“Dissonance” by Kelly Washington
This is from Phina, who used to be Anne.
After the crash and just before the executions begin, confusion permeates the hot, stale air. Eight human beings stumble from the wreckage and find themselves in a wasteland of muted colors, the shrieks of metal swords thundering nearby, and then severe, claustrophobic silence.
A question is asked.
Then the space shuttle is picked apart as fast as the wind carries the tall one’s sword.
The achromatic things destroy everything but a rose-tinted teacup and its matching saucer. And Anne.
She tugs on the drab, gray chain and shuffles. It moves as she does: soundlessly. Marks, indented like grooved scars, pock the once delicate, paper-thin skin around her neck, now leathery with bookmarked blisters that can tell her story for her.
Not that anyone has asked.
They take from her as if her soul is a wishing well.
She is cold, exhausted, used but useless. She is still alive after one year, and that is more than her comrades can say.
Anne envies them.
At the end of the shuffle journey, she crouches over a freshly painted table. It is purple, the table, and its high gloss surface is tinted with local silver deposits melted down; however, she hasn’t mixed the colors perfectly and there is more red in it than she intended.
It reminds her of her first space flight, the view of the universe around her when she gazed from a tiny porthole, feeling small and inadequate then, though excited.
She shouldn’t think such things. It is bound to draw them, and this time it does.
Something touches her shoulder. Long, spiky, metallic fingers dig in and Anne sees its etiolated reflection in the table.
Back to work, it instructs her, and Anne, along with the tethered chain, relocates into the back room with the big window.
The Achromatics hate everything, including humans and other Achromatics. Self-reflection does not exist, but they obsess on human nature.
They do not know or care what this means, but now they have Anne, and her human colors and vivid music memory fill the blank baskets of their newly formed imaginations, as if maybe the knowledge used to be there somewhere in the collective, but was unused, lost, and then forgotten.
They mimic human civilization using Anne’s thoughts.
Neon lights in the form of Elvis’ face.
Twinkling Christmas trees.
Tiny, pink mechanical dogs.
Promenading on sidewalks made of silver bricks.
Soft music piping through gray boxes connected into nothing.
When she allows the thought, their behavior amuses her, as Earth 3051 is nothing more than a patchwork of earlier simulations and imitation platforms. None of it was real to begin with.
But, she doesn’t blame them.
The metals seem to seep into Anne’s body. Open sores are affected first and soon ooze silver-red pus that turns the Achromatics around her wild with delight.
Her feet, now numb like petrified tree trunks, slowly etch into thick, flaking scales—as if an invisible hand carves and tattoos her flesh an inch higher each night—creating a calf-length dull boot-like appearance. She can no longer move silently.
Joints frequently lock up, her fingers turn immobile, though fragile like papier-mâché digits, and the two smallest fingers eventually shrivel and one day she wakes to find them gone.
She doesn’t know why she doesn’t remember the pain.
After three years, Anne’s ears no longer bleed. In fact, they have scabbed over so many times that she can no longer hear her own voice or that of the screeching Achromatics.
Not that it matters much.
But they touch her, and she hears.
Internally, some organ will pinch as the sound waves invade—pushing, moving, seeking information—and she bleeds from somewhere else. Some other place that isn’t clotted up. There aren’t many places left.
But she isn’t miserable; that comes later, and then it evaporates.
Her chains had been removed; when, though, she doesn’t know. It seems like they have never been there, but her fingertips explore her neck for some sort of remembrance, like a daily ritual.
The scaly neck markings are there, and always will be, like a badge of dishonor, and she is confused. Though, when she looks up, she finds trace outlines of the same markings on some of them.
It feels unimportant, so she doesn’t seek the validation or explore the thoughts before they turn vapid.
In between all of this, she works, as expected. Somehow, she has free reign to search the landscape of the surface. Days might go by in the space of three blinks, the suns burn into her fleshy scales, her shadow lengthens.
Anne doesn’t think about why her clothes no longer fit.
She returns with shiny objects, some weighing hundreds of pounds. She keeps what they won’t use for weapons.
Sometimes, if a mood strikes or if she gets lucky, and if she digs a little bit, Anne is rewarded with buttery soft red clay, dark green slugs, and blue, furry, spider-like creatures.
Mostly she harvests these things to aide in her craft, but sometimes—only sometimes—she eats the palm-size bugs and coats herself in the red clay.
It soothes her itchy skin.
In the fourth year, she is almost covered completely in gray, pliable scales, like a cracked oil painting that is somewhat recognizable, yet when not being observed, the subject is lost or forgotten about.
Work is a chair, a table, two handsaws, and homemade paintbrushes bound with strands of Anne’s formerly brown hair.
Her captor, the lead Achromatic, who has no name but the air of a four-star general, gives Anne gloves.
It isn’t out of kindness. It is because her work has become unacceptable.
Her hands, now scaly and no longer flexible, are mangled and bloody after fumbling with the handsaws. So she wears the metal gloves during the cutting and sawing phase and is pleased with the results.
But, even now, after four years, she isn’t used to the Achromatics’ translucent gray ichor, even though it matches her own.
It is pungent and thick as it oozes down the table, through a groove, into a vent on the floor. She isn’t sure, but she thinks that the Achromatics recycle it.
Afterward, as she paints, she works freehanded; sculpting, shaping, designing. The Achromatics like this immensely, and even Anne unknowingly smiles with them as she transforms their hands the same way a manicurist beautifies a client’s hand.
Beside her, on the table, the one reminder of her previous life that she can still remember, is the tinted rose tea cup.
They pretend to drink from it; their zipped-up mouths purse animatedly as long fingers wrap twice around the small looped handle. Gently, oh so gently, they return the cup to the saucer.
The china’s soft clink delights their senses and they repeat this action over and over.
They marvel over how human she looks, which is inane to Anne—I am a human, she wants to scream—but she is too angry and confused to care why they would tell her this.
Earlier, after the crash, it takes three kills before the tall, lithe translucent silver-gray executioner realizes that the humans are stupid.
A gray box is produced, much like a small transistor radio, the dial manipulated by sharp silver fingernails that resemble talons, and suddenly, to the relief of all, the screeching sound turns into a deep, lyrical human voice accompanied by melodic piano notes.
The sound transforms; invades. It makes the humans cocky, then insane, and then, if they are lucky, dead.
A very specific question is asked and five humans, standing next to three crumpled and very dead comrades, answer.
The tall thing is unhappy.
It immediately beheads the physicist and the geologist.
Anne watches in horror. It is so quick and so smooth that it is almost as if they have decapitated themselves.
When the climate dynamics scientist speaks, the translucent thing pauses.
Its bloodless head tilts, possibly in confusion, because even intelligent life forms in the year 3051 have no idea what climate dynamics is.
The Achromatic moves, the silver scimitar a blur.
The upper torso of the elderly, bearded climate dynamics scientist slowly slides off and makes slicking sounds. It is a full minute before his legs, which suddenly start running, finally fall over unceremoniously a short distance away.
Something drags his body away.
That leaves Anne and the cook.
Anne gives birth.
It is preposterous, naturally, but given her circumstances on a foreign planet and the unmapped biology inherent here, she cannot discount or ignore a few things: she no longer resembles a human and, since her fourth year, she understands them without their touch.
This hasn’t stopped them from caressing her.
They enjoy it.
Perhaps it feels nice to them, the sensations of her thoughts, memories, and images of Earth that they purloin; but Anne knows they are poisoning her insides.
It starts before she understands it.
She works, hunched over several small bowls, stirring and measuring. She creates three new paints: a burnt orange that almost nearly resembles the sky as the suns set; a vibrant green, like the grass found on certain parts of Earth; and, her favorite, a delicate, yet passionate pink to match the rose on the tea cup.
She feels a small touch on her head.
Anne is astonished as her captor strokes her scalp.
Soothing vibrations melt away the constant headache that lives just behind her eyes.
Good job, the Achromatic pushes in and Anne nods, enjoying the praise, leaning more into its propinquity.
Suddenly, the mood changes and its large hand, while still gentle against her scalp, sends harsher impulses that Anne cannot understand, and though her body responds, the language does not translate.
Electricity pulses through her, and she feels as if she has enough energy coursing through her to power a small city.
When it ends, she screams her release, and it alarms her.
It sounded like an Achromatic screech.
Anne’s muscles atrophy as her brain orders her to move away.
All of her organs contract and, when she forces her eyes open, she notices that her paint bowls are tipped over.
For the first time, she sheds tears. With a sense of unrelenting despair, she watches the colors commingle with her brushes, glass vials, and other raw materials, resulting in an unsightly bricolage.
It is then that Anne compares herself, her transition, in the same manner.
The Achromatic severs the connection, breathing heavy, and stumbles from the room, casting a long look back at Anne.
It has never once looked at her this way: like it is angry at itself.
Then, for a while, she sits, unseeing.
Eventually, when all three suns cast that glorious burnt orange hue and sink below the horizon, Anne uses a burlap towel to clean up the viscous, now repulsive, amalgamated paint.
In the morning, the towel will be replaced with a clean one.
Anne stands and immediately collapses, knocking the table over; her stomach clenches intensely into a thousand knots and no matter what she does, or how she lays, or the number of prayers she makes, the floor becomes her home for two days.
She hums songs she has long forgotten the words to.
The now-ruined paints on the floor keep her company. She writes messages and names in it with a fingertip as it congeals.
And then she forgets what the words mean.
The Achromatic finally returns. It disrobes her and cleans her using some sort of green goo and then presents her with different, nicer, clothing that does not fit.
Her stomach protrudes like that of a heavily pregnant woman.
Anne should be concerned, but that particular emotion is no longer known to her.
The Achromatic touches her belly and sensations rumble inside.
It is happy, and Anne sees through the Achromatic’s mind seeing into her mind. Anne’s mind is a map of bold colors, plucked harp string reverberations, and her grandmother’s dulcet voice.
It lets go of her. Its gray face softens somewhat, perhaps something of a smile.
Then it leaves her and other Achromatics enter, bustling about, as if preparing for something.
Three days later, Anne delivers a humanly formed scaly gray thing with bright blue eyes.
Its puckered face wails until she holds it against her breasts, but instead of suckling, the thing vibrates, gaining its nutrients in the form of Anne’s thoughts and memories and knowledge.
She feels a mixture of contentment and disgust.
Anne names her offspring, but never speaks the name out loud.
The first thing she notices as she flees the wreckage is a fierce wind, the blinding light of multiple suns, and an execrable seizure-inducing noise, like the high-pitched emergency alerts she used to hear on Earth during the riots and raids.
The heat is unendurable.
The planet seems too close to those suns. How are they alive? Breathing?
Her commander shouts orders just before his voice is abruptly cut off, mid-word. Then she turns, expecting orders but…but…surely she is hallucinating.
Tall gray things, easily ten feet tall, stand before and around her.
The suns filter through the gray bodies of the things holding very big and very deadly looking swords.
The tallest one says something to them.
Anne’s mind whirls: What did it say? What did it ask?
The smarter and more accomplished comrades fall one at a time.
Then it is in front of her, blocking only some of the intense sunlight behind it. Anne looks up and wishes that she hadn’t.
She does the only thing she can think of: nothing, but it studies her longer than it did her comrades.
In retrospect, when she was able to remember this part and what happened next, she wonders if it made the right decision.
The Achromatics have a saying: every intelligent thing has a purpose, and regardless which form the intelligent thing takes, it must fulfill that purpose, or die.
Duplication, naturally, is unacceptable.
The child grows.
Anne becomes Phina, which translates into creator of colors, and earns her freedom at the ten-year mark. She does not leave her captor.
There is no difference between freedom and captivity.
She senses that her memories are disappearing into a void she eventually will not know she doesn’t know about, and it is replaced with a history of the Achromatics.
The other crashes.
All her knowledge of Earth, music, love, and choice ceases. And she is miserable without knowing why.
Instead, she concentrates on her craft, creating colors just as the other Achromatics fulfill their obligations in everything from communications, sciences, advanced space exploration, strategy, and war.
The End of Anne:
Her second-to-last memory is not of her grandmother or even the fantastic colors that first propelled her to discover the universe; it is how—while still known as Anne, and as she stands, terrified, in front of the tall Achromatic holding a sword—she nervously holds a small glass vial that she absently grabbed as she left the wreckage.
She channels everything into that tiny container as she desperately tries to understand what is being said to her.
“What is your purpose?” the thing says in English.
Its voice is a low baritone, the notes beautiful and somber. Foreign yet familiar.
Anne sways a little, just enough to mark attention.
“Wh—What?” Anne steals a glance at the man beside her, the cook. He is still alive. How did he answer? How did the others answer?
Suddenly, the tall gray thing holds her glass vial.
How? She didn’t feel or see it leave her hands.
And then, just as quickly, the gray thing—with its paper-thin reptile skin and gill-like flaps rising and falling on its chest, and its human-like blue eyes—executes the cook.
Its eyes narrow at her and then at the pink liquid contained in the tiny jar; it holds it gently, as if it has never seen anything so lovely.
It is Anne’s homemade nail polish.
If they love the human imagination so much, why don’t they travel to…? To…?
Phina shakes her head, hoping to resurrect the thought.
It doesn’t quite work, but she doesn’t know that.
Anne is gone.
Phina hunches over a table with three bowls, next to the teacup and the matching saucer.
She studies the cup, wraps her long fingers around the tiny loop handle and then returns it to the plate. She repeats this action several more times.
For the tiniest second, the tinkle delights her, but she doesn’t know why.
|Kelly Washington is a former soldier whose work has appeared in various anthologies, Pulphouse Fiction Magazine, and others. She and her family call Northern Virginia home. You can find her on the web at kellywashington.com, and on Twitter @kellywashwrites.|