“Hey, anyone home?”
Cora blinked, shooting to attention. “Yes.”
“Did you hear the question?”
“Yes.” She blinked again, trying to snap out of the mind fog that had been plaguing her all morning. The fluorescent lights in this conference room were the frequency of knives. “Scio has declined to speak.”
Sol shot her a millisecond of a glare, then faced the brigadier general seated on the other side of the conference table. “If he says he’s not going to talk to us, that’s pretty much that for the day.”
Brigadier General Whatsisfuck didn’t even look at Cora, which had been par for the course for this meeting and also fine by her. This guy was only the last in a long line of government bureaucrats she’d had to reassure everything was fine and the world isn’t ending while also gently telling them no, the aliens do not want to talk to you. State had been fine—they’d been polite, and only came knocking once. Homeland Security were low-key awful, but at least they kept it short and to the point. NASA were actually cool, she enjoyed those guys. The Department of Energy even showed up at one point; she had no idea what that was about. But the Department of Defense, they were the worst. Not only would they not take no for an answer, there were so many of them, none of the different departments ever communicated with each other, and they just kept showing up with the head of whatever new ETI task force they’d formed this week. This one was called something like … National … Security … Intelligence Force for Who Gives a Shit? She was so tired.
“I know it’s a strange situation,” said ROSA director Sevak “Dr. Sev” Ghasabian, flanked on his right by Cora’s aunt Luciana. A fiftysomething with sharp features and a head like a cue ball, he preferred Dr. Sev, just in case anyone was unclear on which degree he’d completed. “I know you’re on a tight schedule, but the best we can suggest is that one of them might be more amenable if you come back tomorrow.”
“When I flew out here, it was my understanding that some face time was going to happen with one of the, um, amygdalines.”
The brigadier general, a square-shouldered man who looked like a Boy Scout wearing age makeup, still ignored Cora. She wondered if it was because of who she was, since he was being noticeably dismissive to Luciana, too. Perhaps it was because they were members of the Ortega family, and her father, Nils Ortega, was presently the biggest force of chaos on this earth besides the aliens. Given that they were the only women in the room, it could also be shameless misogyny. Or both!
“Scio didn’t agree to it, though,” said Cora. “Dr. Sev agreed to it, and I asked Scio if he would do it. He declined.”
Finally the brigadier general spared her a glance—Porter, his name was, which she only caught once her vision de-blurred enough to read his name tag. “But we have no way of verifying that, do we? I find it highly questionable that an unqualified teenage civilian is the only ‘communication intermediary’ between extraterrestrial intelligences and the American government.”
That lit an anxiety fuse inside her. She wasn’t a teenager, and no one was qualified to be a communication intermediary, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t pressed just about every insecurity button she had.
“What is your goal, exactly?” asked Dr. Sev.
“To appraise the capabilities of the ETIs. But moreover, we need to know if any of them intend to use those capabilities.” Porter sighed, and Cora could all but see the rails switching routes in his mind. If Scio won’t talk, perhaps Esperas will. “There are two subgroups within the Fremda group, each with their own representative, correct?”
“There are not two ‘groups,’” clarified Sol. Sol Kaplan was in charge of the relatively small CIA contingent at the Riverside National Security Complex, which numbered somewhere between three and thirty, Cora wasn’t sure (and half the time, she didn’t know who was CIA and who just looked the part). “There is one group, and one … individual amygdaline we keep in seclusion.”
“And that would be ‘Scio.’” Porter sounded almost as uncomfortable with Ampersand’s Esperanto code name as she was. Unlike Esperas, who might sometimes communicate through a computer-based translator, Ampersand preferred his human intermediary, and unless one considered annoyed glares a form of communication, Ampersand refused to communicate any other way.
“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that. She didn’t want to give this man any ammo to confirm his suspicions of how out of place she was here. She was a college dropout with no training and no certifications and was only given top-secret clearance after Ampersand’s refusal to communicate without her stretched for an entire week before they panicked and let her into the club. So here she sat, underqualified, underpaid, and completely unappreciated. But she kept on, kept enduring this workplace, not only because a recession that was rapidly tumbling into a depression meant that jobs were scarce but because it was the only way she could guarantee access to Ampersand. Not that it was doing her mental health any favors, since the space aliens were also the root of most of her ills.
And if this headache was any indication, her condition was not improving.
When she’d seen a psychiatrist, she could not tell them what had actually happened to her three months ago, that she had been kidnapped by an alien Similar, a “militarist,” and held as ransom. She could not say that a twelve-foot monster had skewered her with its meat-hook digits, driven them straight through her body and into the cold ground. She could not tell the doctor that there were two weeks of her life after that that she did not remember.
So she told the psych a story about being kidnapped by a human person, an ex of some sort. He had held her under threat of violence, and when she fought back, he stabbed her several times. She’d survived the ordeal, but now there were nightmares. Nightmares and panic attacks and random bouts of crying and irritability and all sorts of fun times that had not been there before.
This, however, was a gamble of a story to tell, because if someone were to ask to see the scars, she would be found for a liar, because there were none. Ampersand was very good at operating on the human body like it was a machine, stitching her ambulatory sack of meat and water back together like a mechanic would repair a car. Good as new, no one would be able to tell it was ever in an accident.
The diagnosis came back as post-traumatic stress, but since it was still in its early stages, the prognosis was actually pretty good if she began treatment for it now. The psych had suggested that Cora begin therapy immediately and had given her a script for Prozac—treatments she could not begin and medication she could not take, because she could afford neither. ROSA did not offer benefits, and although still technically just below the poverty line, she now made too much money to qualify for California’s state-run health care system, MediCAL, leaving her in the limbo between with no health insurance.
“Help me understand the issue,” said Porter, addressing Sol. “The issue is … both parties refuse to be in the same room with each other?”
Everyone looked at Cora, and she tried to blink away the nuclear explosion going off in extreme slow motion behind her left eyeball.
“Only one of them has expressed a preference, and that’s Scio,” she said, “but yes, he won’t even consider being in the same room as Esperas, and Esperas controls access to the rest of them.”
“Do we know why they won’t be in the same room together?”
Again everyone looked at Cora.
Oh, she knew why, all right. Unbeknownst to the other humans in the room, Esperas had a special hate-on for Ampersand owing to his failure to disclose his relationship to the leader of the group of Similars who had been hunting them last year, code name: “Obelus.” The same Similar who had nearly killed her.
“We think it has something to do with one of their cultural taboos,” she lied. “I’m not entirely sure.”
“But Esperas does not have a dedicated interpreter like Scio does,” observed Porter. “Why is that?”
Cora glanced at the clock on the wall. This meeting was scheduled to end five minutes ago. Why was this man being so goddamn tenacious? Also, could eyeballs spontaneously explode? It felt like she was about to find out.
“It’s a matter of preference,” she said. “Scio feels like he needs an impartial intermediary to speak for him to better ensure that his meaning is getting across in the way he wants.”
“And Esperas does not?”
Esperas doesn’t care, thought Cora. Esperas had the luxury of hiding behind his own Similar, his “heavy,” and no one could make him talk to anyone. It had been assumed last year that both of the Fremda group’s Similars, their only form of protection, had been killed by Obelus. Cora found out later that was only half-true, as Brako, the one who had been thought killed at NORAD, survived, and was now just fine.
“Esperas has never requested a human intermediary,” said Dr. Sev.
“Then if Esperas is not here, why has Scio declined to speak to us?” asked Porter. “As I understand, between the two, Scio has been a much better source of intelligence. So if he has declined to meet with us, I’d like to know why.”
This guy was like a fork raking over the chalkboard of her nerves, and she could feel the beginnings of a meltdown. She tried to focus on breathing normally while Dr. Sev offered some placating half truth to General Brigadier. Not now, she told herself. Not now, not now.
“Please understand,” said Dr. Sev, “we are dealing with intelligences we largely don’t understand. Sometimes they behave capriciously, and we do not know why.”
“I flew all the way out here, and you’ve kept me waiting for two days—surely there can be some way we can schedule an interaction.”
“He said he wouldn’t do it, whether Esperas is here or not,” said Cora. She could hear the blood thumping through her skull. She was genuinely beginning to worry this was a prologue to an aneurysm.
“Yes, but why?” If her eyeball were about to explode, this man would be the detonator. “What is his reasoning?”
“I … I’m not sure,” she said.
“Come on, we know you have an excuse,” said Sol, frustrated. “Let’s hear it.”
In the three months she had been an employee at ROSA, Sol had never disrespected her that overtly. Even the brigadier general looked uncomfortable. Sol seemed to realize he’d stepped over a line, and corrected himself. “I mean, I’m sure he has an excuse. He always does.”
But the spiral had already begun, the last Jenga block holding the tower in place pulled out, and she was collapsing. “He’s busy.”
“Busy doing what?” asked Sol.
“I don’t know. Excuse me,” she said, barely holding it together. “I need to use the restroom.”
“We’re not finished,” said Sol.
“Please excuse me.”
She didn’t make it to the end of the hallway before she started running. By then, the bomb had gone off, the tower was collapsing. She fled to the nearest single-stall bathroom and had only just shut the door behind her before her breathing turned into audible shrieking so loud that anyone passing by could hear it. She fell to the tile floor, wrapping her arms around her midsection, begging her traitorous windpipe to quiet down. Sol will hear it, he’ll hear it, and he’ll take your clearance! He’s been looking for an excuse to revoke your clearance, he wants you gone, stop stop stop! This was the third one inside of a week.
Her throat burned, her eyes watered, and she grabbed fistfuls of hair in the hope that the pain would provide some sort of stopgap, short-circuit the panic. She pulled and pulled, then dug her fingernails into her skull until she felt moisture on her fingertips. She was so deep in her own torment that it was only now that she fleetingly wondered if Ampersand was feeling this, too.
Dynamic fusion bonding was what he called it, the way that members of an amygdaline “phyle” bound themselves to each other. Dynamic fusion bonding was the crux of amygdaline social structure, with members of a phyle called symphyles. Symphyles were bound to each other in the familial sense, if not the alien equivalent of the biblical one, which she was pretty sure would be the case if these guys hadn’t evolved past reproducing the old-fashioned way. Ampersand had told her that when he had attempted to fusion bond with her, he had expected it to fail, because he was a sleek and sophisticated 650-ish-year-old cyborg alien technocrat Oligarch and she was a lowly human, a being of meat and hair. And yet now here they were, bound together, ’til death do us part.
The ability to sense each other’s “state” was also a part of the package, only there was no rhyme or reason to how intensely they felt each other. Sometimes he couldn’t sense her at all, sometimes it was, in his words, “mildly debilitating.” She hoped now was not one of those times, hoped he wasn’t feeling his own alien equivalent of this tempest.
Then she realized someone was talking to her, a voice in her ear. It had spoken to her several times, and she hadn’t been coherent enough to respond.
“Dear one, come to me.”
She tried to get words out, but they weren’t coming. She could barely comprehend what he was asking.
“Dear one, come to me, I will stop it.”
“I can’t,” she garbled. “I can’t. Someone will see!”
“I can stop it.”
“Someone will see!” she all but shrieked. “I’ll lose my clearance. Sol is always looking for an excuse to revoke my clearance, if they see me like this! If they see me like this!”
There was a ripple on the tiled floor in front of her, and then a cloak of invisibility melted off a liquid metal plate. He must have slipped it under the door. It took a few dozen breaths before she could tear herself away from the wall, collapse onto the plate, curl into a fetal position, and let the liquid metal sweep over her, enveloping her in darkness.
When the metal unwrapped, the panic was still going strong. Her eyes, used to the bright fluorescent lights, could hardly see in the dark of Ampersand’s quarters. She rolled off the plate, her vision still swimming, her skin still prickling, her breath still coming in rapid bursts. Her vision coming in fits and starts, she could almost see Ampersand standing over her—giant by human standards at over eight feet tall, even with his forward-leaning center of gravity like a silver velociraptor. Long clawlike fingers floated over her, a head that was somewhere between a dragon and a praying mantis looked down at her.
“Do you consent to be medicated?”
“Yes,” she pleaded. “Yes, please, make it stop, make it stop!”
He placed his front four fingers of his left hand together, a small, syringe-like device forming at the tips, and he inserted it into her neck. The effect was immediate. It didn’t stop her hyperventilating, but it did pull back the prickling of her skin, the swimming of her vision. “I’m sorry,” she managed, her breath still fast and shallow, but slowing down. “I tried … to stop it. I didn’t … want it … to affect you … I’m sorry.”
He removed the syringe, the extensions on his fingers melting back into him. He stood still for a moment, as if recalibrating, and then lowered his body right next to hers. Ampersand didn’t “sit” like a human. More than anything, it reminded Cora of a deer, arms tucked neatly underneath his chest and digitigrade legs to his side. Then with both hands, he caressed her cheeks, then her temples, then ran his fingers through her hair. In doing so, he caught where she had made herself bleed with her fingernails. “Why do you do this?”
“I wanted … to make it … stop,” she said between breaths. “I … don’t know … I just … wanted … it … to stop.”
He’d already repaired the damage on one side of her head by the time her breathing slowed to something normal, which was so superficial he could do it with one hand.
Copyright © 2021 by Lindsay Ellis