experienced within my flesh cocoon. What was the purpose of a physical bonding that led to spiritual euphoria? I’d felt so close to connecting to that alien presence. Could it have been a kind of fertilization, the final element needed to become whole? The flesh fetuses I had found all starved before reaching that union. I wondered what would have happened if I had fed them and tried to accelerate the process rather than destroy it.
“How are you feeling, Chipmunk?” Dr. Montgomery asked.
I rubbed a hand over my face and turned away.
He tried again later, this time bringing a bowl of broth and pills. The aroma of chicken brought spasms of hunger. “Do you feel like you can swallow?”
He fed me spoonful after spoonful, patiently waiting for me to swallow and open. His nose looked bigger than I remembered and his beard didn’t make him look distinguished, it just made him look old. For the first time, I noticed the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, the touch of gray at his temples.
He made me stretch and do exercises. My very skin ached and my muscles throbbed with exertion. My abdomen lanced with pain as I moved. When I smoothed my hand over my belly, I noticed the incision and the stitches.
“It’ll be a while before you’re back to normal,” he said in his gratingly cheerful manner.
“I might never be normal,” I said, addressing him for the first time.
“Of course you will, Chipmunk.” His tone oozed an enthusiasm I didn’t feel. “Like I used to say, if there’s one person out there who could do anything she set her mind to, it would be you. Your experiments and documentation helped me isolate the alien DNA and reverse the genetic mutations. You’re going to be the savior of the human race. You’ll get a Nobel Peace Prize.”
As if there were enough people left to award such novelties.
He handed me my daily regime of pills. “This one is for the pain and this white one is to suppress your hormones.”
I stared at the white lozenge in my hand. He didn’t say it but the slit in my belly was probably a hysterectomy. My brain wasn’t so fogged up with pain medication not to guess that. It was hard to imagine how else he could have fully suppressed my hormones. Considering NASA Inc. was a leading producer of laser robotics, the database probably had a program for every surgical procedure possible.
I should have felt grateful. Yet I couldn’t help that gnawing seed of resentment. I would never be able to have children. Even if we did manage to find a better cure, we couldn’t go around sterilizing twelve year olds until then. We couldn’t tear them from—well, what had he taken me from? I wasn’t sure. I just knew I hadn’t been given a choice.
A knot of sorrow tightened in my chest. I remembered feeling this way when I’d learned my mother was dead. Now I felt like I was dead.
He intruded on my thoughts. “You always were both brilliant and beautiful, Chipmunk. How did you know it was the introduction of alien DNA?”
“The crew—I discovered alien cells and brought samples back.” After all the time I’d waited to say that, it now felt trivial. “When I looked at the supposed virus under a microscope, I realized it was the same as what we’d found on Pluto.”
He stroked his golden beard. “This makes sense. It was after one of our competitors came back from mining Pluto that all this happened.”
He wheeled me around the complex in a chair, telling me of his own research. Each day I took my pills, my thoughts flickering back to those moments I had felt as though I belonged. I considered what would happen when we ran out of pills. Would I revert to what I once was?
“You truly are lucky,” he told me. “You were far less damaged than the rest of the crew.”
My voice came out a dull monotone that reflected the hollowness within me. “I was left in cryo. I woke months after everyone else.”
“Yes. I found Richmond’s log here and it said your cryotube jammed. They didn’t know why no one responded to radio after the crash, so they left you in. He intended to go back for you,” Dr. Montgomery said. “I never believed in god or fate, but now…all this certainly makes me wonder. If I hadn’t found you just when I had…”
I didn’t care why they had left me anymore. I slipped my hand along my side, groping for a pocket in the smooth fabric of my gown. There was no rosary for me to hold.
Down the hall, the moans of the others grew louder. I wasn’t as scarred as the rest of the crew. The ones who had been wrapped in the flesh cocoon longer were inconsolable. Captain Richmond babbled and rocked himself back and forth. Some of them were catatonic. Most of them removed their clothes and huddled together in what Dr. Montgomery took to be an orgy.
He shook his head in disgust.
Once I was strong enough to walk, he guided me downstairs to see his experiments. “I’m hoping to refine the drugs with your help, Chipmunk. We’ve always made a good team.”
His fingers were warm and clammy as he took my hand. I noticed the absence of that flutter I once had felt when he put his hand on my shoulder or smiled in a way I wished was just for me.
We rounded a doorway and he gestured to a microscope. I focused on the sight past him, on the other side of the glass barrier.
I gasped in horror, covering my mouth. Stretched out on the metal tables, they were naked and alone. They were spread out like butterflies in a collection of cases. A robotic arm inserted a needle into a writhing mass of bronze skin. IVs dripped fluids into the flattened bodies.
I pressed my hand to the cool glass. My eyes rested on the blanket with the half-formed arm. An eye rolled toward me and locked onto mine.
I began to shake. It was my flesh blanket.
I caught the tail end of Dr. Montgomery’s words. “Each one of those specimens were human before they mutated. I haven’t been able to reverse the damage and suspect I never will. Some of them have lasted two months since separation from their hosts, because of the IVs. The data I’ve collected on the ones injected with hormone boosting—”
I turned to him, anger bubbling up from deep inside. “You don’t understand what it was like. What it is like.” I stabbed at the glass pane separating me from my alien half. “That was once part of me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this would upset you.” His expression grew perplexed. “I’ll, uh, get rid of that one. I have more than enough specimens.”
Why had I once loved Dr. Montgomery? Was it all hormones, something I no longer possessed?
He rubbed at his face, looking weary and old. “You’re right. I don’t understand what it’s like to have been infected. I isolated myself from others, hoping I might not become contaminated. What I didn’t realize, what none of us realized, is that even with the virus present, it only becomes active upon physical contact with others. An STD of sorts.”
I stared over his shoulder. It felt as though an invisible string connected me to my former lover. No, it wasn’t a person anymore, I reminded myself. It was a parasite. A sexually transmitted disease, just like Dr. Montgomery said. I rubbed at the smooth scar tissue on my arms where our skin had bonded. I thought I heard a whisper at the back of my mind, but it was drowned out by Dr. Montgomery’s voice.
He placed a hand on the small of my back and guided me out of the room. “You have no idea what hell I’ve been through. I thought I was the last person out there.” He squeezed my hand. “Tell me what you’re going through. I want to understand.”
Tears filled my eyes. “It was so beautiful and peaceful. For once I felt like the universe made sense and love made sense and there was something greater than myself. Now I just feel—”
“Chipmunk, you aren’t alone.” He pulled me into his arms and kissed me.
I waited for that spike of yearning. All I felt was emptiness. Still, I wanted to feel something again. I wanted to feel love and acceptance. I needed to feel like I knew where I was again.
That’s why I replaced my pills with estrogen. That’s why I later went to Dr. Montgomery’s bed. There was nothing more in the world I wanted than to lose myself in the feel of warm flesh pressed against mine.
Yet even as we made love, I felt distant and disconnected. There was no pleasure in it. Nothing felt as tangible and real as that love I’d once shared with the alien mutation, my flesh blanket.
I was relieved when it was over. I turned away, about to go back to my room.
He hooked an arm around my waist and whispered in my ear, “Cuddle with me.”
He held me against his side, his arms pressing me close, but not close enough. His breathing grew steady and shallow as he slipped into slumber. Tears burned down my cheeks. He didn’t understand me. Only the others in remission could know what it was like to be ripped apart.
It only took a sweater to warm me as I stole down the halls and descended the stairs to the subterranean lab. Goosebumps rose on my flesh. The hum of the generators hid the slapping of my feet against the tile floor. The lights flickered into action when I entered the room.
My heart dropped.
Mine was gone, the empty slab of table as final as a tombstone. I ran upstairs and out the back door, sharp pains stabbing the muscles in my abdomen, which hadn’t fully healed. My bare feet grated against the pavement. I stopped when I reached the dumpster.
It was so filled with organic matter by this point, it overflowed. Scattered on the grounds were flaps of leather-like blankets. Some of them smelled of rot and decay, and squished under my fingers. Which one was my blanket? I threw one aside that felt female. I tossed away one that reminded me of a lumpy pillow. Another was too hairless.
In the midst of this heap, one of them still felt warm. I smoothed my fingers over it, searching for that sense of love I’d once felt. I strained to hear the whisper in my mind. “I still love you, Bianca. But it’s better this way. For you to live without me.”
“No.” I shook my head. This wasn’t living. “I want you.”
I stripped out of my sweater and wrapped the blanket around my shoulders. I waited for the bonding to begin again.
Sarina Dorie has sold about 100 short stories to markets like Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, Cosmos, and Sword and Laser. Her steampunk romance series, The Memory Thief, and her collections, Fairies, Robots and Unicorns—Oh My! and Ghosts, Werewolves and Zombies—Oh My! are available on Amazon, along with other books. You can find info about her short stories and novels on her website: www.sarinadorie.com