Being a teenager is tough. Being part of the first generation of teenagers to share their body and soul with one of the aliens who just barely destroyed the earth: way tougher.
This compact but powerful short story from Ben Burgis, a relative newcomer to the speculative fiction world, places everyday teen angst on a landscape of intergalactic and interspecies conflict, to chilling effect.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
The barista stares at me, disgusted, as I gulp down the raspberry-banana mocha. I drain the paper cup in a matter of seconds. Foamy liquid dribbles down my chin and leaves splotchy brown stains on my T-shirt.
I let out a sigh of relief.
My Other loves coffee, craves it, and this is the first time in days I’ve so much as been to a café.
We’ve both loved chocolate for as long as either of us can remember. When we were little kids, my Other and I used to gorge ourselves on the stuff, everything from the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups they sell individually at the gas station to the fancy Godiva hot cocoa Mom makes.
Coffee is another story.
We discovered it nine years ago, when we got curious and took a sip from Dad’s cup while his back was turned. To me, it pretty much tasted like burnt toast, and I wanted to spit it right back out. For Otherself, it was love at first sip.
Neither of us have changed our minds.
I wipe the excess mocha off my chin with a paper napkin. My Other sends out waves of desire, dancing in my neural synapses like a puppy wagging its tail. I give in and lick the napkin, just once, before tossing it in the trash.
That’s when I remember the barista gaping at me from behind the counter. She’s cute, a perky redhead a few years older than me. I flash a wry smile and give her the usual sign: One thumb up, one down, the generally recognized gesture for: Hey, you know how it is with these fucking aliens . . . .
Her look of disgust just deepens.
This girl must be older than she seems. Twenty-five at minimum.
No one in her head but her.
The Others entered Earth’s atmosphere in the early eighties, and fought humanity to something between a stalemate and all-out surrender. My history teachers can barely keep the pride and anger and defiance out of their voices when they recount the story of the War.
Funny thing, though: Their voices always start to waver when they remember who and what they’re teaching this history to.
It never fails. Five to ten minutes into the lecture, the teacher will be mumbling. By the end of class, she won’t even be able to look into the eyes of any of the adolescent boys and girls sitting still and silent in those rows of desks.
Fourth period has already started by the time I get back to school. I have Geometry with Mr. Steidl, and he makes such a show of checking his watch and glaring when people walk in late that I’d rather have an unexcused absence than deal with it.
Instead of going into the building, I roll myself a cigarette and wander over to the Hill.
It’s not really a hill, mind you, just a little clearing in the woods far enough from the entrance to the English Wing that the hall monitors can pretend not to see it from the window. I think it’s an unwritten rule that places like this have to be called the Hill.
My Other doesn’t like smoking, but is suffused with too much post-mocha happiness to make a fuss. If I had any weed on me, we’d just compromise with that.
When I get to the Hill, Natasha Sanders is standing there, puffing jerkily on what’s left of her cigarette. I snort. She spares me a withering glance. “What?”
I shrug. “I think you’re smoking filter there. Not”—I hold up my hand—“that smoking filter isn’t a perfectly valid lifestyle choice. I don’t judge.”
She glares at me, then breaks down and laughs. “Fair enough.”
She stubs the cigarette out in the leaves, then grinds it into the dirt with the heel of her tennis shoe.
I manage not to laugh as she puts her purse on the ground and bends over to search for more cigarettes. She’s disorganization personified, things dropping out of the purse as she searches, her long, curly brown hair barely restrained by a green scrunchy. Her clothes are just baggy enough that a casual observer might miss the gorgeous, perfect curves under them.
As she straightens up, I amend that to “a blind observer.”
With a respectable attempt at cool, collected grace, Natasha opens up her pack of Camel Lights . . . .
. . . and lets out a string of Russian curse words. The box is empty.
I take my rolling papers and tobacco pouch out of my pocket, leaving the burning cigarette in my mouth so my hands are free. When I can do the whole operation standing up, it looks sort of impressive, but I usually don’t manage it.
This time I do. Natasha accepts the cigarette with a warm smile and waits for me to light it, even though she must have a lighter of her own.
Something occurs to me. “I thought you didn’t smoke.”
When I ran into her out here last spring, I remember her making a big show of coughing and being disgusted by the smell of cigarettes. But I’m not about to spoil our first real conversation by bringing that up.
She shrugs, exhales a mouthful of smoke and gives me the sign, one thumb up and one thumb down. “I don’t.”
One time when I was twelve, I heard Mom and my Uncle Josh get drunk together downstairs. I was supposed to be asleep.
It’s possible that I wouldn’t have been able to hear them if I’d been a pre-War twelve-year-old kid instead of the new, improved version. On the other hand, maybe all that “enhanced senses” stuff is bullshit urban legend, and Josh and Mom were just being louder than they thought.
Josh wasn’t really my uncle, mind you, but I always called him that. Josh and Mom fought together in the War. The two of them started to spend a lot more time together after my father died and Josh got divorced from his wife.
They devoted the first part of the night talking about classic rock, then moved on to their marriages and stuff like that. That’s when Mom made the mistake of asking Josh why he and Amanda never had kids in all the years they were married.
The argument lasted for hours, on and off. I lay there in the darkness, enclosed in the warm cocoon of my blankets as I breathed in and out and listened. By the end, I was half-asleep, but every few minutes, the conversation got louder and I woke up again.
Josh’s voice, cold and hard. “. . . and every time I looked into my kid’s eyes, I would see what we did. What we all did.”
Mom’s response, tense and brittle. “What’s that, exactly?”
“We sacrificed the next generation to save ourselves. I can’t imagine anything worse.”
“Jesus, are you even listening to yourself? You sound like one of those radio nutcases. We didn’t sacrifice them, we saved them. Anyway, what the hell choice did we have?”
Later on. “Have you seen them? The way the older ones all look a little bit pregnant, even the boys? Have you heard them? They say ‘we’ as much as they say ‘I.’ They talk about those goddamned evil things growing inside of them like they’re their best friends. I’d never bring a kid into this world who wasn’t 100% human.”
Mom, angrier than I’d ever heard her. “And my kid, Josh—what about him? Is Alex human?”
His answer was too soft for me to hear.
Natasha and I talk and talk out on the Hill. She likes all of the neo-punk and electroclash groups that I do. Well, not Sexy Sushi, but she’s never listened to their best albums. I promise to burn a disc for her when I get home.
Natasha’s family came to the US during the War, in the wave of refugees from what was left of the Soviet Union. She grew up speaking both Russian and English, so she’s into all kinds of underground Russian Diaspora bands whose names are totally new to me. She transfers a couple of tracks from her ear stick for me as we stand there and smoke. They’re the best thing I’ve ever heard.
By the time the bell rings to end fifth period, she’s gone through enough cigarettes to satisfy her Other, and we’ve decided to neglect our precious educations for the rest of the day.
She wants to go to a coffee shop. I can’t quite bring myself to say no, but I do suggest that we steer clear of Espresso Royale. “I was just there earlier today,” I say, honestly enough. “I’m sick of it.”
“How ’bout Common Grounds?”
I shrug. My Other might even let me order hot chocolate. But if I have to get another mocha, fuck it. I’ll do it. The way the hour or so of conversation has gone, I’m starting to think I’d skinny-dip in a vat of coffee if the two of us could do it together.
The final piece falls into place when we go through the back-alley entrance to the coffee house. They have this bulletin board there, mostly lost cat flyers and students from the college down the road looking for roommates for their off-campus apartments, shit like that. There’s one sheet, though, black on orange and hanging by a thumbtack, that catches my eye.
Elisabeth Förster and the Divine Rot, my favorite band in the entire world, is playing in Springwood next month. My eyes glowing with pleasure, I turn to Natasha. “Hey, do you listen to . . . .”
. . . we ask each other in unison.
In the late nineties, when I was ten and the oldest post-War kids were still teenagers, there was the Premature Birth Scare.
The promise made in the terms of surrender was that the Others would grow in us so slowly that our precious human bodies would have a chance to die of old age, surrounded by our 100% human children and grandchildren, before our stomachs burst open. Only the kids born in the first twenty years after the War would be affected. That meant that apart from some kind of territorial division of the planet between humans and Others, by the time the new generation was gone, everything would be back to normal. The crowning result of their science mixed with ours.
When the videos of yellow tentacles ripping their way out of fourteen-year-olds’ bellies started showing on CNN, there were riots in the streets. Never mind that it would have been a miracle if there hadn’t been a single slipup in the gestation-slowing procedures, or that there was no evidence that it was happening to more than .00001% of kids around the world . . . people were sure that this was a sign that the Evil Aliens Had Lied To Us.
The government imposed a state of emergency, and for three days and three nights, no one could leave their homes. My parents just sat and watched the news all day, waiting for things to calm down. I remember hearing sirens in the distance but, looking back on it, I don’t know if the violence really would have spread to our little college town, so my memory may be playing tricks on me.
What I do know is that for three days, I sat in my room and tried to read comic books while Mom stopped in to check on me at least six times an hour. She kept on hugging me and crying. The whole thing freaked the hell out of my fragile ten-year-old psyche.
I was too young to really get it, but one basic notion did manage to penetrate my understanding. That idea was so terrifying to both my Other and I that we had trouble thinking about anything else for months to come.
The days and weeks until the Förster concert pass like hours. By the time Natasha and I pull into the Springwood city limits in my ramshackle black Ford, I’m buzzing with excitement.
I park in a field overflowing with other cars, vans, and motorcycles. “Thank God,” I mutter as I turn off the engine.
Natasha looks up at me. “Hmm?”
“Nothing.” I am, truth be told, overflowing with gratitude that the damned thing didn’t stall out over the last forty minutes of country road. I don’t mind if it breaks down on the way back, as long as it got us there on time.
We climb out of the car, into the crisp October air, and walk hand in hand to the concert site. It’s just a few minutes after sunset and some crappy warm-up act is blasting away on stage. The world is exactly as it should be.
We weave through clumps of people, looking for a place to sit. Some guy in a hooded sweatshirt stands in a circle of teenagers, doing a brisk business in little purple pills. He looks up when he sees me watching him. “L. No additives. Fifteen for one, twenty for two.”
On pure stupid instinct, I glance behind me, but there isn’t a cop in sight. I’m about to say ‘no,’ just in case Natasha’s not into the idea, when she looks up at me, does a little half-shrug motion and smiles, as if to say, Hey, I will if you will.
I dig a crumpled twenty out of my pocket and hand it to the guy in the hoodie. He passes me two pills and turns to his next customer.
I put one on Natasha’s warm palm. She sticks it on her tongue, waits a few seconds, and then swallows it whole. She acts like she’s done this a million times, so I imitate her movements and try to look confident.
I did half a pill with my cousin once on a particularly boring Thanksgiving. That time, we chewed it. The sensation was cool, but the pill itself had a taste somewhere between cold acidic coffee and dried-up dog shit, so I’ve avoided it ever since. I pat my throat a couple of times, making sure it went down okay, before I realize how ridiculous I must look.
“Should kick in in about half an hour,” Natasha tells me. Her voice is warm with amusement. I almost protest that I’ve done L before, but think better of it before the words leave my mouth.
Natasha’s not wearing any of her usual baggy clothes tonight. She is, if anything, a little overdressed for an outdoor concert. She’s wearing tight jeans, heels, and some kind of long-sleeved semi-transparent shirt. I can just make out the outlines of her lacy black bra underneath.
My throat is suddenly very dry. “Hey, I think I see a spot.”
When Elisabeth Förster and the Divine Rot finally take the stage, Natasha and I stand up on our patch of grass and lean against a big speaker. We can barely see the stage, but there’s a screen suspended a few yards ahead of us. The synthesizer and the drum machine and everything are already set up, and there’s a banner behind them with the band’s insignia, a giant yellow-on-red picture of Friedrich Nietzsche in the style of an old Che Guevara shirt. There are at least five hundred people in the crowd, a thousand minds eagerly waiting for the act.
It occurs to me that I’ve never heard of anyone whose Other isn’t into the same bands that they were. I’ve heard of straight guys whose Others preferred men and chain-smokers whose Others couldn’t stand tobacco, but music seems to be the one great unifier.
My Other and I couldn’t be in closer accord than we are right now, Natasha snuggling next to us, the L bubbling up in our stomachs, cheering with the rest of the crowd as the three members of Förster finally start to play. The two guys mostly seem to be there to jump around and fiddle with the machinery, so all eyes are on the lead singer. Her name is Kayla H., not Elisabeth Förster—that’s some kind of historical reference—and her stage presence is absolutely electrifying. She’s at least six feet tall, wearing a leather jacket and a tiny skirt. Long raven-black hair half shrouds her face.
She brushes the hair away from her mouth as she leans into the microphone. She’s older than she looks on the album covers. Late twenties, maybe even early thirties, which is weird, since she usually says “we” instead of “I” when she talks.
Any niggling suspicion on that point is wiped from my mind as she starts to speak, her voice a low, intense growl that manages to sound sensual and synthesized all at once. “This is dedicated to the Houston Five. We just want to tell them that . . .”
She’s talking about some political case a lot of celebrities are into. I can never remember the details.
The L finally kicks in, euphoric waves cascading through my head and tingling up my spine as the music starts. Kayla H.’s voice is breathy at first, barely audible over the instrumental backing. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. Slowly, seductively, the volume of her voice begins to rise. I am large. I contain multitudes.
“Whitman,” Natasha mutters.
She giggles. “She’s quoting Walt Whitman. Don’t you ever pay attention in English class?”
“No, I really don’t.” We both laugh at that, jumping with the energy of the crowd and the music and the L buzz. Suffused with sudden confidence, I lean down and kiss Natasha on the mouth. She melts into my arms, and I’m not even listening to the music anymore.
By the time we stumble back toward the car, hours later, the L’s mostly gone, but I’m floating on a much bigger high than that. When we get to the Ford, we lean against its passenger door, kissing and groping.
When Natasha comes up for air, there’s something weird in her eyes. I pause, my arms still cradling her back, and look down at her face. “What?”
She bites her lip. “I don’t know, there’s something . . .” Suddenly, she pushes me away and gags. She mutters something in Russian, then shakes her head and continues in English. “Shit, there must have been something in that . . . .”
She doubles over and starts to cough. I look around, frantically, as if there’s going to be a team of medics standing behind us, ready to help with whatever’s wrong with her. “What is it?”
Natasha stops coughing and looks up at me. Her eyes have rolled up so far into her head that I can only see the whites. She’s making a low growling sound, but it doesn’t seem to be coming from her mouth.
My Other sends out waves of raw panic, like Otherself has just realized something that I haven’t put together yet.
A sound like a gunshot deafens me. It takes several long, horrible moments for me to realize that it came from Natasha’s stomach. My mouth hangs open. My Other begs me to run, to hide.
My mind won’t accept what I’m seeing. Her shirt is covered with blood. Her belly . . . .
Her belly is missing. She sinks onto her knees and falls backwards.
The mute setting in my brain clicks off and I hear screaming all around me. A greasy yellow tentacle slides out of the hole in Natasha’s stomach.
My Other yelps in my head, Otherself’s hysterical terror mixing with my own.
Vomit bubbles in my throat. I run and run and run until the cars and the grass and the terrified people blur into a smear of color and light. My feet barely touch the ground.
I stumble on something, a rock or a discarded beer can, and crash onto the damp grass. My face is in the dirt, and my nose is full of the smells of sweat and shit and terror.
I have to get up. I have to do it now, but my body won’t obey my orders.
I drag my hands over the grass and manage to prop myself up for a few seconds before collapsing again. Finally, I roll over.
I’m on my back, and, suddenly, a slimy creature is on top of me, a mass of yellow tentacles and oozing flesh. It’s exactly like one of the pictures I used to look at online for hours and hours every single day. I scream.
The creature speaks to me.
No, wait, scratch that, it’s not using words. It’s emitting scents, but somehow I can understand exactly what they mean. It’s sending out waves of reassurance. I can smell—smell—the thing’s excitement, and the undercurrents of anxiety that it’s trying like hell to keep out of the scent.
It’s not attacking me. It’s an invitation. It—she, Natasha—is asking me to change with her. It’s okay, she’s telling me. Everything will be okay.
I open my mouth, trying to respond in the same language, but of course I can’t. Otherself—myself (me, it, I don’t even fucking know)—tries to reply for me, but it’s drowning in a cocktail of fear and disgust and eager anticipation.
No, Natasha is telling us, not separation. Just the opposite. Unification. Two minds melting and merging into one.
Time stretches out, and for a few floating moments, images and feelings wash over me and it’s like I’m watching a movie. I think about my mother, and about “Uncle” Josh who secretly thinks I’m evil. I think about coffee and cigarettes, teachers and friends, what’s me and what’s not and what that even means. There’s no coherent conclusion to any of it, no reasons for or against, nothing on the conscious linguistic level at all. Just feeling.
Then, all at once, a decision, like a white flame kindling in my brain. This is good. This is right.
A noise like a gunshot, the first sound these ears have ever heard, and I’m crawling out of a bloody hole of flesh and severed bone.
I gulp down my first breaths of pure, sweet, cool air, a baby shivering in the frigid waters of baptism, a child of the stars crawling through the dirt and the grass of this world, merging with my destiny in an explosion of joy.
For the first time in my life, I am one, and I am whole, and I am right.
“Contains Multitudes” copyright © 2013 by Ben Burgis
Art copyright © 2013 by Jeff Simpson