Tethered. MERCURIO D. RIVERA

Mercurio D. Rivera (www.mercuriorivera.com) has worked as a Manhattan litigator for more than twenty years, generating voluminous legal briefs rather than short fiction. That changed during a one-year sabbatical when he signed up for a science-fiction writing course taught by author Terry Bisson at the New School. Since 2006 he has published twenty stories in markets such as Asimov’s, Interzone, Nature, Black Static, Abyss and Apex, and Unplugged: The Web’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2008 Download, edited by Rich Horton (Wyrm Publishing). In 2011, he was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category. His stories have been podcast at Escape Pod, StarshipSofa and Transmissions From Beyond. He has served as an Associate Editor for Sybil’s Garage Magazine, and is a proud member of the Altered Fluid writing group. The story in this book is one of his Wergen series. The alien Wergens suffer from a compulsive biochemical love for humanity, a love that has driven them to share their superior technology and establish joint colonies with humans throughout the solar system.

“Tethered” was published in Interzone. Set on the shores of Titan’s methane lakes, it is a story about very strange alien biology, a female coming-of-age story in which the transition between girlhood and womanhood is further complicated by the relationship between humans and a subservient alien race that is biologically compelled to try to make humans happy.

On the shore of Ontario Lacus on Southern Titan, Cara molded castles from the windblown sediment that served as sand. Her parents stood at the threshold of their shelter in the distance, chatting with their sponsor, the Wergen responsible for transporting her family from Earth. Cara lay on her stomach while the methane waves lapped against the shore, tickling her bare feet.

She held up her hand against the smoggy orange sky and studied the barely visible blue tint that covered her skin. Her mother had described it as a special ‘coat’ that protected them from the cold weather. The Wergen force field over Ontario Lacus shielded them from radiation and modulated the gravity, but they still needed the ‘coat’ to protect them from the temperatures. It sure didn’t feel cold, Cara thought. It didn’t even look chilly, although Cara’s mother had told her that Titan was colder than the coldest place on Earth.

A young Wergen, their sponsor’s daughter, tentatively stooped down next to her. “Soy Beatrix,” she said. The alien girl was squat and scaled and spoke with a slight accent so she must have just learned Spanish. It took Wergens about a day or so to speak a language fluently. “My brother and I were wondering … What are you doing?”

A fat, gray-scaled Wergen boy with round eyes peeked at them from behind a red boulder about fifty feet away.

“Why is he hiding?”

“He doesn’t like the way humans make him feel.”

“Really? I’ve never heard that before.”

“You make him feel too good.”

Cara shrugged. Of course the boy felt good around humans. He was Wergen. She was amused by the fact that the girl wore a red, skintight swimming cap over her flat head. Every Wergen she had ever seen wore green, leafy wreath-hats. “I’m building a sandcastle.”

“What’s a castle?” Beatrix said.

Cara giggled. “A house where a king lives.”

The Wergen stared at her and didn’t respond. Cara wondered whether the alien girl knew what a king was.

“Can I help?” Beatrix said.

Every Wergen Cara had ever met asked her parents this same question: “Can I help? Can I help?” Her mother and father were sick of the question. But it was the first time a Wergen had asked her and it made her feel grown up and important. Normally, her parents sternly said ‘no’ and the aliens would slink away with their heads down and their shoulders slumped. But Cara didn’t want to make the alien girl unhappy. “Yes, you can help.” She showed Beatrix how to pack the sediment and mold it into towers for the castle she was building. After a while, bored with this activity, Cara said, “I know something even more fun. Let’s go for a swim and catch perpuffers!”

“What are those?”

Cara displayed her left forearm, which was covered with furry bracelets. “They’re pretty, aren’t they? I have all the colors except purple. Purple perpuffers are the hardest to find.” She shuffled to the edge of the lake.

Beatrix stood up and looked out at the thick, pink waters that sloshed back and forth in slow motion. “I … don’t … I mean …” She stared silently.

“Follow me,” Cara said.

Six bots skittered around Beatrix’s feet. They were as large as cats, only Cara thought they looked more like praying mantises in the way they crouched on their spindly rear legs. Three of them stood in front of the Wergen girl, blocking her path, and red lights glowed at the end of their six appendages. Beatrix clapped her hands and they scattered to one side allowing her to walk past them.

As they waded into the lake, Beatrix pulled off her robes and tossed them to the bots. Cara didn’t know what she expected to see beneath the alien’s clothes but the Wergen girl simply stood there naked, unashamed. She had smooth white skin speckled with silver scales that sparkled when they caught the light at certain angles. Cara considered taking off her own bathing suit but then remembered the Wergen boy spying on them from behind the rock.

They dove into the water together, their blue bodyfields bright in the red murk of the lake. They were less buoyant in this liquid than in water and its ruddy color made it hard to see. Cara forced herself to go deeper, reaching out blindly and hoping to latch onto one of the furry perpuffers that filled the lake.

Cara heard a muffled scream.

She barely made out the Wergen girl’s blue bodyfield far below. Beatrix waved her arms over her head, sinking deeper. Cara dove closer, hooked her arm around the Wergen’s waist and kicked hard until they broke the surface. “Don’t struggle!” Cara gasped. “Don’t struggle!” She shouted for help but no one on the shore seemed to hear her. “You’re okay, I’ve got you.”

After a few panicked seconds Beatrix relaxed in her arms and they floundered back to shore. Cara’s screams had alerted the medbots, which immediately scoured over Beatrix’s face and chest. Cara’s parents and their Wergen patron came running and stood watch until the medbots eventually blinked yellow, signaling that Beatrix was unhurt.

The adult Wergen, who Cara believed to be Beatrix’s father, said, “You need to be more careful,” before quickly turning his attention back to Cara’s parents. “Are you sure I can’t help you with anything?” he said to them. “Perhaps I can assist with the interior decoration of your shelter?” Her parents turned away without answering and the Wergen followed close behind them.

Once the adults had left, Cara sat silently beside Beatrix for several minutes, burrowing her toes beneath the pasty sediment. There was no longer any sign of the Wergen boy. He hadn’t approached even when the medbots had examined his sister.

Cara finally broke the silence. “We can’t drown, you know,” she said, pointing to the blue tint that coated their bodies.

Beatrix paused, staring out at the pink waters. “Then why didn’t you just leave me?”

“I wasn’t going to swim back to shore while you were out there all alone and afraid.”

At this, the Wergen girl turned to face Cara. She tilted her head to the left and nodded, smiling warmly.

“Don’t you know how to swim?” Cara said.

Beatrix shook her head.

“Then why did you go in with me?”

“You said it was fun,” Beatrix said. “And … I wanted to make you happy.”

“Oh.”

The steady wind blew and neither of them spoke for a long time.

“Can I see your hand?” Cara said. She removed a red perpuffer from her left arm and placed it around the Wergen girl’s wrist. “Here. This is for you. A gift.”

The Wergen girl’s eyes brightened. “That tickles,” she said.

“Sometimes the perpuffers expand and contract a little bit when they’re fresh out of the lake.”

“No,” she said. “I meant your hand. When you touched me.”

Later that evening when Cara snuggled in bed she couldn’t get the words of the Wergen girl out of her head, the Wergen girl who so wanted to be her friend that she would risk her own life to make her happy.

ENCRYPTED Medical Journal Entry No. 223 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: The Wergen headtail, or ‘tether’ as it is referred to in common parlance, originates at the base of the secondary spine. As the subject matures, the headtail extends, lining both the secondary and tertiary spines, and ultimately coiling into the hollow cavity of the cranium. (Note: Wergen physiology has no analog to the human brain. All neural activity is centered in a swath of cells that surround their upper and lower jawbones. See Med. Journal Entry No. 124.)Every day after VR school, Cara met Beatrix at the lake. They waded up to their waists and jumped up and down in sync with the slow, swooshing waves. The winds never stopped on Titan. After what happened at the lake, Beatrix’s father programmed bots to swim alongside them at all times and ensure their safety. Like all Wergens, Beatrix only had one parent, but to Cara he seemed awfully distant, spending most of his time with humans instead of with Beatrix or her brother.

Over time, Beatrix became less afraid of the waters and Cara taught her to swim and to hunt for perpuffers. It didn’t take Beatrix long to get the hang of it. In fact, she became so skilled at perpuffer-hunting that she and Cara would often leave the lake with their arms and legs draped with the furry creatures. When they weren’t swimming together they would spend hours sculpting intricate castles and spacecraft in the pasty orange sands. Or Beatrix would try to teach Cara how to sing like a Wergen, which Cara found challenging given the chirping and rumbling noises that Beatrix could make with her throat.

Even during the rainy season when the waves were too choppy to swim, she and Beatrix would play outdoor VR games. As the settlement by Ontario Lacus expanded, more human children took to the lakeshore and joined them.

Cara pointed out the human boys she found cutest and what she liked most about them, their swaggering walk or broad shoulders or dimpled smiles. Beatrix found this fascinating—as she did everything about human beings. She mentioned how beautiful she thought the other adolescents were—girls and boys alike—and became animated whenever they huddled together and shared their secrets. As they spent more and more time together, Cara found herself forgetting that Beatrix was a Wergen—except for those occasions when she stared at Cara intensely and mentioned the bright rainbow-like auras that she saw around all humans, how her upper heart fluttered at the mere sight of them, how she spent every waking hour thinking about what she could do to make them happy. Cara didn’t like to hear this. It made her feel less special.

“What about Wergen boys?” Cara asked her one day while they treaded water far from shore. “Which ones do you like?”

There were few Wergens present on Titan because of a treaty between their peoples that restricted their numbers. But Wergen children occasionally gathered at the shore to watch the humans.

“It’s different for us, Cara,” she said. “We don’t think about things that way.”

“Well, how do you think about them?”

The waves washed over them as they bobbed in the lake.

“I can’t explain …”

“Try.”

“I don’t like them in the same way that you like human boys. At least not right now. But when I reach a certain age my body will change …”

“Change?” Cara said.

Beatrix hesitated as if struggling to find the right words.

“Is it like having your period?” Cara said. She had explained menstruation and making babies and every aspect of human reproduction to Beatrix in excruciating detail, and she, of course, had found it utterly captivating. Was there anything about humans that didn’t enthrall her?

“No. My cranial opening will expand. And my cord will release. It will connect with the cord of a perfect genetic match. And then I’ll be tethered.”

Cara stared at the red swimmer’s cap on Beatrix’s flat head.

“After years of tethering, the cord retracts and the mated couple …” Beatrix looked around to make sure that only bots swam near them. “We become one,” she whispered. “Our bodies … merge.”

“You mean you have sex?”

“Not like your people, Cara. Real sex. The merge is … permanent.”

“What do you mean ‘permanent’? How can that be?”

“The passive partner is absorbed. The dominant partner then becomes pregnant with a brood of children.”

Cara stared at her in horror. “So … if you have a baby, you die?”

“It depends on whether my genes are passive or dominant. But I don’t think about it in terms of dying. It’s the best part of being alive, Cara. I can’t wait to be tethered.”

“Okay,” Cara said, trying not to think about it. She decided to change the subject. “What’s your home world like, Bea?”

“I’ve never been there, but I hear that the white skies and the black-sand deserts are so beautiful that the mere sight of them can make a grown Wergen cry.”

“I wish I could see it,” Cara said. “I wish I could travel to all the amazing planets in our galaxy.” She wanted more than anything to be an explorer like her parents, working in tandem with the Wergens to colonize the universe. So many other worlds had been opened up to them thanks to Wergen fieldtech. Colonization efforts were already underway on Triton and Enceladus as well as incredible alien worlds hundreds of light years away, such as Langalana and Verdantium.

A wave splashed over them.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Bea?”

Beatrix looked up into the orange sky. “I hadn’t thought about it before, but being an explorer sounds wonderful, Cara.” She tilted her head to the left in that familiar manner and nodded, smiling warmly. “Especially if I can explore the cosmos with you.”

“Beatrix!” A voice shouted from the shore. Her brother Ambus called for her to return to her hearth as he always did when dusk approached. Cara knew that by the time they made it back to shore he would be gone. She had yet to see Beatrix’s brother up close.

“Let’s race!” Cara said. And she stroked furiously, leaving Beatrix behind in her wake.

A moment later Beatrix jetted past her, propelled by the bots, a huge grin plastered on her face.

ENCRYPTED Medical Journal Entry No. 224 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: A contractile sheath gives the tether a pronounced elasticity as it emerges through the cranial canal. The tail-end is laced with thousands of microscopic nerve fibers and pore receptors. Muscle spindles allow the tether to unfurl and undulate toward the Wergen mate. When two tethers come into contact, the fibers bore into the receptors of the Wergen with the passive genotype. This signals the commencement of macromeiosis.One day Cara agreed to meet Beatrix by the lake, but a mile farther north where fewer ice boulders dotted the shore and ten-foot orange dunes draped the surface. Perpuffers were said to be even more plentiful in this area.

As she approached, Cara heard someone shout her name from behind a red dune. She recognized the voice immediately. “Ambus?”

“Stay where you are so I can’t see you.”

“What do you—?”

“And don’t speak! Your voice is too … sweet. I don’t want to give in to it. Like my sister. And my father. Just listen. If you respect my sister, you’ll stay away from her.”

Cara fought the urge to answer him.

“She doesn’t have the will to resist you. How can she choose her own path with you around? How can she be her own person? If you really consider yourself her friend, just leave her alone!”

Cara couldn’t stay quiet anymore. “Bea can pick her own friends. Why should you decide for her?” She scaled the dune to confront Ambus but when she reached the top he was no longer there. His footprints receded into the distance, snaking behind the sand drifts in the horizon.

ENCRYPTED Note for future study: the evolutionary purpose of Wergen gender remains a mystery as it appears to play no role in their procreative processes. The prevailing theory posits that a diverse alien gene pool results in the Wergens’ varying physical characteristics and that it is human perception that assigns those attributes what we consider to be a gender.Cara rode on a disk-shaped buzzer that sped three feet off the ground, clutching the handlebars tightly. She had made arrangements to meet Beatrix in the Aaru region at the viewing post at the foot of Tortola Facula, an active cryovolcano outside the colony’s force field. Normally she might have visited Beatrix at her hearth, but she didn’t want to run into Ambus. Even after all these years, he still made it a point to avoid contact with humans, believing that they fogged his mind and skewed his perception of reality, Beatrix had explained. He’d even taken to wearing special earplugs and visors that he hoped might protect him.

When Cara arrived she found Beatrix waiting for her on a bench at the overlook, staring raptly at some newly landed seedships. The colonists stood near the yellow hash marks that signaled the force field’s perimeter, and viewed the volcano shooting spumes of hydrocarbon-rich materials miles into the atmosphere. It would later rain down onto the surface as liquid methane, feeding the thousands of lakes and tributaries in the region.

Beatrix approached when she saw her step off the buzzer. “You let your hair down! You look more beautiful than ever, Cara.”

“Come on, I bet you say that to all the humans.” She paused. “No, really.”

They laughed and hugged.

“I’m so glad you suggested getting together,” Beatrix said. “It’s been too long.”

While they spoke every few days, it had been several weeks since they’d seen each other. Ever since Cara had graduated and her parents had relocated to Axelis Colony on Titan, she’d been working with the Colonization Enterprise—thanks to some strings her parents had pulled before departing—helping to plan the next great human-Wergen expedition. The target world was a rogue planet that had escaped Cancrii 55’s orbit and now roamed freely through space.

“What did you want to tell me, Cara?” Beatrix asked. “It sounded important.”

“I think I’m in love, Bea.”

Beatrix stopped in her tracks. “Oh?”

“His name is Juan Carlos. We’ve only gone out a few times, but we seemed to have made that instant connection, do you know what I mean?”

“Yes, yes I do.”

She hesitated to see if Beatrix was joking, then continued. “He’s a doctor who works with Biotech at CE. He’s got a reputation for being quite opinionated, uncompromising to a fault—except with me. With me he’s just a big softy.”

She described his thick eyebrows and slicked-back black hair, his lean muscular physique, and she told Beatrix about everything they had in common, about their three dates together—including how they’d kissed in the empty office at CE until they were interrupted by guardbots.

Cara and Beatrix strolled arm-in-arm along the edge of a great gorge that overlooked a river. Southern Titan teemed with ridges and crevices and chasms all filled with flowing ethane and methane.

Cara noticed that Beatrix had stayed quiet for a long time after she’d spoken about Juan Carlos. Sometimes she forgot that Bea was a Wergen, that like all Wergens she couldn’t help but love her, and perhaps be jealous of her new relationship. Maybe it had been a mistake to confide in her, but Bea was her oldest and dearest friend.

She decided to change the subject. “How’s Ambus?”

Beatrix stopped. She released Cara’s arm and rubbed her shoulders nervously.

“What is it?” Cara said.

Beatrix turned away and started walking again.

“Tell me. What’s wrong?”

Beatrix stood at the lip of a precipice. “You know how Ambus has always felt about humans.”

She nodded. “Yes, he wants to avoid humans—so, of course, he lives in a colony of humans on Titan.”

“That’s not fair, Cara. He was brought here as a child. He had no say in the matter. And now that he’s on the verge of reaching maturity … I’m afraid for him. He’s found others who believe as he does, that co-exploration with human beings was a huge mistake.”

“Really?” Cara had always found Ambus eccentric but basically harmless. “Well, it isn’t as if Wergens would ever harm humans.”

Beatrix looked away.

“Bea?”

“There’s been a drug developed offworld recently, Cara. A suppressant that distorts the way that Wergens perceive human beings. It’s horrible. It mutes our natural love for your people.”

“And Ambus took it?”

“Its effects are only temporary—no longer than a few minutes. He views it as a way to ‘free’ his mind. You mustn’t say anything, Cara. You have no idea of the consequences if anyone were to know. This is a serious crime.”

“Does your father know about this?”

“My father left a few weeks ago to start work on a new project, the construction of another cityfield over Xanadu, on equatorial Titan,” Beatrix said. “Maybe I’ll go join him. Get away from all of this.”

“That’s really what you want?”

After a long pause, Beatrix said, “Now that you’ve met someone … I’m not sure there’s anything left here for me.”

“Bea, I don’t want you to worry about Juan Carlos. That has nothing to do with our relationship. We’ve always been friends and we’re going to stay friends forever. No man can change that.”

Beatrix’s face brightened and they continued their trek along the edge of the gorge, the ethane-filled tributaries churning far below them.

ENCRYPTED Med. Journal Entry No. 225 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: Adsorption: The first step in macromeiosis is the penetration of the headtail fibers into the specific pseudo-protein receptors of the passive Wergen’s tether. Enzymes quickly dissolve the base plate, the tethers become one, triggering significant changes to the aliens’ body chemistry. (See Journal Entry No. 6.)Cara lowered her head and trudged forward into the driving pink snow. Her boots sank into the slushy drifts as she made it over the bend and Beatrix’s hearth came into view. The dwelling resembled the upper half of a metallic egg with two arched openings on opposite sides. The Wergens had a very rigid conception of exits and entrances.

Juan Carlos, her fianc?, had wanted her to spend the day visiting with his parents, but she’d grown increasingly concerned over the fact that she hadn’t heard a word from Beatrix in over a week. It wasn’t like her. Usually the problem was keeping Beatrix from calling too often—something else Juan Carlos bitterly complained about. But Beatrix couldn’t help herself, Cara had explained to him for what seemed like a thousand times. She was Wergen, after all. Juan Carlos didn’t want to hear it.

Cara stepped through the archway, stomping the snow off of her boots. Her blue-tinted bodyfield clicked off automatically.

The welcoming bots skittered at her feet, unlaced her boots and laid out slippers for her on the scale-patterned floorboards.

This was the only time she could remember visiting the hearth that Beatrix hadn’t been waiting for her at the entranceway. Could her friend be jealous? Is that why she’d stopped calling? When last they spoke, Cara had told her that Juan Carlos had finally proposed and that she had accepted. After expressing some confusion over how an engagement differed from dating or from marriage, Beatrix had asked whether it still meant that they would someday join a human-Wergen expedition and go colonize some strange new world together. Cara had reassured her that she and Juan Carlos had promising careers at CE and that they were both on track to join the colonization efforts.

Beatrix emerged out of the fireroom in the center of the dwelling and Cara staggered backward.

In all the years she’d known her, Cara had never seen Beatrix without some head covering. Usually she put on a coronatis, the leafy headdress that all Wergens wore. But today the flat top of her head was exposed and a rubbery cord extended out of her cranium, dragging along the floor to another room in the hearth.

“Cara!” Beatrix said, smiling. “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your messages. It’s just … these past few weeks have been a very private time for me.”

Cara pointed to the tether. “You … you’re …”

“Yes, it was my time.” She looked at the floor, embarrassed.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Bea?”

She rubbed her shoulders nervously and didn’t answer.

Cara understood that Wergens were notoriously private about their reproductive cycle, but this was her best friend. She felt wounded by the fact that Beatrix hadn’t confided in her. Then she remembered what Beatrix had told her all those years ago about the absorption of one Wergen into another based on their genetic makeup, about encorporation.

“Bea, tell me you’re genetically dominant. Please!”

Beatrix continued rubbing her shoulders.

A moment later the Wergen at the other end of the tether entered the room. He was shorter than Beatrix, with gray-flecked scales he covered with a dark blue robe.

Ambus.

Cara gasped. “But …”

“A pleasure to finally see you up close,” he said.

But there was no pleasure in his voice, no Wergen servility. Only an undercurrent of hostility.

Cara turned to Beatrix, eyes wide. “Your brother?”

“Of course. There are very few of us on Titan. And we’re genetically compatible. We can safely interbreed for another generation.”

“You don’t owe her any explanations, Beatrix,” Ambus said.

“I apologize for his tone, Cara,” Beatrix said. “When he saw you approaching our hearth he took a dose of the suppressant. He’ll be more himself in a few minutes.”

“What does it feel like to hold so much sway over another person’s life?” Ambus said to Cara. “Do you realize how unfair you’ve been to her? That she’s your loyal slave because she has no choice?”

“She’s not my slave!” Cara said.

“Your people and ours are at war. A secret war. We’re all soldiers in that great battle and don’t even know it.”

“Bea,” Cara said, “I just wanted to make sure you were all right. I really have to get back to Juan Carlos.”

“What, you’re leaving before we can bow down to you and wash your feet?” Ambus said.

Cara stepped into her shoes and walked back through the archway to the hearth, which reactivated her bodyfield.

“Cara, I’m sorry,” Beatrix said. “Don’t leave!”

“Look, I can’t … I can’t deal with all this. I can’t believe you’re with him.” The sight of the tether repulsed her.

“Cara!” Beatrix shouted from behind her. But Cara marched ahead through the gusting snow without looking back.

ENCRYPTED Med. Journal Entry No. 226 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: Tether contraction can commence as early as six months (Terran) after adsorption and accelerate, bringing the passive and dominant mates ever closer together. This triggers the growth of nerve fibers on the dominant Wergen’s dermal scales in anticipation of the final stages of corpus meiosis, i.e. encorporation.Cara floated through the thick liquid hydrocarbons with her eyes closed. It felt like she had left the present behind, like she had traveled back to when was ten years old, hunting perpuffers for the very first time. She broke the surface of the waters and threw her head back.

Beatrix sat on the shore, hugging her knees and watching her. She had said that it might still be possible to swim despite her tethered status, but that she preferred not to because Ambus didn’t much enjoy the lake. He sat about twenty-five feet to her left, clutching their bunched-up tether and examining a bot. They could move almost fifty feet apart given their cord’s length and elasticity. But Ambus couldn’t be far away enough as far as Cara was concerned.

In all the years that she’d known Beatrix, her friend had never seemed more alien than she did at that moment with the flesh-colored cord dangling from her head, snaking across the shore toward Ambus. Poor Bea. How much time did she have left?

Cara descended again, peering through the natural muck of the methane. Something caught her attention. A circular shape pulsed by her feet. She reached down, pushed her hand through the ring and the creature instinctively contracted on her wrist.

Cara rose up out of the viscous methane and raised her fist in the air, flashing her find to Beatrix. A phosphorescent-purple perpuffer.

Beatrix clapped her hands and shouted, “Well done, Cara! Well done!”

How many times did they dive together for perpuffers, searching for the elusive purple one, the top prize? Cara couldn’t imagine ever doing this without her best friend at her side.

She swam back to shore.

Ambus moved as far away as his tether would allow, sitting on the other side of a dune with his back to them.

“Cara, it’s lovely,” Beatrix said, fingering the perpuffer.

Cara sighed happily. “After all of these years, I was beginning to think the purple ones were just a myth.”

“Are you going to dive for more?”

“No, I have to go meet Juan Carlos for lunch.”

“Don’t go.” Disappointment washed across Beatrix’s face. “Cara, don’t take this the wrong way, but … I don’t like what you’ve told me about him.”

Cara raised an eyebrow. It was unlike Beatrix to make a negative statement about a human being—let alone to express her disagreement so openly. Normally, if her opinion differed from Cara’s she would hesitate or turn her head away when responding. When something moved her, she would tilt her head to the left and nod. Cara had learned to read her subtle mannerisms.

“You don’t know Juan Carlos,” Cara said.

“Why doesn’t he ever join us?”

“He’s busy.” Cara could never bring herself to tell Beatrix the truth. Despite Juan Carlos’s many fine qualities—his drop-dead looks, his sharp wit and analytical mind, his love for her—he had a low threshold for socializing with Wergens. He made it a point to minimize the time he spent in their presence. “They’re lapdogs, Cara,” he had said to her that morning, trying to persuade her not to visit Beatrix. “Doesn’t it offend you? That such intelligent beings can be so fatuous, so sycophantic … They’re like lovesick schoolchildren.”

Undeniable, really. But he had never met Beatrix, and their friendship transcended that species drive. Cara had to believe that. And certainly she had no biochemical reason for the fondness she felt for Beatrix. “If it’s so offensive,” she had answered, “maybe we shouldn’t be accepting their technology, hmm?” She made a face and kissed him on the cheek. “I know you don’t want me to go, but I really need to visit Bea at the lake.” Juan Carlos’s objections had dissuaded her from seeing Beatrix over the past few weeks. “I don’t like the way I left things with her the last time we met. I’ll see you at lunch, okay?”

Now, as she toweled off, Cara spotted a shape that Beatrix had sculpted in the sand. Instead of a spaceship, it was the familiar oval outline of a Wergen hearth. “Are you going to talk to your father about joining one of the next few expeditions?” Cara said. “Juan Carlos and I were thinking of Langalana …”

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Beatrix said.

“What do you mean?”

“CE doesn’t need any more Wergens. The Explorata is already swamped with qualified volunteers. Ambus thinks that we might be better off staying here.”

Cara didn’t know how to respond. She stuffed her towel into her carrytube and said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Beatrix stared in Ambus’s direction. “I found where Ambus kept the suppressant, Cara. And I threw it away. That’s why he’s keeping his distance. He knows that if he speaks to you, if he sees you up close, he’ll feel the same way that I feel about you.”

“Bea, once you’re … encorporated …”

“You’ll see, you and Ambus will be good friends, I know it.”

Cara’s eyes filled, and she nodded. “Yes, of course we will.” But she said this only for Beatrix’s sake. She knew that Ambus wanted to resist falling under humanity’s spell and that she’d respect his wishes by keeping her distance. It wouldn’t be fair to him if she didn’t. Then again, how fair had she been to Beatrix all these years?

Beatrix’s lips quivered and she reached out and clutched Cara’s wrist. “Promise me we’ll be friends forever.”

“Bea …”

“Promise me?”

“Friends forever, Bea,” Cara said. She hesitated. “Does it still feel … good to hold my hand?”

“More than you can know.”

Maybe Cara had been fooling herself all these years. Maybe Beatrix’s loyal unconditional love was just the product of a biochemical reaction. Maybe she’d been as unfair to Beatrix as Ambus claimed.

“I have to go,” Cara said.

“Now?”

“I’m afraid so,” she answered. “I don’t want to have another fight with Juan Carlos.” She took a few steps away from the Wergens, then turned and hurried back to Beatrix. Without saying a word, she slipped the purple perpuffer onto her best friend’s wrist.

ENCRYPTED Med. Journal Entry No. 227 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: Encorporation. As the headtail continues its relentless contraction, dermal contact follows, and nerve fibers penetrate the pore receptors on the scales across the passive Wergen’s body. This quickly disintegrates cell walls as the mates merge, commencing macromitosis. Genetic materials, primarily nucleic acids, flow from the dominant to the passive Wergen and impregnation of the rear sac results. Scales along the dorsal spine grow into multiple nubs—fetuses that develop outside the Wergen’s body, attached to its back. (See Related Entry No. 195 on Multiple-Birth Wergen Broods and their Vulnerability to Dopamine Neurotramsitters as a Counteragent to Suppressor Drugs.)Cara and Juan Carlos stepped through the hearth’s archway as the bots skittered into the back rooms to alert Beatrix and Ambus of their arrival.

“Five minutes,” Juan Carlos said. “Not one minute longer.” He’d only permitted her to come on the condition that he accompany her to ensure she’d be out quickly. He said he feared that they’d encounter more Wergens than necessary since they tended to mob around humans.

“It’s not safe for you to be walking around these Wergen neighborhoods. With the terrorist bombings at the Martian colony, how long will it be before they strike here on Titan? We maybe forced to make some difficult decisions at Biotech, but we need to protect ourselves.” He turned away and tapped his eyelids to open up a retinal connection to the newscasts. “Five minutes.” He blinked and made a connection, his eyes glazing over.

Juan Carlos enjoyed being in control but she knew he had her best interests at heart. She thought about objecting—she had no doubt he was overreacting—but didn’t want to provoke an argument. The media had blown out of proportion an incident involving a faction of so-called ‘Wergen rebels’—an oxymoron if ever she’d heard one—that had caused some unrest on Mars and other sister colonies.

A minute later, Beatrix and Ambus entered the room. They now stood no more than six inches apart. Their tether had lost its elasticity and Beatrix’s head drooped to one side. Her left leg had disappeared inside of Ambus’s right leg so they walked awkwardly, like a three-legged monstrosity lurching forward. In a matter of months, Beatrix, her friend, would be gone forever, absorbed into Ambus’s form and broken down into the chemical components that would leave him impregnated.

Beatrix’s face had a semi-glazed look, a blank stare. But when she caught sight of Cara, a brightness washed over her face.

“Cara?” she said. But then the spark of recognition faded.

Cara stood to hug her, but couldn’t do so without also putting her arms around Ambus.

“Thank you for visiting,” Ambus said.

Juan Carlos blinked off his retinal connection. He had a strange expression Cara couldn’t quite identify—disgust? fascination?—as he greeted them.

Beatrix and Ambus went to take a seat but couldn’t do so because of their physical condition.

“It’s kind of you to come,” Ambus said. “I know how much Bea wanted to see you.” From the way he smiled and bowed his head, he clearly had no suppressant in his system.

“Oh, Beatrix,” Cara said. “Bea …”

“No, it’s fine, it’s fine,” Ambus said. “How have you been? How are your parents?”

She told them about her mother’s death, about her father joining the expedition to Langalana. And as they conversed, Cara noticed that only Ambus spoke. She gazed directly into Beatrix’s eyes and tried speaking only to her. “Do you remember the seasons we spent diving off the shore of Ontario Lacus? We practically covered ourselves head to toe with perpuffers.”

A brief smile flashed across Beatrix’s face. Then it went blank again.

“Yes, those are strong memories, Cara,” Ambus said. “She’ll remember them right up to the point of encorporation. After that, it’s even possible I may still retain a stray experience, a random memory, but I can’t guarantee any particular one will survive.”

Cara placed her hands over Beatrix’s. “Hey, Bea. Are you in there?”

“She’s in there,” Ambus answered. “Fully cognizant of everything you say.”

“Can’t she answer me?”

“I speak for her now.”

Cara paused.

“So will there be nothing left of her?”

“Of course!” Ambus said. “Her knowledge of nanotech, her facility with plants, a few random experiences. Her most useful skills will survive encorporation, creating a new me.”

“What about her dreams, Ambus?” Cara’s voice trembled. “What about her dreams of exploring the universe?”

He paused. “I’ve come to like it here on Titan, Cara. I can’t say …”

Juan Carlos shot her a look and glanced dramatically at his watch.

“Bea, honey,” Cara said, patting her hand. “I have to go, I’m sorry. Juan Carlos needs to be somewhere right now and I promised I’d accompany him.”

“That’s fine,” Ambus answered. “But Cara, you have to promise you’ll come visit again soon. Beatrix would love to see you again before encorporation is complete.”

Beatrix’s eyes remained rolled back in her head and a bit of clear drool oozed out of the corner of her mouth. Cara couldn’t bear to see her like this. But she would never abandon her friend in the final moments of her life.

“Of course I’ll be back, Bea.” She leaned in close and whispered in her ear. “We’ll go to the lake again and you can sit on the shore and watch while I dive for perpuffers for us, okay?” She felt the tears well up and fought them back.

“Cara,” Juan Carlos said softly. “We should get going.”

She took a deep breath and waved goodbye to her friend, wondering how much of her would remain when next they met.

ENCRYPTED Med. Journal Entry No. 228 by Dr Juan Carlos Barbar?n: Cutting the tether of mated Wergens results in an instantaneous loss of identity, followed by a rapid and painful death.The smog that blanketed Titan was thinner than usual on this day. So much so that Cara could almost make out the outline of ringed Saturn filling half the sky. In all of her years of living on Titan this was the first time she’d ever seen the planet with her naked eye. Its proximity caused the tidal winds that drove down from the poles towards the equator.

She felt awkward visiting Beatrix’s hearth. So much time had passed that her friend was certainly long gone by now. Damn Juan Carlos. She would never forgive herself for allowing him to keep her away all this time. She had made a promise and she would keep it. If nothing else, she owed it to Beatrix’s memory.

As she followed the winding trail down a steep hill toward the familiar hearth, she slowed down. What if encorporation wasn’t complete? What if pieces of Bea were still visible? She imagined the segments of an arm jutting out of Ambus’s chest, two half-heads merged together into a disfigured monstrosity. She wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of it.

No, more than a year had passed. She began walking again.

When she got within twenty feet of the hearth, four Wergen children raced out through the archway in her direction. They ran in circles around her, saying “Good morning” and “Can we help you?” over and over.

She stooped down. “Are you Beatrix’s children?”

One of the thicker, squatter females said, “My name is Antillia. Ambus is our father.”

“Is he inside?”

The children nodded excitedly and followed close behind her.

When she entered the hearth’s archway, Ambus stood there as if expecting her, even after all this time.

“I knew you would come,” Ambus said. There was no longer any sign of the Ambus she remembered, the Wergen who spurned all contact with humanity. He threw his arms around her and she hugged him back. He looked different. Thinner. And his scales had familiar flicks of silver.

He guided her into the fireroom, where a transparent tube that ran from floor to ceiling blazed with flames. “Your children are beautiful, Ambus,” she said.

The Wergen children tittered and whispered to each other.

“I need to speak alone with Cara for a moment,” he said to them and they slowly, reluctantly left the fireroom staring over their shoulders at her, trying to sneak one final glance.

Housebots skittered at Cara’s feet, taking away her boots while others brought in a tray with a cup of steaming spicy sap.

“How is Juan Carlos?” he asked as they took their seats in front of the roaring fire column at the center of the room.

“I broke off our engagement.”

Ambus gasped.

“He was so possessive. So secretive about his work at Biotech. I thought I could change him. But it didn’t happen.” She set down her cup of cider-sap. “He didn’t like it when I visited with friends, when I did anything without him. And I went along with what he wanted. I started to feel … suffocated. I couldn’t continue living that way, under someone else’s thumb. I didn’t like the person I was becoming.”

Ambus stared incredulously. After a long pause, he said, “Sometimes I forget how truly alien you are.”

She smiled. “No, of course you wouldn’t understand.”

They drank their sap and all the while Ambus leaned forward on his elbows and fixated on her every word; he offered her food; he asked whether she wanted him to feed the flames so she could luxuriate in the warmth of the fire column.

“Are you sure I can’t get you something else?” Ambus said.

The initial joy Cara felt at being back in Beatrix’s hearth began to drain away as she listened to Ambus’s steady stream of fatuous remarks. She had to face the bittersweet truth: her best friend was gone forever. It could never be the same with just any other Wergen. She couldn’t imagine herself without Beatrix. Before she even realized it, she started to cry.

“Cara, what is it?”

“I was thinking about something you told me once. That it was unfair of me to have remained friends with Beatrix for so many years.” She wiped away the tears and regained her composure. “I think you may have been right. I should have … freed her of her biochemical shackles.”

“Again, I wasn’t myself at the time. I had taken the suppressant, which skewed my perception of reality. Please forget about what I said to you. It was unkind of me.”

“Unkind, but true.”

“Cara … did Beatrix explain what happened to my suppressants?”

Cara recalled their conversation on the lakeshore, when Beatrix had explained how she’d found where Ambus hid the drugs and destroyed them. “Yes, she kept them from you.”

“On the day that we met you at the shore …” Ambus paused as if considering the consequences of his words. “Beatrix had taken the suppressants herself.”

“What?”

“She said she wanted to have … a better understanding of her relationship with you, Cara. Its effects were temporary—only a matter of minutes—but in those minutes she experienced a clear understanding of her true feelings.”

Cara dreaded asking, but she did. “And how did she really feel about me in that moment of clarity?”

“She never told me. And the memory didn’t survive encorporation. I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

After an extended, awkward silence, they talked about other subjects: politics, the terrorist attacks on the Martian settlement, the rumored abandonment of the Langalanan outpost, the future of human-Wergen colonization efforts. And so on. And when it came time for her to leave, Cara knew that she would never return here again.

As she stood and the bots re-laced her boots, Ambus said, “Before you go, there’s something I need to give you.” A few seconds later a bot entered the room carrying a small metal box. “Beatrix wanted you to have this.”

“It’s a stasis box,” Cara said. She carefully lifted the lid and looked inside.

A purple perpuffer sat at its center.

“Beatrix preserved it for so many months,” Ambus said. “I don’t understand its significance.”

Cara slipped it onto her wrist. Removing it from the stasis box meant that the perpuffer wouldn’t last for more than a day or two before decaying. But it didn’t matter.

“Thank you, Ambus,” she said softly.

Ambus tilted his head to the left in a familiar manner, and nodded.

As Cara made her way out the exit archway, she told herself she’d never see this hearth again. But after only a few seconds she couldn’t resist looking back over her shoulder. She saw Ambus out in front, surrounded by the four Wergen children, all of them staring raptly at her as she trudged through the methane snowdrifts.

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