“A Love Like Bruises” by Jeremy Szal
“So,” the imprisoned alien asked me, flanked by a semi-circle of scented candles, religious ornaments and protection wards, “what did you do to get sent out here?”
My fingers turned white on the handle of my metal case. The Daasi was kneeling in the middle of a cage, the walls crackling electranets. The religious offerings in question were littered outside the cell. The alien itself was anchored to the floor by a full body harness, worn over a one-piece black suit. It cocked its elongated head at me, listening with non-existent ears. Skin the color of swollen bruises covered thick knots of muscle.
It didn’t look anything like in my dreams.
I realized I was twisting the engagement-band on my finger. My wife-to-be’s words loomed in my head: Don’t do this, Lorenzo. I’m begging you, just let it go. I shuttered them and said: “Why did someone have to send me?”
The alien snapped its tongue. One sharp click. Its claws were bound behind its back –claws that had probably killed hundreds of humans. Daasi enjoyed killing up close and personal. “No one wants to come here.”
I turned to the scowling guard, the only other human in the room. Like most Foxians, he was clad in the red, black, and white religious garb common on their settlement. He held his hands behind his back, like he was hiding something from me. “I was told I’d be able to speak with him, privately.”
Scowler’s grimace deepened. Had I insulted him? “Too dangerous. It stays tied up and guarded at all times.”
No. He couldn’t, wouldn’t do this to me. “We agreed on this before we departed the Polity.” I pointed out the curved viewport to the ice-blue, deep-systems corvette I’d just arrived on. “I was told your colony prided itself on honor.”
Scowler’s eyes narrowed. Now I had insulted him. “We never leave the Vessel alone.”
So it was true. “If I recall, the Foxian settlement begged to be part of the Polity. That includes allowing our business.” I tapped for him the double-helix shaped brooch pined to my suit, the symbol of the intergalactic sprawl. “Remember who pays for your military protection.”
Scowler cracked like a broken beaker. They always did. He was about to depart when I motioned him back. “Remove the restraints. He’s hardly going to run off, is he?”
A few buttons on the side panel were pushed and the harness clacked free to the decking. “The Magister will hear about this.” But Scowler’s remark was hollow. I had all full permission to be here and these religious nutjobs knew it. “Look here.” He pointed to the panel. “This button controls the tendrils and nodes on its inner suit. The dose will knock out a rhino. If it makes one move, you press it. Understand?”
“I don’t imagine you’re here to release me,” the Daasi said when the guard was gone. Now that the alien was standing I saw that he was taller than in the log-images I’d spent half my life pouring over. He was picking at his very silver teeth with very sharp claws, the bifurcated tongue lolling around in his very pink mouth. He had a wet smell to him, like damp leaves. Were it not for the cage, he could break my neck in two seconds. Maybe he was contemplating how to do exactly that.
But I couldn’t consider that a possibility. “No. I’m here to talk.”
He crackled. “Your people’s plague almost wiped us out. Why would I agree to that?”
Here came the clincher. “Because I can offer you a way out.”
The picking of teeth ceased.
My heart swelled. I was getting somewhere. “You’re called Mugalesh, correct?”
Mugalesh’s wine-dark eyes seemed to sink into themselves. “You’ve been researching me, yes?”
“You and the others. That’s my job.”
“So there are other captives like me.”
“Not many, now. Your kind seems to prefer the honor of death to captivity.”
I knew that part of the reason for that was that Daasi were biologically immortal, which meant several lifetimes of humiliating imprisonment upon capture. Their bodies rebuilt themselves on a molecular level. Regrew their cells, blood and skin, healing almost all damage short of ripping out one of their twin hearts. Their bodies were practically self-sustaining machines, which was why some religious folks had taken to worshipping these immortal, non-human creatures that had almost wiped out the human race. I could see the raised altar where they’d taken bits of flesh and skin that they’d ripped from Mugalesh to marvel at the regrowing process. What else could they have been doing to him?
“What is my way out?” Mugalesh was squatting back on his knees, head cocked. In a human it’d be mock-interest. Or maybe he actually cared.
“You talk,” I said. “You tell me about you, about your people. And by the end, I tell the others to execute you. No more imprisonment. You’ll be free the only way you can be.”
“And you’ll know about us,” said Mugalesh.
“Outside of cells like these, your species does not exist. You have no galactic presence. With this, we can build a catalogue for the archives.”
Another cock of the head, as if he were physically rolling the idea back and forth in his skull. “I will answer your questions,” said Mugalesh finally, “if I am permitted to ask them in return.”
I gently exhaled. “Done.” A small price to pay for something I’d desired and hunted for so long.
“And all I must do is talk?”
“All you have to do is talk.”
Mugalesh trusted me about as much as I trusted him, but his life ended at the inside of four walls as an object of worship by religious colonists who were lucky to join the Polity at all. Quiet execution was the best he could hope for.
“How long have you been here?” My sweat-stained suit squelched against the fabric of my seat as I leaned forward. Everything was being recorded, but I had a datapad for note-taking anyway. Sometimes the old-fashioned stuff works the best.
“I was captured early in the war.” I was measuring his vitals as he spoke. His heartrate and pulse measured in neon-blue diagnostics across my Glass virtual vision. “I overheard the Foxians saying that I have been here for five human years.”
Five years in this remote settlement. I’d have gone screaming insane. They were more psychologically resilient than I’d expected. “You say you’re male. How do you prescribe gender?”
“We do not. We choose.” Teeth-picking started again. “We are born in…” he gestured, drawing his hands down an oval shape.
“Sacs?” I offered.
“Yes.” A trace of a smile. “Sacs. We are conscious but immobile until we reach full capacity. Then we decide individually whether to have our consciousness entered into a male, female, or apex body.”
“One who is both and neither. But few can survive that process, so most pick male or female. Our minds develop from there.”
We’d seen evidence for this before –plenty of Daasi had genitals caught right between what we humans possessed. But to hear it confirmed from a first-hand account? My hands shook as I scribbled this down. “And how do you enter these bodies?”
“We are tethered together, attached right in the nervous system. I’m guessing your kind have a different approach.”
I grinned and gave the abbreviated version. “No swapping around for us.”
His eyes trailed down to my fingers. “And what is that?”
I was twisting the ring on my finger again without even realizing it. “It’s an engagement band.” I held it up for him to see. “Humans wear it when they’re about to be married. Life partners, I guess you’ll call it.”
“And you wear this so you are not taken by others?”
“Something like that. Clementine is waiting for me, back in the Polity.”
“She must miss you.”
I could have confirmed that. I could have told him she hadn’t wanted me to go at all. I could have told him how she bristled at me prioritizing work in a soon-to-be extinct alien race over her. Instead I asked if he had any mates of his own.
“All our warships and generation spacecraft were destroyed and all of my siblings were killed.” His eyes shifted to some dark corner of the room. “I miss them sometimes.”
“This never would have happened if you didn’t initiate a war. We could have lived in mutual existence.”
A twitch of Mugalesh’s mouth that maybe passed for a smile. “Not possible. Eventually, one of us would have had to give. You see this in nature all the time. There is nothing formidable about it.”
“Try spinning that philosophy on the millions killed.”
“You see a possible threat, you crush it.”
“Not if that threat can be reasoned with.”
“Why should you work against that nature? Would you say it’s natural to reproduce? To satisfy yourself?” I nodded at Mugalesh’s words. “Then why is it objectionable to survive?” He gestured out at the congregation of offerings. “These people believe my existence to be fundamental to their identity. My superior body as the answers to the cosmos.” He made what sounded like a snort. “Stupid, perhaps. But it is natural to awe and sometimes worship what is greater than you. I do not blame those acting on instinct for survival.”
“Genocide is hardly balanced with natural selection.”
“Then natural inclination. Violence is in our blood. A perverse fantasy, if you will.” The teeth-picking resumed again. Was this a nervous habit? “Where is the shame in indulging in fantasies?”
“We have obsessions. But—”
The question was so left of field, so sudden it felt like one of my father’s blows and for a moment I was a child again, sprawled out on the green-tiled floor. I blinked myself back to the present. “That’s not really on the table here.” I tried to keep my hand from shaking. “Now, about—”
“And whyever not?” Mugalesh cut in. “We agreed, if you recall.”
I did. But it was also late and my body hadn’t adjusted to the colony’s timezone yet. I was about to leave when I halted in the doorway. “You.”
“You and your people,” I said, my throat going dry as the tendrils of memory clawed at me. “You were my obsession.”
Much to the annoyance of the Foxians, I’d gotten them to supply Mugalesh with seating. Outside of the threadbare plastitech sheet, he had nothing. Jovan Reamer, the Foxian leader and colony governor, was particularly displeased, but I flashed my Polity license and agreement form and he did as asked.
“So, when did this obsession start?” Mugalesh was sitting in his chair now. His muscles seemed more relaxed than in our previous discussion.
“Back when I was a child,” I said. “I remember watching the first attacks your people launched on my homeplanet. People around me were panicking. Screaming.” I even recalled the citrus-flavored candles that my mother liked, filling the room as I watched the hulking, alien warships block out the sun. “When I saw that highrise collapse, instead of feeling fear or terror, I felt awe at the monstrosity and scope. Deep down I think I knew it was wrong, I always have. But I also felt something that huge, that powerful…it couldn’t be bad, could it?” I’d never told my science peers how this marvel of awe-inspiring destruction had pushed back against my awareness of the damage it had done to humanity.
There was a burning sensation on my finger and I realized I’d been twisting the ring again. The room had gotten awfully quiet. “After accidents, we humans sometimes touch the bruises, even when it’s painful, even when we know it’s wrong. But we’re still obsessed with the ugliness. This is my bruise.”
Mugalesh’s eyes seemed to be a little less dark. “I hope not all humans are like you.”
I nodded towards the scented candles and strips of flesh. “I suppose I’m slightly better than this lot?”
“You will do.” His gaze dropped to the decking. “I enlisted because all my brothers were enlisting. I originally did not want to. But once we saw the casualties and the carnage created on human-occupied colonies, I enlisted. When I saw the damage first-hand, I was trapped. I couldn’t not be a part of that grandeur. How do you sit back, knowing you could be a cog in something so vast and important? It is easy to get blinded by the sun. Even easier to get lost in it.”
Cog in a machine. Did this mean they were connected through a hivemind? Telekinesis? “Do you communicate telepathically?” I asked.
“Not exactly. We can share memories.”
I removed my Glass, relaying the datastream like drops of rainwater down a frosted windowpane. “What?”
“Daasi can share memories,” said Mugalesh, “between ourselves. Past experiences, emotions, even realities.”
“I don’t suppose you have any idea about how you do that?” I asked.
“I am not a scientist. Though I imagine if we can transfer ourselves to our bodies, we can also transfer memories later on.”
A little, mad idea went corkscrewing through my head. “And would it work across species? With a human?”
Mugalesh’s muscles clenched like tree roots in fast-forward. Had I offended him? “It may be possible,” he offered, each word measured.
“Would you be willing to try?”
The silence was longer this time. “On conclusion of your studies, you promise you’ll allow me to be executed?”
I held up my engagement band. “On Clementine’s life.”
His eyes trailed over the religious ornaments and torn strips of his flesh to the door where more Foxian zealots would be awaiting my departure when they could have their object of worship back to themselves. These people do not care about my culture, what we were. If your intent is truly archiving…” A whiplash of his tongue. “I have nothing else to lose.”
I knew I should have called up my superiors. But by the time the tightbeam transmissions was rerouted across three galactic regions, allowing them time to reach a decision, and then broadcast back, my time here would be up.
I almost didn’t want to do it. It could fry my brain. Leave me mentally or physically incapacitated. Or maybe I’d lose memories, have chunks of discontinuity in my mental narrative. But I knew if I didn’t try, I’d regret it for as long as I lived. I would be the last human Mugalesh spoke with. So I squashed the doubts from my mind and set it up.
Mugalesh’s explanations of the experience allowed me to rig up a conduit, emulating the process. It was a conglomerate of gamma-cameras, neuro-gel, “trodes and cables that tethered us together.
“Aren’t you afraid?” Mugalesh asked at one point.
I just smiled as I sat. “Men without fear are men without imagination.”
I slipped on the cage of “trodes and he did the same. Mugalesh’s eyes expanded outwards, big enough to fill up the sky, and suddenly I was falling into myself. Then I was floating in a vast negative emptiness that slowly filled up with outlines of shapes, sounds, and figures. All of it stuttered, like a half-remembered dream. I focused on the figures scraping past, the walls shuddering with turbulence.
I was on a transport. I was on a Daasi ship. The ships I’d witnessed destroying my home as a child.
My sweaty palms gripped the sides of the chair tight. The image snap-focused around me. I saw an intricate tangle of nervous systems, life-support devices that were organic in nature, running through the capillaries and blood vessels of the warship. Pulsing with life and abundance, plugged into armored figures that moved like Mugalesh did. The same nuances and perfect mannerisms. And the wires and “trodes were feeding into every one of them. The image tilted and an infinite network was rolled out like a canvas. The universe’s largest data mainframe. And every Daasi had access to it, to each other, to their tech. One unified family.
This terrible display of strength and engineering would have killed all of us. I pushed the thought aside the best I could as I drank this wonder in.
On the edge of my senses, I could feel myself shaking. My body wasn’t equipped to handle this. Cool air tickled my skin –Mugalesh’s skin. Then I –we –were perched on a ledge after exiting the ship. A constellation of circuit-boards was plastered across the skyline, arcing from horizon to horizon in throbbing blue and red. I was sucked up into this circuit board and saw it was a city. A Daasi city, their home world. Made up of bulbous, circular shapes, connected with tubes and bridges and wires. There was a frantic energy coming from it –like every object had its own heartbeat, full of life. I was the first and last human to see it in this state.
A tear rolled down my cheek.
Something else was here. Something black with emotion and suppressed memories. It unraveled, whipping me away to a room of familiar paint, familiar walls, familiar green tiles. The smell of citrus candles burning. My childhood home. I was fourteen again, my schoolbag slumping from thin shoulders. My muscles tightened. How had we gone to my head?
I looked up to see my mother, hanging from the ceiling by a length of rope. Notes were scattered around the kitchen. Messages from my teachers and the administration, complaining that I was spouting propaganda, trying to convince the other students we needed to be studying the Daasi. Not killing them. Reaching a peace agreement. Understanding each other. The others disagreed. Loudly.
I was always louder.
Mother had always brushed the notes off as childish nonsense that I’d soon have educated out of me like a bad disease. Now there was a new note waiting under her body.
I can’t pretend anymore.
The numbing guilt started to spread all over my body once again after so many years. A twinge like a muscle memory from the other side of my world and I knew Mugalesh was watching, just as I’d observed his memories. Did he now understand the moment that made me realize what damage my awe for the Daasi could do, and that unless I buried the thorn in my heart, I’d forever be rendered an outsider?
There was a tugging around my navel –was it ending so soon? I prepared myself for exit out of this state, but I was tugged outwards. Images were sliced from my head like a vivisectionist cutting meat from a Daasi corpse. Scientific data, lab search on the Daasi, locations of the Polity planets, major cities, defense zones.
Locations of the other Daasi.
A vortex of crippling pain exploded outward like a supernova and consumed me. Crippling pain aching down to the marrow. Then I was staring at myself through the eletrcanet. The wrong side of the eletrcanet.
My body stood from where I’d been sitting in the chair. Grinned at me as it yanked out the web of cables. Then it raised the same hand to poised teeth, picking at them.
I don’t know why I didn’t freak out. I looked down and saw I was in Mugalesh’s body. I sucked in panicked oxygen through flaring nostrils and the alien chest –my chest –rose in tune.
“I told you that when Daasi become of age, they are able to transfer to new bodies.” Mugalesh spoke with my voice. “I did not tell you that we never lose the ability to do so. One nerve system connected to another –that’s all it takes.” He spun towards the switchboard. “You could not resist the smallest of bait.”
Mugalesh hit the switch and my suit jolted as it delivered me an electrically charged shock. Darkness came bounding in.
I blurred into consciousness to find them standing around me. Six grim, unrelenting faces.
I sat up like I’d been electrocuted all over again. “My body!” I slurred, my tongue loose in an unfamiliar mouth. There was a tight tugging and as I realized I was strapped in Mugalesh’s prisoner harness. The thick, broad straps climbing over square shoulders, winding around a slab of a chest, bound around ankles that shackled me in a kneeling position to the concrete floor. “He stole my body!” I cried, attempting to squirm free.
“Who? Lorenzo?” The Foxian Magister, Jovan Reamer asked.
“Yes!” I cried. “I was conducting an experience…sharing memories. Something went wrong and we switched bodies! He stole mine!” I ran desperate hands down ribs that were too sturdy, too wide. There was a swelling in my chest as my two hearts pounded away. “Please, you have to get him back.”
“The scientist has already departed,” muttered Scowler.
“No!” I screeched, teeth scraping together. Then I ceased struggling as coldness rose in my gut. “Wait. He has my case! All my data! My memories! He knows where the other Daasi are stationed. He’s going to free them and finish what the Daasi started!” That seed in Mugalesh’s memories of his home –that was his rage, his anger at knowing his home no longer existed, and it would blossom into a full-scale act of revenge. I paled when I thought of Clementine –would Mugalesh know where to find her? I glanced from stony face to stony face. “For all our sakes, you have to believe me. Please!”
“The thing’s gone mad,” someone muttered.
“Utterly insane,” someone else agreed.
The magister shook his head. “Of course it would try and deceive us, just as it has tried many, many times before.” His mouth was a grim, hard line. “We know better.”
A round of nods and confident grins.
“No!” Sweat gushed out of unfamiliar pores, slithered down my back. Everything felt different—the air on my skin, the bristly arm hairs brushing up against my suit, my oxygen system, the clunky and cumbersome musculoskeletal system. Horrible and disarming –like hanging upside down and swaddled in heavy wet wool. “You’ll kill us all!”
“Do you really expect us to believe your perverted lies?”
“So you’re just going to kill me?” I blubbered, the tendrils in the suit squirming against my skin.
“Kill you? No, no, no. You think we’re going to take orders from a member of the Polity? After he treated us with such disrespect? He’ll never see the colony again. No, you’ll stay alive and well as we continue our practices.”
My claws extended, but the suit crackled and I was on the floor. The room swam, my head ballooning. This couldn’t be happening. This was a mad, perverted dream.
But I felt the rough grip of the Foxians as they manhandled me, tightened my harness until it was biting hard enough into my flesh to draw blood. I watched, wide-eyed as they added extra restraining straps, and anchored me to the floor and ceiling until I was set in concrete. My wrists were bound behind me, cuffs tight and tighter still as Scowler shot me a cruel grin.
“Gag it, so we don’t hear any more of its lies.”
“No!” But there was nothing I could do as a tube was forced into my mouth and a steel-mesh muzzle locked to my face. I was left rigid on my knees as the door slammed shut. The fibers in this new flesh tightened as my limbs shook in their restraints and sweat slithered down my ribs. Mugalesh knew everything now. And no one would know until the conquering warships of the Daasi swarmed our skies once again. And I would be permanently imprisoned, helpless to watch it happening.
I was left squatting, twitching my nails around my fingers in search of an engagement band that was no longer there.
|Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 and was raised by wild dingoes, which should explain a lot. He spent his childhood exploring beaches, bookstores, and the limits of people’s patience. He’s the author of over forty science-fiction short stories. His debut novel, Stormblood, a dark space opera about a drug made from the DNA of extinct aliens that makes users permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression, is out now from Gollancz as the first of a trilogy. He was the editor for the Hugo-winning StarShipSofa until 2020 and has a BA in Film Studies and Creative Writing from UNSW. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia, with his family. He loves watching weird movies, collecting boutique gins, exploring cities, cold weather, and dark humour. Find him at jeremyszal.com or @JeremySzal.|