by Elizabeth Engstrom

Apexology Science Fiction and Fantasy

Apexology: Science Fiction and Fantasy

The call came mid-sun. It was like a bell, or a chime, something Gemphalon had never heard before. He put down the piece of slate he’d chosen for the roof of his house and looked east.

Desert wasteland stretched as far as his eyes could see, all the way to the yellow horizon. The suns were at their zenith, crossing overhead, the little one closer this time of year, but no less intense. Gemphalon rotated again, reached for the piece of slate, but then the call came again, scrolled right up the screen of his mind, and it was so clear that he could not ignore it.

He straightened up and looked around. His house was almost finished. His design was sure to attract a suitable mate, and he would be of breeding age by swarm this year. He didn’t want to leave his house, because the moment he did, some sexually-mature interloper would move in, make use of it and then make use of Gemphalon’s mate when she arrived.

No, he couldn’t leave. He wouldn’t leave. Swarm was his right, it was his duty. He had spent his entire life preparing for it. He wouldn’t miss it, especially not this, his first year.

But he’d been called to the east. He had to go east.

No. He ignored the call, and picked up the piece of slate.

But this call was like no other. It was a hunger so deep that Gemphalon felt weak in its shadow. An unidentifiable longing overcame him. It was much like the longing for swarm, which had increased steadily in the past few months, only this was a thousand times, a thousand thousand times stronger. This could not be denied.

He would deny it. He was preparing for swarm. It’s what his greater had done, and his greater before him. It was what every breeding-age male in the colony was doing. The females would come within two weeks, and Gemphalon would be prepared. His house was better than most; he would attract a fine mate.

Then the call washed over him so completely that the slate dropped from his grip and shattered on the ground.

East.

He looked again at his house, and it had lost all importance in his carefully prioritized life. He barely had will enough left to fetch his walking stick before starting out.

First stop was the tree, where he gulped a bubble of water. Within the short minute he paused on what was already his journey, the hunger pawed at him again. As soon as he began walking, it eased into a constant gnaw. No one from the colony accosted him; no one asked him where he was going. Everyone was intent on getting ready for swarm. When swarm ended and life settled down to egg tending, someone would ask after him, surely, but until that happened, preparations were the priority and Gemphalon’s whereabouts were of no importance.

Gemphalon walked among the toilers of his colony, all his eyes straight ahead, going from certainty into mystery without enough will to stop himself. By the time he had left his clustermates behind, he didn’t even doubt that he shouldn’t have any doubts. All his priorities had been rearranged. All he thought of was going east. Going east was the only thing that settled his soul. He wanted what was there, though he had no idea of what that was. Something to sate this craving.  Everything else would fall into place.

And so it did. Sun after sun, when hunger came upon him, he found an abundant supply of lessers to catch and eat. The occasional tree held a bubble of water, and into his mind began to flow ideas, many ideas, concepts that were above the colony and beyond the stars. Those ideas came in gushes, giving Gemphalon time between flows to try to digest their meanings, although most of it was beyond his ken.

Gemphalon made his way slowly east, eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, never doubting that those needs would be cared for as he went about his greater purpose, whatever that purpose was to be. For the moment, it was putting one foot in front of the other toward the eastern horizon.

The moons were the nicest. The impulse eased off—not enough to allow doubts to enter, just enough to allow him peace. He squatted in the desert and watched the twin shadows lengthen as first one sun and then the other set over the hills. Then he watched the moon with its slender-shadowed satellites rise, giving the whole landscape a black-and-silver sheen. He secreted lubrication and oiled his joints, then rocked back, locked his hips into place, closed his eyes and shut down so the sleep mystifiers could have their way with him.

When he awoke, the hunger was with him so desperately he barely had time to unlock himself before starting out again toward the east.

The mystifiers had never given him such strange messages in the past. Gemphalon knew nobody who had the type of mystifications he had on this journey.

Relating unusual mystifications were a common form of entertainment at the colony, but though unusual in their details, the mystifications all centered around colony life. These were different. These had to do with…with…cosmic citizenship. Those words popped into his head as clearly as the chime that called him to the east. Gemphalon wished he knew enough to be afraid, but he didn’t. He wasn’t.

He had no time nor energy for fear. He had survived to adulthood, and that was test enough of his wily character. In fact, many of his cluster had survived, a tribute to his greater, who tended them. Many of the greaters ate their lessers instead of nurturing them. Gemphalon was going to be a good greater, feeding his lessers instead of having them feed him.

Next year, maybe, he would have a cluster of his own larvae to tend, and a pang of sorrow over his missed opportunity came upon him. His first swarm, and he would miss it. He would be a lesser for one more year.

He wanted to let his mind wander into the familiar speculation about his mate, what it would feel like to be chosen, and to fertilize her ova. How he would feel as a greater, filling the shoes of those who had gone before him? The urgings as swarm approached brought with them the increasing speculations until that was all any male could think about for weeks before the females arrived. When they did arrive, the males were consumed by the madness. For season after season, Gemphalon watched with his envious clustermates as the greaters went insane with the delirium of it all.

But he couldn’t concentrate on that fantasy any more. It was as if swarm had passed, and sanity had returned to the colony, and life was filled with the business of eating, sleeping and tending, with no time to think about mating.  He thought only of something fine waiting for him in the east.

He saw the dust trail of another long before he saw the other’s form. This one was coming from the southwest, and soon their trails would converge. Gemphalon took a tighter grip on his walking stick. He may have to defend himself. But when they met on the trail, there were no words between them, neither of greeting nor of challenge. They just walked during the sunlight hours and squatted side by side during the moonlight hours. Questions filled Gemphalon’s head, but they were not for this being, so he held them inside.

The following sun another joined them, and within the week, they were a silent marching brigade, headed in a long trail, not quite single file, through the desert, toward something extraordinary.

The horde of females passed by, boiling a dust storm behind them, but none of the pilgrims gave them a second glance.

Neither did Gemphalon, and he thought it was mighty strange.

The terrain began to change from hot, dusty desert, to scattered trees and bushes. Water was more plentiful, and the lessers were of a different type, and far more plentiful. Soon there was grass beneath their feet, and occasionally, bogs. Gemphalon had never imagined such abundant water. He never failed to oil himself every moonrise, because though the sand was hard on him, the dampness was worse.

They saw others who didn’t look like them, who sat and watched their parade, but there was no terror among the pilgrims, and they were not accosted. Still others joined them, others of Gemphalon’s type, with subtle changes to their color and structure. No one spoke, intent only on the journey, yet the level of excitement grew with each freshening of the scenery. Every sun brought mind-expanding wonders, until Gemphalon felt that he was silent merely because he had no words to express his amazement. There was barely room left for anticipation, he was so filled with astonishment during the sun and mystifications during the moon.

But the aspect and nature of the pull was changing, and Gemphalon gravitated toward the minor course corrections and the others followed. They neared their destination. The others knew it, too, and while they didn’t quicken their pace, they put more energy into their footsteps.

Ten sunrises plus another eight had them weary and approaching the top of a long hill. They made little headway every sun because none of them was used to walking. They weren’t designed for long distance travel on foot. And they were desert-dwellers. Soggy ground, morning dew and rain all took its toll on their exoskeletons. They lost a few by the wayside, and Gemphalon hoped that those would regain their health and eventually continue the trek. If they were like him, they would have no choice. Gemphalon would have crawled if he had to.

But climbing this tall hill was a trial for the whole line of marchers. The hill was bathed in grass and wildflowers, it smelled of a freshness that Gemphalon had never known before. In fact, he discovered portions of his sensory receptors that had never been activated before. The grasses were filled with all manner of lessers, and the entire troupe ate their fill, then locked down in exhaustion, well before the moon. They would crest the hill the following sun. Surely going down would be easier.

The mystifiers woke Gemphalon mid-moon. His eyes extruded slowly and looked around. All the way down the hill, along the pathway, his comrades were squatted and turned off for the night. There were no sounds except for a soft breeze that ruffled the tall grasses.

He unlocked his hips and stood up, grabbed his walking stick and headed for the crest of the hill. He felt—or perhaps the mystifiers had told him—that the thing which pulled him lay just on the other side. He wanted to see it.

The going was slow, and he missed the comforting sounds of his companions. Thoughts strayed differently as he walked under the moon, and he wondered if the females would swarm if he and his traveling companions settled in a region such as this. Would the females object? Could they find the new colony? Could the larvae be brought up in such a climate? Would the lessers survive?

The terrain leveled off as Gemphalon contemplated all these things, and he walked through the darker shadows of trees that topped the hill, anticipation like nothing he had ever known working on him. He left scent periodically to guide the others, and when he broke through the other side of the woods, he could see down into the valley.

What he saw astonished him beyond imagination.

There were stars in the ground. The ground itself was carved into geometric shapes, and there were structures, square structures, not round as he and his people made.

Gemphalon was startled and alarmed and charmed and intrigued all at once. He didn’t know what to think about any of it. He squatted, locked himself, and waited for the sun.

As the suns rose, the colony in the valley came to life. Gemphalon, resisting the urge to head down the hill ahead of his mates, waited, still locked in place, and he watched.

They were strange creatures, and they went about doing strange things.

Both suns were high before the first of the travelers met Gemphalon at the top of the hill, and they too, were stunned with the sight spread below them. For as far as they could see, both north and south in the valley, the vegetation was broken into different colored squares. Unlikely looking bipeds wrapped in colors moved about at random but with the stride of purpose.

Gemphalon’s traveling companions lined the mountaintop and locked themselves into place, eager to be down there to quench the thirst that had compelled them to make this journey, yet cautious of the unknown. They stayed there for the rest of the sun, none of them leaving their posts long enough to even eat. When the stars came out of the ground, there were gasps all around, and they began to talk among themselves for the first time.

The chatter lasted almost all moon long. Gemphalon listened to the speculation and the wonder in their voices. There were no arguments, no fights. His breed was quick to anger and just as quick to kill and eat the antagonist, but they were subdued by the enormity of their quest. They talked quietly, well into the moon, and in the early morning, a cloud appeared, sending water down upon them.

All the travelers woke at this unpleasantry and got busy lubricating themselves. Then, as the suns lightened the sky, Gemphalon unlocked himself, took up his walking stick and became the first to head down the mountain.

The others followed, single file.

***

Avonia was the first to spot them coming down the mountain, and she trilled in thrilled anticipation. Her workmates looked where she pointed, and there, like a line of ants, the local citizens came down the mountain trail. Avonia had served on a hundred or more of these biological upstep commissions, but seeing the best of the species answer their summons was always a wonderful sight.

This project was different, because this planet was a decimal planet, and therefore all the life forms were experimental. Nobody expected that it would be an insectile life form that would exhibit moral behavior first, and this was a tremendous surprise.

Regardless, all the preparation, the permissions, the petitions, the bureaucratic nonsense and the hassle of planetary administration was lost in the joy of seeing the best of the best walk, slowly and with some discomfort, down the mountain on what would be the last leg of their arduous journey.

What lay ahead for them was so wonderful that Avonia could barely contain her excitement. These creatures would soon become people—real people. Their lives would transform completely, and they would have so much more, they would be so much more. And they had no idea. They would come in afraid, as usual, and reluctant, as usual, but when they were released to go back to their colonies to affect radical change and improve their way of life, they would be elated. Their spirits would soar for years. For generations. Avonia had seen it, time and time and time again.

She was particularly intrigued with this task, because on all previous assignments, they had worked with mammals. She had no idea how it would work with the insects. Or insect-like creatures, which was the truth of it.

“Avonia,” her supervisor said. “Back to work now.”

She knew they would be watching her. She had a tendency to go a little bit overboard, she knew it. She’d been reprimanded in the past by getting too close to the pilgrims as they were headed to the chambers for treatment. But they were so afraid, most of them, most of the time, and there wasn’t enough counseling for them. Nobody spent the time to sit down and explain to them what was about to happen, and why they shouldn’t be afraid.

She understood her superiors’ reasoning for this. It was almost like sacrificing the one for the good of the whole. The process that would be effected in the chambers would upstep the indigent creatures’ genetic material, and that would bring expanded awareness and spiritual potential, but it lacked wisdom. Wisdom came with experience, and it was only after several generations that wisdom made its appearance. The personal touch could never be passed along, unfortunately, so in the quest for expedience and so as to minimize trauma, the locals were herded into the chambers, recombined with the upstep genetic plasm, and released to return to their colonies. All without explanation, all without counseling of any kind.

“We’ve tried counseling, and it has never made a difference,” she was told when she complained. “It has never helped. These are but animals, Avonia. We’re making them human, but genetic material does not make for immediate morality and instant ethics. That has to come from within them. And social evolution is a slow process. You cannot rush it.”

Avonia knew they were probably right, which is why they were her superiors. But still, her heart went out to the pilgrims, especially when she saw that they were afraid. Afraid and not in control of their actions.

She went back to work, weeding vegetables, but her mind wasn’t completely on it. She kept glancing up to gauge their progress. It was slow progress, but then they weren’t built for this type of traveling. Surely they were weary. Would the garden administration even feed them? Or offer them beds? She didn’t know.

But she admired the way the leader of the group held his head up and strode with great purpose. This creature seemed unafraid, and bravely led his fellows into the garden to confront their destiny. Avonia felt a kinship with him. She, too, was unafraid, and always had been. Sometimes what people in the gardens did wasn’t exactly right, or the way she would do things if she had the power. So she circumvented the rules a little bit and made things better.

It got her into trouble all right, but it wasn’t serious trouble, and Avonia knew in her soul that she had done the right thing.

Yet the supervisors were wise to keep their eye on her. She wasn’t above doing something stupid. Her wisdom didn’t quite match her energy level. She was young and impetuous, but her heart was in the right place. So she had been told, over and over again.

She kept on weeding.

By noontide meat, the pilgrims were almost to the valley floor. She went to the supervisor and asked that she be chosen to escort the leader to the chamber.

The supervisor looked long and hard at Avonia before responding. Then he merely nodded, and went on with his meal. Avonia’s face flushed with excitement, and she went back to her place, though she no longer had an appetite.

Escorting the leader was a privilege. This meant that she was again back in the good graces of the administration, and she was once more allowed to prove her reliability. If she continued to make good, solid, sound decisions, she would again begin to advance her status. This was a wonderful opportunity.

She finished her meal early and went back to the vegetable garden, weeding with increased vigor, anticipation fueling her energy.

She was also the first one to put down her hoe and begin the procession line to greet the newcomers, lining the path they were to take so that they didn’t scatter and become lost and disoriented. The garden was a marvel, but it could be confusing to those who didn’t understand the layout, particularly the concentric rings of pathways with their interconnecting spokes. Anyway, she got there early, and when Gemphalon, the leader, first came into the garden, she began the applause that would welcome home the whole group.

She saw the mesmerizing effect of the summons drop from their eyes the moment they stepped into the garden, and saw the fear take its place. That was another thing. Couldn’t the Powers lower the level gradually? It was like these innocents suddenly found out that they had been sleep walking for months and had traveled halfway across the planet, only to wake in a completely foreign land without an idea as to how they got there, why they were there or anything about the strange species of people they discovered upon awakening. It was cruel, Avonia thought, and she would change that system if she could.

When she could. As she moved up in planetary administration, she would affect some of those changes.

But for now, she saw the fear take hold of Gemphalon the leader, and she clapped harder, and cheered him, and tried sending out all the psychic signals she knew how to send in order to bring him some peace. But she didn’t know if insect people received psychic signals, and she didn’t know if clapping and cheering might even seem like an act of aggression to them.

To his credit, he didn’t bolt. He just faltered a few steps, and then kept going on down the road, lined all the way to the governor’s mansion by garden helpers clapping and cheering their arrival.

She tried to make eye contact with him, but all his eyes were on the ground, and he just kept steadfastly walking.

He was hers. He was the best that this planet had to offer, the most highly evolved so far, and she was going to escort him to the chambers.

She was in love.

***

The soft-shell bipeds put down their tools and watched the procession down the hill, and slowly Gemphalon and his weary travelers made their way down toward them. Gemphalon got himself ready for confrontation, but when they finally made it to the colony, the bipeds began slapping their extremities together in greeting. Gemphalon lifted his mandible and led his group right into the midst of them. As he did so, he felt the urgency of the call diminishing. He had nothing to replace it but fear, but he wasn’t about to succumb to that. They had made a mighty pilgrimage, and they all needed to stand tall and accept their fate.

The noisy crowd lined a pathway, and it was obvious where Gemphalon was to go. He heard them, but could make no sense of their communication devices.  He bravely followed the pathway, which ended at the steps of a huge structure, the likes of which Gemphalon had never seen before. It had square corners and an angled upward path. He stopped at the bottom of those steps and waited. Surely a king or a god would come out, and then they would receive their fate.

But nobody came out. The stragglers of his troupe continued to accumulate until there was a great lot of them all together in the area in front of the structure, and the suns were going down. The bipeds brought stars on sticks and set them around the pathways. Gemphalon, not knowing what else to do, locked down and shut himself off.

The mystifiers came to him immediately, filling his mind with all manner of wondrous visions. Gemphalon, even in his dream, tried to pull away and stop it, but it was as if a gentle, calm hand was laid upon his fevered forehead, and he relaxed and let them talk with him.

An uplifting, they said. For the lessers. More brain power, larger spirit receptor glands, healthier, less warlike. Gemphalon didn’t understand all of what they tried to tell him, but when he awoke to the sunrise, he had a profound feeling of being a necessary part of something enormous.

But still when the softbodies came to get him in the early sun, he resisted. Fear descended upon Gemphalon in a way that he had never felt before. He screeched a war cry, and his brethren awoke, tiny wings emerged from within their shells, and they sprayed scent and flapped their ineffectual wings with dangerous emotion. It didn’t seem right, this war cry, with these softbodies that appeared to be peaceful. The aggressors retreated, and Gemphalon felt shame that he had reacted that way, but he knew no other way to react.

They could only want to eat him. What other use would they have? He was a lesser, after all.

The crowd silenced in a wave, and Gemphalon swiveled his head to see the great doors open. Out stepped a tall blue softbody. Surely a king. Or a god. But nobody bowed, nobody fell down, everybody just turned their attention to him.

He spoke into Gemphalon’s mind just as the original call to the east had come to him.

“Be not afraid. You and your fellows have exhibited the finest genetic traits of your species,” the king said. “It is now time for those traits to be enhanced. You have been chosen and gathered here in order to upstep the biological status of your race. Please. Go in peace with your handlers. They will treat you well.”

Gemphalon felt a touch, and looked down to see a small, light blue softbody. “You are their leader, Gemphalon,” she said into his mind. “The rest look to you for your example of bravery, so you shall be first. Come.” As it seemed he had little choice, he followed her, but he had grave reservations, and wished he could be elsewhere. He didn’t understand any of it; it was all new and horribly frightening.

But the small blue softbody had an attractive scent of her own, and Gemphalon, not immune to the awakening within his body that he attributed to the time of swarm, followed. She led him to a side door of the big building, and with a final glance at his fellow travelers who stood agape at his display of calm compliance, he entered the hall.

“Do you know what a cocoon is?” the softbody asked, her voice soft and cool in his mind.

Gemphalon nodded. Of course knew what a cocoon was.

“This is much like a cocoon, and you will sleep for a short time. During that time, your life plasm will be harvested, combined with that of my species, and then replanted into your system. You will make a transformation, but it will not hurt. I promise.”

“Swarm?” he asked.

Her eyes were flush with her head, but even so, they exhibited much emotion. “Kind of,” she said, an understanding look entering those eyes. “Swarm will be different from now on, at least for you.” She put a hand on his arm and led him to a table. “Can you lie down?”

“Lie down?”

“Well, then, get up on this table and make yourself comfortable, whatever that means.”

Gemphalon stepped up onto the table with the aid of his stick, squatted and locked. The softbody looked at his position. “Are you comfortable?”

“Comfortable?”

“Can you stay like that for a long period of time?”

Gemphalon nodded.

“Don’t be afraid. I will be with you again when you wake. Now sleep,” she said, and though he had just awakened from a moonsleep, Gemphalon felt a thick drowse come over him. He barely noticed that she was with him on the table, and turning him, and pressing herself to him before the mystifiers came and stole his mind.

***

Avonia knew she was going to get into big trouble for this, but she just couldn’t help herself.

She had taken many indigenous creatures to the chambers, and the rules to follow were precise, clear and easy to follow. It always happened the same way. Avonia liked to think she added a little of her personality to the task, in soothing them, and talking to them. Sometimes they were on a compatible communication channel and could actually converse, but most of the time, she had to pantomime and move slowly and calmly with efficiency, and from that, they gathered that she knew her business, and that always put them somewhat at ease, though they had no idea what was happening to them. Other than being a little bit extra nice, and maybe making a little joke now and then, she followed the outlined procedure exactly.

Except this time, and she knew she would get into big trouble.

Just as she was getting herself out of trouble.

Oh well. The deed was done.

Generally, she brought the creature into the chamber, got it on the table and began the anesthetic. When they were asleep, she placed a small open container of the new life plasm to be combined with their genetic information, then initiated the cocoon.

She didn’t know how it worked, but in two planet weeks, she went back, disentangled the genetically-enhanced creature from the strands of silk that the cocooning process always creates, discarded the empty vial of plasm, and gently awoke the new citizen of the cosmos.

Usually, all of those who had made the pilgrimage awoke at about the same time, they were fed and then released to make the journey home, carrying with them a whole new biology with which to populate the planet.

It was a simple project. This genetic upstep was perhaps the most important thing that they did on every evolving planet, yet it took so little of their time and energy. The rest of the time the team had hard work, preparing for the day when the hundreds of thousands of biologically superior offspring of these initial implant recipients instinctively came back seeking knowledge.

The garden had to be ready for that teaching project.

And that had been Avonia’s job, readying the gardens, slowly moving up the hierarchy of administration, taking two steps forward and one step back, always impetuous, eager, and with barely a shred of the patience that the elders were always admonishing her to cultivate along with her crops.

And here she was again, acting impetuously.

Oh well.

There was something heartfully appealing about this large, young, slow-moving creature. His nature spoke to her, both figuratively and literally, in that they were fortuitously channeled on the same frequency, so they could communicate. His was a simple mind, free of the extraneous silliness that seemed to overwhelm her thought processes most of the time. She readied him, and wondered at the product of this transformation. From insectile to human. He would never be totally mammal, but his value system would change with his enlarged spirit receptor. What would that be like? Instead of laying thousands of eggs as insects did, they would henceforth have nuclear families. How would that work?

What would they eat, if they didn’t eat each other?

The questions came at her faster than she could ignore them, and then before she knew what she was doing, she had an overwhelming compulsion to add her personal life plasm to Gemphalon’s, and to be an actual part of this extraordinary occurrence, instead of a mere bystander. She knew that the elders would be very angry, and it could in fact get her expelled from the life implantation program she was interning for. But it would be an experience like no other. It would be a radical achievement, and perhaps change the way that things would be done from then on out. Who knew? Maybe she would be cited for bravery and given a promotion.

And she had no idea what would actually happen to her. She knew that Gemphalon would become more like her, but would she become more insectile?

The reality of that eventuality flitted through her mind as she had already initiated the process, just as she had entwined her limbs with his, as the anesthesia stole her consciousness. Her last thought had just a twinge of panic in it.

Oh boy, I’ve really done it this time, she thought.

***

The mystifiers had some unusual tricks this time.

They took Gemphalon to places he didn’t know existed, places that he began to suspect were within him. It took him a long time to realize that he was awake and aware, and that the mystifiers were not still spinning strange stories to his inner sleep. He had been going on a guided tour, it seemed, of himself. He was awake—his eyes were open—but he felt disoriented and odd. He was not the same as he was when he first entered the chamber, got on the table per the request of the small softbody, and fell asleep.

Everything about him was different.

He looked down at all his various parts, and they all appeared to be the same. He felt as if he hadn’t eaten in a long time, and the smell of food attracted his attention right away. On a table to his right was a vast array of things, and with difficulty, he stepped down from the table. He took a moment to lubricate his joints—he had been idle too long—and then he viewed the things that had been laid upon the table.

There were a variety of green things, things that had grown. There were soft shelled things and green things and brown things and things that smelled pungent. Nothing moved.

He picked up and smelled a variety of objects, and one small round purple thing looked intriguing, so Gemphalon bit it.

Sweet juice squirted into his mouth, and he gobbled the fruit down greedily, then looked for more.

He found an abundance of delicious foods on the table, things he never would have tried eating before. Before, he ate lessers, and the quicker they moved, the tastier they were.

But now he seemed to have lost his taste for the lessers, and gained an appreciation for things that grew out of the ground.

How odd.

Starvation temporarily sated, he looked around for the next adventure, or an exit to the room, or something, and he saw the small blue softbody wrapped in a protective covering, lying on a different table.

He approached her and felt a disturbance in his stomach. At first he thought it was the foreign food, but as he got closer to her, he felt glad to see her, as he would a long-ago friend. He felt affection and concern. She looked pale and weak. Unconscious. The last time he had seen her, she was vibrant and sparkly, competent and authoritative.

He touched her, and her eyes opened, but they didn’t see.

A moment later, those dark blue eyes focused on him and she shrank away from him in fear.

He took a step backwards in surprise. He hadn’t frightened her before.

She clutched the blanket to her chest and drew away to the end of the table, fearful eyes on his every move.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said, but what came back to him on the circuit was a horrible mind-chatter that screeched and scratched, so he shut it down. He looked around for help, but there was no one. Just the two of them. He went back to the table, picked up a piece of fruit and brought it back to her. She ate as if she was starving, the juice running down her chin and dripping onto the blanket. He brought more food, and the more she ate, the calmer she became.

Gemphalon was pleased. He felt a compelling attachment to this softbody, and he didn’t know why. He just knew he didn’t want her to be hungry or to be afraid.

He approached her slowly, but the terror returned, so he backed away again.

Then the door opened, and the king, or god, or whatever he was, the tall blue being in charge walked in, followed by a half dozen small blue softbodies.

“Greetings,” he said into Gemphalon’s mind. “I know you don’t appreciate the significance of the change that has transpired in you, but it is vast. Your job now is to go forth and procreate. Your progeny will be of such a superior order that all others will either be admixed or else will expire. You and the other brave souls who made this treacherous journey have been noted on universe records, and your contribution to the mortal races of this planet will not go unrewarded in time. Go forth, now, and bear offspring vigorously.”

Gemphalon didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. He only understood that he was free to go.

In response, he looked at the softbody.

“Ah, Avonia,” the tall man said. “Such youth. Such curiosity. This has never happened before, and it will take us time to study the effects of your joint life plasma exchange. Clearly, you received the better byproduct. Perhaps her condition can be reversed. We have yet to find out.”

“I’ll take her,” Gempahlon said.

“Oh, no, no, you are to go back and breed with your own species.”

“I will care for her,” Gemphalon said simply. He would not leave without the little soft one who had in some manner sacrificed herself for him.

The tall man turned to another small softbody like Avonia and they spoke quietly. “Bold…success…remarkable…” were the only words Gemphalon understood, and he gathered that they were all somehow pleased with his request. He looked back at Avonia, and she seemed to be less afraid of him than of the others.

“Avonia will remain with us,” the tall one said.

“No,” Gemphalon responded, and he was, to his own amazement, firm on the matter. He thought about his colony, and how empty it seemed. Far, far away in more ways than one, and destitute. He thought that Avonia would add life to the colony. He thought Avonia would add to his life.

The tall one looked at him in silence for a prolonged moment, then said, “We will confer.” With that, he exited the room, closing the door behind him.

***

Something was wrong with Avonia’s mind, but she couldn’t identify it. She remembered, or thought she did, being able to understand the things that went on around her, and for now, nothing that was within her sight or smell or taste or anywhere in her range of reality made sense. It was discombobulated, disjointed, meaningless and frightening.

She felt guilty. She felt that punishment—for what, she didn’t know—was imminent. Harsh punishment. Strong, severe, life-threatening punishment.

She thought she might be eaten.

Strange creatures were speaking in foreign tongues, and now and then it felt as though someone entered her head, poked around and then left.

After the tall dangerous one and his fierce cohorts left, she took a deep breath and tried to make sense of it all. It seemed that understanding was just around the corner. It was something she had had, but had been taken from her, and she didn’t know how or why.

The big bug knew, though. He had fed her, and then he protected her from the giant. For that, she wouldn’t kill him. If she even could.

There. That was it, wasn’t it? The tiniest thought of things the way they used to be—before what?—that kindness, that sensitivity. She used to have that. She used to have nice thoughts about others, and now it just seemed like so much excess baggage.

Eat or be eaten, that’s how it was, and to think anything else is mere foolishness.

But right now, she had to wait for the bug, because it was somehow in control of their escape.

***

Gemphalon would have liked to sit for a season and contemplate all the new thoughts, concepts, ideas and emotions he seemed to have acquired. There was an entirely new structure to his perception of things, and he needed some time to sort through it, in his careful, methodical manner, and come to terms with the discovery.

But he hadn’t the luxury. The soft thing, Avonia, the elder called her, approached him with wariness and urgency. He knew that she must be desperate indeed to come to him when she was so afraid.

He would never hurt her, but she apparently didn’t know that, and he didn’t know how to tell her. He tried opening his mind to her again, but there was just that awful screeching static, so he closed it again.

She hesitated in her slow approach when he did that, but it didn’t stop her.

He wished he knew what the elder was doing, or going to say. He was clearly free to go, but he had taken a protective stance over this Avonia, and he would not falter.

Strange that he felt like succumbing to the authority of this elder. He had never felt that before.

Avonia came still closer, mindless fear on her face. He squatted quietly, motionless, waiting for her. He wanted to touch her. He remembered, vaguely, being locked in place on the table when she had touched him, and in his memory, her touch had been confident, gentle, and compassionate, when he had been so afraid.

He wanted to touch her like that now.  But he dared not. She was making forward progress on her own.

As she came nearer to him, a level of excitement grew in him. There were odd emotions surrounding this young thing, as if she were a part of him in some way. He could no more leave her here than he could leave a piece of himself.

But what if they told him she had to stay?

He pulled his mandible down to his chest. Then he, too, would stay.

But what if they wouldn’t let him?

Avonia crept around on her hands and knees until she was in front of him. She stood up on her knees and held her extremities together. Then with what must have been a tremendous force of will, she entered his mind with one crystal clear concept: “We go now.” Then the static came back and he shut down the communication.

Of course, he thought. He needed no approval. He unlocked his hips, quickly lubricated himself while she watched with rapt attention, picked up his walking stick and walked out of the room, out of the building and into the bright mid-sun.

The elder was nowhere to be seen. Those of Avonia’s breed stopped their work and waved, and called, but Avonia clung tightly to Gemphalon’s extremity, and without faltering a step, he strode along the path, past those who shouted, and on out of the garden, up the side of the hill.

No one followed them.

They stopped halfway up the side of the hill the first moon. Gemphalon, not designed for long walking, was of particularly poor design for walking uphill. It had taken him less than half a sun to walk down, but it would take two suns to walk back up.

Avonia walked by his side, and when he locked down for the moon, she sat next to him on the ground, and together they watched the stars come out of the ground in the garden.

The next sun they crested the hill, and the garden was lost to view.

When that happened, a transformation came over Avonia. She made unnatural sounds with her mouth, and she ran around with her extremities flapping. She ran around Gemphalon in circles, and she lay on the ground in the grass and rolled around. He had no understanding for her actions; he merely kept walking. They had a long way to go. She ran here and there, but never got out of his sight.

He worried about her at first, then realized that she was all right; she would come back to him, and she did. They were tied together in some cosmic fashion, and she would always be drawn back to him, just as he could never leave her.

He thought of her living in his colony, but as he could no longer clearly remember the colony, placing her within that society made no sense. If she didn’t fit in there, they would simply make their home someplace else. He had ideas about building her a house. A fine, stable, substantial house, perhaps with square corners. And he would provide for her. He wasn’t certain yet about the things she would eat, but the desert was full of wonder, and there would surely be things to her liking there.

Would there be things to his liking there? His tastes seem to have changed. Perhaps they could grow the plants they liked to eat, right next to their house.

As the suns dipped below the horizon, Avonia brought him a handful of small round red things. She ate one, and then he ate one, and it was good. She took him to where they were growing in a field, and together in the lengthening shadows, they ate their fill.

Gemphalon felt a kinship, a growing closeness with his odd little softbody. He felt a profound affection for the inept, vulnerable little creature.

They traveled for four suns, finding food when they needed, resting during the moons, Avonia always sleeping at Gemphalon’s feet. Every day, Gemphalon’s fantasy grew more distinct, as they neared their destination, he knew how he would provide for her. He began to think of her as his mate, although surely they would be incompatible when it came to raising lessers. That didn’t even matter to him any more. Odd. That which had been of overwhelming importance to him at the colony, now seemed almost barbaric. He remembered what the elder had told him about going forth and multiplying, but that was no longer his destiny. Tending thousands of eggs every year no longer appealed.

No. He wanted to learn to communicate with the little blue female who had given him his spirit.

During the fifth moon, Gemphalon woke. Avonia was shaking, and her eyes leaked. She clung to his leg and he put his claw on her head, his heart breaking for whatever it was that hurt her, but he didn’t know how to fix it. Her pitiful mewing strengthened his resolve to take care of her. This traveling was no life for a fragile female like this. We’ll pick up the pace, he thought. She needs a home.

***

The call came mid-moon. It was like a bell, or a chime, or something Avonia had never heard before.

She didn’t know what it meant, only that she could not ignore it. She could not disobey it. She dare not.

And, in fact, she didn’t want to.

Yet she couldn’t leave the big creature who had rescued her from that place, and who took such good care of her.

Well, yes, she could leave him.

Loyalty, while a concept she vaguely remembered, seemed like such a waste of energy.

They approached. She had to go.

She touched the creature and he awoke. She began to tell him about the call, but she had no words, and then the last of her emotion rose up like a giant bubble that at first cut off her air, and then rose up her throat to explode in a spasm of sobs and tears. She cried all that there was to cry, and when that was gone, so was the rest of her humanity.

She could hear them now, thundering closer.

She stood, all thoughts of Gemphalon completely erased. Somewhere in the back of her consciousness she recognized his presence, but that was all. He was no threat, therefore he didn’t exist.

Avonia stood straight and tall, chest out, chin up, eyes wide open, and she waited to be absorbed. She saw the cloud of boiling dust like a small tornado from a long ways off on the horizon, and waited with calm restraint. It moved fast, as fast as the wind, and she felt electricity crackle about her as it neared.

The screeching static in her mind focused into voices, a million or more voices, chattering their excitement, and involuntarily, she began to chatter as well, her mind merging with theirs long before they scooped her up into their whirlwind and headed for the next colony of males.

Swarm.

Heaven.

***

Gemphalon watched her go, his dreams crushed, his heart broken, his future a vast wasteland stretched out like the desert before him.

Chasing after her was not an option; the females fairly flew in their hormonal cluster, and he was but a flat-footed, slow witted, dirt-simple male. He watched the whirlwind and luxuriated in its fragrance until it was out of sight.

He missed Avonia, but most of all, he grieved for her more immediate destiny. She may have thought she was one of them, but she was not. She was different. She was a softbody. She would be eaten.

He lifted his walking stick and began again the long journey back to his colony. In his mind’s eye he tried to visualize exactly what was going on there in his absence.  They would be egg tending. They would be jealous and fighting, stealing and eating each others’ lessers.

It seemed so horrible. So difficult. How could he possibly change anything there?

When Darkness Loves Us

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom

Who would he talk with? How could he make sense of the new thoughts, feelings, insights he was having without someone who could understand? He had an overpowering need to share this information. But there was no one to listen.

He had a mission, he reminded himself. For the eventual good, for the ultimate good of his colony and all others. The life of the one was not as important as the lives of the many. But that was a vague concept at best.

What he did understand was that he had been changed. For the first time, he felt loneliness. Profound loneliness. He was a solitary pilgrim and there would be no companionship back at the colony.

He walked on, trying not to question the gift he had been given, the gift that had created a different hunger inside him. This was not a hunger that could be satisfied by walking a thousand or more miles.

This was a hunger that could only be satisfied by—he didn’t know what, he only sensed that it would burn him as long as he was alone.

He looked at the vast wasteland of the desert before him and knew, with a spirit-crushing certainty, that he was to serve his kind, but he would serve in isolation.

He wondered if, in their best of intentions, they knew what they had done to him.

He kept walking.

“Gemphalon” originally appeared in Imagination Fully Dilated, Vol. II (IFD Publishing, 2002) and currently appears in Apexology: Science Fiction and Fantasy (Apex Publications, 2011)


More from Elizabeth Engstrom:

Elizabeth Engstrom is a speculative fiction author who was nominated in 1992 Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection for her book Nightmare Flower. Her anthology Dead on Demand: The Best of Ghost Story Weekend spent six months on the Library Journal “Best Seller List.” Her short story, “Crosley”, was picked to be included in The Thirteenth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow. Her work has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Horror Show, American Fantasy Magazine, and Cemetery Dance. Visit her on the web at http://www.elizabethengstrom.com/.

Her double-novella dark fantasy collection When Darkness Loves Us is currently available from Apex Publications.

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